Maybe that’s what this was. It was something that was his, not theirs. A personal rebellion against the Circle, and against his own pain.
I tried to stop myself. I tried. But despite my best intentions, I touched my fingers to my lips and pressed them to his back.
I could see the side of his face. His eyes had fallen closed, and now they fluttered open.
“We are both,” he breathed. “Destruction. Salvation. Both.”
I’m in love with you, answered a voice inside my head.
I stumbled back a step.
He looked over his shoulder, brows creased. I could only stare at him, dumbly. The thought had short-circuited my brain. Oh God. I was in love with him.
I’d barely let myself consider whether this could be a little more than just kissing, but just a little more was never going to happen. I’d probably skipped over that long ago. Now it seemed so obvious. This was why shutting Stellan out after my mom died had felt so terrible, and why having him back in my life now felt right. He had become my best friend, my confidant. He calmed me down and made me better, and I also wanted to make out with him all the time. What did I think that meant?
I was in love with Stellan.
“Kuklachka,” he whispered, because I was still staring at him, the dark circles under his eyes in that too-pretty face from too little sleep and too much worry, the small, concerned crease in his forehead. “Are you okay?”
I nodded hard, because what else was there to do? No, I was not okay. I can’t feel this way about you suddenly meant so much more. After we do what we have to do, you could leave suddenly meant so much more.
Confusion danced across his face. For once, he couldn’t tell what I was thinking. He reached for my hand. “Come here,” he mouthed.
I looked down at the towel in my hand, not finished yet. “Please,” he breathed.
He scooted carefully down the couch and I climbed up, tucking my feet under me and letting him gather me against him with his free arm. I tucked my head against his chest. I could hear the steady beat of his heart, smell sharp, coppery blood on his skin.
Anya startled, but settled back down with a whimper, curling into a ball so her little blond head rested against my shoulder. I heard the tiniest catch of Stellan’s breath, enough to tell me he’d noticed, small enough to tell me he was pretending not to care. He pressed his face into my hair. Our breaths mingled with Anya’s slow, even, sleeping ones, and a few minutes later, when Stellan’s cheek touched my forehead, it was wet.
From the plane, we’d sent the recording I’d made of Lydia to Elodie and Jack. Within an hour, the whole Circle had heard it. Some families said that we’d fabricated it. Some were calling for the Saxons’ heads. It felt like we were back to where we were just before the initiation, but that was a vast improvement. Even if the Saxons did now have the virus and what they thought was the cure, if enough of the Circle believed us and started paying attention to where the threat was really coming from, we might be able to stop them.
Anya was sitting at the far window of the car, her face buried in a stuffed gray-and-pink mouse we’d bought at the airport and her hand in her brother’s. I was trying not to stare at her—she had been an abstract idea for so long, and now here she was in the flesh, looking like a regular, overwhelmed seven-year-old girl. She didn’t speak any English, but I’d been giving her encouraging smiles since she woke up. All she’d done was stare at me, her huge blue eyes with a gold ring around them exactly like Stellan’s.
For his part, I kept catching him watching me, curious and thoughtful, like I was something to unlock and he didn’t have quite the right key. He was sitting in the middle, his long legs splayed to fit in the small backseat. I was far too aware of the spot where his thigh rested against mine, of the roughness of his hand when he touched my arm to show me that the entire area around the Eiffel Tower had been cordoned off, police surrounding it.
I loved him. I love you, I said experimentally in my head. Oh God.
I hadn’t thought it would be possible. I was too scared of caring, way too scared of losing, especially now, when losing him was such a real possibility. And no matter what, there was no way I could feel this strongly about Stellan. Because I used to date his ex–best friend. Because he wasn’t the kind of guy I should go for. Because while I was thinking about his tongue in my mouth, my mom died. Because we were supposed to be married. Because we were the end of the world.
Apparently none of that mattered.
All this time, I’d been telling him I was okay with him leaving me behind. That he should. And I was right. I glanced over at Anya again, the scars crossing her delicate face a testament to how hard a life she’d lived already. She didn’t deserve to be forced into the world of the Circle now.
I knew then that I couldn’t tell Stellan how I felt. Take care of each other. Take care of each other. It echoed in my head. It wasn’t like I thought he was in love with me, too, but I knew he did care about me. Anything I told him would just make him feel even more guilty about leaving when the time came. Better to let him believe I was happy with our temporary “hobby.”
My phone rang. I forced my attention back to the present. “Hi, Lydia,” I said, unsurprised.
“I have your blood.” I wasn’t sure whether I should be more worried or less at how calm she sounded. “Plenty of it.”
“The Circle knows what you did,” I countered, unable to keep the triumph out of my voice.
“And some of them even believe it,” Lydia said.
“We’ve won, Lydia,” Stellan cut in. “We’ll make the rest of the Circle believe us now that we have you on tape. They will no longer let you get away with this.” I hoped that was true.
“Hello, Avery’s fake husband—but maybe real boyfriend?” Lydia mused. “There has to be some reason you’d risk your life for his sister. Poor Jack. How does he feel about being relegated to third wheel?”