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.”
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?”
“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.
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?”
“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—”
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?”
“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?”
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?”
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?
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?”
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.”
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