Tess had a hard time waking up the next morning. Her back hurt slightly from sleeping on the floor and she dreaded having to face Scott. Maybe it would be best to work alone, but she wanted to know more. Scott held the key to finding out more about Never World and The Creator. He was how she could find out why she was feeling so weird about the competition.
When Tess reentered the game, the mood was tense. Nate stood up from where he was sitting against the rock wall and exchanged glances with Tess. Scott came to a moment later and looked around, almost unsure of where he was. She was sure he had had a pretty awful night from the looks of it.
“Tess…” Scott started.
Nate grabbed Tess’s arm and started to lead her forward.
“Don’t,” Nate said, looking back at Scott. She wasn’t sure what Nate meant by that because Scott nodded and continued to follow them. Maybe he had allowed Scott to still be part of their team. He eyed Tess again. “Everything’s fine.”
She knew that he meant they couldn’t talk about it inside the game. There was danger in having that discussion with everyone listening, especially The Creator. They had to act somewhat normal until they could figure out what to do.
The day was long and it felt like it was going by at an agonizingly slow pace. Tess was somewhat relieved that they didn’t come across anyone. Everyone was still probably playing it safe.
They found a river to stop at for a while and drink from. Scott sat on a rock away from them. As she analyzed Nate she could see how angry he was. It was hard to hide.
Tess reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Are we in danger?” She asked.
After a few moments, Nate shook his head.
“Hurt,” Tess answered for him.
“Don’t skip dinner tonight. We all need to talk,” Nate said.
They decided to stick by the river until the level was over for the day. She had a feeling everything would be different tomorrow. Everyone probably just wanted it to end.
When Tess arrived back in her room, she waited patiently for Dr. Tucker to come and bring her to dinner. He watched her carefully as she walked next to him down the hallway. Everything felt strange now since Scott had told her what he did. It felt like everyone was watching her and protecting her in some way—until they got what they wanted. She wondered if that had anything to do with Dr. Young being removed as her programmer.
But Tess planned on keeping The Dark Hand’s words to herself. She knew she needed to. She wasn’t sure what it all meant yet, but it was clearly important
Nate and Scott were already waiting at their usual table. Eleanor and Sonya were the only others in the cafeteria and they were sitting by themselves.
Tess grabbed an apple and sat down to join them. She sat next to Nate and across from Scott. She wanted to see his face.
Nate started the discussion right away.
“We can’t talk about much because who knows who’s listening in,” Nate said. He looked at Scott. “You might know.”
“I don’t know much,” Scott said. “It’s the truth.”
Nate leaned forward in his chair and wrung his hands together.
“I just need to know one thing before we move forward,” he said. “Are you my friend now or are you lying?”
Scott stared back at Nate.
“I’m your friend. I can promise you that,” Scott said. He looked at Tess. “I wouldn’t have told you if I wasn’t.”
“How could we possibly trust you?” Tess asked. She tried to keep her voice down. “I can’t even believe…I was starting to…”
They waited, but Tess was unable to finish her sentence. She didn’t want to feel vulnerable in front of Scott. She didn’t want to let him know what she was feeling.
“Listen, Tess…I,” he paused and looked down at the table. “Once I got to know Nate and then when I started to think about what I was doing, I stopped. Of course I was protecting you and I still will, but I won’t do their dirty work.”
“But they’ll hurt you,” Nate said. “You said so yourself.”
Scott grinned and then shrugged.
“I can fight fire with fire.”
“What exactly do you know about Never World?” Tess asked.
“Not much more than you. I know you have something they want,” Scott explained. “I know they’re really desperate to find out what you know. I think you’re safe for now…they might even let you win.”
“How do we know this isn’t another trap?” Tess added, raising an eyebrow. “Maybe you’re doing this so I’ll open up to you.”
“I know it’s hard to trust me now, but all I can do is give you my word. I told you what I know and I won’t ever ask you about The Dark Hand again. I was just trying not to die…just like you’re trying to save your father.”
Tess bit her lip and eyed Nate. He put a hand on her shoulder.
“Can we all agree there’s something shady about all of this?” Nate asked.
“Something?” Scott said. “Everything. We’re not safe here.”
“Let’s not talk about it until later,” Nate suggested.
They remained silent until it was time to leave. Nate whispered a time in her ear as he got up.
Later that night, Tess met up in the chatroom. Nate was the only one there at first.
“I’m not going to ask you what they want to know. I just want you to know I had no idea about Scott. As you can probably tell, I’m just as confused as you are.”
“I know. Do you think we can trust him?” Tess asked.
“I think so, but it’s up to you. I won’t let him on our team if you don’t want him to be here,” Nate said.
Tess smiled at him, feeling grateful. She wasn’t sure why it was so easy to trust Nate, but it was. It felt natural. It felt right.
“He told us,” Tess said. “I’ll keep my secrets. That’s all I have to do.”
“That’s right,” Nate responded, with a grin. “You got it, Gal.”
“I’m gonna go, but I thought you might want to talk to Scott again. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
Nate looked at her to make sure everything really was okay. He closed his eyes and in a few moments he was gone.
Tess waited alone until Scott finally appeared. He sat next to her on the couch without saying anything for a little while.
“I’m sorry,” Scott said. “I know it might sound strange, but I really care what you think about me.”
“You were only sent here to spy on me. How could you possibly care about me in any way?” Tess asked.
“I don’t know how it happened, but I do care,” Scott said. “I know you figured out that I shot Robert with that arrow.”
“I guess I don’t have to ask why you did that. You couldn’t let me die,” Tess said. “There was an ulterior motive.”
“I didn’t want you to die. From the first moment I saw you. Nate talked about you so much…I just wanted to be around you,” Scott said. “It’s silly…and hard to explain.”
Tess didn’t want to admit she wanted to be around Scott too. She had never felt so compelled to be in someone’s presence before. She had never allowed herself to and she wasn’t going to start now.
“Just make sure nothing happens to Nate. He deserves to get better. He’s your friend,” she said.
“And you’re not my friend?” Scott asked.
“It’s too soon to say,” she said. “I don’t really know anything about you. You lied to me, remember?”
Scott grinned and she saw that much of his glow had returned to him. He was lighter, somehow.
“You’re going to make me work for this, aren’t you?”
Tess stood up and lingered in front of him. She wasn’t in the mood to joke around. It all felt too serious.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Scott.”
Tess could barely sleep when she returned to her room. She felt strangely on edge, despite her talk with Scott.
She still had secrets gnawing at her that could get her into trouble and she wasn’t sure why.
Tess thought the mood would be lighter when she entered the game the next morning, but everyone was still tense. This time it had nothing to do with Scott.
They all somehow knew that level would end that day.