Lena switched off her sewing machine, folding the half-finished skirt and setting it on the shelf. Two weeks had passed since Eric’s funeral, she and Jason had been the only ones from school who’d attended. And he’d only gone because she’d begged him to. It still amazed her they hadn’t been asked to leave.
You’re letting it happen again…
She shook her head.
“No, I’m not,” she snapped aloud. This was nothing like what had happened with Andy, or with Raúl. Those had been bad choices on her part, magnified by even worse circumstances. Eric’s death had been the result of things completely beyond her control. She wasn’t responsible for it!
That still hasn’t stopped you from-
She growled in frustration.
“Okay, I get it!”
She ground the heels of her palms into her eyes, knowing more crying wouldn’t solve anything. Eric, all three of them would still be gone, no amount of tears in the world would be enough to change that. She doubted it would help her feel any better, either. There really was no simple road away from it.
She turned, going to the window. Jason was standing in the driveway, waving her down. She waved back, hurrying to meet him. He took her in his arms when she reached him, no doubt knowing she needed it.
“How’ve you been holding up?” he asked softly. She buried her face deeper in his chest, her fingers tightening on the back of his shirt.
“E-Eric’s dead,” she whimpered. “A-And I’m…”
“Hey, hey,” he ended the hug, taking her shoulders and gazing seriously at her. “That was his choice, it wasn’t your fault.”
“I-I know, but,” she sniffled. “I just can’t…”
She trailed off, wiping her eyes and taking a small, shuddering breath.
“Uh, why the drop-by?”
“I just remembered a promise I made a while ago,” he put a hand on the hood of his car. “I never got the chance to show you around.”
Lena looked at the sky. It was clear, warm, and she figured going out would do more than just sitting in her room.
“O-Okay,” she wiped her eyes again. Looks like she wasn’t cried out after all. She smiled. “Let’s go.”
Blackwood Cove was smaller than she’d thought, spreading twelve square miles behind its cheerful welcome sign; the ferry she and Kara had arrived on was the only way to reach the island. Several old mine entrances were scattered throughout the forest and hills, the closest lost in a meadow near the dock.
“Lance’s family found the silver,” Jason explained. “We ran the town while they looked after the mine.”
“I remember reading something about that,” she ran her fingers through her hair, wincing when she caught a knot. “When did they run out?”
“About the twenties, I think,” he barely made it through a yellow light. “After that, they handled trading.”
He finished off the water bottle stashed in his cup holder, tossing it in the back.
“They were a crime family in the thirties and forties,” he went on. “Our top rivals.”
She gasped excitedly, her wide eyes sparkling.
“You guys were part of the mob?” she asked. He rolled his eyes; what was it with girls and being attracted to danger?
“Just mine,” he turned onto the narrow dirt road that circled the town. “They were their own thing.”
She fell silent after that, as though trying to digest what he’d just told her. Her gaze flicked between him and the road ahead, never really focusing.
“What about you?” she said at last. “Is your family still part of it?”
He tensed slightly, hoping she didn’t notice.
“I’m…uh…not really the right guy to ask about that,” he managed. She stared at him, then shrugged, turning away to look at the scenery. He sighed.
Yeah, Jason, real smooth…idiot.
He pulled into an unfamiliar parking lot, a stone path at the end leading through a stand of trees. The leaves were bright red, reminding her of a sunset.
“What kind of trees are those?” she climbed out of the car. He sighed again.
“They’re Japanese maples,” he sounded like he’d answered the question a thousand times. He started toward them, talking over his shoulder. “If you want to find out where we are, you’re gonna have to follow me.”
She caught up to him at a bend in the path, which passed under an elegantly carved wooden sign. A short fence surrounded the area, the path branching out between shrubs painted with a rainbow of flowers. A red bridge crossed over a clear stream, the water brimming with colorful, shimmering koi. A slender old man exited a tiny shed behind it, singing softly to himself. He smiled when he saw them, offering a slight bow that Jason was quick to return.
“Where are we?” Lena asked once the man had left. Jason nodded toward a path scattered with pale petals.
The way was bordered by cherry trees; tall and slim, cloaked in deep brown bark. Their pale green and yellow leaves were mostly obscured by their delicate pink blossoms. Lena watched a young robin take flight from its nest, cradled in the highest branches of the tallest tree.
“It’s so beautiful,” she turned to him, watching as he twirled a single bloom in his fingers. It was different from the others, larger and white as snow. “Jason, you okay?”
“Hmm?” he looked up, letting the flower float to the ground. “Oh, uh, yeah. Sure.”
“You don’t sound like it,” she stepped closer to him. “What were you just thinking about?”
He shook his head slightly.
“I-It’s nothing,” he bent down to pick up the flower, looking even more distraught when the breeze snatched it away. He stared at his empty hand, then closed it tightly. “It’s just…there’s just a lot of things I wish I could change…”
“What are they doing now?”
He peeked through the leaves again, trying to ignore the fact his feet were starting to fall asleep from crouching in the dirt.
“They’re still talking,” he couldn’t hide his groan of boredom. “Nothing worth noting.”
“I still want you to keep an eye on them, I don’t want to risk anything being shared,” a short pause. “And don’t hesitate to pull the plug this time.”
He groaned again; he’d missed one opportunity and they wouldn’t let him hear the end of it. It hadn’t even been the same target!
“Understood,” he pulled off the headset, letting it hang around his neck. He’d been following these two for months now, never more than a few yards away. And all it had done so far was get him out of office work. He shifted to one knee, separating the thin, numerous branches and peering through the gap. The girl had sat down on a small bench under one of the trees, the boy still standing, talking with his hands as he finished whatever story he’d decided to tell her. He’d stopped listening a long time ago.
“Come on, you two,” he murmured, his fingers twitching in anticipation. The gun strapped to his thigh was begging to be drawn. “Give me some reason to do this…”
Normally, the kids would have been killed a long time ago, but for some reason the boss had insisted they be left alive. At least for the time being. What he couldn’t understand was what the man found so intriguing about them.
They made an attractive pair, that much was obvious. The girl was a natural beauty, her good nature lighting her face from within. It was clear she’d been scarred, however, sadness, fear and anger obvious in even her brightest smile. What on earth could have happened to her?
The boy had a similar aura, his easy confidence drawing him in like a moth to a flame. Again, it was obvious he was damaged, his torn spirit edged in such darkness it made his blood run cold. Or would have at one point.
At last, the girl got back to her feet, taking the boy’s hand. The boy smiled, saying something about showing her another part of the garden. He waited a moment before he followed, feeling like a dog as he crawled through the slightly damp soil. He soon reached the greenhouse, crouching by a broken pane. The plants surrounding it grew more thickly, spurred on by the warm air that drifted from the hole, ensuring his continued cover.
He peered in, seeing the girl smile, hearing her giggle as she explored, running her fingers along every flower and plant stem she could reach. Instead of sharing in her mirth, however, the boy stayed in his place near the door, his arms crossed, looking lost in thought. Was he already regretting sharing whatever he had with her?
I just hope something interesting happens soon, he thought. Otherwise I might just go against orders.
Jason stopped before a stout greenhouse, holding the door open. Heavy, humid air drifted out, several butterflies gliding on the draft before flitting to nearby flowers.
“This is what I really wanted to show you,” he said, smiling. “It’s my favorite thing about this place.”
Lena gave a small gasp as she walked through, letting her fingers trail along a thick vine creeping over a table covered in square wooden flower pots. Yellow and orange ladybugs crawled along vibrant green stalks and leaves, a rainbow of flowers drenching the space in their mixed perfumes. Jason felt his smile fade as he watched Lena explore, as he remembered their time together would soon be coming to an end.
I never should’ve started this in the first place, he thought. It would’ve been so much better if I’d kept avoiding her.
He averted his eyes when she looked his way, leaning against another table. This one was also crowded with pots, though the plants were barely seedlings. He had already had two attacks that month, the second enough to land him in the hospital. Again. And the doctors still had no idea why it kept happening.
I’m gonna have to tell her at some point, he bit his tongue to hold back a groan, surprised and thankful when the stab of pain in his gut faded. Why couldn’t they just say it was cancer or something? He would’ve been able to deal with that, at long as this hell finally had a name. Not that it would actually matter in the end; he’d still be worm chow regardless of what they called it. But I couldn’t do that to her.
He looked up again to see her pick up a rose that had dropped from a branch, the pale yellow petals a perfect contrast to her skin. She’d been through too much already, and he was, selfish enough to put her through more. As if feeling his gaze, she turned toward him, her excitement paling to worry.
“Jason, are you sure you’re okay?” she asked. “We can go if-”
“Hey, it’s fine,” he walked to one of the larger pots on the floor, reaching behind the fern and bringing out a small wooden box. “You’re more important.”
She gasped again, the rose slipping from her fingers.
“M-My jewelry box,” she’d been going through it out of boredom the night she’d been kidnapped, and hadn’t seen it since. “W-Where’d you find it?”
“Lance gave it to me, he said he found it in Stephanie’s room,” he held it out to her, blushing slightly. “I-I would’ve given it to you sooner, but…”
She reached for it, stopping just short of taking it. Instead, she leaned against the table, crying softly into her hands. He set the box next to her, bending down to grab the flower she’d dropped. He tucked the stem into her hair, hearing her release a shuddering sigh.
“I-I’m sorry I ignored you,” her breath hitched. “Especially after everything you’ve done for me. I-I just didn’t know how to-”
“It doesn’t matter, Lena,” he traced the line of her cheek, running his thumb lightly along her bottom lip. “You came back. Let’s just put the rest behind us.”
She sniffled, wiping her eyes. Her hand brushed against the rose; she gave a small, shaky smile.
“T-Thanks for taking me out,” she whispered. He smiled, his fingers gliding through the soft hair that framed her face. He watched the blush creep across her face, feeling his heart start to race in response. He leaned forward, letting his lips brush against hers. The featherlight touch sent fire through his veins, the feeling unlike anything he’d felt before. He kissed her again, his hand trailing to her waist, hers drifting to his shoulders. She pulled away after a small eternity, gazing at him with soft, adoring eyes.
“T-Thanks for saving me,” she said softly. “Thank you for everything.”
The rope burned, digging painfully into his wrists, but he refused to stop struggling. His captors had ambushed him on an empty road, sending out spike strips to cripple his motorcycle. He’d woken up blindfolded, trapped in a vehicle that smelled like vomit and ammonia, his hands bound tightly behind him.
“You brought this on yourself, buddy,” one of them said. The deep, guttural voice was familiar, though he couldn’t place where he may have heard it before He grunted in response, a bump in the road throwing him forward.
“Where are you taking me?” the sharp, repeated question earned him a hard jab to the ribs. Several voices laughed. How many were there?
“Somewhere you’ve been before,” one said simply. It was the only answer they’d give him. He sat back, trying to ignore further jolts from the road. Another smell had started to sneak past the others, blood. It was old, reminding him of the past. The mere thought was enough to make him sick.
“How much longer is this gonna take?”
A harsh blow cut across his lips.
“Keep your mouth shut,” a third voice ordered. A heavy dose of scorn entered the polished tone. “You won’t be able to rely on your little tricks this time.”
It wasn’t much longer before the jolting stopped. He heard the van’s door slide open, felt the cold metal of a gun through his shirt as it pressed into his back.
“No funny business,” the man ordered bluntly.
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it,” he scoffed, his voice dripping sarcasm. He stumbled when they shoved him out, hiding his eyes from the glare of the headlights when they ripped his blindfold away. He waited for them to adjust before turning toward their destination, a small, stone building with a piqued roof, crowned with a large concrete cross. He lowered his gaze to the old church’s front steps, glaring harshly at the woman waiting by the heavy wooden doors. “You again.”
She laughed haughtily, walking slowly toward them. In the low light, her red velvet gown looked dark as wine, her long silver hair coiled in a braid on the back of her head.
“Oh, come now,” she stopped in front of him, her lips poised in a smug grin. “You didn’t think you could keep me out of your life forever, did you?”
Her slim, manicured fingers came up to touch his chin, her small, smug smile fading when she saw his black eye and swollen lip. She glared at the other men, who instantly looked sheepish.
“What did you do to him?” she demanded icily. The smallest of the trio came forward, clearing his throat.
“W-We had to subdue him,” he offered weakly. She eyed him, then his companions, before waving a dismissive hand.
“Leave us,” she ordered. It didn’t take them long to comply. She led their former captive, slumping against the heavy door after pushing it shut. “Thank goodness that’s over.”
He looked around the room, taking in the empty pews, the plain alter standing at the other end of the aisle. The ceiling was low, bare. He turned back to the woman, gasping when she pushed back the silver hair, the wig dropping behind her as pale blonde curls tumbled past her shoulders.
“Anya!” relief flooded him. “You’re alright!”
“I’m happy to see you, too,” she circled him, wincing at his bindings. The rope was bloody, his wrists mangled. “But it looks like your ‘escort’ wasn’t.”
“They jumped me,” he supplied, rolling his eyes. “After wrecking my ride.”
She shook her head, taking a small knife from the folds of her dress.
“You shouldn’t scare them so much,” she cut the rope away, tossing it aside. “They’re on our side, too, you know.”
“They don’t act like it,” he brought his hands in front of him, rubbing the circulation back into them. “Why’d they bring me here, anyway?”
She shrugged, crossing her arms and nodding toward the covered tray waiting by the closest pew.
She pulled the block cloth off the tray, revealing the large needle that waited beneath it, the thin liquid inside an indiscernible color.
“Just one?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she picked it up, taking off the cap. “They said it was time for the next phase.”
He stiffened, stepping back.
“They said the last phase was the last one. Where are they trying to take it now?”
She shook her head again.
“I wish I could tell you,” she started. “But you know I’m not authorized to.”
“That never stopped you before,” he looked at her, the realization suddenly hitting him. “That’s why you disappeared, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she switched the syringe to her other hand, drying her sweaty palm on her dress. “That’s also why I asked those guys to bring you here, you probably would’ve been killed if you’d gone to the hut like you usually do.”
“For what? You never told me anything.”
“You really think that matters to them?”
She unbuttoned the top half of his shirt, practically drooling as she ran her fingers over his ripped chest. He chuckled softly, making her blush. She cleared her throat.
“T-This one’s supposed to go in your heart,” she managed. “I-I can’t say anything else until I give it to you.”
He didn’t protest again, instead watching as the tiny metal tip pierced his skin. A light tingle spread from the site, barely noticeable; his pulse increased slightly, his vision blurring at the edges. He waited for the burning, the pain, to feel as though every cell was being ripped in half from the inside. Instead, the weak symptoms faded as quickly as they had appeared.
“I don’t feel any different.”
“It doesn’t have the same after-effects as the ones you’ve gotten so far,” she capped the syringe, setting it back on the tray; no doubt they’d want proof she’d given it to him. “Listen, have you noticed anything…different since you started getting them?”
He buttoned his shirt, looking thoughtful.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “But then I can’t really remember when all this started.”
He watched as she dug back into the folds of her dress, taking out a photograph from his second birthday. The top half had been neatly cut away, the remaining piece showing a stick-thin toddler. The child was smiling excitedly, his limp, messy hair hanging in his pale eyes. Hardly aware he was doing it, he held up a hand, shocked to see his skin was several shades darker than it appeared in the photo. He stared back up at her, his eyes wide.
“What did those things do to me?”
Alex tapped her pencil on the edge of her notebook, resting her chin in her hand. She’d lost track of how long had passed since she and Eric had kidnapped Lena, that she’d waited for the cops to come and drag her back to juvie. Amazingly, she hadn’t even been questioned in regards to the girl’s disappearance; she wasn’t sure if she was more relieved or insulted.
Guess Stephanie took the credit for herself.
Not that she hadn’t expected that to happen. After all, it was what Stephanie had been the most well-known for, besides her overly-obsessive crush on Jason. She perked up when the library door groaned open, turning to see Lena step aside to let someone out. Alex had been worried the other girl would ignore the note she’d slipped in her locker that morning, going over the story she’d memorized the week before.
She stood, discreetly following Lena to a table near the windows, waiting a few minutes before approaching.
“Uh, hey, mind if I sit here?” she asked hesitantly. Lena looked up from her paper, a flash of surprise in her eyes. She didn’t seem suspicious, though, good.
“Uh, yeah, sure,” she pushed out the chair across from her with her foot. Alex smiled, sitting and unfolding the sketch she’d stolen from the art room.
“Thanks, this spot has the best light,” she bent over the picture, tracing over the lines with a fine-tipped blue marker. The Aztec death mask and broken conch shell looked almost like a black and white photograph.
“That’s really good,” Lena remarked. “How long have you been drawing?”
“Since I could hold a crayon,” casually, she moved her hand so it covered the real artist’s signature. They were dead, anyway. “What’re you working on?”
“Ugh, another essay,” Lena crossed out a word. “Delrio’s been giving us one every week lately.”
Alex cringed lightly in fake sympathy, capping the pen and setting it aside. The picture had started to smudge, pencil dust dyeing the side of her hand. Well, it was now or never. “Hey, you’re dating Jason Vetra, right?”
Lena stopped writing, looking up at her.
“Not really,” she said. “Where’d you hear that?”
Alex twirled her hair, trying to look innocent.
“I think I overheard someone talking about it,” she sighed inwardly. Things were going perfectly. “What do you mean ‘not really’?”
Lena shrugged, going back to her paper. After another minute or so, she stopped, pushing it aside.
“I’ll worry about that later,” she murmured, then turned her full attention to Alex. “I mean, it’s not like we’re actually together or anything.”
“That’s a good thing,” Alex let the next piece slide into place. “My sister went out with him for a while; he treated her like dirt.”
Lena twisted a bit of hair between her fingers, then tucked it behind her ear. Her eyes were hard to look into, the kindness there making Alex want to spill her guts. She swallowed the feeling, putting on her best poker face.
“He never hit her,” she started. “But he was always lying to her. He put her down a lot, too, until she thought she couldn’t do anything right.”
“That doesn’t sound like him,” Lena tilted her head. “He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
“That’s how it started with my sister,” Alex allowed herself the barest hint of a smile. This girl really was gullible. “He pulled her in with the good guy act, then once they got together, he started criticizing everything she did.”
Lena suddenly looked nervous, like she didn’t know what to think.
“W-Who’s your sister?” she finally asked.
“Emily Bradford,” Alex motioned to the wall behind the librarian’s desk, where plaques were hung for the students who’d died. Eric’s was there, right after Emily’s. The photo on hers showed a skinny, pale blonde with gray eyes and freckles, somehow managing to smile and frown at the same time. Chad had told her the story once, how Emily had tried to kill them both during the homecoming game their freshman year.
Jason had barely managed to catch himself on the edge of the bleachers, hanging helplessly as her hand slipped from his. Chad had also mentioned it hadn’t been a spur-of-the-moment choice, that Emily had been acting crazy like that for months beforehand. Had he really been the one to drive her to that state?
She jumped up, grabbing her things and shoving them in her backpack.
“I-I have to go,” she muttered. “I-I’m sorry about your sister…”
Alex grinned smugly as she watched the girl hurry off, while at the same time wondering why she felt sick to her stomach. She shrugged it off.
It’s probably nothing.
“Lady?” a small hand touched Lena’s arm, shaking her lightly. “Lady?”
Lena pushed herself up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She looked around, seeing pale yellow walls covered with posters of cartoon and comic heroes, dolls and toys scattered on some of the beds. She was still in the children’s ward at Second Chance, a dark-haired little girl with mismatched eyes gazing at her expectantly.
“Who’re you?” Lena covered a small yawn with her hand. The girl smiled.
“My name’s Lilly,” she stepped back when Lena sat up, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She hugged her dark green teddy bear, her adorable face glowing with innocence. “And you’re Uncle Jason’s friend.”
“He’s your uncle?”
“Yeah!” she giggled excitedly. “He reads to us every Saturday!”
“And in return you guys torture me,” Jason said suddenly, a smile in his voice. He came in holding a pair of steaming styrofoam cups, his hair in a messy braid tied with shiny pink bands. Lilly giggled again, running to him.
“Uncle Jason!” she hugged his thigh, the highest she could reach. He laughed.
“What’s going on in here?”
“That lady was still asleep,” she pointed to the bed Lena was sitting on. “I woke her up so she wouldn’t miss breakfast!”
Jason shook his head, still smiling fondly.
“Why don’t you go ahead?” he asked her. “We’ll meet you there later.”
“Okay!” Lilly beamed, taking off down the hall. He watched her go, thankful she was recovering so well.
“Sorry about that,” he turned back to Lena, handing her one of the cups; hot chocolate, complete with tiny marshmallows. “She can get pretty excited sometimes.”
“Hey, I lived with triplets,” she reminded him, chuckling. “I’m pretty sure I can handle one five-year-old.”
He sat on the bed next to her, leaning back on one hand.
“You fell asleep pretty quickly last night,” he said. “I didn’t think The Little Princess was that boring.”
She blushed slightly.
“That story’s always put me to sleep,” she offered. “My mom called it her fail-safe.”
She blew lightly on her cocoa, stopping short of taking a sip. Her stomach had suddenly started turning, a small stream of doubt flowing through her. For once, it had nothing to do with her family, instead bringing her back to a conversation she’d had the week before.
“Uh…” she shook her head, setting her cup on the floor. Why was she letting that get to her now, of all times? “You’re, uh, really good with kids.”
He looked at her strangely for a moment, then shrugged.
“I’ve always loved working with them,” he said, then his tone darkened slightly. “Especially when they’re stuck in a place like this.”
He stretched out his leg, pulling up his jeans to reveal part of a raised, faded scar on his calf. She wondered how high it actually went, not realizing until then that she’d never seen him in shorts.
“I was helping my aunt with her horses when a foal got loose,” he started. “Her lead was tangled in a bush when I found her. I’d almost freed her when she got spooked, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up in this hospital. She’d trampled my leg and shattered it.”
What he didn’t say was that foal had been Ebony, who’d since become his favorite. Lena inhaled sharply, cringing.
“That must’ve been brutal.”
“Tell me about it,” he fixed his jeans, leaning back again and sipping his cooling cocoa. “Took me months to learn how to walk again.”
Lena ran her fingers through her tangled hair, the soft ticking of the clock filling the silence. Why had he brought that story up? Was he trying to make her feel sorry for him? She glanced sidelong at him, watching as he undid the braid several little girls had inflicted on him. He was smiling to himself as he did so, tucking the bands in his pocket. He seemed a genuinely good person, was he really capable of all the things she’d heard about?
“I-I should go,” she stood abruptly. The nagging feeling was becoming too hard to ignore. “Kara will kill me if I’m not in my room when she wakes up.”
He looked up at her, confusion etched across his features.
“We’re still on for tonight, though,” he asked. “Right?”
“Yeah, sure,” she hurried out, not looking back. “S-See you then.”
She hurried out, Lilly coming in shortly afterward, her brightly smiling face sticky with syrup.
“You guys missed the french toast,” her excitement faded quickly when she saw his expression. “What happened to that lady?”
“She…left,” he answered simply. Lilly walked to the bed, climbing into his lap.
“Uncle Jason, do you love that lady?”
Jason’s breath caught in his throat. He choked, looking down at her.
“W-What gave you that idea?”
“You said she left,” she touched his cheek, giving him a clear view of the stent in her arm. “My mommy looks sad when Daddy says he has to leave for business.”
He smiled softly, brushing her bangs from her forehead. Kids her age understood a lot more than they were given credit for.
“I do care about her, a lot,” he felt the heat of a blush cross his face. “But I think ‘love’ might be pushing it.”
“Then why do you look so sad?”
He sighed, shaking his head.
“It’s just one of those things,” he gave a small shrug. “I don’t think I get it any more than you do.”
Alex choked as she pulled out the chair, unfolding the crinkled page in her hand and smoothing it out on the tiny table as best she could. She wasn’t sure why she’d written down what had happened with Lena since Stephanie’s arrest, or why she even bothered to keep up with these meetings. It wasn’t like she was getting anything out of them, aside from an increasing sense of guilt about what she’d done.
But Stephanie’s your friend, she tried to convince herself. She even took the rap for the kidnapping so you wouldn’t have to.
She looked up when a door opened, as Stephanie was led to a chair on the other side of the thick glass. Her long, beautiful black hair had been cropped to her ears, her empty gray eyes colder than ever. The steel cuffs gleamed sharply against her pale wrists, her bright orange prison uniform loose and shapeless. She took the phone on her side, holding it to her ear; her fingers were peeling, her nails bitten to the quick. She didn’t say anything, sitting still as a statue, her lips twitching the slightest bit as Alex fumbled with her own phone.
“H-Hey, Stephanie,” she started nervously. “H-How’s it been going?”
She shivered when the older girl finally smiled, the expression more vicious than happy.
“I’m already in charge around here,” she said confidently. The burly guard standing behind her gulped, pulling at his collar as he cleared his throat. “How’re things out there?”
“Uh…” Alex glanced down at her cheat sheet, scanning it quickly. “Oh, uh, everyone’s still waiting for you to come back-”
“I’m not going back to that dump,” her smile faded, her eyes narrowing. She lowered her voice. “Is that bitch still all over Jason?”
“Y-Yeah, but it shouldn’t be too much longer,” she giggled slightly. “I fed her those stories like you said to.”
“Awesome,” she leaned back again. “And she actually bought it?”
“She’s even more gullible than you said she was,” Alex rolled her eyes. “It was like taking candy from a…”
She trailed off when she saw Stephanie’s expression change, practically hearing the gears start to turn in her head.
Hope she won’t make me kidnap that bitch again, she ignored the knot that formed in her stomach. Lena had brought all that on herself, deserved the slander most of their fellow students still threw at her. Even so, being wrapped up in another plot like that wasn’t exactly high on her wish list. She swallowed, glancing at the man still standing by the wall. His posture was unnaturally stiff, the collar of his uniform dark with sweat. Was he actually afraid of Stephanie? She couldn’t say she blamed him.
She snapped to attention when Stephanie cleared her throat. The older girl pulled a folded sheet of paper from her pocket, sliding it across her side of the table and through the small hole at the base of the window.
“There’s something else I want you to do,” she started, then waited until Alex took the sheet, leaning in and lowering her voice. “Call these guys, tell them it’s time to pay for those test answers I gave them.”
She hung up the phone before Alex could say anything, getting to her feet and sauntering past the guard. Even in the ill-fitting jumpsuit, she cut a stunning figure. The man barely glanced at Alex before following; she waited for them to disappear before unfolding the page, her jaw dropping slightly when she saw the names and numbers scrawled across it.
Nathan’s one of the biggest assholes in school…she gulped. The other guys on the list weren’t much better, if anything, they were even worse. What the hell did Stephanie have in mind this time?
She was pretty sure she didn’t want to know.
Lena set down her brush, frowning at her reflection. She could never get her hair as soft or shiny as her mother had been able to. She smoothed down the top of her navy dress, running her hands down her sides. The off-shoulder neckline had been tricker than she’d thought it would be, the tiered skirt even worse. At least it only went down to her knees.
She turned to the mirror again, folding her hair into a bun, then letting it fall free again. Jason had called an hour earlier, saying there was going to be a small change to their date. She put her hair back into a bun, pinning it with the rhinestone pins Miranda had given her just before she’d left.
She still hasn’t gotten back to me, she glanced down at her phone, peeking out of her small black clutch. She sighed, even a shirtless shot of Jason hadn’t been enough to make her respond. Oh, well, not much I can do about it.
She finished her makeup, stepping into her heels just as the doorbell rang. She hurried downstairs, pausing to fix her dress before letting him in.
“Sorry I took so long,” she grinned apologetically. Jason chuckled, leaning down and kissing her lightly.
“You’re worth the wait,” he said softly. He was dressed in dark slacks and a navy blazer pulled over a thin gray sweater. His black dress shoes looked freshly shined. As usual, he’d tied his hair back, his low ponytail tossed carelessly over his shoulder. He flashed his dazzling smile. “You ready to go?”
“S-Sure,” she blushed, taking his arm. She could feel the heat of his skin through his sleeve, her blush darkening as her mind hit the gutter. Averting her gaze, she was surprised to see the limousine idling by the curb, a uniformed man waiting patiently at the wheel. “Uh, where’s your car?”
He rubbed the back of his neck.
“It was nonna’s idea,” he said sheepishly. “There’s nothing wrong with it, is there?”
“Oh, no,” she spoke hurriedly. “I’ve always wanted to ride in one.”
He chuckled again.
“Well, then now’s your chance,” he held the door for her before getting in himself, nodding to the driver. Lena moved to the other end of the dark, glossy leather seat, staring out the window. It was a new moon, the stars unblinking eyes in a clear, inky sky. Jason shifted uncomfortably, scratching at the scar on his cheek.
“You, uh, feeling okay?”
“Huh?” she barely spared him a sideways glance. “Oh, yeah, sure.”
“Doesn’t look that way,” he moved next to her. “What’s going on?”
She was quiet for so long he started to wonder if she’d even answer.
“I should’ve called this off,” she muttered at last. He looked at her quizzically.
“What do you-“
“Don’t play dumb,” she turned on him, her gaze hot with anger. “I know about the emails, that you’re fed up with the little nobody trailing you everywhere!”
“Aw, come on,” he rubbed the back of his neck. “You said you didn’t believe those rumors-”
“I also think it’s it weird that whenever she got in my face at school, you were never around,” she sounded even more upset. “Did you guys plan that too?”
They stopped at a red light. She threw the door open, storming off down the street. The people still out stepped aside, a few of them turning to stare at Jason.
“Lena, wait!” he stumbled out after her. “Where are you going?”
She stopped briefly, her posture stiff, her fists clenched at her sides.
“I’m going home,” she snapped shortly, keeping her back to him. “I never want to see you again!”
She slapped his hand away when he touched her shoulder, breaking into a run. Tears blurred her vision, but she didn’t care, wanting only to get as far from him as possible. After some time, she tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, catching herself on a light pole. Panting as she slid to the ground, she coughed, shivering as she wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
I left my coat in the limo…
She looked up at the sound of footsteps, shrinking back against the pole as a trio of boys approached, dressed in dark clothes. The one in front held out a hand, smiling slightly. He was the smallest, though still looked like he could break her neck without trying.
“Little far from home, aren’t you?” he asked. She nodded, taking his hand and letting him help her back to her feet.
“I-I guess,” she shivered, hugging herself again. “W-Who are you?”
She gasped sharply when his friend grabbed her, holding her wrists tightly behind her. The boy in front of her chuckled, his widening grin turning dark as he traced the line of her chin.
“We don’t get too many girls around here,” he said. “Let alone bombshells like you.”
He pulled off his bulky sweatshirt, revealing a lean, chiseled body. The chill in the air didn’t seem to affect him at all.
“Keep quiet,” he leaned close, holding the tip of a small knife to her neck. “Or you’re dead.”
Too frightened to speak, Lena nodded, biting her lip as he ran the blade lightly along her collarbone. He continued down the the neckline of her dress, licking his chapped lips as he slowly began to cut the fabric.
“Oh, yeah, I’m so gonna enjoy this…”
“Let her go.”
Lena gasped in relief when she saw Jason, his eyes glittering dangerously in the light of the lamp. The shirtless boy looked at him, then laughed.
“If that’s what you want,” he turned to his other friend, who until now had stood silently to the side. “Robbie, take his ass out.”
Robbie nodded, moving with almost impossible speed. Jason sidestepped him, watching as his momentum threw him forward. He caught himself on his hands, his eyes widening as he stared over his shoulder.
“Christ, Nate, this guy’s one of us!”
Jason scoffed, dodging Robbie’s next blow. His shock had thrown him off-balance again, the fear in his eyes flaring before fading behind his lids; Jason had dealt a vicious punch to the back of his head. Laughing, Nate tore Lena from his friend’s grasp, holding her back to his chest and his knife to her neck.
“So you managed to knock one of us out,” he sneered. “Doesn’t mean you’ll get her back so easily. Mark, ice him.”
Jason glanced behind him, ducking below the bat aimed at his head. He grabbed Mark’s wrist, yanking him down and jamming an elbow in his temple. He slumped, Jason smirking as he shoved him to the ground.
“You’re the only one left, Nate,” he said. “If you don’t want to end up like your friends, or worse, you’ll let her go.”
Lena shuddered, feeling the blade dig deeper into her skin before falling away.
“You won this round,” Nate pushed her forward. “But it won’t be so easy next time!”
He ran off, leaving his friends behind. Holding her neck, Lena gave a shaky sigh of relief, turning to Jason. Tears flooding her eyes, she ran to him, throwing herself in his arms.
“Oh, Jason,” she sniffled. “I-I was so scared! T-Those guys came out of nowhere!”
“Don’t worry,” he hugged her back tightly, glancing up to see two figures limping deeper into the night. “Everything’s okay now…”
Lena settled down on the futon in Jason’s basement, holding her knees tightly to her chest. He’d asked her if she wanted to go home after her ordeal, surprised when she’d blurted out she’d feel safer if she stayed with him. She glanced toward where he’d disappeared behind the pale gray divider, recalling how he’d fought for her.
“Why’d you come after me?” she asked. He stepped out from behind it, pulling a faded blue baseball shirt over his head.
“I wasn’t just gonna leave you out there,” he walked over, leaning against the arm of the futon, looking down at her. She’d wiped every trace of makeup away, looking small in the shirt he’d lent her. “You really feel safe with me?”
“Not many people have tried to protect me,” she said. A small jolt of realization hit her; she turned away from him. “I’m sorry about what happened earlier, I don’t know what came over me-”
“It doesn’t matter,” he crossed his arms loosely at his chest. “I’m just glad I found you before something worse happened.”
She draped her hair over her shoulder, running her fingers through it. She’d never been sure why it calmed her down, but it always did.
“Did…Did you know those guys?”
“I couldn’t tell if I recognized them or not,” he sat next to her. “It’s not like I was paying a lot of attention.”
Lena pressed her lips together, looking away from him. Her brain was going haywire, blurring everything she’d ever heard about him, his family, until she couldn’t tell fact from fiction. She hadn’t wanted to insult him by asking, now feeling she’d go insane if she didn’t. From under her bangs, she glanced up at him, seeing the same neutral expression he always wore, the way he drummed his fingers on his thigh when deep in thought. Could he really be capable of what some people had accused him of?
“Um…Jason?” she swallowed thickly. “Uh, c-can I ask you something?”
She nearly lost her nerve when he turned to her, the slightest hint of confusion on his face.
“Well…” she stopped. What had she wanted to ask him? Thinking fast, she blurted the first thing that came to mind. “Do you think they’ll ever, uh, catch that Blackwood guy?”
“I don’t know,” he said after a moment. “This isn’t the first time this guy’s come around, they didn’t have any luck then, either.”
He draped an arm around her, gently pulling her against him. She put a hand on his chest, smiling when she felt the calming, steady throb of his heart. Tilting her head back, she gazed longingly at him, blushing lightly when he moved to kiss her.
“He’ll never get near you,” he murmured against her lips. “I promise.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” his voice was barely above a whisper. He watched the scene play out through the narrow basement window, crouched in the safety of darkness. All that time, he’d tried to ignore the shard of betrayal sinking into his heart, to lock the pain away to worry about later. It only got worse when he saw Jason brush her bangs aside, the feather-light kiss he placed of her forehead. He bit hard on his lip, not bothering to hide his anger as he finished the report. “And they’re looking pretty cozy.”
There was a short pause, then the sound of the boss humming thoughtfully.
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” he said. Even now, after all the years he’d worked for the agency, he still couldn’t figure the man out. While he did seem to care, he also seemed to think of his agents as little more than tools. What exactly was his end game? “They’ll both be gone soon enough.”
“I guess,” he looked through the window again, his chest tightening when he saw how happy Lena looked in Jason’s arms. It should’ve been him down there with her, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way! “But what if he figures it out? What if he tries to stop us?”
“He won’t live long enough to,” there was no hesitation, no doubt. “And he’d only be making things harder for himself if he did. He’s tangled in this even more than we are.”
He tucked the small radio in his coat pocket, his mind drifting to thoughts of the future. So far, Lena was nothing more than an innocent bystander, but his superiors were sure that wouldn’t last forever. Jason would have to tell her the truth eventually, whether from the stress of keeping the secret or because she stumbled onto part of it herself. Either way, it would mean he’d have to kill her, if only these feelings toward her would stop. It was one of few times he wished he’d been reborn differently, as one of those heartless experiments he was fighting to protect.
He shuddered, recalling the tour of the labs he’d endured as a new agent, where he’d witnessed the creation of one of those creatures. The eager scientist guiding him had explained they would change the way wars were fought, by keeping soft, fragile humans away from the battlefields. He’d hurried to his apartment as soon as he’d been able to, spending the rest of the night vomiting into his toilet.
Things had only gotten worse from there, when he’d learned the rest of that hellish process; the injections, the surgeries, the brainwashing. And that was just the beginning.
I can’t let her get mixed up in this, he turned back to the window. Lena was still curled up against Jason’s side, ignorant of what she’d chosen to get close to. Now she was trapped in the crosshairs, and there didn’t seem to be any way to get her out. Unless…
I have to put a stop to all this, he got to his feet, hurrying for the treeline. Before more innocent people are killed.