Summary: Skin grows back and wounds heal, but freedom only comes once. In a world confined by the effects of war, freedom is an illusion created by those with power. When the chance to escape is close enough to touch, how much would you give to reach it?

Warnings and Disclaimer: Includes brief scenes of physical violence.

Written for the second Season of Our Discontent contest, where it got a Judge's Honourable Mention. If you want to check out some of the other entries - which you should, because there are some amazing ones in there - just go here: www. fanfiction u/ 3142288/ Season-of-Our-Discontent

The Dust

The pressure of his fingers increases. I don't need the warning, but I know he can't help himself.

I hold my breath, rock and sand grating against my lips. My back screams in protest, my legs burn with the strain, but I do nothing. I don't move. Gravel digs into my knees and ribs, but I welcome the pain. I'll get relief when we're safe.

His fingers push deeper into my shoulder. We barely have space to breathe, limbs twisted and tangled around each other so tightly that he could snap my wrist if he shifted the wrong way. He is everywhere against me, but the pressure of his fingertips is somehow the only thing I feel.

Our hearts are racing, every beat of his filling the spaces between mine. My lungs crawl with the need for air. I slowly breathe in, the dry smell of rock scraping against my teeth, against my tongue. It tastes like blood.

We both hear them at the same time. They're quiet, but not quiet enough. Gravel under boots is unforgiving, and I close my eyes as I try to count their numbers.

It's impossible to tell for sure, but there must be at least five of them. As they come closer, I hear their mumbled conversations. Talking is good. This kind of talking – subdued, but unhurried – is even more so. If they knew we were here, they'd either not speak at all, or speak in the too-loud, too-normal way, the way that is meant to lull us with its false security.

But I still fight the urge to relax. We can never relax out here. It's never completely safe.

I wish we could stop our hearts, make them silent. I don't even blink in case it makes a sound, but our hearts beat like drums, loud and unmistakeable. If it were bright enough to see, I know I could watch Edward's throat pulse with it, skin trembling over his veins.

But it's dark. I can't see anything. The sun set an hour ago, and the moon hasn't risen far enough yet. There's no light for the Dust to reflect, and even if there was, it couldn't reach us in here. We've pushed as far into the cave as we can, scraping the skin off our backs to do so. It doesn't matter. Skin grows back and wounds heal, but freedom only comes once, and we're not about to let it slip away from us.

We wait, listening closely. My arms are shaking as the group finally passes by our hiding place. I don't know how much longer I can hold still like this.

"… said we weren't getting the new one until next year. They're focusing on getting them to the Northern groups first. Can you believe that shit?"

Someone makes a noise of disgust.

"What did you expect? Those assholes, sitting there in the office, they think they know what it's like out here. They read their little reports and think they're fucking experts. They've never even been within a mile of the Wall! Of course they're going to send them to the Northern groups first. It's where they think they're needed most, just because it has the biggest…"

The man continues his tirade, but as the group walks past, his words become lost. Their footsteps slowly recede until the night is deathly silent. We stay where we are for a long while, just to make sure they're really gone.

With some effort, I turn my head towards the opening. It was too dark to see it before, but now there's a weak shimmer crawling across the sand.

"The moon's up," I breathe, too quietly to be a whisper. I feel him nod, his fingers relaxing slightly against my skin.

"You think it's safe?"

"I don't know. It didn't sound like they knew we were here."

"Yeah, I think we're good."

He shifts underneath me, pressing me up against the rock. I hiss as the jagged edge cuts deeper into my neck.

"We can't stay here," I whisper. "I can't even feel my legs anymore."

He snorts. "I can't feel anything."

Somehow I manage a quiet laugh, even though I barely have room to breathe.

"I'll go first," I say, already trying to move off him. I grit my teeth as the rock scrapes against my back, but I don't stop. Fingers dig into the dirt as I drag myself sideways. I'm squeezed so tight between him and the rock above me that for a second, I worry that I'm stuck. Every joint screams as I twist and push them, finally moving after so long.

I feel Edward giving me a hand, pushing on my hip. I try harder, using all the strength I have. With a final grunt, I slip off him, landing on my side in the dirt. Blood rushes back into my legs, pins and needles stabbing through them.

I move carefully, trying not to make a sound. I can't crawl, because there's just no space. So inch by inch I pull myself across the dirt, ignoring the gravel that litter the ground. By the time I reach the opening, I'm panting lightly.

I stop about a foot away, peering out into the shimmer. The Dust doesn't start for another few miles, but that hardly matters. The fractured light reaches all the way to Central – distance has no meaning.

The Dust forms a perfect ring around us, just over 200 miles in diameter. No one knows what it consists of. You can stand there, right in front of it, a glittering wall the colour of golden sand reaching so far up into the sky that you can't see the end of it, and be completely powerless.

It moves slowly, like silt following a gentle current through a river, reflecting any light it finds in swirls and eddies. It looks like finely shattered glass in constant weightless suspension, governed by something we can't see or touch.

Some kind of electromagnetic field keeps it together, they tell us. Outside of the field, Dust doesn't exist. You can reach in and fill a vial full, closing it tight, but as soon as you remove it, the Dust just dissolves into nothing, right there in the vial. Completely immeasurable.

But they still say it's dangerous. The most dangerous thing there is. It's hammered into our heads from the moment we take our first breath.

The Dust is dangerous, children. The Dust is poison. It slips into your body through the air in your lungs, the pores in your skin. It contaminates you. It breaks you open and changes who you are. What you are. It scrambles your DNA, children – it deforms you, it gives you diseases. And when you have children, it makes them sick, too.

You don't want that, do you, children? That's why we stay here. That's why we protect ourselves, why We protect you from harm.

Because the Dust is death, children, and We keep you alive. Aren't you thankful?

For most of my life, I was.

The Dust keeps us trapped here. No one knows how far it stretches, so no one tries to leave. Maybe it goes on forever. Maybe there's nothing on the outside. Maybe we're all that's left.

The thought always makes me feel cold. I don't want to believe we're all that's left. There has to be something on the other side. There has to be. Siobhan said there was. That's what she told us. That someone from the outside came through.

I cling to that with everything I have. I need it to be true. Edward and I both need it to be.

We have to get out.

I move closer to the opening. The night is completely silent. I can't smell anything but sand.

He wraps a hand around my ankle, gently asking.

"I think we're safe," I tell him. "I'm going out."

"You have your knife?"


I always have my knife. He still asks me, every time. Just to make sure I'm safe.

"I'll be right behind you," he says as I slowly move forward.

I hold my breath as I grasp the edges of the rock and push with my feet. It takes a while, and with the threat of the nearby soldiers, I try to be as quiet as possible.

When I'm finally on my feet again, I immediately turn, ears alert for any noise. Edward tosses our bag out before his hands emerge; I bend down and pull, helping him free.

He straightens, eyes on me. One hand cups my cheek, the other runs down my arm.

"You okay?"

"I'm fine," I say, squeezing his wrist. "You?"

"Never better. Come on, we better move. Being out here makes me nervous."

I look at the road behind me, the forest to our right. We almost ran in there when we saw the soldiers on the hill below us, but there were too many dead leaves on the ground, and too many naked branches – nothing to hide behind, and impossible to navigate quietly. Out of options, we took a chance with the cave, which looks like nothing more than a crack in the mountain.

I swallow, mouth turning dry. There's no other place to hide expect the woods. We're headed east, to where Siobhan said someone from the outside came through, unharmed. This road has been abandoned for years; it leads straight through nothing, too close to the Dust for comfort. New roads were built for the soldiers to use decades ago. We thought we'd be safe here, but the surprise visit proved otherwise.

If we go into the woods, we might lose our way. We'll be closer to the main routes the soldiers use, and it'll be easier for them to track us if we're seen. But we can't stay on this road. They didn't see us tonight, but there could be others behind them and we might not be as lucky next time.

It's too risky.

I stare in among the trees. All I see are the open spaces between the trunks, the pockets of clear ground where nothing grows. No shelter, no place to hide.

Edward sighs beside me, low and apprehensive. "I don't like it either."

Without turning away from the woods, I reach for his hand. The warmth of his palm against mine stills some of my nerves. He squeezes tightly, holding on.

"We'll be fine," I say. I don't fool either one of us. "We're almost at Riverend. Going through the forest will only take a few more days. We'll be fine."

"Right." He bends down and grabs our bag, still firmly holding my hand. "Let's get moving, then."

Edward's arm is heavy around my waist, his breaths slow and steady against my neck. I lie awake, watching the slow shimmer breaking through the branches above us.

I wonder what it's like on the outside, where the world around you isn't constantly gleaming. It's going to be interesting to find out, once we escape.

Sometimes I wonder if we'll be able to survive out there. We were both born in Central, long after the Dust trapped our great-grandparents here, isolated them and forced their society to evolve without outside influences. This is all we know. This is the world that shaped us. What if we come out on the other side only to find that the rest of the world evolved in an entirely different direction?

Edward twitches behind me, pulling me away from my thoughts. I wait to see if he wakes up, but his breathing continues without a hitch, slow and steady in sleep. I let my own breathing fall into place with his.

It's so easy for my thoughts to spread and grow during the night; he can fall asleep practically anywhere, but I have a harder time finding that kind of peace. So I lie awake, mind jumping restlessly, like a bird from one branch to the next.

We're so close now. For three years we've roamed Wasteland, always hiding, always running from one village to the next. And now we're almost at Riverend, where rumour has it more and more people are venturing through the Dust.

We're so close I can taste it, I can feel it on my skin, the freedom, the life we can have away from all this. But with that comes the fear of the unknown, the worry I can't help but feel. Every night, I stay awake far longer than I should, worrying, worrying, endless circles in my mind, outlining everything that could go wrong.

All I want is a life with Edward, away from all the memories that haunt us. I want it more than anything, and I'm terrified of losing it.

Edward is my lifeline, just as I am his. Ever since I first met him, he's been mine. I wouldn't be able to do any of this without him.

We met in training. Even as a child, I knew I wanted to join the force. I wanted to be a soldier, just like Charlie. I wanted to protect Central, and its people. As soon as I graduated, I was applying for training. They took me in within a month.

Edward was there, during my first day. I sat behind him during the initial briefing, where Sergeant Haines told us what to expect. Most of us would fail, he'd said. Most of us wouldn't be able to handle the first two weeks, specifically designed to shake out the weak. The force had no use of weaklings.

"You're here to protect the health and wellbeing of this city," he'd said, back straight and proud as he stared us down. "You are here to become soldiers. If you are successful, you will leave with all the knowledge and skill required in the most noble work our great city can provide."

It had been very inspiring. Soldiers were revered in Central - they were the ones who kept us all safe, who made sure the Wall stayed intact. The Wall separates Central from Wasteland, but it's really more of a dome, arching high above the city.

Dust travels through the air, they'd determined. Every cloud that passed through from the outside was inevitably drenched in Dust, coming down with the rain above us. So they built the domed roof, they built the air-purifying systems, the greenhouses twenty feet above ground with the protected crops and farmlands, the systems that cleaned our water. They built everything Central would need to sustain its people, without ever having to expose itself to the contaminated world outside the Wall.

Before all this, the world had been falling apart, ripped to pieces by never-ending war. Weapons unlike anything humanity had ever seen were used with no regards for the consequences.

One of those consequences had been the Dust. They could only guess what had caused it, but the theory was that our area had been hit by nuclear and chemical weapons, all at once. One minute everyone had been hiding in their bunkers, hearing the bombs whistling through the air above them, and the next, everything changed. The blast was so powerful it sent shockwaves deep into the ground. All the books described it as a sound so deep you couldn't hear it - you felt it, like a physical wall crashing through you.

After that, everything was silent. The sounds of war were gone, and Central was alone, surrounded by something no one could understand, or break through. There was no contact with the outside world.

Then people started getting sick. Panic spread like fire, and the terrified people of Central cried out for someone to save them. Work on the dome began immediately, because the Dust had to be responsible.

But not everyone had agreed. They didn't like the idea of being trapped inside the dome, led by people who'd taken power, not been chosen for it. There was no evidence that the Dust was to blame, they said. These people chose to leave the safety of Central, spreading through Wasteland and making their own settlements.

Years passed, and Central thrived. They had food, clean water and air, and their people were healthy. Out of nowhere, they had suddenly been attacked – crazed and deformed, the Wasteland dwellers had rushed the Wall, trying to break in to steal Central's food and water. The Dust contaminated their crops, made them sick, made their children sick, and they were desperate for the supplies Central had.

In school, this was fact. This was our history, and every child would sit and listen, enraptured as our teacher told of the reluctant violence the leaders of Central had to direct at the attackers.

"It was to keep us safe. They did what they had to do," she would say, and everyone would nod. Of course they did. They saved us, of course.

After the attack, the force was started – the leaders insisted that soldiers were necessary to keep Central safe, and much time and energy was spent building the movement.

A separate enclosure was built, a few miles away from Central. Base One, they called it. It was designed to take us away from our families and everything we were used to in the city, which would encourage us to bond with our fellow trainees.

My first day at Base One had been completely different from anything I'd ever imagined. Mostly because of Edward. From the moment he'd sat down in front of me during the briefing, my eyes kept flitting back to him. I could barely pay attention to anything else.

This continued throughout the day. Everywhere I went across the grounds, I saw him; walking with a few guys, talking, laughing, taking everything in. I'd looked forward to this day my entire life, and now that it was here, all I could see was him.

We were introduced during dinner that night. I sat across from him at the table, and every time he looked at me, it felt like my heart jumped in my chest.

The girls teased me for how pink my cheeks were when we left for our barrack that night, but I didn't care. I'd made Edward laugh, more than once. I was practically invincible.

That hadn't lasted long. Our second day had been brutal - training started without apology, and more than one person fell asleep at the dinner table. Mooning over Edward's pretty hair took a backseat to the pain in every single muscle I had.

The third day started with Sergeant Haines telling us that five of our fellow trainees had left already. No one had been surprised.

I breathe deeply, almost feeling the phantom burn in my lungs as I remember that day. We weren't allowed to walk anywhere - we had to run, no matter how far we were going, or what we were carrying.

That was the first time Edward had touched me. During a short break, I'd collapsed on the ground. He'd sat down next to me, sweat glistening on his face. He wordlessly offered me his water bottle, and as I drank, I just kept thinking, 'We're basically kissing right now.'

He'd given me his hand to help me up. His fingers lingered in mine, and he looked into my eyes before he turned away.

It was in that moment that I knew I could fall in love with him, given some time.

As carefully as I can, I turn in his arms, needing to see his face. The blue shimmers dance across his skin, casting shadows under the sharp cut of his jaw. He hasn't shaved in days, and the light catches his stubble.

He's so beautiful to me. I stare at him, every line of his face smooth as he sleeps. The way I love him... I can't put it into words. I can only feel, and my chest, my heart, they're not big enough for this. It swells inside me, pushing and shrinking, all at once, and in quiet moments like these, I can't even breathe if I acknowledge it.

He's saved me in so many ways, and I don't think he even realises half of them.

By the time we moved on from the first two weeks of training, he was in my mind, constantly. I just wanted to be near him, see him and talk to him. We were both transferred to the Western front for further training and I couldn't have been happier.

We grew closer, always somehow aware of where the other was. He'd come find me at unexpected times, just showing up beside me with a secret grin on his face. He helped me with gun training, I helped him with tracking. Every day that passed had me liking him more and more, until my crush was more than that, until I didn't feel completely right unless he was with me.

One night, about three months after we'd arrived at the Western front camp, I took a walk after dinner. The moon hid behind thick clouds, and the shimmer was so faint I could barely see it. I walked all the way to the edge of the camp, until my boots hit the wall around us. I craned my neck back, and I could only just see where steel and concrete ended, and the dome began.

Suddenly, I desperately wanted to be on the other side.

A twig snapped behind me. I jumped, turning around with adrenaline zipping through my heart. Edward was there, hands in his pockets, eyes on me.

"Oh. Hey," I said, clearing my throat. "You scared me."

"Sorry. I thought it was time I let you know I was here. I've been following you for the last ten minutes."

His lips twitched. Logically, I knew I should be annoyed that he'd followed me for that long, but logic was the last thing I wanted to listen to.

"You followed me?"

He shrugged, turning his eyes to the ground as he slowly walked over. Excitement tickled the bottom of my ribs the closer he got.

"Yeah. I saw you leave Hall and walk in the opposite direction of the barracks. As did most of the other guys."

He looked up at me then, only a yard away now.

I looked at him pointedly. "And what? You were worried someone would follow me?"

He just laughed. "Maybe."

"I can take care of myself, you know."

"Oh, I know. I still have a bruise on my shin from combat-training with you last month."

"Shut up, you do not."

"I do," he chuckled, insistent. "Here, see?"

He bent down and tugged the leg of his pants up. I leaned over and squinted in the dim light.

"I don't see it."

"Well, it's there. And it's really painful."


He dropped the leg and shook his head at me.

"I'm trying to compliment you."

"Are you?"

"Yeah. And no, I didn't really follow you because I was worried."

I straightened up slowly. He did the same. I almost thought he'd step closer, but he stayed where he was.

"Then why?"

He stared at me. I wished I could see him better.

"Maybe I wanted to be alone with you. For once."

My lips parted without any words to form around. My mind had no response. Was he—

He stepped closer. My neutral facade trembled as I looked up at him, so close that I could reach out and touch him if I wanted to. There was a tiny line between his eyebrows, and I'd never had anyone study my face so intently before.

"If that is what I wanted..." he said, voice low and just for me, "what would you say?"

My heart seemed to stutter. My gaze fell to his chest, where I was suddenly desperate to place my hand. My arm twitched by my side.

"I'd say that we're alone now." The words sounded thin and hoarse. My throat was dry.

He moved closer still, and when I looked up, he had his eyes on the ground between us.

"If you'd seen me leave Hall tonight, walking off alone... would you have followed me?"

I swallowed, so nervous about what seemed to be happening.

"I would've wanted to," I told him honestly. He glanced up, eyes trapping mine. After a few seconds, he nodded slowly.

His shirt hung open. I took a deep breath and raised my shaking hand. Barely touching him, I ran it down his chest, the edge of his shirt between my fingers. I stopped at a button, tracing it with a blunt nail. Time seemed to stop as I focused on it. All I could hear was the hitch in his breathing. I slowly pulled it closer. He followed my feather light touch, trapping my hand between us.

My cheeks were warm by the time he traced the back of his finger down my skin.

Immediately, I knew that was the last first kiss I'd ever have.

We ended up against the wall, ignoring our need to breathe and always pressing closer, pulling tighter. The taste of him was unlike anything I'd ever known, and I couldn't get enough. He was almost frantic as he pushed his hand under my jacket, warm palm against my skin.

If we hadn't been caught, I don't even know how much farther we might've gone that night. A guard found us and brought us to the colonel. Fraternising wasn't against the rules, but it was frowned upon. It was only after we promised not to be obvious about our relationship that the colonel at least stopped threatening to send Edward to the Northern front.

The months passed. Edward and I moved on from training and were finally full-fledged soldiers, ready and able to defend our city. We kept our relationship quiet. We barely touched at all, and it drove me insane, but I knew it was necessary. As long as we were both on duty we needed to be low-key.

I can still remember our first mission outside the protected walls. Before we could leave we had to sit through a three-hour Health and Safety lecture, as well as a class on how to properly use the safety suits.

Every inch of us was covered in air-tight and light-weight gear. Our oxygen tanks would last up to two days, but it was unlikely that we'd use up even a tenth of it during an outside mission before recharging in a safe location. We were not allowed to remove any piece of safety equipment unless our lives literally depended on it.

Even then, most people might choose to die rather than expose themselves to the Dust. No one wanted to get sick.

Our first mission wasn't anything exciting. Just a standard scouting – travel around the perimeter, look for any signs of Outsiders, and report back. This was what most missions would be like.

It was only then, as we drove out of camp, that it hit me, for the very first time – what were we even doing?

I'd stared blankly through the window of the truck, watching the sand swirling up as we drove past.

What were we trying to protect people from? There hadn't been an attack on Central for years. I hadn't heard of a single instance when Outsiders had tried to break through the Wall.

Why were we even here?

This thought began to haunt me. I'd lie awake at night, wondering what I was actually doing. Why had I learned how to shoot a gun? Why had I learned how to fight, how to incapacitate, how to kill? Where was this threat?

There was always talk of the Northern front, of Outsiders being particularly aggressive there. A higher number of them, they said. Garrett had been at the Northern Front before he came to us. He said he'd never even seen an Outsider.

I didn't want to be suspicious. The force was my dream. I'd wanted to be a part of it for as long as I could remember, but now that I was here, I could feel little seeds of doubt burrowing into me. Everything I'd ever been told suddenly seemed a little too convenient.

I'd stare up at the dome, the high glass ceiling meant to protect us from contamination. Was it even necessary? Was the Dust even dangerous? Apart from at the beginning, no one had actually become ill from exposure. They of course said it was because everyone was protected now, but suddenly, I wasn't so sure anymore.

I'd shared my thoughts with Edward one night, a whispered conversation far from curious eyes and ears. At first he hadn't said anything, but just as I began to truly panic over his reaction, he'd slowly told me his own theories and questions. It had been an immense relief, to hear that he thought the same thing I did – something wasn't quite right about the world we'd grown up in.

Everything had come to its head during a mission. Unexpectedly, we'd stumbled upon a settlement of Outsiders. We weren't prepared for it, but we were given orders to attack anyway.

I'd felt shock, more than anything, as the order came in. Attack? Attack what? From what we could see at our observation point, there were less than ten individuals living there. They didn't seem to be doing anything.

I'd gripped Edward's arm tightly when the children came running out of the house. A little boy chased a girl, who screamed and laughed, clutching a toy in her hand.

Cold sweat broke out on my neck. We were going to attack children?

Edward's voice in my ear had made things even worse. He sounded confused as he told me that they looked... healthy. All of them looked healthy. These were the Outsiders, the dwellers of the Dust who were so riddled with diseases and disabilities that they looked more like monsters than humans?

My eyes wandered over their home. They had crops. They had chickens and goats. They had food. We'd been told all our life that nothing could grow out here without being contaminated, without making you sick. So how could these people survive? How could they wander around, breathe the air, use the land, raise their children?

Before I could even start dealing with the shock of it all, whispered orders were being thrown left and right. Weapons were gathered, soldiers were posted at various points around the settlement.

An ambush. We weren't supposed to give them time to defend themselves.

"Let's put these poor creatures out of their misery," our captain had told us.

What misery?

The question was still echoing through my mind when the first wave broke out from the trees. Before the Outsiders could even react, shots were fired and two of them fell to the ground.

I couldn't move. I just watched from my position as the Outsiders screamed, running for cover inside the house. It was an old cottage, barely standing it seemed like. Ten yards from my hiding place, a tire-swing hung from a tree. The girl's toy lay on the ground beneath it, abandoned in the nightmare that none of them had seen coming.

I was in the second wave. My motions were robotic as I ran across the grounds, gun held out more because I knew it was expected of me, rather than because I wanted to use it.

I didn't want to use it. I wanted to throw it on the ground, run away, and never, ever come back.

The Outsiders began to answer our fire. They shot at us from inside the house, rifles sticking out from the windows.

None of it seemed real until a bullet struck the dirt in front of me. I saw the earth exploding at the impact, and my heart stopped in my chest.

This was real. Like it or not, this was real. And I'd almost been shot.

I gripped my gun tighter, ducking to the right to avoid another round.

Our soldiers had reached the house now, and they quickly overwhelmed the people inside. They were all dragged out, even the children, shouting and screaming in anger and fear.

I didn't move fast enough.

The same second that I saw the man aiming at me, a deafening sound could be heard above everything else, and I knew in that same instance that the noise was meant for me.

Burning pain ripped through my shoulder. I dropped my gun, knees hitting the ground as I looked down.

Blood pumped from the wound, flowing, flowing, out through my suit, drenching the fabric, dripping into the dust. My vision turned blurry around the edges. All I could feel was the pain. I didn't know if I'd screamed, or if I was too shocked.

I'd been shot.

Red, red, wet and glistening, red blood, and pain that burned through me. I felt sick, I felt like I couldn't move, I felt like I'd never be able to move again because the pain would never stop.

The man who shot me was suddenly there, knife gleaming in the sunlight. I stared up at him, trying to see through the white edge around my vision.

His eyes were mad. Insane with rage and fear, pain at the loss he'd had to stand because we didn't leave them alone.

I wanted to apologise. I wanted to tell him that I was just as angry as he was.

What were we even doing?

Before I could react, he gripped my injured arm. Now I did hear my scream, black dots dancing as the pain doubled. I couldn't breathe.

And then I really couldn't breathe. With a jerk, he sliced through my oxygen tube, cutting off my air. He dropped me on the ground, staring down at me as I began to suffocate. His eyes held no compassion.

I clawed at my suit, fingers frantic as I tried to find the release on my headgear. It was pure panic and instinct – I didn't want to die. Exposing myself to the Dust wasn't even a concern. It never crossed my mind.

I gasped desperately for air, pulling at everything I could find. My hearing dimmed, my lungs burned, blood pounding through my head, but still there was no air. My panic clouded my reactions. I knew how to release myself, but even with my life depending on it, I couldn't do anything but scramble and claw.

The last thing I saw was Edward's face, suddenly hovering above mine, fear and despair clear on his features.

I woke up in Central. I'd been brought to the hospital to treat my injuries. I'd been confused at first, because the army-base was much closer than Central, and more than capable of treating a simple bullet wound.

The doctor who came in to check on me had seemed bemused. Then he chuckled.

"But you were exposed." He waited for a moment, and upon seeing my confusion, slowly explained, as if speaking to a child. "To the Dust. Your headgear was taken off."

I struggled to remember. Did Edward do that? He'd been there, right before everything… He was the last thing I could remember.

He must've. He saved me.

"Contaminations are always brought back to Central. Surely your superiors told you this."

I nodded robotically, only half paying attention to him now. Edward had saved my life.

Where was he? Was he here?

"Is…" I said, and the doctor looked up from my chart. "Is there anyone… here? For me?"

He shrugged.

I tried to ignore the slight ache in my heart by focusing on my physical well-being. I took note of all the aches and pains I could feel. My shoulder was an obvious one, as was my head. My throat was sore, too, but that was probably from sleeping for so long.

What wasn't so obvious was the dull ache in my lower abdomen. I carefully put a hand between my hip bones.

Padding. Bandages.

Cold sweat broke out on my skin. Why was…

My heart thrummed in my chest, sickening, dread, understanding and refusal churning through me, into my blood. I knew, but I didn't know. I realised, but I didn't understand.

My voice was a dry crackle as I spoke once more.

"What… what did you do to me?"

The doctor pushed his glasses up his nose.

"Well, we treated your bullet wound, of course. A quick procedure, as these things go. You had to have a blood-transplant, especially since the bullet was still inside you. The contamination-risk was very high, but we're fairly certain you're in the clear now."

I could barely breathe. Thin sips of air found their way into my lungs. I stared at him.

"What else?"

He looked down at the chart, checking. He was being so cavalier, as if I was asking about the weather.

"Not much else that I can see. We're just keeping you here for observation at this point."

I pressed down on my tender flesh, body contracting from the pain. Not much else?

"So why… why do I—…?" I gestured at my hand, at the bandages across my skin, hidden beneath my gown.

He looked at me as if the answer should be obvious. With a small smile, he answered. With his answer, he destroyed me.

"Well, we sterilised you, of course. You were exposed, remember? It's standard procedure. Any child you bore would've been sick. You wouldn't want that, would you?"

His smile widened. A kind expression in any other situation.

All I could see was a man who'd stolen my future family from me. All with a smile on his face.

I responded by vomiting on his shoes.

The grief took over, suddenly, like a tidal wave out of nowhere. I'd been young still, and only ever thought of having children in an abstract kind of way. Now it was real.

Now it was too real, and it was gone. Everything. Gone.

I sobbed. I screamed, screamed in rage and grief over the children I'd never have, over the children that were ripped from me while I wasn't even awake to fight for them.

I screamed for Edward, demanding that they bring him to me. They tied me down to the bed, pushed drugs into my veins until I stopped screaming, stopped struggling.

I slipped under with a furious cry dying in my throat. The drugs weighed me down, even in my sleep. I dreamed of the Outsider children, but with auburn hair like Edward's, and brown eyes like mine. Running, first in play, and then in fear. Running away from me, into a darkness where I couldn't follow, my limbs like lead.

I woke up with Edward by my side. He was holding my hand, face pale and tired. Had he slept at all?

We watched each other in silence. He was here. Relief shuddered through me, mixing in with the grief until I didn't know what I was feeling.

His fingers traced down my cheek. Wordlessly, he crawled into the bed with me, holding me tight as I began to cry.

He waited until my tears ran dry before he finally spoke.

"You're it for me," he murmured into my hair. "You're the only one I'll ever want. That hasn't changed. It never will." He stopped, pulling me closer, struggling to gain control. His voice was nothing but a hoarse whisper when he spoke again. "And I'll never forgive them for taking our children from us."

Unspeakable pain swept me away, pulling me under into a sea of darkness, where the grief pressed down on me like a grave. Ourchildren. Not just mine. Ours.

I felt their loss as if I'd carried them within myself, as if I'd gone through birth with them, as if I'd raised them, loved them, taken care of them. I felt their loss as if they'd been real, and I'd been forced to watch someone slit their throats right in front of me, keeping me powerless to save them.

We couldn't stay. We couldn't continue to live in the society that had done this to us.

A month after I was released from the hospital, we escaped. We knew the patrols the force took around the area, and were able to avoid detection. Our year as soldiers served us well, the skills we'd learned helping us survive.

We weren't afraid of the Dust anymore. We knew now that it wasn't dangerous. All the Outsiders were healthy. Everything we'd been taught in Central had been lies, designed to keep us under control.

We wouldn't be controlled any longer.

Now we run our own lives.

I blink rapidly, brushing the memories away. I still sometimes dream of those Outsider children, hair glinting red in the sun, but it's less and less often now. I've had three years to accept what happened to me. It's easier now.

Edward mumbles something in his sleep, and I watch as his eyes move under closed lids.

Some days it just overwhelms me that he's still here. That he didn't leave when he found out what they'd done to me. He could've walked away, tried his luck with someone capable of making him a father.

But he stayed. Even then he knew that this was it, for both of us.

"You're it for me," he still tells me. "You're the only one I'll ever want. That will never change."

I carefully raise my hand and trace his lip, his nose, across his brow. The hair on his jaw is whisper-soft under my fingers.

He's all I have. The only thing left in my life that even means anything anymore.

My fingers grow bolder, running through his hair now, needing to touch him. I move closer, pressing myself against his body, breathing him in. My need for him grips me suddenly, without warning, and it becomes all I can think about.

We haven't been with each other for days, almost weeks, always too worried about soldiers finding us. We don't even take our shoes off to sleep, in fear that we'll have to run in the middle of the night.

Those days without having him so close, without feeling that deep connection, suddenly seem like forever.

I toe off my shoes, kick off my pants. My squirming wakes him up. I hear his inhale, feel his arm tightening around my waist. I look up just in time to see his right eye squinting open.

Before he can say a word, I reach up and kiss him. He jolts with the shock, lips unmoving under mine. When he pulls away, I kiss a line down his jaw, nipping at the skin of his neck.

He makes a sound somewhere between confusion and lust.

"Bella? Wha—…"

I take his hand and place it on my bare leg. It takes a second, but then he groans, low and deep, voice still rough from sleep. His fingers dig into my thigh.

"You sure?" he breathes, even as I make my way back to his lips. He doesn't hesitate when I kiss him now.

"I need you," I say, desperation tinging my voice. And I do. I do need him. I need to feel him move in me, need to feel his hot breath on my neck as he pushes against me. I need to know that he's really still here with me.

He cups the back of my head, surrendering without a fight. His tongue is hot in my mouth, his lips growing just as frantic as mine. I moan, warmth bursting through me, blooming across my chest, down my arms, between my legs.

I push on his shoulder. He grabs my waist tightly and takes me with him as he rolls to his back. We both groan as I grind my hips into his.

My love for him beats in every pulse of my heart. It makes me frantic, guides my movements until I'm panting into our kisses, sweat beginning to spring up along my spine, heat flushing my face. His breathing is ragged, groaning when I swivel my hips.

"Fuck," he hisses, and then we're moving. Before I can think, I'm on my back and he's rearing up between my knees, roughly pulling my underwear down. They're barely off before I'm kicking my legs out of his hands, sitting up and reaching for his pants.

I only get as far as unzipping him before he's pushing me back down, kissing me hard. I whimper as I feel him between my thighs, the rough fabric of his pants wrong against my skin.

Too caught up in kissing me, he doesn't help as I push at his clothes, first with my hands and then with my feet. I only get them as far as his knees. He grunts as I take hold of his cock, hard and thick in my hand.

His fingers tighten in my hair. I guide him down, head slipping against my clit, making me tremble. Then he's where I need him, and I raise my hips as he pushes forward.

He holds his breath as he moves into me. I claw at his hip, trying to bring him closer. When he's finally all the way inside, he exhales, rough and shaky. He drops his head into the crook of my neck and pulls back.

I gasp, arching against him.

"Fuck," he grunts into my throat. "Fuck, it's been too long. You feel so good."

I whimper, pulling his hair until he raises his head. I kiss him, and when he thrusts into me, my cry is muffled by his lips.

He's neither gentle or slow, his rhythm relentless from the start. I hold on to him, desperate noises leaving me as he gives me exactly what I need. He's so real to me in this moment, so warm and heavy and here. I clutch him tighter, my love for him bursting through my chest.

It's hot beneath our covers, and sweat soon springs up between us, making my legs slick with it. My blood is pounding through my veins, and I feel so incredibly alive.

When I come, I throw my head back, swept up in the rush, helpless to stop it. It makes my body shake, makes my mind go blank. I surrender to it willingly.

Edward doesn't stop, doesn't give me time to breathe. He's too close. He pants against my neck, and even as my arms feel weak, I wrap them around him, holding him against me.

He grunts, and then his thrusts turn harder, erratic and instinctive.

One hand gripping his hair, I pull it tightly, raising my head until my lips are by his ear.

"Yes," I moan, urging him. My breathing is choppy because of his movements, and I say it again, say it because I love him, because I need him.

He swears harshly, but the word turns into a cry as the last thread snaps. I clutch him closer as he comes. He freezes and groans into my throat. Pride beats in my heart, because I made him feel this.

He collapses on top of me, so heavy it's almost crushing, but I don't care. I don't want him to go.

We lie unmoving for a long time, until our breathing returns to normal, until my pulse is calm, the only echo of its previous sprint pounding weakly between my legs. The cold night air chills the flush away from my face, and I close my eyes, listening to him breathe.

Edward inhales then, slowly gathering himself together. He leans up on his elbows just enough that he can look at me. He blinks slowly, looking half-asleep already.

I smile, cupping his cheek. He turns his head and kisses my palm.

With a groan, he rolls off me. I turn to him, letting him pull me into his arms.

He gently sweeps a strand of hair from my face. "Not that I mind," he murmurs, "but was there a reason you woke me up for that?"

"Not a logical one."

He grins. "So tell me the illogical one."

I shrug. "I was just…"

"What?" he asks when I stay quiet for too long. The smile slips from his face, and a small line forms between his brows when I still don't speak. "Bella?"

A lump I can't explain forms in my throat. I shake my head, swallowing to clear it.

"No-nothing. It was nothing," I croak. "I was just thinking about things, and I… I needed you."

"What were you thinking about?"

"Everything," I whisper, hooking a finger in the collar of his shirt.

He sighs, moving his hand to cup my neck. His thumb rubs soothingly by my ear.

I take a deep breath and tell him what's been bothering me for so long now.

"I'm scared. Terrified. Of the outside. What if it's not—… what if it's too different? What if we can't live there? What if there's nothing—"

"There will be," he says, no hesitation. He cups my jaw, making me look at him. "You're it for me, remember? You're all I need. Whatever's out there… It doesn't matter, because we'll have each other. Right?"

Tears burn behind my eyes, and I bite my lip to keep them in. I nod. "Right. But—"

"No. There's no 'but,' Bella. It doesn't matter." He squeezes his hand gently around the back of my neck. "You and me. Against everything."

"You and me," I repeat, as if saying it will make all his words true.

"There's a place for us out there. We'll find it. There's no other option."

"You and me."

"Right." He smiles, and I exhale shakily, trying to calm the dread I always feel, simmering through my veins.

His expression turns serious, and he puts his forehead against mine. I close my eyes as he whispers into the space between us.

"I'll go to the ends of the earth with you, Bella. As far as it takes."

I grasp his wrist, almost for support, as if his words have knocked me down. I nod against him, promising the same.

"We'll be okay," he whispers.

A slight strain breaks through his voice, and only then do I realise that maybe he's scared, too.

I kiss him, praying to anything that will listen that he's right. That we will be okay, that we will find our place in the world.

The heaviness in my heart keeps me awake long after Edward has gone back to sleep.

We reach Riverend three days later. We only stay for the night, to rest and stock up on food. What we find there lifts our spirits, taming some of my fears.

Sam, the leader of the village, shows us around. Many of the houses are empty, a common sight in most of Wasteland – when the soldiers sweep through, the casualties can be devastating.

But Sam just smiles and shakes his head. "No, it's not that. Many families have been packing up, heading to the Outside. After that traveller came through, and told us what it was like… It changed everything."

I look around the village with new eyes. I realise he's right – the empty houses bear no signs of violence. They've just been left.

"A few of my men volunteered to go through, to see what it was like. The traveller went with them – when he heard what it was like in here, he was quick to return where he'd come from." Sam chuckles, leading us toward the cookhouse.

"Where did he come from?" Edward asks.

Sam smiles, and says simply, "A place of peace."

At his words, Edward and I look at each other, hope building in our eyes and minds.

"Four of my men went through, and a week later, they came back unharmed. Ever since, more and more villagers have decided to move out. I suspect Riverend will be completely empty within six months. My own family and I will be joining them as soon as that happens. For now, we stay, making sure no one is left behind. And of course, to help people like yourselves."

"What do you mean?"

"I've lived in Riverend all my life," he tells me. "Visitors to our village aren't uncommon. Nomads come through almost every day. But ever since word started spreading about the Outsider, more and more people have travelled here. Just last week there were over 50 people, from all over Wasteland, who have come here for just one thing."

"To leave," Edward says, and Sam nods.

"They all want to know if it's true. We tell them it is, and give them what they need to get through."

"What do you need?"

Sam grins lazily and claps Edward on the shoulder. "Not a lot. Come on, I'll tell you over dinner."

Turns out 'not a lot' was right. By foot, the journey through the Dust shouldn't take more than a day and a half. Besides food and water, we walk away with Riverend's new trade product – goggles.

"The Dust isn't harmful, but it can irritate the eyes after prolonged exposure," Sam told us. "We started making these goggles. It has proved very profitable."

Using anything they could find, the villagers have crafted the eyewear. Mine is simply two irregular pieces of glass, lined thickly with cloth and steel wire, which also crosses the bridge of my nose. I have to tie it tightly around my head with a leather band to make them stay in place, but the glass is clear and mostly free of scratches, so at least I can see.

Edward's is fashioned in a similar way, but one lens is plastic, and the other is green glass. He blinks spastically behind them when he tries them on, making me laugh.

We leave Riverend at dawn. Sam's reassuring news has made us eager to get on our way. It'll take a day and a half to get to the edge of the Dust, but in three days, we'll be on the outside. We'll be free. The thought seems to sit more in our feet than our minds, making our pace faster than normal.

As we get closer to the Dust, the shimmer gets stronger. Even as we walk through a heavily wooded forest the next day, the light reaches in between the branches. It's midday, and with the sun at its highest, the light is almost pure white.

Edward suddenly stops. He turns back to me, excitement shining in his eyes.


He reaches for my hand and pulls me in front of him. With his arm over my shoulder, he points into the distance.

"There, see? Between those two trees?"

I squint, trying to figure out what he wants me to see.

"It's really faint, but it's there," he murmurs into my ear.

And when I spot it, I gasp.

He's right – it's still faint, but there's no mistaking it. Between the gap in the trees, the Dust sweeps up into the sky. I've never been this close to it before. I've only seen pictures. Even from this distance, I realise that no picture can do the reality of it justice.

It's a screen of glittering gold and diamonds, serene and peaceful. A world of its own, utterly and completely.

Edward curls his arm around my shoulders, pressing his cheek to my head. We simply stand, just watching. We'll be there in a matter of hours.

I grab his hand and with anticipation beating through my heart, we continue walking.

An hour later, I can finally see the end of the forest. The Dust is breath-taking, and I can still only see glimpses of it through the trees. The shimmer is intense, and I have to shade my eyes from the sharp glints of light.

I feel too giddy to sit still, but our stomachs have been rumbling for a while now. Edward sits down behind a bush, where the ground is clear and dry. He laughs as he drags me down next to him, handing me some bread.

"Come on, we might as well eat before we head in there."

"We can eat while we're walking," I say, chewing.

"It's not going anywhere," he chuckles. "We've waited three years – we have time for one last meal."

I keep staring at it as we eat. I imagine Edward and I standing an inch away from it, still firmly here, in the place we were born, but heading into our future. We'll hold hands, and with deep breaths, we'll step across that final line, together.

"I can't believe we're almost there," I say, nerves shooting and bumbling through me. "We're almost there, Edward."

"I know," he says, cutting an apple in half. When he hands me a piece, I let my fingers linger on his. "I can't wait to see it up close."

"Do you think it has a smell?"

He shrugs, grinning. "We're going to be walking through it for a while, so if it does, I hope it's not a bad one."

I smile back and open my mouth to speak, but then the sound I've feared ever since we left Central echoes through the woods.

Somewhere between us and the end of the tree-line, a branch snaps.

We both freeze instantly. I can't move. As I watch, Edward's face drains of blood, and I feel sick as my veins are flooded with adrenaline.

I twitch when dry leaves rustle, crushed under a heavy boot. The sound is unmistakable.

Slowly and soundlessly, I turn to peer through the branches of the bush. My heart hammers in my chest, but it seems to stop at the sight that greets me.

Three soldiers, a small patrol. Guns and rifles held at the ready. They creep slowly across the expanse of forest, studying their surroundings. The one at the front stops, holding up a hand. He makes a gesture I'm not familiar with, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out what he's saying.

They know we're here.

I start to shake – from fear or anger, I don't know. For three years we've avoided detection, but now, when we're so close to freedom, we're going to be found?

Grief catches like a hook, cutting me open. Why can't they just let us leave?

What's the point of stopping us?

Beside me, Edward's tension feels like a physical thing, vibrating in the space between us. I turn to him, and terror zips through my blood like ice.

Is this it? The life we've dreamt of having, away from all of this – is it gone? It suddenly seems like nothing more than foolish wishes.

Am I going to lose him now?

Everything in me rejects the very thought, but as the soldiers come closer and closer, my mind flashes with all the ways this situation could play out.

All of them end with Edward dead or ripped from my side. There's no other possibility. We could try to run, but these soldiers have guns. They'd shoot us down. And even if we could get away, there are bound to be more of them in the area.

We're as good as dead.

We look at each other. The same grief I feel drowning me sits in his eyes. The soldiers shuffle closer, and all I can do is stare at him. My heart breaks when his eyes start to shine. He swallows, blinking furiously. When he looks back at me, resolve settles into his features.

He cups my cheek, thumb stroking reverently across my skin.

Heart pounding, I realise his expression means something, but I can't figure out what. Even so, I shake my head, grabbing at his wrist.

The only thought running through my mind is, 'No.'

He grimaces, like he's in pain. Then he's leaning in, kissing me. His lips are soft but forceful, a desperate tinge in the way his hand tightens against my cheek.

He's kissing me like it's the last time.

No. No, no no no no.

"No," I mouth, breaking away from him. "No."

Leaning his forehead against mine, he sighs unsteadily. I'm shaking my head, grabbing for his arms, his jacket, anything, but he takes my wrists and pushes me away.

Staring at me, tears shining yet again in his eyes, all he whispers is, "I'm sorry."

He lets me go, and before I can blink, he's gone. Crouching down low, he keeps himself hidden behind the heavy bushes.

I watch him go. I can't breathe.

He left me.

He starts making noise as he moves. The soldiers stop, raising their guns. He continues, crouched low and hidden.

I realise that he's leading them away from me. That does nothing to soothe the pain cracking through my chest.

They're going to kill him. They're going to shoot him, and I'll be all alone, and he'll be gone.

"Outsider!" The soldier in the front takes a slow step forward. "Drop any weapon you have, and step out where we can see you."

Edward stops in his tracks. He's several yards away, but I can still see the deep breath he takes. He raises his hands and slowly rises out of his crouch.

I clamp a hand over my mouth, holding down the scream ripping its way up my throat.

"I'm not armed," he calls out. The soldiers tighten the grips on their weapons.

"Are you alone?"


Tears flow down my cheeks, unstoppable. I'm going to lose him.

"Have you recently been through the village of Riverend?"

Edward stiffens, but slowly nods.

The soldier smirks behind his mask. "Then we'll be taking you back to our base for questioning."

Edward frowns. "On what grounds?"

"On the grounds that you'll do as you're told, Outsider."

"And if I refuse?"

The soldier raises his gun. "Something tells me you won't."

Edward clenches his jaw, but says nothing. I watch in silent horror as the soldiers advance. Only one keeps his gun out and trained squarely on Edward's head.

I've seen Edward fight more times than I can count. I know his every tell. He's an amazing fighter, but three against one aren't good odds. Especially when guns are involved. So when he shifts his weight, almost imperceptibly, I want to cry out.

Instead, I sit, frozen and drowning, heart breaking as he makes the first swing.

He has the element of surprise on his side, but only for a second. He hits the first soldier right in the jaw, and even from this distance, I can hear the crack in his mask. The soldier falls, gun flying out of his grasp.

The other two are on him in the same second. He holds his ground, but I know he can't win this.

He's going to die.

The thought slithers through my mind, evil and cold. In its wake, everything turns blank, except for the overwhelming refusal exploding through me.

Grasping my knife, I unfreeze my muscles and move closer. It's not even a choice. It just is.

Too occupied with the fight, none of them notice me. I see the soldier he knocked to the ground scrambling for his gun.

I shift the knife in my hand and rise as he does. The adrenaline pumping through my veins sharpens my senses, almost making time move slower. With perfect clarity, I see him lifting his weapon, aiming and waiting for a clear shot of Edward.

I don't have to wait. My aim is clear, my target impossible to miss. I know the weak spots of his suit.

My knife sinks into his neck with a dull thunk. He drops his gun, and then drops to his knees. Hands reach up to touch the handle sticking out of his flesh, fingers trembling.

One of the other soldiers sees his fallen comrade and cries out.

"There are more!"

Edward swears, but their lack of focus gives him the chance he needs. As I run closer, he swings his fist, punching one of them hard enough to knock him out. The soldier drops like a sack, limbs sprawled.

The only remaining soldier looks between me and Edward. We're both heading straight for him. I run faster than I ever have in my life, but I still know it's not fast enough.

I'm not close enough.

The soldier reaches for his gun, and in the same second, he has it aimed at Edward. He doesn't stop; he squeezes the trigger, and as the shot rings out, I scream.

The bullet rips into Edward. If he makes a sound, my scream drowns him out. He drops to the ground, and I feel…


There's nothing.

Pain and white, but nothing.

I reach the soldier I threw my knife into. He lies, twitching and dying. I have no remorse.

I dive for his gun. I have no fear as I face the last man. Even as he swings his weapon around to aim it at me, I still feel nothing.

Again, I go for the throat. I empty the entire magazine into him. The shots must blast through the forest, but all I hear is the blood roaring in my ears.

When he falls, and the gun clicks in my hands, I experience the emptiest seconds of my life. I feel hollow. There is no sound. The sight of dead men in front of me means nothing.

Then I breathe.

With the air flowing into my lungs, everything explodes back into clarity. I throw the gun away, and immediately, hysterical sobs are wrenching from my chest.


I run over to him, his name falling from my lips again and again. I collapse next to him, rolling him onto his back. I can't see, I can't see, tears blinding me. My hands are shaking too hard to control, but I grab his face.

"Edward! No, no, oh god, no! Edward, please, please, don't leave me, don't—… Edward!"

I run my hands down his body, looking for his wound. Dark blood seeps out of his side, drenching his shirt. The sound that leaves me doesn't seem human.

Then he groans, and I look up to see his eyes blinking open.

"Edward, oh god, oh god. Hey, you'll— you'll be okay, you'll be f-fine."

He squeezes his eyes shut again, gasping for shallow breaths.

He'll be okay. He can't die, he can't die, I won't let him, he can't die.

Steeling myself, I reach for his shirt, lifting it out of the way. There's almost too much blood for me to see, but relief crashes through me almost instantly. I pull on his hip, rolling him so I can check his back, just in case. He cries out, but I ignore it.

"Oh, thank god," I sob. The bullet only grazed his side, right above his hipbone. Glistening muscle peeks out through the rip in his skin, but no organs have been hit. If I can stop the bleeding, he'll be fine.

"Bella, I—… why did you—… you should've… run," he gasps, staring up at me. His eyes are glassy with pain, and his face is pale, but he's going to be alright.

My voice trembles along with my body as I shake my head and cup his cheek.

"I'm not leaving you."

He stares at me for a few seconds, his shallow breathing keeping steady. Then he nods.

"I'm sorry… I left," he pants, forehead crumbling in pain.

"I know. It's okay, it's fine," I say, straightening up and ripping my shirt off. I have a tank top on underneath, and while I should be cold, I find myself sweating. Balling my shirt up, I press it against his wound.

"I couldn't… let them see… you," he continues, staring at me imploringly. "I needed to… give you a chance… to run. I—"

"I know, shh," I say. "Hey, it's okay. We're going to be fine."

He lifts a shaking hand and puts it over mine where I'm pressing into his wound.

"Is it bad?"

"No, it just grazed you. I need to stop the bleeding, but you'll be fine. You'll be fine." I don't know if I say it to assure him or myself more.

"We have to move," he gasps. "There could be others."

"I know. I'll be right back, I need our bag. Just keep pressure on that, okay? I'll be right back."

I run back to where I left our things; there's a First Aid kit inside that we've never had to use before now.

Panic simmers in my veins, and I try to keep it contained. I dress his wound as quickly as I can, because we need to get out of here before we're discovered by another group of soldiers. He needs stitches, but my hands are shaking too much to handle that right now, and we're both itching to get away as quickly as possible.

I try to give him something for the pain, but he refuses, saying he needs a clear mind until we're safe.

"Should we… where do we go? Back to Riverend? They can fix you up there."

Edward shakes his head. "No, the outside is closer."

He's right, but I still hesitate. He's on his feet now, leaning heavily on me, but sweat glistens across his forehead, and he's alarmingly pale.

"I'm fine," he insists, seeing my look. "Come on, we need to move."

The going is slow, but Edward never complains. He's limping, but once we get into a rhythm of walking together, it gets easier.

We break through the tree-line. As soon as the forest ends, cracked and pale earth begins, all the way to the Dust. It looks like a dried-out lake. I swallow, seeing the open stretch of land. Panic pushes me forward, even as a part of me yearns to stay hidden.

I can't even appreciate the pure beauty of the Dust as it rises in front of us in all its glory. With every step we take, I fear hearing another shot, another round of bullets heading our way. It's not a long distance, but somehow it seems endless. By the end, I'm almost dragging Edward, carrying more of his weight than he is.

Finally we reach the edge. The only sound besides his laboured breathing is a quiet tinkling coming from inside the golden world in front of us. Like sand gliding over sand. It's stunning.

I help him on with his goggles before dealing with my own. Once again winding his arm over my shoulder, I take a second to just breathe. I say goodbye to the only place I've ever known, and then I look forward, towards our future.

"You ready?"

He nods. "I'm ready."

As one, we step forward, allowing the unknown to swallow us whole.

The End

Loads of hugs and gratitude to Icelandgirl812, iambeagle, and vampshavelaws, who read this for me. Erica, Meg, and Kim - you guys are amazing, and I honestly don't know how to live without you.

Thanks to you for reading. I hope you enjoyed this little thing.