Mum tells us to stay out of the woods, away from the footpaths. She is worried about some maniac being on the loose.
But I am the maniac.
‘Can I be excused?’ I say, suddenly feeling ill.
Mum turns to me. ‘You’ve gone all pale.’ She puts a warm hand on my forehead. ‘You feel clammy.’
‘I’m a little tired.’
‘Go on: early to bed. We can wash up.’
Amy groans, and I head for the stairs.
I stare at the wall in the dark, Sebastian a welcome band of warmth stretched along my back.
I did that. Put a man in a coma. Or Rain did: she came back at the same time. Or what? Are we the same person, or two in one? Sometimes I feel I am her, as if her memories and who she was take over. Sometimes, like now, she slips away, as if she never was. But who was Rain, really? And somehow Lucy fits in with Rain’s past, but how?
The same birthday ties us all together: 3rd of November. I hug the knowledge, the secret, inside. However these bits of me fit together now, that is the day I started in this world.
My mind drifts, sleep on the way. But then the dates shift into sharp focus, and my eyes snap open.
Seventeen today. I got out of hospital in September: I’d been there for nine months. Slated, then, less than eleven months ago. I was already sixteen. It is illegal to Slate anyone over the age of sixteen. Lorders may break their own laws now and then if they have a reason, true enough. But why would they in my case?
There are still all these disconnections inside. I feel I almost understand it all, but if I look too closely, it vanishes. Like something I can only see sideways, out of the corner of my eye.
Nico might be able to explain, if he wants to; my past as Rain at least. But what would he want in return?
Perhaps Rain and all she was are best forgotten. I can take now, and tomorrow, and all the days after, make of them what I will. Stay out of trouble and leave Nico behind. Avoid him, pretend it never happened.
Either way, Wayne could spoil it all.
You should have killed him.
* * *
Next day in biology, there is a surprise: new boy, Cameron, appears at the door.
He spots me and goes straight for the empty stool to the left of mine. Smiles a silly grin as he sits down.
Ben’s seat. I fold my arms in on myself, blink hard, don’t look at him. The empty space next to me hurt, but having someone sit there feels worse.
Nico turns around to the whiteboard. Every girl has her eyes on him: on the way his trousers hug his backside, the outline of his back and shoulders, movement of muscles under a silky shirt as he raises his arm to write.
He turns back and faces the room, standing next to the board. ‘What does this mean?’ he asks, gesturing to the words he has written: ‘Survival of the Fittest’.
‘Only the strongest survive,’ one student offers.
‘That can be part of it. But you don’t have to be the strongest to win, or the dinosaurs would have eaten all our ancestors for lunch.’ He scans across the room until his eyes fall on me. ‘To survive, you just have to be…the best.’ His eyes hold mine as he says the words, slowly, drawing them out.
Finally he looks away. Starts going on about evolution and Darwin, and I try to take notes, to pretend I am somewhere else. Or better, someone else. Just get through this lesson, and get out of here, and—
Something lands on my notebook. A square of paper? I unfold it.
With these words written on it: And so, we meet again!
I glance at Cameron. He winks.
I stifle a grin. We haven’t met yet, I write underneath. Then, pretending to stretch, drop it on his book.
It flies back again moments later. I glance at Nico. No reaction. Still going on about dinosaurs. I unfold it.
Yes, we have: you are She Who Jumps on Leaves. I am He Who Hefts Heavy Boxes from Boot. Also known as Cam.
So it is Cam, not Cameron, as Amy found in community gossip. And he is every bit as mad as he appeared yesterday.
I chew my pencil for a while. Ignore, or…
A pen pokes my arm. Mad, and impatient. Yet I know what it is like to be the new one, to know nobody.
All right. I write on the square: Leaf Lady, also known as Kyla.
I fold it up, flick it back across.
‘Congratulations!’ a voice says to my right. It is Nico: standing next to our bench and looking straight at me. Along with every pair of eyes in the room.
‘You are the lucky winner of a lunchtime detention. Now try to pay attention for the rest of the class.’
Heat creeps up my face, but not from the embarrassment of a room full of eyes. Nico’s say, gotcha! The cheetah has pounced. And there isn’t a thing I can do about it.
Cam, to his credit, protests that it was his fault, but Nico ignores him. The class continues, and I stare at the clock as the minutes count down, hoping somebody else will get nabbed for some other misdemeanour, that we won’t be alone. But there’s no chance of that. Not with Nico in charge.
The bell goes and everyone starts packing up. Cam stands with a stricken look on his face. ‘Sorry,’ he mouths, and follows the last students. The door swings shut behind them.
Nico stares, face unreadable. Seconds stretch to more seconds, and inside I am…what: scared? But it feels more like something else. Like the fear that comes from something that is both terrifying, and a thrill: ridge walking in a storm, or abseiling down a cliff.
He flicks his head in a gesture that says follow me. We leave the lab, and go down the hall to a row of offices.
He looks both ways, takes a key out of his pocket, and unlocks one of the office doors.
‘Come,’ he says. No smile, nothing. Cold.
I follow him in, feet dragging; no choice, but dread is pooling inside. He locks the door, then in a sudden movement grabs my arm and twists it tight behind my back, pushing my face into the wall.
‘Who are you?’ he says, voice low. ‘Who are you!’ Again, louder this time, but controlled. No one would hear.
He pulls my arm tighter. As if the pain in my shoulder is a trigger, I remember. And I’m somewhere else. Some other time, place. Where Nico’s sudden tests like this could bruise the unwary. But I know how to escape this one! With a flash of joy at memory, I jump up to loosen the arm grip, twist and plant a fist into the hard muscles of his stomach.
He lets go and starts to laugh, rubbing at his stomach. ‘I had to be sure. I’m sorry. Is your arm all right?’
A smile takes over my face. I shrug my shoulder around in a circle. ‘Fine. But if you’d really wanted to hold me you would have pulled my arm up higher. That was a test.’
‘Yes. That manoeuvre was pure Rain.’ And he laughs again, delight shining in his eyes. ‘Rain!’ he says again, holding out his arms, and I move closer until they are around me, warm and tight. And I feel a sense of coming back to a place I am meant to be, where I was always meant to be. Where I know who and what I am, because Nico does.
Then he holds me out at arm’s length, studies my face, assessing.
‘Nico?’ I say, uncertain.
He smiles. ‘You remember me. Good! I always knew you’d survive, my special Rain.’ He sits me down on a chair, him perched on the desk above. Takes my hand and looks at my Levo. ‘It worked, didn’t it. This thing is just a thing.’ And he spins it on my wrist: no pain, no nothing. Levels in mid-happy.
I half smile, then it falls away. ‘It worked? Nico, please. Explain to me. I remember pieces of things, but it is all such a mess. I don’t understand what has happened to me.’
‘Always serious. We should be laughing! Celebrating.’ And because his smile is so infectious, so alive, mine follows. ‘You have to tell me: what finally released your memories?’
And I shrink away from thinking of it. If he knows about Wayne, he’ll deal with him, like any other threat to one of his own. His own. I hug the belonging inside.
‘You were close a few times before, I could see it. I thought that whole thing with Ben would have done it.’
Ben. His name brings a twist of agony. The hurt must be on my face.
‘Lose the pain: it makes you weak. Do you remember how, Rain? You march it to the door in your mind, and lock it up.’
I shake my head. I don’t want to forget Ben. Do I? And some glimmer of my thoughts last night comes back to me: Nico and his ways are dangerous.
I say out loud the thing that was there all along, hidden in plain sight in my mind, yet unrecognised. ‘You’re with the AGT, the Anti Government Terrorists. Aren’t you?’
He raises an eyebrow. ‘You have been forgetting!’ He takes my hands in his. ‘Don’t use the Lorder name for us that way, Rain: we are Free UK. The teeth that Freedom UK was supposed to have in the Central Coalition, but never did. We are the splinter that hurts: I am, and so are you. The Lorders fear us. They’ll be on their way out, soon, and this great country will be free again. We will win!’
A chant from the past echoes in my mind: Free UK today! Free UK today!
And I remember Nico filling in what history lessons left out. After the UK pulled out of the EU and closed borders, and all the student riots and destruction of the 2020s, the Lorders dealt harshly with rioters, gangs and terrorists the same way, no matter their age: imprisonment, or death. But then as things settled down, they were forced to accept compromise with Freedom UK in the Central Coalition, and harsh penalties were banned for under-16s. Slating was brought in to give them a second chance, a new life. But Freedom UK became a puppet of the Lorders, who abused their power more and more. Free UK rose up in response, wanting rid of Lorder oppression by whatever means.
The teeth are the terror. I shake my head, part of me rejecting what I know to be true. ‘I’m not a terrorist. Am I?’
He shakes his head. ‘None of us are. But you were with us in our fight for freedom, and you would be now, if Lorders hadn’t snatched you and Slated you, stole your mind away. Or so they thought.’
‘Yet, here I am. And I know you. I remember some things. But I—’
‘This is too much at once, isn’t it? Listen to me, Rain. There is nothing you have to do if you don’t want to. We’re not like the Lorders. We don’t make anybody do anything.’
‘Really. I’m just so happy you’re all right. You’re you, again.’ And he smiles, and I’m back in another hug.
More memory traces surface. Nico isn’t known for his hugs, or smiles. They are so rare they are like a gift when you have shone enough in his eyes to get that much approval. We’d fight for his approval. We’d kill for it. All of us. We’d do anything to get half a smile.
‘Listen. There is just one thing. I need to talk to you some more. I need to know how things have worked with you, so we know how we can help others survive Slating. You want that, don’t you?’
‘I’ve got something for you,’ he says, and reaches into a desk drawer. The back is false, and hidden behind is a small metal device, thin and flexible. He shows me. ‘Look. It’s a communicator: a com. See, you press this button here, and wait for me to answer. Then we can speak. You can call if you need me.’
Just as I’m wondering where I’m going to hide this highly illegal piece of kit, he shows me. It slips underneath my Levo, and clasps to it. The thin controls are not visible; they are barely there by feel.
‘It is undetectable here. Even if you go through a metal scan, they’ll just see it as picking up your Levo.’
I twist my Levo; I can’t even tell it is there.
‘Now, off you go. Have your lunch. We’ll talk again when you are ready.’ He touches my face. ‘I’m just so happy you’re with us,’ he says. His hand, warm on my cheek, sparks electricity through my body.