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Chapter 26

I woke in the morning with light streaming through the window, the rain residue quickly drying from the early sun. I sat up, admiring my still neat bed and the fact that I had slept like I had been drugged on cold medicine. After two days of no sleep, I’d needed it.

The apartment was quiet, practically undisturbed, and I figured West and Ethan were still asleep. I swung my legs over the bed, just now realizing I had no clean clothes. West didn’t either. We’d lost everything when they had—very rudely—taken us.

I eyed the dresser in the corner and wondered if somebody had actually thought of us homeless people and stocked it. The wooden floors were cold and hard as I walked over and pulled on the small metal brackets. And to my surprise, there were two sets of clothes. One side of the dresser was filled with men’s clothes, but the other half had girls.

I pulled out a grey hoodie and inhaled the fresh smell of detergent like an addict. Without another thought I pulled it over my head, never knowing how much it was possible to miss clean clothes. It was the little things like this I missed most. After I put on a fresh pair of jeans I snuck out into the hallway.

I walked down the hall and straight into the kitchen as my stomach growled right on cue. It was spotless and unused just like one of those kitchen sets in big furniture stores. The ones that just sat there, taunting you with their shiny appliances and unstained counters. They seemed to smile at you, almost laughing because you can’t use it, and you have no choice but leave that perfect kitchen sitting unused for a while longer.

I bit my bottom lip and eyed the freezer door, almost trying to make something appear inside. It would be amazing if it was there. It would be a priceless moment if it was. I crossed into the kitchen and pulled the door open, letting the fog roll out.

A smile spread across my lips.

Fifteen minutes later I was sitting at the kitchen island with my head propped up in the hands, just waiting for what I knew was going to come. The apartment was quiet until I heard the sound of creaking floor boards. A door opened down the hallway. There was a pause, and then it closed again. Dresser drawers opened and closed, quickly followed by the shuffling of feet. A door opened again and footsteps came down the hallway, almost hesitantly, as if not believing something was here.

West stopped on the other side of the island with a sleepy but curious expression on his face. He wore a new pair of jeans along with a clean white T-shirt, looking like he had just walked out of a fashion shoot for a magazine. My face flushed but his mind was only on one thing at the moment, so he didn’t notice. Thankfully.

His eyes went from me and back to oven several times before he stopped, finally choosing me. His mouth opened but no words came out.

He tried again. “Is my nose deceiving me . . . or is that what I truly hope it is?”

I straighten up and glanced back at the oven.

“If you don’t want it, I could just throw it out.” I shrugged, and finally the smile I was holding back came out. A grin broke across West’s face as he walked around the island, his hand coming up to the side of my face and giving me a soft kiss.

As he pulled away, he let out a short breath. “I’m still not used to that,” he murmured.

“Used to what?”

“My heart racing every time I’m near you.” I must have made a face because he studied me more. “What?” he asked curiously.

“I thought I was the only one with that problem.”

“So, you’re admitting you only have one problem?” He looked up at the ceiling with a thoughtful expression and I knew where he was going with this. “What about the time you jumped from a helicopter?” He looked down and was met with my glare. But I couldn’t keep that up for long, and he knew it. His eyes were pulling me in again, like they always did so easily.

Just then the buzzer went off. His eyes lit up as he spun around me like a windstorm. As West was cutting up his dream food, Ethan shuffled out og his room and sat down on one of the barstools. He still looked tired but his eyes were more awake than yesterday.

“Did anyone call about Seth?” he asked.

“No, not yet. We’ll go right after we eat, okay?”

He glanced around me with his eyebrows raised. “Pizza for breakfast?”

“Pizza everyday,” West stated behind me, and I gave a small roll of my eyes. He set plates in front of both of us; his mouth already full, and gave me another silly glance. For a whole three minutes the room was silent. Ethan was finished first and he went into his room to get changed. It almost felt like life was normal again. Almost.

“Do you think it’ll ever feel the same as it did before this all happened?” I asked quietly.

West didn’t no long to answer. “No.”

The whole war felt like a never ending nightmare. Even if it did eventually stop, what would we do? Go back home to an empty house and no parents? The South City was probably totally destroyed anyway.

Someone knocked on our door and West opened it, revealing Cruz backed by two other soldiers in full gear. He nodded to us, including to Ethan who had his head poked out of his bedroom door.

“Sorry to come by so early, but General Martin wants to see you as soon as possible.”

“I thought we were going to see Seth this morning,” Ethan said, walking out of his room.

I turned back to Cruz. “Can we drop my brother off at the hospital so he can see our friend Seth?”

“Sure thing. He just asked for the two of you anyway.”

West gave me a curious look, but I just shrugged and grabbed my shoes. You would think I would be getting used to us being confronted with these situations, but I really wasn’t. We followed the three men downstairs and into the back of their Hummer.

Now that is was day, and we could really see the damage around us. It looked as if an earthquake shook the entire city, causing buildings to crumble and break, but I knew that wasn’t the case. The roads were now one lane roads, looking as if a plow went through to clear away the rubble and anything else that might have been in the way. There weren’t many people on the streets either, almost like they had just gotten up and walked away, abandoning everything that was destroyed or buried.

“Where is everyone?” I asked, looking out the window. Cruz glanced in his rearview mirror and frowned, making the dimples on his stubbly face stand out.

“Most everyone is still here, just staying indoors or helping us. We’re letting anyone who wants to fight alongside us.” He made a quick glance at West. “Including your people. There’re more here than you think.”

“They’re not my people,” West mumbled.

I looked over to him, on the other side of Ethan, and he seemed to be deep in thought, just staring out his window.

“Well, whatever you want to call em’. But to answer your question, Reese, a lot of people—especially families—have left the city to find a safer place until everything’s done and over. There’s no point cleaning up the mess if there’s going to be more coming.”

I nodded solemnly and watched the passing buildings out my window again. It was weird seeing the world this way. My whole life I had nothing but a great family, and a house with a roof that had never been blown in before. I never thought it could end up this way, so broken and chaotic. Thousands dead for practically nothing.

The Hummer slowed to a stop and Ethan quickly climbed over me to get out. He gave me a small wave before disappearing into the hospital tent. The vehicle slowed again a few minutes later but this time in front a large building that almost looked untouched. After we walked inside, the extra soldiers Cruz had brought with him stayed behind as we came to an elevator. There were only three levels and he punched his fist into the second.

We all stood in silence as it rose higher. It was classic elevator scene from a movie in my mind, and I almost laughed.

The doors widened, revealing a long hallway with dark rugs and natural lighting coming through the windows at both ends. Cruz led us straight across the hallway to a pair of large wooden doors. He was about to knock, but paused, turning back towards us.

“Um, just don’t stare into his eyes for too long, all right?”

My eyes widened a bit and West’s eyebrows raised. Cruz stared at us a moment before a grin broke out and he let out a laugh.

“It was a joke.” He nudged West in the shoulder and finally knocked on the door.

“Come in.”

Cruz turned the knob and we followed him in. The office was large and furnished with a sitting area, and a long desk centered in front of a wide window. A big area rug covered the middle of the floor and dim lights were placed in the darker corners, making the room seem bright and welcoming.

The general standing behind the desk was older than us, but younger than I expected. His short light hair was disheveled but seemed to match his appearance. He wasn’t wearing an officer’s uniform either, but full out gear, same as Cruz, just minus the guns. As he stepped around the desk, I could make out a thin scar running down the side of his face to add to his ruggedness.

“West, Reese.” He nodded to us before turning to Cruz. “Could you wait outside the door for a moment?”

“Yes, sir.”

The man motioned to a pair of chairs placed before his desk as he sat in his own on the other side. I had to admit, I ’d been nervous as we entered the room, but his presence had a calming affect, his eyes almost seeing right through me. He felt like someone I could trust.

“I’ve got to say, I’ve been wanting to meet you two for some time now. But honestly, I wasn’t sure if I ever would. I’m sorry about your friend Seth, I heard about his injuries this morning.”

“You’ve met Seth?” I asked disbelievingly.

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “He’s the one who convinced me to send a team after you. He showed up here yesterday morning, demanding to see me.” He looked between us and finally landed his eyes on me. “The younger one was your brother, wasn’t he?”

I nodded.

“Yes, well, he was . . . just as demanding.” He cracked a smile but I saw that West wasn’t very amused. He was oddly quiet at the moment.

“Well, we should probably thank you, then,” I said.

He waved it away. “It needed to be done. This war would have been over already if they had managed to keep you. People need to know that you’re still alive and fighting, and I know you probably don’t think it matters, but it does. We would have never gotten this far if it wasn’t for you two. People look up to you. You being here is important to them.”

West finally moved, leaning forward. “Why does it matter so much? We’re nobodies. Just normal people who want to get through this thing alive. We’ve never had it in mind to have people follow in our footsteps. We were just trying to survive, and I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Reese. I’m sorry, I just don’t believe people think of us as rebels, or, whatever you want to call us. There’s no way everything happened because of what we did.”

A slight frown appeared on the general’s face. “Reese?”

I paused, not ready to be asked anything. “I don’t know either. It just doesn’t make any sense that people would believe in rumors about someone they’ve never seen. Yes, people from both sides are here supposedly, but that was their own choice wasn’t it? They chose to come here; they didn’t come here thinking we were some sort of rebellious leaders so we could lead them to victory. We’re not. We never were.”

“I know you’re not, but it’s still true.” He suddenly stood. “Follow me, I want to show you something.”

West and I exchanged glances with before following him out the door. Cruz fell into step behind us and we walked farther down the hall.

General Martin stepped into a dim, silent room and we followed him in. West and I stared across the room where the entire wall was glass, stepping closer so we could get a better look at what we were seeing.

We were in an overlook, displaying a large oval room with built in steps that climbed the walls where people could sit or stand. It was full of people, all waiting for something. But the thing that shocked us most was that it wasn’t just soldiers, but soldiers from both sides, standing alongside citizens as well. I had no idea there were so many.

I felt West’s hand slide into mine, knowing he was feeling the same.

General Martin’s footsteps come up beside us. He shifted his weight for a moment before giving a small sigh.

“Why are they here?” West asked.

“We’ve received some news a few hours ago about the East City. They’ve gathered their forces and are on their way. They thought they would have taken control of everything by now, and they’re getting impatient.”

I turned to look at him. “They’re already mounting an attack?”I asked. I hadn’t believed it would happen so soon. We’d just gotten here.

“They’ll be here sometime tonight.” He stepped back and sat down in one of the chairs. West took my hand and led me to the couch across from him. I was out of words for the moment. “They’ve pulled all their men out of the South City and brought them up to the East. The only advantage we have is the fact they’re running low on men.”

“But almost half of your force is made up of locals,” West added. “Even if they do decide to stand with you.”

“And that’s why I called you here.”

“I’ve told you, those people aren’t here for us. Does it really make a difference if we are standing alongside them in this? Yes, we took a stand and fought for our lives but who hasn’t? They’ll fight with you either way, won’t they? We just . .we want to be treated like everyone else. We’re no different from them.”

General Martin barely even blinked.

“West, it’s very true they do not look to you two as leaders.” He held up a hand to keep him from interrupting him. “To them, you are a sign of hope.”

West’s face went blank and he looked down, staring intently at the rug.

I finally saw that the general was right. We were living examples of hope when there was none to be found. Yes, people might have changed their prospective on things because of what we did, but what mattered was that now we had something to fight for. When this war started it seemed that everything was already done and finished. It seemed hopeless.

But now that people were working together, and actually had a fighting chance, there was more hope of finishing it. And from what the general was saying . . . we were the proof.

We were proof that anything could be done by doing what you believe is right.

“And now I need to ask more of you,” he said. “When their army comes tonight, I want both of you to fight with us. Those people down there need you two fighting alongside them, to give them the hope they need for us to win. But I also understand if you would rather leave before they come. You both have been through enough. I wouldn’t put it against you.”

It came to a surprise to me that I wasn’t freaking out. Shouldn’t this be something to freak out about? Going into a full on battle and being shot at, having a high possibility of dying? West stared ahead, thinking deeply.

I suddenly looked over at the general and the words poured form my mouth before I even thought of them.

“Okay, I’ll do it.”

The two of them stared at me with wide eyes, but the general pulled back his expression faster. I turned to West and saw that he was actually giving me a small smile.

“You really want to do this?” he asked.

“Yeah, I do. I want this to be over, one way or another. I want everything to stop. I’ll regret it if I don’t, and I can’t live knowing I walked away from a fight that was all of ours to begin with.”

The general smiled. “Thank you, Reese. What about you, West? I know this isn’t your fight but . . .” He left the sentence hanging.

West barely thought about it before he gave his answer.

“I’m in.” Then he turned towards me. “I’ll follow you anywhere. Even if you decide to jump from a helicopter again.” He grinned and a confused look flashed across General Martin’s face.

A knock echoed off the door and Cruz admitted another soldier.

“They’re ready for you, sir.”

“Thank you, we’ll be out in a moment.”

Martin stood and took a deep breath. “I’ve never been good at public speaking.” He almost was saying it to himself. “You both don’t have to say anything, just being there is enough.”

We followed him out the door, and my heart was fluttered, knowing all those eyes were about to be on us. Or, maybe it was from what I just agreed to do, and the fact it was only hours away.

The four of us made it down to the ground level and we were suddenly walking towards the entrance to the auditorium. I kept my eyes on the general’s back as we entered.

The sudden silence brought our footsteps as echoes, bouncing off the plain walls like claps of thunder. The weight of staring eyes made my shoulders heavy and my back itch. The crowd parted as we walked through the room like a flood through dried leaves.

After finally gaining enough courage, I moved my eyes, but the first place they went to was West. He gave me a side glance with a reassuring smile.

General Martin came to a stop near the middle of the room where there was a large open space. People surrounded us, just staring, waiting for what they were about to hear.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said, pausing to take a deep breath. “I’m sure all of you have heard that sometime during the night we will be under attack.” To my surprise, there wasn’t much murmuring in the crowd, like they always knew this was going to happen eventually. “They’ll come strong and quick; you all know what platoons you’ve been assigned to and know what to do when that time comes.

“I have no doubt that any of you are willing and capable, and I know we can do this. Unlike our enemies out there, we have something to fight for. Our homes and families have been stripped away one way or another. Some of you are fighting for those who you’ve lost, and some of you are fighting for what you still have. These people have taken things from you that can never be replaced, and we can no longer allow them to stand in our way.

“We’ve stood together before now, and now we will do it again. None of us thought it would be this way; enemies finding common ground. I thought it was impossible before this war.” He paused and turned to us, and my heart raced. He looked at us both together and so was everyone else.

“West, we all know what you did in the South City, and it made other soldiers in the United army also stand against what they know is wrong. You started everything. But nothing would have been started if it hadn’t been for Reese.”

He looked at me. “West’s actions would have died with him that day if you hadn’t intervened. They’d kept it quiet by trying to eliminate the person who’d done it, hoping everyone would forget if he wasn’t alive, no longer fighting for what he believed. But you triggered everything, Reese. You kept him alive, and his former actions along with him.”

I opened my mouth to protest but no words came out.

“You caused that fire to spread, but not only to them, but also to us. We began to trust the people who wanted to help us, and look where it got us.” He motioned his hands around him. “We have both of you to thank for that, and what you’re about to go through with us tonight.”

This time people started whispering, and some even smiled. But I was worried that I would let them down in some way. I was never cut out for war, and I wasn’t sure if I even had the guts to go into battle.

I was so engrossed in my own thoughts that I missed the general dismissing everyone. When I came to, people were slowly making their way towards the exits, and quietly talking among another. West gently grabbed my hand and we started following Cruz through the throng of people.

I wasn’t surprised really; I was just as nervous going out of this building than I was going in.

I knew we all had a long night ahead of us and it was only going to get darker than it already was.

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