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-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-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 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-Six

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

 

It didn’t take a genius to realize that Randi and Fifty-one weren’t exactly welcome here. They were… tolerated, at best. Maybe not even that. Tolerated insinuated that someone was at least acknowledging their presence, holding back what they truly thought of them, what they wanted to say or do to them. Did that really count if they had just been shoved into what was basically a closet the moment they’d arrived and completely ignored since?

Randi squeezed her hands together, resting them on her lap. The sensation in her legs was drifting into pins and needles from sitting so stiffly for so long. Saying that this bed was less comfortable than the hard, lumpy ground outside would probably be an over exaggeration. But when she was covered in filth, almost collapsing with restlessness, and fighting to ignore the wretched annoyance sliding off Fifty-one like curls of boiling steam, even the softest of the City’s beds may as well have been a slab of greasy rock to her.

Not that this straw-stuffed scrap of cloth was anywhere near a City bed to start with. Randi held her breath and shifted, just a little bit, and then sighed as the weight of her leg finally— finally— squished one of the lumps underneath her to relative smoothness. The sickly scent of dried blood, sweat and dirt floated to her attention again. A chunk of nausea tickled at her throat, and she closed her eyes. The blackness didn’t help distract from the smell, or the icy, constant gaze burning into the side of her already aching head.

She clenched her jaw and her fists, gritting her teeth so hard that bright lights flashed. “I told you that I just wanted to help,” she said for the hundredth time.

“And you now see what that brought us, Randi.”

Randi cracked open her eyes. In her peripheral loomed Fifty-one, a slouched blur of white and red. She was speaking better, maybe from sitting on a cushioned surface in a warm, windless enclosure instead of the chilly outdoors. Mucousy strings of gore still slipped from her nostrils every few minutes; she’d stopped snorting them back a while ago. They lined her tattered shirt now, nearly invisible among all the rest of the blood. Randi still couldn’t bear to look at them either way. Maybe that was because she didn’t want to look at her in general.

But she could still speak to her. “I know that you aren’t happy here,” she said, hesitantly. “But we have a roof over our heads now. Protection from the cold. And… you could probably get help, too. From the people here. Isn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t this worth it?”

“Why would it be worth it, Randi? If we were going to get any assistance, do you not think that we would have received it by now? Do you not think that we would be allowed to leave this room if we were welcome— if we were wanted?”

“I wanted you to get help.”

“I did not need it.”

Randi turned her head away, biting her tongue so she wouldn’t say something she’d regret. How delusional could a person be? If Randi hadn’t stumbled upon her and helped her then she would have drowned in her own body fluids. If they hadn’t come here to get help, then they would have died from exposure or hunger as the weather got colder and colder. Their lives still would be much more miserable if they hadn’t gotten help.

She scratched at her arm. Dead skin and dried blood caked underneath her nails. When they could leave this room, she would be bathing in the river before anything else. And maybe drinking something, too. If not to quench her thirst, then to at least wash the taste of copper and dirt out of her mouth. But there were more pressing issues to attend to, right now. Right now, she had to dig into Fifty-one’s mind. See if she had anything to say for herself. At least explain it a little. Shifting again— cringing as a piece of straw stuck through her pants— she glanced over to Fifty-one, then back to her lap. “Is there… any sort of specific reason as to why you didn’t want me to take you here so badly?”

“Yes. There was.”

“Oh. Well, I mean— there’s nothing stopping you from leaving. If you really don’t want any help, then the door’s just, like, fifteen feet from this room. You might not be able to walk very far in your condition, but it’s not like you want help to improve it, anyways… so why not just leave? Why not just leave me here so I’m finally out of your hair and you can go back to doing whatever it is you do when you’re alone?”

“Because I am waiting, Randi.”

She didn’t want to stay here and rest in the warmth while she recovered, she didn’t want to wait things out and see if staying in this place was worth it, she wasn’t even curious— no, she was waiting. Waiting. Randi pursed her lips. “Waiting for what?” she asked.

“To see if anybody here has it inside of them to come and speak to me.”

“Oh.” Randi squeezed her hands together, a frown digging a line into her brow. “Why?”

Fifty-one worked her jaw, but she didn’t say anything.

Randi tilted her head at her. “Who do you want to come and speak to you?” Maybe Fifty-one wasn’t going to respond. Maybe Randi had known that from the start and was only trying to fill in the room’s empty space. But backing down now would only make the silence even more awkward. She had to push forward. And she did. “Is there any real reason why you have to talk to them?”

“I do not have to. But I’m genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say for themselves.”

“But… why? Do you know them, or something?”

Her ears rang with the silence she got as a response. It wasn’t satisfying, but it was telling. Randi crossed her arms, uncrossed them, let them drop to her lap. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“What would that have changed, Randi?”

“If I’d known that you were on bad terms with these people, then I—”

“You would have dragged me here regardless of my protesting. Because that is what you do.”

Randi flinched. Fifty-one remained unphased, as unphased as one could be with blood oozing like slime down their face. She wiped it away with a grimy sleeve, snorted. “Yes, Randi. I do know some of the people here. Most of them, in fact. Some of them from… separate occurrences.”

“I… oh.” Randi nodded, even though Fifty-one wasn’t even looking. “I think I heard you say something about that. You whispered something to one of them and I think I heard you. When we first came here, I mean.”

“You likely did.”

“Yeah. Probably.” She tapped her fingers on her lap as she hesitated, a steady metronome of uncertainty. “Who… who was it? Were they from that… building? You know. From your… uh, time there?”

“It doesn’t quite matter who it was, Randi.”

“Okay. Yeah, alright.”

More of the suffocating quiet. Randi ran her tongue over the inside of her cheek. The taste of shredded flesh and iron clung to it. When had that happened? Had she been chewing on it because she’d been so stressed? That seemed like something she would do. City-Randi probably wouldn’t have, but Outskirts-Randi definitely would— nerve-wracked, paranoid Outskirts-Randi, constantly having to worry about her future in this place and her peers’ future in the City and why Fifty-one had to be so stubborn and self-destructive and cruel, to herself and to others. With the amount of stress she’d endured since Blake and Avery had forced her out of the City with them, it was a surprise she hadn’t just eaten the flesh off her face yet.

Blake and Avery. Randi furrowed her brow, regret bunching up in the center of her stomach. She’d worried so much about them. So much. She’d thought about them every single day since they’d left her behind and it turned out they’d been living here all along— warm, under a dry roof with hot food and relatively stable people to talk to. They’d been… almost safe. If they’d been a hundred percent safe then Randi wouldn’t have stumbled Blake’s brain gushing out of her nose. Just like Fifty-one’s had. If whoever, or whatever, had done that, still wandered here, then none of them were safe, probably. Blake and Avery were smart to have gone back to the City when they’d gotten the chance.

Of course, Randi wanted to be smart too. “Fifty-one,” she said, slowly. “You know… you do know that I still have to go back to the City, right? The City— if it’s in danger, like it is, then I have to help them. If what happened to you and Blake has a chance of happening to other people in the City, then I have to at least try and prevent it.”

“Do tell me how you intend on doing that, Randi.”

“To be honest? I don’t know. But with the help of the people here, surely we can figure out—”

“The people here will not be of any help to you.”

Randi’s mouth stayed hanging open for a few seconds. Then she slowly slid it shut. “And you know that… how, exactly?”

I know it from personal experience.”

“Yeah, well— your experiences aren’t going to be the same as mine, right? Haven’t you said that it’s been years? Things could have changed between them now. Both with you, and with them. I think that it would be worth a shot. Especially with the fate of the City hanging on a string. You don’t know if they’ll help me or not. But I think it’s worth a shot. And even if they don’t help, there isn’t anything that’s stopping me from using my newfound knowledge to help the City, is there?”

A painful smile crackled over Fifty-one’s face. “You are too much of an idealist, Randi. After everything that you have experienced, you still believe things can be so easily fixed. It could be almost admirable, if it weren’t for the circumstances.”

Fifty-one’s voice and face remained impassive as ever… but that sounded a lot like a thinly-veiled insult. Well, she wasn’t going to let her get away with that so easily. Crossing her arms over her chest, Randi dragged a stony expression over her face and glared at Fifty-one. “That may be a little true— but I know that you want to leave this place, too. Even more badly than I do.”

“That doesn’t mean that I wish to return to the City, Randi.”

“You won’t have to. You just have to help me along the way.”

A crease etched itself in between Fifty-one’s eyebrows. She stopped staring into the empty, open space, and looked down at her hands instead. Randi saw her opportunity and lunged for it. “I know you really do want to help. Even if it feels like you can’t or you feel like you don’t. Somewhere deep down in you, there’s still that desire to get up and help other people. To help the City. You just need to be willing to reach down into your soul and take it by the hand again.”

Fifty-one shut her eyes. Her throat twitched and pulsed underneath her skin, like it wanted to burst with a billion angry words. And yet she said nothing. Randi gripped the thin, scratchy sheets below her. “I really do think that this would be for the best,” she said. “The City needs help. And you do, too.”

“You do not seem to comprehend how much the City has been—”

“It’ll be alright. Okay?”

No response. Randi grazed her teeth over her lower lip, then clutched the sheets harder. “I’m going to go and see if I can talk to anyone. They can’t keep us stuffed in here forever, right? I’ll be back in a few minutes. Hopefully.”

“Randi—”

But she was already standing, pushing herself off the clumpy excuse of a bed. The blood rushed back to her feet, flooding them with fuzzy and invigorating warmth. She glanced back at Fifty-one, gave her a reassuring nod, and walked to the door— and then jumped back as it swung open and nearly hit her in the face. Sputtering, struggling to get her bearings back, she stepped to the side and allowed the door to open all the way with a flashy, commanding screech. “Oh. Uh— I was just coming out to look for one of you.”

She still didn’t know all their names. She knew Rowan’s— him being the leader and all— and Peyton’s— being the only other kid here— at times, the others still eluded her. Of course one of those times was the moment she was speaking directly to them. Slowly, painfully, she forced what she hoped was a kind, pleasant expression over her face. “What’s it you guys need? Are you ready to talk now?”

One of the men— the taller of the three— returned Randi’s gaze with something that made her feel… upset. It wasn’t a dangerous look, unhinged or predatory, but it upset her all the same, so long since she’d last seen a look like it: the look of an exasperated parent staring down at a child. A dismissive look. “Randi,” he said, voice soft and smooth but allowing no yield, “may I ask you leave us to ourselves for a moment? There are a few private things that need to be discussed between the… four of us.”

Randi opened her mouth, closed it. “Oh. Oh. Okay. Well… how long will it be?”

“Only a few minutes, I assure you.”

Then why wasn’t she allowed to stay and listen in, considering that she’d come her with Fifty-one? She was just about an adult. She probably was, depending on how many months had blurred together by now. Randi bit her tongue and forced the bitterness away. “Okay. Fine. I’ll be… waiting outside for when you’re ready to let me back in, I guess.”

He dipped his head. “Thank you for understanding. I appreciate it.”

“Um. Yeah. You’re welcome.”

The man— Jules, that was his name! Jules!— took a step back, making a gap in the doorway for Randi to get through. Randi hesitated a second, her newly-awakened legs and feet refusing to cooperate. Then she ducked her head, murmured something about how she’d be back soon, and squeezed herself through the little sliver in the doorway. The other man who wasn’t Rowan gave her what she supposed she could call a glare as she went by. At least Jules had been polite. What was he so mad for? Was that why they were going to talk— because he was upset? But about what?

Randi frowned as she walked into the slumping, rickety hallway. Maybe this was what Fifty-one had meant by waiting for somebody to come and talk to her. What would they be discussing? Did it involve Randi? Harsh bumps rose along the tops of her arms just thinking about them talking about her behind her back, what with the patronizing look Jules had given her before. No. She wouldn’t stand by and let them talk badly about her. At least not without her hearing in on it.

She walked a few paces away, waited until the door creaked, then clicked shut. Then she put herself against the wall, pushing her ear to it. Shuffling, quiet murmurs— probably from Rowan, going off the low, gruff weariness to the voice— and then silence. Then: “Are you going to explain yourself?”

That was definitely Jules, but the smoothness in his voice had been chipped away to reveal something harsher. Sharper. Like being around Fifty-one just stripped away one’s composure and left them saying what they wanted to say without regard to politeness. Which it probably did. Randi pushed herself even closer to the wall.

“What— wh-what are you doing?”

She shoved herself off of it and twisted around. Two figures silhouetted the end of the hallway, quiet enough that Randi hadn’t heard them approach. Tall and short. Nikita and Peyton. Of course.

A nervous heat burned in her chest. “I— uh. I’m just waiting for when I can go back into the room. We were… talking. But now we’re not. Because the others are talking to her.”

Peyton’s face screwed up into an ugly little scowl. He crossed his arms across his chest, fingers clutching at his shoulders like claws. Nikita’s hand crept over the cinch in his waist and pulled him toward her.

Randi blinked. It was getting hard to keep the cringe off her face. “I… do you guys… need anything?”

Peyton looked away. His teeth caught his scabbed lips, making his scowl look even more bitter and angry than it had before. Nikita looked Randi up and down, shaking her head. “No. We’re alright. We were outside for a while, then we came back in to get something to eat and rest.” A pause. “Do you need anything?”

Smooth. Silky smooth. Randi turned back to the wall, stepped back after realizing it could seem suspicious, and sighed in relief when that didn’t cause the floor to scream underneath her. “Nope. I’m fine. You know— this place is nice. I know the way around it pretty easily… even though I haven’t been in all the rooms yet. But the format… it seems easy to follow. You know?”

Nikita didn’t stop staring. Her eyes marked Randi’s body like a pair of burning icicles. Then she nodded. “Just tell me if you need anything, okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Will do.”

Nikita rubbed Peyton’s side, whispering something into his ear. He stiffened, then relaxed; his teeth stopped assaulting his worried lips as they went up the stairs. Randi watched them go. Well, then. Peyton really was a worried little shrimp. Nikita encouraging that behavior definitely wasn’t helping much. Maybe he was worried because Fifty-one and the others were talking. Or maybe he was nervous because of them having just arrived. Fifty-one did have a bit of an intimidating presence. But… who was it that Fifty-one said hurt her again? A boy. But a waifish, shy little kid like Peyton— how could he—?

Voices from the room again, louder this time. Randi shook the thoughts away and pressed her ear against the wall. Couldn’t miss a word. She needed answers, and she needed them now.

“No. What I want to know is why you left us behind when we needed you the most.”

“I was becoming nothing more than a liability, Jules. Things would have become worse had I stayed.”

“That’s nonsense and you know it, Charlie.” His voice had gotten sharper again.

The hairs on Randi’s neck stood on end. She tried her best to force the sensation away— and just in time, too: somebody was speaking again. “What happened to sticking to the loyalty of the City no matter what?” came another voice; it was probably Rowan’s or the other man’s. “You leave and hide from us for years only to show up with a girl half your age? No. Explain yourself. Or we’ll kick the both of you out, I don’t give a damn how hurt you are.”

Randi flinched. The side of her forehead knocked on the thin, wooden wall. The silence afterward stretched on long and painful, but Fifty-one’s unbothered voice soon replaced it. “Randi has nothing to do with the research that occurred there, Yates. She came here from the City with her two friends before they were separated. I assume that you housed said friends, just a few days before our arrival? Twins?”

Rowan— Yates? That has to be his last name or something, right?— said nothing in response to that. The sound of somebody’s breathing came through the wall. It could’ve been Fifty-one struggling to breathe through her gore-caked nose. It could’ve been one of the others struggling to maintain their composure. Rowan’s voice drifted back in, low. “That all may be true. But it doesn’t explain how you two found your ways here. Were you looking for them? Or did you come here because you two were hurt and wanted to get help from us?”

“You are partially right. We wanted to find those two girls. However, you can believe me when I say that I did not come here out of my own accord. Randi brought me here after we crossed paths with her friends. Both one of them and I were injured by somebody currently living here— I’m sure you know how it happened, and I am also certain that you could figure out who did it.”

“Who is it?”

Fifty-one didn’t respond.

Who?

“Rowan, please relax. We have an idea of who already, you know that.” Randi could almost imagine Jules putting a placating hand on Rowan’s shoulder, though she couldn’t see a thing. “Is that why you left us?” he continued, softer. “Because you hurt people, too?”

“Of course it was. My staying with the project would have only jeopardized it, and the people within it, more than it was jeopardized inherently. I had to learn how to control myself, Jules. How to keep from hurting others— as so many of those there did.”

“Then why didn’t you bother coming back after you did that?” Rowan said.

“How was I possibly supposed to have known that you all—”

“You should have known. You probably did. If all the things we theorized hold any weight to them then you probably knew all of it. You have no idea how badly things went after you left.”

“Then why did you leave, Yates? Why are you no longer there, helping?”

“We would have died if we stayed for any longer.”

“I would have as well.”

Tension just seethed from the cracks in the shut door. Any moment now and Rowan would be busting through it, throwing Fifty-one out, and telling her and Randi to starve to death in the forest.

But that moment didn’t come. Rowan sighed loud enough that it could be heard through the walls, as if Randi were standing right next to him. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. “Keep on believing that,” he said. “Keep absolving yourself of that responsibility.”

“You three left some of the subjects behind when you came here, Rowan. Were they not your responsibility?”

“It wasn’t just us three, Charlie,” came Jules’s voice. “Some of the others came with us. They’re… no longer with us, anymore.” Silence. His voice wavered. “Yes. Oren, Nelli, Briar— they’re all gone. They could no longer deal with the guilt, and now they’re gone.”

“I figured that would be so.”

None of them spoke. Randi’s chest suddenly felt heavy. She… shouldn’t have listened in on this. She needed answers, but still. This felt weird. Wrong. She was imposing on some much-needed closure for everyone in that room, and even though they didn’t even know she was listening, it still felt… cruel. Or maybe that was her guilt talking, or her fear at being thrown out if Fifty-one pushed one too many buttons. At least the conversation had simmered down a little. With luck, it would stay that way.

Another voice, from the other man. “Could you explain how you’re better? How you’re no longer a liability to the likes of us?”

“I could, Umber. I’ve fixed myself. I’ve fixed my emotions— and my abilities, by way of. I am capable of controlling them both. I will not harm anyone unless there is a strong intention to.”

“Why should we trust that you won’t hurt us?”

“For what purpose would I do that?”

Umber’s voice ebbed into an uncomfortable pause. Randi pressed her ear harder against the wall, straining to hear the shifting of ratty cloth, the shuffling of feet, of anything to give at least a slight visual impression of the words being traded in there. She didn’t get much, but the silence was broken as Fifty-one started to speak again. “No. There is no need for me to hurt any of you, as long as you do not provoke me to do so. As long as you do not set out to harm me or Randi. If there is any statement I say that you will believe, let it be that one.”

“What is it you can do, then?” Rowan said. “Do you have anything you can contribute to this place? Or are you going to chase off our other members for nothing?”

If he wanted to coax a rise out of her, he was going to be disappointed. “Of course not, Yates,” Fifty-one replied. “I know how to better control myself, from experience. I can help others do the same. I can help Peyton, so incidents like these do not happen again.”

“We haven’t decided what we’re going to do with Peyton and Nikita yet. You won’t necessarily be of any help there.”

“Even if he isn’t here, I will still be able to help him.”

“And just how will you be able to do that?”

Randi could almost see that mirthless, self-deprecating smile slipping over Fifty-one’s face. She could certainly hear it. “Because I feel everyone in the Outskirts, Yates. I had figured that you all, of all the people, would have realized that. But I suppose not. There are many things that simply cannot be learned unless you figure it out on your own, after all.”

If only Randi could see what was actually going on in there! But even if she could get back to the entrance of the room without upsetting any of the creaky floorboards, she had shut the door before she’d settled here. And there was no way she was going to gamble on opening that. The looks on their faces were almost palpable through the wall, anyway— Umber and Jules were probably looking shocked, Fifty-one had a perfectly trained mask on, and Rowan… Rowan probably looked upset. Angry, even. He sure sounded upset. “Do you… have you known we were here since you left? Did you know what was happening back at the project?”

“Depending on my distance from those places, yes. I am nomadic by nature, Yates. Sometimes I can feel places and people more strongly than others. But yes— I felt you all when you were still at the research center. I felt you all and the subjects get picked off one by one. I felt it when the remaining subjects finally revolted against you all and destroyed everything that you had created. And I felt it when you moved over here.”

A pain in the tip of Randi’s tongue. Her teeth were driving into it and she’d barely noticed, she’d been listening to them speak so intently. Letting go, she squinted and rested her side against the wall. What was going to happen now? What was Rowan going to say? What could one say to something like that? Randi didn’t know. She hadn’t been a researcher. But judging from the silence, none of the former researchers knew what to say, either.

But then Rowan, so quiet and so low he sounded like a rumble in the floor, so muffled that Randi could only hear two words: “You know?”

“Of course I do, Yates. I’ve known for a long time.”

“Are there any people still there?” Silence. “Are there? Answer me.”

“Are you sure you want to know that?”

The air rang with a violent thump, so loud that Randi staggered back. “I say what I mean, goddammit! Tell me if anybody’s still there, and tell me who is. I’ll dump you and that girl out in the forest right now, I swear— I couldn’t care less about your powers.”

“Rowan— calm down. We need to be patient.”

Randi couldn’t tell if Rowan had listened to Jules, or if he was just letting his anger boil and ferment into an even bigger explosion. Either way, he didn’t say anything else.

But Fifty-one did, and of course she sounded as calm and collected as ever. “I’m a bit surprised. You haven’t seen any of them in all of your time here? Not even the—”

“No, Charlie,” Jules said. “We haven’t.”

“…I see.”

“Yes. So, if you would, could you please answer Rowan’s question? I think all of us here would appreciate that.”

Fifty-one whooshed air out of her blood-clogged sinuses. “Very well. To answer your question: yes. Some of them are still alive. But very few of them. And most of those still living have left that place. Very recently, in fact.”

A grating voice cut through the silence. “Who?”

Randi shivered. She wiped her sweaty hands on her shirt, and continued listening. Goosebumps stuck straight out her arms like needles.

“I’m still not quite sure if I should tell—”

Who, Charlie?”

Maybe… maybe it would be best to leave. She had to leave. Being caught now would be the worst possible thing to happen. But Randi still stood there, welded to the spot.

Rowan screamed something so loud that the air around them cracked.

Randi swallowed her heartbeat back down, and silently listened. Fifty-one’s voice flickered to life in the wake of Rowan’s outburst— quieter, but still certain of itself, allowing no doubt that she was telling the truth, that she knew what she was talking about, that she had known for years and was only just now saying it to whom it mattered most. “One of your children, Yates. Your daughter Thirty-two is still alive.”

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

Chapter Seventy-Four

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

 

“I still hope you aren’t too mad at me,” Nikita whispered, continuing to comb her fingers through his matted, slimy hair. “You still feel so tense, Peyton. I was just trying to keep the three of you safe. You do know that, don’t you?”

Peyton forced himself closer to her touch. His insides twisted into sour knots at her heady warmth burning his side, but he nodded anyway. “I— I know,” he said. “I do know. And… a-and I understand. I know what you were trying to do. Don’t talk about it anymore. I know.”

Nikita nodded. Hot breath coiled around Peyton’s ear, a sharp contrast against the forest’s breeze. He tried to pull away, wincing as her fingers snagged on a tangled lock of his hair. That, or a particularly angry burr, pushed deep into his roots. Even though he and Nikita had tried to clean himself up as well as possible there were still remnants of the forest tangled into him: scratches on his skin from the grasping branches, blisters and thorns pressed into the soles of his feet from running for so long. But none of those held a light to the feelings carved into his mind.

Peyton had told Nikita everything that had happened during his encounter with Blake and Avery. He’d told her how they had driven him outside in his futile attempt at getting away from them— and how he had ended up hurting them, anyway. He’d told her how he’d told them to leave, to find the Clink, so he wouldn’t get the chance to hurt or do worse to them again. She had listened, so patient, understanding and non-judgemental, and she then had made him promise that he wouldn’t tell anybody what had really happened, no matter how ferociously they demanded or how many glares they shot him and Nikita. He’d agreed, and he had told her that he promised to never hurt anybody ever again.

What he hadn’t told her was that the feeling he always got before he did end up hurting people wasn’t going away. Even after he’d returned to the house in the gullet of midnight and tiptoed up the stairs, curled himself underneath Nikita’s arm, that pressure in the back of his head and the center of his chest refused to go. It never waxed or waned, always just waiting, waiting for the perfect moment to strike and ruin everything again. He didn’t know how to hold it back or if he even could. All he was was a ticking time bomb, ticking ticking ticking and it would only take the tiniest bit of pressure to set him off, make him explode and hurt everybody.

He swallowed, his Adam’s apple pressing against the rest of his throat. The sun reflected too brightly off the sallow leaves and grass. He sat angled so that he could see Jules and Umber toiling in the forest and the house where Taylor prepared food. It was all awfully claustrophobic, even though he was out in the open and felt the chilly breeze on his nape. He wanted to be inside, in his room, where the curtains could be drawn against the sky and the chill and the prying eyes of the people milling about outside. But he couldn’t go in. Nikita had made a point of that as soon as the sun had risen, pushed it into him no matter how much he’d wanted to protest and stay in bed.

The most important variable in this entire equation was that suspicions weren’t drawn toward them. There was already a harsh spotlight focused on them as it was, what with them appearing out of nowhere, staying so secretive about their origins and how they had escaped into the Outskirts in the first place— and now that Avery and Blake had vanished so soon after they’d arrived, the light would only be intensifying as time went on. But with some planning, some cunning, they could use that spotlight to their benefit: stay where everyone could and would see them, and show behavior that made it seem like they had not, and were not, doing anything wrong.

That didn’t mean Peyton had to enjoy it, though. Sitting here, shoulder pressed flush to Nikita’s, every movement he made and every fleeting eye on him was just another needle in his skin. So was Nikita’s breath, and her voice, usually a comforting sound but now just as smothering and as uncertain as the rest of this place. The past few days after Avery and Blake had left had only steeped him into yet another layer of doubt about her, about himself.

Swallow again. More pressing and scraping. Peyton tensed himself up against Nikita, and then slackened his aching, reluctant muscles. No eyes on him anymore, not from the edge of the camp or from the entrance of the house. At least, not yet. He inhaled slowly. “N-Nikita?”

She stopped stroking his hair. “Hm?”

Peyton dislodged his voice from his chest, shuddering as Nikita’s hand dropped from his hair back to her lap. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “When— when can we go back inside? I… I don’t… I don’t like being out here.”

He trailed away, and was met with silence. He didn’t need to look up to know that Nikita’s lips were pursed in thought. On her lap her fingers twitched and fidgeted, eager to touch something besides herself. Then they stilled. “Not yet, Peyton. The food is just about done. When it is, we’ll eat like normal, and then we can go back upstairs. Okay?”

“O-oh. Okay. I guess. Okay.” He’d almost forgotten that it was almost dinner. Warm, brothy scents drifted from the open door and wrapped around him, kind and inviting but doing nothing for his appetite. Would he have even noticed if Nikita hadn’t brought it to the front of his mind again? He probably wouldn’t have. He shivered and pulled his legs closer to his body. It was cold.

Nikita sighed, shaking him back to attention. “I know this is difficult for you, Peyton. It’s difficult for me, too. I want to be upstairs alone with you as much as you do.” Nikita stretched her pinky finger out, touching his thigh with the top of it. “But it’s necessary,” she continued, ignoring the way he shuddered. “If we don’t want things to escalate more than they already have in the past few days, then this is what we’re going to have to do. Okay? You understand, right?”

He bit his bottom lip. Copper stung his tongue. “What— what if it doesn’t work?”

“What if what doesn’t work?”

“I— I m-mean…. this.” He held his hand out, vaguely, inconspicuously, and waved it about the entire area. “The whole being unsuspicious thing. What— what if they ask about what happened anyway?”

A telling hesitance. Nikita folded her hands, tapping her index on her knuckle. “If it gets to that point, Peyton,” she said, “then I’ll take the blame for you. Don’t worry.”

“A-all of it? All of the blame?”

“Whatever else?”

Peyton’s tongue was a stone lodged in his throat. “B-but then— but then… what will happen to you?”

“It depends on how they react, Peyton. If worse comes to worse, though, then… I may end up being driven out.”

Peyton’s head spun. “B-but— but then—”

“Then you’ll be able to come with me, of course.” Nikita’s voice had grown softer. “Don’t worry about stress, Peyton. Don’t worry about any of this. It’s all hypotheticals right now, and it’s nothing worth hurting your head over. Don’t fret about things unless they actually happen, okay?”

“I… I won’t.” But worry still boiled in his chest. It hardened to a biting pinpoint at the back of his head. He tried to ignore it, looking to his exterior surroundings instead. The camp and the house both bustled with life. He may not have been able to see it but he could feel it: electricity, hot and sharp, crackling along his arms and pulsing in his chest. He could feel everyone and everything. Somehow, that just made the pain inside even worse, made it feel even more dangerous. He lowered his head and shut his eyes, pushing it down, melding it and controlling it. He looked up again. And then he froze.

There was a dark mass, tending to a shadow in the doorway to the house. Just enough inside that distance and darkness obscured any telling features. But Peyton could make out the silhouette— and considering to Rowan and Umber’s large frames and Jules lithe figure, there was only one option as to what— who— could be in there. Especially now that Avery and Blake were gone.

The needle-like mass in his throat came to a rise. “N-Nikita,” he whispered, his voice gone reedy, “I think— I think… I think that Taylor’s looking at me.”

For a moment, Nikita said nothing, shifting just as he had a few seconds ago. Her throat clicked mechanically as she swallowed. Then she spoke. “Go up to her and tell her that you need to use the bathroom. Don’t talk to her about anything else— and don’t tell her that I sent you.”

Peyton didn’t move. He’d been welded to the ground, as if the dirt had turned to cement under the muggy unease dripping off of him. Nikita nudged him in the side, where his hips and waist met, and somehow that broke the spell. His elbows and knees shuddered as he pushed himself from the unsteady ground, staring at the door as soon as he was no longer in danger of collapsing. The figure— Taylor— hadn’t budged. She simply stood there, watching. Waiting.

A nudge in his ankle. “Go on,” whispered Nikita, and Peyton could tell from the tightness in her voice that she was nervous, too. “Go on. You’ll be fine. I promise.”

Peyton didn’t really believe her. He went forth anyway, his feet like bricks in the mud. He didn’t stop until he was at the front of the slouching house. He peered through the door. Taylor was by the table. Silent and patient, waiting for he had to say.

He slunk inside, staring intently at the floor. He forced his voice out his throat. “T-Taylor, I—”

“Peyton. We need to talk.”

The world began to swim. He hadn’t even gotten his excuse out yet. Squirming, knees shaking, he parted his dry, tacky lips again. “I— well, we can talk later, I guess. B-but— but right now, I have to use the bathroom and I—”

Taylor grabbed his shoulder and yanked him all the way in before he could run back to safety. Heart racing, he craned his neck over his shoulder, looking for Nikita in the doorway— then Taylor walked in front of it, obscuring his view. She squeezed his shoulder hard. “What’s going on, Peyton?”

The question was so simple. To the point. No easing him into it. She wasn’t playing around. Peyton’s legs shook so bad that he wouldn’t have been able to make a run for it even after Taylor let go of his shoulder. “What— what do you mean? I don’t…”

“I’m sure you know what I mean, Peyton. What has Nikita been telling you, Peyton? What has she been doing to you?”

He felt sick. He turned his head away, shutting his eyes. “Sh-she— she hasn’t done anything.”

“Don’t lie to me.” Taylor’s hand tucked under his chin, forcing both his face and his vision upward. “There’s a reason you cling to her like you’re afraid of disobeying her. There’s a reason why the both of you are always so secretive about each other when asked about it. And there’s a reason why Avery and Blake suddenly had to leave out of nowhere— right after you’d started to get close to them.” Her hand dropped away from him. “You may not think this is important to tell me about, Peyton— you may not understand why— but it is. We need to get to the bottom of this. What is going on with the two of you?”

All Peyton wanted was for a crevasse to open up beneath him and swallow him whole. He swallowed, then gagged and coughed. “N-nothing. Nothing is— n-nothing is happening. Avery and Blake are… they— th-they left on their own. They left because they wanted— they wanted to.” Each word felt awful. He hated lying. He hated it. The looks of betrayal and hurt on Avery’s and Blake’s faces behind his eyelids were even worse. They hadn’t wanted to leave. But they’d had to, because of him. Now he had only Nikita. They’d said Nikita was bad and he hurt them. What could he end up doing to Taylor, if she was parroting the same thing that they had been? “Th-they left on their own,” he repeated. “Please. It’s not… it’s not a big deal.”

“Both you and I know that that isn’t true, Peyton.” Her voice was so sharp now. It scratched against Peyton’s ears and made them ring. “Remember what I said before this all happened? Remember when I said that you can always come to me for help? This is what I meant by that.” She stares into his face like she could read the truth written across it. “Did Nikita tell you to chase Avery and Blake away, Peyton? Or was she the one who did it?”

Peyton shook his head, violently. It made it hurt more. “N-no! None of those things! They left on their own! I didn’t— I didn’t… I didn’t do anything. I didn’t. I didn’t.”

“I’m not asking you what you did, Peyton. I’m asking what Nikita has done.”

“She— she didn’t do anything!”

“Did she tell you to say that, Peyton? Is she trying to hide something from us?” She paused, then, getting no answer, massaged her forehead. “This isn’t normal. I’ve been around children like you, Peyton. I’ve been around people that act like Nikita. I’m telling you that this isn’t normal. This isn’t right.”

“I— I…”

“If you’re scared of what she might do if you tell me anything, then don’t worry. I promise that this will all stay a secret between the two of us.” Her voice was soft but her expression was hard. She wouldn’t be leaving until she heard what she wanted to hear. Until she got what she wanted. “Has Nikita been hurting you, Peyton? Was she hurting Avery and Blake, too? Is that why they may have ended up leaving?”

Peyton couldn’t breathe. The house’s walls twisted around him and bile rose up his throat, threatening to spurt out of his mouth at any second. He couldn’t let Nikita take the blame for what he’d done. He had to tell the truth. If there wasn’t any other way to get out of this, then… he had to tell the truth. Even if it meant that he would be the one getting kicked out. He had to. He had to. He had to be the bigger person here. “I— I… n-no,” he said. “She didn’t do anything. She didn’t hurt anybody. It was… it was me.”

Confusion flickered over Taylor’s face. “You don’t have to lie, Peyton,” she said, slowly. “If Nikita hurt them, don’t take the blame for it. She has to account for her own actions.” There was a pregnant pause. “Unless Nikita told you to hurt them. Is that it? Is that what you mean?”

Why couldn’t she just listen? Peyton clutched his head harder and squeezed his eyes shut, painful colors flashing in his peripheral vision. “St-stop! Stop!

Silence. Peyton cracked an eye part way open. Taylor was staring down at him, an utterly patronizing look in her eye. He covered his face and turned away. “Sh-she didn’t hurt them. She didn’t— she didn’t tell me to hurt them. She didn’t. She t-told me not to. But I did. I still did. It’s all my fault.”

Still, nothing. He’d done it now. Nikita had told him not to tell Taylor anything and here he was spilling it all out to her. But… but Taylor had forced it from him. He hadn’t wanted to say anything but he’d made her do it, and now everything was ruined.

The chill around his shoulders became ever sharper, only a glimpse of what was to come when he and Nikita were kicked out into the forest. Cold and hunger and fear… what was he going to do after getting kicked out? What if Nikita decided not to come with him because she was mad that he disobeyed her? Where would he go? He couldn’t go to the Clink. He couldn’t go to the City. So then what was he going to do?

Suddenly, a sound, no, a commotion outside. Peyton’s face stung as he ripped his hands away from it. The commotion swelled in volume. It wasn’t just meaningless sounds— it was voices. A voice. Nikita’s voice.

Taylor pushed Peytonin the shoulder, shoving him away before he could even do anything. “Go upstairs,” she said. “It’s going to be alright. There’s no reason for you to get more involved in this than you are already.”

A rising pulse thrummed in Peyton’s throat, pumping bright lights into his vision. What was happening? Who was outside? Had Taylor planned this? Was she telling him to leave so he couldn’t mess her plan up? No. He couldn’t do that. This was all his fault. He couldn’t let Nikita take the blame for what he’d done. He had to go in. He had to… he had to go and help her. If something was happening to Nikita, then he had to go and see if he could get things right— and if he couldn’t, he had to go and support her, show her that he was by his side no matter what. Just like she had done for him after he’d entered the Clink, after he’d killed Sawyer, and… after the Blake and Avery incident. Because it wasn’t her fault what had happened. Even if Avery and Blake said it was. Even if Taylor said it was. They just— they didn’t understand. They didn’t. They didn’t. He couldn’t let the only person close to him get hurt.

Taylor left the house without sparing Peyton much more than a second glance. Peyton stepped backward, hesitated, then surged forward, running past her. The air stung his cheeks and eyes. Or maybe he was starting to cry. He couldn’t tell. Not with his shaking knees and hands as he stumbled into the center of the yard. There— at the edge of the trees— Nikita was there, almost hidden just behind a tree. And she was… yelling.

A jab in Peyton’s back, ripping him out of his thoughts. Something grabbed the hem of his shirt. “I told you to stay back.”

Peyton barely heard. No, he wasn’t listening to Taylor at all— Nikita’s voice demanded too much of his attention for that. That, and another voice— no, two voices. Umber and Jules. They were yelling at her, and Nikita was yelling back. Arguing. He needed to help. But how? How? Painful urgency throbbed in his temples and ripped his voice from his throat. “N-Nikita!”

She stopped shouting. So did Umber— but only for a second. Then his voice rang in Peyton’s ears again, unfettered by Nikita’s desperate rebuttals. “Don’t look at him. Look at me. We saw the blood in the forest, Nikita. It was fresh enough that it could have been from the two of them. If you’ve been harboring one of them for all this time then you’re going to have to own up to it.”

Nikita said— no, screamed— something else in response but it was unintelligible in the sour, caustic haze that had clouded around Peyton. One of them. One of who? What was he talking about? That didn’t matter. Rowan knew. Umber and Jules knew. He knew what had happened to Avery and Blake. All of them did. They’d seen the blood Peyton had spilled. They knew what he’d done. They knew what had happened and now he was going to be punished for it even though he hadn’t even wanted to do it. And Nikita was going to be punished, too. No, no— he couldn’t let that happen.

Peyton raced forward— and then something pierced the side of his head and sent him tumbling into the dirt. Coughing, dust clinging to his throat, he raised his hand to his temple, bracing for the pain. Nothing. Nothing there. No blood on his fingers as he pulled away. He hadn’t been struck or stabbed. But..

The ground twisted underneath him, as he lifted his head from it. What… had happened? Had it been a sound, that had hurt him like that? It had to have been a sound, because Jules and Umber were staring into the forest, too, like they’d heard something… or felt something.

Jules left first. One moment he was there, and in the next he had melted into the shadows of the forest. Umber looked over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed— at Peyton, or at Nikita?— before he followed after.

And just like that, the spell over Peyton broke. He shoved himself to his feet and ran, tearing his shirt away from Taylor’s startled grasp, and collapsed straight into Nikita. “I’m sorry! I didn’t— I didn’t—!”

“Shh. We’re okay. It’ll be okay.” She wrapped her arms around him, rubbing his shoulder blades.

Peyton didn’t believe her. He nodded anyway, and he didn’t resist as she pulled him off of her. She stared over his shoulder, at something behind them— at Taylor. She was probably so mad. All of them were mad. They knew what had happened now because he’d been so dumb and now they were going to have to leave— or worse.

Peyton squeezed his eyes shut, opened them. He turned around, backing into Nikita when Taylor’s eyes focused on his face. Her expression held something else to it now, after hearing Umber’s speech— realization. “Peyton,” she breathed. “Were you the one hurt Avery and Blake by accident? What happened?”

“He isn’t answering anything.” Nikita’s words were almost spat. “Can’t you see that he’s stressed out? Can you not wait until he’s calmed down?”

A rustling interrupted any answer Taylor might have given. She whipped around to stare at the house, her whole body tensed with fear that rolled off her. She only relaxed when Rowan appeared from behind the house. But the fear didn’t leave Peyton.

Rowan walked over to Taylor, whispered something to her. Peyton felt like he was going to faint or die or worse— the crippling pressure in his mind had gone away, but what if it came back again? What would he end up doing?

Nikita pulled him closer to her. Rowan looked at the two of them from over Taylor’s shoulder. The bags under his eyes only made his poisonous expression look even worse. He looked at Taylor, then Nikita— and then zeroed in on Peyton. His expression became hard as a rock. “What’s the matter with you? Where are the others?”

Peyton blubbered and choked. “I— I can’t—“

Taylor seized Rowan’s arm, pulling him aside. The air vibrated with the restrained intensity of her voice and the exasperated anger of his. Nikita tugged Peyton’s wrist, pulling him through the heavy thick of it. “Come on, Peyton,” she whispered. “We’re going back upstairs.”

His joints were welded to their bones, and his voice wasn’t much better. “We’re not… we’re n-not leaving?”

“No. We have to get you away from this for now.” Nikita continued dragging him and he somehow remembered how to get his legs working again, even as the conversation happening close to them— about them— came to a crescendo. He couldn’t listen. Couldn’t listen, couldn’t listen. He couldn’t listen about how he was dangerous, how he was one of them— whatever that meant— how Nikita was bad for him despite her having done everything she could have done to help him. Eyes bored, burned into him as they walked past, but nobody stopped him because the arguing was only getting louder, and louder, and louder, and—

—and then it stopped. It didn’t peter into nothing, it didn’t come to a frantic, climactic conclusion— no, it just stopped. So did Nikita. She slackened her grip on Peyton’s hand and turned to look, before she froze. Peyton’s headache niggled at him just under the surface, promising to return. He forced his body around, blinking through the painful, fuzzy haze. Two— no, three! Four!— shadows melted into view from the forest, two at full height and flanking the two others like reluctant bookends. One of the figures in the center twitched, and then jerked violently.

Something seized Peyton’s mind, sending him stumbling back. He crumpled to the ground, his wrist ripping out of Nikita’s grasp and cracking hard against the step to the house. Nikita fell to his side, shaking him, telling him to do something but he could barely hear her through the scene in front of him— through Taylor’s open mouth and Rowan’s ghost-pale, gaping face, his eyes stretched to saucers as Jules and Umber carried two others into the camp: a dark girl with exhausted eyes and bedraggled hair, holding onto the slumped person who sported a bloom of gore on her tattered shirt— who raised her head to reveal an impossibly pale face, who wiped the dried mud and blood from under her nose, who looked in Peyton’s direction, produced a slow, painfully morose smile, and mouthed the words, “Remember me?”

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

Chapter Sixty-Eight

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

 

It was dark. Choking, hungry shadows crawled from every corner of the room, creeping up the foot of the beds, squeezing around the sheets, slithering their ways up the walls and the ceiling as the pale moonlight guided their way. It would have been suffocating any other day, in any other situation. Any other place, even— in the Outskirts, the darkness was always a sign of impending danger, always the first glimpse of an entity waiting with timely patience to snag the legs or the wits of a person and send them tumbling into oblivion. It was always a sign to look for a place to shelter, something to stave the darkness away for a while longer lest they found themselves caught in it.

But here, but now, Peyton found himself welcoming the shadows. It meant that soon, the people in the house would be going to sleep as the nighttime awoke— along with him. If he was asleep when the others were awake, rousing when they were idle, barely ever interacting with anyone, then that meant that there was less of a chance of him hurting anyone else. That had to be the case. It had to be. He couldn’t have been spending the day sleeping and the night crushed into the corner of the bed, fighting off hunger and his bodily functions for nothing. He was doing the right thing. Everyone was safe because of him— safe from him.

That incident after the swings had changed him again. It had made him worse. That squeeze, that terrible squeeze that had been torturing him for months had come back. It squeezed around his temples and turned into a thick, unyielding pressure behind his eyes. It made him taste acid and iron. It made him remember, and it made him feel. With the time he was in a deep sleep being the only exception, he was always feeling something— whether it was himself or the shadows, the different energies crawling around him, through the walls and the floor. It made it feel like his head was seconds away from collapsing on itself at any moment. And maybe it was— maybe his brain would just give up and rupture on him one day. His eyes would go all bloodshot, and his nose would spurt gore, and the only thing that would come out of his mouth from that moment on would be spittle and reedy, rattly breaths.

Just like what had happened to Sawyer.

Peyton clutched his head and buried his face in between his knees. Nikita had been right. She was always right. He couldn’t, wouldn’t risk that happening again. He wouldn’t risk any of that happening ever again. He could still remember seeing the look on Saga’s face— on Sawyer’s— on Addison’s— it was too much. It was all too much. They all probably hated him now. Every single person in Sector One probably despised him. And it wasn’t like it was unjustified, either. If he hadn’t escaped when he had, if he’d stayed or gone back, who knew what could have happened to him? Who knew what they could have done? Terrible things, probably. He should have been glad that he was gone. He should have been glad he was away from people who hated him— away from everyone who lived in the Clink.

Away from everyone in the Clink, except for one person. Peyton pulled his head up from his legs, looking to the other bed. Could Nikita even be considered a person of the Clink anymore? She was out, now, just like he was. But the fraction of her life she’d spent here in the Outskirts was nothing compared to the part she’d lived in that underground prison. She was still probably used to the culture of the Clink, much more than this place. Everyone in the Clink had loved her while she was met with ambivalent indifference here. But… it felt weird to say she was still part of the Clink. Not just because she was no longer in there, no— but because he didn’t want to associate her with all the others in there. She was different from them. She actually liked him, and didn’t hate him after what he’d done. That was all that he wanted, and she always made sure to deliver.

But then… what if he ended up hurting her, too? Peyton rested his chin back on his knees, staring listlessly at the shadows creeping up the walls. He hadn’t told her anything. He had been hiding his headaches and emotions all to himself, allowing them to fester and ferment. He didn’t even go to Nikita for help because he was so scared that he would end up hurting her somehow. If only he had asked for a separate room when they had come here together! Then he’d be able to isolate himself all the way, so he could make sure that he wasn’t able to hurt anybody else. Nikita tried helping him a lot but it wasn’t doing anything effective— he still had the migraines and the sense that he was about to do something terrible.

He closed his eyes again, the sudden darkness comforting, but ultimately failing in its task to fully calm Peyton down. What if he ended up hurting someone even if he didn’t leave this room at all, if he was only awake when nearly everyone else was about to go to sleep? He knew so little about his… abilities— it could have a ripple effect of some sort. He could not even move and he could end up hurting somebody for no reason at all. If he didn’t control himself enough then he probably would.

He didn’t even want to think about that. He wanted to think about other things. Things like… like what could help him. If he knew people like him then maybe he would feel better. When Nikita had first told him what it could be, she had never said that he was the only one who had it. She hadn’t even said that it was rare. Surely there had to be others, going through the same thing he was— unless the work and regulations of the City stopped any development of it. He didn’t want it. What he would give to go back to the City so everything could just be normal for him again. But then again… this had started with Olive, back at the Academy. Before that, even— it was the night before he had left for the Academy that he’d first experienced something like what he was. It had just gotten worse after he’d left his home. After Olive and the others had made their plan. Had their plan involved this? They’d kept him out of the project for a reason. Was it because they didn’t trust him— or was it because he was just another pawn? A test dummy?

Another twinge of pain ran over Peyton’s head. A low whimper bubbled past his lips. That didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t like they would have known. He hadn’t killed or hurt any of them— at least, not physically. There was no way for them to have known. Unless they had found out, somehow, undug the secrets even he didn’t know about. Olive, Olive would certainly do something like that if she had the opportunity to do so. Peyton rested his upper body on the bed, rolled from his side to his back. Well— if this had been a part of her plan— if she had really made it so that he had this ability without even telling him— then he hated her. He hated her so much. She had made him kill somebody, and injure someone else— and devastate an entire community on top of it. That wasn’t what friends were supposed to do. All of this, everything that had happened— it was all her fault. He couldn’t trust anybody anymore. He couldn’t even be around anybody anymore. Except for Nikita. Nikita at least knew somewhat what she was doing. She just wanted what would keep him and everybody else safe. Right?

Peyton swallowed the lump in his throat, a wince flickering on his face as it went down like a stone. She was always there when she needed him, but… she had also told him that he was bad. Maybe not explicitly, and maybe not in a mean way, but she’d told him that his being around Blake and Avery could end up hurting them. Which— he guessed she wasn’t wrong, but— he had been happy before. He’d been so happy on that swing, the happiest he’d been in a long time. He couldn’t remember when he’d last been that happy. And then she’d gone and told him that he couldn’t have that anymore. It had hurt. She may as well have driven a stake into his chest— and in his head. Even now, with all the thoughts running through his mind to compensate for how still he was trying to make his body, he could feel the pulsing pain at the base of his skull. It was getting worse. He could feel it, collecting into a single point right in the center of his head and pulling, squeezing.

“Peyton? You alright?”

Peyton froze. Slowly, he lifted his head, and looked over at the other bed again. “Y-yeah. I— I’m okay.”

Nikita’s sleep-glazed eyes glinted in the waxing moonlight. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “You look like you’re upset. You’ve been looking like that for a while. Do you want to talk? Do you want to lay down here?”

Peyton rolled over to face Nikita full-on. She was rubbing her face with one hand, the other one resting palm-down on the mattress, invitingly. He wasn’t sure, but it looked like she was smiling. He stared at her for a while, at her open face and open palm, and then shook his head. “N-no. It’s okay, Nikita. I can tell you’re tired. I don’t— I d-don’t want to bother you.”

“It’s alright, Peyton. You know that I’m here to help you.” She sat up a little more and stopped rubbing her face, holding her arms out in what looked like an inviting hug.

Peyton grazed his teeth against the corner of his upper lip, pushing his fingers into the blanket. He shouldn’t have. He would probably end up hurting her. Then she would be mad at him, and then leave him, and… without her, with him being all alone, what would he do then? But what if she got mad because he didn’t comply and go over to her?

“Peyton?”

Nikita’s voice was quieter now, slower. “Peyton, it’s really alright. I’m never too tired to take care of you. If you’re upset then I want to do what I can to help you.” Her voice faded into the darkness. “If you’re really okay, then you can stay there. Just look me in the eye and tell me that you’re not upset.”

Peyton’s head still hurt. He wanted a glass of water. And it was so dark, he could barely make out Nikita’s sharp features in the first place. How did she expect him to look into her eyes when it was so dark? How did she know that he was so upset, so worried when he was in the darkness too, pressed flush against the bed? There was no way for him to tell. But… did it really matter?

Slowly, Peyton pushed himself from the mattress. His vision spun so bad that he had to close his eyes to control it, to feel like he wouldn’t vomit his stomach all over the sheets. He shuffled all the way to the end of the bed, putting the balls of his feet on the creaky hardwood floor.

“Come on, Peyton.” Nikita’s voice was gentle but firm. “You’ll be fine.”

Peyton closed his eyes. She was right. It would be fine. The space between their two beds was barely a yard. One or two steps, and he’d be there. He pushed himself off his bed, took three stumbled steps forward and dropped down into Nikita’s. She moved immediately, enveloping him in her warm embrace as he crawled closer and rested his forehead on her collarbone. Already he could feel his eyes burning, just another little thing to add to the collection of things ailing him. He sniffed. “S-sorry.”

“Sorry for what, Peyton?” She nudged him away slightly, lowering herself back onto the bed. “Lay down.”

He lay down. He stared up at the ceiling, watching it spin and twitch in time with his aching pulse. “S-sorry for bothering you. And making you waste your time.”

“How many times do I have to tell you that it’s alright?” She touched his face, as if checking for a fever. “But that isn’t what you’re really upset about, is it?”

“What— what do you mean?”

“You haven’t been upset all this time just because you’re here talking to me. I’ve been sleeping. But you’ve been distraught since before that. I can tell.” Nikita moved forward, her breath brushing against his neck. “Don’t you want to talk to me about it?”

“It— i-it’s really nothing that important.”

“Clearly it is, if it has you acting like this.”

Peyton didn’t respond. Nikita’s fingers stopped stroking his temple, and she sighed. “Is this about what happened with Avery and Blake the other day?”

Peyton shut his eyes. “N-n-not really, but… I guess that is kind of a part of it, sort of.”

“I see.”

Peyton kept his eyes closed. Nikota’s knuckle rested against his forehead, unmoving. Then she started stroking again. “I’m just trying to keep you safe, Peyton,” she murmured, and Peyton could hear genuine remorse in her tone. “You and everyone else, too. You understand that, right? Do you need me to explain it to you better?”

“I— I know. I know that you are. I’m not angry at you. You don’t have to explain it anymore.”

“But I can’t help but feel bad. If there’s anything that can help you feel better, then I want to know.”

Peyton’s tongue felt like a slab of plaster. He rolled over on his side, pulling his legs closer to himself as he stared out the window. “Don’t worry about it,” he whispered. “I’m just— just t-tired. I think I’ll be less upset if I go to sleep.”

Nikita rolled over too. Peyton heard her exhale, felt her front against his back. She dropped a hand near his ribcage, pulling him a bit closer. “I wish I knew more that could help you,” she said. “But it’s going to be a learning experience for both of us. It’s going to take time. But I promise you I’ll never leave you alone, not like other people might.” Her breath tickled his ear, and then her lips did. “Do you want to hear some things that I learned in the Clink? Before you came?”

“Will— w-will it make me feel better?”

“I think that it might.” Her voice grazed against his ear, sending goosebumps up and down his spine. “I know you think that what you have is bad. And you’re right that it can do bad things, if it’s used or suppressed in the wrong ways. Like in the City. The City squanders it in all the citizens that do have it, creating an environment where any occurrences of it happening are detrimental to everyone.” She shifted. “That’s like what happened to you, isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh. Yeah.”

“Right. But it can also do good things, if it’s nurtured correctly.” Nikita’s sleep-heavy voice took on a lighter tone. “You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard from the Clink. I’ve heard so many stories from people who were in there longer than I was.”

“From— from the Clink? Like what?”

“Stories of people being an actual community. Back in the Unspeakable Times, before the City took over and squashed it all. Stories of people using their powers for good. Using them to communicate with each other, to make each other feel better, without even talking. Curing ailments, cooperating, building wonderful things…” Nikita shifted positions again, breathing down the nape of his neck now. “Humans are the superior species on Earth for a reason, Peyton. We made it through the Unspeakable Times because of our intelligence and the ability to communicate so thoroughly. But even though the City saved us, they also thwarted our evolution with the use of medicine, terminations, and whatnot. It’s going to take a bit for things to be the way they should be. The way nature intended. You understand, don’t you?”

Peyton kept most of his uncertainty out of his voice. “I think that… I— I think I understand what you’re saying,” he said. “It makes a little bit of sense. I know what you mean.”

“Good. I’m glad I’m making at least a little bit of sense.” Nikita chuckled. “It’s going to take some trial and error, and I know that I may be playing things a little too safe. But it’ll pay off in the end, trust me. You don’t have to worry about it.”

“O-okay. I’ll try not to.”

Nikita chuckled again. Her eyelashes brushed up against the back of his neck. It was tickly. So was her pointer finger as she slowly traced it around his belly button. “You still seem tense,” she whispered in his ear. “Did I not help you?”

“N-no. I mean— you did. You did help me, Nikita. I just— I guess I just…”

Nikita pressed the flat of her hand against his belly. It just made him aware of how empty it felt. Nikita touched her lip to the tip of his ear. “I’m not hurting you, am I?”

Peyton’s stomach twisted into knots. He pulled away, hugging his knees to his chest even more. “No. B-but I’m tired. I think that I’m gonna go to sleep now. If that’s okay with you.”

Silence. Peyton squeezed his eyes shut, held his breath. But Nikita lifted her arm from his stomach. “Okay, Peyton,” she whispered. “Good night.”

It was only when Nikita turned over, relinquishing her contact with him, that Peyton opened his eyes again. Her breath was slower, heavier. She had fallen asleep. And here he was, still awake— desperately tired in all the ways possible for a person to be tired, but unshakably awake. All he wanted to do was be freed from this headache and this terrible consciousness. But no matter what he did, he just couldn’t. Was this a side effect of what Nikita had been talking about? If it was, then— well— he didn’t want it anymore. Not that he had even really wanted it in the first place. But now that he knew what it was, he definitely didn’t want it anymore. But he couldn’t tell Nikita that. He really, really didn’t want to make her upset. And if he was somehow paving the way for others not to suffer this like he currently was, then… that was a good thing, right?

It didn’t feel like it was. The heavy knot in his stomach still didn’t go away as he shuffled his way to the edge of the bed. He slipped off of it, looked to his own bed, hesitated. No. He couldn’t go to sleep right now. He physically couldn’t.

As quiet as he tried to make his footsteps, the floorboards still groaned underneath his weight. He slumped himself down by the windowsill as soon as he got to it, his knees cracking painfully against the floor. There wasn’t much to see outside. Nothing but forest. But at least staring into the shadowy trees helped him take his mind off his ever-present headache. Not to say that Nikita hadn’t helped a bit with that, too. She usually always knew how to make him feel better.

But with that calm now lingered a sense of… worry. He knew that Nikita was trying to help him out. She knew what made him wanted and important, she knew that made him feel special. But this was too much pressure. He didn’t want these abilities, powers— whatever they were. Whatever Nikita called them. What mattered was that he didn’t want them. He wanted to be back in the City. But the City had tried to terminate him. They forced medication on them and tried to terminate him, too, and forced innocent people to live in the Clink. They kept him and everyone else under strict control so things exactly like he’d done wouldn’t happen to any of its citizens. But it had ultimately been their actions that had caused all of this happening to Peyton in the first place. This was all their fault. And Olive’s, and Kendall’s, and Scout’s, too. It wasn’t fair how he’d been forced out the City like that.

Why couldn’t he think about something else? Why couldn’t he go to sleep? If he could sleep forever he could. Maybe he would lie down with Nikita again. She always knew how to make him feel better, didn’t she? Slowly, he looked back at her. The way her sides rose and fell so slowly meant that she was still sleeping. Well… it was a good thing that at least one of them could fall asleep. Nikita needed it more than he did, anyway. She was always out and about doing stuff with Rowan and the others, helping around the house and everything. Peyton just stayed in this room all the time and mooched off everybody else’s hard work. Everyone probably thought was useless. Maybe he was useless. Maybe… maybe—

A sound outside the window. Peyton barely kept the startled yelp behind his teeth. There was nothing out there, nothing but the trees that had already been out there in the first place. But it had sounded so real. Like a rock being thrown against the glass or something. Peyton could remember what had happened the last time stones had been thrown against a window. Maybe he’d been imagining things. He hoped so. It would mean he was going crazy, but still

The sound didn’t come back. He had probably been imagining things after all. He shut his eyes, bright lights flashing behind his eyelids in time with the pulses in his head. Even though he couldn’t hear anything anymore, things still felt… wrong. A squeezing sense of foreboding, wrapping around him and getting tighter and tighter until it felt like his chest was filled with concrete. His head spun even with his eyes closed, the pressure on his temples growing stronger still.

Something was outside— and it was getting closer.

There was just a feeling, this feeling, telling him there was. It was like when he had been in the City— the very night he’d left, knowing that he had to get up to that room’s tiny little window, or else something bad would end up happening to him. That same sense of urgency, that same sense of dread. But besides that this was completely different. There was no pinpoint, no source that he was supposed to be looking for or thinking of. It just was. And that frightened Peyton more than him having some sort of goal. Who was outside? It was too dark, too late for anyone to be outside. This was someone he didn’t know. It had to be.

Peyton’s heart thrummed hard in his chest, beating in time with the pounding in his head. He backed away from the windowsill, his limbs like sand as he pushed himself to his feet. He turned around and fell onto the mattress, pulling the covers over his head. The sheets were thin, so thin that he could still see the moonlight streaking through the fibers, and the threads were rough and scratchy on his skin. Another spasm in his temple. He clenched his eyes closed, sent his arms flying over his head. It didn’t do anything to help. If anything, it made it worse— or was that the thing getting closer?

Bile rose up Peyton’s throat. He could barely breathe anymore. This wasn’t going to work. He couldn’t stay in here. Something was looking for him, looking for him and it wouldn’t stop looking until it had found him and did who knew what to him. He couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t. He couldn’t.

He unravelled himself, slipped out of bed the second he was able to do so. The floor felt painfully fragile underneath his feet as he tiptoed to the door. It was shut. How was he going to open it? It creaked so loudly. Everything in this stupid house creaked, cried, and moaned at the slightest bit of human contact. What if it made too loud of a sound and then he ended up waking up Nikita?

He looked back to her, his hand halfway to grabbing the doorknob. One of her arms was curled up to her chest and the other one was tucked in between her legs. If she’d heard Peyton getting up and walking to the door in her dreams, then she didn’t show it. But what if he woke her up by opening the door? It creaked louder than the floor. Or maybe— maybe it would be good if he woke her up. Then she wouldn’t be in danger by being here, right?

Peyton stared at her for a while, suspended between going to shake her awake and escaping through the door all on his own. Nikita was… asleep. Peacefully asleep. Peacefully asleep unlike Peyton. Clearly, nothing was bothering her like how they were bothering Peyton. Maybe… maybe she’d be alright if he left her behind. Maybe it wasn’t coming for her. It was probably coming for him. Nikita would be alright. But he himself had to get out of here before he ended up getting hurt.

The doorknob felt like molten iron underneath his fingers— slippery, hot, dangerous. But he kept his hand closed around it anyway, the center of his palm pressing against the obsolete lock. He had to be calm. He had to be calm enough to open the door slowly enough that the hinges wouldn’t creak. He twisted the knob, then began to pull it toward himself. A little, reluctant whine. Peyton stopped. He tried again. It opened a bit more before it squealed this time, but by now it was open enough for him to squeeze through the gap. He looked back at Nikita again. She was still sleeping, thank goodness.

Peyton slipped through the crack in the door, into the pitch black hallway. Only the moon gave him light, streaming through the room he had just left. His and Nikita’s room. Peyton reducing the light to a sliver of pale blue. He didn’t dare close it all the way. He was three steps in before something pulled back— his blanket was stuck underneath the gap in the door. He’d almost forgot that he was holding onto it. Could he just pull it away? But what if that made a noise? Or he could let it go. Just thinking about that made him feel cold and exposed. He couldn’t let go of it.

He bent down, ignoring the spots that mottled his peripheral, and pulled the sheet out from under the door. He stood back up and wrapped the blanket around himself, draping the top over his head. He was outside of the room now— but where was he supposed to go? He still wasn’t safe here. His head still hurt. And he still felt like crying. He just wanted to lie down and go to sleep. But he couldn’t. He had to get away. He had to stop the mess that was going on in his mind, somehow.

It was dark. So dark. He could barely see the white blanket bunched up in front of his own face. What if he tripped? What if he fell down the stairs? The air between the ricketed walls felt colder the further he got from the door. He wrapped the thin blanket tighter around himself and shivered. It would be okay. It was just like Nikita always said to him. Except… except Nikita had been the one who had made him feel like this in the first place.

Peyton stopped in the middle of the hallway, only a couple feet away from the door. His feet felt like they were cemented into the floor. He shook his head hard. He couldn’t be thinking about Nikita right now. That terrible pressure was still digging into the back of his head, and he had to get away from it. Nikita would be fine. She was fast asleep and would be fine. He had to stop worrying about her so much. It was that worrying that had gotten him into so much trouble— worrying about where she was, whether she liked him or not. It was why he was even here in the first place, able to hurt even more people—

“Peyton?”

He whipped around and backed up so hard his shoulders banged against the wall.

“Peyton? Are you okay?” The lantern in Avery’s hand rocked from side to side as she wiped her face, sending orange flames dancing over the walls. “Why’re you all bundled up like that? And why are you walking around so late? You woke me and Blake up.”

Peyton didn’t respond— he couldn’t; his vision was spinning and his throat had closed up so tight not even a whistle could escape it. Avery’s face looked demonic yet so vulnerable, so fragile in the lantern’s dim light. So did Blake’s. They were both awake. He’d woken both of them up. What had he done? What was he doing? What was he doing? Why was his head hurting so much? His heart felt like was going to burst.

“Come on, Peyton. You know you can talk to us.”

Footsteps. Too loud. Peyton crushed himself further into the wall— Blake was walking toward him, one of her hands held out like it wanted to touch his shoulder. She couldn’t touch him. She wasn’t even supposed to be looking at him, or be around him. He was going to hurt her. He was going to hurt her and Avery and everyone else and then he and Nikita were going to have to leave again. He couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t. He couldn’t let that happen or else he would never forgive himself, ever.

“Peyton—”

Blake’s fingers grazed his shoulder. He shoved her away, so fast and so suddenly he didn’t realize what he’d done until she was stumbling back. Avery caught her before she could fall. Peyton could hear Blake’s voice again but he was already flying down the stairs. He was standing in the first floor. The door. The door was right in front of him, the door to the Outskirts. He didn’t want to go out there. But he could hear footsteps, feel Avery and Blake coming after him and he didn’t want to face them, either. Better him hurt than everybody else.

He planted his hands into the surface of the door and shoved it hard. The hinges gave away, swinging open so hard and so suddenly that Peyton fell out face-first. Tears sprang to his eyes as he forced himself from the ground, dirt and sticks coating his arms, digging into the grooves of his skin. He looked behind him. He couldn’t see Avery or Blake, but he could see the light. He could feel them, taste their fear like hot blood spilled over his tongue. They were still coming. Peyton dug his hands into the grass, pulled himself to his feet, and ran.

It was too dark to be running. The moon was barely a scratch of white in the sky, the treetops barricading most of the light from reaching the ground. But Peyton ran anyway, tripping over rocks and tangles of root more often than he got a clear footplant in the ground. Footsteps thumped behind him as he ran— or was that his heart, beating violently in his chest? He couldn’t tell, not with thorns scratching at his face and snarls of grass grabbing at his feet. Even without them he wasn’t sure if he would be able to tell. He didn’t dare look behind him to check. One wrong slip and he would be on the ground, and Avery and Blake would be on him.

His legs burned. So did his chest. So did the air. It went down his throat like acid, stung his eyes like the flickering flame that was always chasing him. It made him veer off in haphazard directions, each footfall on the blackened earth just a little bit heavier than the last one. Maybe it would make him harder to catch. Harder to hurt anybody. But he’d have to stop eventually. Already he was faltering. His legs may as well have been twigs driven into concrete, the way they were starting to ache. He’d have to hide somewhere, so nobody would find him. And how and when would he go back? Would he go back?

A wet, exhausted cry ripped from him as his foot caught underneath a root, slowing him down even more. He had to go back. He couldn’t be live the middle of the Outskirts all by himself. He needed Nikita with him. Then maybe— maybe he would be able to stay out here. But Nikita was sleeping. She didn’t know where he was. She didn’t even know that he’d left, or that Blake and Avery had gone with him. She wouldn’t know for hours, probably. Unless the commotion they’d made had woken her up, she wouldn’t be coming out to find him for hours. And he couldn’t go back now. He was too dangerous. He’d end up hurting people and making her mad at him. Peyton reached up to wipe his sleeve over his eyes, but there were already tears smeared onto his cheeks. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to go back at all, period. He’d just have to stay here in the middle of nowhere for the rest of his life, and not even Nikita would be able to comfort him or make him calm or anything.

“Peyton!”

He looked behind him— and then he was looking at the ground, and then the sky, and then the ground and the sky again, a painful, dizzy cycle of dark and darker. Sticks and pebbles clawed at his arms and face, stinging, burning. He only had time to close his eyes before the stop smashed into him. Pain shot through his nerves like ice. Something pressed against the back of his head, dust plugging his nostrils and throat. His limbs didn’t cooperate when he tried moving them. He coughed, inhaled— coughed again. He was drowning in air, thick, suffocating, black air, and there was no way out. A cough burst out of his chest again, weaker this time. He couldn’t move. Maybe his limbs were broken. In the haze of it all, he somehow had the mind to run his tongue over his teeth: they were all still there.

“Oh my gosh— Peyton! Are you alright!?”

He cracked his eyes open, just in time to see Avery racing over to him. That lantern of fire was still clutched in her hand. Peyton found the strength to force himself up and back away— he’d hit a tree. No wonder he felt so awful. But none of that compared to the crushing terror in his chest. He backed away, holding an arm out. “N-n-no. D-don’t— don’t— don’t come closer! I— I—”

“You look like you’re hurt! Why did you run outside like that?” Avery got closer. Peyton stumbled back, falling onto his bottom— he still pushed himself away. Avery hesitated, her free hand lingering in the air. “Peyton… what happened? What’s going on?”

Peyton coughed. He wrapped his arms around himself; his ribcage ached when he put pressure on it. His head still hurt, but he sunk his fingers into it. “G-get away,” he heaved. “Get away, get away. I can’t—”

“We’re trying to help you, Peyton! Stop being stupid and tell us what the problem is!”

A hand closed around his wrist and yanked him to his feet— and then everything went white. Peyton fell back. The back of his head cracked against something hard— and then he was screaming. A pain like he’d never felt before pounded in his skull. The screaming wasn’t helping. He had to stop. It hurt so much. He sat up, touched the back of his head. His fingers were wet, fleshy. He touched his face. His mouth was closed. He wasn’t the one screaming.

The lantern was in the grass. It was bright enough to illuminate Avery, her bulging eyes and agape mouth and the blanket he’d dropped, but Avery, Avery was shaking Blake who’d been sprawled across the ground with her arm flung out in front of her like she’d been grabbing something— she wasn’t moving he’d killed her he’d killed her and Avery was screaming words, desperate words, shaking Blake over and over and over. “Get up! Get up! Why aren’t you—”

This was what Nikita had warned him about. She’d known that this would have happened, she’d always known— why hadn’t he listened to her? Why had he gone out of his room and let them chase after him? Why hadn’t he listened? He dug his fingernails into his scalp and a shredding, tormented scream ripped out of his throat, mingling with Avery’s cries—

—and then it wasn’t anymore. He was the only one screaming, until his voice was raw and torn. It was only when his vocal cords had been reduced to a twisted reed and all the air had been forced from his lungs that he stopped, his muscles pulp, every joint concrete. He opened his eyes. Avery had pushed Blake’s hand to her face and was sobbing, wailing into it. But Blake’s fingers were twitching, flexing, and underneath the sobs Peyton could hear a voice. “I’m okay. I’m okay, Avery. It’s okay.”

She wasn’t okay. She couldn’t be okay. Peyton pushed his fingers into the dirt, but he didn’t have the strength to push himself away anymore. He could only watch Avery duck her head, and Blake slowly, slowly prop herself up. The lower half of her face and her hair was smeared with black. Black blood. But her eyes were open, awake and alert. She looked at Avery first, and in the orange dim her gaze was reassuring as she squeezed Avery’s hand. Then it turned to Peyton. Peyton didn’t get the chance to see how she was staring at him because he’d buried his face into his legs, rocking back and forth. “I’m sorry,” he whimpered. “I’m s-sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t— I didn’t…”

Silence. Then a ragged, wet cough. A hand sliding over wet, sticky skin. He couldn’t look up, he didn’t want to look up, but he could hear, he could hear them whispering to each other no matter how hard he tried not to. Then the voices got louder, sharper, and they were directed at him. “Peyton, what happened?”

“I… I don’t know. It— it always happens and I don’t want it to. I— I was running away and— and then you guys just kept following after me and I— I…” he broke himself off, his throat feeling just as bloody as Blake’s nose. “I— I’m sorry. I’m s-sorry. I didn’t mean to. Please don’t hate me. Just go away. I don’t want to hurt you again.”

Neither Blake or Avery said anything. Peyton coughed, bright lights flashing in his peripherals. He could hear them whispering some more. Then Avery’s voice. “I think… I think Nikita told us something about this.”

Peyton looked up. Even in the darkness he could see Avery and Blake shrink away and that hurt, that hurt so much. “Wh-what? What— what— what did she tell you?”

Avery fidgeted. Her fingers twitched as she brought them up to her face. “She told us…” she started, then trailed off, her voice hitching. “She… she told us that you’d be dangerous if you got upset.”

A sob wracked Peyton’s chest. He closed his eyes, and tears tricked over his cheeks. “Y-you’re right,” he choked. “She— she’s right. I am dangerous. She told me that I was. She told me I had to stay away from you! That I c-couldn’t be your friend anymore! That’s how all of this started! This is all my fault!”

“Peyton… Peyton, please calm down. You have to stop crying.”

A hand on his shoulder and he jerked back, his hands ripping from his face. Avery pulled away, her other hand closed around Blake’s— who was standing behind her. Her fingers were shaking, her lips parted to let in some of the caustic air around them. She was still scared of him. “Please, Peyton. We know that you didn’t mean to hurt us. Not really. You shouldn’t have been allowed to get so upset. What Nikita did to you was wrong. She should have known better than to make you get so stressed out.”

“N-no. It was my fault. I have to… I can’t be around you guys anymore. I can’t— I can’t let this h-happen again.” Peyton shook his head, so hard that his vision spun. He planted his hand into the ground and pushed himself to his feet, his knees nearly buckling underneath him. His skin screamed as he pushed his fingernails into his arms. He didn’t listen to it. His eyesight went blurry as he looked at Avery and Blake in turn. “You guys have to— you guys have to… you need to leave.”

Leave?

“Y-y-yes. You have to leave. You have to. You have to leave right now.” Peyton’s bare feet felt raw as he dragged them over the forest floor. Blake had her head pressed against Avery’s shoulder, her back heaving with light, frantic breaths. Her face looked pale, sallow. He’d done that to her. He’d done it to her and he would end up doing it again if they didn’t get away from him. “Please. I can’t— I don’t want to hurt you again.”

Avery didn’t respond. But she took a step back, her hand still gripped over Blake’s like a lifeline— whether she was giving it or Blake was, Peyton didn’t know. It didn’t matter. She was getting away from him and that was what mattered. Her lips trembled, then opened again. “Peyton, please. I know that you didn’t mean to hurt Blake. It was an—”

“But I still did. I still did. And I’m gonna end up doing it again if something doesn’t happen that makes me not do it again. Please. I’m going to hurt you again if you don’t! I’m going to end up killing you!

“Peyton, please.” Avery grabbed the fallen lantern again, shining it on her face. “You were so happy just a few days ago. And then Nikita ended up taking all that away from you as soon as you left with her.”

“I— I don’t know what you’re talking about. What are you talking about?”

Avery’s face screwed itself up. “You don’t… Peyton, her telling you all of that is what made you so upset in the first place. And then— and then that’s how this happened. That’s how this happened. Because she made it with how she treated you.”

Peyton’s head spun. “N-no. Don’t say that. N-Niki— she knows what she’s doing. She does. She told me. She told me she does.”

“Then why did she let this happen?”

“B-because— because she didn’t know it would. But she knows. She’s— she’s helping me.”

“She doesn’t know what she’s doing, Peyton! If she knew what she was doing then Blake wouldn’t be like this because of you! If she was helping you then you wouldn’t have to send us away so you wouldn’t be able to kill us! If she knew what she was doing then she wouldn’t have ended up making you so depressed after you were the happiest I’d ever seen you! Maybe… maybe she does know what she’s doing, Peyton. She’s keeping you attached to her and not allowing you to have any other friends! She knows that that would make you less submissive towards her! She’s using you!”

Shut up!

Avery staggered back and fell to the ground, and Blake went down with her. Peyton clutched his head, dropping to his knees. But it wasn’t because of any pain, no— not like it surely had to be for Avery. But Avery was moving, moving, pulling Blake and the only light in the forest away, and when she held the lantern up to her face there was no red on her face. But he could feel it— she was afraid of him, and why wouldn’t she be afraid of him? He’d ended up hurting her. He’d ended up hurting her because they were talking about Nikita. Again. Again. He’d hurt Saga because he was talking badly about Nikita. He’d hurt Sawyer because he was with Nikita. And now he’d hurt Blake and Avery because of Nikita.

Peyton pressed his hands into his eyes and sobbed. “I— I didn’t— I can’t—”

“Peyton…”

“Pl-please. Please, just leave. I don’t want to hurt people anymore.”

Silence. “If we leave… then you have to come with us, Peyton.”

“I can’t.”

“But you could get away from Nikita. She doesn’t have to make you so upset anymore.”

“It— it isn’t her. It’s me. I’m going to hurt you again if I go with you. I can’t go with you. I have to… I have to stay here. With her. I can’t leave her. I can’t go with you.” Peyton bit his lip. It was selfish, so selfish to be telling them to leave after they had made themselves a home here. But what else could they do? He and Nikita couldn’t leave. They had nowhere they could go. But Avery and Blake did— and he wasn’t going to let them face the same fate that Sawyer had.

Peyton pushed himself up, wiping the dirt and grime off his arms. “Find… find your way back to the City,” he managed to force out. “Find the City. Find… find its walls.”

Blake looked up at him, incredulity cutting through the clouded fear in her eyes. The lower part of her face was still covered in red— or was that from the lantern’s crimson light? “We can’t go back to the City,” she said. “If we go back— we’ll… we’ll—”

“You don’t have to go back to the City.” Peyton rubbed his face, wiping the oily moisture away. He’d stopped crying. Sobs still filled his chest and his eyes still burned, but he had stopped crying. Maybe— hopefully— that would make them take him more seriously. “Once you find the walls, then you have to— there’ll be a trapdoor, in the ground. It shouldn’t be too hard to find. You’ll have to go down it. Then walk until you find an elevator. And then once you hit the ground, you have to… you’ll have to go out and get help. Maybe there’ll be people at the elevator to help you. Maybe there won’t. I don’t… I don’t know. But there’ll be people there. Don’t tell them that I sent you. Don’t even say that you know me. Or N-Nikita. Just tell them that you need help. They’ll… they’ll take care of you.” The words felt like a lie even as they left his mouth. But it was their only chance. At least they wouldn’t die. Sector One was better than to kill them. Sector One was better than he was. Besides Nikita— as badly as they had spoken about her— Avery and Blake had been his only friends ever since he’d left the City. He couldn’t let himself hurt them anymore. He wouldn’t. They deserved better than that. They deserved better than him.

Blake leaned herself further into Avery’s arms. Avery wrapped her into a protective embrace, and took a step back. “How are we going to find our way back to the City?” she whimpered.

“I… I don’t know. Just— the same way that you found this place. I’m sorry I can’t help you anymore— but you have to go. Nikita and I made it here after a few days. You can make it.”

“But… we might get lost or hurt.”

“But you’re going to get killed if you stay here.”

Avery held Blake tighter. “But… we have to go and find our things. And… I have to help Blake. Then— then we can leave.” She bit her lower lip. “Come back with us to the house. Please.”

It was Peyton’s turn to step back. “N-no,” he said. “I have to… I have to stay out here until I calm down. I have to.”

“But we— we can’t just leave you out here all by yourself!”

“I’ll… I’ll be fine. I’ll go back later. I’ll stay right here. I’ll stay here so I can say bye to you guys. I— I promise.”

Avery didn’t stop staring at him, the shadowy mask over her face flickering and faltering with the lantern’s dying flame. Peyton stared back, the painful squeezing in his chest and head growing, growing— and then Avery turned away. She rubbed Blake’s back, whispered something to her, looked over her shoulder one last time. Then they left.

It wasn’t until the soft, orange light from the lantern faded into nothingness that Peyton found the strength to look away. He’d told them that he was going to stay here. He wanted to. He wanted to stay here and say bye to them— apologize for that he’d done to them, for what he was forcing them to do. But he couldn’t. The heavy, cement-like feeling was returning, squeezing at his skull and sucking all the air out of his lungs. He could collapse and die out here and nobody would notice. Nobody would probably even care besides Nikita. And Nikita… what Avery had said about her… was it be true?

Peyton’s knees shook. He stepped forward and pressed his hand against the tree before he slid down, sitting against it and struggling to control his breathing. Nikita had made him upset after he’d gone swinging with Avery and Blake. She’d told him that it was for the greater good that he let them be by themselves— and he believed her. He believed her. But then he’d gotten upset, so upset. And then he’d ended up going and shutting himself into his room so he couldn’t hurt people anymore. But then he did. Despite everything he’d done he’d ended up letting this thing take over him again and then he’d ended up the two other people who actually liked him besides Nikita. He’d hurt Blake, the one who liked him the most, so badly. What was going to happen when they went back to the house? Had Rowan and Taylor and everyone else woken up because of all the commotion? What if they saw Avery carrying Blake— half conscious with a puddle of blood over her face? What would they end up doing to him— the same things he and Nikita feared the people in Sector One would do if they found out about Sawyer? What if they did worse?

No. No, no, no… he couldn’t be thinking like this. He couldn’t be thinking about this. The ache in his skull was only growing worse and worse by the moment and making himself upset thinking about these sorts of things was only going to end up making it even more painful than it already was. He had to… he had to calm himself down. He couldn’t get upset or the things Nikita had warned him about— the things he had experienced— would happen again. He couldn’t let them happen again. He couldn’t.

Peyton whimpered. The awkward, otherworldly confidence he’d been feeling before had long since frozen back into the ether where it had come from, leaving him cold and alone. He pulled his knees up to his hollow, aching chest and pressed it against them, resting his chin on top his thighs. There was only so much the moon could do through the treetops, even when the sky was clear and the forest was still. He wished it could do more. He wished something, anything could do more. He wished he was still in the City. Still in Silverhill, where the only thing he had to worry about was what the weather was going to be like tomorrow and what Mother was planning on making for dinner. But he wasn’t. He was far away from the City, from his home, a part of the tiny, undesirable handful of the people who somehow lived outside of the eye of the City in the first place.

Was he ever going to go home? Was he ever going to see Mother and Father, and Kendall, Olive, and Scout again? He wanted to believe that he would. But— the City had chased him out with that Seeker bird. Olive had made him leave. He would have been terminated by the City if he hadn’t. They didn’t want him there anymore. Now he knew why. He knew why the City did everything it did. It was because he was dangerous. Maybe other people were. He was just the only one who gave in and harmed other people— and not just because of Sawyer and Avery and Blake, no— because of Olive, and Kendall, and Scout, after he’d screamed at them because of his own jealousy. He wouldn’t have had to leave the City if he hadn’t done that in the first place. He was awful. He was an awful person. Everything bad that had happened to him was his fault and his fault alone.

A red hot bolt of agony shot through his head and sent him to the ground. Pebbles and twigs scratched at his cheeks, grains of dirt tossed into his eyes— and then more pain. Adrenaline brought him to his feet. He took two staggering steps away and then fell back again. Pain spurted up his spine and out his mouth. He scrambled away. Pressure built up behind his face, clawing its way out, hunting for some place— any place— any one— to escape to.

Peyton’s heart throbbed in his throat, spilling from his lips. He clawed himself to his feet. He couldn’t stay here. He couldn’t stay here, where Blake and Avery were going to come in just a few short minutes. He couldn’t hurt them again. He had to leave. He had to release all this energy somewhere— it just couldn’t be anywhere near his friends.

He tore his way through the black forest, screaming.

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

Chapter Sixty-Five

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

 

Peyton focused on keeping the handle of the spade from slipping in his sweaty palm as he pushed the blade into the soil over and over again. Digging up potatoes was a lot more difficult of a task than he’d thought it would be. He’d probably been out here an hour by now and he’d only taken about three or so off the plant. Would three be enough for a stew? Probably not for eight people. He could always go without, but three wouldn’t be enough for seven people either. He needed to pick more. Two more? Maybe five would be enough. It wasn’t like the whole meal was just going to be potatoes and water. With everything else that was added to the stew, maybe no one would notice the lack of potatoes, right?

He upturned another potato, rubbed the skin— it didn’t peel off, which meant it was ripe— plucked it from the plant, and set it aside. Then he stiffened at the sound of footfall behind him. Peyton dropped the spade. He looked behind his shoulder, forced himself to relax, then he smiled and waved. “H-hi.”

Blake walked straight up to him— leaving Avery behind— and crouched to the ground, staring out at the upturned potato patch. “What’re you doing?”

“Just… digging up some potatoes. Rowan— he— he asked me to do that.”

Blake looked down at his little collection and poked at the largest potato, rolling it out of place. “Looks like you’ve got a decent amount of them already.”

“Y-yeah. I guess.” Peyton nudged the potato back in place. “I was wondering if they’d be enough for everyone. Do you think it’ll be enough?”

“Looks like it to me.” She patted his shoulder, either not knowing or not caring about the way he tensed up underneath her touch. “Hey. Avery and I were planning on going to the rope swing. Wanna come along with us?”

“Well… I— I don’t know. I think— I think I’m supposed to be staying here.”

“Why? You have something else to do besides picking potatoes?”

“No. But… b-but still. What if someone wonders where I am?”

Blake waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that. We leave without telling anyone where we went all the time. As long as we’re back before sundown nobody cares at all. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from here, anyway. Come on. It’ll be fun.”

Peyton reached for the spade again. Smoothed out the lumpy dirt with it, once, twice, thrice. “I don’t know. M-maybe. I have to… maybe I’ll just stay here.”

“You don’t really want to stay out here all by yourself, do you? Nikita’s out hunting with Umber and Rowan, Jules is probably starting dinner, and Taylor’s doing… whatever she usually does. Sewing. Or maybe helping Jules. Do you really want to sit here staring at the potatoes for the next three hours?”

How would she react if he said yes? Peyton shrugged, pulling his shoulders closer to himself. “W-well… I guess that you have a point there.”

“Of course I have a point.” Blake reached down and took his wrist in her hand, shaking it so that he dropped the spade back into the dirt. “Just take the potatoes inside and come. In fact— let Avery do it. So you can’t sneak away from us.”

Peyton ducked his head, but he pushed himself off the ground with his free hand, allowing Blake to help him up. “Okay.”

“I promise you won’t regret it.” Blake let go of his wrist, leaving it warm and tingly, and stepped aside to let Avery pick up the potatoes. “Just go and put them on the kitchen table. Then check up on Jules to make sure he won’t need anything else.”

Avery walked off, and Blake and Peyton were left alone. Peyton shuffled his weight from foot to foot. “S-so— Blake, um—”

“What do you think of the Outskirts so far, then?”

“Well, it’s going… good, I guess.”

Blake smiled, leaning back on her heels. “Don’t worry. Avery had a pretty hard time adjusting too. Taylor managed to get her out of her shell, though— with my help, of course.” She paused. “Nikita did that for you too, I’m guessing?”

“Yeah.”

Blake’s smile turned to a grin and Peyton had to force a smile of his own away. “It’s good that you’re finally branching out to spend time with other people,” she said. “We really are happy that you’re spending more time with us.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, definitely! You know— Avery and me didn’t really have all that many friends in the City. In the Academy or back in Cascadefalls— the district we grew up in. We mostly just kept to ourselves— to each other, you know? And— well, we didn’t spend long enough in the Academy to make a lot of friends. Everyone here is too old to really hang out with, you know? So the both of us are glad there’s someone actually our age here now— and actually willing to put up with us.”

“Oh. I— I guess.” She did have a point. He did kind of miss having conversations with people close to his age. It was… nice. Maybe if they’d known each other in the Academy, things would have been a little different.

The sound of a door slamming took Peyton out of his thoughts. Avery came out of the house with free hands and a bright smile. “He said we can go,” she said. “And Peyton, he also said that the potatoes you gave him were fine.”

“That— that’s good.”

“Anyway,” Blake said. “Let’s not stand around here talking and being useless all day, right? Let’s actually go and do something… sort of productive. Or fun, at least. We’ll lead the way, Peyton. Just follow us and you’ll be fine.”

“Okay.” Peyton watched Avery and Blake turn and start to walk off, hesitating for a moment before he finally picked his feet off the ground and followed after them. They weren’t walking very fast at all, so it wasn’t too hard to keep up. Thankfully. Sometimes just walking felt absolutely exhausting for him these days.

A warm, silent dewyness hung in the air, like it was the beginning of summer instead of well into autumn. It wasn’t unpleasant, but still unusual… if it was so humid, then why wouldn’t it rain? Especially since it hadn’t rained for a long while, and rain was supposed to happen more in the fall. Or maybe it was more humid because of the river. That did make sense, didn’t it? Peyton looked up. “H-hey— you guys?”

Blake turned around and raised her eyebrows. “Hm?”

“Has it— you know— has it rained since you’ve gotten here? I was wondering, because… I don’t think it has since Nikita and I entered the Outskirts. It’s… supposed to rain a lot in the fall.”

Blake and Avery exchanged glances. Then Avery shrugged. “We’re… actually not too sure about that,” she said. “We think it has once or twice, not counting little drizzles here and there. Yeah. One or two real storms.” She looked up like she expected a downpour to crash from the perfectly blue sky at any moment. “You’re right that it usually rains more this time of year, though. But maybe it rains more in the City, for some reason.”

Blake crossed her arms, kicking at the dirt. “You aren’t asking for it to rain, are you, Peyton? You realize that the roof leaks when it rains too hard. Avery found that out the hard way. One of the cracks is right above her bed. You better hope that there aren’t any above yours.”

“W-well… I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out the next time it rains or something. Hopefully there aren’t any holes. I think… I think that’d be a little bit annoying.”

“It is.” Blake shook her head, turning away. “It kinda sucks. It’s a nice house, but it’s not like the City where you can easily repair any leaks or cracks or anything. But at least it keeps us… mostly dry, right? Better than walking around in the open all the time, that’s for sure. Avery and I’ve had enough of that.”

“Y-yeah,” Peyton said.  “You’re right.”

“Mm-hmm.” Blake trailed away, walking in silence for a while longer. “But besides that, I like the Outskirts better than the City. At least we don’t have to worry about being in too much danger out here. Not as much as in the Academy, anyway.”

“Wh-what do you mean?”

Blake gave him a look. “What I mean,” she said, “is that the City and the Academy were dangerous. Didn’t you know that? Isn’t that the entire reason you left?”

Peyton curled his fingers into his palm, shrugged and looked down. His slippers were all but worn to the thread, now. Would Taylor be able to repair them? Or make him a new pair of shoes? It was a miracle he hadn’t gotten any bad blisters yet. If he’d known he’d be trekking through the Outskirts when he jumped out that window, he would have brought his shoes with him. He would have brought another outfit with him. And soap, and a toothbrush, and a comb.

“Peyton? Earth to Peyton.”

A pair of fingers snapped an inch away from his face and he flinched. Blake lowered her arm, narrowing her eyes. “You sure you’re feeling okay? You just zoned out for a while there.”

“S-sorry.” He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing the thoughts from his mind. “I guess— I guess I did leave the City because I was in danger. B-but I think I’d go back if I could.”

“Why? You miss your friends?” Avery asked.

Peyton bit his lip. He squeezed his hands against each other, shrugged, and then nodded. “I— I guess. But just like… in general.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. That’s kind of a sore spot for him.” Blake rubbed the back of her neck. “Hey, don’t worry about it, Peyton. You have us now.” Peyton didn’t respond. Blake chuckled, kind of awkwardly. “You don’t want to talk about your past— I get it. But would you be interested in hearing ours? It’s kinda neat, I’d like to think.”

“W-well— I guess. That sounds… interesting.”

“Okay. Great.” She started to walk faster. “It was the… second day of us being at the Academy, I think? Or the third? Either way— it was a few days since we’d enrolled. And we found out pretty instantly that something was wrong.”

“What— what do you mean?”

“Someone disappeared. Maybe multiple someones, actually.” Blake shrugged. “I don’t know the specifics or anything like that— something the City did probably made us forget. But Avery and I knew that we didn’t want to be the ones who disappeared next, so…” she shrugged. “We ended up leaving. It wasn’t that hard to do at all. If you do ever go back to the City, Peyton, maybe tell them to do a little bit of renovation on the walls.”

“O-oh. Okay. I will.”

Blake scoffed again, shaking her head. She began to walk just a bit slower. “We had… there was someone else travelling with us before we came here. Another girl. But we ended up leaving her behind.”

“Wh-why did you do that?”

“Because she was starting to… well, scare us,” Avery replied, cutting in for Blake. “She never was… well, the friendliest of people. But it just got worse after she left with us. So we just left and found this place after a couple of days. We still miss her, though.”

Blake poked her in the side, pouting. “I keep on telling you not to worry. She’s fine.”

“How… how can you be so sure?” Peyton asked.

“I can’t be completely sure. But I do know that she’s too stubborn to just curl into a ball and give up. Trust me— if you knew her, you’d get it.” Blake’s lip cocked up in a mischievous little grin. “She’s gonna show up to this place ready to constantly harp on us sooner or later, I can promise you that.”

It was… nice that Blake was so optimistic for her friend. But in the Outskirts, was stubbornness really enough to get someone through anything? It wasn’t anything like the tales Peyton had been told when he was younger, but it was still dangerous, especially being all alone. Slipping and breaking a bone or something similar could be serious, especially with no one there and nothing to help. What would happen to them then?

Nausea bubbled in Peyton’s stomach, and he grasped his upper arm again. The City had its own issues and problems, but at least it was relatively safe if no one did anything wrong. But if someone did do something wrong… was termination painless compared to a lost person in the Outskirts? It had to be quicker, at least. But neither of them seemed very desirable.

Peyton shivered, digging his fingernails into his arm. Out of nowhere he stuttered, “I… I think I almost got terminated.”

Blake turned to face him, raising her eyebrows. “Really? Is that what they call it— the whole disappearing thing?”

“I— I don’t know. I guess. I think it was.”

“What happened?” Avery said.

Peyton bit his lip. Both Avery and Blake had stopped walking by now, looking at him and him only. Great. “I— I— I think a Seeker bird was chasing me,” he said. “I was probably already in trouble because I’d been taken away for questioning, for… some things. But then I escaped, because I didn’t— I didn’t know what would happen to me, and then I saw the bird, and it was chasing after me, and then… and then I escaped.”

“Oh. I see.” Blake nodded, acting like she understood even though she probably didn’t. “That must’ve been scary. I probably would’ve just curled up and cried.”

A smile twitched onto his face. “Y-yeah. I definitely felt like doing that, too.”

“You did? Well. That isn’t too surprising.”

“What— what do you mean?”

“Nothing. Forget I said anything.” Blake skipped a few feet away. “We’re almost at the rope swing, now. Try to keep up.”

“Um— okay. I will.”

She continued skipping away, a warbly, off-pitch ditty drifting in Peyton’s direction. It made the hairs on the back of his arms and neck stand on end. He rubbed them away. “We don’t… we don’t have to race her, though. Right?”

“No. She’s just… really energetic, that’s all.” The smile didn’t leave Avery as she followed after Blake. “That’s what I love about her, though.”

“Oh.” Peyton swallowed down his apprehension. Blake still skipped ahead of him and Avery, her feet dancing over the mud and leaves like she’d known the Outskirts her entire life. She and Avery must have been here for a while. How long ago had they left? They were the same age as him, which meant they had to have come to the Academy the same time as him, so if they’d escaped from the Academy that must’ve meant they couldn’t have been here for more than a couple months.

It was strange. They acted like they’d been here for much, much longer. Were they really able to adapt that easily? Would they have adapted that well in the Clink? Peyton had been there just a little shorter than they’d been here and even though he was away from that place forever, just the thought of being in there again was enough to spring tears to his eyes. But then again… there wasn’t nearly as much freedom in the Clink as there was in the Outskirts. At least here there was grass to walk on, fresh air to breathe in and a variety of food to eat. If he’d taken a different direction in the tunnel after falling through the trapdoor— if he’d come to the Outskirts first instead of the Clink— would he have done the terrible things he had? Maybe he wouldn’t have.

But then he wouldn’t have met Nikita. She would still be stuck down there. She always said she was grateful to have been given the opportunity to leave, in spite of the circumstances. Maybe he could ask her when she got back from finding food. She’d say she was happy, of course— she always did— but… still. Besides, he wasn’t talking to her as much as he usually did. He’d have to start that up again. He still liked her the most, so it wasn’t like it’d be a chore. Maybe when they got back from the swing, Nikita and the others would be back from getting food, too.

“Blake’ll probably wanna go on it first.” Avery’s voice was light and high-pitched, taking him out his thoughts instantly. “Hope you can wait.”

“O-oh. Sure. I can wait.” The swing. She was talking about the swing. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to go on the swing. It was probably dangerous. What if the branch it was connected to ended up breaking or something? Blake and Avery had done it often and it hadn’t broken… but what if their weight on it constantly had brought the branch or the rope to its breaking point? Then they could fall and get hurt. Then he wouldn’t be able to help them because he knew nothing about first aid. Maybe Taylor would rush to their rescue at the last moment. Or Rowan, or Jules, or Nikita. Fix them right up and everything would be alright. Peyton couldn’t help but smile thinking about it.

“Here we are!”

Peyton dug his feet into the ground to come to a shaky stop. Avery was pointing to a tree, just a couple yards away from the river. And attached to the tree was— oh, yes, it looked just as ratty and used as he assumed it’d be. The ropes had frayed, dirt and moss growing between the fibers, and the block of wood attached to them didn’t look that much better. The tree was gnarled and though it looked sturdy and strong, it also looked old. Was hanging an entire person’s body weight on it really a good idea?

Blake pushed the wooden seat. She watched it swing back and forth a few times, and grinned at Peyton. “Isn’t it great?”

“Um— yeah. It is… great.”

Blake slapped the seat, stopping its aimless dangling. “It’s a lot more durable than it looks. Trust me.”

“I… I guess.” Peyton shrugged, fiddling with his hands. “Hey— if you guys only came here just recently, and you’re the only kids here besides me, then— wh-who put up the rope swing? And why? It looks like it’s old.”

“Rowan did, I’m pretty sure.”

“R-Rowan?”

“Yeah. Taylor told me he did, when she first showed me. Heck if I know why, though.” Blake climbed onto the swing and kicked her feet into the dirt. “Little help here.”

Avery stepped forward and pushed Blake’s back, creating a steady rhythm as Blake started to swing. “Maybe adults like swinging, too,” she said. “That’s likely, right? I mean— even adults like to have fun, sometimes. You remember how Ma and Pops used to be.”

Blake’s smile dropped off her face. “Yeah. I do. I… I miss them.”

Avery pursed her lips. “Yeah,” she said after a while, still pushing. “I miss them, too. Do you think they… know?”

“They don’t. It’s not like they were talking to us any after we left for the Academy.” Blake scoffed, kicking her legs to the sky as Avery gave her a particularly strong shove. “It feels like we have this conversation every other week. Can’t we talk about something else?”

“Oh. Yeah, sure.” Avery pushed Blake a few more times. The creaking of the branch was the only thing breaking the silence— and then Avery glanced over to Peyton. “Did you have a good relationship with your parents?” she asked. “Ours were basically our best friends. Older than most City parents. They got us right at the age cutoff— raised like three other kids before us, or something. But they were still great.”

Peyton tensed, tried to relax and failed. “Um— w-well, yeah. I liked them. They were… so nice to me. They were always so kind and loving and…” he trailed off, swallowing the lump in his throat. “I— I don’t know how many kids they had. Th-they always acted like I was their first, b-but…”

Avery stopped pushing Blake as hard. Blake slowed down enough that she was able to stare at Peyton, raising her eyebrow. “But?”

“B-but… I— I don’t know.” He wrapped his arms around himself and turned away. “I… I don’t— I don’t think I want to talk about this. Sorry.”

Avery stopped pushing Blake. “Sorry. We… didn’t mean to upset you. We should know your soft spots by now. Um. Do you… wanna talk about something else, then? We didn’t mean to chase you away.”

“It’s… it’s alright. I know you didn’t mean to chase me away. B-but— but let’s just talk about something else. I think— I think that’d make me feel better.”

“Oh. Okay.” The smile flashed back onto Avery’s face. “Wanna try the swing? I think Blake’s probably tired of it by now.”

“Yeah. I’ll let you try it now.” Blake dug her heels into the ground, stopping her swinging at last. “I can push you. Just tell me if I’m going too hard or too soft, okay?”

Peyton sidled back. “Um— I’m not sure. It— it looks kind of dangerous.”

“It’s not dangerous at all. Didn’t you just see me on it? Come on. I’ll show you.” Blake got up and walked over, holding a hand out to him. “You can just sit on it at first. Then I’ll push you a bit, see how you like it. That sound good?”

“W-well… okay. I guess— I guess that it does. But not too high. Don’t swing too high.” Peyton let her take his hand. It was warm and clammy.

Blake guided him to the swing, reached up to rest her hands on his shoulders, and slowly lowered him onto the seat. “There. You’re sitting on it. Not that bad? The world isn’t ending?”

Peyton scooched back a little, reaching up to grab the ropes on either side of him. The twine between his fingers felt… odd. Slimy and dry at the same time. Broken, askew strands of the thing poked into his palms and fingertips. The seat was harder than he’d expected it to be, but it still sagged a little bit under his body weight. None of it was… exactly painful, but it wasn’t very comfortable either. “I— I guess it’s okay,” Peyton said. “It feels— it does feel a little bit weird, though. Like— the rope and the seat.”

“Yeah. It can take a little bit to get used to it. I was thinking about putting a cushion on the seat or something, but then it’d probably just get moldy when it rained. Just consider it extra authenticity.” She walked out of Peyton’s line of sight.

Peyton twisted to look for her. “Wh-where are you—”

A pair of hands planted right in the center of his back and pushed, hard. Peyton squeaked and lurched forward and if it weren’t for him gripping onto the ropes like a lifeline he would have undoubtedly tumbled to the ground. But he went up, already swinging a lot higher than he would have preferred to be swinging, but before he could recapture his breath and tell Blake to slow down, she was pushing him again. Peyton ducked his head and squeezed his eyes shut, torn between curling his legs up to the seat and digging his heels into the ground to stop himself. Every time he swung back down his stomach twisted. He was going to vomit. Or maybe he would fall and break every bone in his body. Or—

“Don’t close your eyes, Peyton! Looking makes it more fun!”

Even as he was plummeting what felt like a hundred feet to the ground, Peyton cracked one eye open— clenched it back shut as Blake pushed him again, a bit gentler this time— opened it again. Then both of his eyes. He could see— the trees, the treetops, the sky, and then he was falling again, everything becoming a blur of blue and brown and green.

“You’re doing great, Peyton. Just keep your eyes open! Oh— and kick your legs out when I push you so you can go a little higher!”

Oh. He got it now. Peyton relaxed a little, even with the wind flying past his face and his stomach jumping to his throat and dropping to his feet every other second. He swung back down, the wind buffeting his hair— Blake pushed him and on less than a second of thought he kicked his feet out, the added momentum carrying him just a bit higher in the open air.

He squeezed his eyes shut, but a wide, uncontrollable smile stretched across his face as he swung down. Again, Blake pushed him— she and Avery were still cheering and clapping— and Peyton let himself go just a little higher. “It’s fun, isn’t it?” he could hear Blake yell.

Peyton nodded, a giggle bursting from his throat. “Y-yeah! It’s fun! It’s really fun!”

Another shove. Peyton flashed his eyes open. The sky was bright blue, and the forest— the forest— someone was walking around in the forest. The clothing— the hair, long and black— Nikita! She was walking around aimlessly, as if looking for something. Peyton’s breath hitched in his throat. He couldn’t get anything out; he couldn’t move his hands off the swing ropes or turn himself around to tell Blake to stop swinging. The wind stung his eyes and made his ears ring, but he just kept on staring. Then Nikita looked toward him.

He was light and weightless— lighter and more weightless than he’d been before, ascending, ascending— and then he was falling, falling hard. There was the sky, and then the treetops, and then the trees itself and then— a shock of white, the grass, bright green and shivering. Dirt, then air, mud, bumps and twinges of pain— and then he was laying flat, the sky twisting above him.

Stomping and yelling, through a thick, cloudy haze. It sounded like it was coming from Avery and Blake. Peyton groaned. Left arm, right arm— right leg, let leg. Everything felt alright, or at least alright enough that he could push himself up from the ground. He sat up, touched his face. His fingers came away… wet. Wet, warm, and sticky. Was he… bleeding?

He hiccuped, another moan bubbling behind his lips. He wiped his sleeve over his eye before he opened them, blinking the smudged mess of greens and browns away. Then he looked down.

His hand— it was absolutely caked in thick, sticky filth. His entire body was. His hands, his clothing, his feet— when he ran his fingers through his hair it felt wet and tacky, too. A salty, almost bitter taste lined the top of his gritty and heavy tongue. He’d eaten some of it. He’d fallen off the swing and rolled in, eaten the mud. All of that had happened in front of Avery and Blake. And probably Nikita, too. He should’ve just stayed at the potatoes.

“Peyton! Peyton— are you okay?”

A pair of hands grasped onto his shoulders and the momentum sent him keeling forward. “Peyton,” the voice— Blake— said again. “Are you okay? How many fingers am I holding up?”

The hands on his shoulder went away, only to shove themselves into his face. He pushed them away, blinked a couple times. “I— I’m okay,” he breathed. “I just fell. That’s all it is.”

“Really? You sure?”

Peyton wiped the mud off his nose and nodded again.

“Okay. If you say so.” A pause. “Alright. If you’re okay— can I just say— that was amazing?”

“I— r-really?”

“Yeah! You did, like— a whole three-sixty before you hit the ground. And then it looked like you were breakdancing when you—” she broke off and laughed again. “Oh, gosh. I’m sorry. It was great. I would’ve looked a lot worse if I fell like you did.”

He looked away, his cheeks going hot. “N-no. You probably wouldn’t’ve.”

“Yeah, no. I’d be so dizzy and discombobulated and everything. You handled it like a champ.” She grabbed his hand. “Uh… come on. I’ll help you up. We should… probably take you to the river to get you cleaned up or something, right?”

“O-oh. Yeah.” Peyton twisted around, looking past his shoulder. The swing was still fluctuating back and forth, about one or two yards or so away from him. He’d only flown that far? It felt like so much more when he’d been tumbling through the air and rolling through the grass. He’d been making such a big deal over nothing. He tried to rub the heat from his cheeks with his free hand, but he only succeeded in getting more mud on his face.

Blake squeezed his hand, her mud-coated fingers slipping against his. She giggled. “Hey— come on, Peyton. Avery’s waiting for us.”

His arm raised above his head as Blake stood, tugging him in a feeble attempt to make him get to his feet as well. He clambered to stand up— and then he lost his footing. He stumbled forward, and if it weren’t for Blake holding out her arms to hold him back, he would have undoubtedly crashed into her and sent them both to the dirt. His face flushed hot and he took a few steps back, training his eyes on the mud he’d just slipped in. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

Blake shifted her weight from side to side. Raised a hand, stopping it at his face. Slowly, gently, she pulled Peyton’s stringy, muddy strands of hair away from his temples and cheeks. She lowered her hand to rest it on his shoulder, squeezing it slightly. Then she laughed. “Gosh, Peyton— you are just so cute, you know that?”

Peyton’s heart rate spiked. Avery was laughing behind him too, bright and tinkly. Something about that made him laugh as well. He looked down and fiddled with the bottom of his filthy shirt. “Well… th-thank you, I guess.”

Blake just laughed again. She squeezed his shoulder, quickly, softly, before she stepped back. Her cheeks were ruddy and glowing, sweat- and mud-covered hair sticking to them. She brushed it away and looked at the ground, that shy little smile never leaving her face. “Um— let’s go… get you cleaned up, right?”

“Oh. Oh, yeah. You’re right.” That idiotic grin was still spread across his face, he could feel it. Blake took her hand in his again and started her way to the river, Avery following right behind them. The insects and birds sang, but the only sounds worth paying attention to in that moment were their footsteps and the short, giggles still occasionally bubbling from their lips.

Peyton didn’t know if he’d ever fallen to the ground after he’d flown off that swing. He didn’t even mind his pants sticking to his legs or the grass tickling at his ankles as he and Blake approached the little creek. He lowered himself to his knees and cupped some of the water in his hands, rubbing it all over his face. The dirt and sludge that had settled there had started to set and harden, and feeling it soften and wash away was the most satisfied he’d felt in days. He shook his head to dry away the water and Blake used her sleeve to daub away some droplets on his chin. He laughed again. Swiping the hair away from his face, he looked up and attempted to actually straighten his face, to look just a bit more serious for once— then his expression dropped itself for him.

Nikita was standing by the other side of the river. How could he have forgotten about her? She was the whole reason he’d lost his nerve and ended up falling off the swing in the first place. The warmth that had disappeared from his face came to life again, no doubt turning his cheeks a healthy scarlet. He wiped the last few strands of hair from his forehead and temples, smiled brightly, and waved.

She didn’t smile or wave back. But she did walk over. Her eyes flickered between Peyton and Blake, each glance just a little longer than the last. “What are you two doing?” she asked. “Well, I guess the better question would be: what were you two doing?”

Blake rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. “Well… you see, Niki— me and Avery and Peyton were playing on the swings before. And… I think maybe when it was Peyton’s turn, I pushed him just a little bit too high, because—”

“—because I fell off the swing and rolled into the mud.” Peyton looked down, fiddling with the hem of his shirt. “But it’s alright. I’m getting cleaned up. And I didn’t get hurt. So… you don’t have to worry, Nikita. I’m fine.”

He expected Nikita to nod, to smile, to tell him that it was alright and that she was glad he was okay, that she was glad he finally made new friends. But she didn’t. She motioned for him to stand, already in the process of turning away. “Come with me.”

Peyton opened his mouth, closed it, looked at Blake. Blake raised her eyebrows and shrugged. Well… he didn’t want to keep Nikita waiting, get her upset. He clambered to his feet. Nikita didn’t bother looking back to see if he was following before she was walking off, back into the shadows of the dense trees. Peyton waved at Blake and Avery. They waved back. Peyton offered them one last smile, before he’d jumped the creek and trailed behind Nikita.

It wasn’t until they were well into the forest that she spoke again. “You’re a mess, Peyton.”

Peyton wiped his face and combed his hand through his hair. Some flecks of mud stuck to his fingers, dirt still plugged up under his nails. It was almost funny. Just a few months ago the thought of getting so dirty would have horrified him, and now he was barely phased by it. He had to keep himself from laughing. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I am a mess. But… don’t worry about it. I can clean myself up. I was actually doing that before you came to get me.”

“That isn’t what I’m talking about, Peyton.”

“Oh. Then… then what’s the issue, then?”

Nikita finally turned to face him. Her lips were pressed together, a crease etched in between her eyebrows. Her jaw clenched, wobbled from side to side. “Weren’t you just scared of Blake a few days ago?”

“When’re you talking about?”

“When she asked you why we had come over here, Peyton. Don’t you remember?”

Oh, yes… of course he remembered. How could he have forgotten? He had ended up making a fool out of himself in front of everybody. He rubbed his cheek, staring at his sullied slippers. “I do remember. Of course I do. But… I don’t know what that has to do with anything.”

“You were afraid of her just a few weeks ago. And now you’re acting like you’ve been her closest friend for years. I saw her pushing you too high. I saw her pushing herself into your space, even when it was clear you were okay.” She crossed her arms over her chest, uncrossed them, held a hand above Peyton’s shoulder. “Is there something you want to talk to me about?”

“Well… no. Not really. Nothing is the matter. I know I was scared of her before, but— but now she’s my friend. You really don’t have to worry about me, Nikita. I’m okay.”

She didn’t look convinced. If anything, her frown only grew deeper. “How can you be so sure?”

“Because… she’s nice. She’s nice and supporting. And so is Avery. They told me that they wanted to be my friends. And… and Blake apologized for scaring me, too.”

Nikita pursed her lips, glancing to the side. “Your friends back in the City were nice, too. Weren’t they?”

Peyton faltered. He rubbed his upper arm, staring at the ground. “Well— yes,” he said. “They were. They were nice. But… I don’t see what that has to do with—”

“And even though they were nice, they still ended up hurting you. Right, Peyton?”

Peyton winced. His tongue felt like stone, his lips suddenly dry. “Well— yeah, I guess. But— I don’t— it’s not really the same.”

“How is it not?”

Peyton squeezed his hands against each other, his heart thrumming in his throat. “B-because Blake and Avery like me. They said they did. They told me.”

Nikita rested a hand on his shoulder, rubbing it. “People can say things they don’t really believe, Peyton. And I’m not even saying that Avery and Blake are trying to be mean to you. I’m sure they actually really do like you, and want to be your friend.”

He looked up at her, backing away so that her arm slipped off his shoulder. “Then what’s the problem?”

Nikita’s hand remained suspended in the air for a moment, until she slowly lowered it. She searched Peyton’s face for a few, long moments. “I’m just concerned about you, that’s all. Concerned for you and them.”

Peyton rubbed his arm again. “Why? You don’t have to be. I’m okay. It’s not like she meant for me to fall off the swing, or anything.”

“I’m not just talking about that.” Nikita touched the side of his face, right by his hair, and her fingertip drew away stained with mud. She flicked it away. “Teenagers are finicky things, Peyton. You never can know what they really like or want— or if that’s the thing that they’re going to like or want a week from today. You can never tell if they’ll just turn on you for no reason at all. That can end up hurting people. That can end up hurting you.”

“Well— I know that. But… they like me. I don’t think they want to hurt me. Even if they end up not liking me after a while.” He swallowed, but his heart stayed in his throat. He looked down. “And… and I don’t want to hurt them. I just want to be friends with them.”

Nikita didn’t say anything. Peyton wasn’t sure if he wanted to look up at her, to see the expression on her face. But he did anyway. Nikita returned his stare. She looked… sad. Disappointed. She opened her mouth. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to hurt Sawyer either, Peyton. And we both know how that ended up.”

The world crumbled. Peyton gagged, then coughed, clenching his teeth so hard that his jaw throbbed and his vision warped. “I didn’t— I d-didn’t—!”

“I know you didn’t mean to. But you still did. I’m sure you regret it, but it still happened.” She dropped her hand from his head, leaving him naked— exposed. “Do you want to hurt one of them like you did him, Peyton? Or do you want one of them to get the chance to hurt you, like your friends in the City did? That’s how you got sent down to the Clink in the first place, isn’t it?”

It was hard to breathe. Peyton pressed his hands into his eyes, shaking his head. His throat whistled as he sucked air in, each breath more difficult and more painful than the last. “N-no! I didn’t! I didn’t! I don’t— I d-don’t— I don’t—

“Shh. I know you didn’t mean to. I know you don’t want to do that again.” Nikita wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close to her chest. “I don’t want that to happen, either. Which is why I’m talking to you about this now, before it’s too late.”

Peyton hiccuped, coughing as the pit in his stomach grew bigger. He grasped the fabric of Nikita’s shirt and pulled himself closer. “B-but I want— they want— they like me. I don’t want— I don’t w-want them not to. ”

“Don’t you want them to be safe more than you want them to be your friends? Anything can go wrong, no matter how much you like each other.” She squeezed harder. “It isn’t fair to risk their safety— their lives— just because you want them to like you, is it?”

She was right. He knew she was right. He didn’t want her to be but she was. He coughed, squeezing his eyes shut, and pushed his face into her chest. “I— I know. I’m s-s-sorry. I’ll— I won’t do it again. I promise. I promise.”

Nikita pushed her fingers into his muddy hair, massaging his scalp. “I’m not saying you can never talk to them again, Peyton. I want you to be happy. And if that means talking to Avery and Blake, then that’s what I want you to do. But I also want you to be safe. And for you to be safe— well, I just don’t think getting very close to them is a good idea.”

Peyton sniffed. His eyes stung no matter how many times he blinked. “Wh-what am I supposed to do, then? I didn’t— I d-don’t want to—”

“Just stay with me.” Nikita rubbed the nape of his neck. “You can still talk to them, but make sure you stay with me. And if something happens with them, come to me. Okay? I’ll keep you safe. I’m patient. I won’t leave you like they might.”

“O-okay. Okay. I— I will.”

“Good.”

Nikita ruffled his hair. It did nothing to make him feel better. His limbs felt heavy, like they’d been forged out of stone and iron instead of flesh and bone. He pulled away from her, wiping the dirt and tears from his face. He hiccuped again. “I— I’m t-tired.”

“I know you are, Peyton. But we have to get you cleaned up first. You can’t lay down in the bed all covered in mud.”

She was right. He had to get all the mud from tumbling in the dirt washed off him first. He ducked his head, unable to look Nikita in the eye. “Wash up by… w-wash up by the stream?”

“If that’s what you want to do. That’s where we usually bathe, isn’t it?”

“B-but…”

“But?”

“But— b-but Avery and Bl-Blake might still be there. I don’t…”

Nikita didn’t say anything. Peyton forced himself to look up at her. Her expression was soft, but carefully guarded as she reached up to touch his face. “We’ll go to another part of the river, then. It’ll be alright.”

Peyton only nodded. Nikita put a hand between his shoulder blades, guiding him through the trees— farther away from Avery and Blake. He still looked around, heart half-lodged in his throat, even as the forest thinned to reveal the river and it was clear that they were alone, even as Nikita coaxed him to the ground.

He planted his hands into the riverbank, staring at his warped, wiggling reflection in the murky creek. He couldn’t see himself clearly. The house didn’t have any mirrors, and neither had the Clink. He couldn’t remember really utilizing any mirrors back in the Academy, either. It’d been so long— he didn’t know what he looked like, anymore.

“Are you going to clean yourself up, Peyton? Or do you want me to help you?”

Peyton pushed his hands into the water, the chill of it snaking around his fingers. His head hurt. “C-can— can you help me?”

Nikita was already dipping her hands into the creek. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll always help if you want me to.”

Nikita cleaned his hair, arms and legs, and Peyton only moved when she asked him to. It probably didn’t take any longer than ten minutes, but it felt a lot longer. When they were finished, the horizon was just starting to tinge itself yellow, and the air had a nip to it. It was going to be nighttime soon and they weren’t even back at the house yet. Peyton glanced up at Nikita, looked away. “My clothes… my clothes’re— they’re still d-dirty.”

“I know, Peyton. But we can’t wash them right now. We’ll get you a new set when we make it back, okay? I’ll ask and see if they have any shoes you can wear, too.” She pat his shoulder. “Let’s go.”

He got up and followed her. The walk back to the house was much, much too short for his liking. His head still hurt, and simply thinking about why it could be hurting made his stomach sore, too. His knees wobbled and the muck under his feet squelched and slipped. Any appetite he might’ve had was all but gone, now. He didn’t want to go into the house. He didn’t want to face Rowan, or Taylor, or Avery and Blake, be forced to look them in the eye.

His legs grew heavier and heavier as the dim orange glow of a fire came to sight. If Nikita hadn’t been right next to him, then… maybe he would’ve stayed in the forest until someone finally noticed him— which would have hopefully been never. But Nikita was here with him, and she spurred him forward until they were right at the edge of the yard, close enough for the winking fire to make them clearly visible against the dying daylight. Peyton’s feet cemented to the ground. Nikita put a hand on the small of his back, nudging him forward. “Go on. Just go straight upstairs if you’re nervous. I’ll be up there in a couple of minutes, alright?”

Peyton’s voice lodged in his throat, his stomach twisted into thick, heavy knots. He nodded. “O-okay. Okay. I will.”

Step after step, he forced himself to the door. He twisted the knob and shoved the ajar door completely open, the screeching hinges sending his ears to ring. The frantic dancing of lit lanterns and candles filled the room with eerie orange light— but no people to be seen. The floor creaked under his muddy feet as he crept up the stairs. It didn’t sound like there was anyone up here, either—

“Peyton?”

Frozen. His heart pumped slush as he turned around. “H-huh?”

“Glad to see you’re back.” Blake took a step through her room’s doorway, then paused. “Is… is Nikita back, too?”

The hallway was too small, too long. It was too narrow for him to back away. All the doors were shut. His room was all the way at the end. He couldn’t escape. He was stuck here, stuck here talking to Blake.

She blinked at him a couple times. “Uh… Peyton? You okay? Nikita came back with you, right?”

“Sh-sh-she did.”

“Oh. Well… that’s good.” Pause. “Are you alright? What happened?”

Blake put a hand on his shoulder. Immediately, he backed away, digging fingernail-shaped grooves into his upper arms. “I— I’m fine. I’m fine. Pl-please— please just leave me alone. I’m f-fine.”

Blake frowned, her hand raising to his again. “You don’t… look fine.”

Peyton took in a few deep breaths. It barely did anything. Blake’s frown only deepened, confusion flickering in her eyes. Confusion, and something else— fear? Pain? Was he doing something to her? He didn’t want to do that. He didn’t. He didn’t. He had to leave.

“Peyton? Talk to me. Avery and I are your friends now, remember?”

Peyton closed his eyes, covered his face, turned away. “I have to— I h-have to go. I have to go. S-sorry.”

“Peyton—”

But he had already flown down the hallway, one of his hands groping blindly for his and Nikita’s doorknob. He threw it open the second his fingers closed around it, and then slammed it shut behind him.

The frame of the house shook. Time stood still. No footsteps. No voices. No sounds except for his heavy breathing and the torturous hum of regret in his ears. Blake wasn’t coming for him. That… that was good. It was. She couldn’t be worrying about him. She couldn’t. He’d hurt her. Like he’d hurt Sawyer. Then everyone would hate him— and rightfully so, too.

The weakened, rusty springs of the mattress groaned under his weight as he threw himself onto it, wrapping himself with the blanket. He buried his face into the pillow and sniffed, unable to hold his tears in for any longer. His headache was only getting more and more inflammatory, painful colors flickering behind his eyelids. But at least he was in here now, where he couldn’t easily hurt anyone anymore. He couldn’t hurt anyone if he was alone.

But he couldn’t stay in here forever. He’d have to leave eventually, face Avery and Blake and Taylor and Rowan and all of the others. If that moment never came, then it would be too soon. Peyton closed his eyes, curling himself up tighter in the sheets. He just wanted Nikita to come upstairs and be here with him. She’d make everything right. She’d make him happy again. But he’d been happy before, when he’d been playing with Avery and Blake… it was only when Nikita had confronted him that he’d gotten sad again. Had she… had she accidentally made him sad?

No. She knew what she was doing. She wanted him to be happy. She told him that. She didn’t want him to end up hurting anyone again. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. She knew that. She was trying to help him. She was. She was. Even if it meant that he couldn’t talk to anyone ever again. She was helping him.

Wasn’t she?

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

Chapter Sixty-Three

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

 

Red. Green. Red. Green. Red. Green. The colors meshed themselves together on the hardwood table, even though Peyton was trying his best to pay close attention. He had never thought that organizing berries would be such a monotonous, mind-numbing job… but then again, before he had come here, he’d never thought about organizing berries. The berries he’d eaten in the City had always just appeared. Where had they come from? Who had grown, harvested, sorted and packaged them for him and all the others to eat? Were people chosen to be berry growers and berry pickers after they graduated from the Academy, like they were chosen to become artists and doctors? It didn’t seem like a very fulfilling job, or even one that would initially be exciting to be assigned to. Studying so hard, pining after a respectable career like a designer, writer, or teacher, only to be chosen to toil in the sun and dirt all day? That sounded awful. But perhaps it wasn’t all that bad, after getting used to it. It was just another job in the end, was it not?

He ran his hand in the air, scanning the collection of berries. Some of the green berries had gotten into the red ones. Again. He ducked his head and started the process of picking them out to put them into the right group. He had to pay better attention. He couldn’t let something as stupid as organizing colors take him such a long time. The shorter this took— the sooner he finished this— the sooner he would be able to go outside. The sooner he finished this, the sooner he would be able to go and see Nikita.

Just thinking about that made him pick and push and organize at a faster pace than he’d been before. He’d barely spoken to Nikita all day. Now she was busy collecting wood with Jules and Rowan. Avery and Blake were somewhere in the garden, Taylor and Umber were off doing their own thing, which left him in here to do the berry organizing. All by himself.

He wasn’t stupid. He knew they were keeping him inside for a reason. Probably because they thought he was too weak. Too weak to wield a heavy axe, or too weak to crouch and stand and dig and harvest in the uneven soil for hours on end. So they left him in here to organize berries.

He frowned, pushing the two groups of berries farther away from each other. He knew he wasn’t that strong. He wished he was, but he wasn’t. Which was why he had to do stuff like this, instead of more important things. Maybe… maybe when he got older maybe he would get stronger and be able to do other, better stuff, but not right now. Right now, he had to focus on organizing the berries. And when he was done, he could go outside with Nikita and eat something. That sounded like it would be nice. Hopefully she was just as eager to see him as he was to see her.

Peyton bit his lip, then began running his tongue along the coppery, thick scab that was already stuck to the left side of it. Of course she would be happy to see him. She would. She’d said so much that he was so important to her and everything. There was no reason for him to worry about her not liking him, anymore. Was there?

He sighed, clutched the edge of the table, and rested his head on his hands. And then he watched all his hard work get destroyed as another basketful of berries was dumped over the table.

He sat up and danced his hands around the table as the rolling fruit came to a slow, chaotic stop. It was all a mess now— the berries were all mixed up again. Even worse than how he’d started out. All the organization he’d done was completely ruined.

He covered his face and breathed in sharply. “You ruined it,” he said, his voice cracking. “You ruined everything.”

“Oh, come on. It isn’t that bad, is it?”

Peyton pushed his face to the inside of his elbows, digging his fingers into his hair. He didn’t say anything at all. Apparently, this bothered Blake, because she huffed loudly before she said, “It isn’t that big of a deal. You can organize them fast enough. Don’t worry so much about it.” Silence. Blake tapped her fingernails on the table, then finally sighed. “Hey, look— I’ll help you organize them again. I’m sorry. I didn’t know that would upset you so much. I don’t mean to be so… mean to you.”

Peyton uncovered his face, blinking the upset heat in his cheeks away. “You… you will? Really?”

“Yeah. For sure.”

He swallowed, pressing his lips together. He glanced out the window. Nobody was out there. “You— y-you really don’t have to do that,” he said. “Aren’t you… aren’t you supposed to be helping gardening with Avery?”

“Don’t worry about it, Peyton. It’s my fault. Might as well help you fix my mistakes while I’m here.” Blake sat next to him, picking up a fistful of the green berries that had invaded the red. “You don’t have to make them super organized. You do know that, right? Usually me and Avery just make the sorting kind of… vague. Just enough to pick out the colors, and stuff. It isn’t anything all that crazy.”

Peyton pushed the berries around on the table, forcing down his scowl. “I— I know. That’s what I was doing.”

“Not really. You were making full-on grids with them. Super organized.” Blake chuckled as she pulled out even more of the mismatched berries. “Not that that’s a bad thing, or anything. It’s kind of respectable. But if you feel like it’s wasting your time or becoming stressful, then you don’t have to do it, you know?”

Peyton pushed the red berries away from the green berries. The space in between his eyebrows was getting furrowed, and he struggled to relax it. “I don’t think it’s wasting my time,” he said. “I… I like doing it. It relaxes me.”

“Uh— well, okay. If you say so.”

Peyton didn’t have to look up at Blake to know that she likely had a little smirk on her face. That or her eyebrows were raised in disbelief. Either way, no matter what she was really feeling, she continued helping to reorganize the berries without any complaint. “When I’m stressed out,” she said offhandedly, “I like to go outside in the forest. Just to explore, or maybe to forage for mushrooms and dandelions. Or swing on the rope swing. Reading is a pretty good stress reliever, too. But reading the same five books over and over again gets kind of boring after a while, y’know?”

Why didn’t she go away? His heart was beating too fast and his cheeks were hot. Peyton bit the tip of his tongue, his hands twitching. “O-oh.”

“Mm-hmm. Yeah.” She nodded. Her foot tapped repeatedly on the floor, filling in the silence. “Hey, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you— are you an escapee from the City, too? And Nikita? Or did you come from somewhere else? The place Taylor is from, maybe?”

“Wh-what— what do you m-mean?”

“You know.” Blake shrugged, dropping a few more green berries into the green pile. “Did you and Nikita come to the Outskirts to run away from the City, too? What’s your story? What did you do?”

Peyton’s hands froze, hovering above the table. What was he supposed to say— that he’d gone into the Clink, and then come here? But— that wasn’t right. That wasn’t the whole truth. That wasn’t the whole story of how he’d met Nikita and come out here with her. It wasn’t what Blake wanted to know. She wanted to know everything. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t. If he told her everything then he’d have to admit to her what he’d done. He’d have to admit that— that…

“Peyton?” Her voice, slicing into his thoughts like a hot blade. “Um, sorry if I said something wrong. But you’re, uh… kind of freaking out.”

Peyton blinked, his cheeks flushing hot. Red fluid dripped from his palm onto the table— had he squeezed a berry? He had to have— why was it red? Red and sticky. He pushed himself to the other side of the table and buried his face in his arms again, squeezing his eyes shut. “I— I didn’t—”

“Are you okay?”

A hand touched his shoulder. He shoved himself away, hard, too hard. The floor rushed to meet him. A bunch of berries rolled after him, bouncing through the gaps in the wood. Embarrassment mingled with the other emotions in him and he shook his head, holding a hand out. “N-n-no. Please— please don’t t-touch me.”

Blake’s footsteps as she stepped backward were loud. Far too loud. So was her voice. “I’m sorry. Do you… do you want me to go and get Nikita for you, or something?”

Peyton somehow managed to nod. His voice was a spiky burr in his throat. “Please— pl-please go get her.”

“Okay. Okay. I’ll get her. I’ll be right back.” She took a few more steps backward. Then she turned around and hurried off, the door squeaking open and then slamming shut.

Peyton curled himself up tighter, barely caring about the juice and pulp spreading all over his face and hair as he pushed his fingers into his scalp. He had to keep his eyes open. If he closed them then he would see everything he’d done in the dark. He couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t let any of that happen ever again. To anyone ever again.

The sound of the door squeaking open grated against his ears and he flinched hard, shooting his head up. His vision blurred and his heart fluttered until he saw— it was Nikita, just Nikita. She stood in the doorway for a second longer, surveying Peyton and the mess he’d made, before she rushed over to him, crouching down, rubbing his back gently. “Peyton,” she whispered. “Peyton, are you alright?”

Peyton sniffled, wiping his nose with the back of his sleeve. He shook his head, a tear trickling down his cheek. “N-not really.”

“Shh. It’s alright. It’s going to be alright.” Nikita wrapped him into a tight hug, still rubbing his back. “You don’t have to worry about whatever it was. I’m here now.”

Peyton coughed again, wiping his face on her shoulder. “Okay. I’m sorry. It was— it was B-Blake. She was talking to me and then she said something and I didn’t like it a-and then… I— I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Nikita pulled away from him, resting her hands on his shoulders. Her face was soft, gentle. She rubbed his shoulders, then moved her hands to cup his chin and run her thumbs over his cheeks. “It’s alright, Peyton. Don’t worry. I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm.”

He sniffed, wiping his face again. He continued looking down because he didn’t want to look up and see if anyone was standing at the door, seeing him act so stupid. He didn’t want to see what Nikita’s expression was either. “I— I know. I know she didn’t mean it. But— but it just— she just— it just made me feel— it made me feel—”

“Shh.” She wiped his face, and her hand came away slicked with red. A sigh, her hand turning in the air. “Oh— look at the mess you’ve made out of yourself. We need to get you cleaned up.”

Peyton looked down at his sticky fingers, rubbing them together, and bowed his head. His face was a brand of flame, painfully warm against his perspiring neck. “I— I’m s-sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Nikita moved her hands from his face and took his wrist, pulling it up. “Come on. We can go to the river, get you cleaned up.”

Peyton let himself be pulled to his feet, knees buckling underneath him. There were dozens of berries scattered across the floor. He hugged his arms closer to himself and ducked his head, face growing impossibly hotter. The berry juice was drying and hardening on his cheeks, making his skin tight. He really did need to get himself cleaned up. He didn’t need a mirror to know that he looked awful.

He curled his hand around Nikita’s, walking across the room when she tugged gently on his arm. There were people standing in the doorway, peering inside to see what all the fuss was about: Avery and Blake, unsurprisingly, and Rowan, and Taylor. He refused to look at any of them as he and Nikita walked past. It was too embarrassing. He didn’t want to see the confused, pitying looks in their eyes, and he definitely didn’t want any of them to try and talk to him, either.

Nikita squeezed his hand tightly before letting go, and they walked out to the yard. Peyton could see everything Avery and Blake had pointed out to him just a few days ago— the rabbit hutch, the garden, the water tanks. They’d told him that they wanted to show him the rope swing just a few minutes’ walk from here. Would they see it on the way to the river? Maybe they would.

“Come on, Peyton.” Nikita’s voice whisked his imagination away. She walked past the threshold of the yard, and he hurried to follow after her.

The forest was dull with mugginess. Gray cloaked the sky, and the air felt thick with the promise of rain. Peyton held his hand out, as if droplets would fall onto it any second now. It hadn’t rained for… ever since he and Nikita had escaped the Clink. It had to have rained just before then, though, or otherwise there wouldn’t have been puddles for them to drink out of. If it didn’t rain soon, then the water in the river would go down too low to collect from or bathe in. What would they do then?

A stick cracking underfoot. Peyton whipped around, just as Nikita did the same. It was silent. Nikita’s expression went blank. “Ah,” she said. “It’s Blake and Avery.”

Blake raised her hand to her chest and waved, the action quite awkward when she was standing twenty feet away. But then she was running, and suddenly she wasn’t twenty feet away anymore. “Hi,” she panted. “Can Avery and I come with you guys?” She gestured to Peyton, standing up to her full height— which wasn’t very remarkable, even for Peyton— and brushed her hair from her eyes, looking away. “Even if you don’t let me come with you— I really, really want to apologize. I really didn’t mean to say anything to you that would make you… freak out, or whatever. I was just curious.”

Peyton pushed his fingernails into the fabric of his sleeves, scratched some of the gunk off his cheek, but he made himself nod. “It— it’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it. I’m just— I’m j-just… shy.”

“Yeah. I noticed.” Blake crossed her arms as Avery ran up next to her. “Not… that’s not a bad thing, or anything. It’s just kind of obvious. But can we come with you? We wanted to go down to the river, too.”

Nikita sighed. She looked down at Peyton, raising an eyebrow at him. “Well? What do you say, Peyton? Can she come with us?”

“Well— I— I guess they can.”

“Don’t guess. Do you want them to come with us, or not? They can just go back if you say no. Then we can go to the river, all by ourselves.”

Peyton brought his hands to his chest, wringing them against each other. Blake smiled at him, but she snuck Avery a glance and stepped backward, like she were planning on leaving. Avery did the same. Peyton suddenly got a bad taste in his throat. “N-no. They can come. I— I want them to come with us.”

Avery’s face immediately brightened. “Great! We can show you how to catch fish!”

“Catch… fish?”

“Yeah! It’s really fun, if you don’t mind getting wet. Blake doesn’t catch many, but I do. I can be the one to show you.”

“The only reason I don’t catch fish is because your loud splashing scares them away before I get the chance to!”

Avery laughed. Her nose scrunched up when she smiled. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to be quieter from now on.”

“You’d better do that.” Blake snorted, shaking her head. “Anyway. Thanks for letting us come, Peyton. We just wanted to apologize. And get to know you better, you know?”

“O-okay. That sounds… that sounds n-nice.”

“Mm-hmm.” Blake nudged Avery, muttered something to her, and the two were bounding off, ahead of Nikita and Peyton.

Peyton watched them disappear into the distance. “Should we— should we follow them?”

“I suppose that we should.” Nikita wiped her hands on her legs as if she’d gotten something dirty on them. “Come on. I need to finish chopping the firewood with the others soon.”

“Oh. Oh, y-yeah.” Peyton nodded, trying to pull the hairs stuck to his face away. The juice on his cheeks and forehead felt almost gritty now, like it’d been collecting grit and pollen and who knew what else. And he needed a haircut. He liked keeping his hair short. It was almost double the length he usually liked it, now. If Taylor and the others had needles, then could there be a chance that they had scissors, too? He didn’t know how to cut his hair, though. Mother usually did it for him back in Silverhill. Maybe Nikita knew how. Her hair was always healthy-looking and shiny somehow. It really stuck out among everyone else’s frizzy, sun-bleached manes. He would have to ask her how she managed it when he got the chance to.

His shirt clung uncomfortably to his skin as they continued walking. Maybe it felt so damp because they were close to the river. That was at least a little bit likely. He didn’t remember it feeling this muggy when he’d been travelling through the forest with Nikita. It couldn’t have been so long that he no longer remembered anything about that trek, right? He remembered a lot. He remembered that he’d been alone with Nikita. That had been nice. But… being with more people helped them survive. That was also nice.

It had been nicer when he’d just stayed upstairs all day in their room. Maybe he would go back to doing that after he got himself cleaned up. Taylor would go back to being concerned and Rowan would get mad that he wasn’t helping anymore, but that was all alright. It wasn’t like he was much of a help in the first place. All he’d been asked to do was organize berries by color and he’d ended up with half of them rolled beneath the floorboards and the other half squished into a pulp underneath him. He was a better help not helping out at all.

The creek was a small, thin thing, but the water within it ran fast and clear. Avery and Blake were crouched down by the bank, muttering amongst each other as they peered into the water. Probably talking about catching fish. Why did they even want to take them out in the first place? Weren’t they only able to breathe underwater?

“Ignore them, Peyton. Let’s get you cleaned up, alright?”

He looked back to Nikita, running his tongue over the scab on his lip. “O-okay.”

Nikita pulled the bottom of her pants up to her thighs, knelt in the grass, and gestured for Peyton to do the same. He did, dipping his fingers into the running stream. It was surprisingly cold. Pulling out his hand, he shook the droplets off. Nikita pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket, holding it in the creek for a few seconds. Then she brought it back out, wrung out the excess water, turned to Peyton, and motioned for him to come closer. He did. Nikita touched the handkerchief to his face and started to daub the sticky, dried berry juice away. Peyton closed his eyes, the corners of his lips twitching with a barely-restrained smile. It was tickly. But he didn’t complain, and Nikita didn’t stop until the mess was all but gone.

Peyton opened his eyes. Avery and Blake had stopped talking to each other, and they were staring at him now. They had probably seen all that. His face went hot and he looked away, scratching his cheek. They probably thought he was some sort of baby now. Blake probably already thought that, with the way he’d acted before they’d come out here. They were going to whisper to each other and laugh about him, weren’t they?

But they didn’t. Blake looked at the sky, quirking her lips. “Looks like it’s gonna rain,” she commented.

“Y-yeah.”

“Mm-hmm.” Blake glanced back at him, and she was smiling. “If it rains tonight, you should come looking for mushrooms with us tomorrow afternoon! It’s fun.”

“R-really?”

“Yeah! Avery and I’ll have to show you which of them are okay to eat, though. Some of them are poisonous. But— you probably won’t have to worry about eating any poisonous ones,” she hurried to say. “Most of the mushrooms that grow in this area are perfectly safe to eat.”

“Oh. Okay.” Peyton looked up at Nikita, but she was staring in another direction, like she was looking for something that he couldn’t see. Maybe she would go with him if he did agree to look for mushrooms. Did he really feel comfortable being by himself with Avery and Blake? It was probably better than being alone with Taylor, or Rowan, or any of the others, but… still.

“Are you going to wash your hair, Peyton? Or do you want me to do that for you, too?”

Peyton jumped, shaking his head instinctively as he glanced at Nikita for another time. “N-no. I mean— I can do it by myself. If— if you want me to, I mean.”

“Alright. That’s fine. I should be getting back to chopping the wood, sooner than later. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re done already.”

“Oh. S-sorry.” Peyton cupped his hand and caught the river water into them, pouring it onto his hair. It felt like he was handling straw as he combed his fingers through it, but he wet it again and again until he could move his fingers through his hair without encountering any stickiness, and even then he turned to Nikita and raised a few strands for her to examine.

She looked over them for him, put a couple of the strands in between her pointer and thumb, rubbed them together. She nodded, let go, and looked away. “They look fine. You did a nice job, Peyton.”

Peyton rubbed his cheek with the heel of his hand, a smile tickling his lips. “Th-thanks.”

Nikita smoothed some awry strands of hair out of his eyes, then stood up straight. “We’d better be getting back to the camp, now. Come on.”

“Uh, actually, Niki— he can stay here with us, if he wants to.”

Peyton turned around. Blake was smiling up at him. She gestured to the river, like he somehow forgotten it was there. “We haven’t showed you how to catch fish yet. How’re you gonna learn if you don’t even try?”

“I don’t know.” Peyton glanced at Nikita, and then the river. He wiped the water away from his face with his sleeve and shrugged. “I— I don’t know if I really feel comfortable taking the fish out of the river. Plus… they look like they’re slimy. And they’d thrash around a lot if you held on to them for too long. And you might hurt them.”

Neither Avery or Blake said anything for a while. Then Blake shrugged, smiling sheepishly. “Well— you aren’t exactly wrong about any of that, honestly. But if you don’t want to help, you can always just sit and watch. That’s alright, too.”

“Um— I guess that I could. But—” a prickle ran down his spine, and he looked up at Nikita. “But— b-but I think I want to go back with Nikita, if that’s okay with you. Maybe another time?”

“Well… okay. I guess.” Blake pouted dramatically, but then she pushed it away with a smile. “Are you still up for picking mushrooms when it rains, at least? That may be a little more your speed— at least, I think so.”

That did sound like it would be more his speed. And it seemed like there would be less of a chance of anyone getting hurt. And… mushrooms sounded cool. Peyton nodded, and he didn’t even have to try and pretend to be eager. “Y-yeah! Picking mushrooms sounds fun. When it rains tonight, then— then I’ll go with you in the afternoon.”

“Great. Talk to you then.”

Blake grinned at him. Hesitantly, Peyton smiled back, and a foreign, but not quite unpleasant sensation nestled itself into his chest, making his palms all jittery and sweaty. Then Nikita took his hand into hers and led him away.

He let her, but he looked back and waved at Avery and Blake as he followed her off. They waved back. Then it was quiet, the only sounds the forest whispering around them and their footsteps on the soft grass. Peyton wiped some water droplets from his brow as the house came into sight, squeezing Nikita’s hand. She squeezed too, but then her footsteps got even slower as she looked over to him. “So. Blake, huh?”

“Wh-what do you mean?”

“Blake. Avery, too. But mostly Blake. You’ve been talking to her a lot, haven’t you? You’re getting close to her?”

Peyton opened his mouth, bit his lip, then shrugged. “I— I guess. For the past few days, I guess. But— not as much as you. I still like talking to you, Nikita.”

“Don’t worry. I know you do.” Nikita’s grip tightened over his before it fell away, then her hand was crawling up his arm, all the way up to his shoulder, drifting over it like a spider. “What do the two of you talk about? What were you talking about before I came into the house?”

“N-nothing important. Just— just small talk. Things like that.”

“Really? That’s it?”

“Y-yeah. That’s it.”

“Then why were you in such a panic, Peyton? Why did you ask for me to come for you and you looked like that?”

“I…” he paused, hugging his arms over his chest. “She— she just said something silly and I overreacted. She didn’t mean it, I think.”

Nikita furrowed her brow. “Sometimes you can’t be too sure,” she muttered, more to herself than to him. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

“O-oh.”

Nikita’s frown turned back to a smile. She pat Peyton’s shoulder reassuringly, then his hair. “But besides that mistake, what else do you guys talk to each other about? Fun things?”

Peyton swallowed. “I— I told you. It’s just— it’s just small talk, and stuff. And she and Avery ask me if I want to do things with them. Like— like going fishing or mushroom searching, like you just saw. Or going to the rope swing. That— that’s it.”

“You’re sure, right?”

Peyton’s feet refused to cooperate right. He ducked his head to the mud, wrapping his arms around himself even tighter. “Y-yeah,” he said. “I’m sure.”

“I know that you’re lonely, Peyton. Lonely people don’t tend to do just small talk.” Nikita relieved the pressure on his shoulder a little bit, her voice softening. “I’m just concerned for you. I don’t want to see you getting hurt again.”

“I know. I know you don’t. But… that really is all we do. Sm-small talk.” Peyton winced. His eyes stung. “N-Nikita, I—”

“I just want to know what you two talk about— and if it’s anything I should know more about, Peyton. I don’t want anything bad happening for a second time. Not after we spent so long coming here.” She clutched his shoulder again, harder this time. “If anything ends up happening like it did before, just make sure you come to me. Okay?”

“Okay. Okay. I will. I don’t— I d-don’t want to hurt anyone, either.”

“I know you don’t.” Nikita raised her hand to his head, running the damp strands through her fingers. She dropped her hand back to her side the closer they got to the house, rubbing the small of his back. “Why don’t you go back inside? Check to see if the berries have been cleaned up or if anyone needs help, then when you’re finished, go back upstairs. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Peyton rubbed his cheek again, nodding jerkily. Nikita gently nudged him away, and he hurried to the door of the house. Creaking it open, he peered inside and looked around. The berries had been picked up from the floor, the juice streaks smeared across it wiped away. Someone’d cleaned it up for him. Did they know what had happened? They probably did. Blake probably hadn’t been very quiet, running outside to tell Nikita what had happened. There was an entire crowd collected outside the door when that had happened, for goodness sakes. Everyone knew what had happened. Everyone knew how silly he’d been acting.

Peyton held his breath, the tips of his fingers twitching. He nudged the door open even more, slipping through the crack. The berries on the table were gone. And one of the others— Jules or Umber; he always mixed up the two of them— was standing by the counter, doing something with what looked like dough. Was he making a pie? Mother used to make pies a lot. Strawberry pie had been his favorite. Did she still make pies, now that he was gone? Had she made pies since he’d left to the Academy? Did she and Father even know that he’d left the Academy and the City a long, long time ago? Hopefully, they didn’t. Hopefully, they still thought that he was safe and sound in the City. What would they even do if they knew the truth? What could they do? They wouldn’t be able to do anything. Them knowing would be useless.

A dull ache bubbled in Peyton’s stomach. He carried himself up the stairs, almost tiptoeing, trying not to catch anyone’s attention. It was dark, just like it usually was, but Peyton knew by heart where his and Nikita’s room was. He approached the door and opened it, staring at the pair of unmade beds with something like wistfulness knotting up in his chest. He’d always remade his bed when he lived in the City. What had happened?

He walked over to his bed and pulled the blanket from the foot of the mattress, pulling the top of it to the head and straightening it as much as he could. Then he straightened himself and looked down at the lumpy mattress, the askew sheets and the fraying, deflated comforter. He lowered himself to the floor, crawled onto the bed and buried himself underneath the covers. He draped them over his head and looked out the window. The river wound through the shedding trees, and Avery and Blake were sitting at the edge, barely anything more than lively specks in the distance.

Peyton stood from the bed, walked over to the window and knelt down in front of it. He sat there, staring out for hours, barely moving even when Taylor came in with a cup of water, even when Nikita came in and rubbed his shoulders and whispered soft, sweet nothings into his ears. Despite the heavy clouds rolling through the sky, it didn’t rain at all.

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

Chapter Sixty-One

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

 

The bed felt lumpy underneath Peyton’s spine, and the sheets just smelled weirder the longer he curled up in them. He’d lost track of how long he’d been lying down there. In fact, he had lost track of how he had been inside this room. The days had blurred into one another before long, morning and night twisting into nothing more than a blur of dull gray. Truly, a big part of him wanted to stay here, where the only thing he had to worry about was if the walls would stay intact for the next day and if the room would leak if it rained. Where Nikita always stayed to comfort him, only leaving to get him food whenever he got too hungry.

But… he would be lying if he said he wasn’t starting to feel at least a little bit cooped up. Twenty paces across and ten paces up and down the room could only do so much to work his legs. And the room was starting to smell bad. He hadn’t bathed since they’d come here. He had barely bathed since they’d left the Clink. Come to think of it, he had barely bathed while in the Clink, either… but that wasn’t the point. The point was he wanted to move. He wanted to stop feeling so stuffed up and do things like wash up and eat again.

But the question was did Nikita want to do that? Peyton rolled over, his arms and knees still pressed close to him, and looked to the window. Nikita was sitting on the rickety wooden chair, staring out at the forest beyond. Chin resting on her hand, her lower lip was jutted out and her eyes looked bored, half-lidded. Maybe she was feeling as stuck as he was. Did he really have to feel so nervous about going up and asking her? Maybe he didn’t. Nikita was always kind and understanding. But it was always better to be safe than sorry. He pursed his lips, before propping himself up on his elbows. “Nikita?”

Nikita jerked a bit, before turning to face him. A short second hung between the two of them before a smile appeared on her face. She got up from the chair— it squeaked just as much as it had when she’d sat down in it— and knelt down by his bed. “What’s the matter?”

“N-nothing. Nothing is the matter.” He shook his head, smiling as she rested her fingers on his forehead as if testing for a fever. Like Mother used to do for him. “But— but— but I wanted to ask you something.”

She took her hand away from his forehead, tilting her head to the side. “What is it, then?”

“W-well… I wanted… I wanted to know if— if w-we could go outside for a little while.”

Nikita righted her head, raising her eyebrows. “Why do you want to go outside all of a sudden? Did something happen?”

“Well— n-no. I’ve just— I’ve just been… feeling a little bit cooped up and stuff. And— and I kind of want to take a bath, too.” He paused. “I mean— if that’s okay with you, and everything.”

Nikita stated at Peyton’s face as if he had something on it. Peyton swallowed, closing his eyes momentarily— maybe he had been wrong about her not getting upset for such a request, after all. But she started to speak, and her voice sounded gentle, soft. “Of course. It took you long enough to ask. I was starting to get a little bit concerned.”

“R-really?”

“Yes. And I know for certain that the others are, too.”

Peyton winced, just as his stomach growled, loudly. “Th-they— they are?”

“Mm-hmm. They always ask me when you’re going to come and join them when I go downstairs.” Nikita ran her fingers along the sullied bedsheets. Her gaze remained downcast, lips ever so slightly puckered. “I try telling them that you’re still adjusting, but I don’t know if they believe me— or if they’re starting not to. So it makes me happy to hear that you’re finally taking the plunge and coming out to join everyone.”

Peyton swallowed. He sat himself up and hugged his arms closer to himself. His rib cage pushed into his arms through his shirt, uncomfortably so. He had to eat more. He knew he had to— it was always stressed to him by everyone he talked to— but he didn’t quite feel like it. Taylor— the blonde lady— always butt in at the most awkward of moments, like when he was trying to go to sleep or speak with Nikita, asking him if he wanted anything to eat or carrying a chipped plate heaped with potatoes and berries. They always tasted weird. Rawer. Sure, they didn’t have the equipment they had in the City… but still. He didn’t like them.

The spongy morsels he’d been given the first day were always the worst. They never forced him to eat them, and for that he was glad. The chunks were always tough and pungent, and didn’t taste like anything he’d eaten in the City at all. They didn’t agree with his teeth or his stomach. He wished he knew what they even were, but nobody told him anything about it— Nikita insisted upon that. If only Nikita insisted on Taylor leaving him alone, too. He didn’t like Taylor always coming upstairs to fret over him. Maybe if he went down and ate something in front of her she would stop doing that.

He nodded, slowly at first, and then more confidently. “Okay. Okay. I— I want to go out. Especially if you think it’ll help. Because— because I— I w-want to meet everyone. I do— I do. I think— I think it’ll be a good thing, too.”

“That’s great, Peyton.” Nikita pushed herself up from the mattress and put her hands on her hips, looking out the window. “I’ve been starting to feel cramped in here. It’ll be nice to be out and about for a while, don’t you think?”

“Y-yeah. Yeah.” Peyton nodded, sitting up completely and gluing a smile to his face. “It will. It’s— it’s… nice to be able to go outside and walk around in the grass and stuff. Like I used to do back in… Silverhill. Back when I lived in Silverhill.” He swallowed. “I… I didn’t get to do that in the Academy. Everything was paved over.” A pause. “But… but I guess you know that. Because you went to the Academy too, right?”

“Yes. I do know. That’s completely true.” Nikita chuckled, before sitting down next to him. She rested her hands on her lap, tapping her fingers. “We also didn’t get to do that in the Clink.” She let out a low laugh in amusement. “But I guess you know that. Because you were in the Clink too.”

“I— I did. I was, I mean.” He squeezed his eyes shut, flashed them open with a sharp, shaky inhale. “I— I like the Outskirts more than the Clink,” he said. “It… it feels safer. Like— like nothing bad will happen. I don’t know.” He screwed up his face, folding and unfolding his hands. “I know that doesn’t really make sense, ‘cause the City is supposed to be safer. I don’t… I don’t know how to properly describe it.”

“No. I understand what you’re saying. I feel it, too. I would be lying if I said I missed that place. This place in the Outskirts are a lot better. You actually get to be in the sun, and feel the grass, and eat food that’s properly cooked.” A slow smile spread over her face and she sat back a bit, glancing at Peyton out the corner of her eye. “And you don’t have to share your sleeping area with anyone else, either. It’s nice to have privacy, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. That’s also… also nice.” Peyton swiped his tongue over his dry upper lip, wincing at how cracked and chapped it felt. “Um— so— when should we go? I’m not… trying to rush you or anything. We can go whenever you want to.”

“I’m fine with leaving right now if you are.” She rose from the bed, holding a hand out to Peyton. “Come on.”

Peyton hesitated for only a moment, before he took Nikita’s hand. She helped pull him up from the bed— and thank goodness for that, too; he was sure it would have taken much longer if she’d left him on his own— and turned to the door. Dropping her hand away from his, she grabbed the doorknob before turning back to him. “Well?” she asked. “Are you coming?”

“Y-yeah. I’m coming.” He swallowed the lump in his throat, stepping forward. The floorboards always creaked when somebody walked on them, and there was no creaking at all to be heard outside the room. There was nobody out there. There was no reason for him to feel so uneasy if there wasn’t anyone waiting for him. If things got bad, then he could just come up here again. There wasn’t anything for him to worry about. He kept repeating that to himself as Nikita opened the door.

The hallway was dark. It was always dark— there weren’t any electric lights like there were in the City or the Clink, so unless sunlight from the other rooms spilled into the hallway, it never got very bright. The people here relied on lanterns and candles every single night. The orange lights creeping across the walls never failed to unnerve Peyton, especially in an otherwise dark room. But it wasn’t late enough for anyone to be carrying around candles or lanterns just yet. It was still early in the afternoon, and the light from the connecting rooms gave him more than enough to see the hallway by.

Still, he clung close to Nikita as she walked to the rickety staircase. She didn’t say anything in protest, and he clutched the bottom of her shirt as they descended, each of the stairs creaking as they put their weight on them.

It took what felt like an eternity to get all the way down, but when they were on the ground floor, Peyton found himself wishing still that it had taken longer. He stood at the bottom of the stairs for a minute, Nikita at his side, watching the two girls at the table flick what looked like berries at each other while they talked among themselves. They looked happy, unbothered. They didn’t even bother to look in his or Nikita’s general direction.

Peyton shuffled his weight from side to side. His head felt light, his stomach numb. He took Nikita’s sleeve in his hand, tugging it slightly. “I— I ch-changed my mind,” he whispered. “I want to go back upstairs.”

“What? Why?” Nikita put her hand on his shoulder, nudging him away slightly. “Are you nervous about meeting the others?”

Peyton let go of her shirt. He hugged his arms to his chest, and shook his head. “I just… I just want to go back upstairs. Th-that’s all I’m— I’m feeling kind of tired. I think I want to… take a nap.”

“You were napping for the whole day, Peyton. You had just woken up when you asked me to take you down here.”

“Well— I know, but… b-but still. I’m still feeling tired.” It wasn’t a lie. He was feeling tired. He almost always felt tired. Most days, he didn’t want to do anything but lay down in bed and sleep— and most days, that was exactly what he did— but he knew that the cause of his exhaustion was because he didn’t eat enough. He had to eat more, so he wouldn’t be thrown into more of a vicious feedback loop than he already was in. But… the thing was that he didn’t want to.

Of course, though, he wasn’t the one who made the final decision. Nikita rubbed his shoulder, leaning down to look him in the eye. “It’s going to be okay, Peyton,” she said, softly. “If you find yourself starting to get too uncomfortable, just tell me and we’ll go right back upstairs.”

That didn’t make any sense. He was already feeling too uncomfortable. But something in him compelled him to nod anyway. “O-okay. I— I will. Don’t worry. I will.”

Nikita smiled. She put her hand on his head, ruffling his hair a bit before she placed her fingers between his shoulder blades and guided him into the body of the room. She nodded at the two girls sitting at the table. “Hello Avery, Blake.”

Both of the girls shot their heads up, simultaneous grins spreading over their faces. Then the auburn-haired one’s eyes flickered over to Peyton, and her smile only grew bigger. “Peyton! You finally decided to come out!”

Peyton winced, reaching up to clutch Nikita’s shirt again. “H-how— how do you— how do you kn-know my name?”

Nobody said anything for a second. Then the blonde girl started to speak, slowly, as if he wouldn’t understand if she spoke any faster than a slog. “Because… Nikita told us what your name was, Peyton.”

“Oh.” Peyton rubbed his cheek, trying to wipe the growing heat there away. “O-oh. Yeah. That— that m-makes sense. I should’ve known better.”

The girl blinked, and then her face cracked in a brazen little grin. “It’s alright. You didn’t know.” Pushing the berries to the other side of the table, she rested her elbows on the newly exposed wood, put her chin on her hands, and gazed up at him. “Do you know what my name is?”

“Um—” he cut himself off, crushing his fingers together. “W-well— I think it has to be either— either Blake or… or Avery. B-because that’s what Nikita called you two when she— when she said hi, I guess.”

She chuckled, sitting back on the stool. “Okay, one of those is right. But I only have one name.” Crossing her arms, she gave him another toothy grin. “Take a guess. You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. Is my name Avery, or is it Blake?

Peyton swallowed, his heart thrumming in his chest. He didn’t know what to say. How was he supposed to know which one was right? He couldn’t. It was impossible. He looked up at Nikita. She returned his gaze and smiled— but she didn’t say or do anything else. She was leaving him to try and answer on his own.

His throat closed up and he shook his head, his knees shaking. He looked down, opening his cracked lips. “I— I— I th-think— maybe it’s— it’s… B-Bl-Blake.”

Silence. Then the room rang with a series of loud claps, sending Peyton’s hands flying to his ears. But even that couldn’t block out the girl’s enthusiastic voice. “You got it right! See? That wasn’t that bad, was it?!”

It wasn’t until a hand rested on his shoulder that he realized he’d closed his eyes. Slowly, he opened them and looked up at Nikita. She was still smiling at him. She took her hand off his shoulder and smoothed it through his hair. “You okay?” she asked.

He didn’t find the strength to respond for a second, looking down at his shaking hands. Then— to his surprise— he hesitantly, jerkily nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m— I’m okay.”

The girl— Blake— leaned further over the table, still grinning like a wild animal. “That’s great! Because we want to show you around the place now that you’re finally out.”

“Show— sh-show me around?”

The other girl— who had to be Avery, he guessed— nodded. “We figured that maybe you’d want some help getting around, and stuff. I mean— unless you want Nikita to help you instead. That’s fine, too.”

Peyton looked up at Nikita again. She nodded her head in the direction of Avery and Blake, cocking the side of her lip up. “I think you should go. There’s nothing wrong with learning a bit more about the others.”

“I— I— b-but… but can you— can’t you come with me?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Blake raised her eyebrows, but she didn’t say anything.

“I’ll stay nearby. But I think Avery and Blake would be better off leading the tour. They’ve been here a lot longer than we have, after all. You understand, don’t you?” Nikita’s eyes glinted. “What will they think if you’re clinging to me all the time?”

He understood… but that didn’t mean he had to like it. He forced himself to nod. “Okay. I guess.”

Nikita pat his head, lowering her voice. “There you go.” She stepped back, nudging him forward. “He’s ready to go when you guys are.”

“Oh. Uh— alright.” Blake nodded, pulling the berries back to her part of the berries. “Hey, Peyton. We can go now, if you want to. You know— while it’s still bright outside.”

“Okay.” Peyton nodded, bowing his head. He forced his feet from off the floor and trudged to the other side of the table, standing a ways from Blake and Avery. Avery looked over to him and smiled. He didn’t bother to return it. Hopefully this wouldn’t take too long. He wanted to go back to his and Nikita’s room and just sleep already. What had he been thinking, believing he was ready for something like this?

He didn’t get to think of an answer. Blake suddenly lunged forward and seized his wrist, ignoring the way he cried out and instinctively jerked away. “Come on!” she said. “We’ll show you the garden first, and then the hutch. And maybe some of the more boring stuff that Umber insists we all know, I guess. Then maybe there’ll be enough time to show you the rope swing Rowan tied up in the forest a couple years back.”

“O-o-okay.” Peyton glanced desperately in Nikita’s direction as Blake started to lead him away. All she did was smile and wave. She wasn’t going to help him. It didn’t even look like she was going to follow him, like she’d promised.

Peyton struggled to control the lump in his throat as Blake and Avery led him to the door. Blake shoved it open, letting sunlight flood into the kitchen, and pulled Peyton outside. It was bright. Too bright. Even though it was almost sunset, it was still too bright. Of course, that didn’t seem to bother Avery or Blake. They continued to pull him out onto the grass— with his bare feet, no less— and dragged him to a patch in the ground. Avery pointed enthusiastically at it. “This is the garden!”

Peyton looked around the barren, muddy ditch, and screwed up his face. “It… it is?”

“Yeah. We know there isn’t much to see. But we grow a lot of root things underground. Like potatoes and onions.” She shrugged. “I guess root vegetables were the only seeds they had or something? They taste alright. Not quite like the City’s, if you know how those taste— but still alright.”

Peyton finally managed to worm his wrist from Blake’s clutches, wrapping his arms around his ribcage again. “What do they m-make with it? With them?”

“Honestly? Nothing that special. Most the time they just boil water from the river or rain and make stew. I guess it’s the easiest thing to make when you don’t have that many cooking supplies, right? You get used to it. We also go foraging for mushrooms sometimes. But since it hasn’t rained for a while we haven’t really bothered.” Blake tapped his shoulder and pointed to an area closer to the house. “Rabbit hutch next.”

“Oh! Yeah, sure.” Avery grinned at Peyton. “They’re my favorite. I’m sure you’ll love them, too. Come on.” She started to walk in the direction Blake had pointed to, not bothering to see if Peyton and Blake were going to follow after him.

Peyton stood back, watching her go. Then Blake put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him forward. He ducked his head and followed after Avery, biting the tip of his tongue. This was awful. When were they going to be finished? He wanted to go back upstairs. He wanted to be with Nikita again. Why had he asked to come down here in the first place?

Avery froze in front of him and he had to dig his heels into the dirt to not crash into her. She didn’t seem to notice that, nor his heavy breathing— why did walking through the yard require so much exertion?— focusing on pointing at the wooden structure in front of them instead. “Look,” she whispered. “Don’t speak too loud or move too fast, though. That might scare them.”

Peyton’s arms and knees wouldn’t stop shaking. Slowly, he knelt on the grass and peered inside the mesh fencing— and then flinched back as a tiny, furry creature thrust their face into his. He took a deep breath, calmed down his heart, and peered closer. White fur covered the bunny’s pointy little face, a twitching pink nose smack dab in the center of it. Was it smelling him? He probably smelled really bad. He hadn’t properly bathed in weeks. Peyton dropped back on his haunches, sticking a finger through a hole in the mesh for the bunnies to sniff. “They’re— they’re cute.”

Blake snickered. “Yeah. They are pretty cute, aren’t they?”

Peyton nodded. The bunny shuffled closer, its nose pressing against his fingertip. It felt soft, and fluffy. Peyton could feel a smile twitching onto his lips. “What do you k-keep them for?”

Neither of them said anything. Peyton turned around, just in time to see a large, strained smile appear on Avery’s face. “Just for… relaxation,” she said.

“Oh.”

“Heh. Yeah.” Blake crossed her arms, tapping her foot on the grass. “Anyway. Let’s keep showing you around, right? Can’t sit here all day.”

“Oh— alright.” Peyton let Blake take his hand and help him up, taking a moment to stabilize himself on the ground. “Where— where next?”

“Uh…” Avery looked around. “How about the kitchen? Or the water tanks?”

“The water tanks? Why would he want to look at the water tanks? And he’s been in the kitchen already. I’m pretty sure he knows what a kitchen does, Avery.”

“Yeah, but he needs to know how to work around in the kitchen sooner or later, doesn’t he? Rowan keeps on saying he has to. And he should learn where the water tanks are because… what if he needs to put water into the tanks or take some out?”

“You really think he’s going to be dragging a full bucket all the way from the river with arms like that?

Peyton winced, but they just kept on talking, arguing about him like he wasn’t even there. Arguing about him. He pressed his back against the front of the rabbit hutch, put his hands on top of it— and then yelped, jerking his arms away. Avery jumped and turned back to him again. “What’s wrong?”

He shook his head, but tears sprang to his eyes anyway. He cradled his left hand to his chest, closing his eyes as pain dripped through it. “I— I think I— I—”

“Can I see?”

Peyton opened his eyes. Avery took her hand in his— her skin was soft— and pulled it toward her. Her eyebrows furrowed together as she examined further. “Oh— you got a splinter. I’m sorry. We should have told you about that— I got one the first time I handled the hutch, too.”

He sniffled, trying to pull his hand away. “It— it h-hurts. How do you take it out?”

Avery let go of his hand and stepped back. “Taylor took it out for me when I got mine. I think I should probably take you to her. Is that okay?”

Peyton brought his hurt hand to his mouth, biting down on his thumb knuckle to distract from the splinter’s pain. “O-okay.”

“Okay. Sorry, Peyton. We should’ve warned you.” She looked to the house, that frown still not disappearing from her lips. “I think she’s probably inside. In her room, or something. We should go and check.”

“Okay,” he murmured again. He watched Avery make her way to the house, trying to muster up the courage to do the same.

“Peyton? You going?”

He flinched and turned around, meeting gaze with Blake before he looked away. “Um— yeah. Y-yeah. I am going. I was just— I was just thinking. About… something.”

“About what?”

He hesitated, then shrugged, still pressing his hand to his mouth. “N-n-nothing. Just… stuff.”

She snorted. “Okay, then. That definitely makes sense.”

“Okay.”

“Uh. Yeah. Anyways. Why don’t we go and follow Avery? Then you can get that splinter out of your finger, or wherever it is.” Blake nudged him, walking a pace behind him when she finally managed to prompt him forward. “Sorry for saying that about you, by the way. About your arms.”

“It— it’s okay.” He shook his head, lowering his eyes to his feet. “I— I know that— I know I’m n-not that strong. So it’s not like you said anything I didn’t know already.”

“Well, yeah. But it was still out of line. ‘Specially since I don’t know you all that well, and everything.” She sighed, crossing her arms over her chest as they approached the front door. “I should probably work on being nicer.”

She probably should have. But Peyton just shrugged. “I— I don’t know.”

“You don’t think that I should?” Blake gave him an odd look as she opened the door completely, stepping inside.

“Well, maybe… b-but I don’t know.”

Blake didn’t stop staring at him, not even as she shut the door behind him. Then she shook her head. “You’re a pretty interesting guy, you know that, Peyton?”

Peyton shrugged. He watched Avery glance back at them before she went up the stairs, presumably to look for Taylor. “I guess,” he said.

Blake just scoffed. Neither of them said anything much after that, standing in relative silence. Peyton could hear Avery’s voice drifting from upstairs, then snippets of another one, too quiet for him to pinpoint who exactly it was, but he guessed it had to be Taylor.

After a few minutes, the ear-piercing screech of the stairs being put to use sounded through the room. Taylor descended and caught Peyton’s eye, giving him a gentle smile. “Can I see the splinter?” she asked, holding her own hands out to him.

Peyton faltered just for a moment, before he showed her his hand. Taylor took it, peering at the splinter. With her fingernails, she pinched and squeezed the skin around it, murmuring what sounded like an apology when he cringed. “It’s in there pretty deep,” she said at last. “I’m going to have to use a needle to try and get it out. Is that okay with you?”

“Okay. That… th-that’s okay.”

“Great,” Taylor whispered, still poking and prodding at the splinter. “You’re so brave.”

Peyton bit back a frown. He didn’t need to be coddled and praised like some sort of baby. But he didn’t say that. He let Taylor take his hand, and he let her lead him outside to the back of the house. She produced a needle and a handkerchief from her skirt pocket, wiping the tip of the needle before she held it at the end. “Show me your hand,” she said.

He did. She held the bottom of it with her free hand, putting the needle to his skin. “How are you today, Peyton?” she asked. “Besides the splinter, I mean.”

“I— I— I’m doing good.”

“That’s good.” She pushed the needle underneath his skin and wiggled it from side to side, starting the process of digging the splinter out. For a while, neither of them said anything, spare for Peyton’s occasional whimpers of discomfort. But then she started to talk some more. “Nikita was worried about you when Avery came up to tell me about the splinter,” she said. “She wanted me to tell her if you were okay when we were done with this.”

Peyton swallowed, and a stone fell into his stomach. “O-oh. Well… well, that doesn’t— it doesn’t— that d-doesn’t surprise me all that much. She worries a lot about me.”

“She does, doesn’t she?” Taylor pressed her lips together, still working on his hand. The splinter was about halfway out now. “Does she… she makes you happy, right? You’re happy around her, right?”

“Of— of course she does. I… I am.”

“You are? She treats you well?

He wanted to pull his hand away, but the splinter was almost out by now and he didn’t want to risk it going in again. “Yes,” he said, curtly as he could make it. “She— she does.”

“She doesn’t… she isn’t…” Taylor trailed off, struggling to find the right words to say. “She isn’t… hurting you? Telling you or forcing you to do things that you might not be comfortable doing? Anything like that?”

“N-no. She doesn’t. Why… why’re you asking me this?”

“No reason. Honestly. I just… worry. I worry about everyone here, you get what I mean?” She smiled again, the corners of her lips twitching. With one last flick, the splinter was out of him. Taylor put it on the handkerchief and examined it closely for a moment before she wrapped the cloth up, wiping the bead of blood on Peyton’s hand away. “There you go. Don’t go handling dirt or the rabbits or anything until the skin’s closed up. And if you do for some reason, make sure you rinse your hands well. Okay?”

Peyton cradled his hand, shuffling backward. He frowned up at Taylor. “Why’d you ask me that about Nikita?”

“It’s alright, Peyton. Really. I’m just being paranoid. Sometimes it’s a bad thing to be paranoid— but sometimes it’s good.” She looked him over, her eyes softening. “If you need anything— anything— don’t be afraid to ask me, Umber, or Jules, alright? All of us help each other out here.”

“O-okay. I will.”

Taylor smiled at him, but Peyton was already turning away. The skin on his hand where the splinter had been was all raw and tender, but he couldn’t keep himself from digging his fingernails into it anyway as he walked to the house. It at least felt better than Taylor’s eyes burning into his back. All he wanted to do was be left alone— left alone with Nikita. Was that really too much to ask?

“Hey, Peyton. You finished?”

Apparently, it was. He closed his eyes and resisted the growing pull just to snap at her, before he turned around. “Mm-hmm. I’m done.”

“Great! Now we can show you around some more.” Blake took the hand hanging by his side and pulled him toward her. “There should be enough time before dinner to show you the rope swing. Avery and me spend hours there if we don’t have anything to do— and besides chores, there isn’t really anything to do. This place isn’t any City or anything, but you’d think that they’d have more than five books to read…”

Peyton pulled his hand away from Blake and pressed it close to his chest before he stepped back, shaking his head. “Actually— um— I think I want to go back inside, if that’s— if that’s alright with you.”

Blake narrowed her eyes. “What? Why? You’re out here already. Why not make the most of it?”

“Because… because I don’t want to.” He shrugged and took a step back again. “I’m— I’m feeling kind of tired. I want to go upstairs and take— take a nap.”

“You’ve been sleeping a lot for the past few days.” Avery walked up to him until she was barely a foot away. “Well— you’ve been sleeping ever since you got here, kind of. Maybe the fresh air will make you feel better. Or maybe eating something. Why don’t you have some of the berries we put out in the kitchen?”

“N-no. I’m not really that hungry. I’m just tired.” Peyton looked past Avery, peering intently at the door. It was still slightly open. Taylor had said Nikita was upstairs. All he had to do was get past them and go upstairs, and then everything would be alright. “B-besides. Nikita probably wants to know that I’m okay.”

Nikita?” Blake said, snorting. “Taylor probably told her that you’re okay already. Don’t worry about that. What, are you going to cling to her forever? Even when you’re an adult? She’s probably old enough to be your mom.”

Peyton winced, the corners of his vision going fuzzy. This was too similar to what had happened before. She was speaking too similarly to how Saga had. That had been when everything went wrong. That was when bad things started happening. He had to get away or else something bad would happen again. “I— I don’t care,” he said. “I really— I really need to go upstairs. It’s really important.”

“More important than making new friends?” Blake crossed her arms and pouted at him, but it started to look more and more like a sneer with every second that passed. “Don’t you want to have someone your age to talk to? Or are you too mature for us?”

“I— I—”

“What Blake’s trying to say is that she— we’ve been kind of hoping for another person that’s our age to talk to. It gets kind of lonely being surrounded by adults you can barely relate to, you know?” Avery smiled, giving him a rather sheepish shrug. “So now that you’re out and about, it’d be really cool to talk to you and get to know you more. As a friend, you know?”

“Um— that sounds nice, but— b-but I don’t really know if I’m ready for any more friends yet.”

“Are you sure? Because I think it’d be nice to talk to you. For both of us— for all of us.” Avery tilted her head to the side, examining his face more closely. “You’re from the Academy, aren’t you? I’m pretty sure I saw you around before Blake and I left.”

Peyton lowered his head. “Y-yeah,” he finally muttered. “I am.”

Avery’s face brightened. “That’s great! We’re from there, too! Well— you know that because we just told you— but still! That’s already one thing we have in common.”

“I… I guess.”

“Mm-hmm. Yeah.” The grass rustled as Avery shuffled her feet from side to side. “Um— so… what was the Academy like for you, Peyton? What was your favorite class?”

“Well… maybe s-science or something, I guess.”

“That’s pretty interesting. I used to think doing biology research in the City would be pretty cool, but Blake really hates science.” Avery let out a forced-sounding chuckle. “Anyway. How about the people there? Who was your favorite instructor? What kind of friends did you have?”

“I— I didn’t really have any friends.”

His voice sucked the air out the forest, just making it even more painful. Then Blake’s voice, bordering on the edge of incredulous. “What? You didn’t have any friends? But I saw— we saw you talking to people whenever we passed by. Weren’t they your friends? Or were they just your roommates?” She laughed, kind of uncomfortably. “If they were your roommates, then I can understand a bit. Our roommate wasn’t exactly… the most agreeable person, either.”

“No. They weren’t my roommates. Well— not all of them. But it doesn’t matter. None of them were really my friends, not really. I don’t need you to be my friend.” He looked up again, refusing to stare either of them in the eye, and watched the open door again. “Can I please go back inside? Please?”

But they didn’t move to let him walk past. Avery tucked some of her hair behind her ear, a crooked, awkward smile appearing on her face. “But… there were others that you seemed to like being around, right? Like the red headed girl. Olive, right? She talked with Blake and I a few times before we left. She seemed like a nice girl. You were always happy when you were around her, weren’t you? Wasn’t she your—”

No! No, she wasn’t! She wasn’t my friend! She just pretended to be— she used me! And now you two want to do that, too! I know it! I know you do!” He shook his head and hiccupped, feeling moisture prickle at his eyes. “I’m not stupid. I’m not. I don’t need any more friends. Bad things always end up happening to me when I have friends. So… so forget it. I don’t want to be friends with you. I don’t.”

The only response he got was the trees and brush rustling around him, the breeze cool and sharp. Squeezing his eyes shut, he ducked his head again and made for the house— only to be stopped by a hand pressing against his shoulder. He opened his eyes and staggered back. Avery pulled her hand away. “Peyton— we don’t want to use you for anything,” she said. “We just want to be your friend.”

“Uh— yeah. Really. What would we even use you for?” Blake crossed her arms over her chest and looked up at him quizzically. “It’s not like we can pester you for test questions in the middle of the Outskirts. I guess technically you could say that we want to use you for your companionship? But it’s not like it’s one-sided. You’ll be benefiting from it too, you know.”

That was what she thought. What was it like, being so gullible? Peyton scowled, staring at his dirty, bare feet. “I don’t— I don’t… I d-don’t need to have any more friends,” he said. “I don’t.”

“Really?” Avery asked. “I mean— if you really think that, then we won’t bother you anymore, but… isn’t it kind of boring to just hang out with one person all the time? Especially one so much older than you? Don’t you think it would be nice to… spread out a little bit more? Don’t you think you deserve to have more people like you be your friend?”

Peyton closed his eyes tightly again, struggling to level out his breathing. Then he looked up. Avery and Blake were smiling at him— a bit more forced than what would have been genuine, but still smiling. Why were they smiling? Were they mocking him? Or trying to convince him to agree with them? He swallowed, blinked a few times, his fingernails still pushed deep in his arms. The splinter wound on his hand burned. “I… I… d-do you guys really want to be my— my friends?”

Blake sighed. “We wouldn’t have spent this much time pestering you about if we didn’t, would’ve we?”

“O-oh.” He scratched his cheek, still avoiding their eye contact, their questioning gaze and innocently hoping expressions. He hated this. He hated it. But he bit his lip yet another time, breathed in deeply, and said, “I… I don’t know.”

They gaped at him, just long enough for Peyton to think that he’d done something wrong. Then Blake hummed. “Well… it’s better than no, I guess.” She held out a hand, that cocky little smile never leaving her face. “You know, I don’t think we ever officially introduced ourselves to you. I’m Blake. Blake Fitzgerald. It’s nice to meet you, Peyton.”

This just felt like they were playing some sort of joke on him. But somehow, Peyton managed to ignore that. He peeled his hand away from his arm— it was cold, clammy with sweat— to limply grasp Blake’s. “O-o-okay.”

Blake gripped his hand hard, so much harder than what was necessary, and shook it just as exuberantly. Then she let go, stepped back, and searched his face. “Huh. Interesting.”

Peyton blinked. He touched his cheek again, feeling nothing but damp, smooth skin. “Wh-what? What’s wrong? What’s interesting?”

Blake glanced to Avery, before looking back at Peyton. She was still smirking. “Nothing. I just noticed you don’t stutter when you’re angry. It’s just kinda funny, really.”

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