“Zu?” she called again.
“Okay!” I shouted back, my voice raw from the smoke and the staggering relief that arrived both unexpected and uncontained.
They’re trying to help.
They should have run—but somehow, they’d known something was coming, and they’d tried to warn us. They’d rushed into the fray to help all these kids.
The two teens who had been guarding them burst out of the trees, rushing past me. Each had a sobbing kid clinging to their back.
“Owen,” I said, leaning down to look him in the eye. His skin was feverish to the touch. “You need to go with them, all right?”
“I can help,” he said quietly.
The heavy smoke fell over us like a curtain. Even when I breathed through my mouth, I could taste it coating my tongue.
And Owen…He flinched at every gasp or soft cry as the kids who’d been guarding the hole crossed paths with the charred remains of the soldiers.
“You already did,” I promised. “The only way you can help now is to go with them to safety.”
One of the guards held out her hand to Owen, urging him forward. He pulled away from me, but instead of taking the girl’s hand, he raised his arms.
“What are you doing?” I asked him. “Owen!”
The flames narrowed and rose like mountains where they covered the house, invincible, gorging themselves on the pure air and wood frame. But then Owen smashed his hands together with a single loud clap, and, all at once, they were smothered.
With one last reluctant look at me, he ran after the others.
A second too late to warn them, I remembered the girl, how I’d told her where to go to find the Haven kids who had already evacuated.
Thanks for letting me know.
That had been before the fire. She, or one of the soldiers, would have had time to go after them. To hurt them.
I spotted Roman as he ducked behind a tree, taking a moment to reload his gun.
Stopping only long enough to pick up the pistol that had fallen from the female soldier’s hand, I soared toward him like an arrow. Bullets thundered through the air as I ran.
Roman spun toward me, a wild look of relief on his face as I slammed into the trunk, dropping down beside him. One hand reached out, cupping the back of my head to draw me closer. He had to shout to be heard over the gunfire. “Are you all right? Tell me they didn’t hurt you—”
No—no time for that—
“They know how to find the kids,” I gasped out. “They’re going to go after them!”
His body went rigid. “Like hell they are. Priya!”
Priyanka was all color and motion, backlit by the lingering patches of fire in the trees. She ran for us, dropping to slide on her hip and leg across the last few feet of mud. Wincing, she said, “Okay, don’t let me do that again. Looks awesome, feels terrible—”
Roman cut her off. “There’s some kind of crawl space or escape route out of the house.” He glanced at me, confirming. I nodded. “They found out where it is. Can you take care of it while we finish here?”
Her expression turned grave. “Yeah. Where is it?”
“Under the dryer in the laundry room,” I said. “There might still be a few kids trapped upstairs in the attic. Call out for Jacob when you get inside and let him know we’ve got everyone.”
She nodded, tossing her long hair back over her shoulder. “I’m going to remind you that heroes frequently die, but the morally mediocre people almost always live to see another day. Don’t do anything that’s going to piss me off.”
And with that, Priyanka bolted for the house, leaving us to cover her as one of the remaining soldiers opened fire from somewhere in the forest. The screen door snapped shut behind her, then fell completely off its frame. A section of the porch collapsed with a sigh of cracking wood, burying the bodies there.
I reached out, gripping Roman’s arm to reclaim his attention. “You should have run. What are you even doing here?”
Streaks of soot covered Roman’s face, and his dark hair had fallen into his eyes, but it was impossible to miss their startling shade of blue. It burned in the darkness, pulling me in a bit closer.
There was a quiet catch in his throat, as if he’d skipped a breath. Then his dark lashes lowered, and he allowed himself a ghost of a smile. “We would have come sooner, except that noise—you took care of it, didn’t you? The second I pulled myself back up off the ground, I thought, There’s going to be nothing left for us to do but watch as you sweep up the rest of them.”
I straightened at the words, only to realize there had been nothing mocking in them. His genuine tone and that slight, almost amazed curve of his lips made me brace a hand against the ground, unsteady.
“I’m the reason they’re here,” I whispered back as he turned back to the forest, adjusting his grip on the weapon. “This is my fault. That stupid phone—”
He reached over, gripping my shoulder. “It’s not your fault. If anything, it’s mine. I should have thought of it. I know better. I know how people like this work. You were the one who did everything right in this situation.”
“I should have known, too,” I said, shaking my head.
In the panic after the power went out, I hadn’t even thought to wonder how they’d anticipated the attack. But now that Roman was here, in front of me, as calm and steady as always, I reclaimed some small bit of center. Of clarity. “How did you and Priyanka know we’d plugged it in?”
He risked a glance at me. “We heard the helicopters in the distance. We’d been so careful on the drive not to be followed or seen, so it was the only explanation either of us could come up with.”
There was another faint scream in the distance—a girl’s. We both whirled toward it.
“What do you want to do?” Roman asked.
“Split up,” I said, starting to rise. “You go left, I go right, and we meet back up at the lake. Is that where the helicopters landed?”
He shook his head. “There wasn’t room to land. They dropped them. That gives us some time while they wait for transport.”
I nodded, breathing in the smoky air. My eyes held that image of him rising from the ground, so solid and unafraid.
“You should have left,” I said again. Thank you for not leaving.
“Come together,” he said, “leave together.”
Before I could respond, Roman’s expression shifted again. The searing look of determination became what could only be pain.
Not pain. Agony.
Roman’s breath exploded out of him as it hit. One hand shot out, feeling through the air for something to grip—something to use for balance. It landed on my outstretched arm, and I had to fight to keep him from collapsing back onto the ground.
He shook his head, sweat beading on his face with the force of the cry he was holding in.
“Roman!” I said.
This wasn’t like the migraine before; that had been as simple as something unplugging his consciousness. Now his body locked, jerking as if the pain had its hands on his throat and was slowly strangling him.
“What’s wrong?” I demanded, checking his pulse, gripping his face in my hands to keep him from pounding his skull against the rocks. “What’s happening? Roman!”
“Kids…get…kids…” he gasped out. “Go!”
I let him fall against me, sliding my hands beneath his shirt, feeling along the hard lines of his back and shoulders for a bullet wound or shrapnel or anything to explain why his gaze had gone so unfocused. His fingers tightened on my forearm, pressing hard enough to bruise. A warning.
“You know I don’t like having to do this.”
The girl. She tucked her hands into the pockets of her jacket, tossing her long hair over her shoulder. “You make this so hard. I don’t know how else to get through to you.”
I looked between her and Roman. His lips were moving, struggling to get the words out. She wasn’t just locking his mind, it looked like she was attacking it.
bsp; Roman cried out, his legs thrashing on the ground as she took another step forward.
“I’m trying to help you. I should kill you myself for what you did. I’m supposed to, you know. Kill you. Some days, I even think I might want to.” Her voice was low, seething. It was only then, with the clarity of the hate in those words, that I realized the gunfire had stopped. “I don’t know what happened to you, Roman, but you need help. It’s not too late. Come with me, and I’ll make sure you’re safe. I’ll protect you.”
I stood up, gun in hand. A cold fury gripped me, steadying my aim. “Whatever you’re doing to him—to all of us—stop.”
That dead-eyed smile was like a single fingernail running down my spine. “No.”
I licked the sweat off my top lip. My finger tightened on the trigger. “Then give me one reason not to kill you.”
“Because,” Roman said weakly from behind me. “She’s my sister.”
The girl’s gaze had been trained on me, unblinking. Now she turned toward Roman, her eyes narrowing with a look of outrage.
Roman used the tree to pull himself up from the ground. He staggered forward, his knees bobbing dangerously. His eyes looked glassy, almost feverish with pain.