Before TEN, smiles and laughter, maybe the occasional tear were the heartbeat and breath keeping the college alive. Now that soul is gone, replaced with animal droppings and swooping spider webs it seems even the spiders have evacuated, leaving their homes to hang lifeless from corners, strung carelessly across doorways.
We’ve taken refuge in some sort of emergency bunker built beneath a school. A real one. Not the fake kind I grew up in. They didn’t kill you on graduation day here.
Being alone makes it easier. The quiet provides a thin blanket of ease that’s just enough to keep me from breaking. I haven’t been able to face them yet, the other confiscated youth. My mom, the girls, and Charles should be back soon. I’d like to see them, but what would I say? To the girls, that they’re father won’t ever come home. That it’s my fault he’s dead. To Charles, that his son has been taken captive by the Commander General of the NTA himself? That I don’t know if he’s alright. An aching spreads through my chest, reverberates out to my limbs. Eyes burning, I clutch at a window sill with shaking fingers to try and steady myself.
My shoulder twinges with phantom pain. The bullet wound has completely healed. There isn’t even a real mark to prove it was ever there, just a tiny spec of scar tissue, and even that seems to be fading. I wish it hurt, truly hurt. At least it would be a distraction from all the other awful things.
Someone’s behind me. I have the presence of mind to tense, hand moving to my gun. But then, I let it fall, recognizing the heavy footfalls. “They’re back.”
How he has the audacity to sound excited, I’ll never understand. “Go away, Ace.”
He sighs, doesn’t move. “It’s Dianna. She –they had her at the rebel camp. She was taken prisoner, but when–”
A thousand thoughts are racing through my adrenaline addled brain. Dianna was there. She was a prisoner there and we set off a bomb at the encampment. No. No. I couldn’t take it if anyone else died.
I can’t lose anyone else.
“Whoa, no, no, no. Shit, Jo, come here,” he whispers as if facing a rabid dog, inches himself closer to me until he can take my hand, smiles, “She’s alright. In the chaos after the explosion, she escaped. She followed the NTA to The Inn. Found your mom and the girls making a run for it. She’s downsta—”
I’ve never moved so fast in my life.
I’ve flown down all three flights of stairs inside of fifteen seconds, nearly ripping the door off its hinges in my haste once I hit the underground level. Fifty sets of eyes fix their sights on me. They’re heat seeking missiles and I’m on fire. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what they think of me, the girl who lost her mind in the heat of battle. The one whose nightmare-induced screams keep them up at night. The only pair of eyes I care to see, that I need to see, are hers. “Dianna?” My voice is a contorted thing, strangled.
She emerges, Charles in tow behind her. The mix of emotions I feel are mirrored on her soot-streaked face. Hope, pain, sadness, and an ocean of relief.
“Hey, Jo.” She says, a half-smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. I run to her, bury myself in the bones of her shoulder. She rubs soothing circles into my back and lets me cry.
“It isn’t your fault.” She whispers into my ear. “None of it is your fault.”
But it is. All of it.
When I enter the little room off the main hallway, I know it’s time and my body stiffens, jaw tightening. Now that Roman is gone, the whole idea of a tactical meeting seems wrong. My mom is busy setting up a health unit where she can screen everyone for TEN on entry to the building, and Logan isn’t back yet, so it’s just Ace, Liam, Chris and Doug, and Dianna and Charles, among a couple others I don’t yet know by name.
Eight people to convince. And I must convince them.
“I’m going after him,” I say in a hushed voice, taking a solid stance across the room from Ace, who sits in a lumpy armchair in the corner.
“No.” Ace says.
Dianna stands, leaving Charles to look bereft on the sofa, and lays a hand on my shoulder, “You mean well Jo—I know that—but it’s not safe.”
“Safe?” I hiss, not at Dianna, but at the very idea of what she’s implying. “What is safe? Do you think it’s any safer here? Nowhere is safe.” Turning my attention back to Ace, I close the distance between us in three steps, “They’ll kill him Ace.”
“She’s right. And you know he would come for us if the situation were reversed,” Liam pipes up, “I’ll go with her. I intercepted a transmission last night. I know where they have him.”
My heart is a hammer driving nails through my lungs. Liam knows where he is. I could kiss him. I could kill him for not telling me sooner.
There are shadows in Ace’s eyes, and an exhaustion in the set of his shoulders. I can see the weight of his newly inherited position taking its toll. “You’re right, he would have come for any of us. But do you think he’d want us risking our lives to save his? Would you want him to do the same?” He sighs, dragging himself upright, “What we need to do is gather supplies. We have a newborn infant here and not enough formula to last long. We gotta post a watch schedule. Erica is on the roof right now, alone. Jax is on guard, alone. And we need to help Amy get her lab set up. If anyone gets sick right now, she doesn’t have the shit she needs to treat them. We were only able to salvage so much. We can’t organize a rescue mission right now.”
At the mention of my mother’s name, a fistful of guilt is crammed down my throat, left to fester in my stomach. I won’t soon forget the look on her face when I ran to Dianna, and almost immediately forgot she was right there. Standing off to one side, looking like someone scooped her heart out with a soup ladle.
I was glad to see her, that she was alright, but in that moment I needed my best friend, the only true one I’ve had for years. But if my mom hadn’t made it back, I—well, I don’t know what it would’ve done to me. The idea of losing her, after only just finding her, makes my chest hurt. In that moment, I resolved to make things better between us. She may not understand me, and I may not understand her, or the choices she’s made, but things like that don’t matter anymore. They can’t. I should be grateful for the fact that I still have a mother at all. The child born on the eve of the raid at The Inn will never meet her mother.
“He’s right, we need all available hands on deck here right now,” Charles says and the lack of emotion on his face as he condemns his son to torture is the spark that lights the gasoline in my veins.
“He’s your son!” I shout, backhanding a wooden chair to the floor. It clatters against the concrete and swallows all other sound from the room. “Don’t touch me.” I tell Dianna as she attempts to comfort me, “He’s your son too. Are you just going to leave him there?” My eyes are filling with hot tears and I’m powerless to stop the trembling in my limbs, “They’ll torture him, Dianna.” And then I allow myself to say aloud the one thing I’ve managed to stop myself from thinking, “They might have tortured him already.”
She has no reply, but I can see the pain I’ve caused her in the narrowing of her eyes, and the way her chin quivers.
“You’re all cowards,” I say. I know it isn’t fair, and it isn’t entirely true. But right now, I don’t care.
“Not all of us can heal a bullet wound in a couple hours, Jo.” Ace says.
Charles is immediately on his feet, “Is that true?” he asks me. “Has it accelerated that much?”
When I don’t answer, he begins to pace, “We’ll have to run tests. I’ll need some blood samples. If you could allow—“
“That’s hardly a priority right now Charles,” Dianna says.
I’m beyond words. Beyond reasoning. And they must know, they have to know even without their permission, I will go after him.
Like he came for me.
Liam turns his attention to Ace, “We have Dunne. If I can get within range of their closest two-way signal, we can see if the Commander is willing to trade.”
“Ethan for Dunne.” I whisper, mostly to myself. It could work. My lips spread into the ghost of a smile. The first I’ve had in days. “Ace?”
Ace nods, pursing his lips together as he considers the approach, “Ok. But I’ll be honest, I think Ethan is more valuable to them than Dunne is to us. And even if they did agree, how are we supposed to know they’ll make good on their word?”
“Is that a yes, then?” I ask, a little too much fire in my words, and I’m left wondering what happened to our easy conversations, our inside jokes? Will we ever be whole again, or is this what we’re left with… clipped voices, and war-hardened faces, with ghosts in our eyes.
“Yes, but I got one condition.”
He doesn’t speak until he’s able to securely latch his eyes onto mine, “If this doesn’t work… you have to swear to me you won’t go after him.”