I thought I knew what insanity felt like. When I saw things nobody else could see. When my nightmares started unfolding in real life. When a much-too-popular, achingly handsome boy started watching my every move. When I was locked up in a mental hospital against my will and told everything I knew to be true was a figment of my imagination.
I thought I knew.
But all of that was nothing compared to this.
The hub has erupted into pandemonium. All the lights are on, and since windows do not exist down here—deep in the bowels of a ruined warehouse—it might as well be day instead of the dead of night. Everyone is awake and focused on the defector. The one who betrayed me. The one who betrayed him. Everyone is panicked over what this means—Claire out there, knowing all she knows about our location, our names, who we really are.
How could she do it?
That is the question of the hour. But I don’t care about her. I don’t care about why she defected or the ramifications of her decision. All I care about is him—the boy across the hall, unable to wake up. And yet very, very much alive.
Despite what everyone thinks, Luka’s soul has not been destroyed.
I saw him. I heard him. He’s being held hostage, tortured by the white-eyed men. His screams echo inside my head. They won’t stop. Nor will the way he arched up in agony as black mist lacerated his body. Every second that ticks past is one more second closer to losing him forever. And that is something I cannot let happen. Because if Luka dies, then so will everything else.
I scratch the inside of my wrist and begin to rock like the patients in straitjackets at Shady Wood. Link sits beside me on the couch, mindlessly twisting his Rubik’s Cube. Nobody will listen—not Gabe, not Cap, not Sticks or Non. They think I’m in shock. They think I’m in denial. They keep talking about Clive DeVant—our new Cloak—who’s supposed to arrive with Dr. Carlyle in the afternoon, and Fray—one of our old Cloaks—who’s supposed to leave with Dr. Carlyle to a hospital in Northern Michigan, but if we stick around until tomorrow, we might all end up in jail.
“What are we going to do?” someone asks.
“What if Claire’s already gone to the authorities?”
“She has all of our names. She knows all of our faces.”
“Are we safe?”
Something feral claws up my throat. A wild beast of a thing, but before it can escape, Cap raises his hand. It’s a simple gesture, and yet, coming from him—our leader—the hub goes quiet.
“I’ll figure out what to do about Fray and Clive. In the meantime, everybody needs to return to their room and pack a bag.”
The wild beast of a thing claws free. “We can’t leave!”
“Claire has left us no choice,” Cap says.
“We’re not leaving Luka here.” The hot words bring me to my feet. “Y-you’d be murdering him!”
Nothing can be heard but the steady tick-tick of a clock on the far wall of the common room.
“If you are underage,” Cap’s silver eyes do not leave mine, “return to your room immediately and wait for my instruction.”
Slowly, the room begins to clear. Ellen and Declan obey first. A tearful Rosie, then Bass, Jose, Ashley, and Danielle. Jillian lingers, shooting several glances my way, before she, too, obeys orders. Link stays.
“It’s time to return to your room,” Cap says.
“He’s alive. We can still save him.”
He paws his face, the palm of his hand scratching against the stubble on his cheeks. I can tell he doesn’t know what to do with me anymore.
“Luka is gone.” The lifeless words belong to Gabe.
“Why?” I practically spit the question. “Because you couldn’t get your sister back?”
“Tess.” Cap says my name like a low warning.
I don’t care. I don’t care if I hurt Gabe. I don’t care that I’m disobeying orders once again. I don’t care about anything but the boy down the hall. Luka isn’t gone. At least he wasn’t an hour ago. I have no idea how much longer my declaration will hold true. And therein lies the crux of my insanity. I’m standing here trying to convince these people that he’s alive while every breath I take draws him closer to death.
Link gently takes my arm. “Come on. Let me take you to your room.”
I jerk my elbow away. “I’m not leaving him.”
Cap pushes out a terse breath. “We have more pressing matters at hand.”
“More pressing matters? He’s being tortured. Right now, at this very moment. And we’re standing here letting it happen.” What can be more pressing than that? Before the question can fully form, I know Cap’s answer. As captain of this ship, he has to make decisions for the collective whole. It’s what he’s always doing. He has to think strategically, and if that means sacrificing one for the sake of the rest, then that is what he will do. I absolutely hate him for it.
Link pulls me away.
“He’s going to die!” I try wrenching my arm free, but his grip is surprisingly strong. “Do you hear me? If we don’t get to him right now, he will die!”
Link pulls me further away.
“Gabe!” I turn wild eyes on him—my last hope. If anybody knows this kind of agony, he does. “Please. Help me. Luka is alive. I swear to you, he’s alive. We can’t leave him here!”
Gabe does nothing but look away from my manic pleas.
And Link drags me out of the room. He circles his arm around my waist and pulls me away while I scream and flail, not strong enough to resist, tears running like scalding heat down my cheeks. Rosie stares out from the crack in her bedroom door, her eyes big and wide in her face. Link murmurs words of comfort I do not hear. He holds me until I’ve stopped thrashing. Until the wild thing has crawled back inside and curled into a whimpering ball.
All I can do is shake my head. I should have listened a long time ago, but not to Link. I should have listened to Luka, who never wanted to go on our mission in the first place. And yet, I insisted. I ignored his reservations. I never considered that it might be his life in danger. “It’s my fault. He’s there because of me. He knew something would go wrong, but I wouldn’t listen. I went and because I went, he had to go, too. And now he’s being tortured.” The memory of his scream grows so loud and sharp in my mind that I wince. “You have to believe me. Please believe me.”
“Xena, look at me.” Link takes hold of my face and tips up my chin so that I have no choice. His caramel eyes are steady and familiar. “Listen to me. If Luka is still alive and the other side is holding him hostage, it’s because they want you.”
“I know that.” And I will gladly trade places.
“So you know what that means.”
Another hot tear tumbles down my cheek.
Link catches it on the pad of his thumb. “They aren’t going to kill him. If they kill him, they lose their leverage.”
“I know that, too. But I also know what I saw. If it continues for much longer, he won’t be Luka anymore.” My chin trembles. “Please, Link. We can’t leave him.”
Link’s steady resolve solidifies. “We won’t.”
Those two definitive words calm me more than anything else he could have said or done.
“I have an idea. Let me run it by Cap.”
“Twenty minutes,” Cap says.
I slide onto one of six chairs in the training center and fidget with the hemp bracelet around my wrist. It belonged to Luka. He insisted I wear it in case it offered even a hint of protection. “What if Claire’s not sleeping?”
“Then we will have no choice but to leave this place and disband.” The look Cap gives me is clear. This is as far as he’s willing to take this. If Link and I cannot locate Claire, if we cannot find out whether she truly defected or simply left out of shame, then he will have to make decisions I will not like. “Do you understand?”
I swallow and look away, my head incapable of nodding.
If not for Fray’s fragile health, if not for Clive scheduled to arrive tomorrow, I’m positive Cap never would have agreed to Link’s plan. Thankfully, Cap doesn’t want to leave. Disbanding in the dead of night isn’t his style.
“Twenty minutes will be enough to learn what we need to learn.” Link attaches a probe to my left temple. Usually, he attaches two. One that sends electrodes to the part of my brain that is most active during sleep. Another that brings me to the dojo—a shared dream space Link created for training purposes. But we’re not going to the dojo tonight. We’re going to find Claire and we can’t wait around for sleep to take us in our beds.
Time is of the essence.
I rest my head against the chair and squeeze my eyes tight, praying with every ounce of faith I have that Claire will be asleep. Finding her now, figuring out what she’s up to, is the first step to saving Luka.
“All right, we’re both attached.” Link has taken the chair next to me. He grabs my ice-cold hand and gives it a confident squeeze. “You can push the button in ten … nine …”
I close my eyes tight and focus on Claire, the betrayer. I imagine her the first time I saw her, when Luka and I arrived at the hub. Her white-blond hair loosely braided down her back. Her regal beauty. The way her nose turned up in the air without trying. The shock of seeing her down here, in the hub, after having studied her file for days.
“Six … five …”
The grating way she flirted with Luka. The victorious feeling of taking her down in the dojo. The hateful look in her eyes when Cap announced he would be training me.
“Three … two …”
Her foot reaching out to trip me as we battled inside the walls of Shady Wood. Her look of triumph when I fell.
Wind whips hair around my face. I’m no longer laying in the training center; I’m standing beside Link outside a home I’ve been to before—with Luka, when we were searching for Claire, who at the time was nothing more than a patient file Dr. Roth left behind.
Now she stands on the front stoop, pounding on the door, while trees bend beneath the force of the wind.
My hands curl into tight fists. The blood in my veins turns to molten lava.
Link sets his hand on my shoulder. “We’ll learn more if she doesn’t know you’re here.”
He’s right, of course. As much as I want to shove my fist in her face, now’s not the time. I duck behind a row of emaciated bushes and strain to hear above the wind.
“Please Mom! It’s me.” Claire glances up at the ominous, swirling sky and pounds harder. “Please open up.”
Link approaches behind her. “Claire?”
She whirls around, her icy blue eyes wide with panic, her face streaked with tears. “Link?”
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“I-I’m trying to get to my parents, but they won’t let me in.” She wipes at her cheeks. “How did you get here?”
“How do you think?”
The wind loses some of its strength.
Claire looks up at the clouds. They no longer swirl as threateningly as they did seconds ago. She peels a strand of hair from her lips. “This is a dream. You’re spying on me.”
“I’m not spying. I’m checking.” He holds up his hands, as if to show her he means no harm. “You left without telling anybody. We’re all worried.”
I grit my teeth. Not one part of me is worried about her. She’s been bad news from the beginning. I should have realized the danger I was putting Luka in—the danger I was putting everybody in—by going on such a high-stakes mission with Claire on the team.
Her chin trembles. “I never meant for Luka to get hurt.”
“But Tess—you wanted her to get hurt?” Link’s question is gentle. Non-accusatory. Everything opposite from what I feel.
“I just wanted things to go back to the way they were before she came. I-I wasn’t thinking. I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it. All I want is my mom and dad, but I don’t think they want to see me.”
Liar. Lies. I don’t believe a single note of her remorse.
“Have you told anyone about our location?” Link asks.
“No. I would never do that. But I couldn’t stay. Nobody wanted me there. Not even you.”
Link shifts his weight. His back is to me, so I can’t see his face. I have no idea if he’s falling for the act or not.
“I would never put you in danger, Link, never. I just want to go home to my parents. That’s all I want.” She turns around and beats the door with her fists, begging the wood to let her inside.
* * *
“She didn’t defect.” Link peels off his probe and swings his legs around, bringing his feet to the floor. “She’s not going to give our location away. She just wants to get to her parents.”
Cap looks from me to Link, waiting for me to verify.
I don’t contradict him, even if I don’t believe a word of Claire’s sob story.
Cap rubs his forehead.
A glance at the clock tells me it’s four in the morning. Two hours have passed since I saw Luka, bound and tortured. I’m so desperate to get to him, it feels as though a hole is burning a wide path through my heart.
Cap looks at Non and Sticks, who stand inside the small room. “What do you think?”
“It buys us some time,” Sticks says. “At least until Clive arrives and Fray is gone.”
“And Luka’s back,” I add.
“Non?” Cap asks.
She slides her hands down her head, flattening her bushy hair to the sides of her face. “Gabe’s standing guard above ground. If danger arrives, he’ll be able to alert us in time to carry out emergency protocol.”
Emergency protocol? I don’t know about any emergency protocol. We’ve certainly never practiced an emergency drill during my time at the hub. But of course there would be something in place. Cap would have thought of that.
He rubs his knuckle along his bottom lip, then pushes out a breath. “You two can return to your rooms,” he says to me and Link. “We’ll stay for now.”
Link’s plan worked.
Cap doesn’t think Claire will betray us.
He believes we’re safe.
I don’t. Not for one second.
But I’m willing to risk the safety of everyone at the hub if it means getting Luka back.
His hands slide up my back, his lips feverish on mine as I curl my fingers into his hair and pull him closer. He wraps his arms all the way around my waist and pulls me closer too. Only there’s nowhere to go. Our bodies are pressed tight, with his slightly bent over mine. I wrap my arms around his neck and he stands up straight, lifting my feet off the sand. It’s a hungry kiss. A desperate kiss. A euphoric, blissful kiss. Because it’s Luka. He’s here. He’s alive. And I can’t get enough of him.
A wave rolls up onto the beach, hitting our legs, pushing us sideways.
Luka pulls away, his green eyes hungry and bright. “I love you, Tess.”
“I love you, too.” Saying the words out loud makes my heart soar straight up to the sky. I don’t think it’ll ever come down.
A throat clears, extra loud.
I turn around in Luka’s arms. Link stands a few yards away, toeing the ground. I slide down Luka’s body and plant my feet in the rocky sand. This is the first time anybody has showed up on our beach. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought we’d find Luka.”
“I have found Luka. He’s right—” I turn around, but Luka’s arms no longer hold me. Luka is no longer near me. He has disappeared. “Where did he go?”
“He was never here.”
“What do you mean?”
Link scratches the back of his head, his cheeks pink. His cheeks are never pink. “Come on, Xena. You know how this works.”
My soaring heart crashes hard. “I was constructing him?”
All the ache and panic I’ve felt since waking up from our rescue mission returns, so fast and so completely it knocks my breath away. The Luka I was just kissing was a projection—a figment of my imagination. “But I went to bed thinking about him. He’s all I thought about.” After we found Claire, Cap ordered Link and I both to bed. I went willingly, eager to find Luka. To make sure he’s still alive. “Why aren’t I with him? What went wrong?”
“I don’t know. You could try thinking of him now.”
Right. I can hop to Luka from here. I found him once, which means I can find him again. And if he can be found, then he also can be rescued.
Link offers me his hand. Incredibly grateful for his help, I take it and close my eyes. I picture Luka’s dark hair in a constant state of disarray. Smooth, olive skin. Grass green eyes. The subtle smell of wintergreen and fabric softener, even down here in this basement. I picture the heady way he looks at me—like I, Teresa Eckhart, am his entire world.
My feet remain on the sand, my fingers laced with Link’s.
I close my eyes again, squishing them so tight my nose wrinkles. I think about the confident cadence of Luka’s voice. The way he commands attention whenever he walks into a room. I think about the shield he threw inside Shady Wood’s staircase, so powerful it obliterated one of our enemies. His strength, his confidence, his passion, the way he stands up for things that aren’t popular.
I remember the day I first saw him in Current Events with Mr. Lotsam. The shock of recognition that flickered in his eyes. I recall the first time we met in a dream, on a beach like this one. I relive our first kiss in the locker bay of Thornsdale High School, being carried in his arms as he rescued me from the Edward Brooks Facility. Sleeping beside him on a squeaky mattress in Motel California.
Panic balloons inside my chest, morphing into this unwieldy thing. This happened once before, a couple days ago, when I tried jumping to my grandmother’s dream. I couldn’t find her either, and when we finally arrived at Shady Wood to save her, she was already gone. It was too late.
I turn to Link. “What’s happening? Why can’t I find him?”
He waves. Not his hand, but his entire body. It crimps in a way that isn’t physically possible. And then slowly, he fades away.
The beach flickers, like a blip on a television screen before it loses reception. Everything goes black, then comes back into focus. Another blink. Another, and then …
I sit up in bed, my breath coming in quick rasps. What happened? Why couldn’t I get to Luka? Why did Link leave me? I tear the covers off my legs. Maybe if I’m nearer to Luka, I’ll be able to reach him. That’s how I got to him before. I fell asleep beside his warm body and woke up in the place he was being held prisoner.
I pull open my bedroom door.
Jillian tumbles inside, her hand on the door knob. She quickly regains her balance and takes a few steadying breaths. “Holy smokes, you scared me.”
I’d apologize if the what-ifs weren’t pelting my thoughts like an onslaught of sharp hail.
Indistinct chatter filters down the hallway.
Jillian looks over her shoulder toward the sound, then back at me. “Link sent me. He’s waiting in the training center.”
* * *
I follow Jillian past our makeshift classrooms; both are dark and empty. There will be no classes today. There will be no classes ever again. Not down here. Dream spying on Claire may have bought us some time, but we will never be able to go back to the way things were. Life as we know it in the hub is over.
Inside the training center, Link stands behind the computer, punching keys on the keyboard.
“Why did you leave last night?” I ask.
“I didn’t leave. You booted me out.”
I join him by the computer. A string of numbers scroll down the screen. I have no idea how Link makes sense of them. “What do you mean?”
“Your dream wasn’t stable.”
“Because you aren’t sleeping well.”
A pocket of hope opens up in my chest. “Is that why I couldn’t get to him?”
“If I had to take a guess, I’d say it’s a combination of that,” he punches some more keys, “and the fact that he’s probably resisting you.”
“Resisting me? Why would he resist me?”
Link stops and looks at me. Usually, he’s an open book. Usually, he’s all devil-may-care and adventuresome—a combination that infuriates Luka to no end, since most of Link’s adventures include me. Last night, Link was my serious-as-a-heart-attack ally. Today he’s something else. Something I can’t read.
“If you showed up before, he knows you’ll come back. And if you come back, you could get hurt. Call me ridiculous, but he seems like the kind of guy who’d rather be tortured to death than put you in any sort of danger.”
Of course. It’s exactly the kind of thing Luka would do.
Jillian sighs, like it’s romantic.
“How am I supposed to get to him, then?”
“The same way we got to Claire.” He holds up the probes we attached to our temples a few hours ago. “This will put you in a deep sleep. You won’t have to fight against an unstable dream. You’ll only have to fight against Luka’s resistance. If he’s being tortured as badly as you say, then it shouldn’t be too difficult.”
I throw my arms around Link’s neck and hug him tight. The gesture must catch him off guard. It takes a second before he wraps his arms around my waist and hugs me back.
Jillian peeks out into the hallway, then closes the door and clicks the lock. “Cap will murder all three of us if he finds out what we’re doing.”
“He won’t. He’s too busy getting Fray ready to leave with Dr. Carlyle.” Link untangles another set of probes and connects it to the computer. “All right, Jilly-Bean. I want to make sure you know what you’re doing.”
She joins him, paying careful attention as he points out important number strings.
Confusion prickles my thoughts. “Are you leaving?”
“Of course not.” He attaches a set of probes beneath his collar and hands me a set of my own. They monitor our vitals. A precaution to avoid things like cardiac arrest. “I’m going with you.”
I shake my head. He isn’t a Fighter. He isn’t even a Shield. He’s a Linker. Hence, his nickname. There’s no reason for him to come along and put his life in jeopardy.
“Someone has to make sure you aren’t constructing.”
“I would know if I was constructing.”
“You didn’t last night.”
A slow burn works its way into my cheeks.
Last night, if Link hadn’t interrupted my make-out session with imaginary Luka, who knows how long it would have continued, or where things would have led. “That was a little different than watching Luka being lacerated by crazy white-eyed demon men. I would never construct a torture scene.”
Link brushes a strand of hair from my face and gently attaches a probe to my left temple. “Show me, then.”
“You’re putting yourself in danger.”
“It’s about time, don’t you think?”
He rolls his eyes. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me. Worry about you. I’m a little concerned you won’t be able to control yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
“This isn’t a rescue mission.”
“But I thought—”
“If Luka’s really being held hostage, we’re going to need backup. I won’t be any help to you in there. All we’re doing is going in, learning as much as we can, then reporting to Cap. He can’t ignore us both. Think you can handle that?”
Go to Luka—watch him being tortured—and do nothing? I’m not sure it’s possible. But Link’s waiting for an answer, so I give him a nod and attach the probes beneath my clavicle. The monitor picks up the erratic thumping of my heart as I take a seat in one of the chairs.
“Okay, Jilly-Bean. If either of our heart rates exceeds 200 BPMs, wake us up.”
Mine is already more than halfway there.
As if reading my mind, Link takes my clammy hand and gives it a short squeeze. “Come on, Xena, take some deep breaths or we’ll be done before we start.”
I inhale deeply through my nose. Exhale completely through my lips. Then I close my eyes and focus all my energy on Luka.