She hates me.
I know she hates me.
The look she had given him was seared deep into his memory. That look of hurt and confusion and utter betrayal. He would never forget it, and he would never forgive himself for putting it on her face.
He hadn’t meant to be harsh—but he was just so angry. If they had barely escaped with their lives, what did that mean for Lance? It means he’s dead, that’s what. That was the thought that pushed him over the edge and caused him to snap at her. And that resulted in her looking at him like she no longer knew who he was, almost as if she was…scared of him.
Casey spent the truck ride trying to convince himself he didn’t care what she thought because it was all her fault Lance was gone. But every time he tried to be angry with her, he saw that expression on her face. Then his anger melted. He couldn’t do it. Once he had time to cool down and start thinking clearly again, the guilt for his behavior toward Jade almost crushed him. No matter what he felt, it really wasn’t her fault. He started to remember all that she’d told him at the cliff and felt even worse.
The reason she hadn’t wanted him to go back for Lance was because she was scared of losing him.
He remembered the desperate, pleading look in her eye, the way she begged him not to leave. It tore him to pieces. He wanted to be with her, he really did. But at the same time, Lance was the only family he had left, and Casey had already lost him once.
In the end it didn’t really matter anymore. Lance was probably dead. Once Casey realized that, he was consumed with grief. The pain in his chest was so intense that he wondered if something was physically wrong with him. It was guilt, loss, fear, and despair all compressed into one big knot in his stomach. It was his fault for not finding Lance sooner and he’d tried to blame Jade for it. He felt rotten inside.
He couldn’t even look at Jade on the truck ride. Once he glanced over out of mere curiosity and saw her talking with Faze. He hadn’t looked back.
When they stopped in the forest, Casey watched everyone congregate by the truck as Retta took care of Revis. He looked awful, which only made Casey feel guiltier for being angry because of jealousy and longing for his own brother. He settled against the trunk of a tree and wrapped his arms around his knees, shivering as the sun dropped lower, pulling darkness along with it.
Was this how he was going to feel through the rest of this ordeal? Angry with everyone for the sole reason of grieving over Lance? With the knot that had tied itself firmly in his throat, he could barely swallow to rid himself of the threat of tears pushing at the corners of his eyes. But he’d have to force himself to get over it. Even though he’d technically never been through a battle, he knew if he went in a state of emotional distraught he would get himself killed. He had to be strong now. For his brother’s sake.
After he had sat there for a good twenty minutes, staring into space and trying to convince himself he was past bereavement, he saw Jade wander off into the woods alone. He should probably go talk to her, apologize for acting like such a jerk.
He told his body to get up, but apparently it didn’t want to listen because he found himself not moving. Shame and apprehension locked up his limbs. He didn’t want to be at odds with her, but she had to hate him. And he didn’t really want to find out if she did. Ever since he first met Jade, he had been scared of ticking her off for fear of what she might do. He was sure she was one of those people that could be dangerous when they got mad.
So he stayed under his tree and continued to stare at the ground, all the while ignoring the looming ache in his chest. He pressed the heel of his palm into his eye in an attempt to relieve the pressure continuing to build there. All it served to do was increase it even more. Finally, a single tear leaked out of the corner and rolled down his cheek. He brushed it away quickly, ashamed of himself for being so weak. He just missed Lance so much.
He glanced over at their sorry band of survivors again, realizing another ten minutes had passed. Everyone was sitting around, not talking and looking dejected. Revis was still unconscious. Clyde was twirling a long strand of grass in his fingers. Casey watched as he leaned over and stroked it against Zipper’s ear, his familiar wry smile crunching his eyes. It amazed Casey how he could manage to keep up his teasing, easygoing demeanor when their home had just been attacked and their families might be dead. Zipper smacked him hard in the ribs and scooted out of his reach.
Suddenly Casey stood and brushed himself off, sending pine needles raining down around his legs. The threat of more tears was becoming too great and he couldn’t stand to be around anyone in case they fell. He wanted to be alone, find someplace solitary so he could grieve for Lance properly, because he wouldn’t be okay until he got it out of his system. After he did that, he might be able to forget about him for a little while and focus on what needed to be done. So he stalked into the trees, stomping down undergrowth and plowing through low branches toward the sound of rushing water. He hugged himself, fighting off the cold and watching his breath fog in front of his face. The woods were pleasantly quiet and still.
Casey pushed aside a branch to reveal the small stream winding through a crowded bed of rocks and twisted roots. This seemed as good a place as any, and far enough away that no one would bother him.
He cleared a spot beside the water and lowered himself onto it. Then he buried his face in his hands. The stabbing pain in his chest flared again, stealing his breath as he waited for the tears to come. He’d give anything for Lance to be there with him.
Five minutes passed, but he didn’t cry. His throat was tight and his breath was short, but for some reason he couldn’t cry. Suddenly it dawned on him that something was different this time. As much as it hurt, the pain wasn’t as bad as when he thought Lance was locked the first time. That feeling of utter emptiness and despondency wasn’t there. He supposed it was because, this time, he wasn’t alone. He might not have Lance, but he had Jade and Revis and the rest of them. Once he realized that, things didn’t seem quite so bad. He could make it. He knew what he had to do, and people to do it alongside with. A shuddering breath rushed out of his throat.
Then a sound reached his ears. His head snapped up. It was hard to hear over the dull roar of the creek, but after a moment of listening there was no mistaking what it was.
The sound of a girl crying.
Casey immediately scrambled to his feet. It wasn’t far away. The longer he listened the more he realized it was more than crying—it was sobbing. Deep, anguished, heart-wrenching sobbing. Alarmed, he plowed his way through the brush growing alongside the stream in the direction it was coming from. The thick tangle of foliage forced him to detour around, but he finally made it back to the stream and emerged onto the bank.
He stopped cold when he saw who it was.
It was Jade.
But it wasn’t Jade.
It was a girl crouched beside the water on the other side of the creek, everything about her screaming dejection. Her arms were wrapped around her knees, clutching the sleeves of her black jacket so tightly her knuckles had turned white. Her face was hidden in the crooks of her elbows, and her back was heaving violently with thick, convulsing sobs.
But as strange at all of that was, it was not the most unfamiliar thing about the sight. Her hair, once long and silky and thick, was gone. All that was left was choppy, jagged, uneven strands that barely reached her jaw. A knife sat in the dirt beside her.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened, but Casey couldn’t believe it. His mouth hung open stupidly. He needed to do something. He had to help her somehow, but his feet seemed glued to the ground. Maybe it was the shock of unexpectedly finding her in such a state, but all he could do was watch her weep into her own arms, completely unaware that she wasn’t alone.
“Jade…” It came out as a whisper that couldn’t be heard above her crying. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Jade.”
This time she heard him and her head flew up. Her eyes—both of them—widened when she saw him like a wounded, frightened animal. Casey’s heart melted at the sight of her wet face and red eyes, her obvious state of brokenness.
She made a small noise of surprise and turned away from him, trying to bring her sobbing under control. “Casey…what are you…” She didn’t bother finishing, her voice choked and wet.
Finally breaking out of his hesitation, Casey crossed the stream, ignoring the arctic water lapping at his legs. He knelt beside Jade and pulled her into his arms without a word, not caring whether she would accept him or not.
She tensed at first, but after a second or two he felt her collapse into him. Her back shuddered as she continued to cry, the sound muffled against his chest. His fingers reached up to brush the soft ends of her newly cut hair. He wasn’t sure if he should be horrified or sorry that it was all gone. He was shocked, for sure, but he couldn’t really say he wished she hadn’t done it. It felt healthy, like it was something she needed to do.
Besides, it didn’t take away from her looks at all.
It was a while before her sobs calmed and her body grew still. Casey continued to stroke her hair until her sniveling quieted, breathing in the lavender scent that always lingered around her. By then only the very last rays of sunlight streaked the night sky a faint scarlet, and even that weak bit of light was fading fast and taking all of the sun’s warmth with it. Soon Casey began to shiver but tried to keep it subdued while Jade’s body was pressed against his.
Her arms tightened around his waist and she muttered, “I hope you know you’re the only one I’d ever let see me like this.”
The corner of his mouth turned up a bit. “Are you okay?”
She started to nod, but then seemed to stop herself. “I don’t know. I will be.”
Jade drew away from him, letting the cold seep back into where she’d been. She wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands. “I’m still trying to figure that out, actually.”
Casey’s eyes fell down to the knife still lying in the dirt. He picked it up tentatively and held it out toward her, raising his eyebrows in question.
Jade took it and slipped it into the side of her boot. Somehow it didn’t surprise Casey at all to realize she’d kept it there all along. “I don’t know, Casey,” she sighed, drawing a knee up and resting the right side of her face on it. “I didn’t think about it. I just…did it.”
He scooted closer, wanting to be nearer. “But why, Jade? I know it wasn’t just some random impulse.”
“Yeah.” Her shoulder rose and fell. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Feeling like a coward. Hiding. Hating myself. I couldn’t take it. Besides, everything’s different now. It didn’t feel right to keep worrying about myself like that when we’ve got so many more important problems to deal with. I kept telling myself one day I would stop hiding it. I guess today was that day.” Fresh tears glittered in the corner of her eye, but she brushed them away quickly. Her hand went back to feel her hair. “And now that it’s all gone, I can’t go back. I can’t change my mind. We have to step up now, you know? We might be the Sublevel’s only hope of survival. Deadbolts are the only hope of taking the country back. There aren’t many of us, Casey. We might have enough numbers to put up a fair fight, but there are still more of them. I know we can win, but only if we stay strong. I guess that’s why I did it. I can’t afford to let weakness hold me back. Not now. So I’m trying to embrace it instead.”
Casey was relieved to hear it. He hadn’t realized he had been waiting for her to do something like this until it happened, maybe because he didn’t think it would. She was far stronger than she knew.
He reached a hand out and pressed two fingers under her chin, lifting it from her knee so he could see her face in its entirety. The sight of it still sent a chill down his back. “You know, I think I like you better this way.”
Her cheeks glowed red and her face lit up with a bashful smile.
“I’m proud of you,” he told her, his voice low and intense so she would know he meant it.
Then he leaned in and kissed her. She kissed him back. Warmth bloomed in Casey’s chest when he noticed the way her lips pressed a little more firmly into his than they had last time. This time, the kiss felt confident instead of timid, sure instead of cautious.
He was sorry when Jade pulled away. But then she smiled up at him and he couldn’t help but return it.
“Your eyes,” she murmured, placing her hand against his cheek. The words were so quiet he almost missed them.
Casey felt himself blush at her touch. “What?”
“Nothing. It’s just…you seem different than you did earlier. Are you okay?”
That was when he remembered he needed to apologize. His gaze fell as the shame returned. “Yeah. I’m so sorry, Jade. I didn’t mean to be rude, I just—”
“You miss Lance.”
He looked back up at her in surprise and found her gaze full of understanding.
“I get it,” she said, setting a cold hand on top of his. “I know how hard it must’ve been to leave without him. I know he’s the only family you have left, and I know it must be killing you inside. Trust me, I get it. But I’m sure he made it out. If he could escape from a Ucretian bunker I’m sure he can survive a little attack.” She smiled encouragingly.
Casey wanted to believe her. He almost did, but there was still a little nagging doubt that he couldn’t get rid of. “Yeah…” He sighed, turning his head away to gaze into the trees. “But I just need to know for sure.”
She threaded her arm through his. “We’ll find him. He’ll know better than to go too far from the compound.”
He nodded absentmindedly, wishing it could be as simple as she made it sound. Then he shivered again. “We should probably get back. It’s getting dark.”
Jade sniffed and wiped her face again. “Yeah.”
Casey shifted to get up, but she didn’t move. He waited, but she kept on staring at the ground.
“Jade? You okay?”
Slowly, she raised her face and smiled sadly at him again. “Did you know my parents named me Jade because of my eyes?”
He settled on the ground again, shrugging to try and hide his surprise. “Well, that’s not hard to believe. You have beautiful eyes.”
She cut him a hard look, her raised eyebrows clearly indicating that she thought he was lying.
“I’m serious,” he pressed. Slowly, he raised his hand to push back the short locks of hair further away from her face. “You still do.”
She shook her head. “My mom used to tell me she and my dad didn’t know what to call me when I was born. I was born in a camp, you know, when the invasion was starting to get really bad. I guess they didn’t have time to think of a real, modern name like they did with my brother. They ended up going with Jade because of my eye color.”
“Well, it suits you just fine.” He pulled the sleeves of his hoodie further down his arms. “My parents liked old fashioned names too, you know?”
“Yeah, I guess they did,” Jade acknowledged, finally rising to her feet. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Casey took the hand she offered and stood too. “Will you be all right? Going back, I mean.”
“’Course I will. I don’t really have a choice anyway, do I?”
Her hand trembled inside of his the entire walk back to the hollow.
Revis awoke to an icy breeze and the blaze of a small fire. He didn’t bother moving at all for the first few minutes and just stared up at the tangle of skeletal tree boughs framing a starry night sky while waiting for the pounding in his head to subside. A couple of heavy jackets were laid carefully across his torso like blankets and his left leg was elevated on a thick bit of log.
So he’d fainted from blood loss.
As the oldest of the group, he naturally felt it was his responsibility to take on the role as leader and keep everyone safe, and yet something as small as a puncture wound was able to debilitate him this easily. He’d have to do better.
“Revis?” a voice uttered from behind.
The unexpected closeness of it made him jump. He winced as the pain in his leg flared and burned.
The crisp accent let him know it was Vyra sitting so close to his head. He turned slightly and looked up into her piercing blue eyes, iridescent in the twilight. “Yeah.”
Cool, slender finders gently smoothed back the hair from his forehead. “It’s about time.”
“How long was I out?” Revis asked, closing his eyes at her soft touch.
“A few hours. Are you feeling better?”
“I’m just fine.” He offered a wan smile, hoping she would accept it. It was true that he wasn’t as weak or lightheaded as he remembered being earlier. But now he was filled with an aching soreness that stole his desire to move at all. His pulse pounded against his temples and his leg throbbed dully, but of course he wouldn’t let anyone know that.
Vyra nodded as if she believed him. Of course she believed him. He had never lied to her.
Fighting against his lack of strength, Revis pushed himself up on shaking arms. He didn’t get far without Vyra’s help, but soon he was sitting and leaning against her shoulder. They faced the tiny campfire someone had started a few yards from the truck. Beyond it and through the smoke, he could see the rest of their group reclining against tree trunks or sprawled out on the ground. He counted one, two, three, four, five figures…and realized two were missing.
“Where are Jade and Casey?” he inquired urgently, suddenly worried.
“They went into the woods a little while ago,” Vyra answered hesitantly. “I don’t know what they’re doing, but they should be back any minute.”
Instinctively, his eyes scanned the forest, hoping to see his sister emerging from the shadows. A knot of worry tightened in his throat when he saw nothing. It was probably misplaced; he knew Jade wouldn’t do anything stupid, and she had Casey with her. Most likely. Still, he couldn’t have any peace of mind when she had gone into the woods while he was out cold. He wanted her back so he could watch out for her himself. “What else did I miss?”
“Nothing,” Vyra told him. She gestured at the kids on the other side of the fire. “Just them complaining about being hungry.”
Suddenly he was struck by a bad thought. “They didn’t say anything to you, did they?”
She shook her head. “No. Not a word.”
Revis was about to reply, to say he was sorry for not being awake to keep her company, when he noticed someone walking up to them. For an instant he thought it might be Jade, but then he saw curly hair falling around the girl’s face. It was only Retta.
She came to check up on him, do her best to make sure his blood pressure was normalizing. She took his pulse and looked under the bandages on his leg. The bleeding had stopped completely and there was no sign of infection.
The redhead was in the process of carefully applying more antiseptic cream to the wound when there was a sound of rustling leaves and crackling branches a few yards from the campsite. Every head was immediately riveted in the direction it came from. Revis heard the click of someone cocking a pistol.
He watched as two silhouettes materialized out of the darkness. A sigh of relief began to rush its way from his lungs when he recognized Casey’s form, then stopped short when he saw the girl with him. He thought it was Jade. But something wasn’t right about her. He couldn’t tell if his vision was still being affected by blood loss or not, but it didn’t look like Jade. From what he could see from the distance, this girl’s hair was short and jagged. As they came closer, he could see her hand was clasped tightly with Casey’s.
It wasn’t until they reached the edges of the firelight that he realized it was Jade after all. And he hadn’t been hallucinating. Her hair was gone. Now it fell in choppy locks around her jaw, flaring out at the ends a bit. Revis squinted at her even though he could already see her clearly.
She looked like a completely different person.
Her face was bare, totally uncovered. Revis felt his eyes widen in shock. Something in her expression told him this was not the same girl he’d seen a few hours ago, the one who had held his hand while the world rocked and faded around him. It seemed as if she had aged five years. He had never, ever seen her like this before.
Revis had known that one day Jade would have to stop hiding, but he figured it would be in the far future, once she’d had the chance to grow up and mature. Once she was no longer plagued by her disability and could push past all her insecurities. He had never expected her to something this…this drastic, and especially not so soon. Pride for his little sister bubbled up in his chest. But at the same time, he was worried. She was probably scared to death right now.
In fact, the closer she got, the more he could see it in her face. She didn’t let go of Casey’s hand as they approached. She kept her eyes downcast, a calm look painted on her features. Someone who didn’t know her as well as he did might think she looked collected, but Revis could see right through it. Her skin was pale, and even from this distance he could see her shaking. Her expression of calmness looked painfully forced. There was no doubt about it.
She was panicking on the inside.
But it also looked like she was smothering all her fear with something else. Her posture boasted an inner strength that Revis had seen many times. It was shining through now, undaunted, fully revealed along with her face. That was where his pride for her came from. He wanted to get up and wrap his arms around her, comfort her. Instead all he could do was curse the bullet wound in his leg for stopping him.
She and Casey walked over without a word and, finally releasing their hands, sat down beside the fire. Everyone had fallen quiet. Even Clyde, who had been singing obnoxiously, stopped long enough to get a good look at the two of them.
There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence, during which Revis noticed the collection of shocked expressions that encompassed the campfire. They were all trying to act like nothing was out of the ordinary, but that only made the silence more pronounced. He watched Jade’s face redden under their stares as she forced her eyes to stay cast down at her lap.
Now that she was closer, he noticed the redness of her eyes as well and frowned in concern. She’d been crying. Suddenly the presence of the eight other kids around was really a nuisance.
He cleared his throat. “Well, now that we’re all here we need to figure out what we’re going to do next.”
They all snapped to attention, obviously glad to have something else to focus on.
“We need to get to Reddam,” Faze said. “That’s our only option.”
“Well, normally I’d agree with you…” Revis mused, rubbing his chin. “Only…”
“I just think we need to be careful. We don’t know what tipped the Caps off to our compound, but there’s a good chance we’re not the only one they know about. And since Reddam’s not far from here…”
“You…you think they got Reddam, too?” Zipper asked fearfully, her round blue eyes widening.
“I don’t know. I think there’s a chance. All I’m saying is we need to be careful.”
This drew a few nods.
“We should split up,” Terris proposed. “A few of us go to see if Reddam is safe, and the rest stay here. If everything’s okay, we’ll come back to get you.”
Revis looked around at the group. “Any objections?”
“Are we sure it’s really a good idea to split up?” Retta asked. “What if something happens?”
“A necessary risk.” Faze leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “I think we should do it. It’s really the only thing we can do.”
Revis was surprised to find he agreed with him. He’d never really liked the kid—he had always seemed too cocky and full of himself—but already he’d proven to have some good traits. Doing what needed to be done was one of them, something he and Revis had in common.
No one objected any further, telling Revis they’d found a course of action. “So who’s going in?”
“I will,” Clyde said immediately.
Faze raised a hand. “I will.”
“Me too,” Zipper volunteered.
“You?” Clyde scoffed, raising his eyebrows in disbelief.
“I’m the only one here in the stealth division,” the little blond retorted defiantly. “You’re gonna need me.”
“I’ll go,” Terris added.
“So will I.”
Everyone’s eyes slid to Jade again at the sound of her voice. She was looking at them all obstinately, almost daring them to make something of it.
Revis paled a little. He wasn’t stupid—he knew he would be part of the group staying behind, and he knew Jade would have to be part of the group that left. But the thought of his little sister trekking off into a potential Cap trap while he was forced to stay behind because of one stupid bullet when he should be alongside her was maddening.
“Are—” He cleared his throat again when his voice hitched. “Are you sure, Jade?”
Jade turned and, for the first time in two years, looked at him with both of her mismatched eyes full of tenacity and fire rather than insecurity and fear. “Yeah. You know as well as I do these clowns won’t be able to do it without me.”
He smiled, feeling a little relieved. She really had taken a turn for the better.
“I’ll go too,” Casey said. He gave Revis a pointed look, sending him a silent message: Don’t worry. I’ll look after her for you.
Revis nodded his thanks.
“Then I’d feel better if you stayed here, Faze,” Jade said, her tone making it clear that it was not a request.
Immediately the boy’s face drew into a scowl. “What? But you can’t—”
“If you go, that means Revis, Retta, and Vyra will be here by themselves. And Revis isn’t exactly in the best shape to defend all three of them. Please, Faze, I’m asking a favor of you.”
Faze tilted a dark eyebrow, a strange expression washing over his features. Revis couldn’t place it, but it seemed like Jade’s words carried more than what she said.
They must have, because Faze sighed and nodded reluctantly, still not looking too happy about it. “Fine.”
Revis looked between the two of them, wondering what exactly had happened. Just one more thing he would have to talk to Jade about in privacy. Before she left.
“Great,” Clyde interjected loudly. “Now that that’s settled, I have a very serious question.” He leaned forward intently and held out a hand. “When are we going to get food? Because I’m starving.”
No one had an answer. Revis had been trying not to think about it, as if ignoring the issue would stave off the empty gnawing that was growing in his stomach. He knew they would have to face it sometime, but he couldn’t think of a solution. They couldn’t go back to the Sublevel for food, and the only other option was Reddam. But even that was a few days away.
“I, uh…I can try to hunt for something,” Terris piped up suddenly.
“You can hunt?” asked Retta, obviously skeptical.
The boy nodded, causing his hair to flop against his forehead. “I used to do it all the time with my dad before we got to the Sublevel. I don’t know how much good it’ll do, but it’s worth a shot.”
“Good enough for me,” Clyde said. “I’m so hungry I’m about to start eating pinecones.”
“You’ve only missed one meal, Clyde,” Zipper quipped. “Sheesh, man up a little.”
“I’ll go as soon as there’s daylight.” Terris stretched his hands toward the fire.
The makeshift camp fell quiet, the events of the day finally taking a heavy toll. Revis felt his eyelids grow heavy and hoped it was from exhaustion rather than the lingering effects of blood loss.
He tried to push himself weakly from Vyra’s shoulder. “I’m gonna go to sleep now,” he mumbled.
She took his elbow and began to help him up when Jade suddenly rushed over and knelt in front of him. “Let me help you, okay?”
“But—” Vyra immediately protested.
“It’s okay,” Revis said softly. He turned so he could face her and ran his thumb lightly across her cheek. “I just need to talk with her alone for a little while. Now get some rest. I’ll see you in the morning, all right?”
She sighed. “All right.”
“I’m sorry.” He pulled her into a hug and kissed her lips lightly before letting Jade help him up. “Goodnight, Vyra.” He didn’t care that the entire group was most likely watching this exchange.
The slender girl pulled her knees to her chest and scooted closer to the fire. “Goodnight.”
Revis frowned. He hated leaving her like this, but his sister came first. He would make it up to her later.
Then Retta came up to him for the second time that night, this time with a long, sturdy stick in her hand. “Here,” she told him, holding it out. “Don’t put any pressure on that leg yet.”
“Thanks.” With Jade’s help, he tucked the branch under his shoulder and leaned on it heavily, fighting the wave of dizziness that threatened to make him fall over. Then he let his sister help him hobble to the truck.
Once they were both inside, Jade shut the door firmly and leaned against it. “What are you thinking?” she said without looking at him. “Out with it.”
He took a deep breath to clear his spinning head. “Why’d you do it?”
“It needed to be done.” She crossed her arms and sagged against the seat. “I just didn’t realize it until now.”
“Hmm. Not much of an answer.”
“What more do you want?” She huffed, blowing up a tuft of short hair. “I took your advice. I’m not hiding anymore. It’s not a big deal.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “I think we both know that isn’t true.”
“Yes it is! I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. I did what I should’ve done a long time ago. That’s all.”
“Jade…” he started, keeping his voice soft and gentle.
“Don’t you dare give me your sympathy, Revis. I don’t want it.”
Revis still couldn’t believe the change that had taken place in her in such a short time. “All right, fine. You won’t get it then. I just want to know why you changed your mind all of a sudden.”
“I, uh…” She gave her head a slight shake. “I was thinking, and I realized I was being stupid. I don’t want to be held back by anything. Especially with all that’s happened. And trying to hide…was hindering. I’m tired of it. I wanted to grow up, so I did.” She paused, her jaw working. “Can that be enough explanation for you?”
She must’ve been dwelling on this for longer than he thought. It was obvious she didn’t want to talk about it. Revis knew if he tried to pry her open any further she would get angry and shut down, so he decided to leave it at that. He sat silently for a moment and studied her. The difference from the last time he’d seen her was so stark compared to now. It was hard to grasp that the girl in front of him was still his sixteen-year-old little sister. He couldn’t say the difference was bad, really, but it would definitely take a lot of getting used to. “But why did you cut it all off?”
She shrugged. “I was scared that if I didn’t I would change my mind. This way I can’t. Why, you don’t like it?”
“I do, actually. It suits you.”
A tiny smile turned up the corners of her mouth.
“Hey.” Revis leaned forward a little, ignoring the discomfort it caused his leg. “I’m proud of you, you know that? I know it wasn’t easy for you.”
“Thanks, Revis,” she breathed. He noticed her unconsciously reach a hand to her shoulder to grab at something. Then she lowered quickly back into her lap. He recognized it as her old habit, the one she would have to do without from now on.
“Will you be okay?”
Jade rolled her eyes. “Honestly, do you know me at all? Of course I will. I’m already okay.”
He smiled tiredly and yawned. “Right. Sorry for doubting you.”
“You should be. Now go to sleep. You still look terrible.”
“Thanks,” he replied drily, even though the truth was that he still felt terrible. He settled into the stiff leather cushion of the seat and let his eyes close.
He felt Jade’s lips on his cheek again before he fell asleep.
In the morning, he was woken up by a headache. Someone had laid another heavy jacket over him during the night, but there was no one else in the truck with him now. Groaning, he pushed himself up and scooted to the window.
Outside, the fire was burning again. Everyone was circled around it with strips of meat in their hands. Terris must’ve actually shot something.
Which meant it was late.
The sun was well up in a sky thankfully free of clouds. Revis rubbed his eyes blearily. How could he have slept for so long? Grabbing his stick-crutch from the floor, he opened the door and somehow managed to get himself to the ground. He still ached all over.
“Revis!” Suddenly there were arms around his neck. “Good morning.”
He laughed into the sleek black hair, glad that it didn’t seem like she was holding a grudge against him for leaving her last night. “Morning, Vyr. Sleep well?”
She pulled back to gaze up at him with that china doll face. “As well as I could. How are you?”
“Better,” he answered, deciding it was true.
Vyra smiled, flashing startlingly white teeth. “I’m glad.” Then she gestured to the fire. “We have breakfast. Come eat.”
She helped him hobbled to the fire and sit beside Jade. He blinked at his sister, still trying to adjust to her haircut.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” she hummed, poking at the dirt with a stick rather fiercely.
He returned the greeting with a yawn. And then suddenly remembered what today brought. His mood darkened considerably. “When are you planning to leave?” He could hardly voice the question, but it was inevitable so he might as well.
Jade hesitated for an instant. “Maybe ten minutes? We figured we should get going as soon as we could.”
He’d been expecting something like that, but felt the first real pangs of worry at the thought of Jade leaving. He rubbed a hand over his face, noting the day’s worth of stubble growth along his jaw. “I guess that makes sense.”
“Don’t worry, okay? We’ll be back in no time.”
Revis just nodded. Vyra passed him some chunks of blackened meat, and he suddenly realized how hungry he was. He didn’t even give a thought to what kind of meat it was as he devoured it greedily.
“We’re leaving you the rest of it,” Jade informed as he finished. “There’s enough for the rest of the day and maybe tomorrow if you ration it well. Hopefully we’ll be back with food before you get too hungry again.”
“I’m sure we’ll manage.”
She gave a worried smile. He could tell how on-edge she was feeling.
The ten minutes passed in silence. Revis knew he should say something, take advantage of these last few minutes with Jade, but there was really nothing to say. He never would have thought it would come to this.
He should be the one heading up this mission. He should be there to protect Jade. If something happened to her…to any one of them…
Revis put a fist to his eye to relieve the stinging he felt there. He was just being paranoid. Reddam might be fine. They might not run into any Caps at all. And even if they did, the group was probably more capable than even he knew. And Jade was tough. She could take care of herself even without Casey’s help. That was something he had to constantly remind himself of, since he still tended to think of her as the helpless little girl he’d had to protect his whole life. It wasn’t until they were settled at the Sublevel that she became so callous and independent.
But as much as he was trying to tell himself that she was an adept soldier, all he could see was that day two years ago when he’d had to carry her away from the campsite and the bodies of their parents with one good arm, all the while listening to her screams as she bled. And bled.
He pressed his fist harder into his eye. Nothing like that would happen this time. And even if it did, he would save her again. Somehow.
“We need to get going,” Terris finally announced solemnly, standing and slinging the strap of a rifle over his shoulder.
As the rest of the group stood to prepare to leave, Jade leaned over and wrapped her arms around Revis’s neck tightly. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”
This time he didn’t try to stop the tears from forming in his eyes. He hugged her back and didn’t know if he had the strength to let go. “I’ll miss you,” he whispered hoarsely. “Please…please be careful.”
“I will. I promise. We’ll only be gone a few days.”
“I know,” he lied.
He was worried for no reason. What they were about to do really wasn’t dangerous. Or so he kept telling himself.
“Jade! Come on!”
She stood again and Revis’s breath hitched a little. “Goodbye, Revis. I love you.”
“Love you too,” he choked, attempting a smile.
The others said their goodbyes reluctantly. Terris pulled Retta into a big, lingering hug. Faze nodded politely at all of them. Revis was surprised when Jade even took the time to tell Vyra goodbye, and to make sure to look after her brother.
Then, slowly and solemnly, loaded with weapons, the group of five made their way into the trees. Jade turned back one more time to wave and give him an encouraging smile.
And then they were gone.