I shifted back on the narrow mattress, giving her room to crawl in next to me. Zu was all elbows and knees. Growing, stretching up in height, the way everyone seemed to right before they crossed that strange, ambiguous line into being a teenager. An almost-adult.
But the way she cried, the way she wrapped her arms around me and buried her warm, wet face against my neck—that was a kid. That was a kid who’d already lived a hard life and was being asked to take on more.
“I know,” I said quietly. “I know.”
The darkness rose and fell over me like a cold wave. I shut my eyes, relishing the simple fact that my mind was like a blank sheet, drained of all thoughts. But hours later, no matter how still I forced myself to be, I couldn’t shake the rush of sensation in my legs—the feeling that they were still running.
I WOKE UP THE NEXT MORNING looking for a fight. Muscles ached that I didn’t know I had, and my feet screamed bloody murder when I slid my tennis shoes back on. All the sleep had done was process my stifling sadness into pure, unflinching anger. I had energy to burn. I opened the door and shut it behind me as quietly as I could, so as not to wake up Zu.
The manual clock in the hallway said 4:45 A.M. It would be another hour before anyone else was up and ready for the day. Plenty of time to work out the lightning zipping through my body, and return to some state of calm.
The light in the gym was already on, and my whole body tensed in anticipation when I saw who was running on the treadmill, taking quick, confident strides. Cole must have seen me out of the corner of his eye, but he kept running and didn’t acknowledge me until I was standing right next to the machine and its whirring belt.
“Not in the mood, Gem.” His voice was flat, edged with warning.
“Too bad,” I said, walking over to retrieve two pairs of gloves. “I am.”
I waited for him. Gloves on my hands, stretching, trying to warm my body up for this. Finally, after a good five minutes, he let out a grunt and hit the STOP button on the machine. Cole scooped up the gloves from the floor, his face flushed from the run, his eyes overly bright. I had half a second to drop back into a fighting stance before his knee rose up toward my stomach; I jumped back, but was caught by yet another obvious swing he made to my sternum. That, at least, sent the thoughts shooting out of me, along with every last ounce of air in my lungs. It was a distraction—he had me pinned against his chest in the space of a single heartbeat.
I twisted out from under his arm, trying to use the momentum to flip him over onto his back. Like that was ever going to happen. The best I got was a stomp to his instep. He didn’t back off, though, not the way he normally would have. I felt the temperature in the room spike dramatically, and then—
He pulled back, letting me drop onto the floor with a sound of disgust. No. The word shot through my mind as he turned his back to me and started to remove his gloves. The sparring may have started as a way to release some of the heat that was boiling me alive from the inside out, but my head had hooked into the rush of it in a way I hadn’t expected. I needed more. I needed to get the black thoughts of Cate and Jude and what was waiting for us at the end of all of this out of me. And that required sweating or bleeding it out.
I lowered my head and charged toward him. I saw his expression darken in the mirror in front of him just before he slammed into it. This time, momentum actually did its job, sending us both sprawling back onto the edge of the mat. Without a single word, Cole dragged me by my neck further onto the mat, and then he showed me just how pissed off he really was.
Trying to roll or kick him off did nothing. He had me pinned beneath him, his whole crushing weight settled on my chest. One hand pinned mine over my head, and the other arm came across my neck, applying just the right amount of pressure there to dwindle my oxygen supply down to nothing.
He eased up on my windpipe, but not by much. I thrashed under him, knees kicking up to try to hit his lower back. His skin seemed tight against his skull, his face set with fury.
I choked in a shallow breath, but he didn’t pull back—my mind was floating away from my body, drifting into that same pool of black forming in my eyes.
“Cole—” I choked out. “Stop—”
He didn’t hear me. Wherever he’d gone inside, I wasn’t going to be able to touch him. And I knew that the only way out of this was in.
I drove into his mind like I was throwing a punch. I should have landed the hit and bounced back out, let it register like an electrical shock to his system. But his thoughts had hooks; they caught my mind, dragging it back down, drowning me in the scene melting into place around me. Light swirled around me, bending into shadows that became a small kitchen paneled in dark wood. There was dim, warm light coming through the curtains that masked the window above the sink. I smelled something burning—food. The trail of gray floating around me was smoke drifting from the closed oven door. Pots and pans popped up on the stove, appearing one at a time. The faint sizzling sound came from the brown sauce that had boiled over the lip of the metal pan.
A woman appeared in front of me, wearing a simple blue dress. I had a low vantage point from the floor, I couldn’t see anything besides her long blond hair and the hands that kept pushing me back, back, back. A surge of anger flooded me and I saw, rather than felt, my own arms up, straining to reach for something—for—
The man was the last to materialize, facing the woman. His face was in shadows, but there was something familiar about it, the shape of the nose, the set of the jaw—I knew this face, I’d seen two younger versions of it. He had gone a shade past red and was screaming, screaming, sweat and fury pouring off him, clouding the room, making everything feel slow and heavy. My gaze shifted down, taking in his dark, wrinkled polo shirt, the squirming toddler he held like a sack in one arm, slowly going pink in the face as he cried, trying to wriggle free, reaching for my arms. His hair was lighter, curling at the ends. The first sound that broke through the muffled din of the memory was his piercing wail of terror as the man picked up the steaming iron from the board and brought it up near his face, as if he was going to press its tip against the baby’s cheek.