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I watch as he clenches his teeth. Beneath his eyes, he bears the same patches I had when in Wonderland. The markings are lovely and dark, like long winding eyelashes, though his are tipped with sparkling jewels. They're blinking through cycles—silver, blue, maroon—a melancholy maelstrom of emotions dancing across his face. I’ve learned to decipher the colors, like reading a mood ring.
“Don’t you think it’s time you stop the destruction, Alyssa?”
I trace the two necklaces resting below my collarbone. Lifting Jeb’s locket, I press it to my lips to taste the metal, remembering his vow of commitment in the tunnel. I left him in the water, and he doesn’t know where I am. I need to get back to him, to make sure he’s okay.
“If you’re worried about your boyfriend, he’s fine. I can guarantee that.” It’s not surprising that Morpheus reads me so clearly. He knows me as well as I know him. “You need to concentrate on the here and now.”
I glare at him. “Why are you so determined to drag me into this?”
“I am trying to contain the war. She’s coming to destroy you one way or another. She was a part of you. Even if it was only for a few hours, she left an impression. As you did on her. You’re the only one who’s ever defeated her.”
I narrow my eyes. “Other than you, you mean.”
One corner of his mouth lifts. “Ah, but that was with dumb luck and a vorpal sword. Your strike was personal and, in her mind, treasonous, because of the bond you shared.”
“You still haven’t proved she’s responsible for this. Last I heard, her spirit was in a pile of dying weeds.”
“It would appear she’s found a healthy netherling body to inhabit.”
My spine shudders at the possibility. “How do I know you’re not just making this threat up? You’ve done it before. Invented an elaborate scheme to get me to dive into the rabbit hole. I’m not going to be your pawn again. Where’s the proof that you’re not just trying to make me come back to stay?”
“Proof …” Scowling, he sweeps his wings high, exposing me to the wind again. “Stop acting like a suspicious, petty human. You are meant for so much more than that.”
I glare at him through my thrashing strands of hair. “You’re mistaken. A human is exactly what I’m meant to be. I chose to live up there.” I point back toward the doorway. “To experience everything Alice didn’t.”
Morpheus turns his face to the sky. “I’m afraid you’re the one who’s mistaken, if you think I’m going to let Wonderland fall to rot so you can play ‘pin the male on the virgin’ with your mortal toy.”
My cheeks prickle with heat. “You were watching us? Wait. You caused the overflow in the drainage pipe. You wanted to screw up our date.”
Stepping into my personal space, Morpheus closes his wings around both of us. The maneuver effectively cuts off the wind, dims the light, and blinds me to everything but him.
“I’m not the one who put an end to that bumbling attempt at seduction. Jebediah managed that all on his own.” Morpheus snatches both of my necklaces from my fingers, holding the delicate links taut enough that I can’t struggle without breaking them. “Were he to pay more attention to you instead of his precious career”—he drapes the charms over a palm and, using his gloved forefinger and thumb, positions the tiny key in place atop the heart’s keyhole—“perhaps then he would be attuned to your needs and desires.” Holding my gaze, he makes a show of how the key’s teeth aren’t the right shape for the heart’s opening. “As it stands, he’s just not the right fit.”
A steady, deep thrum awakens in my mind, like wings thumping my skull. It’s the return of my netherling side. No one can bring it to the surface like Morpheus. “Let go,” I demand.
Morpheus tightens his grip, defiant. “Has he even taken time to acknowledge the changes in you? To ask why you no longer use bugs and flowers in your mosaics? Or why you’ve traded your fear of heights for an aversion to reflective surfaces?”
I clench my jaw. “He asked. I’m just not sure how to explain that I keep my mirror covered with a blanket because I’m worried I’ll be spied on by a freak with wings.”
Morpheus grins. “Says the girl whose wings are always itching to break free.”
I scowl, hating that he’s right.
“You need a man who knows and understands you, Alyssa. Both sides of you. A partner.” He pulls my necklaces—and me—closer. “One who’s your equal in every way.” The scent of licorice fills my nose; he must’ve been smoking his hookah before I arrived. My body betrays me, remembering what those tobacco-laced kisses taste like.
He releases the necklaces to cup my chin. His gloves are cold, but the allure of his dark, mystical eyes warms me from head to toe. I almost fall into them, almost forget myself and my choices. But I’m stronger than that now.
I jerk free and shove his chest, hard enough to rock him backward. Even though his duster’s hem tangles around his legs, he regains his balance without missing a beat.
Chuckling, he flourishes an arm in a grand gesture and bows. “Game, set, match. Ever, and always, my equal.” His smug smirk taunts me with promises and innuendos.
“This isn’t a game. You could’ve killed Jeb in that flood!” I lunge at him, but he folds a wing between us to fend me off. Slapping the satiny black barrier, I snarl. “You’ve crossed a line. Don’t bother me during the day again.” I start for the doorway. I’d rather face a flooded sewage tunnel than stay here another second.
“We’re not done,” he says from behind me.
“Oh, we’re so done.”
In some secluded, private corner of my soul, I care about Wonderland more than I dare admit aloud. But if I let Morpheus see that … he’ll convince me to stay and fight. The last time I faced Queen Red, she left a fingerprint of terror on my heart. Judging by what’s happening to the land, her powers are even stronger now than they were then. I suppress another shudder. I’m totally unequipped for a battle of this proportion. I’m only half of the netherling she is, and no match for her.