Near To You

By Laura Schiller

Based on: Delirium/Pandemonium

Copyright: Lauren Oliver (story); A Fine Frenzy (song lyrics)

Lena's first impression of Alex was that he wasn't Alex anymore.

She didn't mind his new scars, or even his emaciated body. There wasn't much left of hers either, after months in the Wilds and weeks in captivity. What she did mind was the bitterness on his face, turning his sweet caramel eyes to the barrenness of scorched earth. Did your jailers do this to you? she might have asked, if she dared. Or did I?

He and I had something beautiful,
but so dysfunctional it couldn't last.
I loved him so, but I let him go
'cause I knew he'd never love me back.

The first time they were alone was a week after Julian's rescue. Raven, fed up with the tension among what should have been a united team, brusquely sent them off to fetch water together so they could talk things out in the privacy of the forest. They were halfway down the path, Lena's shorter legs straining to keep up with Alex's loping stride, when she finally broke the silence.

"So, what?" She dropped her empty buckets, stopped, and crossed her arms. "You're gonna pretend I don't exist now?"

He swung around. "Why not? You forgot me easily enough."

"Last I saw you, you got shot and surrounded by Regulators, remember! I thought you were dead!"

"And so you hooked up with Fineman's poster boy instead?"

A lifetime ago, she had found it easier to talk to him when she was angry. Now she fed her anger like a furnace, as the only thing that kept her from breaking down in tears.

"It wasn't like that, okay? I died too, that night! How can you begrudge me finding something to live for again, someone to take care of, the way you took care of me? It took me years not to go to bed praying I wouldn't wake up again – " And the tears came after all, to her shame and his bitter satisfaction.

"Don't exaggerate, Lena. Five hundred and forty-seven days. I counted the days 'til I could get back to you. And all the while, you were with him."

With one final damning look, he turned his back on her and walked away. She picked up her buckets, swallowed back her tears and trudged along, this time letting him get as far ahead as he wanted.

She had thought she knew what it was like to lose him – but not like this. It was a disgusting thought, but she might almost have preferred it if he really had been killed. At least then, her only memories would have been ones of love.

You don't think that, she told herself, watching Alex fade into the trees. You're grateful he survived. What would the world be like without him?

But on the other hand, what was the world like now that he had lost himself?

Such pain as this
shouldn't have to be experienced …
I'm still reeling from the loss,
still a little bit delirious, yeah …

"You still have a lot to learn about love, kid," said Hunter, putting a brotherly arm around Lena's shoulders after she had confided in him during the uproar of an after-hunting party. Between Raven's rousing speeches, Bram's guitar, Squirrel's makeshift drumming and the uproar of laughter and gossip, their quiet conversation is well shielded.

"Did you know Bram wasn't my first?"


Watching Hunter's gaze follow Bram across the room, taking such a gentle pride in his dark-haired lover, Lena found it impossible to imagine him with anyone else.

"People change," he said simply. "People grow. If we're lucky, we grow to fit around each other, soften each other's edges. But sometimes we grow apart instead. It's nobody's fault, but it can't be helped."

"It is my fault," Lena insisted. "I hurt him. I hurt them both."

"You were all caught up in a situation beyond your control. Don't blame yourself, Lena, all right? It won't help them, and it'll only hurt you more."

Near to you, I am healing,
but it's taking so long.
'Cause though he's gone and you are wonderful,
it's hard to move on.
Yet I'm better near to you …

She caught sight of Julian, his violet eyes huge with wonder at the sight of Raven slow-dancing with Tack. It was his first Invalid party and he was slightly tipsy from Lu's home brewed liquor, but even so, he had barely said a word to her. His silence was different from Alex's – awkward, wistful, but not angry. He was 'giving her space', he'd said, with a natural tact she hadn't expected in someone even newer to love than herself.

Unless it wasn't tact so much as self-deprecation. After all, hadn't he grown up believing himself worthless? Her heart ached for him; she felt like marching across the room and leading him onto the improvised dancefloor just to hold him close. But was it love, pity or simply confusion? How could she sort out how she really felt?

"Please tell me how I can fix this," she said, leaning on her friend as the only anchor she could rely on.

"I'm sorry," he replied. "But you'll have to figure that out yourself. All I can tell you is what Raven told me – don't decide anything until you knowit's right. Not just in your head, but in your heart."

You and I have something different
And I'm enjoying it – cautiously.
I'm battle scarred, I am working oh so hard
to get back to who I used to be.

Sometimes, especially at night, Lena missed her old self with breathtaking ferocity. She missed being the girl who had lain on a picnic blanket at 37 Brooks with her head on Alex's shoulder, watching the stars through the broken roof, basking in his steady warmth and playful affection. That had been her happiest time, but she could never go back. She had lived through knife fights, deadly winters and betrayal. She had killed a man. She would never be that innocent girl again.

But if becoming a warrior was what it took to save Julian's life, she did not regret it. And as long as she didn't allow her new strength to bury her old compassion, she never would regret it.

"Oh, come here," said Julian, scooping her up in his arms after she twisted her ankle during a hunting expedition. "Don't even pretend that doesn't hurt."

"What happened to giving me space?" she teased, making him blush underneath his new sunburn.

"Your health is more important."

"You're a natural doctor, aren't you?" she said, only half-joking, leaning into his chest with profound relief at being on friendly terms again.

Alex watched them from the corner of his eye, but looked away as soon as she noticed him. For once, however, he did not seem angry; instead he looked embarrassed, as if he were intruding, followed by a long, thoughtful silence in which he stole several more glances when he thought Lena and Julian were not looking.

He's disappearing, fading steadily.
When I'm so close to being yours,
won't you stay with me? … Please?

"Where's Alex?" Lena asked Raven, sotto voce, the day he did not appear at breakfast.

"New mission on the other side. Don't ask. It's classified."

"I wasn't going to."

"He left a message for you." Raven's sharp brown eyes softened, ever so slightly, with sympathy. "He said to tell you … you were right."

"About what?"

She thought back to their fight among the trees. I died too, that night! she had shouted at him. People change, Hunter had told her a few nights later. Was that what Alex had meant?

Perhaps it was. Perhaps the old Lena and Alex, the lovers they had been, really had died among the gunfire by that border fence.

"He also said," Raven added cautiously, "That he's forgiven you, and he hopes you'll be happy."

Lena shed tears into her porridge that morning, but they left her calmer than she'd felt for weeks. Happiness was an absurd thing for one Invalid to wish another, considering the constant danger they lived with; but it was also the perfect thing, because it was a hint – just the smallest hint – that Alex's sweet nature had not been lost after all.

If she was honest with herself, it wasn't really Alex she missed now. She barely even knew him, and neither did he know her. The boy she had loved was nothing but a memory … but why hold on to a memory when reality was right before her eyes?

Hunter was right; she did have a lot to learn. There were so many different forms of love, she might spend a lifetime studying and never learn them all. If loving Alex had been her autumn, a fleeting golden time withered by frost, loving Julian was her spring – the tentative joy of the first flowers, the quiet hope of renewal.

There he sat, nodding to her across the table, sympathy in his eyes for what he knew she must be thinking. Ever since the tunnels, they had spoken without words like this.

I'm okay, her own eyes replied. Thank you.

'Cause near to you, I am healing,
but it's taking so long.
'Cause though he's gone and you are wonderful,
it's hard to move on.
Yet I'm better near to you …
Yeah, I'm better near to you …