Taking a short break!

Hello everyone! First of all, I would like to thank everyone who has been reading the story as of now! It makes me happy to know that people are enjoying my story, and hope you all will enjoy the next chapters as they come.

However, as my readers, I think it is in your best interest to know that I will be taking a short break (1-3 weeks, give or take). Over the past few weeks, I’ve been suffering from a bit of creative fatigue (partly from the sheer size and frequency of my updates), and have been feeling a little bit of burnout from writing. As a result, I feel like my writing— from my stylistic technique all the way up to the story’s important plot beats— has suffered some. I wish to give you all as high of a quality of a story as possible, and without taking some much needed time to truly brainstorm, plan, edit and revise, I’m not sure I can achieve that to my full potential.

I don’t know how long of a break it will be yet, but certainly not too long! I just want to give myself a chance to breathe, regain my creativity and momentum, and write the story I love to as high of a quality as I can. Please bear with me as I do that! If it’s at all possible, I will try to post multiple chapters per updating-day once I’m back on track, to make up for the time lost. I appreciate all of my readers and want to give you all the story that you deserve.

~samberk

Chapter Eighty-Five

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Randi should have felt exhausted after trudging through the dense, cold forest for the whole day, but by some miracle of the universe, she didn’t. Her legs still had that bounce of energy filling them, her step light and sprightly. Maybe it was the meal she had eaten, or the blanket she’d been able to wrap around herself when she’d gone to sleep yesterday night. Maybe it wasn’t anything at all, but rather just the simple morale boost from being around other people. Said other people were taciturn, sour-faced and probably in subpar moods… but they were still people, multiple of them with different personalities, and therefore a very welcome alternative over travelling with only Fifty-one attached to her hip— or Charlie, or whatever.

The sun was starting to set. They’d have to rest sooner than later, what with the incoming darkness and all. The rest would be welcome for sure, but… a frown curled itself over her face, her eyes bouncing between all the others. All of them were moving, but none were speaking to each other. It made her feel uncomfortable— and it left her only her thoughts to keep company with. It’d just get worse as they settled down to rest and sleep. It was better than arguing, though. Anything was better than arguing. She’d had more than a lifetime’s worth of arguing between Blake and Avery, Fifty-one, and herself.

A rippling breeze billowed up her shirt and she shivered, rubbing her arms. Out the corner of her eye, Nikita shot her a glance. That didn’t help the goosebumps go away at all. With an extra pull of energy, she pushed herself from the tail of the group— away from Peyton and Nikita. The tension in the back of her head didn’t go away, but she felt a little better, at least. There was enough to worry about, like the aching in her joints and the thirst building in her mouth, without their bothersome relationship stuffing itself further into the crevices of her mind. All she wanted to worry about right now was walking.

Maybe she wouldn’t even be able to do that, though— it seemed like Rowan was beginning to slow down at the head of the group. Stopping already? It was only just sunset. They could afford to walk for a while longer… or maybe not. Just because she still had energy left within her to spare didn’t necessarily mean the others did. Maybe Peyton had been faltering in his left foot a little in the few split seconds she’d glanced at him, the little twig. And maybe her breathing had gotten a little heavier over the past hour or so, even though she wasn’t tired. If they stopped now, surely all that exhaustion would come crashing into her. Well… at least it meant she would probably be able to fall asleep a bit easier.

Rowan slowed even more. Randi’s steps grew heavier, too, skin crawling as the others behind her caught up and brushed against her sleeves. They paid her no mind. She forced herself to do the same. Rowan stopped completely. Slowly, as if observing a vista, he swiveled his head from side to side. Umber said something to him and he replied smoothly, the confidence in his voice only marred by the black under his eyes and the slouch in his back. They traded a couple more words, too quiet to hear anything of substance. Peyton squirmed and shuffled behind Randi. Randi fantasized about shushing him back into stillness.

Before she consider bringing that into reality, Rowan had turned to face her and the rest of the others. “We’ve decided to stop for the night,” he said, cutting straight to the point. “We will eat, clean, and then rest. Are there any objections to this?”

From the look on his face, he probably wouldn’t regard objections with any sort of respect, anyway. Not that Randi had been planning on objecting. She took the beat of silence to cross her arms and take a deep breath, as the others floundered about her. Nobody protested against Rowan’s desires. Something like a smile bent over his lips, fading away soon after. “Alright,” he said. “Then put your stuff down. And stop looking so nervous. Please.”

He was staring at her, Randi realized with a jerk— noticing the tension bunched in her shoulders, she took a deep breath and forced her tired limbs and tendons to relax. Nobody else besides Rowan seemed to notice, but her face was warm nonetheless. Or maybe that was because her body was trying to heat her face up, against the cold? She turned away, shrugged off her duffle bag and let it fall to the ground. If they were going to set up to rest here, then she wanted the most comfortable spot. Not that there were many of those in the Outskirts.

She dug her blanket out of her bag— just about the only thing in there once originally hers that had some sort of use left in it— draped it over her shoulders, and plopped down into the wilted grass. She was alone for all of ten seconds before a heavy weight dropped behind her. She shut her eyes and sighed, rubbing the center of her forehead. Then she forced an amicable expression over her face, and turned around. “Hey.”

Fifty-one only nodded at her, eyes focused on the grass instead of her face. She pulled her knees up, rested her arms on them, and stared into the distance. “It was a quiet walk, wasn’t it?”

Randi faltered. Nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “It was.”

Fifty-one exhaled; a feather of her breath tickled Randi’s nape. She reached back and rubbed her neck, then turned around. Jules and Umber were crouched around a bundle of sticks, adding dried leaves and straw to the pile. Randi bit her lip. “What’re they doing over there?”

“I assume that they’re building a fire to combat the cold.”

“Oh.” Randi squirmed. They really could use some light and heat against the approaching night, especially now But… looking at them assembling the kindle, striking sticks against a rough stone… it garnered nervousness. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Dangerous how, Randi? I’m sure they know how to control fires.”

“No. I mean— I don’t doubt that. I meant… remember how you told me that fires were a bad thing?” Had she forgotten so easily? She couldn’t have.

Fifty-one’s face dropped, which could have meant anything. She looked Jules and Umber up and down, and then Rowan. She shut her eyes and sighed. “I don’t think we will have to worry about being intercepted by others here. At least, not at the moment.”

How could she be so sure? Maybe she was just bluffing. Randi shrugged, picking at the peeling rubber of her shoe. “If you say so.”

“I am hoping that it is the case, Randi.” A pause. “If only for the sake of the wellbeing of us, if not anything else.”

Their wellbeing. It didn’t matter what happened to the people who could sneak up on them by the firelight— as long as Fifty-one and the others were alright, the conditions of all others needed no sort of attention or worry. It made sense why Fifty-one had done those things she had, all those years ago. It made sense why and how she squished down her grievances and empathy, so easily. That, mixed with the similar, sour taste of smoke on tongue, felt like the snow on her spine. It made the back of her head and her sensitive, once-dislocated shoulder ache. She rubbed her upper arms and sighed, deeply. “Remember that cellar thing you kept me in for a while? When we first met?”

“What about it?”

Why don’t we just find one of those and sleep in there? It’d probably be comfier, and drier, and warmer too. There’d be no need to spend the night out here. It’d be easier and more convenient, probably.”

“Yes. That is true. But..”

“But what?”

Fifty-one’s fingers twitched and she brought them to her lip. “There aren’t many places as suitable as the one where I met you, Randi. The amount of cellars and shelters like that littered across the forest are few and far between, as it is— and of those, most or too damaged, too small, or simply too inaccessible for one to handle with good faith of their safety and comfort. It is reasonable for them to want to rest above ground.”

Well, then. That didn’t mean Randi had to be happy with it. She crossed her arms and sighed. “I just want to sleep in an actual enclosure again. An actual room.

“Yes. You have expressed that sentiment to me hundreds of times since I’ve met you.”

A flare of anger flickered inside her, barely held down by her exhaustion and reluctance to argue. Fifty-one probably felt it regardless. Randi tapped her fingers in the dirt, smoke stinging the roof of her mouth. She was starting to feel hungry. “How close do you think we are to the City now?”

Fifty-one tapped her fingers on her chin, narrowing her black-rimmed eyes. “I am not sure, Randi.”

Oh— of course she wasn’t sure. Randi rested her chin in her hands and sighed. “Okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. It isn’t your fault.” She smelled something warm along the smoke, now, something… brothier. Her mouth watered, her face heated up— she rubbed it away. They must’ve been cooking, but cooking what? Randi wasn’t sure if she wanted to know. She turned around to look anyway.

Whatever it was, it didn’t look like something she would be particularly averse to eating, though it didn’t look especially appetizing, for Outskirts standards anyway. Curiosity and hunger forced her to push up from her designated spot, shuffling over to the flame. Fifty-one followed after her, knees dragging in the dried leaves underfoot. It was hard to be stealthy and inconspicuous when she was doing that. At least Rowan didn’t seem to mind either way. He didn’t even acknowledge her.

Randi sat near the fire, curling her body closer to herself. It was more than warm enough for her to feel its heat from here, without running the risk of burning herself. It would be a lie to say that she wasn’t at least a little scared of fires, still. Or maybe scared of what they could attract was more apt of a phrasing? At least it was quieter here— save for the murmurings between Rowan, Jules, Umber, and Taylor.

She shut her eyes. Didn’t bother opening them as Fifty-one stopped close behind her again. She did open them when Nikita and Peyton came over, with their loud whispers and free-released whimpers. She planted her hand in the grass and turned around. Nikita offered her a pleasant smile, though tension danced behind her eyes. “Can we sit here?” she asked, gesturing to a patch of ground near her.

Randi scooched to the side, silently boiling. Nikita and Peyton sat next to her. Everyone was gathered around the flames, now. Waiting for— something. Food, a speech, maybe both. What did Rowan have planned? Maybe he didn’t have anything planned at all. They’d just have to wait and see.

It wasn’t a very long wait. Rowan turned around, a blade in his hand. Randi instinctively shrank away, until the cut-up food by his side relaxed her; she forced herself to stop shaking as the meal was distributed. Leafy greens, wilted and browned at their steamed edges, wrinkled and dry potatoes, aged crumbled mushrooms and berries, and… brown chunks of something. Randi rushed to hand them off to Fifty-one, fighting off a spat of nausea. She inhaled the rest of the food in about half a minute.

The last chunk of greasy, yet still dusty potato had barely gone down her throat when Rowan raised his head again. “We have something to say.”

Very quick. To the point. Randi wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. She sat up, swallowing the dryness from the food away. Nikita cleared her throat before she could, though. “What is it?” she asked, apparently ignoring the way Peyton squirmed away from her while she was preoccupied.

“I’m glad you asked that.” Rowan didn’t seem very pleased at all. “I figured that you all would like to know— we’re going to be taking a bit of a detour in our path to the City. It won’t be long nor ardorous, but it is something that we believed you should know, regardless.”

An uncomfortable pause shivered between the trees. Nikita’s voice grew softer and slower as she leant forward. “And… why, exactly, are we taking this detour? Did something happen, or something?”

“No. Nothing like that. I— we are going to be looking for something.

Randi’s brow furrowed. “Looking for what?

He examined his fingers, running his thumb over the nails. The tension in his voice betrayed the otherwise oozing nonchalance coming off of him. “We’re going to be looking for a building. An abandoned one.”

Fifty-one stiffened next to Randi and she couldn’t help but flinch. She knew what building he was talking about. They both did. But… why? “Why are we going there? What’s the purpose in that? Why do we need to—”

“I’m sure that you’ll find out when we get there. You’ll just have to trust me for now.”

Randi bit the tip of her tongue, nervousness bubbling within her. She wrapped her dirtied blanket tighter around herself. Maybe tagging along with these people hadn’t been a good idea, after all. Not that staying in that old, rickety house would have been any better, but… still. Maybe she and Fifty-one should have just gone on their own again. Even though that was a dumb idea, too. There really wasn’t any sort of way to win at this, was there?

The air bit at her ears, mercilessly. She pulled the blanket over them, in an attempt to keep the wind out. It worked a bit, but it did nothing against the other’s voices. Certainly not Rowan’s terse words. He glanced at Fifty-one, his jaw setting. “Charlie. I want to speak with you.”

Fifty-one— maybe Randi should have started calling her Charlie, after all— stayed rigid as a board. But she nodded, pushed herself up from next to Randi, and approached Rowan. Randi looked away, the skin on her shoulders crawling. Her stomach still keened, and the sky was growing ever darker, the air ever colder. Who knew if she would last the night at this rate.

She turned around and hunched her shoulders. Two pits of ice burnt the side of her neck— that Peyton. Or maybe it was Nikita. She ignored the both of them, standing up so that she loomed over everyone sitting by the fire. Its heat was quick to abandon her the farther she walked from it, leaving behind a reluctant regret. Well, it was too late now. She had her blanket, and that would probably suffice for the night.

Dropping down by her bag, she rested her head on it and threw the blanket over herself. It smelled like sweat and grime, spoiled food too. She should have washed it by the river while she’d still had the chance. While she’d still been at that house.

Randi uncovered her head and blinked a couple times. The sky was still relatively light. The fire filled in the rest of the details: Rowan’s wrinkled face and Fifty-one’s tense shoulders, Nikita sidling up to a hesitant Peyton, Taylor cleaning the mess around the fire, and Umber and Jules… being Umber and Jules. Just… normal stuff, sort of. It could feel almost amicable. Like they were their own little group or something, all aspiring cordially to a singular shared goal. It would’ve made Randi smile if it weren’t for the apprehension building up near the surface, a geyser just waiting to erupt.

Fifty-one stood and Randi looked up. Fifty-one’s eyes fell upon her, a brief hesitation passed, and she walked toward her and her duffle bag. Randi sat up as Fifty-one plopped down next to her. Pensiveness had carved itself into her face, giving Randi pause. She squirmed a bit, struggling to find words. “What’d he talk to you about?”

“I’m certain you know what, Randi.”

She probably did, but she’d just wanted to hear it. “He wants you to help lead him there. To that building. Right? That’s what it is?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Well— are you? Going to help, I mean.”

“It isn’t like I have much of a choice in the matter. I need to do whatever is asked of me. If I don’t, I may be forced to leave, this party— and you, as well.”

“Oh. Well… I hope it’ll be easy enough. So we can be in and out as soon as possible.”

“I’m afraid that may not be the case. And even if the discovery is prompt, he may find himself disappointed nonetheless.”

“Why? To… both of those things.”

A wistful little smile came over Fifty-one’s face. “Remember when I said that I could feel most everyone in the Outskirts, Randi? You do remember, don’t you?”

“W-well— yeah. What’s that have to do with it?”

“The amount of people has dwindled since our chat about that. And the person Rowan is likely looking for in particular is one of those who have been lost.”

She felt heavy. “So you’re not going to tell him? I think he’d want to know that.”

Fifty-one sighed. “I suppose I should. But I do not want to cause any unnecessary worry.”

“All you’re doing right now is delaying it.”

“Perhaps.”

More silence. Randi shuffled. “Is… is the person he’s looking for dead? Is that why he can’t find them?”

“I can’t say for certain, Randi. My range only goes so far.” She rested her arms on her knees, staring pensively into nothing. “All I know is he is not going to find what he is looking for.”

Randi tapped her fingers on her leg, narrowing her eyes. What was it, specifically, that he was looking for? Randi had to assume it was his— family or something. Could she ask? Fifty-one probably knew, would probably answer, but if Rowan somehow found out they were talking about the specifics of his plan, let alone his motives behind it…

“It is getting late,” Fifty-one said. “I think you should get your rest, Randi. It would do you well.”

“‘pAnd it wouldn’t do you well?”

She did that sheepish little simper again. “It would. It would do all of us well. But you’re young, and flustered, and worried. You need the rest most of all.”

“Peyton’s younger and more flustered and worried than I am. Why don’t you talk to him? Did you give up on helping him so easily? Are you gonna let him hurt you and other people again, huh?”

The smile slipped off her face. “I did not. Of course I did not.”

“Then what’s stopping you?”

Fifty-one averted her gaze. Randi followed it; she froze as her attention landed upon her target. “Is it because of Nikita?”

“I would prefer to speak with him when he isn’t… under her influence. It could lead to more problems than what is worth. Many more.”

Randi’s mouth felt dry, even right after eating. She licked her lip, worriedly. “Do you think that she’s dangerous?”

“Perhaps not dangerous. But she shouldn’t be trusted so readily, and especially not around someone like Peyton. Most everyone realizes that, Randi.” She paused. “But questioning her virtue could be very troubling for Peyton, and by extension, us. And we can’t leave her all alone to die, either. With luck, the situation will be dealt with upon reaching the City.”

Goosebumps pinched the skin along Randi’s arms. “I… I hope that’s the case.”

Fifty-one pushed herself up, leaving Randi on the ground. “With luck, I will get at least a minute to be with him when— if— we reach that building. It may be the only good thing to come out of that.”

“Oh. Maybe.”

Fifty-one at last turned away. “Good night, Randi.”

The sky hadn’t even let go of the last few wisps of orange. Randi nodded anyway, her eyelids already drooping down. “Mm-hmm. Good night.”

She rested her head on her bag and shut her eyes. Voices still bounced around— Nikita’s, Taylor’s, Umber’s, occasionally Peyton’s and Jules’s. Fifty-one, though? Fifty-one was silent. Which was good. Randi didn’t want to have to hear her anymore, or think about her complacency.

She opened her eyes. Movement had slowed down quite a bit, and it was only becoming slower. Nikita was the one to lay down first. Peyton followed her, lowering himself down not an insignificant distance from her. Then Taylor followed, then Umber, and then Jules, and finally, Rowan. Fifty-one stayed awake, standing upward, just another shadow in the trees as she surveyed the area around them. Randi silently watched her until the sky went black and the fire died to ash, ember by flickering ember.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Eighty-Four – Interlude

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Seven o’clock in the evening, and her bottom hurt from sitting in this damn chair for so long. Her ears could pick up on her blood pumping through her skull and her stomach working to digest her measly lunch because the silence filled this room so completely. It may have been comforting, if she hadn’t known that the illusion would be immediately shattered the second she opened that door.

But she had to grin and bear it, no matter what. Maybe more grin than bear. Whatever it took to get herself— and everyone else— through these tough times, she would do. She had an obligation to. She’d known this from the start. Ever since she’d planned her take to power, she had known. And she would see that oath to the end, no matter what.

There was a knock on the door. She flustered, pushing her glasses all the way back up her face and smoothing out her hair before she turned around. “Who— who is it?” she said, clearing the stutter out her throat a second too late.

“It’s me. Jaime.”

Her chest fluttered. She took her glasses off again, rubbed her eyes again, put them on again. “Yeah,” she replied, allowing the sudden tension in her shoulders to melt away. “You can come in.”

The door opened, and Jaime stepped inside. He shut the door behind him as soon as he was all the way in, sealing the outside away from them. He stood there for a while, hands pressed against the door’s wooden surface like he could barricade the world away with his flesh, and stared at her. She stared back.

Then he brought a fist to his mouth and coughed, lightly. With their silent staring contest brought to an unceremonious end, he whispered, “What’s the matter? Why are you all holed up in here on your own?”

Callahan rubbed her entire face, hairline to chin, and sighed deeply. “Jaime….”

“Okay. Stupid question. I… should have known better.” He pushed himself from the door and walked toward her. “Do you think that would help you feel better?”

“No. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to solve it, not talk about it.”

“Well— you aren’t wrong. I just thought that maybe you’d feel better.” Jaime paused. Even through her downcast gaze and half-shut eyelids, she could still see him bite the corner of his bottom lip nervously. “I’m sorry, Callahan.”

“Don’t apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Well— I know that. But… still. I still can’t help but feel bad.” Another pause stretched in between them, making the silence even more ponderous than it had been before. “Is there anything that I can do to help? Besides what we’re meant to do already, of course.”

“All I want is for you not to blame yourself. Nothing that’s happened so far has been anywhere near your fault, Jaime, It’s everyones’ fault but yours, really. Kegan, Riley… me. It’s our fault. Not yours.”

“It isn’t your fault, either. You didn’t do… this. You didn’t ask for that to happen.” He paused. “Are you ever going to punish Kegan and Riley?”

Callahan winced. She reached up, and rubbed the ring of still-tender skin wrapped around her throat. It stung. “I will,” she lied. “Eventually. But punishments aren’t supposed to be the top priority right now. Punishments aren’t going to fix the situation that we got ourselves into. They can wait for as long as they need to. Right now, what I want to focus on is how we’re going to help those girls. The City’s in more of a dire state than it’s been in years. I can’t forgive myself for allowing other people to pull even more people into the mess. I won’t forgive myself for it.”

“I know you probably don’t believe me. But you’re doing everything that you can to set things right and more. Sure, people have caused you slip-ups, but… it isn’t anything that you should beat yourself up over. It isn’t anything that you should feel bad over. Don’t feel like you need to forgive yourself for anything.” He shuffled an inch closer. Two inches closer. “You’re doing the best that you can.”

“I appreciate your optimism, Jaime. But this is going to be a part of my personal journey to fixing things. Realizing personally that I’ve done wrong.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him start to open his mouth. She held up a hand, and he slowly slid it shut. She continued. “If I don’t realize what I’ve done— or what I’ve allowed to happen, or however you would like to put it— is, and was, wrong, then I’ll become complacent. I won’t see it as a top priority to set things right again. If my guilt is what drives the need for all of us to improve, then so be it.”

Jaime still had uncertainty written all over his face, but he nodded. Callahan tapped her fingers on the desk. “Is that why you came in here? Just to comfort me?”

“Ah— no. I wanted to tell you that you best come into the lab, soon.”

“Is something happening there?”

“Well— yeah. Kind of.” He nodded, reaching up for another time to rub the nape of his neck. “It’s a… little bit chaotic. I think we could really use a calming voice over there right now. If you know what I mean.”

She knew exactly what he meant. She sighed, pushing up from her desk. “Okay,” she breathed. “Alright.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. It’s alright.” This is what I’m supposed to do, Jaime.”

“Alright. If you say so.”

“I’m serious. Don’t worry so much about me. Then I’ll have to worry about you doing that. It’ll just be a vicious cycle of stress all the way down.”

“But I can’t not worry.” Jaime moved closer to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. Callahan could feel his warmth spreading over her already clammy back. Behind her, he sighed. “But… if you want me to stop talking about it, then I will. For your sake.”

She took in a slow, silent breath. Then she pulled away from him, walking to the door. “Thank you, Jaime.”

Her fingers were slick with sweat, the doorknob smooth. It took a bit of effort to get a proper grip on it and open the door.

For a second she stood in silence, straining her ears for signs of noise. At first, there was nothing— and then, carrying itself through the hallway like a ribbon in the breeze, the murmured suggestions of a din a while away. Voices. Many voices. Some of them loud, others louder. She couldn’t tell who was who, what words were being said and why, even as she walked into the hallway. “Jaime?”

“Hm?”

“What were they arguing about before you came to fetch me?”

Jaime visibly clenched his jaw, even as they began their slow amble through the hallway. “It was mostly just— general chaotic things. Worried things, you know? Stuff about what we’re going to do with those girls, especially. That was definitely the biggest complaint out of all of them.”

“That’s… understandable.”

“What do you plan on doing about it?”

She fumbled for a moment, trying to think of something proper she could say. “I’m… not quite sure about that, yet. What I do know for sure is that I’m going to help. I’m not going to let this ordeal drag on for any longer than it absolutely has to.”

They turned a corner. Now in the wing where the lab’s entrance was located, Callahan felt a twinge of apprehension prick at her chest. She stopped for the briefest of seconds, before she brushed it off as she should have seconds ago, and continued walking. “It’ll be alright,” she said, unsure if she was talking to herself or to Jaime. “Let’s just hear what everyone has to say, and use it as a launching pad from there.”

Though the doors were sealed shut, voices still managed to seep through the cracks. Though it wasn’t quite the cacophony Callahan wasn’t expecting, the majority of what she was hearing didn’t sound pleasant. It was time for that to change.

Callahan shoved the door open. It was like walking straight into the middle of a thunderstorm. Voices were tossed around like ice pellets, stinging the skin and the eye. The tension could be cut through with a blade. And— it didn’t seem like anyone was noticing her arrival. Jaime’s, either. Not that that was uncommon, really; it was quite common in fact.

She stepped further into the room, immersing herself in the din. She couldn’t easily be heard, but when she was seen, the effects were just about instantaneous. The voices ebbed away for a second, a split second, and then they were swelling even more powerfully than they had before.

Kegan was upon Callahan in a second. She instinctively shrank back, her hand flying to her collarbone as a useless shield. But Kegan didn’t go for it. He instead jabbed a finger straight into her face, nearly grazing the tip of her nose with one sharp, overgrown fingernail. “You,” he said, his voice acid in Callahan’s ears, “fix this.”

Callahan took a step back, a bitterness of her own growing in the bottom of her chest. She had to fix this? She hadn’t been the one to take the Seeker birds into the Outskirts. She hadn’t been the one who’d ordered them to pluck a pair women from the forest. She had been forced to comply with all of that, literally choked into submission— and she had to fix it all on her own?

The twist of fury shot up her throat— but Jaime was between her and Kegan before it had the opportunity to go anywhere. He held his hands out placatingly, like it would be able to stop Kegan if bad came to worse. “Let’s… let’s not get too upset with each other, now,” he said, the undertones of a nervous stammer jumping up the his tone. “Let Callahan speak. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what we’re going to do. Alright? Let’s all just stay calm.”

Kegan’s glare would have reduced Jaime to dust had it been any more intense. But to his credit, he nodded— once, curtly— and backed away. “Let her speak, for herself then. Don’t throw yourself between us for her.”

Jaime lowered his arms, backing away so he was just in front of Callahan. “I just want to make sure that nothing bad is going to happen to her. That’s all.”

Callahan rubbed her collarbone with her knuckle, swallowing down the nervousness swelling in her throat. “Thank you, Jaime. But that won’t be necessary. We can all solve this, diplomatically and cooperatively. I do not need you speaking for me, right now.”

Jaime hesitated, and then nodded. Thank goodness, he nodded. Backing away so that Callahan could face Kegan. once again, he gestured to her cordially. “Listen to her,” he said.

Callahan sighed through her nose, struggling to maintain her composure. “Tell me,” she said, “what is it that I have caused? What is it I have to fix, Kegan?”

“What do you mean, what it is you have to help us fix? I’m sure you know. I’m sure you know quite well what it is.”

“I do. But I do not see how it is my fault alone, Kegan. I am not the one who insisted on dragging us all into this situation.”

“You did that when you decided it was a good idea to throw Director Ellis out, you—”

Shelby pushed forward, and raised her hand before Kegan could finish his sentence. “Director Callahan… you see— we tried… we tried to get through to our… our… the people from the Outskirts.” She wrung her braid. “We tried talking to them. But it didn’t work at all. They… they were pretty unresponsive. If you could even call it that, I mean.”

“What do you mean by unresponsive?

She shrugged, starting to play with her hair again. “They— they just refused to talk. That, or they just couldn’t. I don’t know. But I couldn’t even get their names out of them.” She paused. Her voice grew quieter, more hesitant to leave her. “If they even had names. You know?”

Callahan took in a deep breath. “What is it that you told them, Shelby?” she asked, struggling to keep her fading composure completely in her tone. “Did you talk to both of them? Aren’t they located in separate containment rooms? Or— did somebody help you? You have a lot of friends here. Did they talk to one while you talked to the other?”

Shelby continued fiddling with her hair. She nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, kind of.”

“Kind of?”

She nodded another time, her mouth opening and closing the way a fish’s would. “Yeah. Sort of. We… took turns, trying to talk to all of them. We thought it may have been a bit stressful, all three of us ganging up on a single one of them all at once, you know? So we took turns. I tried, then Parker tried, and then Riley. But none of us really had any luck. They weren’t cooperating at all with us.”

Callahan narrowed her eyes— ignoring the way Shelby shrank back at her look. “How exactly did they act? What makes you think they were unwilling to cooperate?”

“They… cowered. You know what I mean? They weren’t violent, or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking. Just— scared. They didn’t even want to be around us.”

She brought her hand to her lip, feeling a deep crease carve itself into the space between her eyebrows. “I see,” she said. “That’s…” it wasn’t good. But it was a bit more information. A bit more that they could work with, and figure out what to do. Her lips and eyelids felt a little less heavy. So did her heart. Then she snuck a glance at Kegan’s surly face and it all gradually came rolling back to her. She sighed and rubbed her face. “Perhaps I will go and see for myself what exactly what is going on.”

A ripple shot through the collection of subordinates at that. Kegan’s face screwed up into a patronizing little sneer, but he surprisingly remained silent. It was Dana, one of her trusted subordinates, who normally remained quiet and passive amidst the worst of the disorder, who stepped forward. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? You heard what Shelby and Riley had to say about them. There’s a chance that you may not be any different.”

She set her jaw stiff and made her gaze hard. “Yes, Dana. What you say is true. I may not be able to get through to them any more than Riley, Parker, or Shelby have. But, do tell me— what else do you think we should do, that wouldn’t compromise their safety or integrity? I would genuinely like to know— so your suggestions may be taken into consideration, and acted on appropriately.”

Dana turned his gaze downward. He was thinking, ruminating over his thoughts before he decided to say anything. If only Kegan could do the same thing. “We could always find someone who is… more equipped to handle these things, Callahan,” he said. “Perhaps someone adept in the practice of communicating with children? People who are more able to focus on… emotionally compromised individuals?”

Yes… that was true. “I can see your point, Dana,” she said. “But we do not want to attract any more attention to this than we already have, regardless of whatever consequences there may be.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kegan opening his mouth to speak, and raised her hand to stop him. Surprisingly, it worked. “I would like to see what it is we’re dealing with before I go off making any sort of brash decisions,” she continued. “Assessing the situation in person to take in all the nuances and details would be the best way to go about that. We must show the other committees—and the parties beyond the committees, in fact— that we are at least attempting to resolve this issue on our own.”

Dana still looked concerned, bothered. But he nodded, regardless of his clear indecision. “If that’s what you think we should do, Director,” he said. “And as long as most of the rest of us agree.”

Callahan’s chest fluttered. She turned a bit, examining the faces of those around her. Kegan had clear irritation carved into his features— expected, but still a bit disheartening— and Shelby, Riley and Parker seemed a bit uncomfortable, but no protests or complaints were sounded. “Thank you all for your cooperation and understanding,” she said. “We’re going to try and set things right. Everything.”

She didn’t get much of a response. Not the most heartening of signs, but… what else could she do? It was best to be grateful that they weren’t casting her out, like they had done of Ellis. All she did was nod and smile, and hope that that would be enough to placate them. It must have, because no words were spoken between any of them.

Callahan turned away. “You all are dismissed,” she said, disregarding the surprise that went through them all. “Yes. You are free to leave. Clean yourselves and this place up, and try to get some rest.”

Behind her, the committee— her subordinates— whispered and shuffled. Then there was the clack of shoes on tile, moving away from her. One pair, then two, then too many to count.

Callahan smoothed out her coat and brushed a few strands of hair out of her face. Then she started for the doors. The hinges glided effortlessly as she swung the doors open, but she still found herself going tense, as if someone would be alerted and pursue after her. Nobody did. She stepped out into the hallway, and her footsteps echoed.

She wasn’t more than ten paces away before the click of the door opening again lifted her— ungratefully— out of her thoughts. She stopped in her tracks and turned around, just in time to see a figure slipping through the open crack between the doors. She felt herself frown. “Jaime?”

He jogged up to her, almost sounding out of breath. “S-sorry,” he mumbled. “Are you alright?”

She turned back around. “I’m fine,” she replied. “Just tired.”

“Oh.” Jaime didn’t say anything more— but when Callahan began walking away again, he flustered and followed after her, his heels clicking fast on the floor. “Do you want to— talk about it, or anything?”

“Talk about what, Jaime?”

Another falter. “You… you just seemed to be a little upset. That’s all.”

“Oh. Well. I assure you that I’m fine. I just need to get some rest. You understand that, don’t you?”

“I… I do.” He searched her face out of the corner of her eye, his lips twitching like he had more to say. But he only said two more words, quiet and low: “I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for. Like I said, I’m just tired. I need rest.” She rubbed her eye with the back of her hand. “And you do, too. Don’t stay awake worrying about me. Okay? I dismissed you all for a reason.”

“I know. I know I shouldn’t worry about you so much.” He shuffled himself closer to her, the back of his hand grazing over hers, lightly, hesitantly. “I just can’t help it.”

Callahan swallowed the thickness in the back of her mouth, pulled away from Jaime, and began walking at full gait again. “Work on it,” she said.

She could basically feel the hurt jaunt off him, like a sharpened blade. Pins and needles ran down her arms, coalescing into ice at her fingertips, but she ignored it. Keeping her chin raised, her gaze forward, she began to walk away, leaving Jaime behind.

She felt bad about it. Of course she felt bad about it. But for all of Jaime’s intelligence, charm, and spirit, the one thing that remained for him to learn was the importance of boundaries. It wasn’t her place to teach him that. At least not now.

She continued walking. The farther she got away from the laboratory, the more the pressure in the sides and back of her head grew, threatening a terrible headache. She had been doing a decent job at hiding her stress, but how much longer would she be capable of keeping the act up? How much longer would it take before she cracked under the weight of those two girls, the committee, the entire City resting on her shoulders? It could be hours from now. It could be years. There would be no way of knowing when it would happen until it actually did.

She dreaded the time that that day would arrive. Her hands shook as she entered the elevator, fingers sweaty as she pressed the button to the upper floor. She almost couldn’t believe that she was thinking it, but… she almost wished that Ellis was still here, so he could help her fix this mess.

No. No. She didn’t need Ellis. They had never needed him. And even if they had— even if they did need him, right at this very moment, it was clear that he was gone. Kegan had sent out those Seeker birds specifically to find Ellis. All they had come back with were a frightened pair of young women who had no idea what this place was or what was happening to them. Why would they have come back only with them, if not for the fact that they were the only people in the Outskirts to be found?

She rushed out the door as soon as they were open enough for her. She couldn’t worry about Ellis, right now. What had to be worried about was sleep. Sleep would do a lot of help for her. Her feet working on autopilot, she drifted over to her room and opened the door.

She slipped off her coat and let it drop to the carpet— thought better of it, and hung it up on the hook. Then she took off her shoes, ambled to her bed, and threw herself upon it. She would deal with clothing, teeth brushing, and everything else in the morning. Right now, sleep was the most important thing. She shut her eyes again., forcing her entire body to relax, for her mind to slow— and just like that, she was gone.

~ * ~

“And you really think this is the best thing to do?”

“Of course it is.”

Jaime only pursed his lips. Callahan took a deep breath, let it out, wiping her palms off on the knees of her pants. Here they were staring at the sealed doors like they were lined with poison. Callahan adjusted her glasses, forcing a smile upon her face. “Everything will be alright. Even if things don’t end up working out in our favor, progress is still progress and should be treated as such. There are always other plans and ways to approach this— other things that can be done in order to set things right. This is just step one of the processes. You understand, don’t you?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.” He nodded. But he still looked nervous, sweat beading on his temples. Callahan couldn’t blame him. She observed the heavy metal doors before them. Two were occupied, she had been told; naturally, that meant that they held the two people she was looking to speak to. Had separating them played a part in their uncooperative behavior with Shelby, Riley, and Parker? So many questions, and there was no way of knowing if she would get any answers at all. Callahan fumbled with the key held in her hand, running her thumb along the metal teeth. Well. There was really only one way to find out, then.

She looked back to Jaime. Then she glanced behind her, as if somebody would be waiting for them at the end of the narrow hallway. Nobody was there, of course. The sooner she could get these thoughts off her nerves, the better it would be for her and for everyone. “Are you ready?” she asked.

Jaime nodded, pursing his lips for a moment. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.”

“You don’t seem too ready.”

He ran his finger over the hem of his shirt. “I’m nervous,” he replied. “Aren’t you?”

“Of course I’m nervous. But I don’t think we have anything to worry about. As long as we keep our distance and pay attention to what’s going on.”

Jaime shook himself out, looking to his designated door. “Yeah. You’re right.”

“That makes me quite happy to hear.” Callahan fiddled with the key ring clutched between her fingers, until she was about to get the second key off. She handed it to Jaime without looking him in the eye. She didn’t wait to see what he was going to do. She walked up to her own door, stood in front of it for a moment, and felt a pensive frown twitch its way onto her face.

Her heart was a miniature drum in the side of her neck as she took the key, wielded it like a blade, and put it against its lock. It fit like a hand in a glove. Callahan swallowed. She turned the key, and the door opened.

The room looked… untouched. The bed’s sheets were still laid out perfectly, immaculately, as if a person had never once even looked at it before. All the books were still neatly stacked on the bed stand, their corners aligned with each other. Even the carpet seemed untouched. Was anybody even in here? Had they made a mistake, sending her to this room?

Callahan frowned. She opened the door completely, stepped inside— flinched as the door shut behind her with a final, resounding click. It was supposed to do that, she reminded herself. She could leave as long as she had the key on her. Considering how desperate this person was to hide, though… would she have to worry about an ambush?

She walked further into the room. Her chest jumped and fluttered; she was holding her breath in anticipation, she realized. Letting out a breath, she allowed more air to rush into her lungs— and nearly gagged. The sour, fetid stench of spoiled food was so intense, it had to be a miracle that her eyes hadn’t started to sting the second the door had opened. Someone had to be in here.

Callahan cupped her free hand to her mouth, taking short, jumping breaths in a futile attempt to mask the offensive scent wrapped around her. She walked further into the room. “Hello?”

No response. She should have figured. She shook her head, dropping her arm back to her side. Her disgust and curiosity was quickly yielding to irritation, now. She would check the room, see if anyone was in here— and if she didn’t find anybody after a quick look through, she would leave. Hopefully Jaime was having more luck than she was.

She approached the bathroom first. Twisted the doorknob with confidence; there were no locks anywhere in this vicinity other than the locks on the door and the window. True to her expectations, the flimsy bathroom door opened easily. And she was met with nothing. No water dripping from the faucet or dribbled in the basin of the sink, no lingering humidity to suggest that a shower had been taken recently. It smelled relatively normal, too; the rancidity was most certainly concentrated to the main bedroom.

Slowly, she backed out of the room, shutting the door once again. Then she turned around so her back was pressed to it, searching the room from a wide vantage point. Nothing, nothing at all… wait. What was that, squeezed underneath the bed?

She pushed herself off the door, taking a few steps away from it. Heart racing, she knelt down, peering into the narrow gap between the bed and the floor. There was definitely a dark lump underneath there, almost as big as Callahan was— but it wasn’t moving. Could this be what she was looking for?

She suffused as much gentleness into her tone as she possibly could. “Hey. Is anybody under there? Do you need help?”

No response was given, predictably. Callahan huffed the sour air out her nose, suddenly feeling quite silly. Maybe she was wrong, after all. That could easily have been a tangle of old clothes, or a spare set of bedding, stuffed and forgotten under the bed, or something. It didn’t have to be a person. Maybe there truly wasn’t anybody to encounter in here, after all. Callahan could leave, tell the secretary in front of the disgusting smell in one of their containment rooms, and be done with this for—

The mass shifted and Callahan jumped, almost falling back. It moved a little more, spread out like ink in a water glass— and then a pair of eyes stared out at her, white circles the size of saucers set into a dark stain.

It was only when darkness began to line the edge of her vision that Callahan realized she had forgotten to breathe. She pulled back even more, taking a deep breath. “Hey,” she whispered. “It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to help.”

It— she— only continued staring. Callahan bit the corner of her lip. “What’s your name?” she tried, knowing full well that her chances of getting an answer were slim to none.

Those saucer eyes blinked once at her, then twice, never once moving away or relaxing. Then— to her surprise— a voice drifted from underneath the bed. “I don’t really have… a name.”

She could speak. And yet, she didn’t have a name? Callahan struggled to keep her expression mild. “You don’t? You don’t have anything that you’re called? Anything that you’d like to be called?”

Another bout of silence, made even more uncomfortable by the fact that she could speak. “Well… I… I’m called Sixteen.”

Sixteen? Sixteen was her name? No, that wasn’t a name at all: it was a number. If the pit of discomfort in Callahan’s stomach had been shifting before, it was at a boil now. “That’s an… interesting name,” she said.

The girl— would it really be right to call her by a number?— didn’t say anything in response to that. All she did was hunch up her shoulders, and what little Callahan could see of her face screwed up into a sorry little cross between a frown and a wince. Pity churned in Callahan’s chest. “I’m not going to hurt you. If that’s what you’re worried about— don’t be.”

She just looked up, then down again. Her eyes squinted, blinked, opened up to their full saucer-sized glory again. She didn’t say anything. Callahan bit her lower lip. “My name is Callahan,” she said. “Why don’t you come out of there so we can speak to each other more easily? Like I said— I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to help.”

Sixteen’s throat clicked with a loud, painful-sounding swallow. “I think… I think I want to stay in here.”

Callahan would have been lying if she tried to say she wasn’t disappointed with that answer. But from what she had been told before, all the tales of uncooperation and reticence— she was already doing much more than the others had. Progress, actual progress, was being made. She forced a smile over her face. “That’s alright,” she replied. “Hey— have you eaten or drunk anything since you’ve gotten here? Your voice… sounds dry.”

Sixteen wavered at that, her eyes darting back and forth. Slowly, she shook her head.

Had she eaten since being taken out of the Outskirts at all? Had the officials given her anything? She could have been on the brink of collapse, right now. What help would any of Callahan’s actions be, then? “Well. Do you want something to drink, then? Some water? Or maybe something to eat?”

“W-well… I got… something.”

“Something? Something stopping you from eating or drinking?”

“No. Something… something under here.”

Callahan blinked. Ah. She had dragged the food under the bed, then. No wonder that rancid stench had permeated everything so thoroughly. No wonder Callahan couldn’t find the source of it easily. Unless that was the scent of the girl, after she hadn’t bathed for so long? Nausea churned in her. “I see. And you didn’t eat it? Is that what that smell is coming from?”

Sixteen averted her gaze yet another time. That was more than enough of an answer. “Why didn’t you eat it?” Callahan asked. “Is it not up to your tastes, Sixteen? Or were you just not hungry?”

Her eyes stayed low as she shrugged, a low, crackly moan rumbling in the base of her chest. Callahan sighed. She looked over Sixteen’s sorry, dark figure, the gears in her mind churning. “Would you just like some water, then?” she finally decided to ask. “Just a glass of cold water, straight from the faucet. Nothing else added to it— it’ll be completely safe for you to drink.”

She didn’t look up at Callahan, but her tongue did dart out to swipe at her lip. That low, rumbly note in her throat again. Eventually, she nodded— slowly, as if it pained her to do so. And maybe it did.

Callahan didn’t want to think about it. She pushed herself away from that putrid underbelly of the bed, standing up straight. “I’ll be right back.”

Sixteen didn’t give her a response. Well, she gained some, she lost some. She was already making much better progress than the others. How was Jaime doing, in the room with the other captive? She could only assume that he was having this same streak of luck that she was. Maybe they had decided to have a change of heart, and that was why they were cooperating so nicely. Well, cooperating so nicely compared to the debacle that the others had experienced, at least.

Callahan shook her head, making her way toward the bathroom. She opened the door, welcomed the draft of mostly fresh air that greeted her with open arms and a slow, deep inhale. Then she walked inside, closing the door behind her. Placed neatly upon the sink was a plastic cup, probably for someone to use to rinse after brushing their teeth. Callahan plucked it up and ran it under the faucet, filling it with as cold water as the sink could manage. Then she thought better of it, turning the temperature to warm partway through. Anything too cold or too hot would cause a shock to the system. Lukewarm would be fine— then they could see about more solid, hotter things later on.

With just a bit of reluctance niggling at her, Callahan left the bathroom. That dark mass was still under the bed, much to her relief. She walked over and crouched back down, holding the cup out to her. “There you go. I don’t know how well you’ll be able to drink it, squished up under there, but…”

Stillness for a moment— and then a pale hand came crawling out of the darkness. It regarded the cup with an almost endearing sort of hesitation. Then it reached out and took it, pulled it back into the abyss it had come from. Callahan could hear gulping. Very loud gulping. Of course she had been thirsty. She’d been dragged through the forest for what could have been days, against her will— her body had to be devastated. And her mind, too.

Callahan watched with a grim fascination as she finished the entire glass in all but five seconds. Feebly, she took it away from her lips. “Thank you,” she said, reedily. “Thank you. I feel better now.”

“You’re quite welcome.” She paused, watching the way Sixteen closed her eyes and sighed. “If it’s alright with you, Sixteen… can I ask you a few questions?”

Sixteen immediately went stiff. Callahan was already prepared for the worst, already rushing words out. “If you don’t want me to, then I won’t. But I think it could be beneficial to—”

“W-what would you like to know?”

She was caught mouth open. She hadn’t expected it to be that easy. “Well,” she started, then paused. “You see— I wanted to know… why are you called Sixteen? You must have a real name as well, yes?”

“I… I used to. But I don’t anymore.”

Everything she said only added another layer of intrigue onto everything. Callahan pushed down her eagerness and her desire to just ask everything that came to mind. Restraint was what was needed. Restraint, and respect. “That’s quite interesting to hear, Sixteen.” She paused. “Say— would you like to have an actual name again?”

At that, she looked up. “A… an actual name again?”

“Only if you would like to. I would never force you to do something that you wouldn’t want to do.” She could taste the irony on the words leaving her lips. “But, if you would like one… I’m sure that something could be arranged. It would be nice, I think, now that you’re in the City and everything.”

Sixteen parted her lips. Callahan could smell the sour rot along her breath, and it took everything she had not to gag. Thankfully, Sixteen shut her mouth soon after. Then she nodded. “I… I think I would like that,” she whispered. “Thank… thank you.”

A genuine smile spread over Callahan’s face. “You’re quite welcome.”

“I… I don’t know what kind of name I should have, though. Do you?”

“It will be quite easy,” Callahan hurried to say. “There’s an automated list every year, for the new children— but we can just pull one off the list for you. I’m sure you could even choose for yourself, if you’d like.”

A pause. Her voice became quieter. “Oh.”

Callahan frowned. “Is there something the matter? You seem downcast, all of a sudden.”

“N-no. Nothing is wrong.” She trailed off. “It is only that— well, it’s that…”

“It’s what, Sixteen?” Callahan leant forward. “I won’t judge.”

“Well. Um.” She shifted, her tattered clothes rustling loudly against each other— she hadn’t changed into the new pair of pyjamas offered to her, either; maybe that was also contributing to the smell. “My… friend. M-my— my friend. One of them. I think she… she’s here. She’s here with me. With us. And… she— she had a name chosen for her.”

Every time Callahan figured her curiosity couldn’t grow any sharper. “Your friend?” she asked, slowly. “Is that the one who came to the City with you?”

“Yes. One of them.” Another nod. “She had… she had a… name like mine. But she got it changed. By our other— friend.” She paused. Her eyes squeezed shut. “I… I think I would like that for me.”

Callahan couldn’t do much more than stare. Something… big was churning in her stomach. Something heavy. It felt like dread— that blunted, unrelenting feeling that something was very wrong. “I see.”.

“Yes… yes.” Sixteen peered up at her through her hair. “Do you think that could be done for me?”

“I’m… I’m sure something could be arranged for you, Sixteen.” Callahan placed her hands on the carpet, the texture absorbing the beading sweat on her palms. “Do you… do you mind if I ask you some more questions?”

“Well— I guess if you want to, then you can.”

“Yes. Thank you.” Her fingers were shaking, she vaguely realized. “We’ll speak more about that later. Why don’t you tell me more about your friend? Your friends, I mean.”

Skepticism wrote itself over what was visible of Sixteen’s face. “Where… where are they? They’re here with me, right? They were taken to the City with me?”

“Yes, they were. You don’t need to worry about them. But… can you explain them to me? In more detail? What were they like, Sixteen?”

“Please. Please just answer me.” Sixteen’s voice grew louder, shriller. “Where are they?”

“Sixteen, we—”

Tell me! Please— just tell me if they’re here. Tell me if they’re alright. Where are they?”

“What are their names, Sixteen?”

Sixteen just curled herself up even tighter under the bed, sliding into the shadows. For the first time, a real jab of annoyance pierced at Callahan’s composure. “I need to know, Sixteen. What are their names?

“Jaden, and… and Ellis.”

Callahan’s vision went dark. “Oh,” she said, in a breath because she had no strength to say it louder. “Oh.”

“Are they alright? Are they okay?”

Callahan felt dizzy. She squirmed away, putting a hand on her forehead. Her tongue moved slowly, reluctantly. “I… Jaden is alright. Jaden is here with us. Don’t worry about her.”

“And Ellis? What about Ellis?”

“You… you know about Ellis?”

“He’s here with you all, right?”

“No. No, we don’t. He isn’t… he’s not here. We don’t know where he is.”

It was silent for a long, long minute. The wail that came from under the bed afterward should have sent chills down Callahan’s spine, but she was already covered with ice. Sixteen blubbered violently, ripping Callahan from her thoughts. She cried something unintelligible. Callahan clambered away, knees shaking as she pushed herself to her feet. Sixteen’s shattered weeping cut through her skin no matter how many shields she put up. She felt guilty for leaving her behind— or course she did, but… she couldn’t think. She wouldn’t be able to get a single word in with that uncontrollable sobbing. She had to leave. For both their sakes.

The cries continued raking against her skin even as she walked to the exit. Her fingers were slick with sweat. Shaking, too. It took a while to get a proper grip on the key, and wield it properly enough to push it through the lock. Callahan slipped through the opening the second it was big enough for her, immediately gasping in a lungful of fresh, unpoisoned air. The door closed behind her with a subtle click— and just like that, the screaming and crying stopped. It was like it had never even been there.

~ * ~

Callahan tapped her fingers on the table, barely able to sit still. There was so much that had to be done. So many things that had to be looked over and supervised, and so little time. Not to mention all the things that had to be thought about. But here she was, sitting in the breakroom, unable to go out and face the others because she was so afraid of breaking underneath the things she now knew.

Ellis was alive. Of course, many things may have happened between the time his friends were taken from the Outskirts and now, but even so, even if he wasn’t now— he had very recently been alive. After everything that had happened, somehow he was still holding on. Callahan wanted to know so many things, the biggest one being how. She could only assume that Sixteen and the other of their captives— Jaden— had decided to take him in, seeing him all sorry and suffering in the middle of the forest. Why? Now, that— that was a total mystery.

There really wasn’t any way to find out. Callahan had blown all of her luck away, telling Sixteen that Ellis was not here in the City with them. Jaime hadn’t fared much better. He’d done just about as well as Shelby and the others had, actually, if what he had had to recall held any merit. Truly, the only information they had gathered from their attempts to reach these two people was that Ellis was alive, still kicking, and had known them well enough for them to call him their friend.

She hadn’t told anybody about Ellis yet, not even Jaime. Maybe she never would. There was no need to give anyone false hope— or any further incentive to turn against her. If the Seeker birds hadn’t found him, then he likely would never end up being found. Why did anyone have to know?

She shut her eyes, allowing the darkness and silence to envelop her. Then she opened her eyes, took her chin off her hand, and began examining her fingernails. When she was younger, she’d had a poor habit of chewing them down to the nub, especially when she was nervous. Perhaps it should have been considered a testament to her willpower that she hadn’t picked up the habit again.

What were they going to do after all of this was over? After who they had requested for help would do what they could, and Jaden and Sixteen were… given whatever treatment they ended up needing? They still hadn’t perfected the serum, even after it’d been so long since Shelby had discovered it deteriorative properties. It seemed like they never would. Plans had already been lightly drafted out for an entirely different, brand new serum. It was only a matter of time before they completely switched to that. Maybe that was for the best— it wasted less of their valuable time.

The door swung open. Callahan jerked to watch it, heart thrumming violently. Seeing who it was, she let out a slow, shuddery breath. “Shelby. You… you startled me.”

Shelby stepped into the room, folding her hands at her hips. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” She paused, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She reached up and started toying with her hair. “Reese is here.”

“Already?”

“Yes. We just got the message. You… maybe you should come out so you’re ready for your arrival.”

“Oh. Oh, yes. Of course.” Callahan stood from her chair, its legs scraping against the floor. Any wisps of fatigue quickly whisked themselves away. “Thank you for telling me.”

“You’re welcome—”

But Callahan was rushing past her already, hurriedly smoothing her hair down. She should have braided it up, like Shelby had. She tied it into a clumsy ponytail instead, praying that it looked at least somewhat presentable as she entered the main lab. Turning to face Shelby again, she asked, “I presume she’ll be downstairs?”

“Um— yes. I think so. I wasn’t the one who took the call. You’d be better off asking Kegan— because he did.”

Callahan was already turning away. “Thank you, Shelby. I’ll go and check right away.”

Shelby may have said something else— or maybe it had been one of the others— but she was out of the room before the words could register in her mind. She hurried to the elevator, fixed her hair up into something more presentable as she began to descend. She exited as soon as the doors opened, making a beeline for the exit.

Yes— a lone bus sat outside, its sleek black silhouette stark against the grays and silvers of everything else. Callahan approached it, her shoes grating against the asphalt. A gust of wind blew some strands of hair into her face. She brushed them away. “Here we go,” she mumbled to herself, and stopped near the bus’s closed door.

It didn’t stay closed for very long. With a hiss, the door opened. A lone set of footsteps sounded from within— and then a lone person emerged from the darkened interior. Donned in a twee sweater with her hair piled atop her head, she offered Callahan a tepid smile as she stepped onto the pavement. “Good morning! Miss Callahan, isn’t it?”

“It is.” Callahan took Reese’s outstretched hand, giving it a firm shake. “And you’re Reese Campbell, yes? Thank you so much for coming all the way out here from Silverhill. It’s really appreciated.”

“There isn’t any need to thank me.” Reese let go, that soft smile still on her face. “It is nice to have a bit of a change of scenery. I haven’t seen this place in years.”

“Oh— yes, I guess that all is true.” Callahan stepped back, looking over her shoulder. “Let’s get straight into this, then? I really don’t want to waste much time.”

“Of course.”

Callahan hurried to keep pace with Reese as they approached the building, struggling for words. “We tried dealing with it all on our own, but each attempt failed spectacularly. I hope that you’ll be able to figure it out because if things continue on like this, then…”

“Then what?”

She shook her head. “Nevermind. Just come with me. I’ll show you where they are.”

“That would be much appreciated. I’ll bring them up to you all.”

They entered the building, and Callahan could almost feel the tension bubbling from the hallway. Guilt stabbed at her chest; she’d gone and left Sixteen behind despite her obvious distress. Even now she stood back, watching silently as Reese spoke to the secretary, was given something small and shiny, and was directed to the hallway. Reese gave Callahan a short smile, and then she was gone.

Callahan stood there for a while, uncertain of what to do as the secretary gave her an odd look. Well, Reese hadn’t asked for help. There wasn’t a need to stay down here— she would be much more equipped to handle things in the lab, anyway. Callahan gave the secretary a nod, turned on her heel, and walked back out. She couldn’t worry. Reese was the best of the best. Everything would be fine.

The trip back up to the research center was largely uneventful. Callahan took her time going back to the lab; she debated simply staying in her office but decided against it. The reception she received entering was a lot… warmer, this time around. Riley and Shelby gravitated toward her immediately, almost nervously. “She did come, right?” asked Shelby.

“She did. And she’s doing her work. She’ll come and talk to us when everything is stable and ready.” Relatively stable and ready, at least. A pulsing thrummed in her temple as she made to walk around them. “For now, continue working. Alright?”

“O-oh. Alright.”

Callahan nodded even as she walked away. She didn’t break pace, didn’t crumple under the eyes digging into her, until she had reached Jaime, who was in the corner of the room. “She’s here,” she murmured. “She said she’ll be up in a… while.”

“How soon is a while?

“I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Well— I guess.”

Callahan tilted her head bsck and shut her eyes. She stayed like that for a moment, debating returning to her office or the breakroom.

There was a knock on the door before she could decide. Her breath caught in her throat and she turned around. That had been fast, quite fast. Kegan and Riley were already on it, approaching the still-sealed entrance. Kegan reached it first. He pushed the door open. His muscles froze for a split second, and then he relaxed. He said something too quietly for Callahan to hear, stepped aside— and then Reese walked in. Alone.

Callahan felt the forced smile on her face drop away. “Did it not work out the way we hoped?”

“Oh, no. It worked out just fine. I only talked to one of them so far, but with a little bit of help, it looks like she’ll be just fine. With your research or otherwise.”

Help? What sort of help? Callahan frowned. “You brought her up with you?”

“I did. Would you like to see her?”

That stony pit returned to Callahan’s stomach again. Somehow, she nodded. “Of… of course,” she said, with some effort. “Everyone, give her— them— some space.”

“I don’t believe that will be necessary.”

The others were already backing away, though, having listened to Callahan. She moved with them, watching Reese slowly open the door. “Jaden?” she crooned. “Jaden. It’s alright. You can come out now, sweetheart.”

Jaden. Callahan hadn’t spoken to her yet. Instinctively, she moved back a bit more, Jaime’s heat pressing against her back. Jaime didn’t seem to notice. Nor did the rest of the committee. Nor did Reese. “It’s alright,” she continued. “You can come inside. Everything’s perfectly safe.”

Silence— and then, slow as death, a pallid-white hand fumbled against the doorframe. Callahan swallowed, the stone in her stomach growing larger by the second. The hand crawled the rest of its way inside, and then the arm, and then—

She wasn’t fast enough to look away. She wasn’t supposed to look away. She was supposed to be indifferent to less pleasant-looking visuals, but that didn’t change the fact that her insides writhed at the already burnt-in memory of brown-stained bandages and tally marks of burgundy wrapped around ashen skin. The slow, shuffling movements made it clear that the girl was either exhausted deeply sedated. Probably both. The worst thing of all: she was so tiny. Probably not even Academy-age yet. She could have been in the middle of being taught by Reese herself, in a different, fairer life. No wonder Sixteen had hidden herself. What had they gone through because of them? What had they forced upon these people? What had they done?

There you go. Good job.” Reese’s voice grew even softer. Callahan risked a glance over— the sight of rust-covered, matted hair was enough to make her look away again. Low, pitiful gagging sounded behind her. Riley? Or Shelby?

“You did such a good job. Poor thing. You’re still so dirty.”

Reese was met with silence, but she didn’t seem to mind. She fiddled with the filthy nest atop her head, still smiling pleasantly. “Do you know where you are, Jaden? Remember what I told you?”

A harsh silence stretched onward. Callahan realized she was holding her breath— because of the smell, or the tension? She slowly exhaled, and the blur at the edges of her vision dissipated.

Reese didn’t get a response. The girl stayed slumped on her chest, face hidden. Reese frowned. “Jaden. Remember what I told you? I’m your friend. I’m here to help you out. We’re all here to help you out.”

She shifted. Her voice came out like a used-up scream. “Y-you… are?”

“Mm-hmm.”

Bumps curdled over Callahan’s arms, but she didn’t dare wipe them away. She watched as the girl lifted her head and looked up at Reese. She had strikingly green eyes, even puffy, part-delirious, and shot through with crimson. Her split, bloody lips parted.

“Jaden? Sweetie? We’re here to help you.”

Reese took Jaden’s bandaged wrist into her hand, squeezing it gently. Jaden pulled herself away, and—

The room tremored. Callahan stepped back, her breath hitching. It wasn’t the room that was shaking but Reese— she fell to her knees, hand clutched at her nose. Jaden staggered back and collapsed against the wall. Her mouth dragged open in a silent scream— was it silent? Somebody was screaming, their voice ringing in Callahan’s ears— she just couldn’t tell who. Her face felt heavy, heavy, her mind swelled and burst—

—and then everything went still. Callahan jerked as her breath returned to her in one painful gust. Her vision refocused, and her head stopped spinning.

Two— no, three people were sprawled on the ground before her— Kegan on top of Jaden, crushing her, his fist pressed deeply into her elbow. He pulled away and Callahan realized a needle shook in his fingers, slickened with blood. Reese wasn’t moving. Neither was the girl— but then she was, her hands clawing at her hair like she was trying to get something out of it.

Callahan seized Kegan’s arm before she knew what she was doing. “What is that? What did you give her?!”

Hands shoved against her chest and she fell back. Pain lanced up her spine. Kegan stood. The girl writhed on the ground, thick, pulpy liquid dripping from her left nostril. Then her right. The needle Kegan had— had it been filled with that botched medication? The one that caused cells to degenerate?

Somehow, she fought against her dizziness and pushed herself to her feet. Kegan’s voice rang in her skull. She ignored it— ignored the indignant cries as she shoved past the people behind her— ignored her sweaty palms and swimming vision as she plundered a countertop, and then the drawers beneath it. Her fingers closed around something cylindrical, icy in her hand. A syringe.

Nobody moved to intercept her as she rushed back, cold fury screaming in her ears. The girl was face-down, her hand curled into a painful fist at her nose. Callahan grabbed her by her matted hair and jerked it so that her claw-stung neck peered up like a white. She plunged the needle in and wrested it back out in the span of a second, and the girl shuddered and went limp.

“What did you do?

The needle still felt cold in Callahan’s hand. She dropped it, shoving herself away before Kegan could grab her. “I— I saved her.”

She didn’t know if she was lying or not. She didn’t know what the botched medication would do— this was the first time the effects of the botched one had even been seen on a live subject. It’d worked so quickly. So cruelly. Callahan tasted acidic spit on the back of her tongue. “What did you do, Kegan? Why did you think that was a good idea, hurting an innocent girl?”

Innocent? Look at what she did!”

Kegan swept out a hand and Callahan looked. Reese still languished over the tile, staining the white stark red. The others— the others who hadn’t taken the chance to run out the room while they’d had the chance— had crushed themselves against the far side of the room. Some of the others were slumped over, even completely prone. And the red was everywhere. Everywhere. It was— it—

“She did this! She did this!

Kegan pointed viciously at the crumpled shell of a girl whose chest barely moved. Callahan’s mouth was stuffed with cotton, sharp cotton; it cut at her lips and tongue as she started to speak. “That doesn’t give you an excuse to do something as dangerous as that, Kegan. We had no idea what that serum did. What were you thinking?

“I was thinking of the fastest way to neutralize somebody who hurt our committee!”

“You shouldn’t have! You could have caused more damage than what’s already been done!”

“But I didn’t. She was dying. She wasn’t going to hurt people anymore. You had to go and ruin that.” Kegan loomed over her— over all of them?. “What are you going to do now, Director? Terminate her? Do what would have been done already, if you hadn’t intervened?”

The obstruction had spread to Callahan’s throat. She swallowed, staring at the girl’s sorry form. She looked almost pathetic. And yet, somehow, he had caused them all so much grief in such a little time.

Callahan breathed through the lump in her chest, digging her nails into the floor. “No.”

No?

Callahan looked up at Kegan. “No,” she repeated. “Do you have any idea what this could do for us? What sort of advancements this could bring around? Do you know how many secrets about human development these people can be hiding? She… they can help us, Kegan. They can help us work on the City. They can help us save it.”

“And who’s to say that she won’t end up hurting others again?”

Callahan forced herself to stand. “Whatever you gave her will. I don’t know how long it will last— or how long the counterbalance of the medication will. But there’s nothing stopping us from reapplying either. And we still have more than enough time to explain to her these new conditions she finds herself in.”

Deep grooves carved themselves into Kegan’s face, but he didn’t say anything. Callahan stepped over Reese, pushed past Kegan, and stopped at the girl. She was on the edge of consciousness now, her breathing short and shallow. She rolled over and stared up at Callahan. Past her delirium, past the pain and exhaustion, something new flickered in her dull green eyes: fear.

Callahan crouched, took her wrist, and pulled her dead weight up. “Come, now. Let’s take you back.”

The girl didn’t respond. She didn’t move to help her out, either. Well, she was light enough and weak enough for one person to handle. Callahan turned to look at Kegan, who was still standing there, slack-jawed. “Deal with the others for me, please,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”

Callahan ignored the silence she got in response. She opened the door, pulling the girl out with her. It slammed shut behind her, the harsh note punctuating the sun breaking through its thick, clouded prison. Everything would be alright. She’d make sure of it. She’d show the others that the City would be just fine— and, most importantly, that there was no need for Ellis to come back. This girl and her friend were going to help.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Eighty-Three

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Every ray of light lost to the evening meant that more of his time was running out. All this time he had been thinking and thinking and thinking, but for all of that work, the only thing he’d gotten in return was a headache and enough worry to last him for the rest of his life. He’d already had both of those. He didn’t need more of them.

He groaned and rolled over, his rib cage pushing painfully into the lumps in the bed. His joints were locked, their keys thrown away; whenever he moved it felt like he was pantomiming a rusty door hinge. He just wanted to lay down and sleep despite the fact that he’d been in bed almost all day. He felt like a rock. A rock that the others would have to carry around at their own inconvenience. He always had, but now more than ever.

How could he be expected to go back to the City with Rowan and the others? It sounded impossible. It probably was impossible. He couldn’t make the long trek back to the City. But even knowing that, some selfish part of him wanted to resist, to go off and make the long, arduous journey back just like everyone else. Isn’t that what he had always wanted? It was in his lap, now, and would probably never be there again. It wasn’t likely that anyone was going to stay here— so then why did he have to be the odd one out? Did he really have to be him?

He dug his fingers into the sheets, the holes and loose strings in the fabric catching on his fingernails. He yanked them away as he sat up and it made a tearing sound. The sound felt like a saw against his eardrums. Rolling toward the edge of the bed, he planted his feet on the floor. The wood was ice on the soles of his feet. It felt… nice. He probably had a fever, or something. Could a person get a fever from thinking too much? It sure felt like it.

He could cool down by cracking the window open and poking his head outside. He could heat himself up by dragging some firewood to the fireplace, and lighting it all up. Here, he could wake up when he wanted, go to sleep when he wanted, go anywhere he wanted as long as he made it back before sundown. That was something that would be near-impossible to do in the City. Sure, the City offered him security, but… the City had also driven him out. It had left him to rot and die out here all because he’d made a few mistakes. He’d had no freedom there, no way to express himself or his feelings or anything. Maybe in Silverhill, when he was younger. But he didn’t have that anymore. If he really wanted freedom, true freedom, then there was a clear choice of where to stay.

Peyton looked up, staring out the window. So many of the trees had stripped themselves near completely of their leaves now— it almost felt like he would be able to see the walls of his former home if he squinted hard enough. The home where he was always well-fed, and warm, and healthy… where he hadn’t hurt anybody as badly as he had hurt the people he had in the Clink and the forest.

Peyton stared at his lap. Compared to now, before he’d known and done everything he had, he could have almost called himself… happy in the City. Peaceful, at the very least. Before, when Nikita had talked to him after the meeting— she had said that in the City… in the City, there was a chance of having a happy ending. A chance of things being alright again.

He could’ve scoffed if the idea hadn’t been so alluring. The chances of there being a happy ending for him seemed so… slim, barely any more than a hair in the wind. Even if he did go back to the City and became friends with Olive and Kendall and Scout again. Everything that had happened to him and to the other people he had affected wouldn’t just go away. Blake and Avery would still be in the Clink. Sawyer would still be dead. He’d still be guilty about everything— and who was to say that Olive, Scout, and Kendall would even want him back? Scout probably didn’t. Kendall had been mad before Peyton had disappeared— even after everything, he could still remember that anger— and Olive… Olive. He didn’t know about Olive. Even so, everything else wouldn’t change. It wouldn’t change what he had done, or what had happened to him. A happy ending for him in the City didn’t exist.

Peyton squirmed. He started to stand, thought against it, then thought against it again and struggled to his feet. The room tilted around him. This circular thinking… it wasn’t doing anything for him at all. He had to go and do something else before he ended up going crazy. Maybe it’d be a bit cold for his tattered clothes, but… he could go outside. Collect firewood, or tend to the rabbits— what would Rowan do with them, if everyone was leaving?— or something. Anything but moping. Maybe working his body would clear his mind, help him make a decision a little easier. He’d be doing a lot of working his body over the next few days and weeks, no matter what he chose.

He tiptoed toward the door, and outstretched his hand. Grabbing the doorknob, he twisted it and slowly pulled the door toward him. It opened without any difficulty— the hinges barely even creaked this time, by some miracle— and showed him the hallway. Nobody was there. He let out a breath, sidling through the gap between the door and its frame. It barely made a sound as he clicked it shut.

Most of the other doors were closed, too, and no noise came from them, no shadows flickering in the sliver by the floor. Peyton tiptoed past them regardless. When he reached the stairs, he gripped the banister hard and began his slow descent.

He walked on his tiptoes as he went down the stairs, but it ended up being unneeded: the kitchen was empty, looking more lonely than ever with only one lit candle at the center of the table. Maybe that was why all the doors upstairs were shut— because everyone was upstairs in their rooms. They were getting their well-needed rest to prepare for tomorrow, or whenever they were going to start their journey. He probably should have been doing that, too, no matter what he’d ultimately choose in the end. But he was down here staring at the empty kitchen table instead.

Peyton looked past the kitchen, at the door to the outside. It stared back at him, calling silently for him to come outside and enjoy the gloomy evening. He could go out and feel the air on his sweaty, sticky skin. Maybe he could walk all the way to the river and take a bath, because he really needed it. And then he could sneak back upstairs and sleep, and pretend that the world wasn’t spinning around him while he dawdled over the most impactful decision of his life.

He opened the door. The forest rushed in to meet him in a rush of cold air and couple yellowed leaves. Peyton almost slammed the door shut— stopped himself remembering that that would just make more noise— and slipped outside before he could change his mind. It really was cold. Maybe that was because the sun was almost gone.

Turning around, he stared at the quivering, skeletal trees, and wondered what he was supposed to be feeling. Lowering himself to the ground, he sat in the grass and propped his head up with his hands. Now that his eyes were adjusting, he could see all the details, like the etches in the bark and their finger-like branches. Waving at him.

He didn’t know how people could just get up and go in there. How were Rowan and Umber able to get up in the morning to chop and lug around heavy wood all day? How were Taylor and Jules able to wake up and prepare food from day in to day out? How did Nikita still manage to tolerate him while he was so mopey? Probably the same way they all could just up and go to the City. Forget all of their connections and responsibilities here and go back to that place.

Peyton pushed his fingers through the clumpy dirt. Would they be coming back? They had to come back, right? Sooner or later. The house… the house couldn’t stay here by itself forever. The garden would get overgrown, the wooden roof more bowed and waterlogged than it already was. Whether it was days or years, they’d have to come back. If only to check up on things. If he stayed, maybe he could look after the house. But was he really going to let something like that influence his decision?

At this point, anything could. He didn’t have the luxury of time anymore. The amount of time he had left before the others were acting on their decisions was so little that he could almost take it in his hands and manipulate it like putty. Almost. If only he could.

Peyton dug his numb fingertips into the dirt, feeling the grains plug up his nails, the wrinkles and folds in his palm. Then he thrust himself upward and staggered away from the house. The grass felt like blades on his feet as he passed the garden, and stopped at the whispering treeline.

Another gust of air whoosed past, and the sticky, dried sweat covering his body came back to his attention. It was almost dark now, the trees shrouded in a navy blue haze. Could he still manage a trip to the river? Or maybe he could just take some of the collected river water here, clean himself off with that. But… that didn’t have the same sort of appeal. He wanted to be swallowed up by the forest, and get as far away from this house and its problems as he could. The physical exertion and the shock of the cold water would help clear his mind. He could come back feeling a little better. Or maybe… maybe he just wouldn’t come back at all. He somehow cracked a smile at that. It was a stupid idea, but somehow more alluring than the two he was currently presented with. Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the forest. The blackness closed around.

A screech behind him! Peyton’s hands flew to his ears. He whipped around. An orange streak cut through the cool black, making his eyes sting.

“Peyton?”

It was Taylor. Peyton felt sick. What was he supposed to do? Go back? Call out? Run out into the forest? She’d probably chase after him. Then he’d be in an even worse situation than he already was.

“Peyton?”

His heart spasmed. It wasn’t just Taylor— it was Nikita, too. Now… now he had to respond. He swallowed, and parted his dry lips. “I— I’m here.”

Silence. Had they not heard him? Peyton bit the inside of his cheek, took a deep breath, and then stepped from the treeline. “I’m here!” he repeated. “I… I was outside because— because—”

“What are you doing out here?” The light bobbed closer to him. “It’s freezing. Come inside.”

It… it wasn’t that cold. Peyton frowned, wrapping his arms around himself. “I just… I just wanted some fresh air.”

“How long have you been out here?”

“Just… a few minutes.” He paused, hesitating. “I was… gonna go to the river. Because— b-because I don’t feel clean. I wanted to clean myself up.”

“It’s too late to go out by yourself. Especially without a flashlight.” Taylor pushed closer, until Peyton could see her silhouette, painted orange against the dark. “Come inside. We need to talk to you.”

Peyton’s racing heart froze. Of course. They wouldn’t have come out searching for him if they hadn’t wanted an answer to the question that had eaten away at him for days. He opened his mouth, floundered, words coming difficult to him. “You— you want to talk to me?”

“We need to.” Taylor held her hand out. It went for Peyton’s arm like a claw, wrapping around it with ice-cold fingers. “Please. We don’t need you getting sick.”

Because they probably thought he was going to the City with them, right? Peyton stood there, suspended between wanting to rip his hand away and just going with her. What would he even do if he refused? Run away?

Peyton gulped down his nervousness and made his arm go slack, pullable. “O-okay,” he said, and his voice came out a lot squeakier than he’d wanted it to. “Okay.”

Taylor should have smiled, like she always used to when Peyton complied. But she didn’t. She hadn’t, really, ever since Avery and Blake had left. She tugged on his arm, gently at first, then a little harder. Peyton managed to uncement his feet from the ground and go toward her. As soon as he was standing by her side, he pulled his hand away from hers and let it fall limply back to his side. Taylor didn’t seem to mind. She glanced over to him in the lantern light. Peyton looked away. Taylor walked back to the house and he followed her.

For how far away the forest seemed, they reached the doorway a lot faster than Peyton would have liked. Dull orange filled the inside. It revealed Nikita. She was just inside, staring down at him. She looked… disappointed. Not that that wasn’t an unusual sight, nowadays.

Nikita stepped aside to make room for him and Taylor, even though Taylor looked like she would have bowled right past regardless. Then she squeezed his shoulder. “What happened?Why were you outside?”

“I… I told you already.” He crossed his arms, letting out a shaky breath. “I just… I just n-needed some fresh air.”

“We were worried about you. We went into your room and you weren’t in there. What were we supposed to think?”

His face flushed hot. “I don’t— I don’t know. But you came outside and found me before I could leave. So I guess it turned out… fine.”

“But what if we hadn’t come out in time? What if you had slipped and hurt yourself, walking through the dark? What would we have done then?”

“I don’t— I d-don’t know.”

“Don’t push him, Nikita,” Taylor butt in. “He’s here and safe now. That’s what matters.”

Peyton looked between her and Nikita, waiting to see what would happen. But all Nikita did was sniff, brushing her hair out of her face. “I was just concerned for his safety. I still am.”

“But he’s alright now. Let’s focus on that.”

“We’ll see about that soon. Whether or not he’ll truly be alright depends on what he says, doesn’t it?”

“I’m sure he’ll make whichever choice is best for him.”

They were about him like he wasn’t even there. Peyton gritted his teeth, digging his fingernails into his palms. Nikita’s eyes burned into the top of his head— he couldn’t tell if she was looking directly at it, or just grazing it as she glared at Taylor. “I guess we’ll see,” she replied.

Taylor’s face softened as she looked at Peyton. “Come. We’re all waiting for you upstairs.”

“Every—everyone?”

“Well— we’re just waiting for what you have to say.” She paused. “You do know what we’re talking about, don’t you?”

Peyton nodded. “Yeah. You’re… you’re talking about the— the City.”

“Yes.”

Peyton squirmed. He opened his mouth, but Taylor was already walking off. This time, when they started their ascent up the stairs, they did creak. It made Peyton’s heart race in spite of the fact that there were two people flanking him, that they already knew that he was here and there was really no reason to get worked up about it at all.

They’d reached the top of the stairs before he’d taken a second breath, and candlelight danced from his wide open door. Shadows flickered across that candlelight. Peyton swallowed, swiping his tongue over his parched lips. His stomach twisted and groaned.

“Come on, Peyton. It’ll be fine.” Nikita put her hand in between his shoulders again. If she noticed the tension bunched up underneath her fingers, then she didn’t acknowledge it.

The room was dark now, save for the candles placed strategically around the room. Lighting up the corners, and the beds, and Rowan’s face. He was sitting on Peyton’s mattress. When he saw him, he lifted his head and his eyebrows. “Peyton.”

What could he say that wouldn’t make him look like an idiot, or wouldn’t be a rushed, forced lie? Peyton licked his lip again, then bit it. He was thirsty. “Y-yeah?”

Rowan’s eyebrows looked like they wanted to crawl into his hairline. Then they shot back down, capping an aggressive scowl. “Don’t say yeah. You know what we’re here to talk about.”

Peyton squirmed, the three pairs of eyes on him like six pinpoints of flame. Rowan completely ignored his discomfort. “We’re leaving tomorrow,” he continued. “Either you can come with all of us, or you stay here— all by yourself. There isn’t any more time to think over it. You have to decide now.”

A massive lump in his chest plugged his voice up. His eyes stung and the air didn’t go to his lungs easily. How could he decide? How could they let him decide for himself? If nobody was going to be here with him, then he had to go with them, didn’t he? They couldn’t expect a fourteen year-old boy to man an entire house all by himself. Could they?

A hand rested on his shoulder and he flinched. Nikita only squeezed tighter. “Remember what I said, Peyton.”

“Nikita, don’t—”

“No, Taylor. Let her have her say. It might make things go at least a little faster.”

Taylor‘s mouth slid shut. Rowan just stared at Peyton, impatience churning behind his eyes.

Nikita squeezed Peyton’s shoulder even tighter, to the point that it hurt. “Remember what I said to you? Just think about that.”

“I don’t… I don’t remember what you’re talking about.”

Nikita sighed. Peyton bit his lip harder. Nikita’s hand dropped off his shoulder, leaving him more cold and exposed than he’d been before. Her breath was still burning his ear, sending chills raking like glass down every limb. He dug his fingers into his arms. “I think— I think—- I think I’m gonna stay here.”

The air sucked itself out of the room as if he hadn’t had trouble breathing already. Taylor’s peeved expression dropped off her face, and Nikita went pale. Even Rowan looked surprised. Why did they all look so surprised?

Taylor’s voice sounded small. “You… want to stay here, Peyton?”

Why else had they asked? Why else would they have given him a choice over it, a choice that he had been tortured over for days on end? He squeezed his eyes shut and nodded vigorously. “Y-yeah. I… I do. I think I should stay here.”

“You think you should? No. You need to know. You have to know what you have to do. Don’t let other people decide for you or influence your decision, choose by yourself. Staying here all by yourself isn’t going to be—”

“I know. Nobody here i controlling me, or anything. I just— this is what I have to do. I need to stay here.”

The silence hung, so heavy that it could crush him. Nikita still looked like a ghost, Rowan’s surprise had curdled to a pensive scowl— and Taylor looked upset to the point of tears. She touched his shoulders, the lantern hanging over his back. It felt warm. “Why do you want to stay here all by yourself?”

Peyton’s tongue felt like a bunch of pebbles instead of the flesh and muscle it was supposed to be. He swallowed the lump in his throat, shrugged. “I— I— I don’t know. I mean… I do know, and everything. It’s just complicated. It’s— it has to do with… stuff.”

“What? What stuff? Why do you want to stay?” Her grip on his shoulders grew tighter. “We don’t know when we’ll be coming back, Peyton. We don’t know if we’ll be coming back, period. Do you really think you can stay here all by yourself? What’s the reason you don’t want to come back with us?”

Taylor.”

Peyton flinched. Taylor did, too, and her hands slipped off Peyton’s shoulders. Even Nikita looked startled. But Rowan didn’t care about any of that. “If he’s made his choice,” he said, “then he’s made his choice. We can’t deny him that.” He paused just a moment to scowl, to brush his fingers through his hair— and then down his face. “We don’t have time to run around in circles anymore.”

“But—”

“No.”

Just one word, but it was enough to weld Taylor’s mouth shut. Rowan shut his eyes and ran his finger and thumb over them. “Everyone else is leaving, Peyton. You’ll be all alone.”

“Yeah. I… I know. That’s why I want to stay.”

A shadow flickered over Rowan’s face, disappearing before Peyton could even start to consider what it had been. He rose off Peyton’s bed, looking him over with something that felt like pity. “Fine,” he said. “Alright.”

Peyton pressed his lips together, squeezing his hands together till the tips turned blue. That was all? Fine, alright? Wasn’t he… didn’t he have to learn his way around the house? How to make sure that he would be able to make it through the winter? Apparently, he didn’t. Rowan was gone, out the door and round the corner, eaten by the darkness.

Peyton, Nikita, and Taylor stood there in silence for a few minutes. Taylor’s face had gone pallid; she stared down at Peyton with what looked like a thousand words bubbling over her lips. “Peyton… we— I can’t—”

He wrapped his arms around himself and backed away. A burning hot sourness boiled in his stomach, threatening to spurt up from his throat. He shut his eyes and took a few deep breaths. “It’s… it’s okay. I’ll be fine. Just— don’t…. I don’t— I don’t want to talk right now. I just… I just want to go to sleep.”

Reluctance painted itself over Taylor’s features. But she nodded. She backed away, keeping her eyes trained on him all the while. “Come on, Nikita. He said he wants to be left alone. Let’s leave him to it.”

Now at that, the spell over Nikita shattered. She blinked for what seemed like the first time in minutes, the blood rushing back to her face and replacing the deathly hue. She shook her head. “I want to speak to him. Give me a few minutes.”

“But he said that he wanted to be alone.”

“It won’t take very long.” Nikita managed a smile, a slow, shaky smile. “Are you okay with that, Peyton? Can I speak to you?”

“I… I guess.”

“See? It’ll be fine.”

Taylor didn’t stop frowning. “Let me stay in here with you while you talk to him.”

“It… it’ll be okay, Taylor. I’ll be alright. You don’t have to stay in here to supervise me, or anything.”

“Peyton—”

“I’ll be f-fine.”

Taylor opened her mouth, closed it. She closed her eyes, whispered something inaudible to herself. Then she opened them. “Okay, Peyton, Nikita. I’ll talk with you all later.”

She walked out, and they were left alone. Peyton felt his gaze waver. He walked over to his bed and sat down, cupping his chin in his shaking hands. The mattress was still warm from Rowan sitting on it.

“Peyton.”

“What?”

“There’s no reason to what me.” Nikita dropped down next to him, crossing her arms. The bed shook and heaved. “Peyton— what are you thinking?”

“What do you mean, what am I thinking? Do you— do you think that I’m happy? Happy that I tricked all you guys?”

“I didn’t mean that in a rude or patronizing way, Peyton. I really want to know what it is you’re thinking right now.” Nikita closed her fingers around the tangled mess of the bedsheets, leaning over to him. “Talk to me. I want to connect with you.”

Peyton clenched his jaw so hard his teeth hurt. “What do you even want to talk about?”

“Anything you want to.” She shuffled closer to him. “What’s on your mind, Peyton? What are you thinking about tomorrow?”

Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Of course she wanted to talk about tomorrow. Peyton shrugged and looked away. “I’m just… neutral about it. I guess.”

“Neutral? Really? You’re just neutral about it?”

He closed his eyes. “I guess. I’m not really… happy or sad or anything. If— if anything, then maybe I’d say that I’m… I don’t know. Kind of… almost relieved. In a strange kind of way. And… and worried, too.”

“Worried? Why worried?”

Nikita’s voice was so gentle. It was almost like before, in the Clink, when he didn’t really have to worry about anything besides what time they’d be going to sleep or what kind of bland, tasteless food they’d be eating that day. When he was still a hundred percent certain that he liked Nikita, and Nikita liked him. Peyton cringed. “That… that’s a dumb question.”

“I guess it might be. But I still want to know. I want to hear you say it.”

The answer should have been obvious. Peyton unravelled his arms, only to fold his twitching fingers over his lap. “I’m worried about being by myself. With… with nobody to help me here, or anything. I don’t know if I’ll do good or make enough food, or if I’ll be able to stay warm when it gets cold and snows. It’s all just… worrying to think about. I don’t know if I’ll be able to manage it all.”

“That’s all understandable. But what about relieved? You said that you were feeling relief, too— what’s up with that?”

“I’m just relieved because… b-because…”

“Because what, Peyton?”

He swallowed. “Because… because… maybe now I won’t hurt people anymore.”

Nikita’s face dropped. So did her eyes, down to Peyton’s closed, shaking fists. “That’s it? That’s what you’re worried about?”

He was so thirsty. Every time he moved his mouth it felt like his lips and tongue were cracking in a thousand different places. “Y-yeah. I guess— I guess that that’s what I’m worried about. Or relieved about. If I’m here by myself, then I won’t have to worry about accidentally hurting people if they make me mad or upset. And… and I also won’t have to worry about people like Charlie. They won’t be able to hurt me.” He wrung his hands. “I can stay here. All alone in the middle of the woods. And maybe… maybe it’ll be peaceful. I hope it’ll be peaceful.”

“I… see.” Nikita nodded, sagely. “Do you want someone to keep you company, Peyton? Do you want me to stay with you?”

“N-no!”

Nikita shrank back and he could almost, almost feel guilty. He took a deep breath, recomposing himself. “I mean… no. I just… I kind of just want to be here all on my own.”

“Oh.”

He frowned. “I… N-Nikita, I—”

“Aren’t you tired, Peyton? Sleepy?”

“I… guess I kinda am. But… but what does that have to do—”

“Then you should go to sleep.” Nikita stood from the bed before Peyton could get another word out. “You need to make sure that you’re well-rested. Now more than ever.”

“If… if you really want me to.”

“I do. I still care about you, Peyton. Whatever you’re thinking right now, just know that.”

Peyton remained silent. He shuffled onto the bed until his whole body was perched upon it, and then laid down. The pillow felt like a sack filled with sand. Hard, lumpy sand. It always did, but now more than ever. Rolling onto his side, he curled his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and stared at the wall until patterns warped across the white.

“Peyton?”

“What is it?”

“Can I… lay down with you?”

He broke his staring contest with the wall. “Wh-why?”

“I’m going to miss you. Can’t I spend one last night with you?”

“I— I guess. I guess you can.”

Nikita was already climbing onto the bed. The overworked springs in the mattress groaned as she put her weight on them, sprawling out next to Peyton. Peyton closed his eyes. Squeezed them together even harder as she rolled nearer to him. Her body heat radiated over his back. “I’ll miss you, you know,” she murmured, her breath sliding over his ear like hot grease. “Why don’t you want to come back with me?”

He sniffled. “I’m s-sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m just… confused, that’s all.” She reached out and touched his overgrown hair, stroking the ends of it. “It’s like you turned around and changed so suddenly. Is it something I did? Something I said?”

“N-no. No, it’s not.” He shook his head as best as he could with his face pressed into the pillow. “I told you. I just don’t want to hurt people anymore.”

Nikita continued running her fingers through his hair. Peyton could practically see her pursing her lips in thought. “You don’t think I’ll try and help you? Make sure you don’t hurt anyone, anymore?”

Because that had worked out so well with Avery and Blake. “I mean— I do. It’s just that… I don’t know. I guess— I think I just need…”

“Need what, Peyton?”

“I don’t know.”

It was quiet enough that Peyton could hear Nikita’s heartbeat. She touched the nape of his neck lightly, then sighed. “I think there’s a chance for you to have a happy ending, Peyton. To have a happy ending with all of us. You’d just have to trust me.” She paused, shifted. “If you were coming with us, I mean.”

Peyton touched a hand to his stomach. A pit was growing there, and it wasn’t just because of his hunger. “I don’t know,” he whispered, for the third time. “I just… I need some time to think.”

“Okay. I understand.”

Peyton nodded, if only to distract from the painful tightening in his abdomen. Nikita squirmed closer to him, and her heat wrapped over his whole body. Would this really be the last time he felt someone else’s warmth? The last time he heard another person’s voice?

“I’m going to sleep. Is that okay with you?”

He pushed his voice from his throat. “Y-yeah. I don’t want to force you to stay awake, or anything. You… you have a lot to deal with tomorrow, and stuff.”

Nikita made a noise between a sigh and a chuckle. “Yes,” she said. “I do.”

“Okay.” He bit the inside of his cheek until he could taste the coppery tangs of blood on his parched tongue. “Have a nice sleep.”

Nikita let out another laugh, but it sounded pained this time. More than before. “I’ll try to. But I think I might just spend most of it worrying. You know?”

“S-sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, Peyton. It’s not your fault.”

Peyton closed his eyes. Nikita draped her arm over his waist, pulling him just a little bit closer. Her breath tickled his ear, like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t. Her eyelashes fluttered shut against his neck.

Peyton stared at the wall for one minute, two minutes, five. Was she sleeping? He closed his eyes. Opened them. Debated whether or not to peel Nikita’s arm off him, or if he should have just refused her when he’d had the chance to. No, that wouldn’t have helped. It wasn’t Nikita’s heady warmth or the room spinning around him keeping him awake— it was his thoughts.

He wasn’t regretting his choice. He couldn’t be regretting his choice. It was good to isolate himself, so he couldn’t hurt anyone. He’d be all alone, maybe the most alone anyone who hailed from the City had ever been. And even though that may have been all fine and dandy for some people— Rowan and the others had done all that just fine, after all— would it be alright for him in particular?

He would get used to it after a while. Probably. He would face the worst of it at the very start. All he’d have to do was suffer through the winter, and then spring and onward would hopefully be easy sailing from then on. He would be more than adept enough to survive in the middle of the forest all on his own.

Well… he would be more than adept enough to survive in the middle of the forest all on his own— physically. Sure, staying here alone in the winter would teach him how to get food and stay warm and keep himself entertained… but what would it do for him socially? Mentally? Emotionally?

Peyton shut his eyes. Maybe there was a chance that he could do it. Maybe… maybe after a while, after he had settled in and everybody who had left had done what they’d needed to in the City, they would come back for him. They’d come back for him, and he wouldn’t have to worry about being lonely or needing stuff done around the house, and… and then things would be about as perfect as they could hope to be for him. He could have his happy ending.

Who was he joking? Who would want to come back to the Outskirts after spending all their time in the City, where all of their needs could be answered at a simple request? There was no way of knowing if they would even be allowed to leave the City to come here again, if they left. The ways they had managed to escape before had been in circumstances that fit together so perfectly… those same circumstances and chances wouldn’t come around for them in the same way ever again. And if they did, somehow, in some impossible trick of the universe, then chances were it wouldn’t happen for a long, long time. Years, probably. Chances were he’d just end up being forgotten as everyone left him behind to search for a better life in the City. They’d be able to sleep in warm beds and get their food wherever and have fulfilling relationships with other people, while he would get nothing. Just thinking about it made him want to cry.

He wiped his eyes, hoping it would dissipate the stinging that had invaded them. It didn’t do much. Nikita’s was starting to make him sweat. If she had fallen asleep, he didn’t want to move and wake her up. He didn’t want her to be mad at him right before she left him alone. He didn’t want that to be the last memory he had of her. He didn’t know what he wanted his last memory of her to be.

What would she do without him in the City? She had told him that they could still have a happy ending together— so what would she do if he wasn’t there with her? Find someone else? Kendall and Scout had done the same thing. He could remember clear as day: when he had been so certain that they had replaced him, being friends with each other while tossing him out of their little circle. That was how he had gotten into this mess in the first place, wasn’t it? That was why he was even here. If he hadn’t overreacted, maybe he would still be back in the City. With Olive and Kendall at his side, Mother and Father only a bus ride away, everything mostly fine.

He couldn’t take the heat boiling off Nikita anymore. First he peeled her arm off his sweaty shirt, and then he shuffled away until he was curled on the very edge of the bed. Nikita didn’t notice, her arm laying limply on the mattress like it had been there all along. Her breathing had gotten heavier. She must have fallen asleep for real, then. Good for her. He was too busy thinking about people who’d probably forgotten he even existed.

He closed his eyes again, holding his breath in the center of his chest. The silence settled in quickly, so heavy it made his head hum with it. Then, almost directly below him, sounds floated through the wood: voices. Too far away, too quiet to hear who was saying them, let alone what exactly what was being said, but unmistakably voices. They didn’t sound all that happy, either, if the jumping and dropping flow of intensity was anything to go by. They were probably talking about their plan for the day as they left this place and left him behind. What they would do during the journey, how they would fare if things went well and if they didn’t, and would they would do when they actually reached their long-coveted destination. Maybe settle down. Meet up with old friends. And then maybe, if someone somewhere asked where Peyton was, they would tell them that he was still here. In this rickety old house, fantasizing about another place but unable to leave.

He sat up, his head spinning and throbbing. Nikita didn’t stir. Her eyes were peacefully shut, mouth half-open and unbothered, hands curled like a baby’s near her chest. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair how she could sleep so peacefully and he couldn’t. It wasn’t fair how she could get away with that, how she had caused him so many bad feelings and then just dozed off. How could she do that? He’d hurt so many people and she didn’t even seem to care. How could she make him hurt so many people and just sleep it off like it didn’t bother her at all? Did it not bother her?

He rubbed his pimpled shoulders, shivering. It was amazing how much heat a mattress could hold, and how cold it could feel once he sat up from it. He couldn’t think about laying back down. Not next to Nikita’s excessive heat, not with his own thoughts. He had to… do something. Get out of bed. Go outside, maybe. Or even just look out the window. Anything would be better than this.

He moved so that his feet were pressed to the cold, wooden floor. It sent tingles up his legs and spine. Pushing his hands into the mattress, he used the leverage to get to his feet. He looked to the window. It stared back at him, without judgement. It had seen him there many times before, lost in his own thoughts staring out into the forest, and it would do the same now. Would it see him any more times, after this? He didn’t know. He wasn’t sure yet.

He walked over and knelt down, his knees making small thumps as they hit the floor. Not even a scratch of moonlight reached the ground. Were there clouds coating the sky, preventing any way of the light from getting to them? Peyton strained his eyes to see outside, his ears to hear if anything was still going on in the ground floor. He didn’t get anything out of either. It was just dark. Just silent.

No— the voices were coming again. If only Peyton could hear what they were saying. He rested his elbows on the windowsill, slouched forward, and sighed. Maybe they were talking about him. He wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case, actually. Taylor and Nikita had both been aghast at him wanting to stay. Even Rowan had seemed almost concerned. Yet he hadn’t tried to change his mind. Nor had he tried to give him any information on how to take care of the house or survive out here. It was… kind of weird. Why hadn’t he told him that? Did he want him to fail? He may have been an abrasive man, but he didn’t seem like someone to do something like that. He’d had the decency to seem troubled.

All of them had seemed troubled. And… before, Charlie had told him that she could help him. He wasn’t sure how much he believed that, but… it was clear that all of them had seemed cared at least a little. Maybe she actually wanted to help. Maybe they really did believe in a happy ending for him. Did he?

For the countless time, his elbows shook as he forced himself to stand. He tiptoed back to the bed. Nikita was still sleeping soundly, as he assumed she’d be. Peyton climbed in next to her. He was still wearing his sweaty, dirty clothes. And now he was laying in bed and getting it all dirty too. It… was okay, though. Before, he would have been upset about it. But now he wasn’t. Not really. Not as his eyelids drooped heavier and heavier, not as Nikita murmured something inaudible in her sleep and put one of her arms around his waist. It wasn’t anything worth getting upset over. He would be getting a lot, lot more dirty over the next couple of days.

~ * ~

The sunlight burned Peyton’s eyes, making them water even when he wasn’t even looking up. Splinters and dried dirt clogged in between his fingers and underneath his nails like broken glass, sending twinges of discomfort up his arms whenever he moved them too hard or too suddenly. The wood felt hard and rough in the grasp of his calloused fingers, even as he pushed it aside. The air was cold, sharp. Leaves shook and rattled in the breeze.

He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. It was starting to run. Hopefully that didn’t mean he was getting sick. That was the last thing he needed right now. Licking his chapped lips, he looked to the sky. Light blue, still streaked through with suggestions of pale orange and yellow from the sunrise. That meant he was early, right? More time in the day to do things. Early in the day was good. More daylight. The forest looked like a tangle of spindly fingers and blackened bones even in the brightness, stretching on forever. And it was quiet, oh so quiet. Almost silent. It was strange how human voices could fill up a space so much— it was strange how he only realized that once they were gone.

He should have put on shoes. Did the house have any extra shoes? Even if there were, they probably wouldn’t have even fit him. His feet hurt against the grass, all the pebbles and broken twigs hiding between the blades eager to bite into his skin. But even though his feet hurt already, he kept going. He had to do everything he could before night fell. He had to. Even when the forest whispered threats around him and made his heart race. Even when his stomach felt like a barbed, tangled sack of emptiness and the air felt like frozen needles in his lungs. Even when he just wanted to lay down and sleep.

What felt like hours passed. The sun climbed high, turning the sky a baby blue and everything below it a bleached yellow white. It was hard to look up, now. At least he felt a little warmer. That meant he could keep going. He’d have to rest eventually. But… not right now. Soon, though. Soon. if everything went as planned, he’d soon be able to sleep as long as he wanted to.

A crack in the trees. All his tired joints froze together. His breath caught in his throat as he looked around— but he saw nothing. He… must have been worrying too much. Worrying so much that he was hearing things that weren’t there. Now that he’d stopped walking, it’d be so much more difficult to pick up again… no, it’d be fine. He would keep going. Maybe take another drink of water. He was getting so thirsty. Pushing strength into his aching limbs, he pushed forward—

—and then froze as Rowan emerged from the trees like a brand of fire. He walked up to Peyton, barely paying mind to the obstacles underfoot. “I was starting to think you wouldn’t change your mind,” he said.

Peyton’s face grew hot. It only got worse when Rowan held his hand out to him, expectantly. “I— you mean— you were waiting?”

“Of course. We didn’t expect you to stay. We figured you would come trailing after us before we got too far.”

No wonder Rowan hadn’t given him any instructions on how to care for the house. No wonder Nikita and Taylor had stopped worrying about him after a while. They’d known he’d come after them. They’d known that he would be too afraid and come chasing after them. Had he really made his fear that obvious?

Rowan bounced his hand up and down. “Come on,” he said, gruffly. “Don’t stand there all day. We’ve already wasted time, walking slowly enough that you could keep up with us.”

They’d walked slow for him. Had he really been walking all that slow? He’d thought he’d been going fast.

He stretched an arm out. Rowan’s leathery fingers grabbed his, dragging him along with him as he returned to the deep of the thicket.

Everyone was here. Everyone. Taylor, Charlie, Jules, Umber— Nikita stepped up to him and smiled, squeezing his hand. Peyton wasn’t sure whether to pull away or not. None of them looked angry. They almost looked pleased to see him. He could almost imagine that they did.

Nikita finally let go of his hand. He tried to ignore the exposed feeling that fell over him, tried to ignore the eyes. It didn’t work very well. The reunion was short-lived. The others just continued walking, as if nothing had ever happened. Peyton— barefoot, hungry Peyton— looked over his shoulder, as if he could still see the house in the distance, still hear it calling after him, giving him one last chance. Then, reluctantly, he turned away from his alternate future, for the final time, following the others on their return to the City.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Eighty-Two

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

A skittering by the doorway whisked Ellis’s thoughts to the side, demanding all his attention toward it. He pushed himself off the wall, pulled his eyes from their listless fixation on the ceiling, and turned around. Frost was in the doorway, looking him up and down. It’d been such a long while and now she was finally paying attention to her. Ellis took a step toward her, built-up urgency fizzling in his limbs. “What is it?” he asked her, barely able to keep his voice low.

She blinked slowly, not looking him in the eye. “Are you ready to leave? It is just about time to go.”

Of course they would come for him as soon as it was time to go. His hands shuffled at his sides, a bit unsure of what to do. Just like the rest of him was. “Yes. I am.”

“Good. Tierney and I are ready, as well.”

Ellis nodded, a stifled sort of excitement burning within him. Hours had ebbed into days in this little cage of a building, the time he’d waited to leave stretching much too long. Frost and Tierney had needed his assistance— they had requested it, in fact— and yet they barely bothered to trade more than a word with him until now. He could have left them behind to turn into bone and dust as they had done to so many others, but he hadn’t. Finally— finally— it seemed like it would pay off.

They really had been languishing here for much too long. It seemed almost like a fever dream that they were leaving. And yet hesitation still niggled at him. Despite his goal having been returning to the City the moment he had been forced from it… he could not help but be uncertain.

He watched Frost melt back into the hallway, the darkness swallowing her back up. After all of their pining and condescending behavior, when they realized he was right, they still insisted on acting like they had been correct all along. It left a bitter taste in his mouth, slipped down his throat and churned in his stomach like acid.

But worrying wasn’t going to do much to change his situation. He’d spent much too long angsting over things. Ellis shook himself out, hoping that some of the tension would fall off him with the movement. Taking a deep breath, he followed Frost into the hallway

Almost as soon as Ellis had entered, they were out of it again. Ellis forced himself to a pause as they entered another room— the room crowded with lonely shelves and decrepit trinkets. Tierney was there, crouched to the ground near the corner, and staring at… the wall. Nothing scattered by his side that hadn’t been there before, nothing that suggested he’d been doing anything of purpose— he may as well come in here a minute ago with all that he had done.

Ellis felt the silence pressing against his chest. He had to say something. “What are you doing?”

Frost said nothing— she stood behind Ellis, in fact, him having walked ahead of her as if she were afraid of entering this room. Tierney looked up, eyeing Ellis up and down. Several notes of derision flickered in his expression. Things… hadn’t changed a bit.

Things working faster would have been appreciated. Ellis shuffled back, widening Tierney’s already generous room to stand, and waited for him to say something. And say something Tierney did. “It doesn’t matter,” he rumbled, not making eye contact for any longer.

Well. Ellis figured there should have been some sort of annoyance flickering like an ember in his chest— but there was none, really. He hadn’t the energy to spare for any more trivial arguments. Everything he held had to be focused on what really mattered— what Tierney and Frost were apparently ignoring.

Ah. There was the irritation. Ellis pressed it away in favor for a level-headed stare. “I see.”

“Mm.” Tierney turned away, turned back— and then pushed past Ellis. “Come on. Let’s not waste anymore time.”

Ellis let him by. Fabric grazed against his arm; he focused his attention on Frost’s slow, deliberate movements. “Tierney is right,” she said. “Come.”

Then she was following after him. Ellis refused to move for a moment, looking over her instead. How could she think the ridiculous plume she had on was suitable for any sort of trekking was a complete mystery to him. At best, she’d look like a fool; at worst, it would hinder their progress to the City, eating away time they could not afford to lose. What was he supposed to do, though— confront her about it, right before leaving? What would that do besides reinforce the barbed walls set up between them?

“Are you coming, Ellis?”

He started at the sound of her voice. She hadn’t turned an inch, hadn’t faltered in her step— but still she knew that he wasn’t following. He should have figured. Ellis shook his head, and then he followed her.

He didn’t bother straining his vision through the black of the corridor. Tierney’s footsteps were more than loud enough, and Frost’s weren’t quite invisible either. The fact that late morning had just broken helped plenty as well. It wasn’t like they were going to be here for very long.

“He was saying goodbye, Ellis.”

“What?”

“I didn’t stutter. He was saying goodbye to this place.”

“I heard you. But… why?

“Why wouldn’t he, Ellis? We have lived here for a very long time, and we do not know if we will ever see this place again. If you had known that what happened to you would have happened in the near future, would you have not taken your time reminiscing, and saying farewell? Would you not have said goodbye to the City?”

He wouldn’t have spent his time saying goodbye. He’d spend his time trying to find a way out of it, preventing it— something. It wasn’t like it was going to be permanent. Certainly not for Frost and Tierney. Their plan had been asinine from the start, and out of the blue for two who had so desperately clung to this place, but surely they weren’t leaving it behind forever, so uncharacteristic that would be.

The light stung Ellis’s eyes, taking him aback. He shook his head, nose and ears stinging with the forest’s chill; when he refocused Frost had turned around and fixated her eyes on him. Would she have waited for him before? Mere days ago, even? Now she was implying changes of heart about the City… or her staying there, anyway. What were they really planning on doing, getting there? After finding Sixteen and Jaden, what would they do— try and drag them back here? No— he wouldn’t allow that. Most definitely not in the place that he controlled more than here.

For what Frost had claimed about missing their home, they left it very unceremoniously. Ellis let himself take in the fresh air for a moment, a chill down his spine making his shoulders shake. This was it. Something almost tugged at him, compelling him to turn around and look at the place that he had just exited, as if the clouded, hair-cracked glass refused to let go of his reflection once and for all. He did not look back. If Frost and Tierney could handle it, then he could, as well. Sentiments and connections held toward this place were not only burdensome and impractical— they were moreover foolish.

An awkward emptiness still fell over Ellis the farther he got away. A familiarity, almost a vibration of sorts, fell away from him like a bird’s shed feathers, exposing a fragile skin underneath. He hadn’t felt this before, leaving for the first time with Sixteen and Jaden. He was also pleased to leave now, more than pleased. They had wasted much, much too long of a time there. So why had this emptiness overtaken him?

The answer was obvious. Of course it was obvious; he knew it as clear as the bright, cloudless sky overhead: it was because there hadn’t been a sense of danger looming over him and his companions as it was now. There had been a sense of urgency, of course, but that had occupied him ever since the very moment he had found this place— since before then, in fact. Ever since he had been dumped out into the Outskirts in the first place. But danger? A rising sense of impending doom? No. And that was the difference. The presence of Jaden, Sixteen, and the promise of a new start in the City had softened things and made them different. Made them better. He was afforded no such luxury here and now.

Ellis gritted his teeth, and then released a sigh. Neither of his companions seemed to notice or acknowledge it. Perhaps they did not care. Or perhaps they were simply too far away for them to hear him. He was far enough away that he wasn’t even sure they could hear him speak. Why? He didn’t quite know why.

As day ebbed into afternoon, however, he did catch up, slowly enough that he didn’t quite realize he did until Frost had stopped in front of him. And then, as if she had known all along, she asked, “In which direction did you go, Ellis?”

“E-excuse me?”

She turned around to face him, her eyes half-hooded— how tired she looked. She was probably already exhausted with him. “Your first time out here, Ellis. With Thirty-two and Sixteen. What path did you take before you were intercepted?”

How was he supposed to know that? He didn’t even recognize what ten paces outside of the building looked like. He had been following Tierney and Frost for all this time. “I… I don’t know.”

Frost shut her eyes and sighed. “I suppose that it doesn’t matter.”

Ellis watched her turn back around, something stirring in his chest. “Why did you want to know?”

She didn’t respond. Ellis couldn’t hold back a frown. “Is it because of them?” he asked. “Do you want to look for them, Frost? Even here, in the middle of the Outskirts?”

The tension in her shoulders told him all that he needed to know. The wind felt cold on his skin, suddenly. “I would be pleased to find them still out here, as well.”

“I said nothing about that, Ellis.”

“I could tell what you were thinking.”

Frost’s dainty hand curled into a fist, uncurled seconds after. She sighed again. Ellis watched her walk away from him, her weight seeming to favor her left leg over her right. He followed after her, unsure of how wide a berth to give. She’d wanted to know where Sixteen and Jaden had gone with him. She was likely just… sentimental. Though it was odd for her to carry wayward hopes, Frost wasn’t a monster. Of course she would ask if there was any chance that they were still out here. Of course she would want to make sure that there was absolutely no sliver of a chance that they could somehow, by some miracle, avoid going to the City. It was almost amusing, in a pitiful sort of way.

Frost barely said a word as they continued forth, despite the obvious discomfort ailing her. Their footsteps chased away most other noises, filling the forest with near-silence.

Time crawled. Tierney slowed down enough so that Frost was stride-in-stride with him, with her almost pressing into his side She had a bit of a slight limp now. Hopefully it wouldn’t hinder their progress too severely.

The sky was a deep, deep blue, the most saturated it could get without growing any darker with night. Ellis could feel the tell-tale heaviness beginning to pool in his legs, and then his feet. When Frost slowed, then stopped, he did the same and felt relief flood him. He risked going forward a bit, trailing closer to his pair of companions. They paid him no mind. Frost looked at him out of the corner of her eye, looked away, and then released a low, short huff of breath. “Let us rest for a while.”

Ellis blinked, his exhaustion suddenly evaporated. “Rest? The sky is still bright.”

“And you still have energy to spare?” When Ellis didn’t respond, she whispered something to Tierney, quiet enough that it wasn’t audible to him. But Tierney nodded and sat down. Frost sat down next to him.

Ellis lowered himself to the ground, as well. The silence pushed its way onto them. He shifted, struggling to find something to fill it with. “Do you all know your way back to the City?”

Tierney lifted his head, responding with a steely look. “Do you?

Ellis drove his teeth into the tip of his tongue, biting back some undesirable words. “I don’t. And I was not trying to imply that I did, nor that you all didn’t. It was a genuine question.”

“Well— I do. I do know the way to the City. Don’t worry about it.”

“I… I see.” Ellis interlaced his fingers, resting them on his lap. He furrowed his brow. “The sooner we reach the City, the better things will be. For all of us. For me and you, Frost, and Jaden and Sixteen, and—”

“We’re aware. Spare your breath, please.”

Ellis’s mouth was left hanging open. “Is it wrong to offer encouragement, Tierney?”

“It is when your decisions are was put us into this situation in the first place.”

“Please. Don’t fight.”

The tension in Tierney’s face melted away. If Frost was grateful for that, she didn’t quite show it, but her shoulders relaxed, just a bit. Leaning against Tierney’s side, she sighed and shut her eyes. Now that she wasn’t perched on her little table— now that she was on eye-level with Ellis— so looked so much smaller, almost swallowed by the heft of her crudely-stitched dress.

It was silent again. Ellis didn’t bother thinking of ways to fill it up this time. How far away were they from their little building now? How close were they to the City? Surely they couldn’t have passed where he had stopped his journey with Jaden and Sixteen yet. It had been less than a day, but it seemed like they were moving faster. Maybe the lack of conversation between the three of them just made it seem that way.

Ellis sighed, shifting again to get the blood flowing to his legs. The fatigue had caught up with him, and now his entire body felt heavy. Was it alright to rest when there was still light to be utilized? Would it be respectful, when Jaden and Sixteen were likely so stressed and confused they likely couldn’t sleep at all? But they would need him to be well-rested, so he would be capable enough to get them out of whatever situation had been forced upon them. He needed his rest, so they could have their own.

He pushed himself back, shuffling against the straw-like grass until his shoulders pressed against a tree. Frost and Tierney stayed where they were, pressed up against each other, trading murmured words with each other like they didn’t want him to hear. And they probably didn’t. But as long as whatever they were discussing didn’t hinder his progress to the City, to Jaden and Sixteen, he didn’t mind it. They could talk all they wanted about him, for all he cared.

Drawing his knee to his chest, he rested his arms on it and narrowed his eyes. His vision thinned to a sliver, and then a hair. No need to fight it, if it was going to happen.

He shut his eyes. The tree took the brunt of the breeze, and though his ears still felt numb, at least there was a way for his body to maintain the heat it had left. It made it easier to feel comfortable. It made it easier to fall asleep, despite the two pairs of eyes periodically boring into his.

~ * ~

“Ellis. Ellis. Wake up.”

He cracked his eyes open— just in time to see a silvery, sleek, half-destroyed fish drop down at his feet, nearly half the size of his forearm. Nausea immediately shot up his burning throat and he sat up, pushing back against the tree. “What—”

“Miss Frost told me to give it to you. Take it or leave it— it doesn’t matter. But you need to eat something that will keep your energy up.”

Crudely charred, some of the fish’s scales were crumbled black while the others looked as bright and lively as they had to have been when it was still in the water. A milky, bulging eye stared at him from the top of its gaping mouth. He could see its teeth. Ellis’s mouth flooded with thick, sour spit. “No,” he said. “I don’t want it.”

Tierney scoffed, like he’d known that would have been his answer all along. He crouched down and snatched it up, and then turned away. “Alright. We’re going to be moving again soon. Don’t make us have to wait for you.”

“I… I won’t.”

Tierney snorted and walked away, leaving that horrific smell behind. Ellis pushed to his feet and walked away from the sullied tree. He followed Tierney without complaint, gritting back twinges of discomfort. Tierney, of course, was as fine as ever. Ellis could almost envy him. He would have, probably, if he didn’t know that the whole reason that he was accustomed to it in the first place was because he’d spent such a long time in the Outskirts. He’d take suffering out in this place because of inexperience over being here for years any time of day. Anyone who had known the City would.

The sky was beginning to darken. They would have a few hours to cross more ground, if they were lucky. How cold would it be getting tonight? Already the chill was like a sharp thorn in Ellis’s side.

He cleared his throat, flicked an awry bug buzzing by his eye away. “Where’s Frost?”

He did. Tierney shot Ellis what could be called a half-hearted glance. “She’s behind that bush we’re walking toward. She’ll probably be about ready to get up now.”

“Ah.” Ellis slowed, watching Tierney round the bush, a surprisingly leafy thing for the current weather. He muttered a few words— crouched and disappeared behind the brush— and then reappeared with Frost, his hand wrapped tightly around her wrist. She pulled away when she was done, brushed her face, and then her matted hair, then her dress. How did she find it within her to care so badly for her appearance after so long?

He shook the thoughts away. Just in time as well, because it seemed like his companions were ready. Frost looked at him, glanced him over, and then finally turned away. “Come. We mustn’t waste anymore time.”

Tierney pinpointed something hiding in the trees, eyes glinting in the warming light. “Come on,” he said. “I can feel something along the wind. I don’t want to stay here for much longer.”

“What? Feel what?”

Tierney ignored him. He whispered something to Frost— she nodded, eyes downcast— and then started away. Frost turned her attentions to Ellis. Her jaw clenched, went loose. “There is no need for you to worry about it,” she said. “Let’s focus on one step at a time, shall we? The more progress we make today, the less we will be forced to witness tomorrow.”

Well— she wasn’t wrong about that. But still. Still. “I would like to know, Frost. I would really appreciate if unnecessary secrets weren’t held from me.”

“It isn’t unnecessary.”

“Then what is it, then?”

Frost diverted her eyes and pressed her lips into a line. Ellis sighed. He needed some water, and some food. And some proper sleep. “When we reach the City,” he said, “there isn’t going to be a way you can get by without divulging at least some things to the officials. You will have to tell them at least a few things about this place. About your experiences here, and—”

“I will not.”

There was that familiar sharpness again, showing itself. Ellis had seen it coming, but her softer tone had taken him off guard enough that it still made him flinch. He cleared his throat, staving the burn in his throat away long enough to speak. “Why not, Frost?”

“I do not owe the City any explanation. I do not owe you an explanation, Ellis— and you are not going to be able to force one from me, despite your efforts. You say that you are not connected to the people from your home for any longer. Why do you act like you are, then? Do you not think that they’re forcing Thirty-two and Sixteen the same questions that you ask me? That you asked all of us, in the first weeks that you arrived?”

Ellis bit his inner lip, tasting dust and dried blood. “I don’t mean to force things upon you, Frost. Questions or otherwise. But I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t curious. Curious to know about your lives, your past. For how long I’ve been with you— for how much I’ve gone through with you— I still feel like I feel very little about you. You and Tierney in particular.”

Frost didn’t say anything, but she looked at him out of her peripheral. After everything, would a speech be what finally pushed her to the edge? “I want to know,” he continued, hurriedly enough that he could almost seem desperate. “I want to understand you better. Now more than ever. We’re going to the City, Frost. It’s an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. We’re returning to my home, and I am certain that it used to be yours. Why would it be so terrible to learn about you now?”

“Our sufferings aren’t meant for your entertainment.”

Ellis’s face dropped before he could hold it back. “I don’t mean for it to be entertainment,” he said. “I want to understand you all. I want to help you all. That’s all I want. That is why I am still here. That is why I led Jaden and Sixteen away. To help them, and you.”

“I don’t believe it worked out very well.” Frost picked at a caked pat of dirt on her dress, her fingers shaking like claws. “Not for them, not for any of us. Not even you. If your help was wanted, why were you thrown out of the City? If your help worked so well, why were you banished from your job where your goal was helping? Your work clearly wasn’t very appreciated where it was needed originally— so then why?”

Ellis clenched his fists, then his jaw. “They said that I was… a tyrant.” Bitterness stung at his already raw throat. “But that’s not what I wanted to be— what I intended to be. I wanted to help. And I still do now. But to do that, I must know about what or who it is I am assisting.”

”Please, Ellis.”

The words sounded like they should have been derogatory, but Frost’s voice held no ire— just a low, heavy exhaustion. She continued walking. Ellis watched her, words of his own making his own jaw shift with anticipation. He repressed it. If she didn’t want to speak, then he had to respect that. Whether he wanted to or not.

So they continued on, the strained silence between them only making the chilly weather even chillier. Their shadows stretched like holes over the ground as the sun drifted ever closer to the horizon. In just a few hours, it would be difficult to see through the darkness and tangled foliage. They would have to sit down and rest again, despite just waking up. Perhaps that wasn’t too terrible of a thing— Ellis was still feeling exhausted. His mouth felt parched, his stomach gnawed open, even after several sips from the ice-cold stream. His eyelids still drooped and his limbs still felt heavy as stones. And there was always the fact that running around in the dark was dangerous. If settling down yet again meant that they could preserve their safety and their dignity, then—

“Wait.”

Ellis dug his heels into the dirt. Frost stopped, too, just a few feet ahead of him. She hesitated, hand in the air, before she took a few more steps forward. “What is it?”

Ellis crept forward, holding his breath despite having nearly lost it. “Oh,” he whispered.

Tierney kicked Jaden’s discarded clothing and material, nudging them to the side. “We’re going in the right direction, then?”

Frost’s fingers twitched and trembled. “Yes,” she said. “I suppose we are.”

The hungry emptiness in Ellis’s stomach swelled to full-on nausea. He approached the tangled bundle and crouched down, lifting each individual thing into his arms.

“What are you doing, Ellis?”

“They may still want these. I want to bring them back to them, upon reaching the City.” He tried not to shiver at Tierney’s eyes burning into his back. To think, he’d almost forgotten that Jaden had been carrying these. The lantern, the clothes— the book. Of course she’d taken the book. Were the people in the City being decent enough to allow her books to read? Why was he questioning the decency he’d known and experienced for years?

“No. We need to focus on reaching them, not picking up their forgotten little trinkets.”

Ellis’s face felt hot. He stood, stuff in arm, and turned to face Tierney and Frost. They both wore severe looks, but he didn’t step back. “I think I should take them with me,” he said. “For them.”

“It’s going to be nothing but a hindering of our progress.”

“It will be alright, Tierney.” Frost touched her fingers to her eyelids, rubbing circles into them. She looked exhausted. Sounded it, too, the weight of the day evident in her murmurs. “Let us keep going. There is no need to argue. We do not want to have to stay in this area for any longer than we have to. We need to continue making progress— carrying things or not.”

Tierney stiffened, raising his head as if tasting the air. “You’re right,” he finally said in a rigid voice. “We don’t want to waste out time here. Or put ourselves at risk.”

Ellis looked between them. “Put ourselves at risk… for what?” Were they talking about the Seeker birds? It was a valid worry, considering all that had happened, but if the City had been planning on sending more out, they would have done so already. Surely Frost and Tierney knew that.

Tierney glared at him, fleetingly. “Just know that it’s probably not too safe to stay in here for any longer than we need to.”

“But why is it unsafe? What is it nearby that makes it unsafe for us to stay here?”

“That isn’t—”

“There are some things in this area we would rather not encounter,” Frost cut in, ignoring the look Tierney gave her. “It is best left at that, Ellis.”

Things they would rather not encounter? Such as what? Objects, phenomena? Other people, even? Ellis shivered, the burden of ignorance weighing him down. But Frost’s face was guarded, shielding herself from anymore questions, and it looked like Tierney’s minute patience was dribbling away bit by bit with every passing moment. Well… the answer he had gotten was better than nothing at all. And they really did have to get moving again.

Ellis forced himself to concede, shoving his curiosity to the side. “Very well.”

Frost only nodded while Tierney didn’t do very much more than glare, though the expression quickly grew weak. As if one body they turned away from him, resuming their trek through the forest. Time passed, and Frost moved to walk next to Ellis. She didn’t say a word. How cruel it was to leave him to steep in his thoughts alone.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Eighty-One

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

The City. The City. Even after having all the time he needed to register it, it still hadn’t sunk in yet. It was like something was stopping his brain from absorbing the information— to protect him or to infuriate him, he didn’t really know. But… if he was going to have to face it no matter what he did or said, what was hiding from it going to do?

In the dark sliver between his squinted eyelids, he could still see the forest shivering outside the window, leaves lining the ground like the threadbare quilt draped over his shoulders. He still felt cold, even inside. Outside was probably even colder. Was he really expected to walk through those chilly temperatures all the way to the City, with his clothing barely fitting any sort of weather as it was?

Peyton tossed the blanket over his head and closed his eyes completely. He dropped back onto his haunches, his knees digging into the hardwood as he propped his elbows up on the windowsill. Things were going too fast; the room spun maliciously around him even with his vision shrouded in black.

He opened his eyes. With his surroundings to ground him, the spinning and warping stopped just a little bit. It didn’t do very much for the raging storm in his mind at all. The City. It burned holes into his thoughts and tasted like acid on his tongue. Did he want to go? Did he want to stay here, spending the rest of his life in a dilapidated house with people who didn’t like him, or leave for a place that didn’t want him?

The trees outside hadn’t reacted well to the sudden chill. Their bark looked duller, rougher, and many of the leaves had turned yellow and dropped off the branches. It made it easier to see through them. If he squinted hard enough, he could see the silver line cutting through the sea of oranges and browns. The river. And if he squinted really, really hard, he could almost see the rope swing dangling off of that half-dead tree. The rope swing where he, Avery, and Blake had played, once.

Hopefully they had found their way back. Back to the City, back to the Clink— anywhere was safe as long as they weren’t around him. Hopefully they were safe and sound, in a place where they would never have to think of him ever again. Had they gone down to the Clink? If they had, and they were in Sector One— had they talked about him? What did they think of him?

He shook his head. No… he didn’t want to think about that. He couldn’t think about that. He had other, more important things to think about before the official meeting, or whatever it was. Like just what he was supposed to do.

Was he supposed to stay, or was he supposed to leave? It really came down to those two options in the end… even though there were options within those options. He could stay— stay in the Outskirts, whether it was in this house or out in the forest. He could leave. Try and reenter the City with the others, or maybe even go down to the Clink— though why would he want to do that? And what would he do if he got back in the City? Try to pretend that nothing had ever happened in the Academy? If he didn’t get chased after again, that would really be his only option. Going back to Silverhill to live with Mother and Father and Miss Campbell again was nothing more than a stupid pipe dream. They probably wouldn’t even want him back there anymore.

Peyton rested his chin on his arms. A lot of the people here made him uncomfortable. Maybe they would decide to stay. Then he’d have to leave. But then Rowan was definitely leaving. He’d have to stay, then— and if Fifty-one or Charlie or whatever her name was ended up leaving too, then that would be even better. But… what if Nikita decided to leave? She probably wanted to. What would he do then? Leave with her, or let her leave him behind?

Peyton groaned. He pushed down on the windowsill, struggling to get to his feet. His legs had fallen asleep, after sitting on them for so long. Shaking each one out individually, then stretching his arms until the elbows popped, he turned around to stare at the door. He’d shut it completely when he came in. Nobody had barged through it yet, eager to ruin his thoughts. Not Taylor, not Nikita, not anybody else. It looked like everyone had finally decided to leave him alone. That, or they were just too busy to pay him any mind. Either option was alright with him. The relief wasn’t going to be well-lived, though. He had to go downstairs and listen to the others talk.

He turned to look at the door again. Still closed. The only sounds he could hear were the sounds below him, on the first floor. They were probably setting up already. He just had to go in, listen to Rowan’s demanding speech and Taylor’s worried prattling, maybe speak a little if he absolutely had to, and then leave. Come back up here, where everything would hopefully be relatively alright. It… it sounded easy, in concept. The only thing that would be able to tell him for certain how it would go would just be to go and get it over with now. As soon as possible. Then he could come up here and sleep. Close the door, so if Nikita came in the hinges would squeak and he’d wake up, so he’d be able to put his guard up faster.

Peyton clenched the blanket tighter around his shoulders, feeling it tug around the back of his neck like a rubber band. The scratchy fabric itched at his dry and sensitive skin, turning it all pink. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, unclenched his hands, and allowed the sheet to fall to the ground like a shed skin.

Goosebumps instantly rose to life on his skin. The room was a lot colder than he’d thought it was. Maybe he could just toss the blanket over his head again and go downstairs like that. If Blake and Avery were here, they would probably think that it was funny. Maybe even cool. They’d do it the next time they came downstairs, too. But— if it hadn’t been for everything that he’d done— if they hadn’t been forced to leave— then would they even be having this meeting in the first place? Probably not. He just messed up everything.

A choked laugh crawled out of Peyton. He kicked the blanket from around his heels, pushing it aside. Then he tiptoed to the door. He curled his fingers around the knob and twisted it, pulling the door open. It squeaked and he stopped— then he started again. Maybe he could open the door all the way near silently, walk through the hallway and down the stairs near silently. Heck, maybe if he was lucky enough, then he could even reach the kitchen without making a sound, sit there as the others spoke, and—

Fingers shot in between the gap and curled around the door. Peyton let go of the knob like it had suddenly had a fire lit underneath it. Staggering back, he watched as the hand pushed the door open, the hinges screaming in agony all the way— and then it was open enough to reveal Nikita standing at the other side. She observed the room, silently: first at Peyton’s stripped bed, and then at the blanket thrown forgotten on the floor— and then, finally, at him. She smiled. “I was just coming to get you. Glad to see you got up on your own.”

Peyton didn’t say anything. His jaw felt heavy, like his mouth had been stuffed with rocks. Nikita’s smile looked like that. Looked like it was strained, the tips of her lips twitching. She probably wasn’t really happy to see him. Should he have been sad about that? Or happy? He didn’t really know.

“Peyton?”

Peyton ripped himself out of his thoughts, looking back up into Nikita’s face, she was still smiling that strained, rocky little smile, but her eyes still showed that soft little bit of concern. Concern for him. “Is everything alright?” she asked. “We should get downstairs, now. Everyone else is there.”

One of her hands reached out to touch him. Peyton shrank away at the last moment, crossing his arms over his chest. “I— um, it’s okay. Don’t worry. I’m gonna… go.”

Nikita’s hand wavered in the air. “Oh. Well, that’s good.”

“Y-yeah.” Peyton squirmed around her, drifting into the hallway. “‘Scuse me.”

Nikita’s warmth passed by his side as he walked out. He tried his best to ignore it. That was easier said than done. Especially when she started walking behind him. He could almost feel her breath along the backs of his ears and the nape of his neck, exactly the way it always felt whenever he crawled into her bed in the middle of the night— or whenever she crawled into his. It made him feel weird. He didn’t want to go downstairs to meet the others feeling like this. He swallowed down his discomfort, thinking of something— anything— to say that would fill in the tension. “I— um— do you—”

“What’s the matter, Peyton?”

He stopped and turned around. Nikita had stopped, too. Her eyes looked him over, and then searched his own. She wasn’t smiling. Not even in her eyes. Was she… concerned? No— she didn’t look concerned, either. Just blank. Like someone who’d never spent time with her had decided to draw her, and slip the paper over her face. “You don’t look so good,” she said. “Is everything okay?”

She stepped forward and lifted a hand to his forehead. Peyton shuffled back. His throat burned. “I’m… I’m fine. I’m not feeling sick. I’m— I’m just…”

“Worried? About the meeting?”

“Y-yeah. That’s… that’s it.” He turned back around, clutching his arms harder. “I’m just nervous. That’s all it is.”

“I understand.” Her footsteps creaked against the floor, and her heat got hotter and hotter. Almost unbearably hot. “But it’s only for a short while. If you’re uncomfortable about it, then you can stay up here. I’ll tell the others you weren’t feeling well.”

“N-no!”

“No?”

He shook his head, so hard that his vision spun. “N-no. I mean— no. You… you don’t have to do that. I’ll just… I’ll go downstairs by myself. I have to go. I t-told myself that I would, so I have to. Even if it makes me uncomfortable.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I have to… I have to decide whether or not I’m gonna go back to the City by myself. I have to.”

“You know about that already, Peyton? The whole City thing?”

“I… um. Yes. I— I do.”

“Oh.”

Nikita sounded… almost surprised. Of course she did. She and Rowan and all the others had kept him in the dark this whole time, despite having meetings for themselves. The meeting was supposed to be a surprise, or something. They probably thought that he was too much of a kid to attend them. He only knew because he’d been chased upstairs by that woman.

But now he had to go to this one, barely no information under his belt, and decide what he wanted to do. In such a short amount of time. Why would they do that to him? Had they just assumed that someone else would make the choice for him? They probably did. He wasn’t sure what to think about that… but it didn’t sound fair.

The silence was beginning to become suffocating, again. Peyton shook his head, biting his inner lip. “I mean… yeah. I did know,” he said, just to bring some noise, something in between him and Nikita. “I don’t really know a lot, though. So— so sorry if you wanted to learn more, or something. It was just some bits here and there, and stuff.”

“Who told you about it, Peyton?”

“N-nobody did. I just… I just found out on my own, I guess.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Hm.” Nikita trailed off. Peyton could almost see her pursing her lips, suspiciously. She couldn’t say anything more. She couldn’t question him any more— she couldn’t. If she questioned him any more then he would have to tell her the truth and he just wanted to keep something to himself for once. She’d probably get mad if she knew what had really happened, anyway. She’d go right up to Charlie and start a scene. And he really, really didn’t want a scene.

He brushed his overgrown hair out of his face, lightly clearing his throat. “Um— I think we should go downstairs. Right? Everyone’s probably waiting for us, right? We don’t want to keep them waiting, or anything.”

“You’re right.”

A hand dropped on his shoulder and he flinched, but he didn’t try to push it away. It was okay, though. Nikita lifted it away just a couple of seconds later. She took the lead, and Peyton followed her.

She wouldn’t look back at him, like she usually would. Peyton tapped his overgrown fingernails on his arm, feeling the pricks of crescent moons on his sensitive skin. “They are all down there. Aren’t they?”

“They are.” She didn’t look over her shoulder. “Why? Are you still nervous? I said—”

“N-no. I’m not nervous. I mean… not really.” He shrugged. “But…. can I ask you something?”

She reached the top of the staircase, still not looking back. “What’s the matter?”

“W-well… you see…” he fiddled with his fingers, his throat closing up. “You… you know— you remember how everybody was mad at us before, right? T-Taylor, and everybody else?”

A bout of silence. “Yes,” Nikita said. “I remember. Why?”

“W-well, um— why… why aren’t they mad at us anymore?”

Nikita’s voice dipped into a whisper. “They are, Peyton. They’ve just been distracted with everything that’s been going on.”

“O-oh.”

Nikita finally looked over her shoulder. “It’ll be alright. They won’t hurt us. They may not be happy with us— but they still respect us. Just remember that. Don’t be afraid to hold your ground if somebody challenges you.”

Easier said than done. Peyton nodded anyway, injecting what hopefully sounded like confidence into his voice. “Okay. Okay. I… I won’t.”

Nikita’s smile melted away. She turned back to the stairs, and began to descend them, step by squeaky step. Down the stairs, only just audible now that Peyton was actually listening, voices echoed and bounced off the walls. He couldn’t hear who they were specifically, quiet as they were— or perhaps he just didn’t want to. Neither option was any better or worse than the other. He’d be finding out who exactly was speaking in the matter of a minute whether he wanted to or not.

He followed Nikita onto the staircase. The muttered speeches from below ceased. Why had they stopped? Was it because they’d heard him coming? That… that had to be it. Maybe they were eager to see him finally come down— eager to start the meeting; the sooner they began, the sooner they could get it over with. Or maybe they were sitting, tensely, waiting to see just what condition he was in. Or maybe they just quieted down because they’d heard the creaky stairs. That… that was possible, too.

Peyton swallowed. He started down after Nikita, holding his breath as the first floor slowly, gradually came into sight. The kitchen table was… filled. Almost filled. Save for four seats. Two of those were for Nikita and him, of course, but the other two…

He shook the thought away. There were more important things to be worrying about. Like how Rowan seemed to be glaring at him, or Nikita— or maybe both of them. Like how Taylor’s hands were wrung worriedly at her chest, embers flickering in her eyes as they focused in on Nikita. Or Randi and her friend— was he supposed to call her Charlie? Or Fifty-one, like Randi called her? He didn’t even have an idea. If he ended up having to speak to her during this meeting— or ever again, really— then… then he didn’t know what he would say or do. Probably just make a fool out of himself like he always did.

The stairs ended much too soon. Peyton’s foot hit the kitchen floor with a reluctant creak, sending tingles up his trembling legs. Nikita walked straight over to the table. Sat straight down. Only three seats were open to Peyton, now. One next to Nikita. The other two at the opposite side of the table, comfy next to each other— save for the fact that Rowan and Umber flanked them. Peyton stood there for much too long, choking in the tension spun like a tugged web between everyone in the room. Then, ducking his head, he hurried over to the seat next to Nikita, and lowered himself into it. “S-sorry.”

He received no response. The silence curled around him, bringing tears to his eyes— then Jules coughed into his fist, breaking it. “Well, then,” he began. “Rowan?”

Rowan sighed. He sat up, then stood completely, resting his calloused fingers on the tabletop “I’m sure that the majority of you all know what we’re here to discuss today,” he said.

Twin coals burned into Peyton’s forehead. He looked down, biting his lip. Out of the corner of his right eye, he could see Taylor’s gaze flicker over to Randi, and then her friend. Did they know? Maybe Randi didn’t. She was just a little older than him, after all. Maybe the others didn’t think that she was ready to hear when they’d had that first meeting, either. But now she was here.

The silence went on for too long. Peyton had just lost the fortitude to not squirm when Taylor finally— finally— spoke, not without reluctance. “We do.”

Two words. That was it?

Then Rowan cleared his throat. “For those who may be… less aware,” he started, “we are intending on returning to the City. Within the next few days. Yes, it is sudden, but it is vital.”

Peyton bit the tip of his tongue, bouncing his leg. Why? Why was it so sudden? Couldn’t he say that? Tell him why? All of them why? Or was he just going to keep them in the dark? He darted his eyes around. Everybody looked— blank. Just waiting for Rowan to speak some more. Peyton supposed it would be best for him to wait, too.

He didn’t have to wait very long. Rowan’s voice grew lower and gruffer as he spoke again. “As I’m sure you all are aware, this isn’t something that we can think over for a long time. It is very urgent. There is not much time to think over it all, much less time to do that when we need to pack, plan, and start before the weather has a chance to get any cooler.”

Peyton kept on squirming. He couldn’t take it anymore. Raising a sweat-damped, shaking hand, he made a noise in his throat to get the other’s attention. “But— wh-what— why are we… what’re we going there for? What’s the meeting for?”

Rowan turned his attention to his. “It’s simple, Peyton,” he said. “Do you want to go with us or not?”

“I… w-well… I don’t— I’m not sure if—”

“He’ll be fine coming with us, Rowan. Add us to your list.”

Peyton’s vision went white. Nikita wanted to go. She wanted to go— and she thought she could drag him along with her?

“I’m sure Peyton can decide that for himself, Nikita. Can’t he?”

Taylor’s voice pierced through him, breaking the immobilizing spell. His jaw went slack and he turned to look at her. She wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes were trained on Nikita, hard and unyielding. But Nikita looked unbothered. She looked down at her dirtied shirt, rubbing her knuckles on it like she’d gotten mud on them. “It was just a suggestion,” she said. “I’m sure he wouldn’t want to be here all by himself. Why wouldn’t he want to come with us? What has he got to lose?”

“Even if that’s all true, he can still decide on his own.”

Peyton’s face grew hotter and hotter with every word traded, only worsened by the tension between them. If only the heat could make him melt away, make him disappear. Why had he thought coming down here was a good idea? Why had he decided to speak? If he hadn’t then maybe Nikita wouldn’t have jumped in for his hesitation. Then Taylor wouldn’t have challenged here. Then everyone else wouldn’t be staring at him with a spine-raking look of annoyance and pity. He wouldn’t be sitting here, simmering in the boiling heat of a dozen eyes and the pressure of an argument.

But that pressure was slowly lifting away. Taylor’s gaze still burned hard into Peyton, even when she wasn’t looking at him— but she said no more words, no more challenges directed toward Nikita or to Rowan or to anyone else. And Nikita didn’t say anything, either. It didn’t look like she wanted to say anything at all. She probably hadn’t even wanted to. Eyes half-lidded, she placed her hand back onto the table and slouched her back slightly, like she was in the middle of a causal talk instead of an important discussion. Her eyes bounced from Taylor to Rowan, to Randi, to Jules— to everyone but him. Why wouldn’t she look at him?

Taylor’s angry look melted into an only slightly peeved expression. She looked at Peyton, the dull glare in her eyes softening. “What do you want to do, Peyton?” she asked.

“I— I don’t… I don’t— I don’t kn-know yet.”

The soft look in Taylor’s eyes fell away. Peyton looked down at his twitching fingers, a sniffle building up in his nose. Maybe there was still time to rush upstairs.

Rowan raised a hand, waving his thoughts away. “It’ll be alright,” he said. “This is why were speaking about this right now.”

That did nothing to make him feel better. He lifted his head again. “But… but— why are we going back to the City? I don’t— I don’t understand why we need to go back.”

Rowan’s face went dark. “For… reasons,” he said. “None that quite concern you, directly. Which is why you can stay, if you wish.”

Peyton tapped his fingers on the table, biting his lip. He didn’t know what to do, and he said that, voice wavering. “I’m… well— I don’t know what I want to do. I mean— at least, not yet.”

Nikita looked at him from his side, and goosebumps darted down his spine. He closed his eyes, clenching his hands. Rowan’s voice broke through the darkness. “Well. You don’t have much time to decide. We’ll be leaving soon— within a few days. We need to pack, and get out of here before the frost comes along.”

Peyton’s mouth felt stuffed with cotton. He nodded. But as the conversation continued to ebb and flow— as the others asked questions, and make their own aside comments, some more snide than others— Peyton’s mind refused to stop screaming. Nikita’s words just kept on repeating and repeating in his ears, refusing to let go and leave him be. Not even Charlie’s low, quiet tones or Rowan’s brusque interjections could chase Nikita’s voice away.

She was planning on leaving. After she’d told him that they couldn’t go back to the City, after they’d left the Clink. And she wanted to drag him along with her. When she’d barely talked to him— when he didn’t even really know what was going on. Had she thought he would want to go? Or had she just assumed that he wanted to— that he would want to go along with whatever she was doing?

Screech of wood against wood. Peyton jumped. His vision refocused from its red haze just in time to see Jules rise from his seat. A pleasant look rested on his face, but he gave Peyton a too-long glance that shifted toward Nikita as he walked away. The door to outside creaked. Peyton flinched, flinched again as more seats pushed back from the table. What was— what was going on? Was the meeting over already? But—

“Peyton?”

He shot his head up. Nikita blinked down at him, raising an eyebrow. “Come on,” she said. “Meeting’s been adjourned. Hey— are you alright?”

Rowan and Taylor looked over to him, sending fire to his already burning face. He shot up— chair clattering to the floor— and whipped to the stairs, his feet working faster than the rest of his body. He stumbled up the first five stairs and sprinted up the rest, leaving splintered wood and indignant voices behind. He dove into his room, slammed the door behind him, almost slipped running over the discarded blanket, and flopped onto his bed.

The door opened less than half a minute later. Nikita stood in the threshold, half coated in the room’s light and half obscured by the hallway’s shadow. She walked in, shut the door behind her— why did she always have to close the door when she came inside?— and sat down heavily next to Peyton. “What was that?

She was so blunt about it. She was so blunt about everything. Peyton almost wanted to laugh in her face. What did come out of his mouth was an upset, strained shrill. “What was what? What are you yelling at me for?”

Nikita flinched, her half-raised hand dancing in the air. “I didn’t mean— Peyton, I’m not yelling at you. At least, I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry I came off that way.” She lowered her hand. “What I meant was— why did you run away from me like that? Why do you seem so upset? What’s the matter?”

“You— y-you told them that I wanted to go to the City with you!”

Nikita searched his face. Genuine confusion swam in her eyes, almost making her look delirious. “Yes— and? I thought you would want to. You don’t want to go back to the City, Peyton?”

He scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “I— I don’t know. I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t know if I want to go to the City or not. But— Taylor was right. I should be able to decide on my own. You shouldn’t have to decide for me. I want to think for myself and decide what I want to do on my own!”

Peyton squeezed his eyes shut, heaving his anger away. He felt slow and drained. He could hear Nikita open her mouth next to him. “I’m… sorry, Peyton,” she said. “I was just trying to help— honest. I didn’t know how much deciding for yourself meant to you.”

Well— it did mean a lot. It meant a whole lot. Maybe he didn’t know fully why, but it did. It did mean a lot and the fact that she had been so willing to just toss that away made him hurt. But… he had to be bigger than this. She’d apologized, hadn’t she? She’d been just trying to help. He had to forgive her.

Rubbing his eyes again, he gulped down several unsavory words and nodded instead. “D-don’t worry. I forgive you. And— and I’m sorry I yelled at you, too.”

“It’s alright.”

Peyton opened his eyes. He looked up at Nikita, sniffled, and looked back down. “Why… why did you think I wanted to go back, though? I thought you said we couldn’t go back.”

Nikita remained silent for a minute. “I did,” she said at last. “But there’s power in numbers. And there’s definitely power in Rowan’s, Jules’s, and Umber’s history. If they can vouch for us, then I think we have a good chance of having our own happy ending there. Don’t you?”

Happy ending. Those words tasted so bitter on his tongue, after everything else that had happened. He clenched his jaw and shook his head, curling his fingers up. “I— I… I don’t know.”

“You need to stop being so pessimistic, Peyton.” Nikita’s hand rested on his. “Do you really want to spend the rest of your life out here? In the middle of nowhere— no goals to reach besides keeping yourself alive?”

“W-well… I—”

“And who will you stay with, Peyton? Do you want me to stay with you while the others leave us behind? Stay alone together in this house forever? Because I don’t think anyone else is planning on staying— except maybe for that newcomer. The older one of the two.”

The blood rushed out of his face, leaving him light-headed. “You mean… you mean— Ch-Charlie? Or Fifty-one or whatever?”

“Is that her name? Well, then. Yes. I think she’s planning on staying. Do you really want to stay with her? Who knows what she could end up doing to you?”

His mouth felt dry, and his palms felt damp. “I… I don’t know. I guess she could— end up doing b-bad things.”

“Exactly.” She pressed down on his hand even harder. “I thought I was doing what was best for you, Peyton. I know that you wouldn’t want to be alone with her. I thought I was helping, saying that you’d want to come with me. You understand, don’t you?”

“Y-yeah. I understand.”

“Mm-hmm.” She let go of his hand, putting hers back into her lap. She examined him, eyes burning into his cheek like salt in an open wound. “Well? What do you say?”

“About… what?”

“About going to the City, of course.”

“I… I don’t know.”

Nikita pursed her lips. “We’re going to be leaving in a few days,” she said. “Most everyone else is certain that they’re leaving with Rowan. You’re going to have to decide soon.”

“I know.”

She let out a breathy chuckle. “Don’t worry. There’s no pressure. Just make your choice sooner than later.”

“O-okay.”

Nikita shifted, fabric on fabric filling in the silence. She touched his hand— and then her fingers slipped down, resting at the juncture between his hip and waist. Peyton’s shuffled away, squeezing his hands together so hard that his fingertips bleached white, then red. “I… I think I’m tired,” he said. “I need to take a nap. And… and t-take time to think. About the City.”

“Oh. I see.” She pulled away, and then stood. The floorboards creaked as she walked to the door— then she stopped, turned around, and picked up Peyton’s discarded blanket. She held it out to him. “Here you go.”

Peyton reached out to take it. Their fingertips brushed against each other and sent fire down his shoulder. He swallowed down the pain and smiled up at her. “Th-thanks. I’ll… talk to you later.”

Nikita only nodded. She turned around, went to the door, and then left for real. Peyton pushed himself onto the bed, pulling his knees up to his chest. Then he pulled the blanket over his shoulders, around his head. He was cold— a lot colder than he should have been this time of day.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Eighty

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

What Randi would’ve done for a book. This house had to be one of the most mind-numbing things currently residing in the Outskirts— and that really said something, considering the endless and monotonous forest that dominated the rest of the place. It did make a little sense, why this place felt so boring compared to her time spent out in the wide open. She’d been fighting out there. Fighting to survive. Fighting to keep her sanity when her only companions were an enigmatic woman hiding some dark, disgusting secrets, and her own ceaseless thoughts about Blake and Avery, about the City, about everything.

Here, she had an actual bed— though it wasn’t a very comfortable one— a relatively steady supply of filling food and fresh water, and the knowledge that there was a roof over her head that would probably still be there when she woke up in the morning. It almost made travelling aimlessly through the forest seem… alluring. If only because trekking through the thicket and looking for food constantly managed to her mind off the worst of her thoughts, for the most part. It had kept her from ruminating.

In this house, though, there wasn’t much of an opportunity not to ruminate. Maybe things would get better as she physically recovered and was given some tasks to do around the place. Now that they were in the deep of autumn, with winter threatening its perpetual chill just around the corner, they’d have to do a lot of stuff involving the preservation and storing of food, if the mutterings she’d heard around Taylor and Jules were anything were worth listening to— and they had to be at least a little more valid than Rowan’s annoyed, gruff rantings. She wouldn’t mind doing preservation work. She wouldn’t even mind harvesting the last few crops. A little dirt under the fingernails was nothing compared to some of the stuff she’d been through— literally. She could handle it. Just as long as she had nothing to do with the rabbits. Nothing to do with caring for them in that little hutch of theirs, all the way up to the… final stages. None of it.

What was she supposed to do before then, in that case? She could worry about that later, but for now she was stuck here. Taylor had insisted that both she and Fifty-one rest for as long as they needed before they were expected to do any sort of house work, and while Randi was nowhere as needing of rest as Fifty-one was, she wasn’t going to turn down laying around in a soft, temperature-controlled room either. Even if she felt a little bit guilty about it. Even though she shouldn’t have. She deserved the rest. She deserved it for the fiasco after fiasco she’d suffered since the new year at the Academy had started. Already with the proper rest and decent food, she could feel her body resetting itself, the months-old knots in her back melting away along with the dizziness she got whenever she stood. She could almost not feel her rib cage anymore, grazing her hand over her torso. Finally, she was getting a chance to recover after everything she’d sacrificed and undergone.

Her deserving it didn’t stave away the mental boredom, though. Not when there wasn’t much to do in this house. There probably were a few books, given Rowan’s, Jules’s, and Umber’s… history, but she’d never asked, and she doubted they’d have anything she would really enjoy reading, either. Nor anyone she would really enjoy carrying a conversation with.

Well. Randi stretched her hands over her head, flopping onto the squishy mattress. She had to do something besides sleeping all day. As exhausted as she’d been trudging through the Outskirts for days, weeks and months on end, it hadn’t taken much sleep and downtime to be up to… as full strength as one could be in this place. She could… get up. Leave the room. Maybe go outside, breathe in the fresh air instead of the recycled breaths she’d been inhaling for the past few hours. See if anyone wanted to talk or make her do something, and then maybe take a bath in the freezing river. As much as she didn’t want to, her skin was beginning to sprout an impressive rind that just screamed for the touch of running water.

She squirmed her way off the bed; the balls of her feet tingled as they hit the wooden, straw-coated floor. Forcing herself to stand, she stretched one last time, standing on her tiptoes The house was quiet, only a few sounds here and there carrying loud enough to get through the sealed door. Was it usually this quiet? One would think that a house like this, with a bunch of people living in it and doing a bunch of things, would make more noises than the creaks of the structure settling. Had it always been this quiet… or had her and Fifty-one’s arrival sobered everyone up? Or maybe Blake’s and Avery’s departure?

Randi pushed the thoughts aside. She opened the door, ignoring how cold the knob felt underneath her fingers, and peered into the hallway. Empty, for the most part. It seemed like something was going on in the kitchen, though. Maybe someone was in there. She shook out her hands, clenched and unclenched them in an attempt to loosen them up. Then, steadying herself, she took in a deep breath and walked out the room.

Her feet made a lot of noise on the ground. Back in her house in the district, which had been mostly wooden-based too, had it ever squeaked this much? Of course it hadn’t— the houses in the City had better protection and maintenance than this place. She’d never seen moss or lichen growing on the walls— both outside and in— while in the City. She’d never had to deal with the ever-present musty smell, either. Just another thing that she missed. Another thing that she wanted to go back to. With the way things were developing, though, would she ever get a chance to go back? Did she even really want to go back?

She walked into the kitchen. Sure enough, near the far end of the table, facing away from her, Jules was occupying himself with… something. It looked like he was cutting something, by the silvery glint that struck against the wall every couple of seconds. What exactly he was cutting… Randi wasn’t sure if she wanted to know that.

Whatever he was doing, she would leave him to it. What kind of help would she be in the kitchen, especially since Jules didn’t look like he needed help? Not that she really wanted to help. She wanted a breath fresh air.

Tiptoeing past Jules and the table, Randi approached the door. It was slightly ajar. The forest’s gray mid-afternoon light beckoned her through the crack, and she accepted it, stepping out into the open.

The chill immediately enveloped her, forcing a shiver out from her body. Wrapping her arms around herself, she moved away from the house and looked around. There were… trees. Lots and lots of trees. Most of them outside the arbitrary ending to the house’s property, of course. None of them looked particularly interesting or significant.

At least the air felt nice. She could do something like bathe now, since she was finally outside of the house. The distance between the river and the house didn’t seem insignificant, though. Maybe she’d be better off telling someone where she’d be going, rather than just disappearing off on her own. Who knew what would end up happening to her if she somehow got lost.

Slowly, she turned around— and then instinctively flinched back as she saw the pale, waifish figure of Fifty-one leaning against the house’s tangle of rotting wood and twisted vine. Eyes shut so that Randi could see the purple veins pulsing behind the skin, she had her hands rested on her knees and her chin rested on her hand. She barely moved at all, almost like a life-sized land ornament of sorts. Randi stuffed her hands into her pockets, looking her over once, then twice. Just how long had she been sitting there?

Randi moved her weight from foot to foot, watching the barely-perceptible rise and fall of Fifty-one’s chest. Maybe it’d be best to go and wake her up. Or interrupt her, or stop her from whatever it was she was doing. If she was going to be washing herself off any time soon, then she’d have to tell somebody. Fifty-one was right here. And Fifty-one was the person she was the closest to out of anyone else here— the only one she was on actual, kind of sort of good terms with. Why throw away this opportunity, considering some of the alternatives?

She walked up to her, hesitated, then crouched on her haunches, so they were just about eye to eye. “Hey.”

Fifty-one’s eyes flashed open. For a moment they flickered unfocused, almost confused. Then they centered in onto Randi’s face, and the tension in her shoulders melted away. Crossing her legs, she rested her hands on her thighs and tilted her head. “Yes, Randi?”

”Um. Nothing’s the matter, really.” She crouched there for a few seconds longer, grateful that the silence let her stew in her awkwardness a while longer. “Uh… are you okay? Why are you sitting against the house like that? You should come inside.”

Fifty-one exhaled sharply through her nose, looking to the side. “I am physically alright, Randi. There is no need for you to worry about me in that matter.”

“Oh.” She pursed her lips, squirming in place. “Well… but still. Sleeping and staying outside in the cold like this can’t be very good for you after… well… you know. I know that you’re used to it and everything, but—”

“I am fine.”

Randi stopped. Fifty-one shut her dark-rimmed eyes, tilting her chin toward the ground. She didn’t look fine. But then again, when had she ever? Randi bit the tip of her tongue, tapping her fingers on her knee. “Hey. You said that you were physically fine. Why the specification? Are you— mentally unfine?”

She didn’t get a response, not that that was much of a surprise. Randi grimaced, moving her teeth from her tongue to her lip. Why did she care so much, anyway? It wasn’t like they were alone in the middle of the Outskirts anymore. Fifty-one had other people she could speak to now. People who understood her better than Randi did. People that had known her for longer, had experienced the same things that she had. She didn’t need Randi to hover around her. Especially not after what she’d done.

“I do have… some thoughts on my mind, admittedly.” Fifty-one cracked open her eyes, the suggestion of a smile ghosting over her face. “I have been thinking about a lot of things since we arrived here. I’m sure that you have as well, yes?”

“Well— yeah, but— it’s… different, you know?”

“How so?”

She fiddled with a loose string on the seam of her pants. “Well… for one. I didn’t have a… strained reunion with the people I abandoned.”

A mirthless, almost scornful chuckle. “You didn’t?

“I— Blake and Avery was completely different.”

“Explain to me how it was.”

“Blake and Avery were the ones who abandoned me. And two— I’m pretty sure they don’t hate me for everything I did.”

Fifty-one went stiff. Randi felt s chill go through her insides. “Um… sorry. That… that was kind of too far.”

“It was, wasn’t it?”

It was Randi’s turn to go tense. But Fifty-one only let out that breathy, churlish huff of laughter again. “But I suppose you aren’t wrong.” The smile faded, and she stared down at her hands. “It’s obvious that I am not the most appreciated guest here, at the moment. For anyone here.”

“Oh.”

“Yes.” Fifty-one furrowed her eyebrows together. Then she sighed, deeply, so roughly that Randi could feel the breath along her cheeks and forehead. It was as cold as the rest of the air around them. Fifty-one sat up. “I think I am going to go on a walk, Randi. Would you like to accompany me?”

“A… a walk?”

“Yes. A walk.” She pushed herself up, leaving Randi to crouch on the ground alone.

She craned her neck up to stare at her. “Is… are you sure that you’re up for it?”

“I wouldn’t be suggesting a walk if I was not sure of my capabilities, Randi. I am a bit stiff, but otherwise fine.” She turned away, hiding her face. “Moving around is the best way to discourage stiffness, anyhow.”

“I guess you have a point, there.” Randi struggled to her feet, staring after Fifty-one as she drifted further away. “Where are you planning on going?”

“Anywhere.”

“Oh. Well. Um. I guess I can come along with you. If you want me to, at least.”

“I wouldn’t have asked if you wanted to accompany me if I wasn’t serious about letting you do so, Randi.”

“Okay.” It was as good of a situation as any. At least with her there, if Fifty-one ended up being less fit to walk than she’d figured, then she could help. She could always just drag her all the way to the house like she had before.

Randi forced her feet off the ground and walked up to Fifty-one. “You can lead the way,” she said.

“I was intending on doing so.”

She tried to ignore the prickle running down her spine. “Um… alright.”

“Yes.” Fifty-one turned to look at her. “But you can walk side by side with me, if you would like to.”

”Oh. Okay.” But something in Randi made the close distance in between them feel a bit… wary. She sidled to her right, away from Fifty-one, but only just enough that it was barely a difference.

Fifty-one didn’t seem to notice. If she did, then she showed no signs of caring. She continued staring out into the uncertainty of the forest, giving one single nod— whether it was to herself or to Randi, there wasn’t really a way to be certain— before she was walking away. Well, more like shuffling. Her strides… weren’t as confident or as steady as they usually were over the wilting grass, but Randi still had to hurry to catch up with her.

She could easily tell where the house’s unofficial camp ended, now that she was actually outside of it again. The forest rushed to meet her and Fifty-one in a blur of stripped branches and fallen leaves, instantly reminding her of the trouble she’d gone through just getting here in the first place. The others did a good job of keeping the area around the house nice and clean. But always having to work around the place probably helped along with that, at least a little bit, just by way of having to clear things up to do those things. She’d never heard Rowan or Jules talking about “cleaning the yard,” after all.

The forest quickly grew denser they farther they strayed. And… colder, too. Thin mist lingered in the distance, always there but never quite able to be caught up to. Randi pulled her arms closer in a feeble attempt to keep the heat inside herself. When that didn’t work, she rubbed her hands up and down her sleeves. The friction didn’t do much, either. It was like the Outskirts just zapped the life out of her— and, in a way, it had. At the very least, it had zapped the youth out of her. Her innocence. Fifty-one had very nearly felt the wrath of the forest’s life-sucking abilities. Literally.

Randi took her eyes off the scenery to examine her limping, panting companion instead. She could almost envy her resolve. She was still hurt, all tired and pained, but she still decided to push through and do idiotic things like sleep outside in the cold and walk around the forest without telling anyone where she was going. It was almost enviable.

Randi sighed. “Where is it that you said we were going again? Not far from the house, right? I don’t think it’s safe to go very far.”

“I don’t have much of a destination in mind,” Fifty-one replied. “But you do not have to worry. I don’t intend on straying far.” She paused. “I simply had to… get my mind off of a few things.”

“A few things? What things?”

Fifty-one kept on walking. Randi bit her lip. Maybe she should’ve stayed behind. Or better still, maybe she should have prevented Fifty-one from going anywhere at all. If she was going to act like this, then… well.

“I have just been thinking a lot in general, Randi.”

Randi looked up. Fifty-one’s lower lip was tensed up, like she wanted to say something more but didn’t know what. Maybe she just needed a little bit of a push. “Thinking a lot about this place?” Randi asked.

A gust from the nose. “How could you have possibly known?”

“Just a hunch.”

Fifty-one shook her head, sighing again. It almost looked like a smile wanted to squirm over her lips. Randi pointedly looked away as they walked. This whole thing, talking like they had always been good friends… that definitely wasn’t the case. It’d never be the case. Fifty-one had to know her boundaries. They both did. Randi couldn’t act like nothing had happened between them. Terrible things had happened, which only got even worse taking into account Fifty-one’s past. Just because she’d gotten a little hurt didn’t change any of that. Randi could help somebody without having to like them. Right?

She shut her eyes and exhaled her frustration, digging her hands into her pockets. Stupid move, but it felt like it fit. When she opened her eyes again— just in time to see a fallen branch in her way— Fifty-one had veered off into a different direction, and was a few steps away from her now. Hadn’t bothered to check if she was following, then.

Taking her hands out her pockets, Randi hurried to catch up before she got too far behind. Fifty-one didn’t react. Her breath had stabilized. So had her face, the creases in her skin smoothed out as she looked over the forest. She really must have been itching to get away.

Randi worked her jaw. “You’ve been thinking… what, exactly, about the place? The people, the house itself? Or are you thinking about how much you want to leave?”

Fifty-one veered off another time. Without speaking. Randi took a deep breath, and then started to follow. She followed until the river’s burbling barely registered in her ears. Fifty-one didn’t stop. For someone who said they weren’t going anywhere, it sure seemed like she had at least some sort of destination in mind.

And, lo and behold— she did. Randi was forced to dig her heels into the freezing mud as Fifty-one suddenly stopped. Wiping her shoes on the caked grass, and then on her pant leg— who was she trying to impress?— she scowled. “What is it now? Why’d you stop all of a sudden?”

Fifty-one pointed to something in front of her. “I just thought it would be interesting to you.”

Randi narrowed her eyes. She had no idea what Fifty-one was talking about. Everything looked like it usually was: tall, twisted, gnarled trees, blackened and browned by age and the elements… wait, what was that? Connected to an old, knotty-looking branch on a stout tree— it almost looked like a vine. Except for the wooden plank tied to the very bottom. Randi shot a quick glance to Fifty-one, then, seeing she wasn’t going to do anything, walked over to the thing. Gave a push with her muddy foot. Was it supposed to be a swing? But for who?

“Is it not interesting, Randi?”

Randi nudged the swing again, listening to the rope creak as it carried the wooden plank through the air. Or was that the branch? Climbing onto the thing didn’t seem like a very good idea. Not that she’d really wanted to.

She gave it another push, because she didn’t know what else to do. Then she put her foot on it again, stopping its swing downward. “It looks old.”

“It does.”

“Yeah.” Randi paused, quirking her lips to the side. Then she laughed, the end of it shrill enough that Fifty-one had to know she was uncomfortable. “Do you think that Blake and Avery used it? You know. When they were here?”

Fifty-one hesitated behind her. “I do not know. I didn’t know them like you did, Randi. What do you think they would have done?”

Oh. Of course Fifty-one didn’t know. She hadn’t even talked to them. She’d only seen them for five minutes while she’d been barely lucid. Why had Randi asked her that? She shrugged, hoping her face was blank enough that Fifty-one couldn’t notice her internally kicking herself. “They… probably did use it. At least— I hope they did.”

“Why do you hope that?”

“Well. Blake and Avery… they were always goofing off and stuff when I knew them, you know? They really liked being playful and stuff. Even when they were in the middle of the Outskirts with no chance of getting back to the City.” She snorted. “So… playing on a swing seems like something they’d really enjoy doing. Even if it meant they would risk falling off since the branch and the swing itself were super old and… defective, and stuff. They were just those type of people, you know?”

“Why do you speak of them in the past tense, Randi?”

She opened her mouth, closed it. Her stomach felt like a cold pit was in it, like someone had dug up a rock from the earth and put it in there. “It’s not that I think something happened to them or anything,” she said, not sure if she believed the bitter words sliding off her tongue. “It’s just… when I found them. They seemed… so unlike how they’d been before. They seemed sadder. You know what I mean?”

“I understand.”

Randi brushed her hair out of her face and sighed heavily. Kicked the swing, just to see it dance around like a feather in the wind. “I don’t know what happened. I mean— I do know what happened. To Blake, at least. What happened to her also happened to you.” She waited for any sort of reaction from Fifty-one; she didn’t know how to feel when she got none. “But Avery… I don’t know. Even with you, you bounced back. You’re… basically the same as you were before. It didn’t seem like Blake was going to bounce back anytime soon.”

“I know. I just— I don’t think they would have sent us here if something terrible besides what I saw happened to them, right? This place seems nice enough. I don’t understand what could’ve made them do such a one-eighty from a pair of stupid kids to… that. Especially when you and me probably went through a lot more than they did. And you seemed a lot worse off than Blake did, when… after…”

“A betrayal from someone you know and trust can cut deeper than a grave injury from someone you barely know, Randi.”

She turned around. Fifty-one’s eyes weren’t focused on her, but rather the ground, a frown on her face. Great. The way the conversation went had put both of them into a bad mood. Randi huffed, looking away. “I… I know that,” she squeezed through her teeth. “I know that all too well.”

Fifty-one’s shoulders twitched. A glint flickered in her eyes and then flickered away suddenly as it came. Randi rubbed her neck, averting her gaze. She probably wouldn’t be able to speak to her, otherwise. “So. You think whoever did that to Blake… knew her and Avery, huh? That’s what you’re implying?”

“That is exactly what I’m implying.”

“And… whoever hurt Blake and Avery hurt you, too. Right?”

Fifty-one finally raised her head. She tilted it to the side, staring into Randi’s face so intensely that she could have been the breeze numbing her cheeks. Her jaw tensed, her throat clicked with an audible swallow— and then she started to speak, her lips opening slowly, deliberately. “I am intrigued in where you’re going with this, Randi.”

Her cold cheeks suddenly flushed warm. “Well… nothing in particular. Not really.”

“There is no need to lie to me.”

Randi bit the tip of her tongue. “Why don’t you answer my question first?”

It was Fifty-one’s turn to hesitate now— though she didn’t hesitate so much as she just stood there without much of a reaction. “Yes,” she finally snipped. “Yes. Whoever hurt your friends may have very well been the person who hurt me.”

“Oh. Well, then… who was it? Somebody from here? It was somebody from here, wasn’t it?”

“What does it matter to you?”

“I just want to know who it was.” She paused, searching Fifty-one’s face for some sort of reaction. “It was… Peyton. Right? It’s got to be Peyton.”

Fifty-one closed her eyes and sighed. Randi shoved her foot onto the top of the swing seat again. “It was,” she said, bluntly. “Why didn’t you just tell me? It’s not… well, it is a big deal. But you could have just—”

“I didn’t want you to judge him for his actions, Randi.”

She blinked. Opened her mouth to retort, but found that nothing came to mind. She let go of the swing, putting her foot back into the mud. “What do you mean by that?”

“He made a mistake. One I am certain he deeply regrets. He didn’t mean to hurt others as he did. What he needs is help. A guiding hand, so he cannot make any more mistakes like the ones he has already.”

A perverse, tickling sensation ran down Randi’s back and arms. “He hurt you,” she said. “Nearly beyond help. And he hurt Avery and Blake, too. I don’t even know if they’re alright, after what he did. And what about before he came here? What if he did other things to other people? Worse than what he did to you? How can you say he only needs a little help?

Fifty-one’s face remained blank as ever. “Even if what you say holds some truth to it, I still believe that I should help. If not for him, then for the people surrounding him. It is the very least I can do.”

The trees rustled with an unsettling breeze. Randi huffed, crossing her arms— more to shield herself from the weather than to demonstrate her petulance. “And how is that working out for you? Have you talked to Peyton yet? How did he react to you wanting to help him?”

A subtle, sad smile. “I have spoken to him recently. He didn’t seem… very receptive to my ideas.”

“Yeah. I figured as such.” Randi looked away, then up at the sky. Still overcast. Was it going to rain? If it wasn’t, then the clouds parting would be really appreciated, if just to let a bit of sunlight dribble toward the ground. With the wool-like texture the sky had cloaked itself in, though, that didn’t seem likely. Randi lowered her gaze again, staring through Fifty-one. “I doubt he’ll change his mind.”

“And why do you believe that, Randi?”

“Because—” she drove her teeth into her lower lip, a scowl cutting into her face. “Because… you didn’t. No matter how much people tell you that you were wrong to do the things you did, you still go on and think that what you did was right. Justifiable, at least. Why would Peyton be any different from you?”

A heavy silence pulled taut between them. Randi curled her hands into fists, watching Fifty-one, just waiting to see what her reaction would be. All she did was twitch her lips, lowering her eyes. “You are right,” she murmured. “Which is why I will still help Peyton as much as I am capable, in spite of his reluctance. There is no reason for him to go down the same path I have.”

And to think that she had called Randi an idealist, just a few days ago. It was almost laughable to think about. Randi probably would have laughed if it weren’t for the deep concern needling the back of her skull. She shrugged again, turned away again, crossing her arms and gritting her teeth. “Fine, then. If that’s what you want to do. If that’s what you think’ll work. I hope it does.”

“I hope that, as well.” Fifty-one’s voice trailed away, mingling with the wind’s nippy chill. Her stony facade broke and she rubbed her upper arm, staring into the endless wood as a crease formed in her brow. How had she dealt with the winter before? Not even she could be impervious to the Outskirts’s elements. She had to have had some shelter she could’ve turned to. Like the cellar she had thrown Randi into, all that time ago. She had said that she’d taken a liking to those, staying sheltered in the last few remnants of the Unspeakable Times as the present day passed above her. But she had a house to stay in now. And other people. She didn’t have to fester in her own memories anymore. Why did it seem like she wanted to?

“I believe we should start to make our way back now, Randi.” Fifty-one’s hands has wrapped around each other, gripping the flimsy white fingers like a facsimile of a handshake. Her gaze was averted, focusing on the ground. It seemed like this conversation had taken more out of her than Randi had thought it had.

She huffed a shot of air through her nose. “Yeah. Um. Yeah, we probably should start making our way back. It’s starting to get cold. And— I’m not dressed to be in the cold.” She hesitated, moving her eyes from her clothes to Fifty-one’s. “Neither are you.”

“I am more used to the chill than you are, Randi.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s healthy for you to be out in it. Especially when you’re still recovering, and everything. You should really sleep inside, you know. For at least a few days. So you can heal faster, and everything.”

“And where would I sleep?”

She faltered. “Well, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s an unoccupied bedroom, or something. And if there’s not, well— you could sleep in my room. On— on the floor, of course.”

“Of course.” She crossed her arms, looking away. “I will… consider it, then.”

“Alright.” Randi glanced around, tapping her fingers on her arm uncertainly. “Um… I don’t know what direction is back. Do you?”

“I do. Just follow me.”

Randi watched her walk off, not sure what to say— and then she remembered the whole follow me thing. She took up the tail of their little pair, rubbing her hands in an attempt to suffuse life back into the fingertips. If only she could do the same thing with the tops of her ears. When did Rowan and the others light the fires, this time of year? They’d started chopping and collecting firewood by now, hadn’t they?

“Randi?”

She almost tripped, being torn out of her thoughts so abruptly. Shaking her hands out, she raised her eyebrows at Fifty-one— even though she had her back to her. “What is it now?”

“I learned something, trying to convince Peyton to let me help him. Something I think you may want to know.”

“Oh. What is it?”

“I believe Rowan and the others may be planning on returning to the City.”

This time, Randi did trip. She caught herself in the last moment, looking up just in time to see Fifty-one turn to stare at her. Embarrassment flushed at her face, tripping up her voice. “They— they are?”

“I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t believe it was so, Randi.”

She pushed herself to stand fully, biding her time to think of something to say besides a single word statement. “Oh. I… I see.”

“Yes.” She turned and resumed her trek away.

Randi had to hurry to catch up to her. Her head reeled, spinning the trees around her into a mess of browns and yellows. Like vomit. “How do you know?” she asked. “Did you hear them talking about it, or something?”

“I did.”

“Ah.” What was she supposed to say to that? Could she say anything to that? Obviously, Fifty-one wouldn’t have told her about it had she not wanted Randi to say something in response to it. But… she needed more information, to know how she was supposed to react. Happy, or sad? She didn’t even know what to think about it herself. Funny— just a few weeks, maybe even days ago, she’d have been elated to hear that news. “Well.” She cleared her throat. “That’s… interesting. I guess.”

“It is. But… it is also frustrating.”

“Frustrating?”

“It is frustrating when you end up creating a situation that falls out of your hand, Randi. When something you say or do spirals from where you want it and you can no longer control it, anymore, and then situation warps into something you end up regretting.”

Randi just stared at the back of her pale head. “What… what are you talking about, specifically? Did something happen with the others?”

“You don’t know, Randi?”

“I don’t think I do.”

Fifty-one let out a sound between a snort and a scoff. “I would have figured that you had, after you’d eavesdropped on our conversation the day we arrived.”

The blood rushed out of Randi’s face. She bit back what would have been an undoubtedly stuttered how did you know? because of course Fifty-one knew. She knew everything. She probably knew that Randi was flustered right now, with that ridiculous ability of hers. Why wouldn’t she have known that she’d eavesdropped on her little chat with Jules, Rowan, and Umber?

Randi grit her teeth. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” she said. “It just… happened. Besides— what does that have to do with the City, exactly?”

“I believe that conversation is what spurred Rowan’s decision.”

“Why do you think that?”

“I’m sure you could figure it out. You listened in on the whole thing, did you not?”

“I— well, I did, but…” Randi knitted her eyebrows together, focusing on the uneven ground beneath her as she wracked her memories. Why Fifty-one couldn’t just come out and say things? “Was it… something you said to Rowan?”

“It was.”

What could have convinced someone like Rowan— a stubborn, angry man who pretty much hated Fifty-one— to listen to her? They had been acquaintances, once. Fifty-one probably knew things that Rowan would have preferred her not knowing. Like… like…

Randi shot her head up, jaw dropping. “The forgotten people in the— that building that you abandoned,” she said. “You were arguing with him about that.”

“Yes.”

“Rowan… he wants to go and see if they’re still there, doesn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.” Randi didn’t know what else to say. Rowan didn’t seem like someone who would be tied to such sentimentalities, much less be pulled after them. Unless he was doing something like… chasing after something important. Like his own blood.

A prickle danced its way down her spine, that eavesdropped conversation rushing back to her. Rowan had a kid. Maybe. Probably. He didn’t seem like the kind of person who would be any sort of parent, but… maybe he was. At least, at some point. The swing— could that have been—

“That is why I am so frustrated,” Fifty-one said, shattering Randi’s thoughts for a second time. “You understand, yes?”

Randi continued following her, trying to keep the mild annoyance from slipping into her tone. “You’re upset because if you hadn’t said anything, then maybe Rowan wouldn’t be thinking about doing it.”

“Yes. Precisely.”

The trees and the plants had started to thin, trampled and stripped by thousands of human footsteps. It looked like they would be back at the house soon. Randi almost found herself disappointed. “You’re upset because you don’t want to go back,” she said.

“Of course.”

“I see.” She… couldn’t find herself blaming Fifty-one. Sure, she still wanted desperately to return to the City, but— they had finally gotten everything they needed. So why leave again now? Why did she always have to be carted around against her will?

“Are you planning on going back?”

She froze. Fifty-one still walked, but she’d angled her head so that she could look at her. The pricking sensation on her arms only grew stronger. “I… I don’t know.”

“It’s alright. I don’t know, either.”

Randi pulled her arms closer to herself, suppressing a shiver. The straight edges and right angles of the house pushed through the forest, catching her eye. It must have caught Fifty-one’s eye, too, because she stopped. She let out a heavy, shaky sigh. “We should decide quickly,” she said, “because I do not think we are going to have much time to decide.”

Randi’s silence must have been enough of a response for her, because she continued forth into the barren camp, making her way to the house. Randi hesitated, then followed her. Cleaning herself off in the river had completely slipped her mind. She couldn’t quite find the mind to really care about that any longer, though.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Seventy-Nine

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Sweat like fire pooled in the crooks of his elbows and his dry, stinging eyes; each nick on his stiff arms dribbled watery blood over his rash-reddened skin and slicked the sharp, splintered wood clutched between his fingers. It felt… good. So much time had gone by since he’d done anything more than walk up and down the stairs. He’d needed this exercise. He’d needed this chance to get away from his thoughts.

His arms and legs wriggled like sentient jelly, begging for rest as he dumped the logs inside. He brushed his hair out of his face and then slunk back outside to pick up even more. The sky was overcast and gray, like a bunch of old cotton balls ripped up and haphazardly glued overhead. It made the ground even cooler, the way the sun had hidden itself behind the clouds. It would only be getting worse over the next few weeks and months. Which was why he had to be doing this in the first place. Peyton rubbed his arms, flattening the goosebumps over them, before he crouched to pick up more of the chopped firewood. The sweat did nothing to help. It just make his cuts and nicks colder, and sting more. Maybe he’d have to go and get Taylor to clean them and bandage up when he was finished with all of this.

Or maybe he wouldn’t. He cringed hoisting up the wood, but it wasn’t the feeling of the rough bark digging into his palms so much as it was the thought of having to go inside and talk to somebody. He hadn’t done that besides some arbitrary small talk for… he couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually talked to someone. Probably not since Taylor had forced him to. Not since those two new people had arrived.

Peyton shook his head. He hurried to the house, shuffling through the half-open door. The back end of the tinder hit the doorframe on the way in, punctuating the horrible creaking of floorboards underfoot. Peyton froze. Stayed frozen for one seconds, two seconds, three, five. Nothing from upstairs or any of the rooms on this floor. Of course nobody was going to come and see what that noise had been. Nobody ever did. He should have known that by now. This house had years to set and slouch, adjusting to its age and the elements of the Outskirts, and the lack of maintenance too. Any old noise wouldn’t disturb anyone who had spent over a few weeks here.

Hobbling to the corner of the kitchen, he dumped the firewood onto the rest of the pile, wiped his raw palms on his pants, and then bounced his shoulders up and down. Still, there was no sign of anyone coming to meet him— no sound, noise, or otherwise. None of that tell-tale prickle down his spine or the ache in the back of his head increasing whenever she grew near.

He hurried out of the door just in case she decided to show up right then. It wouldn’t really do anything, but… at least he’d have spared himself a little extra time. Really, he should have been glad that she hadn’t done anything to him yet. He should’ve been grateful that she hadn’t tried to exact revenge on him for what he’d one. At least not yet.

Peyton shuddered. He stepped away from the entrance of the house, staring at the impatient pile of cut wood just waiting to be hoisted inside, armful by strenuous armful. Just had to focus on the scrapes on his hands and the salty, sour sweat burning his nose and mouth. Not about the everpresent pressure in his skull, warning him of impending doom. It was impossible to ignore. It had been impossible to ignore the night Avery and Blake had been forced to leave. It’d been impossible to ignore when he’d torn through the forest right after. It’d been impossible to ignore when the source of the sensation had shown her ugly face, and it was definitely impossible to ignore now.

At least it was slightly more tolerable out here, outside the house, the chilly breeze over his skin and the rough, wilted grass in between his toes to distract him. His muscles groaned as he bent down and picked up another heavy load of wood. Better out here than in there, where he’d have to endure the full brunt of it all. Where he’d have to deal with Rowan’s angry glares and Taylor’s short and concerned, but oh-so-patronizing glances. Where he’d have to talk to Nikita.

Nikita. Yes, Nikita… ever since that day where Taylor had forced him to talk to her, Nikita… he wasn’t sure what had happened to Nikita. Or what had happened to him, maybe. Nikita had been more… distant with him. Though they still slept in the same room, though he always stuck by her side when it was time for a meal or anything else that required being around other people, they weren’t as close as they had once been. She never instigated conversation or asked him to be around her anymore. He should have been upset about that— but for some reason, he wasn’t. She seemed to realize he needed more space. And maybe she needed more space, too.

But space from what? From him? What had he done? That was a stupid question— he’d done a lot of bad things. Bad things that he was still facing the repercussions of. But… Nikita didn’t hate him because he had done those bad things, did she? She’d said that she didn’t blame him for hurting Blake and Avery, or running off and hurting other people. But ever since his talk with Taylor…

He pushed the door open with his foot a little too hard. It swung against the wall, the rusty knob sending a thump rumbling up and down the walls of the house. He stormed into the kitchen, dropped the wood by the rest of it, and went back outside. He didn’t hesitate this time, making a beeline for the rest of the pile— but he walked past it, ignoring the way it called for him, threatening Rowan’s sharp eyes and angry voice if he didn’t put them inside. He didn’t stop walking until the edge of the camp stood in front of him. Beyond the line of stripping, tamed trees and the yellowing grass, the thick of the Outskirts quietly observed Peyton. Was it trying to scare him away with its danger and endlessness, or was it beckoning him with it?

He squatted down— pushing away the pain in his knees and feet— and sat right at the boundary, digging his splintered fingers into the dirt. Maybe it would be best for him to leave. To just get up and walk into the forest, never to return, for nobody here to ever know where he had went off to and why. It’d be so easy, even though his legs and feet still hurt from lugging wood around for the past hour and a half. He’d just have to allow himself to melt into the afternoon shadows and the mist hanging in the distance. It’d solve at least a few people’s problems. And… it would solve most of his, even though plenty more would arise being in the middle of the Outskirts all alone. But he’d never have to worry about other people ever again, anymore. He’d never have to worry about Nikita or Taylor or Rowan, or those two newcomers… he’d only have to worry about himself. It’d be at least a little of an improvement.

Right? If it wasn’t an improvement for him, it’d be an improvement for others. He wouldn’t be able to hurt anybody but himself, anymore. People would certainly be grateful for that, at least. Saga would have been grateful for it. So would’ve Avery and Blake. And Taylor would probably be grateful for it, too… all four of them had had something to say against Nikita, once upon a time. All of them still did. He’d hurt Blake and Saga so bad, and then he’d become reckless because of them and hurt other people, too. And Sawyer… Sawyer had been Nikita’s friend. And Peyton had done the worst to him. He’d killed him just because he didn’t want him to get in the way of Nikita.

Everybody he’d hurt had been trying to take Nikita away from him, or related to that situation. Maybe— maybe Nikita was the common problem, in this situation. Besides him. Maybe even she realized that and that was why she wasn’t going out of her way to be that close to him anymore. So then… wouldn’t it be best to leave her behind? But he didn’t know what he would do if he left without her. He probably wouldn’t have survived coming to this place if it weren’t for her, anyways. What made him think that he would fare any better now? And what about Nikita, herself— wouldn’t she be upset if he left with no apparent reason or explanation?

Acid burbled in his chest, rising to his throat. He pressed his hands to his stomach and squinted. The trees in the distance blurred and twisted into monstrous figures, arms jutting starkly from the ground gesturing for him to come and join them… but Nikita had to want him to stay at least a little bit. Right? She couldn’t control him, though. He could do what he wanted. He was going to be an adult eventually. Was he really going to cling to her for the rest of his life?

Moreover, even if she did want him to stay, she wasn’t the one who got to decide that… Rowan did. And so did Taylor. And despite them being distracted with the two new people, they were still mad at him. Maybe they had even more of an incentive to kick him out now— why would they want to keep around another mouth to feed in the wait of winter when they didn’t have to? He wasn’t helpful. He could barely even carry firewood into the house like Rowan had asked him to. He was less than useless— he was an active harm to everyone here. But some selfish part of him still wanted him to stay.

He shivered, hugging himself away from the cold. Struggling to his feet, he shut his eyes and just felt the breeze over his hair, the whispers of the forest tickling his ears. Maybe… maybe he would stay. Or maybe he would leave. He had to think about it for a while. But every moment he spent thinking about it was an extra moment he had to accidentally hurt someone else, or himself.

Listlessly, Peyton looked at the forgotten pile of wood. He could continue putting those inside. But he felt so drained. He just… wanted to sleep, or something. Somehow he could laugh at that— he wanted to leave and survive in the Outskirts all on his own, but he couldn’t even carry a few measly twigs back into the house? How… silly.

He started toward them— and then a shiver raked down his spine and he froze. His heart thrummed in his chest as he turned around, tell-tale pressure nudging at the back of his head. His breath hitched in his throat and turned into ice.

By the house— in the house— a ghost lingered right by the doorway. Pale as the frozen snow and thin as the wilting trees, it stared at him with burning, frightening intensity. Peyton willed himself to move, to run into the forest. His feet refused to. All he could do was close his eyes and look away, like that would somehow make him invisible.

It didn’t. His mind pulsed with pain at the sound of footsteps, their vibrations rising up his own legs like tingling electricity. Thump by thump, it grew ever louder. Coming toward him. What was he supposed to do? Open his eyes? But his eyes— if he opened them and saw what he expected to see, then—

“Peyton.”

A shock of white filled his vision and sent him stumbling back. He landed flat on his back, pain shooting up his spine. He bit his tongue, keeping the yelp in— but iron just flooded his mouth instead. Sputtering, blood gushing from his mouth, he struggled to form proper words in the face of death. “I— I—”

“It’s alright, Peyton. Relax. I’m not going to hurt you.”

That did absolutely nothing to calm him down. He shoved himself backward on the rough grass, staring up at— her. The newcomer, the woman. Whatever name she had. Some of the people here called her by a number. Others called her by a normal name. Peyton hadn’t bothered to learn either of them. All he knew her by was the woman he had hurt. The woman he’d hurt who was going to try to get back at him now..

“Peyton. I would like to talk with you. Am I allowed to?”

She wasn’t. She wasn’t. But the refusal had lodged in his chest, and it didn’t matter how strong or how vehement it was when it was stuck in there. He coughed violently, putting his fist in front of his lips like he would be able to catch it in between his fingers. He… he wasn’t bleeding as much as he thought. He’d only bitten his tongue. “N-no,” he finally forced out. “I don’t— I… I don’t want to talk to you.”

If she was surprised, or affronted, then her anemic mask did a good job of hiding it. If anything, it just became even harder, even smoother, even more difficult to penetrate. “If that is truly what you want,” she said in an oozing tone, “then I won’t force it upon you, Peyton. But I think that this is a conversation that needs to be had. It is vital, in fact, if you wish to stay here without putting the others at risk— or putting yourself at risk, for that matter.”

Peyton bit the tip of his tongue again. Red pain jolted through his mouth, paired by the soft and pulpy texture of chewed tissue. It helped ground him, a little. But only just a little. With shaking, woody limbs, he pushed himself up so he was sitting up instead of sprawled pathetically in the dirt. He went through a variety of words to say: they all tasted like dirt and blood. Fear, too. “Wh-what— what do you mean by that?”

A small, sad little smile flickered over her face. It wasn’t patronizing, or condescending, or anything like that— no, it was almost emotionless save for that quiet melancholy. “Do you not know who I am, Peyton?” she asked. “Or did you simply forget? I won’t hold it against you if you did. I understand that these sorts of things can be difficult— especially for someone as young and inexperienced as yourself.”

She… wouldn’t hold it against him? But only if he was one of those two options. What would she think of him if he knew who she was already? Looking at her, listening to the way she talked, it didn’t seem like she would get upset. It didn’t seem like she was capable of getting upset about anything. Except for the burning, two-ton pressure that rolled off her and wrapped around Peyton’s head whenever she was near. That alone was enough to make him want to swallow his voice and run away from her. The fact that she could remember him only made the feeling even worse.

“Peyton?”

He blinked, his vision in the corners distorting. He’d forgotten to say something. No, he hadn’t forgotten— he’d refused. Maybe it would be best for him if he just told her that. But… she clearly wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. Neither her or her oppressive aura. If he spoke, however, then there was a chance that it could lift the burden she had thrust upon him at least a little bit. She could probably tell if he was lying or not. Something about the look in her eye just told him that. Tell the truth and she would leave. Say something to her, and he would be able to go inside and burrow under the covers of his bed. Or maybe he would go into the Outskirts. He wasn’t quite sure, yet.

“Peyton—”

“I’m fine,” he blurted out, just to have something to block the sound of her voice. “I mean— I… it’s neither of those things. I… I d-do know who you are. I didn’t forget who you are. I just… I was just… confused. Because of what you said. That’s all it was.”

“What is it that you are uncertain about, Peyton?”

“I—” he faltered, yet another time. “The… it was the thing. About… about putting other people at risk. About putting myself at risk.” He paused, gulping down his discomfort. “Wh-what did you mean by that, I mean?”

The mask on her face slipped all the way back on. “I am sure that you know exactly what I mean, Peyton.”

Cold sweat beaded on the sides of his head. He looked away, hugging his arms to his chest. She was… impossible. Impossible to step around or jump over, trick or outsmart. It was almost like she could read his mind, or something. Maybe she could. She probably could. Fighting away the pit of ice in his stomach, he closed his eyes and ducked his chin. “I… I do know. Of course I know. I know it more than anyone else does— I know it more than you do. Is… is that what you wanted to hear? Is that the conversation you wanted to have?”

“It isn’t, Peyton. I’m sure that you know that, too.”

Peyton opened his eyes, wincing at just how bright everything looked. Slowly, hesitantly, he looked up at her. There was a… gentle hint to her voice. Maybe not kind, but at least reassuring that she probably wouldn’t go out of her way to harm him. But that didn’t mean anything. It didn’t— it didn’t. Just because she seemed gentle didn’t mean she was— especially not with somebody like him.

He forced himself to his sore, complaining feet. Wrapping his arms over his chest again, he glared at the forgotten pile of wood to his side. “I don’t need your help. And I don’t want to talk to you, either. I’m fine.”

“You are not fine, Peyton. If you were fine, you would not be debating leaving right now.”

Peyton would have snapped his head toward her, if he hadn’t been frozen into his skin. The amount of effort it took for him to unhinge his jaw bordered on stupidity, as painful and difficult as it was. “How— but— but how did you know?”

“It isn’t that difficult to figure out.” She took a step forward— just a single step— and Peyton shuddered. His headache was blooming to life again. She didn’t seem to care. “I’ve been… observing you for a while. It was impossible for me not to.”

“What… what do you mean?”

That sad, infuriating little smile again. “The way you feel, Peyton. I can feel just about everything you do or feel. Everyone here has about that effect, but it is much more difficult to ignore with you.” She paused, the lull giving her expression time to die, collapse back into that blank mask. “You feel that way, too. Do you not? From the way you act whenever I’m nearby— even if you haven’t seen me or heard me— it’s clear that you feel at least something.”

Peyton’s face set ablaze. A hot prickling sprung to his eyes, just as the side of his head throbbed. She knew. Of course she knew about the headaches, the pressure and the sting of fear he felt whenever she was nearby. It was always the strongest with her, always, always, even though he barely knew her, had seldom made eye contact with her. She probably knew even when she couldn’t even see him. Or when he couldn’t see her. Could she have done it when he wasn’t aware of her, just to mess with him? That night Blake and Avery had left… that painful feeling when he’d been stuck in his room with Nikita— had that been because of her, too? Had she driven him out on purpose? Made him hurt her on purpose?

A burning sensation in his arm made him jolt. His fingernails were digging into his arms, and the jagged tip of one was grazing against a fresh scratch. He dropped his hand to his side and backed away even further. “I… I know. I do. I do feel it. And… and… it sucks. I hate it. I hate you. I never want to feel you or see you again.”

He expected some sort of emotion to flicker on her face or register in his mind— hurt, surprise, anger, anything. But there was none of those. If anything at all, maybe an… amusement. Not one she garnered any pleasure from, just a simple, beguiled look, like she’d known that he would say that already. Maybe she actually did. “I understand how you feel,” she murmured. “I felt the exact same way, when I first felt the things you are feeling. It takes a matter of time before you get accustomed to it. But believe me when I say that it will happen in time, sooner or later.” Another lull. A shadow flickered over her face, like a cloud had floated over it. “Moreover, you will find it easier to control your… other abilities in time.”

“What—”

“Don’t patronize me or yourself with that again, Peyton.”

Peyton dug his fingernails into his sore, bark-rawed palms. Running his tongue over his teeth, he swallowed the pain and squinted at the ground. “I… I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t care if I’ll get used to it or get more control of it or learn it better or whatever. I just… I just— I don’t like it. I don’t want it. I want it gone. I’ve done too many bad things already. Nothing is gonna help anymore.”

Silence. Peyton unsquinted his eyes, avoiding the woman’s ghostly form as well as he could. The house may as well been abandoned, looking at it from here. No sign of other people had graced the boarded up windows or the creaky doorway ever since she had left it to come and talk to him. Maybe… maybe he could make a break for it. Run past her and race back inside, shutting and locking— did it have a lock?— the door behind him. She slept outside most nights, anyway. She probably wouldn’t care. She would just lay down in the freezing dirt and wait for Rowan to lose his temper and kick him out again, until he’d finished dragging in that firewood. She’d probably silently laugh the whole time, too.

“Peyton.”

Her voice had taken on that gentle quality again. The ache in Peyton’s temple dissipated, but only slightly. He looked at her face— not her pale, dead eyes, just her face— for just a moment before he was staring at the house again. “Why do you keep on talking to me? Why don’t you just leave me alone?”

“Because I can understand what you are going through, Peyton.”

He screwed up his face, biting his lower lip— mostly because his tongue hurt too much to use it for anything but speaking, now. “I don’t… I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“It matters because I can help you, Peyton.”

She kept on saying his name. Why did she keep doing that? Peyton couldn’t hold back his scowl. “How can you help me?” he asked, already prepared to tune out any sort of answer. “I don’t… I don’t need help. I just need to figure out things on my own.”

“Figuring out things on your own will only prolong the period in which you can harm others.”

“B-but— but it won’t be a problem if I— if I—”

“If you try to run away from your problems by going to live alone, in the middle of the Outskirts?”

Peyton slid his mouth back shut, clenching his jaw. Then there was a mirthless chuckle, making the hairs on his nape stand on end. “I tried that once, Peyton— just like you’re considering. All it does is allow yourself to fester and rot in your emotions, making things even worse. And if things end up coming to a head— if you ever end up seeing anyone again— well… you can ask Randi how that went for her, in particular.”

Randi. That was her… friend’s name. The girl who’d come with her. Peyton didn’t say anything. He kept his head ducked, staring at the rough, wilted dirt sticking up between his toes. She… she was right. How cold he possibly think that running away from his own problems to go live in the Outskirts, just before the cold and merciless winter, no less, was anything near a good idea? It would make Nikita sad. It would make Avery and Blake have left this place for nothing. But… but he couldn’t just stay here. He couldn’t. He’d hurt people if he did. He couldn’t ask for help, either, because… because…

“I understand that it is difficult for you.” Her voice grated like a blade against his skull, sending flecks of iridescent pain flying behind his eyes. “But without the assistance of the City, there’s very that can be done for you in terms of helping you resist it. All you can do is live with it, and try and cause as little pain as possible.” She moved forward, leaning down so close Peyton could taste her breath. “You aren’t lost yet, Peyton,” she said. “I may be, but you’re not. Let me help you, so you don’t make the same mistakes I have.”

He tried to swallow, but his tongue had gone immobile. So had the rest of his body. He wasn’t lost? How could she say he wasn’t lost? Of course he was lost— he’d been lost ever since he’d left Silverhill. Coming down to the Clink had made him even more lost, and whatever remaining sense of direction he’d had had been burned to ashes and cast to the wind after he’d… after he’d killed Sawyer.

But she didn’t know that. She didn’t know about the way he’d hurt Saga or Sawyer. She only knew what happened in the Outskirts. She only knew that he looked like a sorry little boy who’d accidentally hurt her. Did she know about Avery and Blake? She had to— how else would she have found this place so soon after they had left? Plus her friend— Randi— she had known them, right? Surely she had shared stories about them with her. And… she was probably furious that Peyton had hurt two of her friends.

Peyton felt like he had swallowed gravel. He couldn’t believe anything this woman said. Why would she want to help someone she didn’t even know? Him being not lost was the worst excuse he’d ever heard. No— she had to have made some sort of plan with that girl Randi, to get revenge on him after what he’d done. If he let her help him all he’d be doing would be falling into her trap. He had to… he had to—

“Peyton?”

Somehow, he knew the sensation would be coming before he could actually feel it. Like a slimy nightmare it coiled around his mind, squeezing his head, pressing, suffocating. What was she doing? What was she doing to him? He stumbled backward.

“Peyton?”

She made another movement toward him again. Peyton staggered away, and he would have staggered even further if there hadn’t been a tree behind him. Frozen, he blinked through his at the space in front of him— her still advancing, the house standing right behind her— before he whipped his head to look over his shoulder. The Outskirts was still behind him with its twisted trees and thick, hanging fog. Suspended, stuck frozen between the two. Which way was he supposed to go?

“Peyton, I—”

He ran— forward. He clipped her shoulder as he sprinted past and hot ice shot down his arm, all the way down to his tingling fingers. He ignored it. All he paid attention to was the thumping underneath his feet and in between his ears, and behind him. Was there thumping behind him? He wasn’t going to look and check. He just had to get back into the house and away from her, into the only place he had to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself.

The hardwood floor let out a single, piercing screech as he dove onto it. Clambering forward, he whipped around and seized the door— stared outside just long enough to see she was just standing there— and slammed it shut. The walls trembled.

Peyton stayed petrified there, his hand frozen against the heavy wooden door. He stared at it and his dirt-plugged fingernails for a good minute, as if something would come battering it all down in any second. But nothing did. Was she… was she really just going to stay out there? What was she doing? Was she still staring at the house— at him?

His muscles slackened into loose ropes, and he sank to his knees. He sat there for a while, his head pressed against the door with the rest of him sprawled over the floor. The house was silent, so silent. Where was everybody? It was like everyone had just curled up and fallen asleep within the time he’d been sent outside and now— which had only been about an hour. And the afternoon was just barely ebbing into evening, now. There was no way that everybody had gone to sleep. Unless… unless they had somehow been forced to.

Peyton squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, as much as he could without it hurting. He had enough to worry about without stupid conspiracy theories. People couldn’t even do that. Not even people like her. Everyone was probably just upstairs, or something. It would explain why he could barely hear anything going on, being down here.

He managed to push himself off the door, staring at the old, rickety staircase. Maybe he could go and check? But if the stairs creaked loudly enough for them to hear, then he would be caught. And then he’d probably get in trouble for eavesdropping. Then again, he couldn’t stay down here… he struggled to his feet and tiptoed into the hallway, looking at each of the doors. All of them were at least slightly ajar. No voices, though. No footsteps against the floor, or stuff being moved around. Everybody had to be upstairs, then. But something stopped Peyton from backtracking and going to the staircase. He tiptoed further in, peering into the cracks between the doors and their frames. A closet, a dark, dusty room, a bedroom that had long since gone unused… he stopped at the next one. He remembered this room: it was the one Randi had been standing by, a while after she and her friend had arrived. She’d been eavesdropping while the others had spoken. But eavesdropping for what?Curiosity prompted him forward and he looked inside.

Randi was resting in the bed. Going by the slow rise and fall of her side, she was sleeping, too, knotted, curly hair sprawled on the age-tanned sheets like some sort of spider. Peyton stared at her for a while, something hot and acidic boiling in the space between his stomach and chest. Of course she was sleeping. She had to be exhausted even still, both physically and emotionally after having to drag another person here. After all she’d been through in the Outskirts— and maybe the City, too. She’d been wearing an Academy outfit when she’d first come, a filthy, ripped and smelly Academy outfit, but still distinguishably one nonetheless. Blake and Avery had been from the Academy. She must have been the friend they’d talked about. She’d been Avery’s and Blake’s friend and he had gone and hurt them. She had to be so mad about that.

She stirred. Peyton snapped back to attention and he tiptoed backward, biting his lip. Well, at least one person was still in the house. If all the other rooms on the first floor were empty, then… that had to mean everybody else was on the second floor. Up the creaky, tired stairs.

He didn’t want to go up. He really didn’t. But with the outdoors off limits, the first floor of the house completely empty and silent save for a sleeping girl who probably despised him, and the second floor holding the rest of the people— holding Nikita— was there really any other option but to go upward?

The floor squeaked as it usually did— high-pitched, but quiet enough that it wouldn’t draw any attention as long as he didn’t walk too hard. The first step on the staircase was a lot more disruptive. Gripping the staircase’s banister, he shuffled his way upward, putting all his weight on the balls of his feet to keep himself quiet. One step more, and that was another step that he didn’t have to worry about anymore. Maybe he was snooping around for no reason at all— he could be caught by Nikita, who’d ask him what he was doing and why he was acting all sneaky, and—

A creaking from downstairs. Peyton could scarcely breathe. He slowly, slowly swiveled his head around. The unmistakable sound of a footstep on wood punctuated the silence.

His heart screamed. He couldn’t move. Not just because of his petrifying dread, no— if he made any sudden movements then the stairs would most certainly make noise and alert the others of his presence. Even turning around on the narrow, rickety staircase would be too risky. No. He had to… he had to keep going up. And he had to hope that he wouldn’t get caught.

He turned back around. Only three more stairs. He rested his right foot on the first one, paused. No sound at all. The next and final two took a much shorter amount of time, confidence— or maybe it was fear— spurring him up and forward. Stopping at the entrance to the dark hallway, he swallowed his heartbeat and listened for any footsteps behind him. He didn’t hear footsteps of any sort— but he did hear voices. Voices, coming from the end of the hallway.

For a quick second, Peyton considered going back down the stairs, or maybe just running into his room and hoping that nobody would notice through the hair-sized crack in the door. Rowan sounded gruff, as usual, but he didn’t sound… angry, not really. Maybe— maybe Peyton could be like Randi and risk eavesdropping. She had done it before, and Rowan had sounded angry then. Everyone who had been talking with him had. Peyton had been able to feel the floor shaking underneath his feet during that conversation, they’d been talking so loud and mad. But Randi had braved through it, even though she could have easily gotten in trouble. Why couldn’t he be so brave?

Peyton shook his head, still staring at the door. Murmurs low and steady drifted from it. He slithered forward, until he was barely a yard away from the sliver from where the voices dribbled. Scarcely daring to breathe, he leant himself forward and strained his ears for a snippet of the conversation. He couldn’t hear Nikita at all… but he could hear Rowan. Taylor’s voice was coming through, too. She was talking something about irrationality, and Rowan was—

He felt the creak in the floor before he heard it. He turned around, a strangled gasp catching in his throat. The woman froze as soon as his eyes met hers— then she raised a hand, and gently pushed it down. “Relax,” she whispered.

Relax? Relax? She’d just snuck up on him and she wanted him to relax? Peyton waited for the fear to rise up his throat and make him do something really impulsive and stupid— but it didn’t. Goosebumps trailed up and down his spine as she drifted over to him; her feet looked like they barely grazed the floor. No wonder she’d gotten so close without disturbing him. “What are you doing, Peyton?” she said, voice barely a hiss in the air.

His voice felt too heavy to speak clearly. Certainly too heavy to speak as quietly as she had. But he tried anyway. “I’m… I’m… l-l-listening.”

She stared at him, one eyebrow slightly quirked up. Any moment now and she’d tell him that eavesdropping was wrong. Maybe even tell on him. For now, all she did was nod. She even angled her head so that she could listen, too. Her mask was all pinched up, her lips taut, brow furrowed. It looked like she could almost be worried.

Nobody in that room must have heard anything, because the conversation continued. “You have to take the others into account,” Taylor said. “The people who aren’t in here with us, right now. Randi, Peyton, Charlie or Fifty-one or whatever she wants to be called today— do you really think they’re ready for something like this?”

That was her… name. Charlie. Or Fifty-one. What kind of name was that? Peyton glanced over to her. The etches in her expression had become even deeper. He… couldn’t blame her. What were they talking about in there? And why did it have to involve both of them, and Randi too?

Rowan’s voice, gruffer now. “If they aren’t ready for it now, then they’re not going to be ready for it ever. It’s best that we leave before any of us get the chance to change their minds.”

“Isn’t that what happened with you when you first came out here? Forced to leave before you had the chance to protest against the circumstance?” A pause. Taylor’s voice became more shrill. “Isn’t it? You have to be rational, here. Don’t you think Charlie would believe the same thing? Should I go get her?”

No,” Rowan snapped, his voice like a needle against Peyton’s ears. “No. Not yet. We are being rational, Taylor. At least I know I am. The circumstances between then and now have changed. We need to make a decision and act on it now, before it’s too late. I’m not backing away from everything again, even if everyone else does.”

“But—”

A hitch of breath shattered Peyton’s concentration. He flinched, his eyes flicking over to… Charlie. Fifty-one. Her. “What’s… what is it? What’s the matter?”

The lines of worry in her face had disappeared, replaced with a sullen grayness. “You don’t know what they’re talking about?”

Peyton’s lungs twisted up into knots. He couldn’t take his eyes off her, hands curling up on themselves in a vain attempt to keep them from shaking, but somehow he managed to shake his head. “N-no. I don’t.”

She pressed her lips together, the distress between her eyebrows reappearing as a slow apprehension rolled over Peyton like a tide of boiling water. “The City, Peyton,” she whispered. “They’re talking about going back to the City.”

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Seventy-Eight – Interlude

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

“Well?” the man asked. “What is it you suggest we do with them?”

The larger of the two men didn’t respond. The first one didn’t say anything, either. They just continued staring, peering into the lift like it held a pair of wild animals instead of two helpless girls.

Avery whimpered. She hugged Blake tighter to herself, looking into the two men’s eyes with the most pleading expression she could muster. “Please.”

They still didn’t do anything. The bigger man of the two looked like he wanted to, because he raised a hand and did a sort of half-step forward. But besides that, nothing. Why were they just standing there? Didn’t they want to help? They had to help. Blake would die if they didn’t. Just thinking about it made tears spring to Avery’s eyes. She squeezed her hands into hard, painful fists. “Pl-please. Please help us!”

That made them move. The smaller of the two men approached them, and stayed standing. His eyes looked hard and unforgiving. Rock eyes. “Who sent you down here and why?” he asked. “What happened to you two?”

“Give them space, Fynn.” The other man placed a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back. Now the both of them were standing in front of the elevator. The two of their forms nearly eclipsed the dim light that came from the… hallway? The entrance? The space in front of the elevator.

Avery would have started sweating if she had the water to spare. If they had to run, pushing through them could be impossible. More than impossible, with Blake exhausted, half-dead, and slumped over Avery’s lap. Even if she was okay, what could she and Avery possibly do against two full-grown men?

Avery closed her eyes and crushed Blake against her. “I… w-we…”

“It’s alright. You can explain it to us as soon as we get you help.” The bigger man crouched down so he could look Avery in the eye. Avery shrunk back even more. His eyes… which were surprisingly soft for how much he dominated the space with his size, examined her and Blake from matted hair to swollen toe. “They need help, Fynn,” he said, his voice like smooth baritone. “They’re clearly victims of their story in one way or another.”

Fynn’s expression stayed hard to match the look in his eyes. “That’s what we thought before.”

The soft light in the man’s eyes dulled a little. But he managed a smile, a small smile— it reminded Avery of Pop’s— and held out a large, calloused hand. “Don’t worry about what he says, dear. What’s your name? And your friend’s name? She is your friend, isn’t she?”

Avery hesitated, then put her fingertips into the man’s hand. It was… soft and smooth. Almost squishy. And warm, in a good way. She’d thought it would be hot. Like fire, burning her and Blake more than they’d already been burnt. She let her whole hand slip into his. Then she shook her head, still staring into his face. “N-no. She isn’t… she’s not my friend. Not… not just my friend. She’s my sister.”

“Oh, I see.” He nodded, slowly and patiently. Avery might have found it condescending if she weren’t so tired. “Well, what’s your name and your sister’s name?”

“I’m Avery.” She squeezed Blake’s arm with her free hand. “And… and my sister’s name is Blake. We’re… twins.”

“I can tell that from your names,” he said. “I’m Hadley; the man behind me is my partner, Fynn. We live with some other people just a few minutes from this elevator. Sector One, is what we’re called.” He squeezed her hand. “Why don’t you come with us so we can help you and Blake? There isn’t much that we can do out here.”

Avery bit the inside of her lip. She made her grip on Hadley’s hand a little looser, her grip on Blake’s hand a little tighter. “Well, um… I— we can’t—”

“It’s very comfortable there. We have beds, and food and drink, and two very competent people who will be able to help with your injuries.” Hadley tightened his hand around hers— not roughly, not demanding, but in a way that told her that it would be best for her to come, though she still had the choice not to if she really wanted. “You can’t stay here forever. I’m sure you may have heard on your way down, but the elevators are weight-sensed so they can’t go up if a person is standing in them.”

“I— I know all that. I know we can’t go back. I don’t want to.” Avery sniffed, wiping her face on her shoulder. “But… but Blake can’t walk. She can barely move.”

Hadley’s eyes flashed. He squeezed Avery’s hand even harder now, almost hurting her. “Then there’s no time to lose. Please, let us help you.”

“But she can’t walk.

“That won’t be an issue. I’ll carry her.”

Avery winced. She pulled Blake as close to her as she could with her tired, flimsy muscles. “But—”

“Look. Avery. Avery, right?” Fynn walked up, his jaw clenching and unclenching. He licked the sweat from his upper lip. In the dim light his entire face was shiny with it. “We know you’re scared. We get it. It makes sense. But if you want to be helped, then you’re going to have to meet us halfway. We can’t help you sitting at the elevator. You need to come back to our base with us.”

“I— I know that, but—”

“He’s right,” Hadley rumbled. “I promise I will be gentle with your sister. And I don’t mean to frighten you, but there’s really no time to waste with the condition she’s in. Every second we spend talking here is a second she no longer has to be looked over.”

That pushed Avery over the edge. “Okay,” she said, nodding vigorously. “Okay. Okay. You can… carry her.” She gave Blake one last squeeze— could she feel it, wherever she was floating around in her mind?— and then let go, nudging her to Hadley. “Can… can I walk next to you while you’re holding her, at least?”

“Of course you can.”

Avery nodded again. She pushed herself against the wall of the elevator, giving Hadley room to scoop Blake into his arms. He did it so effortlessly. The way she would scoop up a book or a bundle of groceries. Maybe not even that. She looked like a feather in his arms, even as he pulled her to his chest and stood to his full height. Just as light, and just as delicate. Like if he breathed on her too hard she would be sent flying into the wind.

She closed her eyes, shaking her head. It made the elevator spin around her. She opened her eyes to see that Hadley and Fynn were staring at her. Fynn held a hand out, walking up to her. “You need help getting up?”

She started to shake her head, then stopped herself. She could barely even get her legs underneath her. Of course she needed help. This wasn’t the right time to be confident in herself. It wasn’t the place to be wasting time. Not when Blake needed help. She nodded jerkily, and raised her hand. “Y-yes. I need help. Thank you.”

Fynn returned her nod with a note of finality. He gripped her hand— harder, less gentle than Hadley— and pulled her to her feet with unexpected strength. Avery almost ended up stumbling into him and she definitely would have if she hadn’t pressed her foot into the cracked, dusty concrete floor. Concrete. After she’d been able to feel the grass in between her toes in the Outskirts, she was back to feeling cold, hard concrete again. Just like in the Academy. At least the Academy had been aesthetically pleasing. Here, it was just an expanse of… concrete. Brownish-gray concrete stretching like dust into an abandoned wasteland. Avery looked up to the jaundice-yellow lights flickering in the ceiling instead. At least it was color.

“Are you ready, Avery?”

Avery nodded. She stumbled up to him, up to Blake. The top of her head only just reached his chest, where Blake was cradled, so she had to crane her head and stand on her toes to see her face evenly. She was so pale. The only life on her face was the dried blood caked between the cracks in her lips. Her hair had been so lush and lively before and now it drooped limply from her scalp like straw. Avery had been forced to watch it wilt with the rest of her body as they’d made the long, painful journey to this place. And her eyes were closed. No movement behind the blue, veiny lids. What had happened? Why had this happened to her— to them?

Hadley shifted the position of his arms, and Blake shifted with him without any resistance. Dead weight. “She’ll be alright,” he said, conviction swelling in his tone. “We’ll make sure of it, Avery. I promise.”

“O-okay. I hope so.”

Hadley gave her a look, a tender, earnest look, one that held no glee or optimism. “Follow me,” he said, and then he was walking off.

Avery forced herself to walk after him, putting more weight on her right leg than her left. She’d been sitting on it ever since they’d collapsed in the elevator and now that the blood had rushed back to her toes it hurt bad. Muscles she hadn’t even known she’d had were tying up into painful knots to tell her that they existed. It was hard to not limp. But she had to stay strong, not for herself, but for Blake. Blake needed all of Hadley’s attention, all of the care from… whoever helped people with their injuries, here. If they thought that Avery was hurt, too, then they wouldn’t be able to focus all their attention on Blake.

Her leg screamed as she kept pace with Hadley and Fynn. Sandwiched between the two of them with Blake to her right, she could almost feel secure. She barely even knew Hadley and Fynn. What if they were tricking her? No, they couldn’t be. At least… not Hadley. He looked too kind and too much like Pops to want to want to hurt her.

Avery clenched her jaw, fencing her worries behind her teeth. She tilted her head back, staring at the way Hadley resolutely stared ahead. Before she could lose her nerve, she cleared her throat and caught his attention. “So… what is this place? It… it has to be a part of the City, right?”

Hadley’s gaze shifted down to her. “Didn’t hear the announcement sound over the intercom when you entered the elevator?”

“I mean— I did. But… I was really out of it, by then.” She folded her hands and squeezed them hard together, trying to focus on something besides the burning ice in her left leg. “Weren’t you out of it, by the time you found this place?”

“I wasn’t. Granted, the story of how I came down here is much more different than yours, I’m sure.” He jut out his bushy jaw, and then shook his head. “But there’s no need for you to worry about that. I fully understand your plight, Avery. This place is the Permanent Detention Center for Untreatable Citizens and Subjects— colloquially referred to as the Clink. Traditionally meant as a place to house the City’s criminals.”

The blood rushed out of Avery’s face. “O-oh.”

Hadley glanced down at her and enjoyed himself a good-hearted chuckle. “No need to worry, dear. We’re researchers— volunteered to come down here. At least, we were. And most everyone else in Sector One was born in this place, so they’re just about as innocent as a person can be down here.”

“Oh.” She sounded like a broken record, saying that constantly. But she couldn’t walk in silence. There were too many voices whirling around in her head and if it was too quiet she’d end up listening to them. “What… what did you guys do research for, then? Stuff to help out the City, and things like that?”

Now at that, Fynn tensed up next to her. She opened her mouth to backtrack what she’d said but for some reason, she didn’t. Maybe she wanted to hear what he had to say. She was tired of only hearing her voice, graty and tired as it was. Fynn’s eyes flickered to hers, and then to Blake’s crumpled form in Hadley’s arm. “Yes,” he replied. “Yes, we did do it to help the City. Of course we did. Why else would we have sacrificed our lives to live down here?”

“That… that makes sense.” Her tongue wasn’t cooperating because she felt so nervous; her hands were clammy and her eyes were hot. “It was… noble of you to do that.”

“Going by some people’s standards, it may have been.” Fynn’s eyes rested themselves on Blake’s body again, looking her over. They stopped to linger on her face, her dried bloody face, before he stopped and stared forward again. “As for what exactly we were planning on doing research for when we came down here, well— let’s just say that you may know that, already.”

“I… I do?”

Fynn didn’t respond, but he pressed his mouth up so that it only looked like a thin line drawn onto his face. Hadley didn’t say anything either. Avery looked down. Her shoes were all tattered and hole-filled and she could see her socks poking through the more terrain-eaten bits. She winced at them and they cringed back. How did people in the Clink get clothing? Socks and shoes? They had to be getting them from somewhere. Maybe the City sent them down. The City had to have sent them down.

The City… Avery’s wince deepened into a frown. When she and Blake had finally gone to the Academy— their life at the Academy already seemed so far away— they’d quickly learned that the City was bad. How could it not have been bad? Not even a week after they’d enrolled and a student had been zapped into thin air. Gone, just like that, forever. Not even Randi could remember who she was, or that she’d even existed. At least Avery and Blake remembered. They knew how many terrible things the City could do. If they could make people disappear in the blink of an eye and administer medication that made their heads feel funny and their emotions dull, why wouldn’t they let innocent people be born and raised in a gritty prison, too?

Avery’s heart sank into her gnawed, shriveled stomach. Still, though… she’d been here with Blake for all of twenty minutes and it was clear that the City was better than this place. The City was probably better than the Outskirts. Sure, she’d had more freedom there, but… if she hadn’t come into the Outskirts with Blake— if they’d just stayed in the City like they were supposed to, like Randi had begged them to— would they be in this situation now? Would they be walking, both of them exhausted and one of them half-dead, in this musty underground place now?

Maybe not. Probably not. But they could have disappeared out of nowhere had they stayed in the City, just like that one girl had. And.. and that would be worse than what had happened here, right?

She grabbed the sides of her head and shook it hard to make the thoughts go away. The warmth of Hadley’s eyes fell onto the top of her hair. “You alright?” he asked. “We’re just about there. Only a couple more minutes. Hang on until then.”

Avery let go of her head, and let them fall back to her side. She felt heavy. Heavier than she’d been before all of this had happened, anyway. Even her tongue and lips felt heavy as she tried to speak. “Yes. I’m alright. I’m just… wondering.”

“About what?”

She fiddled with the hem of her shirt. All filthy and tattered like the rest of her. “So… you know… there isn’t any way to leave this place, is there? We’re… we’re going to be down here forever? Where… where do we stay?”

Hadley and Fynn exchanged glances over her head. Then Hadley sighed, and Avery didn’t need him to say anything else to know what the answer to her question was. But he spoke anyway. “I’m afraid there isn’t really a way to leave,” he said, then hesitated. “Some people have managed to. But the number of those people who have managed that in my decades here can be counted on one hand. People who are sent down here spend their entire lives here.” He pulled Blake’s body even closer to his chest, and a frown knitted his eyebrows together. “And… I’m sorry, but I’m not sure if you and your sister will be able to stay with us, Avery.”

“But— why? You said—”

“Things have changed for the worst over the past few months. Whether you can stay or not depends on what the others think of the two of you.”

Avery’s eyes stung. She wiped them with the back of her friend. “But… we’re not going to do anything bad.”

“We’re aware of that,” Fynn said. “But harmless people can still do terrible things, if they’re pushed hard enough. The safety of the people currently in Sector One is going to be our highest priority.”

She swallowed her tears back down, pursing her lips hard. That made sense. Of course it made sense— she would do anything for Blake before she did anything for anyone else. But… if the other sectors were so cruel, and this was the behavior she was getting from the nicest one, then what would she and Blake do? Would they have to fight to survive? It couldn’t be physically harder than what they’d done in the Outskirts, but what about mentally? Emotionally? Or what if the people here decided to turn on them? They’d have nowhere to run. Not that having places to run had worked out for them in the Outskirts.

Fynn and Hadley made a sudden right turn, and Avery hurried to catch up with them. They squished her in between them even more tightly now, the walls squeezing even narrower. The lights looked dimmer, too, like weak candlelight. Like when they ate dinner with Rowan and Taylor, and the others at that old rickety house. Before Peyton and Nikita had come along.

Avery unpursed her lips. “Are… are we almost there?”

“Yes, we’re nearly there.” Hadley didn’t look down at her this time. “Then we can get you something warm to eat and somewhere warm to sleep, after you get washed up. And we’ll get Blake some help. Everything will be alright.”

Until they got kicked out for having the potential to do terrible things, right? Avery clenched her fists, her nails pushing into the caked filth on her palms. She really did need to get washed up. She was starving, and completely drained. Only Blake kept her going. What Blake was going through was ten times, no, a hundred times, worse than what she was. She couldn’t complain, not when Blake didn’t have the capability to do that, period. But… being able to eat, bathe, and sleep would be very nice. Especially with the knowledge that Blake would be getting better. Her mind would be a lot clearer just with that alone.

A strip of brighter, cooler light flickering at the end of the hallway pulled her out of her thoughts, spilling out of a doorway of some sorts. Avery pointed to it. “That’s it? Or… the entrance to it, at least?”

“It is.”

“Oh. That’s… great.” Avery forced a smile onto her face, until it wavered and shook so hard that she couldn’t anymore. Which didn’t really take very long. “Are there… any people that’re in there right now?”

“There are,” Fynn said. “Which is why you’ll have to wait out here until Hadley and I tell you that it’s alright to come in.”

Avery stopped in her tracks. “What? But— why? I’m not going to do anything.”

Fynn rubbed his hand all the way down his face. “Yes, Avery. We know that. But we’ve already told you what this place has been through. Gradually introducing the others to you is the best route to take, here.”

Avery squeezed her fingers together as Hadley finally came up next to her, Blake still a sack of sand nestled against his torso. She touched Blake’s hay-like hair, wincing at just how dry and withered it felt between her fingers. “What… what about Blake? What will you do with Blake?”

Hadley adjusted her again. “I’m taking her inside with me. We’ll get her help. And we’ll be back for you very soon.”

“B-but I don’t want to leave her behind!”

“You aren’t going to be leaving her behind,” Fynn said.

“But—”

Fynn put his hands on Avery’s shoulders and backed her against the wall. His hands felt rough. “Avery,” he said, “when we say that something bad happened here very recently, we mean it. Two people who were very close to hurt us very, very badly. Our community is still shattered by it. Some of the people who are still with us may never learn to trust again. Some of them may even hurt you and your sister if you do anything too quickly or suddenly. This isn’t for the safety of our sector, this is for the safety of yourselves.” He squeezed her shoulders harder. “So stay out here until we tell you to come back in. Understand?”

Avery looked away, her throat clicking with a swallow. She closed her eyes and nodded. “O-okay. I’ll stay here.”

Fynn squeezed her shoulders one last time, and then his grip fell away. He kept his eyes on her as he stepped back, and then he turned away. He murmured something to Hadley, who nodded at him, and then they walked through the door together.

Avery was left alone. She slouched herself against the wall, crossed her arms, and sighed. She was so worried and so upset and so tired. Why couldn’t she just go in with them and make herself small? She wasn’t going to hurt anyone. Hopefully the people who lived in what was supposed to be the nicet sector in this place could give her the same kind of treatment.

Avery tugged at the bottom of her shirt. Sector One could always just decide to kick them out, though. Or worse— they could let Blake stay because she was so injured, and then cast Avery out. Then they’d be separated. Maybe they wouldn’t let her go in at all. Just tell her to leave Blake behind, still unconscious and unable to say goodbye.

Avery scrubbed her eye stubbornly, snuffling her tears back up. That wouldn’t happen. Either both of them would stay, or neither of them would. Avery would carry Blake just like Hadley had if that was the only way they could find a place that would accept both of them.

Grating, loud against her ears. Avery almost jumped out of her dirt-smothered skin. Hadley was gripping one of the rusted metal bars and dragging it open. He somehow looked even older and bigger, with the light haloing him like a flame and without Blake held in his arms. Avery looked away.

“It’s alright, now. You can come inside.”

She closed her eyes tightly, and then looked up again. She couldn’t see his eyes very well in the cordial backlight, but his voice and warm. Something meaty-smelling drifted from the door. The little water her system had to spare raced to flood her mouth as saliva. But still she didn’t move, because her discomfort had nailed her feet to the ground. “Where’s… where’s Blake?”

“She’s inside, of course. Saga and Tarian swooped in to help her as soon as they realized what was going on. And they’ll help you, too.” Hadley approached her and his lightened silhouette started to recede. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll escort you in if you’re nervous.”

She was nervous, but she wanted to see Blake more than her nervousness wanted her to stay here. “O-okay.”

Hadley smiled. He held out his hand to her, just like he had when she and Blake were all tangled up in the elevator. And just like before, Avery held out her hand to let him take it. He tugged her over to him, gently but insistently, and she let him lead her to the ancient, rust-rotted door. He opened it and they walked in together.

The light was a whole lot brighter than it was outside. And the air felt warmer. Thicker. Avery unsquinted her eyes after they’d done adjusting and everyone, all of what looked like had to be ten people at least— everyone was staring at her. She squinted again, ducking her head. Keep walking. Keep walking. Please keep walking.

But Hadley didn’t keep walking. He stopped in what had to be the very middle of the place, and Avery stopped with him. She opened her eyes. She could see Fynn, in the corner of her eye. Another person that she didn’t know, probably a girl or a woman a few years older than her but Avery didn’t want to scrutinize. But… “where’s Blake?”

“She’s in Saga’s and Tarian’s little alcove,” Hadley said, pointing. “See those curtains over there? They’re treating her in there right now.”

“Oh.” She nodded, everyone’s eyes scraping over her cheeks with the movement. The curtains were shut. And thick, and long, too. Not even a light could force its way through the crack in between them or the floor. It took awhile for Avery to force the shake out of her voice. “Can I… can I go and see her? Please.”

Hadley tensed. He turned to Fynn, who shrugged. A sigh escaped his wooly mouth. “I suppose we can ask. But don’t be surprised if we’re refused. They need to concentrate in order to work their best, and you know this isn’t something you can bandage up and be done with in a matter of five minutes.”

She knew that. She knew that all too well. “Okay.”

Hadley led her to the curtains, those eyes sticking to them all the while. He put his hand in between the two curtains and pulled them open. “Saga?”

It was silent, and for a second Avery could’ve thought the darkness had eaten this Saga’s voice. Then it emerged, low and soft and feminine. “Come in.”

Hadley pulled the curtain all the way open, letting go of Avery’s hand. It felt all cold and clammy now that it was exposed to the air. Avery waved it off, wiped it on her shirt, and pushed up next to Hadley. She still couldn’t see anything. How could they be working on Blake in these conditions?

“Is the other child with you, Hadley?”

“She is.”

“Tell her to come inside.”

Hadley grunted. He patted Avery by the nape of her neck, nudging her between the felty curtains. “Go on. They’ll check on you.”

Avery opened her mouth, ready to protest against the darkness and his leaving her alone, but a pale hand was reaching out to her. A few inches behind it, a young man. A pleasant smile graced his face, and he pushed his arm out insistently. “Come.”

Everything would be… alright. The man— if the woman was Saga, then this had to be Tarian, right?— looked nice enough. And the woman’s voice sounded kind, though maybe not nice. But everything seemed fine… so far.

Avery put her hand in the man’s. He pulled her inside, pushed something warm and round into her hand, and ushered her to a spot on the floor.

Avery plopped down when he let go, and her other hand went to touch what he’d given her. A… mug. Thick, frothy brown fluid sloshed around in it. She raised it to her nose and the scent of ginger, cocoa and vanilla stung it. She took a sip, and almost shuddered with pleasure. It’d been so long since she’d drunk anything other than river water, much less had anything warm. “Thank you,” she murmured, cup still raised to her mouth. “Thank you.”

Tarian turned his back to her and started moving stuff around. Avery frowned. “Thank you,” she repeated, louder this time.

“He cannot hear you, Avery. He is deaf.”

Avery blinked. A figure at the opposite side of the den shifted to look in her direction. “He… can’t… hear me? Why?”

“He simply cannot. It’s been like that since he was very young. Just like I cannot see.”

“I— but… oh.”

Something that sounded like a chuckle came from the corner. “It’s alright if you’re confused. The City isn’t very open about things such as that. If you want to speak with Tarian, make sure your face is in full view so he can read your lips. And simply say my name or make some other noise if you wish to get my attention.”

“Oh. Okay. I… I will.” Avery bit her tongue, and slurped at her drink just to fill the silence with something. “I’m… sorry.”

“It’s truly alright. Tarian and I know nothing else, so it isn’t like we’re missing anything we’ve experienced before. And many people who’ve lived here for years have been much slower at getting it than you.” She moved again. Now that Avery’s eyes were adjusted she could see her rest her hands on her lap. “My name is Saga,” she said. “Is your drink alright?”

“Oh. Yes. It’s… very good. Thank you.” Avery stared into the mug again. It had been drained to a half already, and it had what looked like— what she hoped was— tea leaves swimming around in it. “It’s… it’s been so long since I’ve had something warm to eat and drink, it feels like.”

“I’m not surprised to hear that.” Saga paused. “You came in here to see your sister, yes?”

Avery’s eyebrows scrunched up, her fingernails scraping against the chipped ceramic shaking in her hands. “Y-yes. I did. Of course I did.” How had a cup of tea and a short conversation taken her mind off of it that easily? Was she really that easily swayed from Blake? “I…. I didn’t forget,” she said, hurriedly, the aftertaste of her drink plugging up her throat. “I was just… was just…”

“It’s quite alright, Avery. I know you didn’t forget. In fact, Tarian and I wanted you to take your mind off your worries a bit before I let you see her. There isn’t any need for… any overly emotional reactions. Especially when Blake needs all the peace and quiet we can offer.”

She took another sip out of her mug, hoping it would still her hands. “That makes… sense.”

“It does.” Saga’s voice fell away, and for a moment she was just another shadow moving over the rough, hand-carved walls. Then she gestured to her left. “She is laying down there, on the mattress. And she is sleeping, deeply. Try your best not to disturb her.”

Avery’s head spun. She tilted her cup back and downed the rest of the tea— leaves, bitter dregs and all. Then she rested it on the ground, keeping her eyes shut until the nausea melted away. The candle flames looked a little sharper. Their light licked at a mattress— a very small, very thin mattress— to her left, as Saga had pointed out. Pressed right against the wall, it looked even more meagre than it probably was. And a thin, papery sheet covered it from what looked like the top to its bottom.

Avery’s muscles turned to mush. Slowly, she uncurled herself and crawled up to the mattress, until her knees were all but pressed up against the side. Blake’s head only just poked from the sheets, which were tucked to her chin. She looked… peaceful. The blood had been wiped from her face and unlike the times Avery had cleaned her up in the Outskirts, it didn’t look like it was dribbling from her nose anymore. Her eyes were shut, unbothered. Her lips were slightly open. Avery could remember always having to slide her jaw shut when they were younger. She’d always been my drooler and a snorer. But she was quiet right now. Dead still.

Avery’s face went hot, her eyes moistening with unshed tears. She ran her hands down her face, and sighed, deeply. If things were normal— if things were like they were supposed to be— then Blake would touch her fingers to her face and tell her that everything would be alright. But things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. If they were then they wouldn’t be down here. Would things ever be normal again? When had things stopped being normal?

A hand on her shoulder made her jump. Tarian squeezed it like Hadley had done before. A sad, pensive expression had painted itself over his face, looking almost caricatural. Avery couldn’t bring herself to care. It was almost comforting. She slouched in on herself, ducked her head, and wept.

“Shh, Avery. It will be alright.”

A hand on her other shoulder was the last weight that made the foundation crumble. Avery keeled forward, pressing her face into the bed as all the repressed emotions and physical exhaustion shoved themselves into her. Blake’s side was warm. She was warm but she still wasn’t moving like she was supposed to, not comforting her like she was supposed to. Everything was the exact opposite of what it was supposed to be and it hurt, it hurt so bad. How were things going to be alright ever again? Saga was only saying empty words to make her feel better. It wasn’t going to work. Nothing was going to ever work if Blake didn’t get better.

Saga’s hand drifted from her shoulder, leaving her feeling cold like when Hadley had let go of her hand before. Something took itself into her fingers, and a small, round object slipped itself into her sweaty palm. Sniffling, she picked her head up from the mattress and raised her hand to her face. A chalky white pill stared back her. Avery’s throat suddenly felt tight. “What… what’s this? What’s this for?”

“It’s to help relax you. You can either take it sublingually, or wash it down with some liquid. Did you finish your tea?”

Her head felt light. These pills. These pills. She knew exactly what they were. They were the start of this whole mess. Back when all three of them— she, Blake, and Randi— had lived at the Academy. And then it had been the daily medication and then it had been the very City itself they’d found a problem with… and then they had left.

They’d left the City, and then, eventually, they had left Randi behind, too. And when they’d found her, she hadn’t wanted to come back to them. What was she doing now? Thinking I told you so? No, she was too busy worrying about… Fifty-one… to be petty like that. If it hadn’t been for those pills then they would have never gone into the Outskirts for Randi to meet Fifty-one in the first place. They would have never met Peyton, who had probably been the one to hurt Fifty-one. She’d still be safe in the Outskirts as one could be, with her strange name and odd ways. Everything had gone wrong for all of them because they’d left the City, hadn’t it? Because of these pills.

Avery dropped it on the ground and turned away. “I don’t want to take it.”

“I really think that it would be beneficial to your—”

“Please.”

Saga sighed. “Very well. But keep it, in case you change your mind.”

She wouldn’t be changing her mind, but she nodded anyway. She even picked it back up so Tarian could see. She stared at Blake’s face, her chin wobbling. “S-Saga?”

“Yes?”

“Is Blake… is she going to be okay?”

The lull after she asked was telling. Saga’s exhale of breath sounded so heavy. “I do not want to lie to you, Avery. While there’s a good chance that she will recover, a sliver of a chance always exists that she will not. I cannot say for certain, yet. Even if she does wake up, she may suffer lifelong complications, both physically and mentally. Don’t be surprised if she wakes up and she isn’t an exact replica of how you remember her.”

A sob rose up her throat, stopping right at her lips. As she clutched at her head, Saga put a hand on her shoulder. “But she will always be your sister, Avery,” she murmured. “Don’t let a few quirks in her disposition ruin that for you.”

“I— I… I know.” She hiccuped, peeling her hands from her grimy face. “I just— I just don’t want to lose her. I don’t care if her personality changes a little. I just want her to wake up. I want her to talk to me!”

“She will. She will.” Circles rubbed into her upper back.

Avery kept her head ducked, tears and snot still dribbling down her chin. The expressions and Saga’s and Tarian’s faces had to be so pitying. She didn’t want pity. She just wanted Blake. Not unconscious Blake, not hurt Blake—Blake as Avery had always known her.

Saga rubbed her shoulder again. “Come, Avery. You must be exhausted. Let us give you a look over and something to eat. Then you’ll be able to rest. Your journey here must have been extremely difficult.”

Avery’s joints felt all cemented together. Saga had to unweld her from her dreary position. Tarian took her other arm, pulling her to another corner of the tiny room. A lonely stool accompanied only by a tin sat there, which he guided her onto. Avery opened her mouth, poised to say something, but he wasn’t looking at her face. He picked up her ankle, raised it, and then slipped her raggedy shoe off. Immediately she winced and pulled back, but his grip held firm. He didn’t even look phased by the surely awful smell as he peeled off her sock, and then did the same with her other foot. Avery looked away. She didn’t have to look at her bruised, cracked toenails, or the sores and blisters growing on the sides.

Saga spoke to her as Tarian tended to her feet, her voice calm and gentle. “Do you have any pains that you would like us to check immediately? Anything that is unbearable or borderline-unbearable?”

Avery hesitated. That was… just about everywhere in her body. Including her heart. Especially her heart. But she shook her head, tangling her fingers together on her lap. “N-no,” she whispered. “My entire body aches. Especially my legs and stomach. But… but I think that’s just because I’m tired, and hungry. I’ll feel much better when I sleep, I think.”

“That does make sense.” Saga folded her hands over her thighs— it was so weird how she could mirror Avery’s pose, when she couldn’t even see— and sighed. “I believe that the others have made some food. I will ask for you to have some. And I can offer you some more tea before you go to sleep. Warm fluids and rest are the best way to recover from such heavy physical exertion, I believe.”

“Yeah… I bet it is.” Avery winced, trying to ignore the feeling of Tarian daubing something onto her bruised feet. It… tingled. Like pins and needles held over a fire for a couple seconds. In an attempt to take her mind off of it, she looked at Blake’s resting face again. Now the pins and needles were in her chest. “So… so… Blake hasn’t woken up at all, yet? She didn’t even mumble or anything as you were treating her?”

Another breath whooshed from Saga. “I’m afraid she hasn’t, but I believe that is to be expected. She is exhausted, and very hurt. Her body essentially shut its unnecessary parts down for the time being, to put all its efforts into revitalizing itself. Tarian gave her an aid, in order to help her with that.”

“You… he did what?

Saga looked at… Saga turned to face her, befuddlement written over her expression. “Just a little bit of aid, to help her sleep as long as she must. A small injection— it goes directly into the bloodstream to make it as fast-working as possible.”

Avery’s mouth flopped open and shut. She lifted a heavy arm and rubbed her cheek, closing her eyes. Something in a needle, forced upon them to somehow make them function better— wasn’t this what they had been trying to escape?

“Avery? Do you believe that was the wrong thing to do?”

She closed her eyes— not that that made much of a difference; most of the candles were all but burnt out now and the only ones still at full power were near Tarian’s view, anyhow. “W-well, I… not necessarily. It’s just that… that…”

“That what? I would genuinely like to know.”

Avery swallowed, shifting from side to side. Saga did sound like she was telling the truth about just being curious; there wasn’t any malice or challenge in her voice or her face, but… still. What would she say to her answer? How would she respond? “I… you see…”

“Take your time. Don’t feel like you have to answer immediately.”

She looked at Blake in the nearly-dead light. “Well… you see… the whole thing about needles and medicine and stuff? It’s… it’s why we left the City in the first place. We weren’t… comfortable with that anymore.”

“Do you feel like we violated your and your sister’s autonomy?”

“No! No, it’s not anything like that. It’s just that… we’ve always had a bad feeling about those things. Especially as things in the Academy began to get… weird.” She shook her head, almost violently. “Our Ma and Pops… they were— are— they’re kinda different than most City parents, I think. They were older. Maybe that’s why. They always told us not to just trust things at face value. Always look at other options and dig deep, and that.” She swallowed. “Maybe… maybe that’s why we got so distrustful of the City and its stuff. Maybe that’s why we ended up deciding to leave.”

Saga’s fingertips tapped on her thigh. “I see,” she said. “I suppose that is understandable. Especially if your mother and father were the only adult figures you looked up to, back in the time.”

“I guess you’re right.”

Saga remained silent. Avery rubbed her aching arm, pulling her legs closer to her as Tarian finished treating them. Muddy-colored, raggedy strips of cloth wrapped around her big toes and the middle of her left foot. Some sort of white-gray sludge covered all her bruises and sores, too. Pepperminty. Could she put on her socks and shoes again, to hide her ugly wounds? Probably not— she had to let her feet breathe. Had they taken Blake’s rotten shoes off, too? “Um…”

“So you and Blake came down here to get away from the oppressive and controlling nature of the City?” Saga’s produced a dry, papery chuckle. “That is… quite the choice, I have to admit.”

“Oh— no.” Avery shook her head even though Saga couldn’t see, and forced something like a laugh, too. “Of… of course we didn’t. How could have Blake gotten hurt if we had come straight from the City?”

The strained smile on Saga’s face fell away, a crease between her eyebrows replacing it. “So you were not in the City before you came down to the Clink?”

“Um… no.”

Silence. Saga was frowning, now. Tarian was sitting at Avery’s feet, his eyes bouncing between her and Saga. Avery didn’t know what he was thinking but it looked like he understood what was happening at least a little, because his brow twitched whenever he bounced back to Avery. Would he say something? Could he say something?

Avery didn’t get to figure it out, because Saga was the one to speak first. “Then where did you and your sister come from, Avery?”

Her lip stung. She was biting it and the split skin was giving away to her teeth. Quickly, she stopped. “Uh. Well, you see— we are from the City, technically. But… we went to the Outskirts before we were… forced to come here.”

No response. Avery dared to look over to Saga. Maybe it was just because some of the warm candlelight had flickered off to darkness, but she seemed a little more… pale. Her mouth tensed up a little. “Forced? How, Avery? What happened?”

Her throat got tight again. She scratched her cheek, brought her hand back down to her lap, squeezed it together with the other. “It.. I…”

“Avery.” Saga’s voice suddenly made Avery’s chest squeeze up. “Did somebody force you to leave the Outskirts?”

“W-well—”

“Er— Saga?”

Light flooded the room. She twisted to look, just as a shadow appeared in the middle of the rectangle of light. A teenager, probably only a year or two separating them and Avery, peered inside. They squinted as they flickered from Avery to Saga to Tarian, to Avery again— then they raised a hand, offering Avery a slow, awkward wave. “ Is this a bad time?”

“It isn’t.” Saga shifted to face the door. “What is the problem, Jean?”

Jean looked at Avery again, squirming in place. “Well, you see. Drew wants them—” they pointed to Avery and then Blake, in turn— “to be in the sleeping chambers with the rest of us. So we’re able to… keep an eye on them, I guess. I don’t know. I… didn’t really bother to ask.” A sheepish smile.

Saga, on the other hand, didn’t looked very pleased about that at all. She furrowed her brow, her jaw moving into a clenched position. “To keep an eye on them? For whatever reason?”

Jean shrugged. “I don’t know, Saga. You know I don’t know. She’s been so paranoid ever since…”

The silence that turned up between them felt even darker than the interior of the den. Saga’s jaw unstiffened and she sighed. “I suppose I cannot blame her for that,” she said. “Even if it’s clear that Avery and Blake will not be of any harm… there isn’t any way that I can fault her for being wary.” There was a pause as she frowned again. “Jean,” she said, “tell Drew that Avery will be able to sleep in there— but she is allowed to return at any time by her wishes. Blake stays in here, regardless of the circumstance. She’s too fragile to be anywhere but under the supervision of Tarian and me, much less to be carted around and forced into the scrutiny of a dozen eyes.”

Jean hesitated for a visible moment, then nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess that makes sense. I can’t say that Drew will be very happy to hear that, but…” They pointed at Avery again. She couldn’t help but flinch a little. “I’m guessing that you’re Avery? And the… other girl… is Blake? Is she your sister?”

“Y-yes. To both. I’m Avery, and Blake’s my sister.”

“That’s pretty cool. Is it nice having a sister?”

What sort of question was that? “Of course it is. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

Jean’s face went all soft just like Hadley’s had, when he and Fynn were leading her to this place. “I don’t think you’ll have to,” they said. “At least, I hope you won’t.”

Saga’s hand was on Avery’s shoulder before she could figure out what that meant. “Remember that you’re allowed to come back in here at any time, if you feel the need,” she said. “Tell Drew that I said you could, if she questions you.”

Avery wiped the sweat on her hands over her pants. “Is… is Drew mean?”

“She isn’t mean. But she is grieving. Treat her with respect and restraint.” Saga sighed, her entire body seeming to deflate. “You should truly get some rest, Avery. We can continue our discussion later, alright? Do not worry. Blake will be fine.”

Avery nodded— realizing a second too late that Saga wouldn’t be able to see that. At that point she didn’t really care. She pushed herself up and her legs hurt like she had only just come from walking in the Outskirts, instead of being down here for what had to be hours already. She slunk over to Jean, looking back at Saga and Tarian as she did so. “Um. I might come back later. But… thank you for taking care of Blake.”

Tarian waved. Saga just nodded. Avery turned away, just in time to see Jean smile at her in a way that could be considered pleasant. “Come on,” they said. “It isn’t too far. You can walk, can’t you?”

“Of course I can walk,” Avery grumbled. “How else would I have gotten over here?”

“Oh. Yeah. Well— come on, then. I’ll show you where it is. You must be pretty tired.”

She was. But she didn’t say so. Complaining wouldn’t do anything, probably. With her head ducked low, she followed Jean. Eyes still watched her sharply as they walked. It felt… terrible. Would there be people that would be prying her open in these sleeping chambers, too?

She got an answer fast. Jean approached another doorway-like hole sliced into the concrete, a sheer, cotton-looking cloth draped across it like a loose bandage. Like the stuff Tarian had wrapped Avery’s sores with.

Jean didn’t seem to notice her shiver. They pulled the curtain open, and gestured inside. Avery almost cringed. Behind the curtain, a bunch of lumpy, oblong beds rose from the ground like pale, swollen bug bites. Sitting on those beds were three other people. Three girls. A young girl, probably still primary school age, a girl that looked like Jean’s age, and… a woman. Her eyes were like the needles that had been forced onto Blake, piercing Avery’s eyes now.

Just the sight of beds made her legs tremble with needy anticipation despite how gross they looked, and despite that woman’s glare. She swallowed her exhaustion and her nervousness, forcing herself to stay standing.

“Well— here we are! Um… I know it isn’t anything all that special. And I think it might be cramped compared to what you’re used to. I dunno, though.” A shrug. “You can take one of the beds that have their sheets folded up at the bottom. Like the one in that corner. Oh… and don’t take any of the three stripped beds. Okay?”

Avery’s head reeled. She looked from the corner Jean’s finger had drawn a beeline too, then each of the three sorry-looking, stripped beds in turn, then the woman’s razor-sharp face, and then Jean’s smile again. “Okay,” she squeaked.

“Yeah. Tell us if you need anything, okay?”

“I… I will.”

Jean gave Avery a frisky, singular nod. Then they were pushing out of the raggedy bandage curtain and out of the bug bite room. Avery was left alone. The three girls continued to stare.

She tried to ignore them. Her eyes stayed close to the floor and brushed it over as she looked from bed to empty, lumpy bed. Maybe… maybe Jean had been right, suggesting a bed in the corner. It would keep her at least a little bit out of the other’s eyes. Or, at the very least, out of their general line of vision. It wouldn’t help a lot if they were going to be paying attention to her in the first place, but… but at least it helped a little.

Her head was ducked parallel to the ground, but she could still see the girls’ faces— and their eyes— as she wormed through the protruding beds. The one in the corner looked more and more like a bundle of cloth the longer she looked at it. All lumpy and gray. The tissue blanket covering the bottom quarter looked almost silly, all neatly folded up. Nobody else was complaining, though. Complaining wouldn’t earn her any new friends.

She dropped down lower, and crawled onto the thing. It sagged and slouched with her weight. For all the density it touted, it felt like she was sitting on fabric-covered rock. The most comfortable, welcoming fabric-covered rock she’d ever felt before, of course, but… still. It was better than the cold Outskirts ground. And the humming of the lights overhead was infinitely preferable to Blake’s choked, wet breathing as a lullaby.

Turning on her side so she was facing the wall instead of piercing eyes, she curled her aching limbs toward her center and rested her head on the pillow. It felt deflated. Her neck wouldn’t be happy about that.

She exhaled, slowly, and closed her eyes. She kept them closed even as the whispering started, ticking her eardrums like razor-sharp feathers. She didn’t open them as other people walked in, some footsteps heavy, some light, adding their voices to the cacophony. She kept them shut at the sound of metallic, running water and the sound of gurgling, almost like choking on blood. Her eyelids clenched even tighter together as each person slipped into their own beds one by one, and the general sounds of life faded into the relaxed silence of dreamland. She didn’t sleep a wink.

~ * ~

“—and then, before she could pull me all the way back in, I kicked her straight in the nose! And then Blake yanked me into the forest and we ran away as fast as we could.”

Jean and Indigo were leaning in so close that Avery could see each individual taste bud glistening through their gaping mouths. Even Addison, sitting at her separate bed, seemed to glance over every few minutes. Avery had never really thought of herself as a really good storyteller, but with the way they were staring at her with their wide unblinking eyes and how she’d been speaking so long she’d needed two breaks for water, it was like this was the first story they’d ever heard in their lives. Maybe it was. She still didn’t really know how people in the Clink worked.

“What happened next?” Indigo shoved herself even closer into her face, breaking her train of thought. “Did you guys manage to get away? Did she catch up to you guys?”

They wouldn’t have been here if they hadn’t ended up getting away. Avery shrugged, mustering up a smile. “Um… both,” she said. “She climbed through the wall right after us and managed to catch up to us. To me. Slammed right into me and everything.”

“Even after you kicked her nose in?”

“Well.. yeah, I guess. It wasn’t anything like breaking your arm or anything. It’d stopped bleeding by the next day. She didn’t seem too bothered by it, either.”

“But it still had to hurt, right?” Indigo screwed up her face in what had to be some sort of sympathetic gesture. Jean did the same. It would’ve been funny seeing them mirror each other if it didn’t make Avery feel guilty. That, and wistful. Wistful for Randi and how she had stuck together with her and Blake despite their differences and disagreements.

She’d said that she’d never, never stopped looking for them after they’d left. They’d been worried for their safety after she’d become more aggressive, but then they’d only gotten into an even worse situation after settling into Rowan’s house. Would they have been okay if they’d stayed with Randi after all? Her… friend… had seemed nice. And then they’d gotten hurt. Just like Blake. By Peyton. Because they had upset him. If they’d decided to stay with her, how much better would have things turned out for all three— four— of them?

“Avery?”

Fingers snapping in front of her eyes. She blinked, squeezed her eyes shut, shook her head. “Sorry— wha?”

Indigo sat back and huffed. “We said, what happened next?

“O-oh. Sorry.” She shook her head again. Her tongue had a bitter taste coating it, almost like the tea Tarian insisted she drank to “get her energy back.” It lingered in her mouth for hours, strong enough to take her mind off other worries, most of the time. “Well… after she followed us out, we just spent our days walking around the forest and yelling at each other before Blake and me finally left.”

“Yeah, but left to where?

“Just… another place that we stayed at for a while. I don’t… I don’t like talking about that place that much. Maybe another time, okay?”

Indigo’s jaw twitched, and her brow furrowed up, but she sighed concedingly. “Alright. Fine.”

The bitterness in Avery’s mouth slipped down her throat and she swallowed. “I’m… sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Jean said. “It’s just that we’ve never really heard those kinds of things about the Academy or the Outskirts before.” A pause. “Hey— what did you say it looked like, again? The Outskirts, I mean.”

“Well, it’s very… green.”

“Are trees as soft-feeling as they look in the books?” Indigo asked.

Avery opened her mouth to say for the third time that no, they were not— but then a noise at the doorway interrupted her. It interrupted Jean and Indigo too, because they looked over her shoulders to look. A smile spread over Jean’s face. “It’s Tarian,” they said, then waved exaggeratedly. “Hey, Tarian. What’s up?”

Avery turned around to look, too. Tarian nodded and smiled at Jean, and then his eyes went to Avery. His smile wavered a little bit. Avery’s palms had little fingernail sized crescent moons dug into them. “Wh-what’s the matter?” she said.

Tarian approached them, then pointed to the exit. “Blake wants to see you.”

She unclenched her fists. “She’s… awake?”

“Yes. And she wants to see you.”

“And you’re letting me?

Another nod.

Avery flew off the bed. She rushed past Tarian, almost shoving her way past him, and wrenched the sheet to the outside open. Finally! Finally, finally, finally! Every time Blake had woken up they had always kept her from seeing her. She was always too out of it to speak to you or only on the cusp of consciousness. When Avery could see the curtain to the little den billowing about or almost hear Blake’s voice coming through it, those excuses had been almost torture. She’d been waiting for this for so long.

The curtain’s rings screamed against its rod as Avery tore it open. Just a few feet away, illuminated by sweet-smelling candles and the light from the main camp, Blake— Blake!— stared at her from the bed. Avery dove forward and crushed her to her chest, sobbing into her hair. “I’m sorry! I’m s-sorry! They wouldn’t let me see you!”

Blake wrapped her arms around her too, so fragile like twigs. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s okay. They wouldn’t let me see you, either.”

Avery sniffled, wiping her face on her sleeve. “Really? They didn’t?”

“Heh. No. They said… they said that I was too weak to talk to anybody besides them, yet. But I’ve been awake like normal for like— three whole days. It really sucked.”

Three whole days? Avery pushed Blake away from her, looking her up and down. “You’re… you’re alright now though, right? Everything’s back to normal?”

Blake lowered her gaze, her smile sobering a little. “Uh… kind of.”

“What do you mean?”

A heavy sigh whooshed out of her, tailed by a wheezed laugh. “I can’t walk very well,” she said, bluntly. “Saga says it’s a combination of wearing myself out so much from… coming here, and laying down without working my legs at all for a few days. I’m all shaky on my knees when I feel energetic enough to try.”

Avery’s mouth was numb, and her words got all tangled up in it like dry wool. “Is it… permanent?”

“No! No… it’s not permanent.” She shook her head. “Tarian’s gonna help me when I get all my energy back again. Hadley and Fynn said that they’ll help me out when they can, too. Don’t worry. It’s just gonna be like me being a baby again.”

Blake laughed, and Avery felt so much relief coursing through her that she laughed, too. “Don’t worry. I’ll help too. I mean— I was the first of us to walk and all. I remember what it’s like.”

“You weren’t! I was the first! You always say you walked before me but Ma always said that I walked first!”

“Pops said I did!”

They glared at each other for several long seconds— then Avery laughed again and turned away, covering her face. “Okay— fine. It doesn’t really matter. I’m just glad you’re all alright.”

“Well— uh, about that…”

Her hand fell back to the bed. “What? About what?”

“Calm down. Relax.” Blake rubbed her face, sighing. “It’s nothing too bad. It’s just… Saga told me that I might have some problems with my brain. Just small little things. Like forgetting stuff more easily and memory fuzziness. And… I might get more emotional more easily, too. Getting mad and sad, and stuff. So… yeah. I guess I should’ve told you that before. But at least you know now, right? So you won’t be concerned when it does end up happening.”

“O-oh. And this… is this permanent?”

The silence that followed was enough of an answer, but Blake confirmed it anyway. “Yeah. For the most part. It might get better after a few years. Or it might get even worse. There’s no real way to actually tell yet.”

Avery’s eyes stung. “O-oh,” burbled the word from her lips. “I… I understand.”

“Hey. It doesn’t matter.” Blake put a hand on her shoulder, rubbing it up and down. “I’m still me, right? You know I’ve always had more of a temper than you. It’s the same thing. It’ll be… almost normal.”

“I know. I know that. But still.” She scrubbed at her eyes and angry color bloomed behind the lids. “I… I feel like this is my fault. I should have protected you better. We should have decided to stay with Randi. Maybe none of this would have happened if we did. I was supposed to protect you, and— and I failed.”

“You didn’t fail. You didn’t. Don’t say that.” Blake pulled her into a weak, flimsy hug. “You saved me. You kept your head on after Peyton hurt me so he wouldn’t hurt me or you anymore. And… and you dragged me all the way from Rowan’s house back to the City. If you hadn’t been able to do that, who knows what would’ve happened?”

“I know,” she repeated, her voice as feeble as Blake’s hug. “I just… I just have to figure this out on my own.” She pulled away, wiping at her face. Then she brushed the tears away from Blake’s face, too. Blake pushed her hand away, and let out a feeble chuckle. Avery laughed too. “But… how… how do you know you’re going to get all of those weird condition things?”

“Because we’ve had this happen before, Avery.”

Avery went rigid. Blake tensed up too, twisting around so she could look in the corner. Her face went pale— paler than it had been before. “I forgot you were sitting there.”

“It’s quite alright, you two. I did not want to infringe on what was clearly an intimate moment any more than I had to.” Saga pushed herself up from the stool, moving toward them. “Unfortunately, now that you two have figured things out, we must get to the pressing matter at hand.”

Avery swallowed, a lump in her throat. “What… what pressing matter?”

“The matter of how you two came upon this place and sent yourselves down here.”

Footsteps sounded at the entrance of the den. Avery twisted around. Two shadows cut like ink into the bleached yellow light, connected to two people: Drew, and Hadley. Jean, Indigo, and Addison stood a ways from them, whispering amongst themselves. They peered into the den curiously, watching every movement they made. Avery felt almost light-headed. She swooned a little, then dug her fingers into the bedsheets “What… what’s going on? Why didn’t you tell us about this before?”

Saga lowered her head as Tarian slipped beside her, and Hadley and Drew walked in. “This isn’t meant to scare or provoke either of you. We simply want answers. We need them, in fact, to determine whether or not you two can stay once you are fully recovered. I’ll be discussing it with Drew and Hadley, then colloquially with the others, after we are finished with this discussion.” She paused. “I take it that Hadley or Fynn explained this to you when they were escorting you to this sector, Avery?”

Avery swallowed again. Her head still spun a little bit, her vision blurring at the edges. She clenched her sweaty fists and nodded. “Y-yeah. They did. They did talk about that.”

“That is good.”

Avery pushed herself closer to Blake, refusing to look into Drew’s piercing eyes. “I— we— they also told me… some other things. Well. Fynn mostly did, I mean.”

Hadley raised one of his bushy eyebrows. “And what is it that Fynn said to you?”

“You know. The whole thing about something really bad happening here recently. The thing that broke a lot of people’s trust and made two people have to… leave.”

The silence went from tense to almost impenetrable. Drew squeezed her fists into hard balls, resting them on the floor. Hadley pointedly turned away, clearing his throat into his fist. Even Tarian looked a little upset, his lip puckering and his brow creasing.

But Saga? Saga just nodded. “Yes,” she said. “That is… just about what happened. Perhaps a little sugar coated for your sake, but that is to be expected. But this is not about us. We will explain the whole story about that to you in due time— as long as you tell us your story first.”

Avery worked her jaw, moving her slate-like tongue in her mouth— but Blake spoke before she could even decide the right words to say. “You should know that… it’s not really a very happy story.”

“We were expecting that,” Saga said. “Our story isn’t the most pleasant one that can be told, either. But it is necessary.”

“Oh. Okay. That makes things a little easier. Okay…” she trailed off, staring at her blanket-covered legs. “Well. Where’s it you want us to start? After we—”

“Wherever you think is the best place to start so we can best comprehend your situation. Preferably as early as possible.”

Blake’s mouth slid back shut. “Oh. Okay. That… makes sense.” More leg-staring, her teeth gnawing on her lip. Then she looked up at Avery. “Why don’t you start?”

“M-me? I mean— okay. Yeah. I’ll start.” Avery pushed away the niggling insistence that that could have been Blake’s newfound memory problems rearing its ugly head. She wiped the skin under her eyes one last time, took a deep breath, and then parted her dry lips. “It started when we joined the Academy. The… the school. In case you guys didn’t know.”

Saga’s lips twitched, but she didn’t say anything. Neither did Drew, Hadley, Tarian, or Blake. That meant she was supposed to continue, probably… “We first realized that something was going on after just a few days there,” she said. “People disappeared and we couldn’t even remember who they were, and stuff. We didn’t know if we’d end up being next, so… we decided to leave.”

“And how did you do that?’ Hadley asked.

“By climbing through a hole in the wall,” Blake replied. “It really wasn’t that hard. I guess… I guess the City thought people would be too afraid to try that they didn’t see any need to fix it.”

Hadley frowned. “So you two escaped into the Outskirts? How long did you stay before coming here?”

“Um… I don’t know. Probably a few weeks, or months. The days just get all tangled together.” Avery rubbed her temple, sighing. “We went into the Outskirts with another girl, too. A little older than us.”

“And where is she?” Saga said.

“She’s… still there. We ended up leaving her behind.”

“Why did you do that?”

“Because… we were getting tired of her behavior. Blake and I were getting scared that she might’ve ended up hurting us, or something.”

Saga’s face twitched again. “You left her behind to come here?” she asked.

“No! No… we continued through the Outskirts. We left her behind in the middle of it.”

Saga furrowed her brow. “Is she… alright? Did you ever see her again, before you ended up here?”

“I think she’s alright.” Avery shifted on the bed, relaxing only slightly when Blake squeezed her hand. “And we did meet up with her. Only one time, though. That’s all.”

Hadley’s expression had gone from concern to careful caution. Saga pursed her lips together, and then nodded. “Very well,” she said. “We can get back to that later. Continue your recollection.”

“Al-alright.” Avery let Blake keep on holding her hand, like some sort of lifeline. “After we left her behind, you see— we ended up stumbling upon this… house, of sorts, in the middle of the forest. There were… a couple of people living in it.”

“A house? In the middle of the Outskirts?”

“Mm-hmm. Yeah. Blake and I almost couldn’t believe it at first, but after we showed up, they ended up taking us in. They fed us and let us sleep in an empty room and—”

“Who were the people who lived in the house, Avery? What were their names?”

The edge in Saga’s voice almost made her flinch. She bit her lip and concentrated on Blake’s touch again. “W-well. There were four people there to start with. Four… four adults. Three men and one woman.”

“Their names?”

Avery actually had to think about it for a second. “Um… Rowan, Jules, and Umber. And the woman was named Taylor.”

Hadley breathed in sharply. Both Avery and Blake flinched. Drew didn’t react besides a wayward glance in Hadley’s direction. Saga barely reacted at all. “Did they treat you well, them being adults and you being children?” she asked. “Or were they the reason why you left?”

“No, no. They were very nice to us. They weren’t the reason we left at all.”

“Then why did you?”

Avery swallowed. She looked down at her fiddling hands, her eyes stinging something fierce. Blake didn’t say anything, either. They both sat there, steeping in their reluctant silence.

A sigh. “Perhaps we should continue this another day.

“N-no!” Avery’s voice hitched and cracked. “No… no. I want to continue this now. Please. I just want to get this over with. I know Blake does, too. Please. I don’t care how long it takes.”

Drew sighed heavily, her crow’s feet furrowing into claws as she rubbed at her temple. That only made Avery feel worse. She let go of Blake’s hand and wrapped her arms around herself, shutting her eyes.

Saga sighed yet again. “Very well,” she said. “But do not push yourself if it’s becoming too difficult for you. Either of you. There is no need to rush any of this. We would rather have a calm, composed explanation over the course of several days than a rushed, hole-filled recalling given immediately.”

“Okay. We understand.” Avery put her hand over Blake’s, squeezing it. She bit the tip of her tongue, willing it to work properly. “After… after a few weeks of living there and everything being perfect and everything, we got… two more people. They were from the City, too, I think. At least one of them was.” She swallowed. “And that’s when everything began to go… downhill.”

Hadley sat up and turned his eyes to Avery. “And what were their names?”

Her tongue turned right back to sand. “Their… their names… they were Nikita and Peyton.”

All the air inside the room vanished, leaving behind an ice-cold vacuum. Saga’s hands curled into fists in her lap, Tarian winced— Hadley pushed his face into his hands and Drew hissed a sharp, “I knew it!”

Avery gripped Blake’s hand tighter, pushing herself against the wall like they could melt into it if they tried hard enough. They couldn’t. They couldn’t get away from Saga’s voice, suddenly a lot more curt and sharp. “Explain what happened after they arrived.”

Avery’s tongue tripped over itself over and over again. “I— wh-what happened? Did you— did you guys know them? Him— her? What happened to them?”

“Please, Avery and Blake. Just answer the question. It would be best for everyone in this situation.”

She didn’t even say that they could take a break anymore. How was she supposed to answer if they wouldn’t even answer her. The room spun, the candles drawing brands of orange lines in her vision. She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut. Blake’s voice. “Things were… mostly normal for a while after they arrived. I guess. Peyton was really shy. Nikita was nice, though. She talked about Peyton a lot. It was… nice, I guess, to have a kid our age around to do things with.”

Saga’s hands did not unclench. “And then?”

Blake faltered. “And then— uh— one day, we were hanging out with him and stuff. Peyton took a little tumble, then Nikita came and took him away, and— it was like a switch flipped. He stopped being outgoing and friendly and became just like he’d been when they’d first arrived. Worse than that, even. He refused to talk to us, to come out of his room… he only talked to Nikita. I don’t… I don’t know what she was saying to him. Or what she was doing to him. When I say he didn’t talk to anyone but her, I really mean it.”

Saga’s fists shook. She unfurled one, raised it to her face, and rubbed it, slowly, under her left eye. “And I take it that the both of them— or at least one of them— was directly involved in the reason why you were forced to leave to come here.”

Avery shouldn’t have been surprised that Saga knew. “Y-yes. You’re right.”

Saga’s voice gentled, the sharpness wearing itself away like it were too exhausted to keep on. “Could you explain in more detail what happened?”

“I… yes. Yes, I can. We can.” Avery tried to sit up, look more confident. It probably didn’t work very well. “It… it started a few days before the incident. After Peyton had started to become distant from us again, I mean. N-Nikita— she came up to us one day, while we were… outside.” By the swing. The first— and the last— time they’d gone since Peyton had tagged along with them. “She… she asked us what we were doing, and if we were having fun, for some reason. If we were happy. We… we said yes, and then… and then…”

“And then what, Avery?”

“And then she said if we wanted to keep on being happy, the best thing we could do would be staying away from Peyton,” Blake said. “She said that he really needed his space, that she was helping him through some serious problems…and if we pushed him too hard he could end up doing something really bad to us.” She pursed her lips, squeezing her hands together as she stared at them. “It happened right after we were becoming real friends with him. There’d been nothing wrong before. Then he talked to Nikita and he didn’t want anything to do with us anymore. That’s… weird, isn’t it? How were supposed to think it was all his fault when he only got worse after Nikita? So… so we tried to help him. And that’s when everything went wrong.”

Saga said nothing. Hadley spoke for her, instead. “What happened?”

Blake closed her eyes, unspoken words rumbling in her throat. Avery squeezed her hand, her grip as reassuring as she could make it. “One night— the night we left— he… Peyton— we could hear him moving around in his room. And then we heard his door open. Blake and I thought… we thought maybe this could be a chance to catch him without Nikita.”

She shivered, her voice more and more reluctant to leave her by the second. “We tried, but he ran away, and… so we ended up chasing after him. But then we caught up, and then Blake grabbed his arm and yelled at him, and then… and th-then…”

“And then she got hurt.”

Hadley wasn’t asking, no; it was a certain statement. Avery hugged herself, squirmed closer to Blake, and nodded. “He… he felt so terrible about it, though. He kept on apologizing and saying Nikita had warned him it would happen. But— but it wouldn’t have if she hadn’t made him so scared of us. I’m sure of it. She… she wanted him to stay away. But I don’t know why.”

Saga rubbed the bridge of her nose, her milky, unseeing eyes sliding shut. Then she sighed, so loudly and so heavily that Avery jumped. “I assume that is when you left.”

“Y-yes. Peyton… he forced us to go. He was so scared of himself, Saga. He said— he’d said that he would kill us if we didn’t leave. We wanted him to come with us, so— so he could escape Nikita. But… but he said no.” She sniffed. “He didn’t even stay to say goodbye to us after we went to pack our things. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. It was the last thing he wanted to do. You have to believe me.”

“But he hurt you two nonetheless,” Saga said. “He injured Blake to the point where she was teetering on the brink of permanent damage. Would you have forgiven him so easily had he succeeded?”

Avery bit her lip. “I… I don’t know. He hurt someone else too, I think. I don’t know if she’s okay.”

“Who?” Hadley said.

“A… someone our friend met in the Outskirts. A woman. Her nose was all messed up, too. She could barely even get up.” Avery looked at the others in turn, waiting for any sort of reaction. She didn’t get much of one… though Drew was looking increasingly more upset. “She wasn’t in any condition to come with us or anything— but she couldn’t stay in the middle of the forest, either, so… s-so we told her and our friend to go to the house we’d been at. It was the only choice they had! Or else— or else they would’ve… would’ve…”

“It’s alright. That’s enough.” Saga held up her hand. Then she faltered, lowering her hand back into her lap. “Avery. Blake. If all of what you said is true, then…” she trailed off, at an uncharacteristic loss for words. “I will have to discuss it to some extent with the others. But… for now, you are allowed to stay here for as long as you wish.”

“You’re letting them stay?

Avery flinched— so did Saga. Hadley was already reaching up but it had come too late— Drew had already shot up. “What if they do the exact same thing to us?! They knew him— they knew him! And that woman. How do you know they didn’t come down here to finish what they started?!”

Avery wrapped her arms around Blake. “We aren’t!” she protested, Blake pressing her face into her chest. “We— we just want to be safe!”

“That’s what they said! That’s what they both said! And now they’re going around killing other people! I’m sick of it. We don’t want anyone associated with them here! I don’t! I don’t! Take them somewhere else. Make them leave!

Hadley wrapped her into a tight hug, enveloping her in his arms. He uttered something into her ear, so quiet that even Saga wouldn’t be able to comprehend what he was saying, probably. Drew beat her fists over his back, then her open hands, and then she was melted into a blubbering, wailing mush against his shoulders. He lifted her up and carried her out of the room, leaving behind a thick, nervous silence.

Saga rubbed her face. “We’re… sorry,” she said, as Tarian touched his fingers to her shoulder. “Drew isn’t usually like that. None of us are like what you two have experienced here. What you have been seeing has been a… distorted display of what our Sector One has experienced since the incident that happened here just several months ago.”

Blake squirmed, lifting her head from Avery’s chest. “What… what incident is that? What happened to you guys?”

“I am sure that you two can figure out who was involved.”

It was hard for Avery to breathe. “Was it— was it Peyton? P-Peyton and Nikita? Were they the cause of the… the incident?”

Saga nodded. Tarian clasped his hands tightly on his lap and ducked his head, sharp shadows obscuring his face as well. Neither of them said anything.

Avery pushed herself up from the bed, crawling to the edge of it. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she felt dizzy, like she’d been laying down for as long as Blake had. It all made sense. How else would have Peyton known about this place? Where else would he have met somebody like Nikita? But… “How?” she asked. “What did he do? What did he do that destroyed this place so much?”

“He killed a person, Avery. He injured me just as he did to your sister and murdered somebody else, in completely cold blood. His loss was a very big blow to our sector, and we will never fully recover.”

Saga’s voice held a acid to it, pushed forth by months of grief. Was it directed at her and Blake, or at Peyton? Avery couldn’t tell. And she didn’t want to ask. Swallowing, she forced her voice through her tightened throat. “I’m… I’m sorry. We didn’t know at all.”

Saga unbristled, her body folding in on itself like she was filled with tissue instead of flesh and bone. “There’s no reason to apologize,” she whispered, as Tarian rubbed her back. “There is no way that you could have known. I fully expected Peyton and Nikita to keep his crimes a secret, wherever they went off to after they escaped. Unfortunately, it seems like that caused even more victims to be created from him. Despite Nikita attempting to warn you in her own conniving way.”

Blake pushed herself up from the bed and shook her head. “Nikita… she can’t get off scot-free. She manipulated Peyton. He was so happy and non-violent with us. If she hadn’t bothered him then I’m sure he wouldn’t have hurt us. He wouldn’t have hurt anybody.

Saga bowed her head, hunching her shoulders. “That may very well be true. I had always had an odd aversion toward her. From the moment she had been sent down here. From being the only non-child, non-researcher in Sector One to have been ordered to the Clink, to how she treated Sawyer until he was deep into his adolescence… but I never said anything to anyone other than Tarian because I had never seen her do anything wrong. Not even with Peyton. The only reason he had even injured me the way he had was because I had questioned her and his relationship to him.” Her voice cracked in her chest. “And then he ran off and killed Sawyer. And then he escaped with Nikita. Perhaps that is what she had wanted all along.”

She raised her head again— the sharpness in her eyes had returned. “But even if that is the case, the fact remains that even if Nikita did manipulate Peyton, he is still the one who killed Sawyer. He is the one who killed Sawyer, and hurt me, you, and your friend’s companion. Something like that simply cannot be overlooked or shunted completely onto another accomplice. As unfortunate as it is, Peyton is wholly responsible for many unforgivable things.”

The bitterness in her throat flared to a peak. Saga was right. She knew she was right, but… it didn’t feel right. Peyton had always been so sweet and shy. And he had been— no, he still was— the victim of someone trying to keep him away from anyone who could help him. He had been pushed and shoved to do what he’d done. Sure, he should have taken on a good portion of the blame, but… most of it? All of it?

“Saga,” Blake suddenly said, breaking Avery’s thoughts. “Can I… can I ask you something? Something about… Peyton?”

Saga settled down again. “Ask away.”

“Uh. Well…” she looked away, licking at her bottom lip. Avery patted her shoulder. It probably didn’t do anything much. With a shaky voice, she continued, “How… how can you know that it was Peyton who— who killed your friend? Your sector member? Is it because he hurt you, too? How do you know that it wasn’t Nikita who did it, or something?”

Saga’s face set back into rock. “How do you know that he was the one who hurt you, Blake?”

“I mean— you do have a point, but… was he… did your friend look the same? Did he have the same symptoms as you? Is that how you all figured it out?”

“Yes. He did, Blake. He suffered the same effects as you and I. And we suffered as your friend’s companion did. Who else would have been able to do that to her? It was all Peyton’s doing.”

Avery’s stomach churned as bloody noses and red-shot eyes flashed in the peripheral of her vision. “So… so what do you think of that? He does it so all of the people he’s hurt have his… mark?”

“I do not believe that it is intentional.”

“Then— what’s the reason for all of that? Why does that— the nose, the eyes, all the slurred speech— why does that happen to everyone he hurts if he’s not doing it on purpose? It doesn’t…” she swallowed, shuddering as the sour feeling traveled down to her stomach. “It doesn’t make sense. He didn’t even touch Blake. Not really. So then how?”

“That is just the issue at hand, Avery. The reason why the damages he does to people are identical and the reason why he doesn’t have to touch you are one in the same.”

“B-but… what is that reason?”

“It is because what he harnesses with him does not require him to touch you to hurt you. It is… an ability of sorts. A curse masquerading as evolution. A curse many people in the City hold, but should have long since been squashed away.”

“S-so you’re saying he hurt Blake and a bunch of other people because of a power?

“That is exactly what I am saying. You would be better off asking Fynn or Hadley more on it, as they are the ones I have heard most of what I know from.”

“But then why have I never heard of that? It doesn’t make sense. Shouldn’t… shouldn’t it be common knowledge that people in the City can do stuff like that?”

“Because the City keeps it under wraps. That is the City’s entire goal. To keep incidents like what happened to us— incidents like what Peyton has caused— hidden and prevented. We believe it stems from an unstable mental state— therefore, the City does everything it can to keep unstable mental states from becoming an issue. Up there, the medication, the pills, the use of terminations, the control over your lives: it all goes toward preventing others from being hurt. With so many lethal ticking time bombs being held just under the surface, it is the only thing that keeps the City going. It is the only thing that keeps humanity as a whole going.”

She squeezed her hands together and vaguely noticed they were damp. “But… we haven’t done anything like that for a while. The medication or the controlled lives, or— or anything like that. Does that mean… does that mean that’s going to happen to us? A-are we going to become like Peyton?”

“Most likely not,” Saga said, and Avery sagged in relief. “If you have been outside of the City and its influences for months and been through what you have without anything within you going awry, then it likely means that you do not have the gene that causes that issue in the first place.” She paused, her eyebrows crinkling together. “Peyton was already fragile when he first came down here. And on top of it all, since he was not sent down here by an official, there was no order to send down a ration of medication for him, and thus control him. That series of unlucky circumstances, along with Nikita’s influence over him, is what caused what happen to happen.”

“Oh. Oh…” Avery squinted at her sweaty hands, feeling a thrum in her neck. “He’s… he still isn’t in the City. He isn’t getting help. How… how is he going to get help? How can he be stopped from hurting and killing people again? H-how?

Saga closed her eyes, a deep crease carving into her brow. “I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that.”

Blake tensed up next to Avery, at the same time a chill raked down Avery’s spine. Her entire face felt like lead. “Why… why did you hope that?”

“Because going by your past experiences and opinions of Peyton, you likely will not appreciate the answer I give you.”

Her heart hammered in her throat. “But— but… what’s the answer, then?”

A shuddering breath escaped her. “Peyton is too far gone. He has hurt people. Killed one, and injured two others to the brink of death. He has been outside of the City’s influences for months. His condition has been spurred forth by those surrounding him, and he may well still be in the process of worsening at this very moment. Peyton cannot be viewed as that young boy who you played with before his incident involving you happened. He is a danger. A danger to others, and to himself. He cannot be allowed to be around other people, for the sake of their lives.”

She raised her head, and Avery reeled at the anguish swimming in her sightless eyes. “I am sorry, Blake and Avery. But the only thing that may keep Peyton from causing any more harm to others may very well be killing him.”

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Seventy-Seven

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Vicious branches and thorns grabbed at his exposed skin and tattered clothing, slicing through them like a blade against foam. The air seared at his exhausted eyes and lungs, and stained the world red. The lacerations on his arms and face stung with helpless, burning tears. And yet he still ran.

How could he have been so brainless? Leaving Jaden and Sixteen behind to search for the source of the screaming had been the worst decision he had ever made. If he had stayed, then perhaps the two people he had sworn to take care of no matter what wouldn’t have been dragged through the forest, forced to do who knew what for the City.

Of course he had wanted to go back—but not like this. Not anything like this. The Seeker bird had been so violent. Seeker birds were never supposed to be that violent, in any sort of circumstance. What had they done to Jaden and Sixteen? If the wicked beaks and claws over their heads hadn’t injured them, then being dragged, forced across stick and stone must have certainly done them in. And that wasn’t even considering what could await them later on.

This hadn’t been what was supposed to happen. He repeated it over and over again until it became just as natural and rhythmic as his heartbeat and his feet thumping endlessly on the ground. The way he had planned it, they would return to the City under wraps, and try to fix things slowly, rationally, until all three of them were set firmly into the lives that they desired. Not dragged back and forced to squeeze into whatever roles the committees wanted out of them. That was if they were even still alive.

The acid building in Ellis’s legs shot to his throat. The sour, pungent spattering of vomit on his tongue forced him to a pause. He keeled forward and panted hard, hands pushing into his knees as hours’ worth of exhaustion slammed into him. No— he couldn’t stop. Every second wasted resting was a second he no longer had. But what would he be capable of doing if standing up was too much of a task? Jaden and Sixteen needed his help. They needed him in optimal condition, and they needed him as soon as humanly possible.

The issue was that they couldn’t have both. As the rate he was going, it was uncertain if they would be having either. Ellis pushed himself up and with shaking fingers, wiped the bile from his stinging lips. It burned. His muscles had been worn into stringy pulp, held together by rusted bones and threadbare tendons. He had to keep on. He had to keep on running, keep on going.

But keep on going where? The acid on his face was working it up, burning his eyes. He wiped them with his sleeve and forced his brittle joints to work again. Irritation blotting his vision would only prolong this ordeal from the eternity it already was. For all the density of the forest he’d torn through, walking through a stretch of endless white would have offered him the same effect— searching forever for something, and always emerging fruitless.

He continued forth. He did not run, no; the buzzing weariness in his limbs made all too sure of that, but he walked, continuing his way to futility. With no way to know which way was the City, there was a not insignificant change that he was moving farther and farther away from it with every passing moment. Being up and running since before the sun had risen had rendered him completely discombobulated, even with the gurgling of the river to guide his way. At least with Sixteen and Jaden, it had felt like he’d had some sense of direction, some sort of purpose. Now, here, he didn’t.

Sharp pain flickered in his side, just below his ribcage. The warmth of his hand, nor him pushing upon it did anything to abate the feeling. He supposed he should have been grateful that the cramping from walking so long had taken this much time to rear its ugly head. Besides the ache digging into his side, though, all he felt was numbness. He’d lost feeling in his feet a while ago, so much warm blood had pooled in them. How long would that take to spread to the rest of him? Maybe he wouldn’t even be capable of movement by then.

The sour, exhausted lump in his chest swelled with rising despair. He stopped yet another time, fell back against the nearest tree— a young, flimsy thing that bent under his weight— and deflated. One breath in, hold it, another breath out. He may as well been inhaling sulfur.

His eyes began to burn again. He forced his hands to his face and pressed his palms against his eyes. Harder and harder he pushed, until the color of flame pervaded the darkness.

And then something seized him and ripped it away. He sputtered violently and shoved himself back. Pain struck against his collarbone, crackling up his spine. Another hand closed around his shirt and wrenched him upward. Death breathed poison into his face.

“Ellis?”

He opened his eyes. Tierney— Tierney, of all the people it could have been— pulled his face from Ellis’s own, hand still pushed deep into his chest. “What are you doing here?” he said, roughly. “Where are Sixteen and Thirty-two?”

Ellis opened his mouth to speak, but nothing but bitter silence escaped. Through the flimsy haze he watched Tierney’s expression go hard and harder still. The world tilted underneath him and he was pulled up, and then shook. “Where are they?

Ellis tried to wave the hot air blown into his face away. “I— there was—”

“There was what?

Why wouldn’t he let him speak? Ellis’s deflated lungs shuddered, screaming desperately for air but so reluctant to take any in. His tongue wasn’t much more cooperative. “There was— a Seeker bird. During the night. They came out of nowhere.”

“You lost them?

“I didn’t lose them! They were taken from me!”

The air was wrested from his throat as Tierney pulled him up again. “I knew letting them leave with you was a bad idea,” he seethed, scatters of spit flying over his face. “Get up. Frost is going to want to see you.”

Any shame he may have felt before was completely smothered by a surging panic. His hand shot out and clutched Tierney’s wrist. “No! I’m still looking for them.”

“Since last night? No. You would have found them by now.” Tierney wrenched his hand away from Ellis like his grip was only a ring of wet paper. “Come with me, or I’ll make you. With the condition you’re in, it wouldn’t be very difficult.”

Ellis couldn’t protest. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to. He swallowed the burning air, coughing and wheezing as it choked him. Tierney didn’t seem the least bit concerned— and truthfully, why did he have to? What gave him the incentive to be worried for his well-being, other than as an extension of Jaden and Sixteen, who were no longer here with him? Time and time again it had been shown that Tierney held no fond feelings toward Ellis. It would only be worse, now, after what had happened.

He turned away from Ellis, leaving just a sliver of his eye in view. “Don’t try to run away. Follow me.”

Ellis’s vision swam. Even nausea was able to push its way through his tight, constricted throat. He shut his eyes in an ill attempt to reorient himself. Breathe in, hold it, breathe out, count to ten. He had to do this. It was imperative for him to do it. He had dug this hole by himself and for himself, as much as the furious claws of those Seeker birds had helped. He should have run in a different direction, heard Tierney coming, done something other than wallowing in his own grief like a child. But he had not, and now he would have to face the consequences— but what would those consequences be, with Frost’s severity and Tierney’s fiery temper?

He swallowed past the lump in his throat, and opened his eyes. The forest looked brighter, sharper, like when he stepped into a brightly-lit room after spending too much time in the dark. He forced his feet from their cemented position in the ground— and then was forced to stop as Tierney walked behind him. Before he could even get a word out, Tierney jabbed him in the back with a pointed finger. “Keep walking. I’m just making sure that you don’t get the mind to do anything you’d end up regretting. For both of our sakes.” A short hiss blew out of his nose, making the hairs on Ellis’s nape stand on end. “You’re a complete mess.”

Ellis stood rigidly, his dignity and his rationality warring at a standstill. Arguing wasn’t going to be worth it. He could not waste valuable energy. Not when this situation was wholly his fault, not when Sixteen and Jaden were still out there somewhere, awaiting something or someone to come and help them. Not when a physically capable man was less-than-vaguely challenging him to a one-sided battle. “Alright. Of course,” he said, cursing even in his exhaustion the way his voice wavered.

The forest had always been quiet. Not silent, of course; the constant sound of wildlife and wind in the trees made it impossible that the Outskirts would ever be silent. In the cloak of birdsong and insect buzz there was an uncanny sense of intimacy that whispered to him in his most hushed of moments: this was what humans used to live like, a long time ago; he belonged here to some extent, even if the City had squeezed most of that part from him a long time ago. With Tierney breathing down his neck, however, it was like some unseen force had smothered the forest and was now coming after him. The omnipresent sense of danger squashed him down and filled him with bitterly cold apprehension. It may have been irrational. Tierney was hot-headed and impulsive, but he was not sadistic, certainly not when Ellis was complying as well as he could. If he continued doing that, perhaps e could hold back the worst of that rage for a few fleeting moments longer.

That didn’t mean that the lull was any easier to deal with. Ellis inhaled, his lungs working a bit better with his deep, sustained breath. “Just how far away are we from Frost? How far away is the building?”

“You don’t know? Really?”

“No, I don’t. I… figure that it must be close? You wouldn’t be this far away from it, at any rate?”

“We aren’t very very far away from the building by now.” He paused, and Ellis could almost feel his eyes raking up and down his body. “With the condition you’re in, though, it’ll probably take a while to get there compared to if it were just me.”

He knew it all already— he was weak, exhausted, and on the brink of giving up. For what purpose did Tierney keep on reiterating it if not to rub it further in? Ellis drove his canine into the tip of his tongue. “I… know that.”

Tierney made a nasty, derisive sound. “Spare your energy, please. I don’t want to have a conversation with you right now. Keep on walking and maybe we can get there before you collapse.”

“I can understand completely why you’re upset. But this was not my fault. Not completely, at least. I ask you to understand that. This would have happened even if I—”

“It was your fault. It is your fault. Jf you hadn’t dragged them along with you in your stupid plan to save the City, then they would still be here. Safe. Like they’ve always been. But you just had to take them, didn’t you? You just had to use them?”

A hand planted itself into the center of Ellis’s back and shoved, hard. He stumbled forward— incredibly lucky that he didn’t fall— and whipped around, staggering backward. Tierney scowled down at him. “If it really wasn’t your fault, Ellis, then why were they taken, and not you? Did you run off to save your own skin?”

“I didn’t! Of course I didn’t!” Just the accusation of that felt like a red-hot blade against his neck. “I went to go see what was happening— and by the time I realized what was going on, they were gone. There was nothing that I could have done at that point, Terney, I keep on asserting that to you— I have been doing that since you stumbled upon me and you still don’t listen.”

His throat was jumping up and down in discomfort, much too dry and much too warm for this sort of exertion. He swallowed the pain and continued speaking, because there wasn’t anything else he felt like he could do in good faith. “And what would you have expected me to do against the Seeker birds? They can be large. And their claws and beaks can be incredibly sharp. By the time I managed to fight it away, the other two had managed to take Jaden and Sixteen.”

“And then Sixteen and Thirty-two just disappeared?”

Ellis swallowed again. His irritation went down reluctantly, like sun-heated gravel. “Y-yes. I assume that their size and the pain that they could inflict forced them to comply with… whatever they wanted out of them. Tierney, I’m sorry. I have been awake ever since I realized they were gone and searching endlessly for them and I’ve found nothing. I’m sorry.”

Tierney’s expression warped into a look of disgusted pity— the look of a person about to put a one-winged insect out of its perpetual misery. “You should be sorry,” he finally said. “But not for yourself. Keep on going. And stop talking. My patience for you ran out a long time ago If I knew that Frost wouldn’t want to know about this, I’d leave you out right here to starve.”

Ellis’s limbs shook. He forced himself to straighten regardless, gritting his teeth. He kept Tierney at the corner of his vision as he turned around, every fiber drawn taut for another unanticipated shove. It didn’t come. He continued walking.

Thirsty as he was, his palms still sweated. He didn’t dare wipe them off. No, he continued walking with his head hung low, Tierney always lingering just behind him. This was a waste of time. Time that could have been spent looking. His step faltered as he continued forward, and he struggled to straighten it out before Tierney could have the opportunity to chide him for it. Now that the adrenaline had all but seeped through the scars in his skin, nothing but a heavy shell remained, filled with only the want, the need to find Jaden and Sixteen. But… in the condition he was in, was there really any chance that he would have found them in the first place? Even if Tierney hadnt stumbled upon him? Even if he were physically competent, even if he hadn’t been intercepted, depending on the strength and speed that the Seeker birds— and Jaden and Sixteen— had to spare, they could have been all the way back to the City by now. It was almost enough to make Ellis laugh. So desperately he had pined for them to return and this was how it had turned out for them. Who knew what was going to happen to them?

“Stop limping,” Tierney said, snapping Ellis out of his thoughts. “We’re almost back, now. Then you can rest. And then we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.”

What they were going to do— with what? Him? The situation he had caused? Just in general? Ellis choked the questions down. Whichever one it was, none of them would be ideal for him. That much was certain. But… it did not matter. What mattered was that Jaden and Sixteen were okay. Of all the things he wanted— food, water, rest— that was what he starved for the most.

He raised his gaze from his feet and stared out into the forest, squinting as his head and vision spun. Was it his vision? Was it his body, still betraying him after they’d been through so much together? No— what loomed before him was most certainly not a hallucination or a trick of the mind. It was those mirrors, the ones he had been tricked by before when he had come here for the first time, with Jaden. Such a perverted and ironic reenactment of that scene this was. The mirrors, rendering the structure almost invisible at the right angle, glinted with the sickly warm sunlight overhead. As if Ellis’s headache couldn’t get any worse. He lowered his head, staring at his tattered footwear.

But not looking at it didn’t mean it wasn’t getting closer. It felt like he hadn’t even completed a full round of breaths when the structure was upon him and Tierney, close enough that he could see details in the cracks and holes. Close enough that he could see his reflection. He didn’t look. He kept his attention trained on the ground as Tierney grated to a stop behind him. With more than a bit of strength, Ellis turned around to regard him. “Why did you stop?”

“I want to get in front of you. Frost is going to want to see me first. This is both for her sake and yours.” Tierney stepped forward, walking up so that Ellis was now tailing him— though, truly, it had felt like that all along. “Come on,” he continued, gruffly. “And don’t think about running away.”

“I had no intention of doing that.”

Tierney didn’t give him a satisfying response to that, but he must have heard, because he uttered a low “follow me” and approached the slouching entrance of the building. His building. As recently as Ellis had left it, it wasn’t his place to stay for any longer. Even if he did desire to sleep here, live here, make this place one of his own again, why would they allow him to do so, after what had happened? Tierney most certainly wouldn’t, period. If it had been up to him, then he wouldn’t let Ellis stay even before this.

Tierney didn’t spare him much more than a glance as he entered. Ellis’s heart thrummed in his throat, blood moving thick and sluggish. With a slow, reluctant breath, followed Tierney into the hungry, familiar shadows of the building.

There was no way to swallow down or push away his nervousness now. Whatever happened to him now would be his entire burden to bear alone. Even with the reassurance of inevitability on his shoulder, his pulse still jumped along with his breath as he walked through the everstretching hallway.

In the sooty black, erratic orange light flitted across the walls. Candles, lit in the middle of the day? Had things already changed so much in the short time since he’d left? He didn’t risk asking. Just like any questions about the City or the history of this place had been met with taciturn stubbornness that bordered on hostility, he was almost certain that asking would award him with something to that effect. Probably even worse with someone like Tierney.

So focused Ellis was on the uncharacteristic candlelight that he nearly didn’t notice that Tierney had stopped. He dug his heels into the floor to keep from crashing into him, and curled his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “What is it?”

Tierney made a sound between a scoff and a grunt, gesturing to the dark orange rectangle carved into the wall. “We’re here, that’s what it is.” He turned to face him, and jabbed a finger at the floor. “Stay here until I tell you to come inside.”

Ellis nodded, stiffly, and watched Tierney slip through the doorway. There really wasn’t any need to reiterate how imperative it was to stay right here over and over again. It wasn’t like he would leave. It wasn’t like he could. Tierney would always catch up to him, undoubtedly.

He could hear Frost. And then Tierney. Their voices drifted from the room, simply murmured suggestions of words at their volume and Ellis’s distance from them. Their voices spilled like hot grease over his head: smooth, slow, consistent, but dangerous all the same.

Until they weren’t speaking anymore. Ellis tapped his hands on his thighs in a vain attempt to ground himself as footsteps, sharp against the silence, grew louder and louder. Had he not been so completely physically, mentally, and emotionally debilitated, the idea of running away may have actually appealed to him right then.

Tierney appeared in the doorway. Like a shadow he stood, staring at Ellis for a moment that stretched to an eternity. Then he gestured for him to come. “She’s ready to speak with you.”

Ellis’s heart twisted and wrung, rising to his throat. He lowered his head and compelled himself to walk forward. Tierney didn’t move. He didn’t move to intimidate him, frighten him, but he didn’t make more room in the doorway either. Ellis was forced to shrink himself up and squeeze past him.

Frost was waiting for him. Perched on the rickety old table, as she always was. But no book this time. Not in her lap or her hand, or anywhere around her. Her hands clenched and fidgeted on her plume-covered thighs, before they decided to fold together and stay there. She regarded Ellis coolly, head tilted to the side. “Tierney told me that you wanted to tell me something,” she said.

A growth of pressure tickled the back of Ellis’s head, and he closed his eyes. Tierney hadn’t told her. Of course he hadn’t told her. Ellis would have to explain what had happened himself. Why had he not anticipated this? He could feel Tierney’s eyes from his position at the doorway, as hot as the candles lit at Frost’s feet. He was going to watch— and he was probably going to enjoy it.

“Ellis? Do you have anything to say to me? Why are Sixteen and Thirty-two not here with you?”

His cuts and his eyes stung, like her words had opened them up again. “Frost…” he began, and then ducked his head because he didn’t trust himself to look straight into her eye. “They’re— they’re gone. I lost them.”

Even when he wasn’t looking straight at her, the flash that passed over Frost’s face was completely palpable— it sent shivers up his spine, words he hadn’t even thought of yet tangling into the knot in his throat. But just as suddenly as it had appeared, the flare of emotion vanished. Frost’s voice was as cold and steady as it had ever been. “What do you mean, they’re gone?

Ellis drove his teeth into his tongue. Tierney answered for him. “He told me that Seeker birds got to them in the middle of the night, Miss Frost. They took them back to the City, I can only assume. But you can tell from Ellis’s injuries that they likely weren’t gentle about it.”

The silence hung. Frost slipped off the table, her knees quivering as her feet hit the floor. She looked at Tierney, and then pointed to the door. “Go and search for them. See if you can find anything that hints to where they may have gone, or the direction they took. Any scraps of them, their remnants, anything.”

Ellis raised his head, risking a look over his shoulder. Tierney’s face bore a look of uncertainty in the orange light, but he moved for the exit anyway. “And what should I do if I find a Seeker bird, Miss Frost? What if there’s an agent of the City out here?”

“Dispose of them. Any of them. Do not hesitate.”

Tierney’s face wiped clean. He stepped back, murmured an “of course, miss,” and then was gone. Frost watched him go, before she turned away.

Ellis’s tongue was coated in bitterness. “Miss Frost, I—”

Frost raised her hand, rubbing the back of it against her eyes. “Had I known that this would happen, I would have thrown you out to rot in the forest. I would have done it gladly.”

Now he could place the taste in his mouth, besides the aching sorrow that nearly overpowered it: it was disdain. “They would have sent the Seekers out even if I hadn’t found this place. The purpose they were sent out was likely to take me. Jaden and Sixteen were simply… collateral.” He paused to swallow. “Moreover… the committee threw me out and left me to die. I’m not currently affiliated with them. It isn’t like I requested them to send out those birds. I did not want this to happen.”

“Nevertheless, your disappearance from the City was most certainly the cause of this, whether it was of your will or not.” She put her hand back at her side. “You are right, however, that I would be remiss not to acknowledge the City’s part in this, as well.”

Ellis watched her begin to pace. “I didn’t mean for this to happen,” he repeated, uselessly.

“I thought you wanted to return to the City, Ellis.”

“Not like this. I wanted to return as citizens. Not violently. Not forced to do whatever the researchers thrust upon them.” The thought of it made his stomach turn. Back when he had first arrived here, he’d been so eager to learn about the people of the Outskirts. He’d burned with the curiosity. But he would have never stooped so low as to wrench them out of their homes and thrust them into the alien, sterile environment of the research center. How could they have stooped so low? What would they do once they were finished with the experiments? Letting them live freely as citizens was the best scenario, of course, but… after the trauma of their journey and the experiments themselves, not to mention how completely different the City was from their homes and the difficulty they would have adjusting, what if the researchers figured there were other options to deal with them after they were done? More convenient options?

Ellis looked away, swiped the bottom of his eyelid with a finger, and coughed. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, not quite sure what he was apologizing for. “What… what do you suggest we do?”

“What happened to the Ellis who was always ready to take charge of things regardless of the circumstance? What happened to the Ellis who would be answering that question instead of asking it?”

He faltered. Frost’s voice, mirthless as it was, didn’t hold any malice in it. How was he supposed to answer something like that? “Well… I don’t understand the point you are attempting to get across—”

“What would you do, Ellis? If I wasn’t here, what would you do?”

Ellis pressed a fingernail into the heel of his palm. “I suppose…nothing that involved staying here to deteriorate. Nothing that involves endangering the people I’m supposed to care for because of a fear for change, or a wanting of tradition.”

Frost angled her head to the left, regarding him silently. Then her lower lip tensed, and she turned away from him again. “I think you should realize by now that none of us truly belong in the City, Ellis. Not now. Not anymore.”

Ellis worked his jaw. The edge of the conversation had worn away, leaving his migraine, wounds, thirst, and exhaustion to reclaim the roles of his biggest discomforts. He cleared his throat. “I still do not think that that’s… entirely true. The City has done terrible things. Awful things— unforgivable things, depending on who you ask. I will be the first to admit that. But they don’t do it to be sadistic. They do it for the greater good. I… I promise you that, Miss Frost.”

“And that’s why Thirty-two and Sixteen were dragged, kicking and screaming, at the claws of a Seeker bird, back to the place that rejected them? To have who knows what done to them by your former workers? Is that what you are trying to tell me, Ellis— that all they do is all for the greater good?

“That isn’t… that’s not what I’m saying. Yes, that is awful. I don’t want you to believe that I wanted this to happen. This is just about the very last thing that I wanted to happen. But I’m sure that the human development and behaviors committee believe they’re doing the right thing.”

“That is a very intriguing mindset to carry, Ellis.”

“I… suppose that it is. But I can still have faith. At least a little faith. I’m sure that they will do as little harm to them as they possibly can.”

“I am certain that Sixteen and Thirty-two understand and accept that fully.”

Ellis looked away, narrowing his eyes and gritting his teeth. There was no saying what the members of the committee would do, not after they had so mercilessly thrown him out before. They’d done that because they’d thought that his plans, his procedures and way of directing things had been too immoral. If they had truly thought that, then what made them figure that violently snatching a young girl and a barely-adult woman from the Outskirts was any more moral? Could they have really stooped so low from when he had last seen them?

“Ellis, you are aware that you can sit down, yes?”

He bit the dry air in between his teeth. “I wasn’t sure if I—”

“You look like you’re about to collapse. Please, sit. You will be of no help to us if you are incapacitated.”

Ellis clenched his jaw. He rubbed his eyes, and then his entire face. Bags drooped from his eyes, and his lips felt cracked, almost leather-like. He knew that Frost had a point. He’d known that he would be of no use if he was tired before she’d said it, before he had even come here in the first place. What was the point in defying her?

He backed up so he was against the wall, and lowered himself to the ground. Pulling his knees up, he rested his chin on them. His eyelids drooped, like they failing him now that he’d gotten permission to act tired. They were still light enough to stay open a sliver, and see everything.

Frost continued analyzing him with that icy glare of hers. Then her eyes narrowed into slits just as small as his, and she turned to face the wall. Stood there for a while longer, frozen rigid. She began to pace. Stopped, her footsteps fading into echoes. She turned to face Ellis. Even with his near-shut eyes and the near-dead room, he could still see that her brow were bothered, her mouth a mere score cut into her face. Her hands fidgeted and twisted over her stitched parody of a dress, the only thing here as pale and decrepit as she was.

She stared for another span— at him, or through him? Before Ellis could decide, she had placed a hand to her brow as if shielding her gaze from sunlight above, though the only flames were the ones at her feet. She lowered the angle of her palm so it obscured her eyes, and drifted back to the table. It came up almost to the middle of her torso. She had to use her hands to push herself onto it, and her feet could do nothing to help as she shuffled into the center.

She folded her hands, rested them on her lap, only to unfold them, nails scratching at the worn surface futilely. Her arm rose to her face. Her pinky finger grazed underneath her left eye, then her right. Repeated seconds after. Her face scrunched up and her eyes shut, trying to close the world away.

In the flickering, dying crimson, a hush of weeping slipped through the dark. Ellis closed his eyes.

~ * ~

Voices dribbled through the cracks in his restless oblivion, awakening him. His head throbbed something awful, and his mouth felt like serrated cotton had been stuffed into it. He raised his head from his knees and squinted. Enough daylight seeped into the room to illuminate Frost’s and Tierney’s figures, and show what they were doing. They were standing. They were speaking. And besides themselves, they were alone.

Ellis forced himself to stand. Frost looked over to him, glanced him over. Of course, that drew Tierney’s attention, and he turned. Ellis ignored the prickling down his spine. “What happened?” he asked.

“We found you some food and water, Ellis.”

He didn’t care about that. “What happened?” he asked again. “Did you find anything? Did you find Jaden and Sixteen? Any trace of them?”

Frost’s face cracked. She looked away, her shoulders hunching in, and she shook her head. Tierney rested a hand on her shoulder and rubbed it, slowly.

Ellis felt like he was invading on something very private. He bit the corner of his lip. “I’m… sorry.”

Tierney’s fingers went tense against Frost’s arm. “You should be.”

“Please, Tierney.”

Tierney’s hand fell away, his vitriol evaporated at Frost’s voice. Ellis waited for them to say something; when they didn’t, he filled the silence instead. “What do you suggest we do?”

Frost’s bent shoulders trembled. She raised her head, her lips wobbling. “We cannot allow them to get away with this. I made a promise to keep them safe and content. And as long as I am capable of upholding that promise, I shall. I do not care how difficult it may prove to be.”

“And… what is it that you’re suggesting?”

“I am suggesting that we go to the City to find them.”

“What? You must be reasonable here. Even if you do enter, there’s very little chance that—”

“Quiet, Ellis.”

He quieted. Tierney didn’t acknowledge him after that. His eyes softened, turning to Frost. “It may be a brash an idea— but if you think that it is the best thing to do, then I will follow you. Just give the order.”

Frost ducked her head. “Thank you, Tierney,” she whispered.

They stood there, gazes both lowered, doubly embraced in the ubiquitous language of silence. Ellis was sorely out of place here, he realized with a painful jolt. Now that the two— no, three, including Piper— people that gave any care about him were gone, all that remained for him here was hostility. Chilly and passive-aggressive or hot and borderline-violent, it was all hostility nonetheless, and it would mesh with him as well as oil and water. He no longer belonged here— so what was he supposed to do now?

He began to back away. Frost took that moment to raise her head, and set her attention on him. “Where are you going, Ellis?”

He returned her stare, confused. “I’m… leaving. If there’s no use for me here anymore, then why should I stay? All I’ll do is be an annoyance. A liability. As I always have been for you two. I will return to the City and find Sixteen and Jaden on my own. Separately.”

Frost and Tierney exchanged glances. Then Frost looked at Ellis again. A small, prickly smile crept over her face, scratching icy claws at the small of his back. “No, Ellis. You are not an annoyance, nor a liability. You are an assistance. We are going to find the City, and we are going to find Sixteen and Thirty-two again— and you are going to help us.”

P r e v i o u s N e x t