"I should have found her a long time ago, before any of this. I should have looked harder, but I was young, and stupid, and I believed in my father when he said it was for the best."

Oh, for the love of god! I give up, eyeroll upwards at the fates and mentally ask them is this is deliberate. I mean, when you decide to avoid a topic and they just keep pushing it between us like some sort of annoying sign, it starts to grate a tiny bit.

That heartbreak and rawness in the croaking tone tells me finally though, how much the betrayal of his father is screwing him up, and I focus all my energy on that and not the universe trying to make me smother him with his own hoody. I instinctively wrap my arm around his, hoping contact will keep me from heinous beatings, and lean my head on his shoulder in a bid to blank them out. I really want to ease his pain, as it ebbs through me and waves inside of my own heart and stomach. He's still trying to shield me but this close, he's failing to do it fully, and I can feel it inside of me.

It's heavy, and deep, and consuming, and I forget everything about being upset with him or angry. I slide my flattened palm along his arm instinctively, cover the back of the hand he has laid on his mom's and entwine my fingers in his, so we hold hands on top of hers. Colton turns his head with my contact and rests his chin and mouth on top of my hair, pushing in against me so we're half cuddling but not really, just touching, leaning together, and for once I don't push him away or feel the need to jump out of proximity. We both exhale at the same time, a heavy releasing of tension, and hurt, and energy, as we sag together, and everything pauses for a second. That calm silence his touch always brings me.

I can feel him feeding from me, soothing him slightly with my touch like an imprinted mate is meant too, and I close my eyes and enjoy the stolen moment I'm allowing myself. I can push everything else aside and pretend that it's okay to be what he needs when it's about her. When the topic isn't us, and markings, and anything other than being a support for someone who really needs it.

"I don't know how to lead, Lorey. These people, this pack. I'm just a kid. I'm not ready." The devastation and self-doubt rips through me as it waves over me from him, and I look up from my nestled position, shifting to see his face without breaking away. Hating that he feels so out of whack and the normal confident rock I've come to depend on is wavering.

"You're a born leader. Maybe it seems hard right now, and things aren't clear, but Colton, you are the best for your people. Look around. They're here with you. You did this. Safe, protected, you stood up and made a stand for them against someone you love. You put them first, always. The good of the pack, it's always your primary focus, even when other things get in the way. How can you doubt that? It's what makes you the strongest kind of leader!" I praise him with honesty, heartfelt, and hushed, as I whisper the words he needs to remember. How he can doubt himself this way is beyond me, when everything I know about him makes it obvious, he was always going to be the best kind of alpha. He is!

"Maybe I just want to be a kid who's selfish. Who took the girl he wanted and walked away, and screw all this. I should have left with you. Belonged with you, wherever you went." He sounds defeated and I know this isn't him. This is a tired and uncertain guy who has had a lot thrown at him. In one day, his ex-mate resurfaces, dragging his long-lost mom along, and he finds out his father kept her prisoner, after murdering his own people and destroyed the life he thought he knew.

It hurts to hear him say it, feel it. The regret of what happened with us, even while I'm trying to ignore it. The tears bite at my eyes, and a lump forms in my throat, that almost chokes me, inflicting a unique kind of body and brain ache that's hard to shake off.

"Maybe you should have, but you would never have forgiven yourself. You made the choices you made for the good of the pack, even if it hurt us. If you left them, he would never have relinquished control, and they would be suffering still. The fates had a plan, and maybe leaving with me would have changed my path and never led me to her. And what about her? You've waited for her for ten years; she needs you too. They all do. I finally see how all of this is so much bigger than us, Colton. Why it had to be that we couldn't be together. It was by design, and we did what we were meant to, even you when you rejected me." I nod at Sierra, my own voice strained with my own undercurrents of agonizing emotions, knowing that all of this is his pain talking and the desire to run away from everything hurting him. A normal flight or fight response, and I felt the same when I learned about all of it, in fact I still feel this way. To run and bury my head and wish it'd been different. It's fear, it's overwhelm, but it's pointless and running isn't going to fix any of this anymore. Juan has to pay; the balance has to be restored, and Sierra needs her son. Colton needs to lead.

Colton sighs, slides his arms under me fully and picks me up, surprising me with the sudden maneuver, and drags me to his lap where he wraps himself around me. He buries his head under my chin, against my chest so I have no other option than to hold him too, taking from me what he needs, even if he should have asked first. I relent and wrap him up in a hug, being the strength he's lacking, while doubt and heartbreak consumes him. It's both awful, and yet the best thing, to allow myself to be this way for a while even if it confuses my heart all the more.

"The people, the war, the future… it's all interwoven. Us, your mom, your dad… we can't run away from any of this. Even if we wanted to. We're part of it, even in our mistakes, even in our heartbreak. The fates, they know what they're doing and for whatever reason they did this to us, it'll make sense in time." I run my fingers through his thick short hair, stroking it back and lulling him against me. Caring for him, giving him what I can as it starts to stir up all kinds of longings, and warm sensations in the pit of my stomach being this connected to him.