‘What happened to everyone?’
He glances sideways. ‘Some were captured, like you, and presumed Slated. Others died on missions. Do you want to know who—’
And I interrupt him. ‘No. Don’t tell me.’ I don’t want to know who died, to remember their names only to know they are gone.
‘They fought for what they believed in,’ he says. ‘It is a good death.’
Easy to say when you are alive.
We dash into Nico’s house in the wet. I start to walk in from the door and Nico grabs me back. ‘Don’t drip everywhere,’ he says. And I shuck off jacket and boots, still half soaked and shivering.
Tori is curled up on the sofa, reading, warm and dry. Her scratches and bruises are less apparent, and her dark hair shines.
‘Hello,’ she says, then turns back to her book.
I don’t know what to expect from Tori, exactly. We were never close. She didn’t particularly like me before, and that probably had something to do with Ben. Yet I did risk my neck to save hers, so somehow expected more than this.
‘I’ve got some calls to make. Why don’t you two get reacquainted for a moment,’ Nico says, and disappears down the hall.
I perch on the edge of the sofa.
‘So. How’re things?’
I try a few other conversations, getting nowhere. Somehow I want to crack into wherever she is hiding inside. I want to know how she got rid of her Levo. After what happened when I cut off Ben’s… I shudder. Maybe she knows how to survive it. Maybe she knows if there is any chance he did.
Ben: that is the way to reach her.
‘Skye is alive.’
Her eyes widen. ‘Ben’s dog? Where is she?’
‘She is…’ I start to say, then hesitate, not sure if I should use Mac’s name. ‘She’s with the cousin of a friend.’
‘Ben loved that dog,’ she says, eyes dropping. Looks up again. ‘Ben loved me,’ she says, a challenge in her voice.
There is nothing to be gained by arguing, by saying he loved me really, not you, is there? She is in pain. Let her keep her memories as she likes.
‘Do you know what happened to Ben?’ I ask.
Her head lowers. She nods. ‘Nico told me he cut off his Levo, and the Lorders took him. But I don’t understand. Why would he do it? He was never the sort to question things, to do anything to get in trouble. Why? If only I’d been there. I could have stopped him.’
And I don’t say anything, uncomfortable with it but afraid of her reaction if I tell her I was there. She’s not asking about it, so Nico must not have told her that part of the story. She doesn’t know how close Ben and I were.
‘What did Ben say when I disappeared?’ she says.
And I remember it didn’t really register with him at first that she was gone. Until I asked him where she was, and then he tried to find out. But she doesn’t need to know that.
‘He went to see your mum.’
‘He did? Did he tell you what happened?’
‘Tell me if you know anything. Please. I need to know.’ And she is gripping my hand. Mine are cold, and she pulls her rug around both of us.
‘All right,’ I say, and slump back. I know the agony of wanting to know things you have no way of knowing. ‘Ben said he asked her where you were, and she said you didn’t live there any more. I think he thought she meant you’d gone to live with your dad in London?’
She snorted. ‘As if. She wouldn’t have let me near him. Then what?’
‘She said you’d been returned.’
‘Returned? That’s a funny word for it.’ She lowers her head.
‘What happened, Tori?’
‘Well. They didn’t stick a “return to sender” label on my forehead and dump me in a postbox. One night, Mum was out, and they came and took me. I was at home, asleep. Suddenly there were these two Lorders in my bedroom and they hauled me away.’
I reach a hand to her shoulder, but she shrugs me off.
‘She said that? I was returned?’ Her eyes fill with tears.
‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.’
Tori hunches forward, head on knees. ‘We used to be so close, Mum and me. When I first came to live with her, she used to dress me up in outfits like hers. Take me to all her parties with her friends. Then, last year, it all stopped. It was like I took too much attention away from her, so she didn’t want me around.’
Like a doll she didn’t want to play with any more.
Tori shakes her head side to side. Sobs creep into her voice. ‘And I liked being the centre of attention; I played up to her friends. It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have done it! But still. Some part of me…really hoped… I mean, I never thought she would do that. I wondered if she didn’t know what happened to me, you know? That she has been crying over me being missing, and…’ She throws her book across the room. ‘That bitch,’ she says.
She pulls the blanket off and limps into the kitchen.
‘Tea?’ she asks.
She slams the cups about. Nico appears out of a door down the hall, a mild look on his face. Curiosity. ‘Everything all right?’
But he isn’t saying it to me. He goes up to Tori, puts a hand on her back. And it is there, in her eyes: she adores him, already.
She nods. ‘Fine. Thanks, Nico. Do you want some tea?’
He turns to me. ‘After you have that, come and talk to me in my office.’ He disappears back down the hall.
She called him Nico. He must have told her John Hatten isn’t his real name. How did she do that? Nico doesn’t trust people, he doesn’t. It was months in the woods of torture and training before he even began to trust me. And somehow, he has told her his real name.
I shake my head.
‘Sugar?’ she asks.
‘Look, I’m not really thirsty.’
‘Suit yourself.’ She dumps my cup out in the sink. Goes and picks her book up off the floor and starts reading it again, tea in one hand.
There were so many other questions I wanted to ask her. How did she get away from the Lorders? What happened to her Levo?
But her shutters are back up. Time for talking is over.
I knock on Nico’s door.
I open the door. There is a sofa, a desk with a computer folded out of it. I’m guessing it disappears back inside it in a clever fashion as if it didn’t exist at all. Bookshelves, apparently full of biology books? Maintaining the teacher cover.
And there is Nico. He smiles. ‘Show me what you’ve got.’
I pull the hospital drawings out of my inner pocket. He unfolds them on a low table in front of the sofa, gestures for me to sit there next to him. Grills me on the positions and defences drawn, and security on the way in.
‘You must know these things already.’
‘Mostly. Though the entrance security has been increased. Anything else?’
‘I think there is something new. Someone said there are technological defences.’
‘No. But the phones and computers have changed. They have cables and wires running from them into the walls. And Mum’s phone wouldn’t work there. She said it usually does.’
‘Interesting. A signal block installed, over the whole hospital, perhaps? Makes coms useless.’
He looks at me.
‘Like remotely detonated explosives.’
He half smiles. ‘Clever Rain. True enough. Though nothing we can’t get around one way or another, I’m sure.’
‘There’s something else.’
‘There must be a hidden way. At the last attack, some Lorders got doctors out of the way, fast. Too fast. Like they were hidden in plain sight.’
‘Interesting. You must watch, observe. Find out what you can.’
‘Perhaps we can plan a dummy attack – a threat – one time when you are there, and you can see what you see.’
The last hospital attack comes back to me. My head feels fuzzy, and I shake it. Bombs. Bullets. Death: slipping on blood sticky and cooling on the floor. My stomach twists, and I have to fight to breathe, to calm, to avoid being sick.
‘Rain!’ he says, and grips my shoulders. ‘Stay with me.’
With the firm pressure of his hands, heat seeping through damp clothes to skin, the blur around the edges vanishes. All is stark and clear. ‘Yes. I’ll do what you want, anything you want. I promise.’
‘Good. My special Rain!’ He hugs me, and I’m filled with warmth. The questions I wanted to ask him fade away.
He lets go. ‘Now, about Tori.’
‘She may be useful to us. We’ll see. She has a lot of rage; I don’t know if she can learn to control it, channel it. But remember this. She is still a risk and you brought her. Anything goes wrong and it is on your pretty head.’ He kisses my forehead. ‘It must be time to take you home by now.’
That night, I replay it all: everything said and done. And it is all still confusing.
Why am I special to Nico and his plans? Why didn’t I ask Nico the questions I wanted to ask? It is like when I’m with him, my will is gone.
And when I thought of the hospital attack I witnessed, I almost lost it. Even now I can’t think of it without nausea, panic rising up again. Blood. With Nico’s touch – calling my name, Rain – it was gone. Calm control returned.
I know the hospital is an evil place. What they do, stealing minds and memories, is evil. Lorders are evil. They must be stopped.
They will be stopped.
But what have I done before, with Nico? And the Owls. The memory of blood on the floor at the hospital attack last month is stark, clear. The horror that rises from it. Yet of anything before…nothing beyond a glimpse.
Nico’s path is the right one. My path. True, he can be cruel. He doesn’t value life. Not just Lorders’ lives, or innocent bystanders’, but even those of his followers. What was it he said earlier? That those who died had a good death.
What about Ben: did he die a good death, trying to break away from a life dictated for him by Lorders? I flinch, part of me still rejecting the possibility, while more is wracked with pain.
On my bedside table stands a rook. The house was still empty when I got home this afternoon. Restless, I’d prowled around downstairs, and found a dusty chess set on a bookshelf. Not as nice as Penny’s set; the pieces are plastic, not wood. But I took one of the rooks, and held it in my hand. Somehow, it was soothing. I kept it in my pocket after Mum and Amy got home, during dinner, patting it now and then to make sure it was still there.
Now I take it from the bedside table and grasp it in my hand.
I run. With each step, sand slips away under my feet, but I fly as fast as I can. Terror gives me strength I don’t normally have. I run, but there are limits. Strength ends.
I trip, and go sprawling, gasping for oxygen. Collapsed in a heap.
He tries to drag me to my feet.
I shake my head. ‘I can’t. Go. Save yourself,’ I gasp.
‘No. I’ll never leave you.’ He wraps arms around me. Arms that make me feel warm and safe for the first time in so long. But only for seconds.
He is ripped away. Where there was warmth, there is only cold.
I open my eyes wide and wider. It is dark, quiet. No sound except the frantic beating of my heart. There are no movements or footsteps that say I screamed out loud in my dream like I sometimes do. No one is coming to comfort me.
There is pain in my left hand. My fingers are clasped tight in a knot and I can’t unclench them. As my heart rate slows, I pry my fingers open, one by one.