My body jerked violently as my eyes popped open. A harsh gasp tore its way up my throat, bursting into the air. I cleared my throat and shook my head, immediately regretting it as the world twirled around me. Sucking in a deep breath, I forced myself to relax a bit and come back to my senses. At the very least, I had to retain some control of them.
Finally able to see without the ceiling spinning out of existence, I was aware of the world around me. The drugged state Jameson placed me in after the latest torture session had really put me out of commission. I just wondered about how long I’d been out.
Relaxing my muscles, I settled back against the floor and continued staring at the ceiling. The longer I stared, the more it blurred from focus and the more it began to turn. As I ran my fingers over the floor, attempting to find an anchor, my hand caught something soft, steady, and warm.
Nimble fingers laced through mine, squeezing them gently, grounding me. A face appeared, blocking out the churning gray. I blinked black spots and blurriness from my vision and clearly saw Seb’s face hovering over mine, expression concerned… He felt worried, maybe even a little scared.
“How long have I been out?” I croaked, my voice grating out like someone had taken sandpaper to my vocal cords.
“A little over two days.” Seb eased the fingers of his other hand through my hair, using his nails to carefully scrape against my scalp.
I leaned into the touch, relishing in the feel of him petting me. Since I still felt fucked up and groggy, it was nice to have someone else there to coddle me a bit. I wasn’t used to it, and it was almost wrecked by the negative emotions Seb kept throwing into it, but I managed to ignore them in favor of the flickers of Seb’s relief and the magnificence of his fingers on my skin.
“Shit.” Using the hand that wasn’t holding Seb’s, I scratched at my eyes and removed the sleep from them. “It’s fine. It doesn’t hurt anything,” I said, more to myself as I thought back over my plan. “None of this is time sensitive anyway.” I cracked an eye open and frowned as everything whirled. Once my vision came back into focus, I looked at Seb. “I’m sorry about keeping you away from Maggie for so long.”
“It’s okay.” Seb’s voice sounded distant. He didn’t feel upset or anything… Maybe it was my hearing? It was unlikely the drug still affected that much of my senses, though. Blinking again, I squinted up at Seb. His eyes weren’t even on mine. Instead, his gaze had caught something a bit further down, near my chest. “I, um…” He shook his head and wet his lips as he dragged his eyes back up to mine. “She’s safe, and as long as she’s safe, I’m okay.”
Still not angry and still worried, but a new emotion factored into the mix… What the fuck was it? Relief? Nervousness? It felt like a step above confusion, but with some sort of serenity to it that typically didn’t accompany perplexion.
Oh, wait a second. I moved my hand up my chest, watching as Seb involuntarily tracked the movement, like he couldn’t look away from it. Someone had removed the bandages from my hand, either as a way to remind everyone, including myself, that I was still their slave or to have another option to pump the drug into me faster.
Regardless of why they’d done it, Seb could see the tattoos on my wrist, which meant--
“What’s on your arm?”
I tilted my head, letting it rest on the concrete floor. “You know.”
He nodded and leaned, resting his back against the wall. Instead of releasing my hand, he pulled my arm along with him, letting it rest in his lap while he continued to stroke my knuckles. “Were you the agent that saved me?”
I gave him a tight, sheepish smile. “Yep.”
“Why didn’t you say something before?”
“I didn’t even know it was you until you said something that day in the kitchen. It’d happened so long ago…” I shrugged. “So much had happened since then, I just didn’t even think on it. I never put the pieces together when you came into the shop the first time. You see why they let me go from this hellhole now, huh?” I snorted, thinking things would’ve been so much simpler had that been the only reason.
“Why didn’t you just tell me then?”
“Too much exposure. And anyway, how would you really feel about me still being a slave to the Ring? I didn’t think I’d want to push that after everything else you’d found out.”
“Slavery isn’t legal here. They can’t have that bind on you.”
“The Ring controls 40% of our government. Do you honestly think they wouldn’t seek out one of their own to conduct that particular investigation?” I shook my head. “Besides, it is legal. Jameson fixed the law in such a minor way that it went unnoticed to most, but it basically left one big loophole that permitted it in cases of treason.”
“Did you commit treason?”
I sucked my teeth and wrinkled my nose. “Eh, well, a little.”
“Hey, I had a reason. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but this time, I’d get results instead of a fucking slave branding.” I rolled my eyes, immediately regretting the action when it sent the ceiling back into a horrible gray spiral. I gripped Seb’s hand tightly again as I waited for things to settle back down.
That sent another wave of concern through Seb. He stared down at me like he didn’t quite believe what he’d heard, but he never commented on it. Instead, he leaned back and shifted his gaze to the opposite wall.
I hadn’t lied to him. In fact, it was part of my plan to finally disable the Ring and destroy the monster I created. In the beginning, it was never meant to be an organization that slaughtered anyone that spat in the face of Jameson or the government. It was supposed to be an underground team that assassinated threats the public needed to remain unaware of in order to curb mass hysteria. Once Jameson took over as director, all that was blown out of the water and when I tried to reclaim the Ring, everything just fell apart. Before I could put a lid on things, she had me branded and working under her. It wasn’t until I did too much damage as an enslaved agent that she thought it best to just release me.
Gods, I’d made such a mess. It was really only right that I clean it up, especially given that it took the lives of so many people I once cared about, that once worked under me, faithful until their ends.
Hell, I’d even gone as far as taking in a child and raising her as my own. That very decision had led me to sitting in a Ring cell right then. There were things I could’ve done differently, I certainly had regrets, but the overall process would’ve have been changed. Even then, after seeing all the destruction I’d wrought, I still believed in the overall principle of the Ring. Nothing would change my mind that it’d been good at the start.
I jumped, startling when I felt fingers trace over the ridges on my wrists. Flicking my gaze up to Seb’s, I caught the burst of sickness and pain that overcame him at the sight of the heavy scarring--and wounds that still hadn’t fully healed--that mapped my skin. He kept easing his fingers over it as the wrinkles on his face grew deeper.
My stomach churned as I felt my face heat up. No one knew about that nasty habit. With the slave brandings and Seb’s focus on those, I’d honestly forgotten about the scars. Since he’d noticed them and started showering them with so much attention, I almost wanted to put my plan in action right then, just to get out of the goddamn cell and away from Seb’s piercing gaze.
Thank the gods he wasn’t an empath. Just him looking at me, at the scarring, a sick part of me just wanted to drag my nails over my skin and rip open a new wound right there and then. At least it would mute the anxiety bubbling in my chest, pushing me closer to panic than I preferred to be.
I moved my arm, trying to pull it from Seb’s grasp. He tightened his grip at first, like he planned to pin me there. My pulse shot up, and I jerked it back again. That time, Seb released me. Instead of focusing on my arm, he’d started looking at my face.
That wasn’t pleasant either. Damn.
“So, it’s a reaction to panic?”
I frowned for a moment before realization dawned on me. “You used your powers to look back in time?”
“I know you’ve been sitting there cataloguing every feeling I’ve had. I’m allowed this.”
“I didn’t even feel you start, though.” I must’ve been too trapped in my thoughts, otherwise I would’ve picked up on it and probably had the chance to stop him as he traced back through the events.
“It blots it out and gives me something else to focus on. It’s the only thing that works quickly.”
Seb nodded. “Thank you for telling me the truth.”
“How do you know I did?”
“You might be the empath, but I just notice things about people--about you. You might have this whole sexy commander thing going on in here, but you’re still not that far from the awkward duckling I fell in love with.”
I smiled, half at Seb’s words and half in relief at the change in subject. “If I raise up right now, I might vomit, and that’s really going to kill the mood. So, if you’d be a dear and lean down here and kiss me, I’d really appreciate it.”
“It’d be my pleasure.” Seb grinned and leaned down, settling a hand next to my head to steady himself as he kissed me, long and slow. Instead of sitting in a cell recovering from a drugging, it was as if we were at home, curled up in bed with nowhere to be and nothing to do.
I gasped, a vision taking hold of my mind behind my eyes.
The first rays of sunlight poured in from the window next to my bed. The sheets were rumpled, but the comforter was still piled around Seb and I. Seb sat, propped against the headboard with his arms wound around me, his chin perched on my shoulder. I leaned against his chest, holding a book, reading aloud from it. As I went to turn the page, Seb nuzzled my neck. I turned, kissing him soft and slow.
It was a lazy day. Rain was in the forecast, and the girls wouldn’t be up for a while yet, having gotten in late from a party the night before.
The calendar I kept on the wall showed how many years had passed, how the girls were in their late teen years, and how Seb and I were still right there together.
I raised my hand to cup the side of his face, caressing his smooth skin. The sunlight glinted off the silver band on my finger… Sebastian and I were married.
“We should put this one in the yes pile.”
I frowned. “We haven’t even gotten to the ending. What if it’s shitty or scary or something?”
“It has a good build-up, and we can use it as a teaching tool.”
“Yes, I’m sure our infant twins will want to be taught about the intricacies of morality during their first week here,” I said.
“Fine, we’ll save it until their toddlers.”
“That’s more like it.” I rolled my eyes as I grinned at him, turning back and kissing him again before resuming the book and ignoring Seb’s request to skip the ending.
The vision ended, fading away to reveal Seb’s face still lingering over mine, our lips still pressed together, our foreheads resting against one another, but everything else still and silent.
“You saw that too?” Seb asked quietly.
I nodded. “Maybe one day.”
Seb grinned and pecked my lips again before sitting up. “Not as long as we’re in here.”
I sighed, not moving to get up in case it sent everything into another spin. “That’s very true, but we’re right on schedule.” I smiled at him. “Just follow my lead, and we’ll walk out of here without a scratch.”
“I’m right behind you.”
I smirked and tipped my head back, closing my eyes. Sucking in a deep breath, I steeled myself and ran through my plan one last time.
Bolting out of the floor, I charged at the glass of the cell wall and burst through it. Seb jumped out of the cell behind me. We both dismantled the cameras and took to the sides of the elevator to stop the agents as they poured through.
It’d be a bloodbath for them, but Seb and I would walk out of there. I wanted the future I saw, and the only way it’d happen was if I stopped the Ring and got us out of there alive. Nothing else was an option.
“Now!” I yelled as the doors opened.
Gunfire went off. Screams echoed through the cell.
The price of freedom was steep.