A/N: Sorry for skipping a week! I'm doing Camp NaNoWriMo, meaning I'm writing enough but not editing enough. Enjoy the second-longest-chapter to make up for it! Thanks for being patient with me~ (And AND EXTRA THANK YOU FOR REVIEWERS! *sobs*)
Despite there being only the four of them at the dinner table, dinner was a loud affair. Cinder wondered how long ago Scarlet and Wolf had people over because they seemed eager for the chance to talk their ears off. Cinder didn't mind; it meant she didn't have to talk herself. Kai, forever the outgoing diplomat, talked and laughed along with them. Cinder could tell he'd won their hearts over, and she became more and more relaxed as dinner went on.
Some of that may have had to do with the dinner itself. Since Scarlet was still taking a break from farm work, she'd decided to make a four-course dinner. There was no denying that she was an amazing chef—something she attributed to her grandmother.
"I actually considered opening a restaurant before," Scarlet said, between bites of some-dish-Cinder-couldn't-pronounce. "But I could never leave the farm. And besides, it's more rewarding eating the food with those you cook it for."
By the time Scarlet brought out a still-hot pecan pie and ice cream, Cinder was about ready to split her seams.
"Why don't we wait an hour before the pie?" Kai said, rubbing his stomach. Wolf patted him on the back—maybe a bit harder than he intended.
"Sure," Scarlet said. "Why don't we play something? I probably have some Uno cards around here somewhere."
Cinder couldn't pinpoint the moment she felt safe. It was somewhere between Scarlet and Kai, somewhere in the middle between dinner and dessert. It was somewhere in the soft corners of Wolf's laugh, somewhere in Scarlet's easy smile. It was somewhere in Kai's hand brushing her own, in casual meetings of eyes and the way he sighed whenever he lost.
She shouldn't feel safe, she knew. Whenever she thought of the hospital, it felt like bricks were pressing down on her chest, like she—couldn't—get—air—
But she wanted to pretend it didn't happen, that it was nothing more than a fever dream she'd woken from. She wanted to pretend the only reason they were at that house was because Scarlet was her friend, that they were there only to come, not to hide.
She couldn't ask Kai the same questions. But she could pick it up in him too—the relaxing of his shoulders, but there was still a stiffness, a tension. And he still winced when glanced at his leg, as if he forgot it was different. They felt safe. They did not feel complete.
The fifth time Cinder caught Kai wince, she tugged on his sleeve.
"Hey, are you okay?" Cinder whispered. "Does your leg hurt?"
Kai shrugged her off. "I'm okay. Just..." He shook his head. "It's hard to explain."
Scarlet yelled triumphantly as she placed her last card.
"I win! I think it's time for pie."
It was nearly midnight when Cinder remembered to ask for the Wifi password. The connection there was spotty and Cinder's phone had been almost dead, so she left it on the bedside table in the guest room. When she picked it up she saw the screen full of call notifications. Her stomach dropped.
Cress and Iko and a few other friends—the ones who knew she was in the hospital. And she hadn't responded. What would they think of her?
Iko picked up on the first ring.
"I'm really, really sorry," Cinder said, barely breathing. "But I'm unhurt." She head a muffled sob.
"You didn't call, or text, and you didn't come back to your apartment—" Iko breathed deeply. "I thought you were injured, or worse. I kept watching the reports, waiting for the name, for the phone call—"
"Iko," Cinder said. "Breathe. I'm okay. I'm really sorry. Please calm down."
"I'm—" Iko hiccuped. "I'm fine. I'm glad you're okay. But I'm still going to slap you."
"You're nine hours away," Cinder said. "How are you going to accomplish that?"
"Oh," Iko said. "I forgot to tell you. I'm in your apartment."
Cress wasn't sure when she'd started thinking about Thorne as a friend. She thought it was around when Cinder drove off to SoCal and Thorne had stayed over for the day, worrying. Cinder had never told her the exact details of their argument, but Cress was able to tell a little in the way he acted.
And then he started talking.
She thought back to her sitting on her bed, behind a computer screen, still waiting for Cinder to call. She'd been able to take her work in the apartment that day; depending on what her task was, sometimes she could work elsewhere. She normally preferred to work at her desk anyway, but she made an exception in the hopes Cinder would show up. Thorne was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, fiddling with some of the spare parts from the floor.
"Hey, Cress," he'd said. "Is it okay if I talk to you about something I've never really talked to anyone about before?"
Cress had paused in her typing. She didn't know what he was going to say. Her parents—if she could even call them that—had isolated her as a small child. She'd had to learn everything from a computer, and the only friends she'd made were online and in secret. Even after she escaped, even after she met Cinder and became more comfortable with other people, this whole opening up thing was still foreign to her. With Cinder, it had been natural. They'd had similar problems. And it'd been emotional and painful and sometimes hard to talk about, but they'd worked it out.
With Thorne, Cress really had no idea.
"I'll take your silence as a 'no,'" Thorne said, sighing. He dropped the gear back on the floor with a 'ping.' "It's okay. I know we don't know each other that well. Normally I'd tell Cinder but…um, clearly there's problems there."
Cress didn't know what to say. What did people say in these situations? But maybe she didn't need to speak; maybe she was just supposed to listen.
"It's okay," she squeaked. She cleared her throat and tried again. "It's okay, I can listen."
"Do you know kind of what's going on?" Thorne asked. "I don't know how much Cinder told you."
"Enough," Cress said. "But not a lot." She tried to focus back on her screen but found her eyes unable to focus. She took note of the time and accepted that she might need to work a little later to make up for it. She didn't know how long Thorne would talk.
"I don't really know where to start," Thorne said. "So I guess I'll start from the beginning. Cinder and I were friends since [something] grade. She'd been the new student without a lot of friends, so I sat next to her. And then she turned out to be sarcastic and fun to talk to, which I hadn't expected. Pretty soon I invited her to my lunch table. And then one weekend my parents were dragging me to a party and my friends all bailed on me, so I asked her to come. She did. From then on, we spent time together after school."
He picked up another gear, looping it around in his hands.
"There was this excitement for me. My friends before…well, they were fun to be around for parties, but they weren't the kind of people you stayed up late talking to or shared anything personal with, you know? If they thought you were having a problem, they'd give you space and avoid mentioning it. But right off the bat, at that party, Cinder and I just talked. I joked about my parents, but she got it. She could see how much I resented them, and while she joked back, I got the sense that if I wanted to really share with her, all I'd have to do was a say a word. I was curious about her too. I'd never been that curious about my other friends, or even girl- and boyfriends, but with her I wanted to know where she was from, who she was, why she was the way she was. She didn't tell me for a while. All I knew is that I couldn't come over.
"There was something so close about it. I started to drift away from my other friends. People talked about us in the halls, though I couldn't always catch what they were saying. I think she did, though. I couldn't understand why so many people—people who had respected me, spoke with me, liked me—would be so rude to her. Sure, her hair was always up in a ponytail, her clothing was wrinkled and little old, and she was stronger than most of the other girls in our grade, but she was Cinder."
Cress nodded. It all sounded about right; she'd felt similarly about Cinder, though she hadn't had a lot to compare to. In a way, Cinder was her first friend—the first one offline, at least. And for Thorne, she was his first real friend, it seemed.
"I learned about her home situation by accident. We'd known each other for about two years, and it was a weekend, so I was like, why don't I stop by her apartment and pick her up? I knew the general area she lived in so I drove where I thought she might be and parked, then called to tell her where I was. But I guess I guessed too right because a moment later Cinder was running out of the apartment with her hands over her head, defensive, and an older woman running after her. The woman stopped when she saw my car and retreated back into the apartment. Cinder looked up, eyes wide, clearly not expecting to see me there. There was a bruise on her forearm as if she'd tried to block something being thrown at her. I remember seeing tears. It was the first time I'd seen her cry."
He stopped talking and tossed the gear in the air. It toppled a small pile of screws when it landed, and he sighed as he watched them fall. Cress was frozen, tense, on the bed. She knew about Cinder's situation, but it still made her on edge whenever she heard about it. It was sometimes hard to connect people to their past, but with Thorne telling the story, it clicked. Hard.
"I was angry," he said. "The angriest I'd ever been. I didn't say anything when she got in the car. Just stepped on it and drove and drove and drove. I didn't know where we were going. Cinder didn't say anything, just looked out the window. I think she was shocked. I think she was a little scared, too. We ended up at a beach somewhere far away and we just silently walked down to the waves and through the surf. It was like we were communicating in the air. When did this start? A long time ago. Why didn't you tell me? I was too scared. Scared of what? Scared of what?
"You know the rest of that story. Sometimes she'd stay over when things were especially bad. She'd bring her sister on occasion, but Iko had other friends too. Iko's friends didn't know, though. They just thought Iko was impulsive, and they liked her for that.
"I guess I'm telling you this because I want you to understand that Cinder changed my life and that I've changed hers. She's the one I've been closest to. And I guess…I've just been so afraid that we'd fall out. That we'd just stop talking. Since moving to NorCal, we've had different lives. I'm actually…still not sure exactly what I feel for her. I'm not even sure if it's romantic. I think I just want to be with her. But I don't know if I want to be married to her, you know?"
The silence stretched until Cress realized he was waiting for her to answer.
"Have you told her that?" Cress asked.
Thorne groaned. "I've tried to, but she just won't listen to me. I phrased it pretty poorly the first time, and it's not something I can just undo. I can't just say, 'Hey, sorry, I didn't mean it that way' and suddenly everything will be okay. Like, I don't know enough about myself for that. I honestly don't know what I want. And I don't want to pressure her. But I miss her so much. I just…want to keep being her friend. But it's so hard when she just keeps running." He dragged a hand down his face. "Just thinking about it makes me want to scream."
"When she calls," Cress said, "do you want me to hand you the phone?"
"Yes," Thorne said. "If she lets me."
Cress blinked. She'd been zoning out, but the sound of Iko's phone ringing brought her back. Cress came back from work to find Iko in a stupor, sitting on Cinder's couch in a daze. That's when Cress learned about the shooting, and when she had to beat the urge to pick up her phone and call Thorne. It was his right to know too…but he was the one who had gone to another state, and if Cinder wanted to call him, Cress should leave that to her.
Iko started crying when she picked up the phone, but even as she sobbed, she was smiling. Cinder was okay. Cress leaned back against her bed with a sigh. It'd been a rough week. She just hoped that for a night, everything would be okay.
The night was quiet, but Cinder couldn't sleep. She was self-conscious sleeping in the same bed, and was very careful to not move a single limb, to not breathe too loudly, but every time she shut her eyes for too long the sounds of gunshots reverberated in her head. Kai was breathing evenly a couple feet away, but she wasn't sure he was asleep either.
In the living room, with the card games and the food and the laughter, she'd been able to postpone the confrontation. But in the dark without distractions, her brain finally took the wheel.
The voice had said "Selene," and then shooters had come after the two of them, even shot at her car. Though they'd tried to make the shooting seem random, Cinder had her doubts. And while Cinder had only seen them for short, broken seconds, she thought she'd seen a small flash of white on their breast pockets. What could've been a moon.
Which meant either Winter was right, or things were getting very, very weird.
Or, now that she thought about it, likely both.
Kai stirred next to her, and she decided to go for it.
"Kai," she whispered. "Are you awake?"
"Yeah," he said, voice muffled by the pillow. "Can't sleep?"
Cinder propped her head behind her hands and stared at the ceiling. The moonlight filtered through the curtains, masking everything in silver.
"I didn't expect to fall asleep, I guess," Cinder said. "But I'd had my hopes."
"Do you...um," Kai said. "I—"
"You have questions," Cinder said, then sighed. "Yeah. I wish I knew all the answers too. But I...I do think they were after me."
Kai rolled over to face her. She couldn't read his expression from the backlighting.
"You do?" Kai asked. "I thought...well, I guess I thought they were after me. I wanted to apologize."
Cinder tensed. "Why would they go after you?"
"Well, ah," Kai said. "Just because I'm the son of the CEO...I've never been really attacked before, but with how the business is going, it wouldn't be too crazy."
"You don't even have a bodyguard, Kai," Cinder deadpanned. "And not because you can't afford one."
"You're right, most of the time I don't," Kai said. "It was an agreement with my dad. He agreed that being followed everywhere wasn't the way to grow. So I learned self-defence. That's why I knew how to hotwire the car."
"Oh," Cinder said. "That makes sense."
"So...sorry, I guess."
"For getting us attacked."
Cinder laughed, then coughed.
"I wish that were true," Cinder said. "Maybe that would make things simpler."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I'm actually pretty sure they were after me."
"Why?" Kai pulled himself up so he was leaning against the wall. He looked down at her, head tilted. His hair was still sticking up at odd angles.
"Because it wasn't the first time it's happened," Cinder said. "And because I'm Selene."
Levana hated her plans going wrong. She didn't have a lot of experience with that. Now and then, a detail would be out of place, a small tweak—but failure?
It made her blood boil.
"What do you mean they escaped?" she said into the phone, voice flat and even. She never yelled, never raised her voice. But from years of running her company, she knew that was scarier.
Her voice sounded like she was going to burst. And she felt like it too.
She held the phone away from her mouth and breathed deeply, trying to regain composure. First Selene didn't die in the car crash because someone drove by and found her. And now she escaped a hospital, despite Kai being unable to walk or run, and neither of them being armed. Levana was supposed to have the element of surprise.
Was it not enough anymore?
"I'm sorry, my lady," Sybil said, voice somehow unaffected by Levana's rage. "They escaped through a back entrance and stole a car. But we are in the process of tracking their phones, so we should know their location soon. Then we will devise a new plan and finish this for good."
It wasn't the first time she'd heard that. The first time had been a month ago when she realized her first plot had failed. The one that she'd believed a success for nine whole years. The hatred boiled deep, and when she'd learned Selene was still alive, it took all of her self-control not to arm herself and go after Selene herself. She was supposed to be dead.
She was supposed to be dead.
"Thank you, Sybil," Levana said. "Proceed. Tell me of any updates."
"Yes, my lady."
"If you find their location, I am the first person you tell. Do you hear me?"
There was a pause. Sybil knew Levana well. She would know what Levana meant.
"Yes, my lady."
Levana hung up and savored the silence. This time they wouldn't fail.
Because this time she, Levana Blackburn, would end things herself.