Scotia found my hand and squeezed it. “Stay alive. Come find me after it’s over. I’ll make sure the Blackcoats know what you did.”
I nodded, and we both took off in opposite directions. Now that the codes were in safe hands, the crushing weight of responsibility lifted off my shoulders, and I briefly considered returning to Mercer Manor. They must have searched every inch of it if they’d left it unguarded, which meant it was likely the safest place for me to go. But getting back there without being seen—that was the real problem.
I turned down another alleyway. I’d done it once—I could get back there again. I just had to be—
“Aha,” said a voice, and this time it wasn’t Scotia’s. I whirled around, gripping a knife in my uninjured hand.
Williams stood in the alleyway behind me, brandishing his rifle like a club.
“Everyone’s looking for you, you know,” he said, and a deep, booming laugh echoed from his chest. “You’re worth a promotion.”
I didn’t wait for him to make the first move. There was no way I’d be able to outrun a bullet, so I did the only thing I could do—I rushed forward, hoping to catch him by surprise and stab him in the side.
I managed three steps before he pivoted easily despite his size, sending me flying toward a gray wall. Before I could run headfirst into it, he caught my good arm and whirled me around, pinning me against it instead.
“Nice try,” he said, grinning. I shoved my knee to his crotch, but instead of finding soft flesh, I hit something hard and plastic instead. A protective cup.
“Nighty-night,” said Williams, and as I struggled against his grip, he slammed the butt of his rifle into my temple, sending me spiraling back into darkness.
* * *
Voices murmured around me, and cold hands pulled at my bad shoulder, sending a white-hot shock of pain down my arm. I opened my eyes. My vision was blurry, but I could make out a shadowy figure standing in front of me, while two others hauled me to my feet.
“Knox?” I mumbled. My head pounded, and the world seemed distorted, as if I were looking at it through a piece of curved glass.
The shadowy figure didn’t answer me. Instead he called out, “Ready in five, four, three, two, one...”
A buzzer went off above my head, and the two figures on either side of me shoved me upward through a trapdoor, into bright light that might as well have shoved shards of glass into my eyeballs. A strange whooshing sound echoed in my ears, louder than it probably was thanks to the pounding in my head, and I squinted enough to see the opening in the floor close up completely.
What was going on?
Tears flooded my eyes, but I forced them open, and slowly my vision swam into focus. I was on some kind of platform at least six feet off the ground, with looming gray buildings surrounding it. Weak morning light filtered through the clouds, but there was something else above me, too.
My chest tightened, and suddenly I could barely breathe.
I was in the cage.
“Kitty?” said a trembling voice only a few feet away. I turned my head slowly, and my heart dropped to my knees.
His face was covered in purple bruises, and his lank hair hung in his eyes as he hunched over, cradling his ribs, but I would have recognized him anywhere.
“Benjy?” My voice sounded weak and muffled, and I wasn’t sure if it was me or the concussion. “What—”
He limped across the cage and collapsed beside me, wrapping his arms around me the same way Elliott had embraced Noelle. I hugged him back with my good arm, and as I looked over his shoulder, the rest of the world came into focus.
Hundreds of prisoners in red and orange jumpsuits stood around the platform, staring up at us with blank expressions on their faces. But something wasn’t right—the sun was coming in from the wrong direction. It was still morning.
I looked up at the rooftop where Mercer stood, tall and proud and holding his automatic weapon with a sneer. Hannah stood beside him, and even from a distance, I could see the cuts and bruises decorating her face. Even if she’d managed to make it look like I’d injured her while escaping, there was no way she could have done that amount of damage to herself.
Mercer knew she’d let me go. And this was her punishment.
This was our punishment.
“Benjy,” I whispered. He was warm and solid against me, and I closed my eyes, breathing in his scent. So this was it. This was how we were going to die.
I exhaled, and relief crept through me, numbing the pain from my head and shoulder. I’d never had a chance of surviving Elsewhere, and Benjy was always paying for my mistakes, too. But we were together, and now there would be no more wondering when the final axe would drop.
“I’m sorry.” I kissed his stubbly cheek, and his grip around me tightened.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he whispered. “I love you, and I would rather die with you than live a single day without you. This is exactly how I want to spend my last seconds—with you.”
I buried my face in the crook of his neck and took a slow, deep breath. I was okay. We were okay. Death was inevitable, and this was our time.
“This is your only warning,” called Mercer, but his voice sounded distant, as if he were somewhere at the other end of a long tunnel. My fingers curled around Benjy’s jacket.
“You know where we’re going to be when we wake up?” I whispered. “In a field by our lake, tangled together under the warm sun. There’s going to be a picnic basket full of all kinds of food, and we’re going to have our cottage together, right next to our lake.”