‘You are someone the people will believe. It will be the beginning of the end for the Lorders. And we’ll take you to Robert.’
My stomach is in knots. What will she decide? What will Nico do if it isn’t what he wants?
But then, as she starts to say something, he silences her with a raised hand. ‘You need to think about this, about what to do. Don’t decide now. Go.’
She gets up from the table, walks to the door. I’m gripped by fear that he isn’t really going to let her go, that his paranoia will kick in and he’ll be convinced she is going to shop him to the Lorders. It is only when she is gone that I can breathe again. I’m not sure where she stands: she might even be the one who betrayed me to the Lorders, a possibility Nico knows nothing of. How could he know what she might do now?
A slow minute counts down before Nico stands, opens my door. ‘Come. We should get out of here.’
Out through the back door, into his car. Down a side road and another, several quick turns. He watches but no one follows.
‘We’ll head to the house. We need to talk,’ he says.
‘Do you really know where Robert is?’
‘Not yet, but we will.’ He glances sideways. ‘You know her better than I. What do you think she will do?’
‘Honestly? I’m not sure.’
‘Neither am I,’ he admits, and I’m surprised: it is unusual for Nico to admit uncertainty. ‘But there will be a plan B, have no fear.’
He drives the rest of the way in silence.
When we arrive at the house in the woods, he draws me into his office, through a wall of curious eyes. Katran is there, and the others. Tori looks through me as if I am not of notice.
‘Sit,’ Nico says, and shuts the office door. We are alone. He pulls the other chair opposite mine, tilts my face up so we are eye to eye. ‘There is something we need to talk about. Rain, I understand you’ve been to see Ben.’
‘What?’ I half jump out of the chair, the shock of betrayal deep. After all he said about why he wouldn’t, Katran told him?
‘Now, Rain, this was a very foolish thing to do.’ He pushes me back in the chair, holding onto my hand as if to keep me there. His face is set and a tremor of fear runs through my body.
He raises his other hand before I can speak. ‘Wait. You shouldn’t have done it, it was dangerous. You risk us all if you get caught. You know that. But. I do understand.’
‘Of course. I know what it is like to love, to lose that which you love.’ And his eyes are full of sympathy. ‘Tell me, Rain,’ he says. ‘What happened when you spoke to Ben?’ And his eyes, so familiar and so alien at once, hold mine, soothe, draw me out. ‘Tell me,’ he repeats.
I swallow. ‘It was awful. He didn’t know me, didn’t remember me at all! I don’t know what has happened to him, and—’
I stop. ‘You do what?’
‘Know what happened to him.’
He pauses. ‘Be strong, Rain. That so-called school where Ben is staying isn’t a school. At least, not what you think of by that. It is a Lorder training centre. They have been experimenting with different procedures. Like Slating, but less drastic. Useful so subjects keep initiative and ability, yet remain under control.’ He takes both my hands in his again. ‘Believe me when I say, I’m sorry. But Ben is lost to you forever.’
‘No.’ I shake my head, tears threatening behind my eyes.
‘He is training to be the enemy: a Lorder agent.’
And I am unable to take it in. Aiden hinted as much, I realise, without spelling it out. But Ben, a Lorder? No. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.
I grow cold with understanding. After what has been done to him, he isn’t who he was. He isn’t making the decision.
Deep shuddering sobs start working their way up, and I’m struggling to keep some composure in front of Nico, to save it for later, but he pulls me against his shoulder. Tears spill out.
There is a knock on the door. ‘Wait,’ he says.
He leaves, shuts it behind him.
I drop my head in my hands. Somehow, I already knew. I was avoiding the truth. And here is another, one I will face: Katran told Nico I went to see Ben, he must have. How else could he know? But he said he wouldn’t!
The pain and tears turn into anger, then rage. Katran said I couldn’t make this decision, but he was wrong. It is mine alone. The Lorders must be stopped, at any cost. Any sacrifice.
Before my memories started to come back, I could never have joined Free UK. As just Kyla I could never face their methods, no matter their aims. But now I can. I can forget that Kyla hates violence; forget her fear, that she ever even existed. Just like I forgot Lucy. But I’ll never forget Ben.
Yes! Keep the pain. Use it to focus.
By the time Nico opens the door again, rage has obliterated all other feelings but the desire for revenge.
He sits down. ‘Where were we? Ah, yes. There is something else we need to discuss. Katran and I had a few words earlier today. About you.’
‘What?’ Has he been telling more of my secrets? I clench my fists.
‘He was very careful to say you are on our side.’
‘But he also expressed concerns. He feels you’re too…fragile, to be of use.’
‘That isn’t true! I’ll do anything.’
‘Will you, Rain?’ Nico leans back, doubt on his face. He holds up one hand, a gesture that says be quiet. I bite my lip. ‘Here is the problem I have. Katran thinks you are a liability: I generally trust his opinion.’
Again, the shock: the betrayal. There Katran was, reminding me how we used to be friends, that he was the one who held me when I was scared. Being all nice about Ben. Used to be friends is right.
‘Yet…’ Nico shrugs. ‘As much as I want to believe in you, Rain, there is something else. Are you a danger to us?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Your actions without thought of consequences.’ Again his hand is held up, demanding silence. ‘Like Tori – a risk I’ve grown fond of now, but still a risk. And going to see Ben. What if you’d been captured? Would you have been able to keep us secret?’
‘Yes,’ I answer, instantly and without thought. I never told Coulson anything about them he didn’t already know, did I?
Nico, alert as always to any nuance of thought or feeling, sees. ‘Tell me, Rain. Is there some other risk you have exposed us to?’
But I can’t tell him about Coulson: it’s too late.
‘Rain?’ An impatient voice, one that doesn’t wait. ‘Tell me what you haven’t, and do it now. What is the risk?’
Switch and hit. ‘I got my memories back when I was attacked, and had to defend myself. He…survived, and remembers it.’
‘Name,’ he says flatly.
‘Wayne Best.’ The words come out slow and quiet, as if reluctant to be heard. Was this handing out a death sentence? Yet so many who die don’t deserve it; Wayne is far down the list of humanity, as far as I’m concerned.
‘Why didn’t you tell me this before?’ He shakes his head. ‘How can I really trust you?’
‘I will do anything to prove myself.’
‘Will you?’ He sighs. Turns suddenly and moves close, a hand on each of the arms of my chair, stares intently into my eyes. ‘Think, Rain. What can you do for us? What can you give us, that says you really will do anything. So I know I can trust you.’
I scramble through my mind for something, anything, that will prove to him where my loyalties lie. Images and faces spin through, and then—
My eyes widen as one face holds still.
‘You’ve got something. Tell me,’ he says, with a voice that commands. A flash of another time, another place: a brick. Fingers. I flinch, inside. He must be obeyed.
Words are dragged from inside, slow, each one a fresh, new hurt. A line drawn. A choice made. ‘I can give you Dr Lysander.’
As I leave, uncertainty and fear fight with the glow inside at gaining Nico’s trust.
All it took was offering up Dr Lysander.
I grit my teeth. She deserves it. It is all because of her: Slating was her evil invention, if you can call it that. Everything is her fault. Ben’s fate is her doing, indirect though it may be.
Nico nods at Katran, who gets up as I walk to the door.
I flush. ‘I can get myself home,’ I say, but Katran follows me out. As he does I see there is a car by the back of the house, and a man, smoking and leaning against it. He turns as if to hide himself. A quick glimpse of an average face, average build, yet somehow familiar. How?
We walk the short way through the woods to the bikes. I ignore Katran, take off, but the anger grows the further we go. We’re not even halfway there when I slow, gesture to stop. I almost throw my bike to the ground.
‘What’s with you?’ he says.
‘You told Nico!’
‘Told him what?’
‘That I went to see Ben.’
His face registers surprise, and hurt. ‘I said I wouldn’t. I didn’t.’
‘Then how does he know?’
‘Nico knows!’ he says, our old saying, but the shrug and smile are missing.
I shake my head, unable to see how it is possible. Yet…that familiar face by the house; it comes to me now. Was he Aiden’s van driver? Maybe that is how Nico knows: maybe it wasn’t Katran. But there is still all the rest.
‘How could you talk to Nico about me behind my back, tell him I am a liability?’ I say the words through clenched teeth, my hands curling into fists at my sides. ‘I’m a better shot than you! Just as good with knives, and—’
‘You are, Rain. There is no doubting your skills. Against unmoving targets, you are the best.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Don’t you remember?’
He rolls his eyes skyward. ‘I’ll show you.’
He pulls a knife out of a sheath, hidden along his side, and holds it up so it glints silver in the watery late-afternoon light. Not just any knife; the knife. The diving knife a Lorder used to cut his face all those years ago. He rolls up one sleeve, touches the blade to his inner arm.
‘What are you doing? Stop!’
But it is too late: he drags it along his skin. The blade bites in; it wells up red. Not just drops but an actual trickle, a line of red that runs down his arm, to his hand. I hate blood. Hate it. The smell the feel the taste. I start gagging, back away, but can’t tear my eyes from the red. A few drops fall from his arm, seem to hang in midair then splash to the ground, and my stomach starts heaving. I breathe in and out, hard, bent over, my vision starting to waver, trying not to be sick.
Katran reaches for me and I flinch. He sighs, takes out a hanky, wipes his arm and holds it.
‘It’s just a little nick. I’m fine. See?’ I turn back and all evidence of the red is hidden, out of sight, and my breathing starts to come easier.
‘Do you see now, Rain?’ he says, voice low. ‘Why you can’t be with us. You’re a danger, a risk to us all. If you react like that to a few drops of blood, what do you think bombs and bullets do? You could fall to pieces at any time. If I have to babysit you, others are at risk.’
‘I don’t understand. I can remember attacks, and blood.’ I swallow, and force myself to focus inside: loud noises. Screaming, people running. But details are fuzzy: I don’t remember what I did. I must have hurt people, then made myself forget so the details aren’t clear. Inside I shy away. Could I really kill anybody? Have I?
‘What is Nico playing at,’ Katran muses, almost talking to himself. ‘He must see this is impossible. Why does he want you involved? Why is it so important to him?’