But why did I go and knock on his door, today of all days? After the afternoon with Tori, then Katran and Nico, I just had a compulsion to do something ordinary: to see a friend. If he still wants to be my friend after what happened. Or maybe it is not wanting to be alone with my thoughts?
We’re past the edge of the village before he starts.
‘Didn’t see you at school today.’
‘Missed you at lunch, as well: where were you?’
‘I waited outside your last class at the end of the afternoon. Never saw you.’
‘I think I liked it better when you were giving me the silent treatment,’ I say, then immediately wish I hadn’t. His face looks hurt in more ways than one. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Look. If you tell me what is going on, maybe I can help.’ We’ve reached the edge of the village now, and I turn to go back, but he pulls my hand towards the dark footpath along a field. ‘Come on,’ he says, and I’m uneasy. This path leads to the woods where Wayne was found, a place I never want to go again. But once we’re out of sight of the road, he stops and leans against the fence.
‘Kyla, listen. I understand that right now, you feel you can’t tell me anything. And don’t say there is nothing to tell. I won’t believe you.’
‘But if there is ever anything I can do to help, anything, just ask, and I’ll do it.’
I stare back at him. My throat feels thick, like I’m going to cry, and it’s because he cares enough to offer help that could land him in any sort of trouble. He’s not stupid enough to not know that, not after yesterday. But at the same time I wonder why. Why is he so willing to risk himself for somebody he barely knows? Is it just friendship, or something else. I reach out and lightly touch his bruised cheek. ‘Isn’t that what got you this?’
‘Well. If I’d had another second, I’d have bested that jerk. He was on the ropes, wasn’t he?’
I smile. ‘Sure he was. Not a mark on him, but he was quaking.’
‘He won’t dare bother us again,’ Cam says, and drops into a boxer’s stance.
I laugh. ‘Yeah, I’m sure you’re right. And thanks again, for sticking up for me. Even though it was completely mental.’
‘I’d do anything to get back at the Lorders,’ he says, face back to serious. His eyes turn inwards, focus someplace else, some other time, and I don’t think he is talking about yesterday. He shakes his head. ‘What about you?’ He looks up; his eyes are here again, and hold mine.
I hesitate. ‘I have some things to work out. That is all I can say.’
‘Cryptic Kyla,’ he says. ‘Come on, we’ll be late for our dinners.’
He holds out a hand, and I take it, hold it a little too tight as we walk home. A lifeline to another life. One that is slipping away.
At Group that night, Penny continues with the games theme. She’s found some more chess sets, evidently having decided that if one Slated can manage to play it, the rest of them can work it out, too.
She splits us into two groups, me with one and her with the other, and we go over the board set-up, the pieces and how they all move. We start some games, but it is all so distant, so unimportant, I can’t concentrate. As if moving chess pieces about – one player’s move, then the other’s, in sequence – has anything to do with real life.
My mind wanders in circles and back again. Nico always seems to be at the centre of things, directing and controlling the action. A chess master knows so many moves in advance, the other player’s positions and goals can always be predicted. But even he doesn’t know about me and Coulson.
Who will win? Is it just a game to them both?
That night I focus on Ben’s face, try to hold it in my mind, but it is frustration. His features are slippery.
He is everything to me, yet he is just one. One victim out of many the Lorders destroy every day they stay in power. What is one when the fate of many hang in balance? Nico said I am to play a vital role in Free UK plans. The thought fills me with both pride and nervous fear at what that role may be. If Nico is right – if the Lorders really are under threat – how can I put that in jeopardy, even to save Ben?
How can I not.
I despise my weakness, that everything is so mixed up inside. But there is always only one answer: I have to see Ben. I have to warn him about Coulson.
I’m running as fast as I can.
But it is never fast enough.
Sometimes I am still running when I wake, chased by nameless, unseen fears. Other times it is worse, and I’ve fallen, and he won’t leave me.
Even when I am in it, I know this is a dream now. It comes so often.
But knowing doesn’t stop the terror.
I fall. And he won’t leave. My eyes are clenched shut tight, I can’t look, I can’t see what happens next. I can’t…
And I’m screaming, but a hand is tight round my mouth, stifling the sound. I struggle, but strong, warm arms hold me firm, rock me side to side. A voice murmurs soothing sounds in my hair. ‘Shhhh, Rain. It’s all right. I’ve got you.’
I open my eyes, and as reason returns, he takes his hand off my mouth. Katran is here. It was just a dream.
‘Same one again?’ he asks.
I nod, shaking, still unable to speak, gripped by another fear. Of losing more bits of myself, wrapping them up and shunting them away.
My eyes snap open in the dark. The fear from the dream is quickly replaced by shock. My recurring dream, the one I’d always thought must be from when I was Slated? It can’t be. Not if tonight’s version holds any truth. If I had this nightmare when Katran was there, then I must have had the same recurring dream when I was still training with the Owls. Before the Lorders caught me. Before I was Slated.
But Katran comforting me, holding me: this must be made up by my unconscious mind. It couldn’t have been that way. But even as I reject this caring Katran, one I don’t know, and wonder if the rest of the dream must then be fiction, too, I know that it can’t be. It felt more real, more true, than anything ever has before.
And there is something else, something hidden in that dream. It is so close I can almost reach out and brush it with my fingers, but still it dances away.
Even as my fists clench, even as I want to scream in frustration at these gaps in my memory, there is a cold nugget of truth inside.
I don’t want to know.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
* * *
Just one word in a low voice, that is all. The Lorder isn’t one I recognise; he walks ahead and doesn’t look back. He has no doubt that I will follow. I consider running for it, but what would be the point? I drop behind, just keeping him in sight through the crowd of students changing classes. Easy to do as they give him a wide berth: just follow the blank spot in a crowded hall.
He opens an office door in the admin building, goes inside and leaves it ajar. I look quickly in all directions: even though Nico should be in science block, you never know. But there is no sign of him or anyone else I recognise.
When I reach the door, it is unlike the others I pass on the way. There is no nameplate or number.
I knock once and go in.
The Lorder I’d followed stands at attention to one side of a desk. At the desk sits Coulson.
‘Sit,’ he says. There is only one chair, on this side of the small desk facing him: too close for comfort, but I sit. ‘Speak.’
I swallow, throat suddenly dry. ‘Nice office,’ I say.
He says nothing, but the chill in the room increases by enough of a factor for me to know I’m in trouble. The silence is brittle.
The best guide to lying is to stick to the truth as much as possible. ‘There may be some plans, but I don’t know when, or the details.’
He inclines his head slightly, his face blank, as always. Considering.
‘Not good enough,’ he says, finally. ‘What sort of plans?’
My brain isn’t cooperating; it has gone cold with fear. What I should or shouldn’t say is an unprepared mystery, and the more his eyes rest on me, the more my brain stops working. Until I find Ben, until I warn him to hide where Coulson can’t find him, Coulson must think I’m sticking to our deal. He must. I have to tell him something.
‘There may be concerted attacks planned. But that is all I know. I don’t know where, or when.’ I say the words in a rush, then flinch inside. Nico is part of these plans. I can’t say anything to lead them to him or the others.
He stares back. The clock on the wall behind me ticks loud, and seems too slow, like seconds are stretching beyond their usual limits. His eyes bore in, see the holes in what I say, the things I leave out.
‘There have been rumours of this. A few…confessions, that suggest similar. What else?’
‘That is all I know,’ I say, the words almost sticking in my throat.
The bell for next class rings, and I jump.
There is something in his eyes. He knows I’m holding back, that I haven’t told him everything.
The blood drains from my face.
He smiles, but it doesn’t make me feel better. ‘Go now. You can’t be late for maths.’
I almost leap out of the chair and reach for the door. He even knows my next class?
‘Consider yourself lucky today. I am not a patient man. The next time we speak, I want more. I want the whole story.
‘Go!’ he barks, and I bolt out the door.
I dash down the hall, glad to be late, to have an excuse to run.
In the door of my maths class I scan in, sit, get my notebook out. Pretend to listen to the teacher go on about statistics while my mind churns over probabilities of my own.
It has only been two days. Coulson is impatient, now? Somehow he knows something. That I wasn’t where I was supposed to be yesterday afternoon. How? He has been watching, or someone is spying on me.
We file in for Assembly that afternoon as we do every Friday, but this one is different. Coulson is there again with the Lorders, and this time I know I’m not imagining things. His eyes really are resting on my head, marking me out. Like a neon sign stamped on my forehead: See the Lorder Spy. I feel like a butterfly pinned in place under a lens, a hot lamp burning my wings.
Can anyone else see how he watches? I glance about, then with a start spot Nico sitting with his tutor group, off to the left and several rows back. His eyes flit to mine and then away. Did Coulson see?
Face carefully blank, I focus on the Head as he goes on about school inspections. Inside, all is turmoil: those two, together, breathing the same air in the same room. Perhaps I could point them out to each other and let them get on with it.
No. It isn’t fair to put them together in my mind like that. Lorders are evil: thinking about what happened to Tori in their hands turns my stomach. And to so many others, who go missing without explanation. Nico is right to want to put an end to them and their ways.
Yet what Nico is to me…that is complicated.
I should have told him. Right from the start, as soon as it happened, I should have told Nico about Coulson and his deal. Let Nico decide how to handle it, how to turn it back on them. The old Rain would have done.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t risk Ben; or Cam either, for that matter. But that isn’t the Free UK way. They will rescue their own if they can without undue risk. Otherwise, all are expendable; we know this. It’s part of the deal. The safety of the group – the cause – is more important than any individual, in the group or outside it.
I feel sick inside. It is too late to tell Nico about any of it; I’d be damned by the delay. He’d see I am divided. That I am weak.
No matter what I do, it is wrong.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
* * *