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Unconquerable Soul (Previously known as Duty: To Heart)
Author's note: Wow. This book has really been a journey for me. I've been working on it for years, and it has continued to grow and evolve as I've gotten older and (hopefully) wiser. I'd love to get feedback, and would gladly return the favor.
“Why her?” Dominik leans over the table towards the masked man, peering at the pictures. Candid shots from behind, far away, in a crowded room. Always the same black-haired teenaged girl. Dominik licks his black lips and smiles slightly – she’s pretty. The masked man lays his menu over the spread of photos, gives the waitress his drink order. When she leaves he lifts the menu, finger dancing over the girl’s oblivious face.
“She’s our way in.” They look at the pictures in silence, the masked man breathing heavily. Against his better judgment, Dominik taps a nail on the bulky body of the brown-eyed boy, never far away from the girl, large club hanging from his belt. As if he’d need it. The other nail finds an older man, also her constant companion, war-hardened and strong.
The masked man slams his fist on the table, ice shaking in the water glasses. “They are nothing! They are weak! Stupid!” He drops his voice. “They will not hinder our goal. We will prevail.” He hisses, breath smelling of rot and Vodka. “She will be the lamb that slaughters the lion.”
“We gather here today to honor the years of service and devotion of a great man.” Broad smiles sparkle in the light of the chandelier as champagne glasses clink together. A large man stands on the stage next to the speaker, looking bashful as he receives the crowd’s admiration. The speaker – an average-height fellow with carefully tamed black hair and a large silver watch - turns to him, grasping his hand with the grip of an old friend. “Ethan, you have served your Sector for fifteen years.” Sadness flits through the speaker’s blue eyes. Ethan has been his fellow Representative for as long as he’s been on the Counsel, the two of them making up the Sector 1 segment of the world’s government. “As your colleague and your friend, I’ll miss you. And as your fellow Sector Member, I thank you.” Mild applause erupts in the crowd and Bella beams at her father as he concludes his speech, her green silk dress shimmering in the half-light.
She finds it hard to believe that, a short 83 years ago, this estate was nothing, the peace treaty of The Chaos being hammered out just ‘across the pond’, in what used to be Poland but is now Sector 4. The world population was now up to a billion, after being cut to half that during The Chaos, the four conflicting armies narrowed down to one unified Protectorate only controlled by an unanimous motion on the part of the 14 Representatives, two from each Sector. The civilian population has long since calmed down too, old factions mixed and relocated to each of the seven Sectors, anything other than primitive weapons taken from everyone but Protectorate members, society rebuilt from the ashes. Even for her, a Representative’s daughter, the past seems like a bad dream, conjured from the minds of babbling grey-haired veterans.
She catches Ethan as he fades into the crowd, giving him a bright smile.
“Hey Lady.” He grins at her, his expression familiar from countless dinners between their two families.
“Hey Mr. Aldernon.”
He holds out his hand but she wraps him in a hug instead, giving him a tight squeeze before letting him go.
“Congrats on retiring – dad’ll miss you on the Counsel.” She laughs. “He said you always helped him with those Sector 2 blokes.” He sighs and shakes his head.
“Poor guy – he’s going to have fun dealing with that alone.” Bella nods, eyes wide for effect. Sector 2 has a reputation for being a bit stuck in the corrupt and materialistic ways of the Old World. Even their Rytual – the rite of passage tradition shared by all Sectors but different in each – is a giant “Festivas” where the initiate plans and hosts a huge party. Much different than the Sector 1 “Homesteading” Bella completed last year, where she and seven other sixteen-year-olds were expected to build and maintain a working farm and household for six months. She says goodbye to Ethan, feeling pity for the Sector 2 kids. She learned a lot of important things Homesteading, and they’ll never get to.
Pushing the realization away, Bella sighs and lets herself drift to the edge of the swarm, feeling tired. A slinky black curl slips from her updo as she worms through the masses, dodging well-meaning acquaintances who will surely want to talk about politics or school, slipping past chattering government workers. Her tall, slender build aids her retreat from the flow of people as she scans the crowd, bright turquoise eyes searching for her parents.
She spots them near the door, chatting with Representatives and staff members as they pass. Noel is significantly shorter than her husband, but holds herself proudly in her simple black dress, accented with angular green folds in the bold fashion of Sector 1, her blonde hair cascading around her shoulders and her fair face lighting up as she beams. Her husband Goffert’s thick build contrasts her slim figure almost as much as his reserved blue eyes stand out against her cheery ones. The smile on his face is more restrained, as if his mouth has forgotten how it feels to be without burden. He stands there like he owns the world but is not above it, speaking in hushed tones to a giant of a man, whose height and girth are nearly a foot more than that of the Representative himself.
Bella recognizes the giant man as Citrus – the Chief of the Guard, which is supplied with military training and heavy clubs, charged with protecting those involved in government and other high orders. She slows, ears pricking to hear their conversation. Her mother likes to lecture that eavesdropping is a vice, but never seems to complain when Bella turns up with advice on situations she’s not supposed to know about. Bella smirks at the thought, snippets of conversation floating through the babble of the crowd.
“Going to….. worried…. steak dinner….. need a new guard.”
“Several candidates…. arrange an inspection….”
Goffert – nods, chiseled features drawn in thought. “What about tomorrow? I have an opening between two and three.”
Citrus pulls out his communicator. “Yes sir, I’ll arrange it right away.” He turns away and Goffert catches sight of Bella.
“Bella!” He calls, and she smiles at him from across the path of carpet that splits the cobblestone floor.
“I’m going to take my leave – I love you.” She says, the formality of the party wearing her down. The king grimaces along with her then gives her a wink. She grins, then turns away, nearly colliding with a tall boy about her age, his hair perfectly styled to look messily casual. She smiles, fog of boredom lifted.
“Hey Chand!” She chirps. His heart flutters a bit at the sight of her old friend, Ethan’s son.
“Hey. How are you? I haven’t seen you in forever!” Since he got back from his own Homesteading, Chand has been busy trying to follow in his father’s footsteps, only seeing Bella once or twice in the last 10 months.
“Yeah, I know. I heard you’re looking for a new guard?”
“Yup – last one’s term ran out and he decided to go civvie. Wanted a family, I guess.” Chand shivers a bit, no stranger to bodyguards himself.
“It’s horrible isn’t? That there are people who are there just to die for us if we need them to?”
Bella ponders it, then finally answers, each word hanging on her lips for longer than it has to. “I think…. that preparing to die for us is what every soldier does – Enforcer, Protector, or Guard. It’s sad, but I can’t think of any other way to do it.”
“People could stop being so cruel – this is the New World after all. We were supposed to be done with conflict! If we just-“ He takes a deep breath, signaling a visit from his unwavering idealism.
Bella gives his wrist a squeeze. “Chand.” She cuts him short. “Everyone in here is boring. Let’s take a walk.”
He catches the hint and nods, reaching for her hand. She lets him take it as they weave their way into the silence of the hall. The air is cooler outside the stuffy meeting room, and Bella steps a little bit closer. “So what have you been up to lately?” She asks as they pass the two men guarding the door to the outside of the large home, barely noticing their presence. One of the soldiers allows his gaze to follow the pair as they walk out, his dark eyes drifting below the tall hat.
“The usual. Diplomacy lessons, tennis, and putting a lot of time into my art and music. I have a concert in a month or so. You should come.”
“I’d love to – what are you playing?”
“Violin in that one.”
He chuckles. “You’re sweet, but should really watch your mouth. What have you been doing?”
“Riding as usual. Brogan and I are working towards Training events this fall. I’m also thinking about writing a book, and I work out with Dudley once in a while, when I don’t have lessons.”
“That’s great! What are you going to write about?”
“I think I’ll write about the soldiers, New World and Old. The honor, the glory, the brotherhood…. Dudley said he’d help me get some guys to interview.”
“Very cool. Hey, did you hear about Sector 2?”
“No – what about it?”
“Apparently they found an old Shadow Force hideout. Some New World militants in there, somehow had improvised firearms. Three enforcers were killed before somebody took ‘em out with a crossbow. I swear, it’s Old World all over again down there in the jungle...”
“That’s horrible.” She cuts him short again. “When-“
“Chand!” An authoritative voice calls, and Chand sighs.
“Coming, dad.” He turns to Bella, letting go of her hand, fingers brushing her palms as he slowly pulls away. “I’ll see you later. Good luck with everything.”
“Thanks – I’ll try to come to your concert.” He grins at her before jogging on down the path after Ethan, pea gravel crunching under his feet.
She ducks back through the door then down a side passage that leads to a simple staircase, spiraling her way into the living area of the sprawling Left Executive House, where the left seat Representative is expected to live. Two left turns and a hallway later, she arrives at the cream door to her room. She sighs as she enters, the soft golden walls with their waving wheat murals and gleaming wood trim wrapping her in their familiar arms. Her bed nests in its wood frame on the other side of the room, embroidered wheat-gold chiffon spilling over the sides. Her dresser, nightstand, bookshelf, vanity and desk are all the same rich color as the trim and bedframe, delicately carved with the waving crops her Sector is so proud of. A simple oak door opens onto a wrought-iron balcony, from which she can look over the sweeping grounds. It has been such as long as she can remember, since her family moved into this house when she was two, and an instant peace settles over her.
She turns on the light and walks to her desk, sitting down and turning on her projector screen, instantly surrounded in floating images to manipulate as she pleases. Out of habit she touches the news icon, scanning for anything interesting. A name jumps out at her – Sector 1 Guard. She pauses her scrolling.
Sector 1 Guard-bound Soldier Refuses To Press Charges
Cocking her head slightly, Bella touches the link. A short article pops up next to a picture of a harsh-looking tan boy standing at attention, just like he was earlier in the doorway, his umber eyes devoid of emotion but a slight smile on his square jaw. A long white scar stands out on his left cheek, running the length of it. Bella eyes bulge and she swears before reading on.
Dudley McGrahm, 17, of London refuses to press charges in a Courts Martial of fellow recruit. McGrahm is training for a position in the Royal Guard, and is a witness of a crime believed to be committed by his comrade Alan Roys. “Roys is my brother in arms. I will tell the courts what I saw and what I know, but I won’t search for information to bring Roys down. I am not a Lawman. Proving guilt or innocence is not my job, and I do not pretend it is.” McGrahm commented to an interviewer last Tuesday night. Roys has been accused of stealing currency from McGrahm and another soldier, who has asked that his name not be disclosed.
Bella’s thin eyebrows slide up her face as her eyes widen. She has known Dudley for a year, since she interviewed him for a project on those returning from their time in Sector 6 – where all sixteen-year-olds intending to become professionals rather than normal Sector members go to receive their training - as soldiers, finished with their basic training for the guard. At 6’5” and 300 pounds, Dudley would be intimidating even if he didn’t have a square face, buzz cut, cold brown eyes, and a massive pitbull. But despite his appearance, they are extremely close - the idea of him not telling her about the scandal shocks her more than the crime itself. She fumbles for her communicator and says “Call McGrahm.”
“McGrahm.” He answers in a soldierly grunt, though he knows it’s her.
She rolls her eyes. If she weren’t angry at him for not telling her, she would have laughed. “What’s this about a trial? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think you needed to know.” His voice is deep and slightly gravely – rougher than husky and only a few pitches smoother than unpleasant. Like he’s always at that point right after a cold where your voice is clear but not fluid.
“You don’t need to know any of what I tell you.” She reasons.
He smiles knowingly on the other line, and his dog Bazooka whines deep and low from where he is tied to a weight set, hoping for a walk. Dudley ignores him, lifting barbells with his free hand, sweat rolling down his face. “Not today, Baz.” He tells the dog, then turns his attention to Bella. “The whole affair is undeserving of attention. He lost, I won, end of story.”
“He stole from you!”
“He got a black eye for it.”
Bella laughs, satisfied, and the bell-like sound lights up his world. “You slugged him?”
“Of course I did – he stole from me.” He chuckles, liking to turn things around like that. She always seems so surprised.
On the other end of the phone she smiles. He always manages to make things seem obvious without ever making her feel stupid or inferior. Like each time she misses his logic is just a minor setback on the path to whatever deeper understanding he seems to have. “Touché.” She finally replies, losing the mind game again.
“Still looking for a bodyguard?” He asks.
“Yup.” She replies distractedly as an idea comes to her. “Hey, I’ve got to go. I’ll talk you tomorrow.” she hurries through her words.
He frowns at the phone but says goodbye anyway, letting the weight drop back into its rack. He allows himself to enjoy the exhaustion for a moment before jumping into a cold shower – water, no additives - and traipsing back to the barracks, Baz’s leash tight around his wrist. A timeless game of poker is being played in the middle of the barrack floor, with men laying about, tossing impromptu offerings of dirty posters and chocolate bars into the pot. They cheer as Dudley enters, and Jenkins flips Baz a scrap of bacon filched from chow hall. Turner pulls himself up, patting Dudley on the back.
“McGrahm my man, do a brother a favor and make an investment.”
There’s booing from the men but Dudley just laughs, patting the pocket of his cargo pants dramatically before pulling out a small handful of Knicks – the small superfood that is useful as currency in any Sector, like 2’s gold or 7’s communicators. “I dunno Turner… Maybe I wanna play a hand.” Turner swears and the men laugh as they clear a space for Dudley’s mass.
A sharp rapping on the door tugs Bella awake, ripping her from the warped worlds of her dreams and into reality. She groans, scrubbing her eyes.
“Thanks Keegan.” She mumbles to the guard who woke her, then glances at the clock – exactly seven thirty. She smiles, hating to sleep in, especially in summer. Such a waste of time…. With a surge of will power she pushes herself from the cozy bed, thin legs unsteady with grogginess. Blinking as she turns on the light, she takes a quick shower then stumbles to her dresser and pulls on a pair of angular brown leather shorts and a bright blue blouse with pointed brown pockets and fringe before going to the bathroom and forcing her curly black hair into a bouncy pony-tail. She turns to leave but pauses, slender hand on the control pad. Wait – I’m going to be going to the base today. Her red lips curve into a smug smile as she taps off the light and walks purposefully back into her room, sliding into the chair in front of her vanity.
A few strokes of tan and green eye shadows play with the emerald in her eyes, giving them an exotic tinge. She puts a touch of blush on her high pale cheekbones, but avoids foundation, allowing her slight sprinkling of freckles to shine through. She smiles at herself in the mirror, then shrugs. “That’s as good as it’s going to get….” She mumbles, turning to grab a pair of work boots, pulling them on as she walks out the door. Robert Keegan is standing ramrod-straight beside the exit, blank stare fixed across the hall.
“Morning.” She chirps, and he gives her a smile and nod before becoming a statue again. The muffled voices of tourists waft from the street as she passes the ornate main entrance, but fade out again as she reaches the family dining area. The guards open the doors for her as she nears, their faces soft under the sharp points of their decorative helms, Dudley not among them.
The walls of the dining area are a soft beige, with a gleaming cedar floor, a masterfully carved table for ten, and a warm glow cast by the countless farm-style candles on the wall. Goffert is sitting at the head of the table, clad in a neatly pressed suit and bright orange tie, his blue eyes flashing with intensity. Noel paints a gentler picture, her dainty curves shown off by a simple cream dress, jingling with tiny diamonds of metal hanging from thousands of dangling threads, hair hung with the same decorations and drooping in coils around her shoulders, pale face smiling. Bella grins and slides into place beside her father.
“Morning.” She lays her napkin across her lap and takes a bite of a fresh dewberry, hurriedly wiping the juice as it runs down her chin.
“Good morning. How did you sleep?” Her mom asks cheerily. Bella hurries to chew.
“I slept well, how about you?” She finally answers.
Turning to her father, Bella finishes another bite. “Hey, did you see the news?”
“I haven’t looked today, what happened?” He asks, eyes intense. He always gives her his full attention, leaving her feeling warm and important.
“A couple of Guard-bound soldiers are going through Courts Martials.” She picks her words carefully, wanting to see his reaction before she reveals anything.
Goffert’s mouth droops. “It’s so sad when that happens – the Guard, of all organizations, should hold itself to a higher standard.” Bella gulps down another bite and answers quickly.
“Dudley was the victim.” She states.
The king makes a noise halfway between surprise and amusement. “Is the criminal in a body cast now?”
Bella laughs. Everyone knows that a punch from Dudley can easily be a deathblow, but he never fights for the sake of it. Sure, he’ll defend an idea or a friend or even himself, but unlike a lot of the hotheaded young men that sign up, he never blows off steam. ‘Civilian violence should stay in the Old World.’ is all he will say. But Bella suspects it has something to do with his countless scars. “No, but Dudley says he got a nasty black eye. It’s weird though; Dudley isn’t even mad. Says he has no interest in pressing charges – the whole reason there’s a case to begin with is because another bloke was robbed too.”
Goffert’s expression is thoughtful, a slight smile on his lips. “What are we going to do with him?” He chuckles, shaking his head.
Bella fiddles with a curl of hair. “Actually, Dad… I was thinking we could make him my bodyguard.”
Goffert looks surprised for a moment, but his expression soon changes to satisfaction. Typically, military-minded people sign into Sector 6 as soldiers, and in their second semester of training, they are bound to a division – either the police force the Enforcers or the Guard – where they must then prove their worth. However, if singled out and selected by an official, a soldier can segway immediately into a certain profession, from which they will eventually be considered for the Protectors. At only 17, Dudley is still just a soldier, though he’s been assigned to Sector 1 for a year now, charged with completing his Sector-specific advanced training at Base 1. “You know, you might be right.” Goffert muses, drumming his fingers on the table.
“I think it would be worth looking into.” Noel pipes up. Bella grins.
“We could watch his training today.” Goffert says, sliding the idea around his brain like a bleached gumball.
“That works.” Bella says, feeling slightly awkward. In the year she has known Dudley, she’s never watched his training. That Dudley seems like such a different – even private – Dudley from the one that gives her advice on guys or takes the blame when she’s late to etiquette class. But, she supposes, there’s no avoiding it now, and once the idea comes, she can’t help but feel curious.
Goffert pulls out his communicator and notifies Citrus. “Done. We’ll head over to Base 1 after breakfast and meet with Dudley first, and then we’ll evaluate the candidates Citrus lined up, just in case. I think he said there are four, but I’m not sure.”
Bella nods. “Awesome. Are you coming, Mum?”
Noel shakes her head. “Sorry honey – I have a meeting in a half hour.” She sets down her fork. “I should probably go now, actually. I love you guys – I hope Dudley works out.” She comes around the table and gives her husband and daughter quick hugs before hurrying out the door.
Her words are the last spoken over breakfast, Bella and Goffert passing the rest of the meal in comfortable silence, forks clinking against plates as father and daughter sit lost in their own thoughts. Only when the noise stops does Goffert break his bug-eyed stare into the distance and look at Bella.
“Ready to go?”
She stands up. “Ready if you are.”
“Where’s Dudley?” Goffert questions, his eyes brushing the rows of training soldiers. So unique up close, even Dudley is difficult to find in such a mass of men. After a moment, Citrus points a sausage finger towards a recruit standing in line for the weights, towering above most of those around him, even with his posture relaxed. His black hair is shaved into a sharp buzz-cut identical to the others’, his tan skin bulging with muscle under his sand colored exercise shirt, long legs clad in camo cargo pants and combat boots.
As the three of them watch the soldiers below, the man in front of Dudley finishes on the weights and Dudley rushes to them, sliding under the massive bar with calculated speed. He grips the bar and thrusts the weight upwards, elbows snapping into place as his lifts it one, two, three, twenty times. He wipes his brow with a towel and places a hand in the middle of the bar, lifting it one-handed for ten times on each arm. Goffert raises his eyebrows, but says nothing. With the ease of somebody moving a pencil, Dudley brushes the weights off the end and lifts larger ones onto the bar. Screwing his face up comically, he begins to lift it, making it to fifty before the whistle is blown and another man slides beneath the weights, waiting for somebody to swap to lighter disks before attempting to bench it.
Bella looks at Citrus, whose face is grave. “Does he always lift like that?” Citrus nods, never taking his eyes off Dudley, who is now running the obstacle course.
“Always. His messmates call him a machine. He-“ Citrus pauses as shouts drift from the field.
“IS THAT ALL YOU CAN GIVE ME MCGRAHM???? WHAT A F****ING EMBARASSMENT!!!!! YOU RAN THE COURSE IN F****ING TWO MINUTES FIVE SECONDS!!!!! THAT’S FIVE SECONDS OVER!!!!! WHERE THE F*** IS YOUR PRIDE??? DO YOU EVEN WANT TO BE HERE????” The drill sergeant screams at Dudley, whose muscles are spasming with exhaustion.
“Yes sir!” Dudley grunts.
“THEN RUN IT AGAIN SOLDIER!!!! AND GET IT RIGHT!!!”
“Yes sir!” They watch as Dudley runs the course again, pushing for every stride with obvious pain. Bella winces when the sergeant says it was still two seconds slow, but Dudley doesn’t flinch. It’s a side of him she’s never seen, and she can’t help but feel impressed, and a bit like she’s spying. He runs the course again, shirt dark with sweat. His face contorts with every inch of ground he gains, but his lips stay firmly locked against complaint. When he arrives at the end, the sergeant looks at him coldly.
“Again.” Is all he says, barely audible across the training ground.
“Yes sir.” Bella finds herself cheering him on under her breath, her heart lurching with pride at every obstacle cleared. Over the net. Across the rope. Down the log. But as he is finishing the tire course, Dudley trips and plunges, landing in the strands of barbed wire. Bella lets out an involuntary squeak as Dudley pulls himself up, the blood visible even at a distance. He drops heavily into the sand and crawls under the wire, then swims the water and stumbles to a stop at the sergeant. He salutes and holds his stance for several seconds before swaying on the spot and crashing to the ground.
Bella grimaces, pity blooming inside her as several soldiers splash water onto Dudley then help him off the field. She doesn’t want to consider how often this might happen, but against her will she finds herself combing memories, thinking about all the times he’s shown up with new scratches. He always has an explanation, but who doesn’t? What puzzles her is why he never let on.
“Was he slow?” She asks her dad, who is frowning. She wants it to work out now more than ever, but only if everyone agrees.
“Optimum time was created as shame-based motivation. It’s virtually impossible to reach it.”
Bella scowls. “You’re kidding, right?” She stares at the field in disbelief. “Why would they do that to him?”
Citrus smiles grimly. This is clearly not the first he’s seen of Dudley in action. “Because he can take it. Watch.” For ten silent minutes, they watch the soldiers train, scuttling across the field like bugs. Then Dudley walks stiffly back onto the field, white bandages covering his arms – to build toughness and save money, only serious wounds are allowed to be resealed. He salutes the sergeant then strides calmly to the line of men who have also finished with the course. With a yell from the sergeant, he and the others drop to the ground, counting out their pushups in loud grunts. Only after fifty does the sergeant allow the soldiers to take a rest and watch as the rest of their unit goes through the routine. It is then that Citrus shouts out.
“McGrahm! Over here.” Dudley looks around for the source of the voice and, seeing the mammoth that can only be Citrus, immediately jogs over to the group of three, his boots thudding with every heaving stride. As he gets closer he recognizes Bella and Goffert and he tenses awkwardly. Reaching them he salutes, standing plank straight – never any less formal or tense around the king than he was the first time he introduced himself. Bella finds herself meeting his bottomless umber eyes, which bore into her, reading her like a book. Feeling exposed, she quickly flashes a friendly smile, breaking his concentration. It’s a game they play. A mind game, like everything else with him.
“Sir yes sir!” He grunts.
“At ease.” Goffert mutters, scanning the seventeen-year-old with interested blue eyes. He never knows quite how to look at Dudley, who seems simultaneously so dangerous and so trustworthy. “Dudley, did you know that optimum time is impossible?” He asks, not because he should write it down in a review of Dudley as a guard, but because he can’t stop thinking about it.
“All due respect sir, but impossible simply means nobody has tried hard enough, sir.” This seems to please the king, as he claps the boy on the back.
“Good answer, Dudley. Dismissed.” If Dudley has feelings about this, he doesn’t show them. He simply salutes and spins on his heel, halfway to his group before he turns his head enough to flash Bella a smile. Bella watches him go, warm pride welling inside her. He maintains his posture until he passes the other soldiers on the way to the barracks, when his shoulders slump and he slows, stumbling often. She looks away, knowing he doesn’t want her to see it.
“Shall we look at the other candidates?” Goffert asks Citrus, impressed but wanting to find the best.
“Yes sir.” He gestures to an average-sized but muscular man waiting to begin the course, having been asked to wait with the other candidates so that each could be inspected. His skin is a rich chocolate and he stands poised to begin as soon as Citrus gives the word. Citrus flags down the Drill Sergeant, who allows the recruit to begin. “That’s Samuel Hamar. Twenty six, grew up in 7 and has served as an Enforcer in 6, then got transferred here as part of that big personnel transfer.” Hamar sprints to the weights, an animalistic intensity in his eyes as he benches weights dwarfing what Dudley lifted. He growls with each push, and Bella loses count of the number he manages before the whistle is blown and he releases it with a clatter, leaving the weights on the ground. Next he runs the course with a mechanic 2 minute 7 second run, at the conclusion of which he does an impressive amount of push-ups. He begins to stalk towards archery, but Citrus calls him over. He walks over to them like he owns the turf and allows them to represent his people, even his salute managing slight snideness.
Bella doesn’t make an effort to conceal her distaste, but Goffert ignores her. “Sam, why did you only run the course once.”
“It’s a test, not a playground, sir!”
Bella glances to Goffert, then steps forward towards Sam. “I’d like you to run the course again.”
He chuckles. “All due respect Lady, but you don’t know anything about military training.”
“Run it again.”
He rolls his eyes, looking to Citrus and Goffert like “can you believe this kid?”. Goffert is smiling grimly. “That sounds like a good idea.”
With an exaggerated sigh, Sam goes through it again, coming it at two minutes, twenty seconds. Bella yells for him to go home before he even makes it back to them, glaring at his retreating form.
“I don’t care how good he is, I can’t stand people like that.” She grumbles. Goffert just smirks.
Citrus checks his list. “Fen Kidman. Born in 2 – this is his first post.” Their collective gaze drifts towards a tan, slant-eyed fellow who’s borderline scrawny. Bella feels for him as he struggles with half the weight of Sam or even Dudley, but smiles slightly when he makes a fast time through the course – clocking in at two minutes five seconds. What really impresses her, though, is when he runs over to the marksmanship training and drops to prone, nailing the bull’s eye after only a second or two to aim. Citrus beckons him over, and Bella smiles at him. She likes this fellow, but decides to test him.
“Hello Fen. Why did you only run the course once?” Fen doesn’t miss a beat.
“Nobody asked me to run it again, Ma’am.”
“I’m asking you to.” He snaps her a salute and tries again, pushing even harder, though he only shaves off half a second. He jogs back to them.
“Thanks Fen.” Goffert says, taking control. “We’ll contact you later.” Fen jogs off and the third candidate comes up.
“Kelly Henson.” Citrus introduces the tough-looking woman with bulging muscles and full curves, both of which surely make her the envy of the other Sector 1 girls. She benches quite a bit for her size and holds up to the best of them in the obstacle course and marksmanship. But when Bella calls her over, the intensity and coldness of the older woman makes her uncomfortable, especially since she isn’t all that special.
The final candidate, Lance Flay of 3, is the most consistent of the candidates. He doesn’t have Sam’s brute strength, Dudley’s determination, Kelly’s intensity, or Fen’s aim, but he’s good across the board and possesses a nice neutral personality with the toughness Sector 3 is so proud of. Goffert tells him they’ll contact him as soon as they decide, and then turns back to Bella and Citrus.
“Citrus, what’s your assessment?”
“Well sir…. I don’t think either Sam or Kelly would be a good choice, considering Bella didn’t like either. And while I think skills are important, since there were no bad candidates and Bella has to be with this person at all times, personality is definitely a factor. Especially with Sam – respect is vital. So that leaves Dudley, Lance, and Fen. Personally, I would rather see a candidate who is suitable at everything but exceptional at something than one that is good at everything. That eliminates Lance.”
“What was special about Dudley and Fen? In your opinion.”
“Fen has a great aim, and should get stronger with increased training, bringing him past average even in the other obstacles. Dudley, on the other hand, possesses something a little less tangible. Sure he can bench heavy weights and make a fair time – though his occasional collapses worry me – and Lord knows he can shoot, but what really interests me about him is his heart. It’s a rare soldier who pours himself so whole-heartedly into every order he’s given, no matter the injury to himself.”
Goffert nods. “And the pitfalls of each?”
“Fen lacks the intimidation factor, though I think he could serve his purpose as well or better than most of the big guys out there. Additionally, he lacks Dudley’s fire. As for Dudley, I worry about his collapses – today was not the first time. His other major flaw is also his greatest strength – his personality. He follows orders to the letter, but has yet to show individual moral initiative – it’s not just his training that leads him the nickname of “The Machine”. Also, he’s the perfect soldier. Unfortunately, that’s a very difficult and unnatural state of being, so oftentimes those who meet the standard have something going on that we can’t see.” Goffert peers off into the distance.
“What do you think, Bella?”
“You guys both know Dudley’s my best friend. Unfortunately, because I know him so well, I know Citrus could be right about him hiding something. He definitely could if he wanted to. But, since I know him personally, I still trust him the most. Besides, even if skeletons come out of the closet later, he’s perfect now, and we don’t have any idea if that will change. Fen is more of an unknown, and physically, I prefer Dudley’s strength and look of power. Aim is great when you’re carrying a bow, but lots of times quarters are too tight for that, and Dudley scares me more with a billy club than Fen does.”
It is a few minutes before Goffert speaks. “Can you call them both back out?”
Citrus gives him a curt nod and jumps on his com-link. After a few minutes Fen arrives. He holds his salute until Goffert releases him, then stands with them in silence until Dudley arrives. As soon as he catches sight of Fen, Dudley’s easy grin turns into the calculated expression he wears when he doesn’t want to show how he feels. He also salutes, the white bandages gleaming like war paint in the sun.
“At ease.” Dudley doesn’t relax much. “Of the five candidates considered for the position of Royal Bodyguard for the princess, you two were selected. We have a bit of an… unorthodox tradition for choosing.” Goffert has done this multiple times, but it still makes his skin crawl. Citrus beckons and a man arrives with a case. Goffert removes an ornate gun for each candidate – the only weapons possessed by Sector 1 - handing them out carefully.
Bella gulps. “I order each of you to shoot your foot.” She says, knowing the chambers are empty but still feeling guilty. But before Fen can c*** his weapon, Dudley drops his hand, squeezing the trigger without even looking down. A shiver runs down Bell’s spine and both Goffert and Citrus feel like they have been dunked in ice. Not a second thought.
Fen just stares at him, looking upset and flustered. Dudley flushes. “What?” They all just gawk. “You ordered me to do it, what did you expect? Me to cry a little first?” He looks at them like they’re crazy, but his heart is pounding.
Goffert breaks the uneasy mood. “Of course not. Dudley, we’ll come back tomorrow to do some more examinations, and if that doesn’t work out, we’ll contact you, Fen. Dismissed.” The men leave and Goffert faces Citrus. “Make sure he hasn’t done any training when we come. We’ll be here at ten A.M.” Citrus salutes and the king turns and walks away, Bella sticking to his side and Citrus trailing at a respectful distance.
When they are out of the training grounds, Bella speaks. “I didn’t know he was so hardcore.”
Goffert drives his hands into his pockets, shaking his head. “Neither did I.”
“Good morning, Dudley.” Dudley jumps in surprise, his hand flying to his hip, when the small group arrives at his barrack the next morning. As he realizes whom he’s facing his defensive position snaps into a salute, dark eyes looking embarrassed, though Bella swears they were laughing a moment ago.
Goffert chuckles. “At ease.” Dudley drops his hand and hurries to grab his tan shirt from the dresser. He slides it over his buff torso, but not before all three guests have had a clear view of the horrifying burn mark starting near his left hip, disappearing behind his back, and ending in a mottled knot on his right shoulder. Bella has seen it before, when she went to the pool with him last year, but it still makes her shudder.
“I’m so sorry…. I didn’t expect….” He falls over his words, but there is no sorrow on his features. “I would have been decent if I had known – it won’t happen again.” Bella scrutinizes his expression, but her friend isn’t there. It always makes her uncomfortable how different he is when in uniform. He was laughing with her father just last week, and now you’d think he didn’t know him as anyone other than the Representative.
“Don’t worry about it. Your superior officer should have alerted you. May I sit?” Goffert gestures to the bunk and Dudley hurriedly nods, still standing stiffly.
“Of course sir.” He steps out of the way and spreads his arms in welcome, more burns shining on the tan flesh. Bella holds her breath as she grabs a stool, wondering about them for the millionth time. Her skin prickles uncomfortably and she pulls her knee to her chest, resting her chin on it. It isn’t proper, but unlike Dudley, she doesn’t see why she should be rigid just because he’s technically an employee right now. Goffert points to an empty stool.
“Sit down – we’re here to talk to you.”
Dudley nods respectfully before turning to grab the stool. It creaks as he sits. “At your service, sir.”
Goffert peaks his fingers, then starts to speak. “When we watched your performance at the training field yesterday,” Goffert pauses for effect but Dudley’s face is devoid of emotion. “you did well, Dudley. But a lot of soldiers can do well.” Goffert’s eyes crinkle as he smiles. “Yet you were truly impressive both on the course and afterwards. Succeeding is easy – ramming yourself against a wall and failing repeatedly takes guts. And with the shooting stunt…. I’ve interviewed a lot of potential bodyguards, but none have followed orders with so little hesitation.” Goffert tries to evaluate Dudley’s reactions, getting nothing, as usual. He knows if he were to order Dudley to walk off a cliff, he would do it without even a flicker in his eyes. “You’ll make a good guard, that’s for sure.” Still nothing. It occurs to Dudley that he may be being rude, and he likes the king, so he gives him a smile and a mumbled, “Thank you, sir.” The king appreciates the gesture, but knows it isn’t spontaneous.
“And I think you’re ready to prove it.” Dudley’s mind quickly takes stock of the situation. As a general rule, he prefers to keep a poker face, but the king seems to expect an emotional response. After an imperceptible moment of deliberation, he allows his caterpillar eyebrows to raise, eyes widening slightly. Feeling elated inside, he grins, his square jaw losing its harshness. The king seems pleased, which satisfies Dudley. “I did a full background check when Bella first started spending time with you, of course, so there’s only one thing left before we can get to the final tests; do you want to be a bodyguard?” Goffert waits, hoping he will say yes.
Dudley considers the question for a moment, a hundred thoughts flying through his brain. He has never aspired to be a bodyguard – he came here to be a guardsman, standing in front of a building or bank, to make something of himself, to pay his debt to humanity. Anything more was never on his bucket list. But he looks at Bella, her curving limbs speaking of untapped strength, her eyes full of fire, her hands busy in her mess of black hair, and he can’t say no.
“Yes sir.” He responds. “I do.”
Goffert smiles and stands up. “Great – we’ll start testing then. Fun, right?” He jokes and Dudley cracks a genuine grin, reminding Bella of the Dudley she knows. With his stern face and scarred features, he sometimes looks like the type who wouldn’t even smile at a puppy, but when he’s off duty, he is almost always beaming, warming the world. The smile lasts but a moment before seriousness takes over again as they walk from the room.
When the group reaches the training ground, Citrus nods to the drill sergeant, who promptly clears the obstacle course. The men that were running it gather to watch in silence. Apprehension fills Dudley as Goffert turns to him. “You have proved you can follow orders, but we have to be sure. I order you to run that course in two minutes.” Bella bites her lip, wanting to protest. But she stays silent as Dudley salutes. This isn’t her friend and her dad – this is a soldier and his commander, and neither will have any respect for a sentimental girl.
“Yes sir.” He crouches and the sergeant blows the whistle. Like an animal, Dudley launches forward, throwing himself at the net. He climbs it with inhuman speed and leaps for the rope, pulling himself across it, muscles bulging. His heart pounds in his chest and his ribs threaten to split, but he burns a picture of Bella into his mind and forces himself to go faster. He reaches the second platform and spins around, straddling the sloping log and shoving himself backwards along it, then spinning again and dashing across the tires, finally diving under the barbed wire, thrusting his body through the sand, then into the water at the other side. With a desperate surge of power he pushes through the water and dives across the finish line. The field holds its breath as the sergeant checks the time, disbelief flooding his face.
“Two minutes, zero seconds, and 87 100ths of a second!” The soldiers erupt in cheers and Dudley grins from ear to ear, his expression echoed on Bella’s face. The easiest part is done. He thinks, walking back to the others where Goffert claps him on his soaking wet shoulder.
“Good job soldier.”
“Thank you sir.” He pants. Bella grins at him and he smiles back, turning to her. “Guess the cat’s out of the bag – I’m pretty beast.” He teases, throwing in some preppy strides for her amusement. She laughs and he turns back to the king, smile falling into a hard line as he awaits instruction.
“Now for a few real-life scenarios.” Goffert turns to Citrus. “Tell the sergeant to assemble a group of ten capable men, then set them as planned.”
Citrus hurries off and comes back fifteen minutes later with a female soldier. “It’s ready sir.”
“Good. Dudley, this is Alicia Nost. She’s here to play Bella.” Alicia holds out her hand, a cheery smile on her freckled face. Bella can’t resist staring at her for a moment, imagining herself in her place. It’s not a fit, and she coughs to hide her laugh. The five of them walk to a small fake cityscape, used for training snipers and bodyguards. “Your mission is to get Alicia safely to the other side.” Dudley nods gravely as Citrus hands him a paintball slingshot.
“Don’t bring attention to yourself if you don’t have to.” Goffert advises, “Go.”
Dudley slingshot into his belt and pulls his shirt down over it as Alicia starts to walk. He falls into place a step or two behind her, body relaxed and springy, but carefully scanning the area. Within a few seconds, he’s completely in the zone. A masked face peers out a window and Dudley’s hand grabs Alicia’s shoulder, pushing her behind him as he whips out his weapon and shoots the sniper, reloading before the paintball hits. The man waves a white flag and gives Dudley a thumbs up, and the pair continues walking.
This pattern repeats itself several times, but the final sniper is much faster than the others. Without hesitation, Dudley leaps upon Alicia, using his arm to cushion her fall as he twists his body to block her. A red blob of paint splatters against his shirt, and Citrus rings the finish buzzer. Dudley and Alicia get up, the latter grinning and the former looking as if he’s eaten a worm.
“I’m sorry sir,” he mumbles, certain he’s failed. That he’s never good enough. All he wants to do is get back on the training ground and push himself harder. “I didn’t see him.”
Goffert smiles. “You weren’t supposed to.” Dudley perks up, a smile hovering at the corners of his mouth. “Your reflexes are excellent. Let’s move on to the next test.”
Bella watches in silence as Goffert gives Dudley two more scenarios, both of which he beats. Satisfied, Goffert sends Dudley – who is once again devoid of emotion - to a psychological assessment, as is policy because existing truth-extraction devices are illegal in such situations, and begins to prepare the paperwork. As the psychologist comes out of the small room an hour later, Bella smiles. Piece of cake.
“Well?” Goffert asks, his deep voice relaxed. The psychologist hesitates and a shot of confused panic jolts through Bella.
“Technically, he’s clean, and I really like the boy. He seems to be a model soldier…” The man trails off and Goffert looks at him intensely.
“But he’s very…. I mean to say he can…. Not that he would….”
“Don’t keep me hanging.” Goffert chastises gently, eyebrows slightly furrowed.
“He appears to have complete control over himself, more than I thought was possible.” Met with confused looks, the shrink explains himself. “His emotions and expressions were exactly what I was hoping to see.”
“And that’s a problem?”
“Of course not, but when I wasn’t asking a question, his face was perfectly emotionless. It seems that he knows what people want to see in him, and has no problem giving it to them. Even as a psychologist it was impossible to distinguish his true emotions. His overall character is very upstanding, and I don’t think he would ever consider deception, but if he were to turn against you, I fear it would not be out of his reach.”
Goffert appears intrigued but not particularly bothered by this. “I appreciate your concern, but if what you say is true, he would be a very valuable asset to me, and he may even be picked up by the Protectors when he’s more experienced.”
“With all due respect, sire, it would be risky…” The shrink seems flustered.
“And with all due respect, every weapon can be used against its owner. Besides, he’s a personal friend of Bella’s, and has given me no reason not to trust and like him. Please bring him out.” The psychiatrist makes a quick duck of his head and hurries back into the room. When he returns, Dudley is following him, smiling slightly. The tenseness of his shoulders has faded. Bella and Goffert stand up, the latter extending his hand. Dudley wipes his palm on his cargo pants then shakes it, restraining his grin a bit to look professional and slightly nervous. He knows he’s in, but wants to give them the satisfaction of seeing his face light up.
Bella smiles and holds out her fist, reveling in the chance to be the one to tell him. “Congrats buddy – you got the job.” Dudley beams, bumping her angular knuckles with his own flat scarred ones, feeling victorious.
“Yes! Thanks so much sir – you won’t regret it.” Maybe.
“Why don’t the two of you scoot and Citrus and I will arrange a mentor to serve with Dudley until he’s of age. I’ll call for you later to brief you, Dudley.” Dudley grins, brushing his apprehension and every other unpleasant emotion into the dustbin corner of his brain.
“Yes sir, thank you sir.” He lets Bella grab his hand, her palm icy but somehow warming his own, and she leads him away like a loyal puppy dog.
“Now that you have clearance, I can show you everything. You’ll have to suffer through the whole tour.” Bella looks back towards him, her smiling blue eyes causing him to straighten up unconsciously, as if being judged by a higher power.
“Too bad I forgot my tourist outfit….” He jokes and she erupts into giggles. Always so surprised… He thinks with satisfaction.
“You could say you got lost.” He nods, as if seriously considering it and she chuckles again. “So, what made you say yes? It can’t be that interesting, following me around all day.”
He shrugs. “It was mostly for the perks – what other job gives you legal weapons and impressive black suits? Plus, you drag me everywhere anyway, so I may as well get paid…” He says with a straight face and she smacks him, grinning.
“Do not! You love being with me and you know it.” She winks and he can’t help but smile.
“And you love chocolate and you know it.” He tosses the conversation in another direction for the pleasure of watching her try to follow it.
“Really though,” she tries to drag the banter back where she wants it. “you have pretty strong will-power, why didn’t you choose a profession that wasn’t a…..”
“Snappy-looking human shield? Because I’m good at it, and though I’m good at everything….” He grins, “I actually enjoy it.”
Bella shakes her head. “Always so modest.”
“My modesty outshines the sun.” She’s laughing as they reach the estate and the gate guards step out of the way. “I’m sure it does. Let’s go get food, then I’ll show you all the places you weren’t allowed to go.”
“Evil – you know I’m on a diet!”
She pokes his stomach, which is hard as a rock. “Like you need it.”
“I don’t look like an Italian model by pigging out.” He wiggles his eyebrows, striking a pose. He loves it when she laughs.
“I see.” She responds, knowing he’s flipping the topic again but not bothering to turn it back.
“With or without glasses?”
She hesitates for a moment before understanding and slyly responding, “With x-ray goggles, of course.”
“Sorry – I should have known.” He bows his head, a twinkle in his eyes.
“Just don’t let it happen again.” She teases and he salutes, looking rigid for a moment before relaxing again. “Well if you won’t eat, what do you want to see?”
“It’s completely up to you.”
“Let’s start with your room then. It should be clean.”
“As you wish.”
She gives him a peculiar look, then leads him down the back staircase and a few halls, finally pushing through a door near the back of the house. The furnishings are fancy by Sector 1 standards, but as Sector 1 is the agricultural center, its standards aren’t exactly hard to outdo. She opens the first door on the left, revealing his room.
It’s spacious, with the pale grey stone walls spreading out as they reach away from the door, the cobblestone floor cushioned with heavy rugs and a large skin in the center. There’s a plain bed at the far end, with an imposing dresser standing guard beside it. A door opens to a bathroom on their right, and next to it is the door to what is clearly an armory. In the near corner to their left is a workout station, and in the far left corner – though it spills out along part of the length of the longer wall – is a huge station with computers, speakers, and other government intelligence equipment. A plushy dog bed sits next to the human one, with dog bowls beside the dresser.
“It’s great.” He says, letting his praise of her seep through in his voice.
She smiles mischievously. “I set it up – of course it is.”
He shakes his head. “If it makes you feel better to say it…”
“It does.” She counters and he laughs.
As they begin to walk upstairs, a messenger comes jogging up to them. He bows, panting, and spits out his message. “Lady Bellona, Mr. McGrahm, His Humbleness the Representative requests your presence in his study.”
Bella thanks him, then makes a sour face to Dudley. “So much for that.” She twists down a hallway, walking with determined speed as Dudley’s tree-trunk legs easily keep stride. They reach the study and the guards pull open the heavy doors to let the pair through. As they cross the threshold, Dudley’s friendly demeanor slides behind the image of a guard and he snaps to attention, saluting. The king smiles from his seat, and the unknown stern gentleman also in the room tips his hat.
“At ease McGrahm.” Goffert says. Dudley relaxes slightly, but not a shadow of his joking ease is visible. The king stands up and puts an arm around the man by his side. “This is Randall Crosby. Randall, this is Dudley McGrahm.” The two men shake hands over the desk, mumbled ‘nice to meet you’s passing each set of lips. “Randall will be your mentor, and Bella’s official bodyguard, until your training is completed and you reach eighteen years of age.”
“Yes sir.” Dudley affirms, relieved yet slightly annoyed that he isn’t trusted with her yet.
“Great. McGrahm, you will train with Randall for the remainder of the day.” Goffert’s face turns tender as he turns to Bella. “And you, young lady, are going to be late for class.”
She frowns as she leaves, reluctantly plodding to the room upstairs where she has her etiquette classes. It’s a fairly small room, two desks facing each other, rough-hewn to remind even the Representative’s daughter that she belongs in a farming Sector, the walls painted the dusky blue of autumn nights. Bella hates the place, and her pretty mouth purses into a prune as she steps through the door.
Her teacher – Hilda Stein - sits at the larger of the two desks, perching as if there’s a bee on her seat and spikes in the backrest. Her angular green flannel dress matches her pinched cheeks and hooked nose.
“You’re late, Bellona.” Bella refrains from rolling her eyes. It’s a game she plays with herself every day – try to act cool and diplomatic no matter what. After all, manners are nothing if you can’t keep your head.
So she walks in with her perfect steps and her curved chin tipped slightly upwards, shoulders thrown back in a queenly air of pride. She thinks about Dudley, his nonchalant restraint and control of his emotions. About the other soldiers who are so much like him. How is it that I’m “high society”, and they spend every moment trying to keep me alive, yet they have so much more pride and restraint than I do? She shakes the thought like cotton from her head and straightens her shoulders. I may never be one of them, but I can at least win the game. A new resolve fills her as she sits down. “My apologies. I was attending to a very important matter.” Come on Bella, don’t tell her what. Make her wonder.
The witch glares. “Of course you were.”
Bella bristles but doesn’t say a word.
Hilda’s beetley eyes narrow as Bella sits down, poise maintained. A smug smile spreads on Bella’s face and Hilda snaps her hand down on the desk, standing.
“Important or not,” she purrs like a stalking cat, “you will give me lines.” She twirls her pen in Bella’s face.
“Alright.” Bella’s voice wavers ever so slightly.
“You are to call me ma’am. Out there you are a celebrity, but here you are expected to show a little respect. Detention after class.” This is almost too much for Bella. I’m not a spoiled brat! I’m respectful to everyone, whether they deserve it or not! She gulps back her frustration.
“Fair enough. Ma’am.” She does her best to imitate the utter disgust Dudley once used with a man they found protesting the Enforcers at a funeral, after a rare conflict left one dead at the hands of an Outlander – one of the crazies who live in the toxic Badlands, avoiding relocation. Except she won’t repeat the part where Dudley broke the fellow’s nose and ran like mad, clinging tightly to her hand as they sprinted down dark alleys. She’d asked him what happened to avoiding civilian violence, and he’d grinned savagely, wiped the man’s blood on his jeans, and said “Yeah well, sometimes good people do bad things.” Fueled by the memory, she marches up to the whiteboard, repeating ‘I will not be late’ in tidy letters, grinding the tip of the dry erase pen to a pulp in the process. It doesn’t make her feel much better. Hilda smiles as Bella sits back down.
“Good. Now we shall begin.” With agonizing slowness, the lesson drags on. From grammar to titles, snail forks to dance steps, it seems like Hilda is giving the complete history of everything unimportant. Finally, three dead hours after the spat and an hour after class would have been done were it not for detention, Hilda utters the magic words – “Dismissed.” Like a cat that sat on a firecracker, Bella leaps from her chair and hurries from the room, dashing up the stairs to change into her riding clothes in order to finally get on her horse – her favorite part of the day.
After she changes she hurries out to the barn with unladylike speed, greeted by the nickers of the twenty horses in the stables, but only interested in one. She opens the door of the stall labeled “Renaissance Man”. The massive bay horse inside jerks his head up, thick hair swishing to the side of his bold white star and a clump of hay dangling from his square muzzle. He sidles up to Bella, neck arched and eyes bright. She holds out a cube of sugar and he mooches it from her palm, sliming her with green foam and making her smile. Laughing, she wipes it on her pants before giving him a hug, burying her head in his warm chest, letting his horsey smell take her far away from diplomacy and expectations.
“You like that Brogan?” Named after one of the first Protectors after the chaos, he looks at her for a moment, understanding seeming to shine in his deep amber eyes, then promptly smears sticky green slime in her hair and goes back to his hay. Bella giggles and gives his massive golden-brown shoulder a shove before going outside the stall – careful to lock it against his escape attempts – and fetches her grooming tools. As she brushes his hair to a metallic sheen in preparation for work, she lets herself get lost in the peace of the barn, and the simplicity of animals.
Once he’s groomed, she calls her trainer, Zara, and works on her dressage, climbing off Brogan only after they’re both tired and sweaty. He’s a lot of work to ride, but she loves him – something she tells him repeatedly as she hoses him down.
“I think he gets that you love him, and if he could talk I’m sure he’d say it back.”
She jumps, seeing Dudley standing across the packed dirt aisle. Bazooka stands next to him, a trail of drool hanging from his droopy lips. “Shush.” She laughs, and Dudley feeds Brogan an apple, his brown eyes tender as he presses his forehead to Brogan’s velvet muzzle.
“How was your lesson?”
“Good – he was amazing.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He pulls another apple from his baggy pockets and offers it to her. She declines and he takes a bite out of it, earning himself a jealous look from Brogan. Bella gives him puppy eyes and he sighs, holding out the apple again. The foamy lips steal it. “Jerk.” He pouts and Bella laughs.
“Go eat inside. I’ll be in soon.”
“As you wish.”
She grins after him, wiping the foam from Brogan’s lips. Just then her communicator buzzes. “Hello?”
“Hey Bella. I hope this isn’t a bad time?” Her face lights up.
“Chand! Hey! This is a fine time – I’m just finishing up with Brogan after a lesson.”
“Oh, great. How’d it go?”
“Amazing! He was a good boy.”
“That’s great. So what else have you been up to?”
“Well I found my replacement bodyguard…”
“Who is it?”
“Well, he’s still in training so I actually have him and his mentor at the moment but…. Dudley.” Chand makes a face at his wall.
“That’s an…. interesting choice. Why him?” He presses his fingers to his temple, wondering why on earth she would choose Dudley. The two boys have never gotten on particularly well, with Chand unable to get Dudley’s unwavering dedication to a warrior’s way and Dudley flabbergasted by Chand’s rose-tinted idealism. To Dudley, Chand is a typical noble. To Chand, Dudley is alien bordering on frightening.
Bella smiles wistfully. “He’s good at what he does – really good. But mostly he has a lot of heart. He’ll do whatever it takes to do what’s best and what’s right. It’s a rare thing.”
Chand doesn’t like hearing her talk about Dudley like that. Like his Spartan attitude is something to be admired, even adored. “That’s awesome. Hey, my dad’s calling so I guess I have to go. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Toodles!” She says, hanging up and bending to grab a brush, standing up just as Brogan’s lips reach for her phone. She snatches it away with a giggle, giving his nose a kiss then another treat. “You’re a nut.” She pats him on the neck and gathers her things. “Love you!” She calls out as she scurries back towards the castle, eager to get to dinner.
The next two months pass with cruel speed, a hurried broom sweeping fall leaves over the summer grass. Before Bella can so much as blink, she’s standing outside the Sector 1 Southern Girls’ School, one of the several elite schools in the Sector and – being intersector regulation built – very different from the normal schools. It’s her second year there, but she always hates leaving her parents, and this time she’s going to miss Dudley a lot more. After being with him almost constantly, it’s going to be extra hard to be alone.
With a heavy sigh, she gives her dad a hug, his strong arms wrapping her. “I love you Dad – take care of Mom while I’m gone.” She jokes, and bends her head down for a kiss on the forehead.
“Love you too honey, have a good time, work hard. We’ll see you at Christmas.” With a sniff, she hugs her mom, burying her head in her mom’s shoulder, despite the fact she has to bend to do so.
“I love you Mom, take care.”
“You too darling girl. Call or hologram me anytime.”
Bella sniffs. “I will. See you at Christmas.”
“See you at Christmas.”
Lastly, Bella turns to Dudley. He holds out his hand like the gentleman he is, but she tackle hugs him. He catches her with ease and squeezes her before setting her down, the warmth of her skin lingering and making his arms tingle. “Train hard mate – I’ll see you at Christmas.” She says with friendly ease, and he finds himself getting a dangerously warm feeling, but before so much as a moment passes he regains control and offers an affable fist-bump.
With a final wave, she turns for the gate, placing her eye against the scanner at the gate, and dropping her bags with a red-suited busboy before climbing the stairs to the entrance of the school, tottering slightly on her underused high heels. Her black jumper swishes around her thighs, and the loose white shirt hangs oddly on her shoulders, but the bright smiley-face scarf tied around her waist adds a splash of color to the uniform. Dudley forces himself to look away, shutting off his emotions while he still can. I need to focus. I need to train. I need to do my duty.
Bella walks to the office to sign in and is greeted by the cheery smile of Lauren King – a round-faced blonde in charge of settling in students.
“Nice to see you again, Isabella.” She chirps, using the alias Bella is enrolled under for the sake of safety and normality. “Come right this way.” She leads Bella up several sets of stairs and across a hall to a large white door. She knocks briskly and it opens, revealing a mildly short and very skinny ginger, her hair hanging loosely about her shoulders – where a dye-stained towel is also draped – and her emerald eyes heavily accented with multiple shades of purple and green makeup, flared up and piled on like in pictures of girls from 2. Her clothes are also classic Sector 2, bright and flowing, showing more than Bella would dare. A bottle of self-applicable hair dye is in her hand. Lauren rubs her temples. “Isabella, this is your room-mate, Piper.” She bustles away, leaving Bella to face the girl alone.
“Hey…” Bella starts awkwardly. Piper steps backwards, clearing the doorway.
“Come on in – I’m just dying my hair. My mom wouldn’t let me before I left, said it would make a bad impression.”
“Oh well, impression’s made now. What did you say your name was?”
Bella follows her into the bathroom. “Isabella Whitticker, but you can call me Bella. What’s yours?”
“Piper Thomas. You seem pretty normal.” She chuckles. “I was afraid I’d get some creeper.” She throws her hands up in a ‘people these days’ gesture, and a glob of dye spatters against the mirror. “Oops.” She says, wiping it up with the towel.
“What color are you doing your hair?”
Piper looks at the bottle for a moment before covering the nozzle and shaking it violently. “I’m putting in a big chunk of purple. Want some?”
Bella opens her mouth to say no, that it’s a bad idea, not something a Sector 1 girl should do. “Sure – I’d love some.”
Piper grins. “Great, pick a chunk.” With deft fingers, Piper separates an inch-thick strand of hair from the front of her scalp and pulls the rest into a ponytail, carefully surrounds the border of the lone lock with a wash cloth, then pulls on gloves and squirts the dye into her hand, rubbing it into her hair, finally pinning the lock back so it lays against the cloth. “Got your piece?” Bella nods, holding a thick black curl, and Piper expertly applies dye to it. As they wait for the dye to set, Bella pipes up.
“So do you do this a lot?”
Piper shrugs. “Every week or two. I like looking different.” She closes her eyes, showing off the extreme shadow. “As you’ve probably noticed.” They laugh and Piper checks her watch. “Time to rinse.” She gets up and turns on the sink, sticking her head under the water and scrubbing her hair until the water stops running purple. Bella does the same, and Piper insists on drying it before Bella looks.
When it’s done, Bella turns towards the mirror and grins. The curl is tucked between two others, a faint sliver of purple to set her apart. “It looks awesome!”
Piper smirks. “Good choice – it looks great with the black hair.”
Without further comment she buzzes to the bookshelf where she’s already made a stash of snacks, getting them both cookies. Soon they are sitting across from each other at the small table, making small talk.
“So, why a girls’ school? In Sector 1, no less.” Bella asks and Piper sighs bitterly.
“My grandma’s in 1 and she’s always hated my mom’s choice to live in 2. A clubbing at my school was the last straw.” She rolls her eyes. “She wouldn’t listen when we told her she was being extreme, and she had the dough to pay for it, so here I am. What about you?”
“My parents wanted me to get a feel for the real world, instead of our little community. If you can call this the real world…” The girls laugh and Piper holds up her water glass.
“To adults that make no sense.”
With a chuckle Bella clinks her own glass against Piper’s, splashing her hand. “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”
“Though we’d all like to try.” Piper counters and gulps her water. Silence spans for but a few moments before Piper speaks again. “So where do you come from?”
Bella pauses before speaking. “Central 1. You?”
“Northern 2. Have you been here before? Do you like it?”
“The uniforms make me feel pretty boring. Plus, I don’t know what Sector the fashions are from, but it ain’t 1.” Bella picks at the drab skirt, far too understated to be from her Sector, but smiles nonetheless.
“Me too. It’s a major no bueno. At least they haven’t told me what to do with my hair and makeup. Yet.” Piper frowns, her ginger hair fiery in the dying light flooding through the window.
“They’d better not ever – they’d have a huge drop in numbers. Though the school itself is good. With the obvious pitfall of no boys, of course…”
“Yeah, that really sucks. I like boys a lot.” She giggles and Bella shakes her head, chuckling. “So how’d you end up here for ‘real world’ experience, of all places. It’s not exactly the default.”
Bella shrugs. “My parents own Whitticker Innovations, and they wanted the best they could send me to.”
Piper raises her eyebrows. Whitticker Innovations is one of the richest agricultural companies on the boards right now. Or it would be, if it weren’t a cover business. “Dang.” Suddenly a thought enters her head and an evil grin appears. “Do you have a bodyguard? Like an actual Sector 6 grad?”
Bella smirks. “Sure do – just not here.”
“Is he hot?”
Bella laughs, a bell-like peal filling the air. “He’s alright….” She replies lamely.
“Come on, what does he look like?” Piper presses on, shameless.
“Umm… Really tall and muscular, tan skin, black buzz cut that he’s been growing out so now it’s kind of ruffled spiky – he gels it. He has really dark brown eyes that give you the feeling he’s reading your mind, and a square jaw and broad nose. Lots of scars and everything about him is big. He’s a great guy – we’ve become pretty good friends.”
“Mmmmm.” She winks and they laugh. “Do you like him?”
“What? No! We’re just friends.” Piper nods but her eyes are laughing.
Just then Bella’s communicator buzzes and she pulls it out of her pocket, checking it. “Speak of the devil he just messaged – I guess he can read my mind.” She jokes, opening the message, watching it appear in the air and wondering at the fact that it was really all in her head, the image not there at all.
*salutes * Hello Bella, I wanted to
make sure you settled in well. Feel
free to contact me any
Bella shakes her head, chuckling to herself.
“What?” Piper asks, looking interested. Her fingers hover above a tiny pencil braid in her hair. Bella hadn’t noticed her weaving it before.
“Nothing, he’s just funny. He’s really formal.”
Piper shoots Bella a skeptical look. “How can somebody be formal over message? It’s like not possible.”
“By saluting, using words like ‘hello’ and ‘contact’, being correct, and formatting it like a letter.”
Piper splutters, quickly setting down her glass. “What the heck? Why!”
Bella laughs and shakes her head. She thinks fast, spinning a reason like cotton candy in her brain. “He’s ultramilitary, hence the saluting and stuff. Total soldier type – Sector 3 too.” Sector 3, the livestock Sector up near the Arctic circle, has a reputation for being absurdly tough, and 52 of the 100 current Protectors are from there. And it’s not even a lie.
Piper’s expression turns from shocked to pleased. “Nice – guys in uniform are awesome.”
Bella laughs again. “You know it!” She checks her watch. “It’s almost six – time to head down for dinner.”
Piper sighs. “Alrighty – hopefully there’s chocolate milk.”
The two of them leave the room, heading down the spiral staircases and joining the throng of uniformed girls pressing towards the dining hall. Just like cattle. Bella thinks cynically. Not that this isn’t a fantastic school, I just don’t want to be here. She reasons with herself.
“BELLA!” Bella snaps back to reality to see Piper’s hand waving in front of her face. “Earth to Bella, let’s jump in line.”
Piper rolls her eyes, ducking in behind a tall brown-haired girl who won’t stop rocking back onto her heels, then to her toes, and to her heels again. Bella looks at her watch, timing the space between rocks until the line finally moves forward and she can heap her plate with homey Sector 1-style food, savoring the smells as they waft from her plate. She sits next to Piper – who has managed to procure a massive glass of chocolate milk – and dives in.
Before long, the headmistress comes to the podium and starts the annual speech about conduct, excellence, and expectations. Bella tries her best to listen, but having heard the same speech at the beginning of last semester and the semester before, she finds herself zoning out, the world blurring out of focus.
Only when Headmistress Blixlager says something about a dance does Bella’s attention return.
“….will be hosting a dance in corporation with several schools, to which only outstanding male students from similarly prestigious schools will be invited. In order to attend, please send in your parental permission forms, get your dress approved, and complete all your assignments. I hope you can all attend – that is all.”
Bella turns to Piper, grinning. “I’m so going, are you?”
Piper hesitates. “I don’t know, I’m not big on social gatherings. My Festivas was like h***.”
Bella raises her eyebrows. “Seriously? This is our one chance to see guys until Christmas.”
Over-exaggerated sadness pulls at Piper’s features. “Alright, I’ll go. I just hope they let us wear dresses that are remotely interesting.” Bella agrees, finishing up her plate, then clearing it.
“I think I’m going to call Dudley, tell him that I’m all settled in.”
“And you say you don’t like him….”
“I don’t! He’s just a really really good friend!”
“Just go call him.” Piper says flatly, rolling her eyes.
Bella shakes her head. “I will. See you when you get up to the room.” She hurries up the empty staircases, getting turned around in the twisting hallways, and finally reaching the room. She sits down on the bed and thinks the number, waiting impatiently for him to answer. After three rings, his gravely voice comes on the line, ringing from the bud in her ear.
“Hey Bella – settled in well I presume?”
“Yeah – my roommate’s awesome too. She’s a real nut. What are you up to?”
“I’ve been training, and I’m at mess now.”
“Oh – I’m so sorry! Don’t you have like ten minutes total for mess? I won’t keep you.” She starts to hang up when his voice jumps out at her.
“Don’t worry about it – I can always grab something from the kitchen after training.”
Bella scoffs. “Are you crazy? You can’t work that hard on no food.”
“Meh, I don’t eat much.”
She narrows her eyes, concerned, then realizes he can’t see her. “Why? You love food! Are you okay?”
“I do love food, but I’m always on a diet, remember? I get fat just looking at food, and it’s not healthy to carry extra weight. It’s bad enough I have to carry so much equipment.” He says simply. She’s reassured for a moment before remembering how well he lies. She pauses, biting her lower lip.
“If you say so. How’s training?”
“It’s great – really intense. Mess is over – I’m going to have to go now. I’ll be training late, but don’t hesitate to contact me whenever. Always at your service.”
She smiles to the phone. “Duly noted. Talk to you later, mate.”
“Over and out.” The phone goes dead and she tucks it into her pocket, grabbing a book from her bag and flopping down on her bed to read. Not bad for a first day.
The next morning, Bella wakes up to her robot alarm blaring from somewhere across the room. She stumbles out of bed to turn it off, then rubs her eyes and grabs her clothes, heading for the bathroom. She takes a shower, then pulls on her uniform, carefully does her hair so just a little purple shows, and puts on her makeup. When she goes back to the room, Piper is just tugging herself out of bed.
Bella checks the time and sees she’s early, so she flops down to read more while Piper gets ready. When Piper comes back, they head downstairs, where they dish up on eggs and bacon, and Piper grabs chocolate milk yet again.
“You really like chocolate milk, don’t you?” Bella asks, staring at it with a bemused expression.
Piper takes a huge swig. “Love it – I’d drink gallons. Say, what’s your first class?”
Bella takes her schedule from her bag, finding the times. “Looks like English.”
Piper’s face turns sour. “Darn – I have math. Here, let’s compare schedules.” They lay the schedules down on the table, scanning the classes to find that they only have science and performance arts together.
“Better than nothing, I guess.” Bella says, trying to look on the bright side.
Piper just shrugs. “I suppose.” She stands up, putting her plate on the conveyor belt set up for just that purpose. “I’m off to math, see you at Science!”
“See ya!” Bella puts her plate away too and grabs her book bag before hurrying off to her class.
She finds the room and pushes open the door, silently selecting an empty desk. The door swings open again and the toe-rocker from the previous night comes walking in, plopping down next to Bella.
“Hey,” Bella whispers, “I’m Bella. You?”
“Fiona.” The homely girl grumbles, not turning her head.
Not a moment too soon, the teacher comes in, takes roll, and starts the lesson. The whole thing is about the expectations for the upcoming English course, so Bella spends the time jotting down a short story. The class whizzes by. Soon, she finds herself walking down yet another hallway to Science, hoping to get there early enough to pick a seat next to Piper. Sure enough, Piper waves her down from across the classroom and Bella hurries to slide into the seat next to her friend.
“How was math?”
“Easy. Just intros. What about English?”
“Awesome. Only good thing about first days.” Bella nods silently as the teacher turns around, launching into the biology version of the speech used by the English teacher. The class passes like Sector 4 fads, and so do the other classes that day, especially those the girls share. Bella also befriends her deskmates in the other classes – except for Fiona, whom Bella has already given up on talking to.
Lunch break is a lovely Italian buffet, and Bella finds herself in a noisy conversation with Piper, as well as Alyssa from History, Jane from Psychology, and Gabriella from PE, discussing a popular chick-lit over their pasta.
“I love House Divided!” Jane exclaims, and the others heartily agree.
“Who’s your favorite?” Bella asks, addressing nobody in particular. “Mine’s Adam.”
Piper chuckles. “I like Zander.” Everyone stares at her and she shrugs. “What? I love a good bad guy.” There’s an awkward pause before Gabriella speaks up.
“Well I like Talon. He’s funny.”
“Vera’s the smart one.” Jane comments.
“Am I the only one who actually likes the main character?” Alyssa asks dryly.
Bella nods, laughing. “He’s so angsty. It bugs me.”
Alyssa shrugs. “Yeah, but he does bring save the Sectors.”
Piper winks. “Zander wouldn’t agree.” The whole table breaks into chuckles.
“PUSH HARDER MCGRAHM!!!!” Randall shouts as Dudley strains to lift a massive barbell. “ARE YOU A MAN OR A CHILD????” With a final grunt, Dudley shoves the weight upwards, arms trembling wildly before he lets it drop back into its frame. “Again.” Randall orders, and Dudley strains, muscles bulging. The weight rises slightly before slamming back down. His lungs burn as he gets up to squirt water into his mouth. Randall’s gaze is unreadable. “Take a walk, and report back in ten minutes, prepared for target practice.”
Dudley salutes. “Sir yes sir.” He walks briskly from the workout room, his heart hammering in his chest. He spirals down the staircase, pushing open the door to his room. He smiles slightly as he realizes his floor is clean and visible, though he left it a mess just this morning. Okay, so maybe it’s nice to have a maid. His strides eat up the ground between the door and his armory closet, and within moments he’s sliding his body over his head. Next he grabs his shooting kit – where he keeps his crossbow and quiver.
Checking his watch, he hurries from the room and starts up the stairs leading away from his room. The time is ticking down, and he breaks into a run. His lungs start to bite at him again, and he frowns in annoyance, panting. What is wrong with me? I’m barely working! He grits his teeth and pushes through it, and after a little while his breathing sets into a rhythm and the pain subsides. He shrugs it off and slows to a walk as he enters the workout room.
Randall looks at the clock. “You’re early.” Dudley waits for him to speak again, but he doesn’t, so Dudley slowly walks to the barbell and slides himself underneath it. “You’ve done enough with those.” Randall says. “Move on to the pulls.” Dudley nods and walks to the pull machine, gripping the handles. “Give me 200 on each arm.”
“Sir, yes sir!” Dudley grunts, beginning the exercise. As soon as his breathing increases, his lungs start to protest, but it’s always been bad when he’s working hard, so he ignores it again. As usual, when he reaches a rhythm the stabbing pain stops, replaced by the dull burn of healthy exercise. By 100, his arms are aching, but he pushes on. At 150, his muscles start to tremble, and by 175 he can’t control the jumping of his biceps. As he continues, horrible cramps fill his arms and shoulders. Come on! Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! He stops pulling but it takes several seconds before his arms relax enough for his fingers to release the grips. Panting, he turns to Randall, trying to manhandle his arm into a painful salute.
But then he sees that Randall is smiling broadly. “Nobody has ever done that before.”
Dudley emits a wheezing laugh, his pecks aching. “Really?” Though he can see why. He feels like he’s going to die.
“Really.” Randall narrows his eyes. “I can see why you were chosen. You have an interesting mind, McGrahm. Surely the pain became unbearable? Or are you fitter than your sergeant told me?”
Dudley shrugs, uncomfortable with the turn that the conversation has taken, and almost winces as pain shoots through his shoulders. “There was a lot of pain sir.”
“They why didn’t you stop?”
Randall rocks back on his heels. “Why didn’t you quit, soldier?!?”
Dudley is taken aback and struggles to hide it. “You ordered me to do 200 sir.” Is this a test? Did he want me to quit? Was it a test of my resolve?
“Did it occur to you to quit, McGrahm?”
I didn’t quit, and actions speak louder than words, so I suppose telling the truth is the best option. “No sir, it did not.”
Randall mulls it over for a moment. “Very interesting. Wouldn’t it have been easier to quit?”
“I follow orders sir.”
A silence stretches between them, and Dudley stands at attention, his muscles quivering. “You’re done for the day. Forget the target practice. I need to speak to the Representative.”
Shocked, Dudley pulls his arm into a salute, with more success this time. “Sir yes sir.”
Dudley’s disappointed by the abandonment of shooting – a favorite of his – but he’s slightly relieved. I wouldn’t have gotten a good sight picture with these arms anyway. He trudges back to his room, his equipment feeling like a thousand pounds of stone. He makes it to his armory and hangs the bow up, barely able to lift the flak jacket from his shoulders. He leaves the closet and flops down on his bed, reaching desperately for the sore muscle cream and pulling off his shirt, slathering the white gel over his arms and torso.
He lets a sigh escape his lips as the burning starts to loosen the muscles, and the chill dulls the pain. He lays there for a good half hour, thoughts racing around his brain like dust bunnies on the wind. Why didn’t I quit? That’s a stupid question. I didn’t quit because doing it was an order, and I swore to follow orders when I joined. And because I’m not a selfish bas**** like my parents – I stand for something. The question is, why did he want me to quit? Did he want to find my breaking point? He chuckles to himself. It’s going to take a h*** of a lot more than that if he wants to see me break. Or maybe he didn’t want me to quit at all? Maybe he wanted to see if I was made of sterner stuff? His thoughts lapse for a moment as he listens to the muffled noises of the house above him. What could he want to talk to the Representative about? Something about the pull, obviously. But what will he say? That I follow orders? That I’m fit? A creeping yet familiar distrust seeps over him. Or maybe that they need to push me further so that they can find where I actually break. He tries to convince himself that would be illogical, but he can’t. You gotta know how far you can trust somebody. And he of all people knows how far leaders will go to test it.
With a groan he sweeps out his dust-bunny thoughts and pulls himself from the bed, stumbling to the bathroom on legs cemented by his morning’s run, and strips, climbing into the shower to let the warmth flood the lactic acid from his limbs.
As the pain rinses away, he finds his mind turning to Bella. His thoughts swirl into images of her flowing black hair, her dazzling smile…. DUDLEY! What the heck! She’s your commanding officer! He forces his brain to the topic of strategy. Alright. If attacked in a hallway from snipers on the side….
“Want me to do your hair?” Piper asks Bella. The two girls are scrambling to get ready for the mid-term dance, pulling on their recently approved (though in Piper’s case, barely) dresses and nervously trying on every piece of jewelry they own.
“Ummm, do you know how to do updos?”
“Course! Just let me finish dying mine.”
Bella snaps her head around. “What???” Sure enough, Piper has a telltale bottle in her hand, and her hair is a mass of goo. Turning away with a roll of her eyes, Bella finishes her makeup, her face perfectly accented with light blush and silver-greens, leaving her looking like an ethereal goddess.
She goes to her jewelry box and rustles through for what seems like an eternity, finally settling on a pair of jade teardrop earrings on tiny silver chains studded with diamonds, a pearl choker, and a simple chain bracelet. She hears the sink turn on as Piper rinses her hair, a towel covering her low black dress. It looks amazing on her, a sweeping wave of sparkles flowing asymmetrically down the skirt, a deep blue sash, and one blue and silver shoulder strap.
Piper pulls her head out from under the faucet and Bella gasps in shock. Piper’s hair is the same blue as her sash.
“Why???” She exclaims and Piper laughs.
“Because it’s a huge deal!”
“I’m not going to not be me.”
“There, you see?” Piper wraps her hair in a towel, then turns to Bella. “Now sit down and I’ll do yours.”
Bella reluctantly trusts her, and in record time, Piper finishes styling it, then dries her own hair and does it up in a medieval style, the traditionalism of the do contrasting with the blue. She puts some simple gold pins in it, then decorates herself with a pile of gold bangles and a sapphire and gold necklace, finishing it off with dangling sapphire earrings. She looks stunning, in a wild way.
Bella turns back to the mirror, fussing with her dress. Unlike Piper’s flashy black short-skirted garb, Bella’s is a pencil-skirted affair of green with a leather midsection – very Sector 1 of her. As Piper pulls on her stilettos, Bella slips into black flats, not trusting herself with heels despite the dancing lessons the schoolgirls have been getting the last few weeks.
“I really hope this dance is all it’s cracked up to be. I’m getting pretty p***** by everyone talking about it every. Freaking. Second.” Piper comments dryly as they walk from the dorm and start down the stairs.
Bella nods, swallowing nervously. “I know – it’s a lot of hoopla for nothing if it sucks.” They walk into the recreation room and find themselves surrounded by boys in uniform.
“Hoe-lee shish kabobs, they invited a military prep school!” Piper whispered to Bella, a ridiculous grin on her face.
Bella can’t help but smile. Who doesn’t like guys in uniform? A tall boy with bleach-blonde hair catches her eye, his sparkling smile shining from the punch table and his built frame accented by the uniform. It’s all she can do not to stare. “I’m going to get some punch.” She winks and Piper laughs.
“This I gotta see.” Piper replies, and the two of them head over to the punch bowl, where Bella nervously tries to catch the guy’s gaze.
His light blue eyes glint. “Hey gorgeous.”
Bella blushes wildly, her tongue thick and immobile inside her mouth.
“Want to dance?” His voice is silken and masculine, and for a moment she can’t remember how to nod. Finally she’s able to incline her head slightly and he seizes her hand and wraps his other arm round her waist. Giddy with excitement, heart pounding, she grabs his shoulder and rests her head against his chest, rocking to the music.
His body is warm and strong against hers, and waves of foreign feelings flood over her, numbing her with their power. The two of them spiral among the other dancers, locked in intimacy, and the world spins around her, a blur of sights and smells and the excitement of his touch.
Too soon the song ends and they stop. Reluctantly she lifts her head from his chest and meets his firefly eyes, her hands shaking and her body yearning. Suddenly he leans down to her, and his lips press against hers. The feeling is terrifying but mostly amazing, and heat flows through her, shutting off the rational screams of “too soon” as she loses herself in the bliss. All of a sudden ice shoots through her veins as she feels a sharp squeeze on her butt. Fear fills her again and she tries to pull away, but he has her locked in his arms. His lips bite at hers and his tongue forces into her mouth like a snake. Revulsion fills her and she succeeds in wrenching away. Before she knows what she’s doing, her right arm coils and her fist flies forward, meeting his face with a sickening crunch. He utters a small cry as blood pours from his nose.
The lustful adrenaline of the start of the dance and the fearful fire from moments before give way to the thrill of the fight, and a slight laugh escapes her lips as she reaches down to the crumpled form, wiping his own blood from her fist on the back of his uniform. Only when she stands up, feeling self-satisfied, does she realize everyone is staring at her, and the chaperones’ faces are near purple with rage. Thinking quickly she points to the mass roiling on the floor. “He was touching me inappropriately, and I couldn’t get him off me!” She lets a small sob escape, and the faces around her soften to concern and horror as the chaperones rush to make sure she’s okay – and, she suspects, to make sure she won’t tell her father – and after a few well-placed quakes and sobs, she assures them she’s just shaken and the dance can continue.
A punch-sipping boy watches as Bella gracefully squirms out of punishment, then sees Piper approach her, the two girls hugging and smiling smugly. He laughs to himself, his suntanned skin crinkling at the corners of his deep blue eyes. His dirty-blonde hair is messy, but his uniform is cleanly pressed, his camo watch the only thing out of place. When the crowd clears he approaches the girls, amused by the chain of events. The two girls stop chattering as he nears, sizing him up with curious eyes. He holds his hand out to them and Bella takes hold of it, quickly snapping her hand back as something in his hand shocks her. He snickers, taking several moments before he can compose himself enough to wipe the laughter from his eyes.
“Hey,” laughter. “I’m Ian, but you can call me John. It used to mean Ian somewhere, but I don’t know where.” He introduces himself, his words slow and tinted with a lilt – a clear sign he isn’t from around here, or even Sector 1, where most people spoke with a twang.
Bella can’t help but smile, laughing at his prank despite the fact she was the target. “I’m Bella.” Piper doesn’t say a word, so after an awkward pause, Bella speaks again. “That’s Piper.”
“I see that you met Chance.” He looks at the door the kid is being escorted through. “Nice arm, by the way.”
Bella chuckles. “Thanks,” She meets his navy eyes. “It felt good.”
Ian chortles. “I bet so. So where are you two from?”
“About an hour away.” She says cheerfully.
“Sector 2.” Piper grunts, finally speaking.
Ian nods, interested. “Cool. I lived somewhere in Sector 5, before my dad got posted here. He’s Enforcer.”
Bella’s instantly intrigued. There are lots of stories about 5. According to her dad, they leave their houses unlocked and travel around, staying in empty houses until they get bored and move again. But despite all the moving within their Sector, they hardly ever leave.
“Ohhhh. That’s awesome. I have a friend who’s Guard-bound.”
Ian perks up. “Really? Cool! I’m planning on Enforcer, but Protector would be nice eventually.”
Bella is opening mouth to answer, when the music gives way to the amplified voice of one of the chaperones. “Ten minutes to curfew – please enjoy this final dance then file towards the door.”
Ian’s eyes sparkle and a lopsided smile plays on his lips. “Want to dance?”
Bella gives him a coy look. “Just don’t make me break your nose.”
He holds up three fingers, “Scout’s honor.” and they start to dance.
In reality, he’s a horrible dancer. He keeps stepping on her toes, losing track of the beat, and doesn’t even put his hand lower than her shoulder. But it’s an honest dance. And he’s a gentleman, so she enjoys it.
When the dance was over, they exchange communicator tags, and Ian ducks into line, marching out with the other boys. Bella can’t help but think that she wishes Dudley were among them. As soon as he’s gone Bella sighs and turns to Piper. “What.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” She snaps, and Bella rolls her eyes.
“You didn’t say but one word to him the whole time!”
“I can’t stand him.”
“You don’t know him!”
Piper harrumphs. “I know him enough to think he’s ew! He can’t decide whether to be a socially awkward gentleman or some immature pranking eight-year-old! And he looks out of place in a uniform.”
Bella sighs. “Well I think he’s sweet.”
Bella stares at her, shocked. “You think I’m easy, don’t you?!?”
“Oh please! I’m easy. You, my friend, are just gullible.”
Bella grits her teeth, afraid of saying something she’ll regret, and storms up the stairs, almost tripping as she stomps away.
Dudley lays on his bed, his eyes combing his well-thumbed military manual. It’s required that he read it once – he’s read it so many times he can almost recite it. For him, that means five. He can’t stop the creeping feeling that maybe, if he misses something, he could make a mistake and get Bella hurt. And the very thought makes his stomach turn over. So he stares at the pages ever harder.
Just as he is about to finish for the sixth time, his communicator buzzes and he lunges to grab it from his dresser, teetering on the edge of the bed for a moment before dropping with a loud thud and rolling away to break his fall. He hurriedly untangles his arms and legs and answers. “McGrahm.”
“Hey Dudley!” Bella sounds breathless.
“Hey Bella – how was the dance?”
That’s all it takes to open the floodgates. Bella flops down on her bed and starts talking a hundred miles per hour. “OMG so we get to the dance and I was really nervous but then Piper and I saw that the guys were from a military school and we were all like yum, uniforms – gah don’t take that the wrong way – so I was all excited and there was a hot guy by the punch table,” She takes a moment to breathe, “so I went up to him and he was super amazing looking and he asked me to dance and we did and it was wonderful and then we kissed but Dudley! He tried to grab my butt and he wouldn’t stop kissing me and he wouldn’t let go!” She gives him time to respond, savoring the chance to shock him.
On the other end of the line, he lays on the cold floor, his muscles coiling with fury.
Bella grins, about to tell him about her revenge, when she hears a sharp snap and a mumbled curse on the other line.
Dudley bites his lip and cradles his right hand in his left, the phone pinched against his ear by his shoulder, as he tries to keep the ink from the crushed pen from hitting the floor. His hand stings where the shards pierced him.
“I’m here. Somebody saw, I hope? Are you alright?”
She giggles immaturely. “I broke his nose.”
An involuntary guffaw of relief and triumph escapes him. “You didn’t! D***!” He cringes. “I am sooo sorry – it just slipped out! I-“
Her roiling laughter stops him in his tracks and heat burns his cheeks. “I’m a princess, not a nun, you nincompoop. And yes, yes I did.” She holds back the giggles. “Then I called it self-defense and cried a little bit, and they didn’t suspect a thing.”
He starts laughing with her, but after a few gulping breaths she starts chattering again. “But that’s not even the best part! After hanging out with Piper for a bit this other dude came up to us. A goofy kid with from – get this – Sector 5! He’s a total prankster – he got me with shock shake. Maybe you can meet him some time; we swapped tags, and I think you’d really like him. He reminds me of you when you’re not being serious. But Piper hated him. Now she’s being all grouchy and I don’t know why and it’s killing me because she’s my best friend but I really don’t see what’s wrong with this dude. He’s really cool!” She throws her hands in exasperation, almost tossing her bracelet. “She can be so-“ She pauses, hearing noise on the stairs. “I have to go – Piper’s coming. Bye Dudley!” She hangs up before he can say a word and he turns off the earbud with a heavy sigh.
Breathing slowly and evenly to calm his heart, he turns on the water in his bathroom sink, cleaning up his hand. A sinking feeling fills him. I should have been there. He dries his hand with a towel, wincing as the cloth passes over the rough punctures. At least she can take care of herself. I’d really be worried if she was ditsy. He chuckles to himself, amused at his lie. Scratch that – if she was a wimp I would have never taken the job.
Squeezing salve into the pen bite and sticking some adhesive bandage on his hand, he paces back to his bed, to his door, and to his bed again, wearing out the flagstones in between. His boots make a rhythmic thump as he walks, rolling his shoulders and clenching and unclenching his fists. A strange energy fills him, one he can’t explain but has no desire to ignore. He tries to stop and read, but he feels anxious and, seeing no reason to deprive himself, begins pacing again, drowning out his thoughts with his own nervous strides.
Bella tucks her communicator under pillow and jumps up, pretending to be in the middle of taking down her hair. Piper shoves open the door and goes straight to her side of the room, yanking at her blue locks and angrily wiping the make-up from her face, needing several cotton balls for her eyes alone. Bella feels hurt, but pushes the feeling away. I can talk to whoever I want. She doesn’t have to like him. So she stays silent, getting ready for bed without saying a word then yanking her covers angrily around her, facing away from Piper’s side of the room.
Piper glares at Bella’s back. She ignored me the whole night! And she didn’t see it! Of course not, she was too busy with chasing one boy after another. I went on THREE DANCES while she was talking to that Ian kid and she didn’t even notice. She fumes, throwing herself into bed.
Dudley lies awake, his thoughts reeling and his foot tapping out the beat to a song only it knows. The clock blares 3:37 in neon red letters, mocking his insomnia. With a sigh of resignation he pulls himself out of the entrapping blankets, tugs on a pair of pants, and flips on his light. Blinking madly, he waits to get used to it before walking over to the corner of his room and turning on the treadmill, pulling on his shoes as it warms up.
Once the speed levels, he jumps aboard, jogging as he turns music onto his earbud, letting the heavy metal wash over him, vitalizing him. He bumps up the speed, almost relishing the normalcy of the tightness and flames in his chest as he gulps for air. Just when he’s tempted to stop, the pain fades, his gulping turning to a steady stream of deep breaths, and he closes his eyes, letting his body flow with the music.
When he opens them again, his legs feel like Jell-o and the clock reads 4:15. With bumbling fingers he turns of the machine, running a few seconds more as it slows down, then letting it carry him to the end. His heels hit the ground and he stumbles backwards, legs jiggly.
He feels clean and refreshed despite the sweat dripping from his body, as if he’d rinsed off of something dirty. He jumps in the shower, purposefully getting in while the water is still icy, rinsing himself off and getting out before it warms up. Once he dries off he clambers back into bed, finally having the peace to sleep.
It seems like he’s just blinked when his alarm clock blares at 6:30. He opens his eyes, the room bleary, and slams his hand down on the clock, forcing himself to get up. As soon as he gets out of bed, his legs go out and he falls with a yelp of surprise. His confusion soon turns to laughter as he realizes his left leg is asleep. In his sleep-deprived state, it seems exceedingly funny, and his leg gets itself together before its owner.
He finally stands up – successfully this time – and gets dressed, going to the bathroom to shave and put some gel in his hair, then brushing his teeth and knocking back an energy shot before heading to the mess hall, his exhausted legs protesting each bowlegged step.
He gets into line just in time to have his plate loaded with carbs, bolting down his food in order to be out of the mess hall by the ten-minute mark. He walks stiffly to the workout room, where Randall is waiting, and salutes. The senior officer takes one look at Dudley’s stiff gait and haggard expression and frowns. “I sincerely hope there isn’t anyone distracting you from your training soldier.”
Dudley’s mind struggles for a moment before he flushes. “No sir! I couldn’t sleep last night, so I ran about 45 minutes on the treadmill at 0330 hours. I’m fit for duty sir.”
Randall shrugs. “You’d better be. Give me laps.”
A sense of dread fills Dudley but he doesn’t show it. He simply starts running, reminding his lead limbs every step that Bella deserves the best, and he is training to be the best. After what seems like an eternity of flaming agony on all fronts, Randall orders him to stop. He stumbles into a walk, his legs and chest on fire.
“Drop and give me fifty!” Randall shouts and Dudley slams to the ground, straining for fifty pushups. After that come sit-ups, pulls, and boxing. For Bella. For Bella. For Bella. He thinks to himself, a broken record in his head.
When Bella gets up the next morning, Piper is already gone. With a sigh, Bella gets ready for school, then heads down to the cafeteria, finding Piper eating at a full table with some girls Bella doesn’t recognize. They don’t seem particularly friendly, but Piper clearly doesn’t care. Bella huffs and sits herself down at a table with one of the girls Piper hates most – a stereotypical blonde who has never bent a rule in her life, named ‘Ami’ with an ‘i’ instead of a ‘y’. She always walks around with a fake face and a sickly sweet smile, and wears the uniform like she enjoys it. Piper says that sitting next to her is an automatic diet, and now that she’s at the table, Bella has to agree. Sickening.
Bella looks towards Piper’s table and can feel the redheaded girl’s smugness. She takes a deep breath to calm her anger, then turns back to Ami. What kind of name is Ami anyway? She is chattering on about something unimportant, and Bella hates it. “Sorry, I’ve got to go.” Bella says sharply, not caring that she cut the girl off in the middle of a sentence.
“Oh.” She looks rather downtrodden, and Bella feels guilty. “Okay…”
“I’m really sorry. That was a great story though.” She crosses her fingers behind her back, unsure whether she was protecting her lie or hoping Ami had, in fact, been telling a story.
Luckily for Bella, Ami brightens. “Thanks so much. Have a great day!”
“You too, Ami.” Bella says as she walks away, hurrying to Piper’s table. “Piper, I need to talk to you.” She smiles like poisoned honey, knowing Piper will see right through it.
Bella’s hand closes around Piper’s thin wrist. She isn’t above dragging Piper out of there, and Piper knows it. She gets up with a huffy toss of her blue hair and follows Bella to an empty hallway.
“Talk fast.” She snaps.
“Why are you mad at me?” Bella keeps her voice level, but it’s difficult.
“Because you have to ask why.”
Bella rolls her eyes. “You make it sound like we’re married. Just tell me what’s up so I can apologize.”
“You completely ignored me last night!”
“You wouldn’t say anything!”
“And that matters?” Piper snaps in a last-ditch effort, knowing Bella has a point.
“Let’s call it a truce, okay? It’s time for classes.”
Piper smiles slightly, thankful to Bella for not demanding an apology. “Deal.”
From then on, Bella makes sure to be more careful around Piper, trying hard not to offend her again. Sure they argue, but Bella never tries to place the blame. And eventually, their friendship becomes strong enough that, even if Bella were to blame Piper, it would have barely mattered.
The days fly by as the soft glows of fall shorten into chilly winter mornings and Piper’s coffee addiction becomes increasingly dependant on peppermint and chocolate. Bella and Ian keep in touch and even meet up a couple times over the course of the semester, and though Piper still doesn’t like him, their relationship becomes less about open hatred and more about tolerated and competitive acceptance – a sport Bella enjoys watching.
Dudley continues pressing himself to the limit with his training, each day harder than the last. He speeds through NeverSore like he’s trying to sponsor them and is always stiff and tired. But he doesn’t mind. The harder he works, the more his body screams, the less disgraceful he feels. The more he feels worthy of the job.
“Bercik.” The masked man speaks from the depths of his tankard. The albino man across the bar from him jumps, his shot of Vodka splashing.
“How do you know my name?” He snaps, slight fear in his piercing Russian accent.
“I know everything about you.”
The pale man’s eyes widen, but the cloaked figure laughs and orders a round for them both.
“I know your plan, and I like it. We could be…. useful, to each other.”
Bella sits on her bed, stuffing her things haphazardly into her bags. Piper lays on the other bed, listening to music, her stuff still spread all over.
“Aren’t you going to pack?” Bella asks, closing her last suitcase.
“Eventually. My ‘rents aren’t coming until tomorrow.”
There’s a loud knock on the door. “Come in!” Bella calls out lazily. The door opens slowly and a massive shoulder comes into view, closely followed by a beaming square face and the muscular body of the person Bella has missed so much.
“Dudley!” She squeals and bounds to him, tackling him as Piper hurriedly slings her pile of yet-to-be-folded underwear behind the bed. Dudley laughs into Bella’s hair, holding her tight for a moment and enjoying her fruity scent and warm lightness. Reluctantly, he sets her down and she releases her grip. “I didn’t know you’d be coming!” She beams, then remembers herself, tugging him by the hand towards Piper. “This is Piper – the one I told you about.” She gives Piper an ecstatic grin. “My best friend ever! And Piper, this is Dudley – my best ally.” She stands between them, thrilled and grinning stupidly.
Dudley jerks his head towards her slightly and whispers jokingly to Piper, “She’s been hitting the funny brownies, hasn’t she?” Piper’s cackling laughter erupts as Bella smacks Dudley on the shoulder, with him uttering a teasing “ow!” and shielding himself with a hastily seized pillow. Bella giggles, knowing full well that she couldn’t hurt him if she tried.
Piper, on the other hand, watches the two goof off with eyes only for Dudley. He’s made of different stuff than the boys the girls they danced with at the ball. His broad hands are calloused, his thick arms are crosshatched with scars and many places on them bare because of burns. The large scar on his cheek gives him a bad-boy appearance, which is supported by the steely brown eyes and slightly spiked black hair. As teddy-bearish as he’s acting, Piper’s sure she can bring out his wild side, given enough time.
After a minute or two of being chased by Bella, who is swinging a pillow wildly, Dudley spins around, ducks a blow, and grabs the pillow with a lazy move of his arm. “Come on, your parents are going to wonder where we are.”
Bella looks at him quizzically. “They aren’t here?”
“They had a meeting.” Dudley said, hoping Bella stuck to the Whitticker Innovations story. “They sent me to pick you up.”
Bella nodded, slightly worried about what could be going on, then turns and gives Piper a hug. “Have a great Christmas! I’ll text you!”
Dudley extends his hand and Piper shakes it with her best smile. “Nice to meet you, Piper.” He says, then he and Bella start down the stairs, Dudley carrying all of Bella’s bags with ease.
They walk out the front door, pausing long enough for Bella to sign out and say goodbye to Miss King, then plod down the long train of white steps. With each step, Dudley’s muscles seem to get tenser, his gait stiffening to a military man’s sure yet disciplined walk by the time they reach the car. He lowers her bags into the back of his green truck with more restraint than necessary, then hurries to the driver’s side. His foot taps impatiently as Bella straps in, and he yanks the car out of the parking lot, cords of his neck bulging and movements so stiff that autocontrol takes over, but he overrides it in order to go faster.
As soon as they are out of sight of the school he stomps down on the pedal and they lurch forward, Bella forced back into her seat. He speeds along the near-empty highway, bordering on reckless. Bella’s heart hammers with fear and apprehension. “What are you doing???” She yells over the roar of the engine.
“There’s been an attack on 7.”
Sector 7, the antartic government hub. The source of all technology. The genius bar of the modern world. The blood bleaches from Bella’s face. “What? When? Why? Why didn’t you tell me? Where are we going?”
Dudley doesn’t take his attention off the road, his whole body tight with unreleased aggression. “I don’t know. I got the news while you were signing out. But we need to get back to the castle, and soon. The more we know about who we’re facing, the better. I don’t know if it will affect you, but if it does I want to know.”
Bella nods gravely, understanding. A tense silence falls between them, and their minds race in their separate compounds. Will they attack again? When? How? Why? But one question rebounds more than all the others. Who did this?
The silence holds for the majority of the three hour drive, only broken by the occasional feeble attempt at conversation. Each of them is too preoccupied to notice the quiet, though the time seems to pull ever longer, like taffy in the hands of a laughing confectionist.
Finally, the estate comes into view. A sigh of relief hisses from both chests as they slow the breakneck pace to provide identification. They pull through the gates and hurriedly parked in Dudley’s spot, then leap from the car like the seats burned them. Like maniacs they dash into the house, stumbling down the halls towards Goffert’s office. Sliding to a stop at the door, Bella squares her shoulders and smoothes her hair, and Dudley locks himself into his rigid form. With a trembling hand, Bella grasps the gold knocker and slams it against the wood. Something rustles on the other side of the door, and it clicks open, revealing the worried face of Noel. She gives Bella a hug, her eyes darting like a nervous rabbits’. “Come in, both of you.” They duck into the room, where Goffert is sitting at the desk, his thumbs rubbing against his temples with a dry sound.
“Well?” Bella blurts out, her voice frantic.
With a heavy sigh, Goffert looks up, meeting his daughter’s eyes. Dudley stands like a post by the door, lost behind a marble mask. The Representative’s eyes are weary. “This morning, a series of car bombs went off in all the major connecting tunnels between government utopiates, right in the middle of traffic.” His voice cracks. A shattered utopiate means no climate control for several dense city blocks, which would be bad enough even if there hadn’t been direct hits to boot. “The casualty rate is at 1500 and rising.”
An involuntary wail of grief rips from Bella, tears springing to her eyes. “No!” She whimpers and she locks with the queen in an embrace of pure pain, water flowing like fountains from their eyes.
By the door, Dudley’s strong shoulders quake once, racked with a soundless sob. He struggles with himself for a moment, trying not to think about the thousands of family members and friends that will water the ground with their tears. He forces himself to remember that it is his job to deal with s***, not cry about it, then he is still, locked in his private darkness. For seconds or days, they stay like that, crushed with the shared yet personal despair and desolation. It is Goffert who breaks the spell, and Bella is horrified to see that his expression is blank. “Dudley, please take them to Bella’s room and stay with them until I can get things under control.” Dudley salutes, his eyes like flint. His warm arm wraps around Bella’s shoulders on one side, his other wrapping her mother with a mumbled “Begging your pardon Lady…” as he escorts them out.
The rest of it is a blur to Bella. Some time later she wakes, finding herself curled up on her bed with her mother. Her bones ache and her skin is lined with red wrinkles that match the sheets. A deep sadness in her chest robs her of the desire to so much as lift her head, so she surveys the room with wandering eyes. The clock reads 2:30 in the afternoon, confusing her for a moment, as that’s an hour before she remembers going to sleep. The blinds are closed and the light is off, and Dudley is standing by the door, his mighty shoulders slumped and his eyes red-rimmed, though with exhaustion or tears she can’t tell. Mustering the extent of her will power, she sits up, and Dudley starts.
His eyes are deeply sad, and he walks to the bed to offer her some water. She pushes it away, insisting on getting up. Looking worried, he helps her as she stumbles on stiff limbs. Her head spins and her gut grumbles. She teeters to the door and he follows her closely, a hand on her shoulder, looking torn for a moment before waving down a replacement to watch over the queen – after all, Bella is his real job.
She stumbles down the stairs, him hovering over her like a mother bird, the house unnaturally quiet. When they’re a safe distance from the room, Bella parts her cracked lips, her voice rasping. I must have cried a lot last night. “Well?”
Dudley swallows, for a moment not trusting his voice to be strong. “I haven’t learned much – I’ve been with you guys. But from what I’ve heard, the final casualty report was submitted as 1847 people, mostly businessmen but a fair amount of women and children, as well as first responders and a handful of freeze victims. Additionally, transport has been compromised, as the attacks left the areas exposed, and rescuers are having a difficult time accessing the sites.”
Bella’s lip trembles but she has no tears left to shed. “Do we know who did this?”
Dudley licks his lips, and for the first time Bella notices that they are cracked and bloody. “Last night there was a video... Billions of copies, overriding every secure system and basically spamming the entire earth.” He pauses, looking at her tearstained face. “It was a video of a masked man, voice distortion and all, telling us that we had to… we had to pay. For our crimes, though he didn’t say what those were.” He looks at her again, wanting to stop, to spare her the pain, but knowing she won’t be satisfied until he reveals it all. “He said that the wounds would strike closer to home if we did not comply with his demands.”
“And what did he demand?” Bella asks, fear like a snake in her veins.
“The release of every prisoner arrested for militant activity. No matter what group they were from.”
She gasps, shaking her head frantically, hysteria threatening to overtake her once again. “They can’t have united against us!”
Dudley shakes his head quickly, grabbing her by the shoulders and forcing her to look at him. “Shh, shh. It’s not that. Militants are too undersupplied and scattered to do that. We think it’s a group of insurgents working out of some hidden pocket of habitable Badland, quite possibly followers of Old World ideals. They’re banking on the fact we don’t know who they are, or where they might strike next. Which is probably why they want everyone released – so that we can’t guess at who they are.”
Bella struggles to regain control, then takes a rattling breath. “Did Daddy comply with their demands?”
Dudley shakes his head gravely, wisdom beyond his age shining from him with a sadness that Bella can’t hope to rescue him from. “No. He turned off the video, and has been working to stop its spread in the media. Fear is the greatest weapon, and we won’t give it to them.” He tips her chin upwards. “Do you understand? We can’t give them that power over us.”
She closes her eyes, composing herself as much as she can. “I understand. What do I do?”
Dudley releases her shoulders. “First, you should eat and probably change – you’ve been asleep like 24 hours. Then, you should call your friends. You guys should be pulling together right now.”
“Alright.” With dragging feet, she forces herself into the kitchen, choking down some bread and juice despite her churning stomach. Then Dudley helps her back up the stairs, where she goes into her study to call Piper. Her thoughts are so scattered that eventually she gives up and uses voice command.
Finally she gets through to Piper and a constricted voice answers. “Hello?”
“Did you hear?” Bella’s voice trembles. She knows Piper has, but can’t let go of the hope that maybe she’s imagining it, maybe it’s a bad dream, maybe –
“Yes.” Piper chokes, and the two sob together, Bella curling up into a ball as they pour out their shared misery.
After some time, Bella’s door creaks open and Dudley strides in, looking sickly from fending off both tears and sleep. He sits next to Bella’s head and she places it onto his lap, her tears staining his pants as he runs his rough fingers through her hair. Finally, when she has given herself quite a headache, she and Piper say meek goodbyes and hang up. Dudley doesn’t move, and blackness once again edges into Bella’s world.
When Bella wakes up, her communicator is on the nightstand beside her, broadcasting several missed calls, her windows are dark, and her head is on Dudley’s chest, his arm protectively around her shoulders. She looks at his sleeping face and a weak smile touches her lips. The coldness and impassiveness he portrays in the day is replaced by a simple peace that makes him look more like fifteen than seventeen.
But the longer she watches, the bigger a feeling of wrongness grows inside her. His muscles start tense beneath her, out of place creases slowly growing on his strong face. His heart begins to hammer, ringing in her ears as the Telltale Heart must have, and she recoils slightly, unnerved by the darkness creeping into his sleep, and disturbed that he may be remembering something horrifying enough to torment him even in his dreams. His breathing gets heavier, his eyes moving frantically beneath their thick lids, then his breath catches and he grimaces, jerking violently into the world of the living.
He sees her and forces his body to relax, struggling to calm his breathing as his side splits with pain. Bella looks at him, clear blue worry in her eyes. “Are you okay?”
He forces a smile. “I’m fine – I must have fallen asleep.” With the arm Bella isn’t wrapped in he rubs his bleary eyes.
“Do you always have nightmares like that?” She asks.
“Course not – it’s just been a stressful few days.” He lies smoothly and she settles back against his chest, relieved.
“Good. Hey, aren’t you off duty? And where’s Mom?”
He looks at his watch. “She woke up while you were still asleep, told me not to worry about her. And technically, yeah. But your dad told me to stay with you.”
“But you haven’t slept for days!”
“He probably just got distracted.”
“Come on. Let’s remind him.”
"No!" Dudley says, sharper than he means to. "He has bigger things on his mind."
Bella looks at Dudley, a determined expression on her features. "He can't neglect those closest to him to deal with bigger things. That will just create a rift, and that's what they want – whoever they are." Dudley glowers but is too tired to argue.
"As you wish."
Bella pulls herself away from the warmth of Dudley and her bed, her whole body sore from laying in one place. She takes a deep breath, willing herself to be strong, and then the two of them head downstairs. They make their way to Goffert's office, and knock on the door. After a long pause he answers, looking haggard. Guilt fills his face as he catches sight of them. "I'm so sorry Dudley! I completely forgot I ordered you to stay on duty. You are dismissed for the next two days."
Dudley salutes. "Yes sir, thank you sir."
With a curt nod and a few words of comfort to Bella, he shuts the door again, hurrying back to his work.
The next few weeks are a storm of pain and action. Dudley takes his two days off, then is returned to his post as Bella's apprentice guard. Several days after the attack, a soldier shows up and takes Dudley's place by Bella’s side, sending Dudley down to the office without explanation. It is then that Dudley is fully debriefed and given new instructions for Bella's increased protection, but also when he’s also inducted into the group of experts dealing with the new threat, as an intern and a strategic asset. "You have a bright future ahead of you McGrahm," Goffert says, "we think you would be a valuable addition to the team." And so it is.
Since that point, Dudley has been a guard to Bella only when she’s transient, and is sent to meetings during her time in her room or her etiquette classes. The separation is especially hard on Bella, who yearns for him to lean on, but she distracts herself with half-hearted Christmas preparations, the estate sparkling with a million lights. “After all,” her mother reminds her, “life waits for no one.”
Christmas passes gloomily, with the rituals hollow and the smiles more like grimaces. They attend countless funerals and memorials, each black-clad day refusing to let them move on. For once, Bella is relieved to go back to school, hoping to find peace in company less closely tied to the turmoil. Once again, Dudley drives her, and again the ride is passed in silence. When they reach the gates she buries her face in his chest, and he bends low to reach her. He lets the embrace linger for a moment then gently removes her hands. "The show must go on." He says dryly and she nods, trudging to the school.
As time passes, it becomes obvious that Dudley is right. After a tearful tribute during dinner the first night, life goes on as before, with the exception of the absence of a couple Sector 7 girls whose family members were slain. In part, the ability of the girls to forget sickens Bella, but she soon finds herself doing the same, time slowly healing her wounds. She begins to smile again, then to laugh. Her conversations with Dudley and Piper become more vibrant, and her attention turns back to the things that were important to her before. As time passes, there are several more small attacks on the different Sectors, and the violences are declared acts of focused aggression, war whispered in corridors between soldiers but not ever discussed aloud, the concept too heinous to discuss. The Protectors pace as they wait to be released, but there is nowhere to send them.
Dudley continues to go to the meetings, privy to disturbing information regarding the brutal accuracy of the attacks that even non-military officials refuse to dwell on, but he hides his concern well, and the sense of urgency is allowed to fade.
Before they know what’s happening, Bella’s birthday has passed along with the rest of January, fresh flowers have begun to grow on the graves of those lost, and an open dance is being held to celebrate the coming of spring. Bella chooses to wear a short green dress and her hair down, while Piper goes with a red dress and black hair. Bella asks Chand to the dance but he has to attend a dinner, so she decides to go with Ian as friends. Hoping to complete a dry run of a bodyguarding situation, Dudley asks Piper in order to be undercover near Bella.
As the girls are finishing up their preparation, there’s a knock on the door. Piper has dye all over her hands (again) so Bella answers, opening the door to find Dudley in a massive tuxedo with a red tie. His pulse races when he sees her and he forces his attention to Piper, allowing himself a smile when he sees the dye. “Can I come in?”
Bella grins, catching him staring at Piper and taking pride in her matchmaking skills. “Of course.”
He inclines his head slightly and steps past her with a sinking feeling. He kicks Piper out of the bathroom in order to use it, coming out to wash his hands just as Ian is rounding the corner. With a manic grin Ian gestures for Bella to be quiet and he creeps forward, a straw in his hands. Dudley rubs the towel carefully over thick palms, being sure to dry them completely, so they aren't slippery. You never know when you'll be holding on to something for dear life. His thoughts drift a bit, thinking of how good the girls look. Suddenly a blowing sound rings in his ears, barely audible. Dart gun! He dodges out of instinct, spinning around at the same time and knocking Ian to the ground with a punch to the face. Bella squeals and Dudley’s heart - calm during the scuffle - starts beating uncontrollably. Sliding down the mirror is a spitball, and good-natured Ian is pulling himself off the floor a river of blood seeping through his fingers as he holds his nose. No, no, no! D****it! It finally happened. I cracked. I lost control. I'm a weapon. A bomb. A loose cannon. Too afraid of losing what I have to realize what I’ve become. The thoughts spin in his mind as he and Bella usher Ian into the bathroom, helping him until the bleeding stops, Dudley pale and green.
After they have situated Ian and he has stopped bleeding, Bella grabs Dudley by the wrist and twists his arm sharply. He lets her, his bones grating, and she drags him from the bathroom. As soon as they are outside, she slaps his face, the sound resonating and a large red splotch materializing on his cheek. He winces, more from her anger than her blow.
“What the h*** were you thinking?!?” She hisses, her accusing glare making him feel like he’s being stabbed with an icicle.
He hangs his head, the shame and guilt tickling at his innards nothing compared to his distrust of himself.
His voice sticks in his throat and he remains motionless and mute, head hanging. Fury clouds Bella’s features and the hand on his wrist tightens, her fingernails carving half-moons in his flesh. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself!” Her hand shakes even as she maims him. He gulps, afraid not of her but of himself. “Nothing.”
Her palm connects with his flesh again and he sucks in his breath, sending a spasm of pain down his side.
“You’d better have a D*** good explanation Dudley McGrahm.” She growls. Her heart goes out to him in spite of herself– he’s her best friend and he looks like he’s about to fall on his sword – but she refuses to soften. His words from when they first began spending time together ring in her ears; ‘Above all, you are the princess and I am the soldier. Don’t let yourself forget.’ Now he cowers before her, looking like a failed experiment. He sort of is.
“I was trained to react and I did.” He doesn’t dare to poison his tone, but steel has crept into his eyes. Something inside her snaps as she realizes that, despite his regret, he would just as soon react the same way. Venom and disgust fill her and she tugs on his wrist to pull him to her level. Once again he allows it. His stoniness makes her blood boil, and she meets his cold eyes with her own fiery gaze. “I am glad you’re dancing with Piper tonight, because if you were my date, you would be going home.”
She growls then releases him and strides to the bathroom, where Ian is washing the last of the blood from his now crooked nose and trying to coax a giggle from Piper. She’s glaring at the ceiling with her head in the tub, since he’s using the sink. Bella gives Ian a guilty hug. “Are you okay?”
“Just dandy – no worries.” He assures her, sounding congested but cheery.
She sighs in relief. “I’m so sorry about him. He-“
Ian holds up his hands, stopping her. “Hey, no worries. I snuck up on him, and he reacted. It happens.” He smiles at her. “You look amazing, by the way.” Piper makes a face, starting to dry her hair, but Ian ignores her. “I’ll go talk to him while you girls finish getting ready.” He winks and excuses himself, leaving Bella and Piper to finish up.
When Ian comes out of the bathroom, a new wave of shame washes over Dudley. He walks up to the blonde-haired boy, his thick hands held out in a sign of peace. “I am so sorry man – I didn’t mean to.” He bites his lip, unable to hang his head to this stranger, despite what he did. “I don’t know what came over me.” He lies.
Ian smiles good-naturedly, calming his anger. Life’s too short. “What’s a nose between friends?” He holds out his hand to Dudley, who shakes it gratefully.
“I’m glad you feel that way, but I feel horrible.”
Ian shrugs. “If it happens again, then you can feel bad. But let’s forget about it this time. The girls look great.”
Dudley grins, “They sure do. We’re lucky.”
Ian nods in agreement, just as the girls come out of the bathroom, each looking every bit as stunning as he said they did. Bella strides past Dudley without so much as a glance and grabs Ian by the hand, leading him out. Ian casts Dudley a sympathetic glance and a subtle shrug before he lets himself be tugged away. Dudley smiles at Piper, his look sincere but the emotion a lie. She walks out, leaving him trailing behind like a puppy caught pooping on the carpet.
The dance flies by for Bella, Piper and Ian, who have a great time, but each second drags for Dudley. Bella won’t even look at him, making her impossible to guard. His only comfort is Piper, who, despite the fact only his hormones are remotely into her, proves great as a friend, cheering him up if only slightly.
However, when the dance ends and he finally catches Bella alone in the hall after she sees Ian off, the pain comes back. He looks at her with pleading eyes, allowing a small shard of his brokenness to shine through to his face. “Please don’t do this.” He pleads. “It was an accident – a mistake!” But she simply tries to shove past him to the door. “Bella-“ His voice is desperate but when she speaks, hers is cold.
“Don’t beg Dudley. It’s demeaning.” He gulps, a sense of hopelessness filling him.
“As you wish.” And he lets her pass.
“Bella already called and told me.” Goffert states bluntly, facing Dudley over peaked fingers and an oak desk.
Dudley’s finger nervously traces his scar. “Yes sir.” He forces his hands into his pockets to keep them off the scar as he awaits Goffert’s next words. His heart hammers in his chest. If he were the Representative, he’d discharge him on the spot – after all, snapping is frowned upon in most societies. After what seems like an eternity, Goffert speaks again.
“Did you have any way of knowing it was him?”
“No sir. I just heard the blow, sir.”
“What did you think it was?”
“Blow dart sir.”
Goffert rubs his temple. “And by punching him, what did you intend to achieve?”
Dudley casts his eyes downward, the shame of seventeen years rushing back. Calm down. He’s only asking about Ian. Nothing more. “I intended to wound him to lessen the chances of his escape.”
“I see.” Goffert shifts his attention back to his papers. The minutes race around the clock like headless chickens. After ten minutes have passed – or is it ten lifetimes? - the man looks up again. “Dismissed.”
“You did what you were trained to do at the wrong time, indicating a flaw in your training – not your character. You’re dismissed, and send Randall in when you go.”
Shocked, Dudley salutes. “Yes sir.” He hurries from the room, elated for a moment before he checks his phone for the thousandth time. Still nothing from Bella – same as all the other times he’s checked in the last week. With a heavy sigh, he finds Randall and sends him to the king’s office, then goes back to his room.
As soon as he arrives, he strips of his shirt and walks to his weights, pitting himself against the cold steel until his arms won’t listen to his brain and he finally feels clean, the sweat washing away the weakness that was eating away at his soul.
It takes another week and a lot of reasoning from Ian and her father before Bella will call Dudley. When she finally dials he answers immediately, not bothering to act like he wasn’t waiting. “McGrahm.” He answers curtly, as if he doesn’t know it’s her.
“Hey Dudley.” She replies curtly, as if she doesn’t care it’s him. He waits for her to speak again. “Ian said it was an accident.”
He wants to tell her that of course it was, and that he told her that from day one, but he bites his tongue. “Yeah.”
She twists her thumbs. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too.”
“I don’t like hating you.”
“I don’t like it either.”
“But you deserve it.”
He sighs, tightening his grip on the phone. “Yeah, I do.”
She squares her shoulders, a weight lifted from them. “It’s nice to hear you say it.”
Relieved, he leans against the wall of the hallway he’s standing in. “Truce.”
She smiles. “Good.” With that word, the tension evaporates, and they get to work catching up on the events of the last two weeks. Bella tells him of Piper getting detention for tie-dying her uniform, and he tells her of his text friendship with Ian, and they laugh with each other, trying to forget anything ever happened.
“Take off your shirt please.” The doctor disturbs Dudley. He has bushy eyebrows but is very bald – which Bella defines as somebody who ‘looks like he has no hair, never will have any hair, and never has had any hair’ – and has overly interested grey eyes. Dudley begrudgingly removes his shirt from his misshapen torso.
The doctor’s eyes widen briefly before he returns to professionalism. “Take a deep breath please – like you’re starting a workout.”
Dudley inflated his lungs to their fullest capacity, his sides burning. The doctor watches as his ribs sink into his skin, symmetrical puckered lines appearing below the flesh. “Did that hurt?”
Dudley pushes the pain to the back of his brain even as it begins to fade. “Yeah. On both sides, like it always does.”
The doctor pinches his lips together like a bulbous fish. “How long has it been hurting when you breathe hard, specifically when you start working out?”
“As long as I can remember.”
“And has there been any change with increases or decreases in fitness?”
“Since I’ve been fitter it’s taken less time to get past the panting stage, and the steady breathing doesn’t hurt. But otherwise, no.”
“Have you had any major fitness changes?”
Dudley grins wryly. “Uhm, yeah…. I used to weigh almost 300 pounds. Now I weigh 250 and it’s all muscle.”
The doctor chews on the end of his pen, clinging to the information like a heartbroken man clings to an old picture. “I wanted to remind you that nothing you say in this room can be used against you.” He says slowly, his creepy eyes making Dudley feel like he’d rather have things used against him than be in this room. “Now, did you resort to any…. unorthodox measures to achieve this fitness?”
The doctor looks doubtful. “We’re going to have to do some x-rays.”
The doctor pulls on his x-ray goggles and makes a face before projecting the images for Dudley to see. What he sees horrifies him. His ribs, instead of being clean curves, are deformed, knobbly things, clawing toward his lungs like the talons of some dark beast. That explains a lot. Dudley thinks dryly, turning to the doctor. “What’s wrong with them?”
“Well, the foremost explanation would be a birth defect.”
Dudley looks at him, his gaze unwavering. “But you don’t think so.”
“No.” He replies, his voice measured. “I don’t. Because you’re lungs aren’t formed to fit like they would be if your ribs were always like this.” The two stare at each other. “Another diagnosis would be cancer.”
“But you don’t think it’s that either.”
“No. There isn’t a pattern to the deformation, and there’s no evidence elsewhere.”
“I don’t think you’ve told the whole truth about your past.”
Dudley scoffs, unnerved by the accuracy of the guess. “Oh really?”
“If I didn’t know better, I would say your ribs had been repeatedly broken, and never attended to.”
Trapped in a corner, Dudley leans against the table, looking bored. “You’d be correct. My mother was not good to me.”
The doctor is taken aback by his bluntness. “Are you saying that your ribs were indeed broken? To have damage like this it would have been during growth, nearly weekly.”
“I find it hard to believe nobody would notice.”
Dudley’s eyes flash with anger before he subdues them. “With all due respect, I’m good at hiding pain.”
“No child can go to school with broken ribs every day and nobody ever notice.”
“They never had anything to compare it too. I was always in pain, so that’s how they thought I was.”
“Broken ribs are obvious!”
“People believe what they want to believe.” Dudley involuntarily traces his scar on his cheek, remembering how it felt when his cheekbone snapped and the skin split. “If you question my fortitude, you can interrogate my superiors. I believe we’re done here.” He grabs his shirt and pulls it on over his twisted chest, striding from the office.
He devours the ground between the infirmary and his room, closing his door smoothly behind him before launching his fist into the punching bag hanging in the corner, his fingers scraping and weeping crimson tears where they are unshielded by calluses. Anger at his mother and his own weakness sets fire to his limbs and he attacks the bag again, only stopping when his hands are shredded and his fury at the world and himself is reduced to self-absorbed misery.
When he finally manages to calm himself, he wraps his fists with gauze, his hands shaking slightly, and settles down at his computer to practice running danger detection and identification programs, just in case. When he finishes, he flops onto his bed and reads his manuals, forcing himself to concentrate despite his hungriness. He finds himself missing Bella, wondering what she’s doing up in her room, and if she’s talking to Ian.
He likes Ian. He’s a much milder version of Dudley himself, with strong morals and military orientation. His joking and happy-go-lucky nature is everything Dudley wishes he could be, and he makes excellent company. Despite all this, Dudley finds himself crinkling his fists whenever he hears of him talking with Bella. They swear they’re just friends but what if… Dudley bites his lip, pulling his attention back to his manuscripts, his hands protesting against the stretching of their frayed skin. Who she talks to and how they make her feel is none of my business. I am her guard, and when it pleases her, her friend. With a self-defying humph, he continues to drill himself in the art of war, working until dinner at the mess hall.
He shovels the food into his face at the same pace as the rows of other men, feeling satisfyingly included and normal. Surrounded by others with thick limbs, camo pants, green shirts, scars, and buzz cuts, he doesn’t stand apart. He smiles to himself as he clears his plate, pushing to get in line in time to leave with his barrack. I might be impersonalized, and I might be disposable, but here I’m not an outcast. Here I’m one of many.
“I thought summer would never come!” Bella rejoices, taking a deep breath of lazy air as it floats through the dormer window. “I’m so glad your parents said you could come today.” The plan is for Dudley to drive Ian, Piper, and Bella to the beach for the day, and Bella can’t wait.
“Me too! It’s going to be a blast!” Piper replies from the bathroom, where she has about twenty containers of makeup and several brushes and sponges spread out on the counter. Her hair is wrapped in a towel on her head. Bella hears the clicking of tons of tiny lids, then the sound of a sizzling straightener and coughing hairdryer. Finally Piper emerges, her puffy red bathrobe contrasting sharply with her fully made face, with her lips a perfect shade, her cheeks dramatically highlighted and shadowed, and her eyes covered in grays and blacks and glitter to give them a blingy smoky eye look. Her hair hangs in a loose side ponytail, streaked with all the colors of the rainbow so that nearly every strand stands out against the others. Bella can’t help but think back to when Piper had asked Dudley’s favorite color, and he told her that “every color is good for something, so why have a favorite?”
“I like it. It’s you.” Bella comments, and Piper grins.
“Thanks. The hair took forever – I might actually leave it like this for more than a few days.” She laughs and grabs the clothes she has laid out on the bed – a pair of black denim short shorts and a neon orange v-neck made of something drapey. Even in cute black shorts and a fashionable red shirt, Bella feels plain next to Piper, but before she has time to consider changing, there’s a knock on the door. “Come in!” She calls, elated. The door opens, revealing a face she doesn’t recognize.
He must see the disappointment in her expression, because he quickly apologizes for his presence. “Sorry – Dudley couldn’t make it. Something came up.” Piper’s face falls. “I can still take you to the beach, though.” He offers, feeling bad for them.
Bella looks at Piper, who shakes her head, before turning back to the man. “We don’t want to go without him – taking us home will be fine.” She sighs.
The man nods, his adam’s apple bobbing, and grabs their bags with ease, escorting them down to his car. Bella climbs in grumpily - she has been looking forward to this day for weeks, and (though she would never admit it) Piper has clearly gotten dressed up for the occasion. Both of them feel the bite of disappointment, and though Bella is polite, Piper is not so pleasant. She makes her displeasure at the disruption of plans fairly clear, but the guard ignores her. She is not the Lady, so why should he care, anyway? All in all, the ride is rather tense, and Piper is dropped off none too soon.
“Thanks for the ride.” Bella offers, trying to break the silence. She smiles halfheartedly. “Sorry about her – she was looking forward to seeing Dudley….” Suddenly a thought occurs to her. “He is alright, isn’t he?”
“I neither confirm nor deny…” He splutters, and her stomach plummets. But he refuses to say more, forcing her to sit, muscles bunched, in the back seat, fingers drumming the hand rest.
As soon as they are in the garage she leaps from the car, stumbling a bit because it has not completely stopped. She barrels down the hallways, finally finding a guard she recognizes. “Connors! Where’s McGrahm?” She pants, out of shape and out of breath. The soldier fidgets with his club.
Bella’s off again, dashing across the lawn to the on-site hospital, slipping and scraping her knees as she tries to stop in front of the elevator. She hauls herself up and presses the buttons, tapping her foot as the elevator slinks down. Finally she reaches Dudley’s room and bursts in.
The room is stark white and impersonal, and there are four white beds, one empty, two surrounded by colorless curtains, and one containing Dudley. He’s looking rather unhappy, with a large purple bump on his head and broad white straps pinning his arms under the covers. He catches sight of her and smiles. “Sorry I didn’t come pick you up – I had a date with a real heavyweight.”
She laughs, relieved he is alright. “What happened?” She sits down on the bed next to him, her hand finding his through the blanket
“I blacked out during training and hit my head on a barbell.” He glowers. “Don’t even have a concussion and they won’t let me get out of the d*** bed, just because I blacked out.”
She rolls her eyes. She can see it now – Dudley knocking over nurses, insisting he’s fine until they call in some of his guard buddies to help tie him down. But she can’t help but worry a bit. “Why’d you black out?”
He casts his eyes downwards. “There’s something I’ve gotta tell you.” His hand tightens on her wrist and her face pales.
“Yeah, of course.” She says, wanting him to just spit it out already so she can stop feeling like she’s just run a marathon.
“I know you’ve noticed all my scars.” He gazes at her and she looks away awkwardly, not wanting him to know how much they stand out. He forces himself to go on. “I was abused. As a kid. By my mother.” She gasps as her hand squeezes his. “You don’t have to worry – it ended when I was eight. I’m fine now. The only reason I mention it is because my ribs got broken a lot, and now they’re smaller than my lungs need to be in order to get enough oxygen when I’m working really hard. They’re gonna cut me open soon, real old school, and I’ll be dandy.”
Bella winces. “I’m sorry.” It’s all she can think of to say.
“No biggie – I’m just glad they figured it out.” He replies, in a hurry to get off the topic and knowing she’s not the type to push him.
She doesn’t have anything to say to that, so she finds herself doing what she usually does when she feels like she’s being exposed as weak and comfortable – saying goodbye. Soon she’s giving him some reason she has to go and closing the door; a huge relief to him as well. The instant the door swings shut however, the fake smile slides off her face like somebody melted it. His words play back in her mind. “No biggie – I’m just glad they figured it out.” No biggie. How could having your ribs repeatedly broken by your mother be a no biggie? She thinks angrily, horrified that such a thing happened to him. Betrayed he never told her before. Disgusted that she has never faced a hardship when he’s had more of his fair share. And then he goes and says it’s fine, mocking her innocence. Maybe he was just playing tough… She muses, trying to apply logic to it. But deep down she knows he wasn’t. Dudley plays tough about a lot of things, but there was something about this – the quickness to reply, the lack of bitterness, the relaxed posture – that labeled it true. He’s been beaten and he doesn’t think it’s a concern.
Not wanting to think about little – was he ever little? – Dudley getting his ribs shattered, Bella calls Ian to apologize for not picking him up, careful not to sound more upset than she would be if Dudley had just cracked his noggin on a barbell. Ian sounds disappointed-happy when he hears, and say’s he’s praying for Dudley, and is worried. Happily worried, of course. Ian never does anything unhappily. The day he does, the world will have gone mad.
“What did you do to your hands?” Bella exclaims, looking at the bloody scraps of skin hanging from his fingers. It’s the first time she’s seen them out of the blankets, and as he hands in his paperwork at the front desk of the infirmary, the injuries are painfully obvious.
She facepalms. “Why didn’t you wear gloves?”
“Didn’t want to.”
“So you shredded your hands.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
She cuffs him, laughing. “You’re an idiot. Hey, Piper and Ian can hang out today, so I was thinking we could go to ice cream since we missed the beach yesterday. Are you okay with that?”
He nods. “I’m at your service, silly wee piano. I’m happy with whatever.”
She grins. “Awesome – I’ll tell them.”
At the table the discussion quickly turns into an argument over brute strength over cunning, which ends up in the parking lot. Dudley rolls up his short sleeves, looking a bit like a Badlands thug in a tank top, the dark scar on his shoulder easily imagined as a gang tattoo, and Piper cracks her knuckles. The prize – a heavenly sundae with a pyramid of cherries on top – sits tantalizingly on the little blue table. It would blow them a kiss if it could.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” Bella giggles, leaping up and down in her hot pink flip-flops. Piper lunges for Dudley, and the match begins. As soon as the fighters are distracted, Ian and Bella bolt down the ice cream, snickering as they tear into it. When the other two come over, panting, five minutes later, bright red bite marks on Dudley’s arm and Piper’s hair in disarray, they’re greeted with innocent looks and an empty bowl.
“You jerk!” Piper glares at Ian and he laughs as he and Bella find themselves being chased down the street by an angry ginger and a laughing Dudley. Eventually they settle down to a walk, Ian and Bella puffing, Piper and her runner’s legs still fresh, and Dudley’s face trying not to show his pain as he struggles against his pinching ribs. A rush of guilt floods over Bella as Ian goes up to him.
“You okay?” He asks as Bella kicks herself for running. She knows Dudley will do it to himself on his treadmill tonight anyway, but that won’t be her fault.
“I’m fine.” Dudley wheezes.
Piper rolls her eyes. “And I’m a fish.”
Ian shoots her an evil look. “Come on mates – let’s make it a beach walk.” He suggests, sparing Dudley and earning himself one of those ridiculous Dudley grins that you think you’ve imagined as soon as they’re gone.
“Yeah – let’s go.” Bella agrees, and Piper caves, dropping her annoyance.
They walk down the busy streets until they reach Dudley’s car, which they pile into quickly, excited to get their toes into the sand for the first time. It takes about an hour to get to the beach, which is all the way at the southern end of Sector 1, but it’s worth the wait. The waves crash up against worn sand, the dunes towering over them like bodyguards grander than even Dudley could hope to be.
Piper does flips on the sand and Dudley is enlisted to help Ian bury Bella, all desire to keep the sand from her hair forgotten with the smell of the sea poisoning her wisdom. It’s pinned beneath the sand that she watches Piper try to tackle Dudley into the water, flying into the surf herself when he dodges. He jogs away from the beach and tosses a glob of seaweed at her, skillfully eliminating the chance that he’ll get wet. Bella grins as she struggles to pull herself free. With all the weapons and body armor under that goofy brown shirt, she can see why he’s afraid to be splashed.
She finally manages to pull herself free and Ian scoops her up with ease as she squeals and flaps her legs. Dudley watches, laughing as she is rudely dropped into the ocean. She flops like a crazed fish for a moment, spluttering, before she stands up. As one, the three of them converge on Piper, who’s brushing the sand from her shorts. Her scream comes too late and soon she’s in Dudley’s strong arms, pleading with him as he nears the water.
“I hate you all.” Piper sits on a brand new stack of cheap beach towels, her orange and yellow hair hanging in salty strings. The rest of them giggle and Dudley shakes his head.
“I got dunked too!” Bella protests and mischief twinkles in Piper’s eyes.
“Yeah, but you deserved it.”
“DudleyDudleyDudleyDudleyyyyy!!!!!!!” Bella careens down the stairs, leaping two at a time, slamming the door out of her way and flying like a missile to Dudley’s bed, sliding to a panting stop by the side of it. “Mom and Dad said we could go to the beach house this summer! And the best part is they said they’re busy, but we’re old enough, so it would be you and me and Piper and Ian if they can come. I thought about asking Chand but that would be weird since nobody else really knows him. So it would just be us with Randall and Citrus and Sissy!” Sissy’s the cook, and Bella can’t imagine going anywhere without her.
The grin lights up her face and sends Dudley’s heart soaring like no news can. He beams at her. “That sounds amazing!” He exclaims, amused that a little excitement on his part pushes her over the edge. She begins to leap about like she’s insane. “Want to go up and get logistics from Citrus?” He asks, marking his page and closing his book – The Warrior Ethos – knowing she won’t stick around much longer.
“Yeah!” She squeals, jumping up and down a few more times before dashing to the door. He smiles, following her at a calm jog, now fit enough that he doesn’t even pant, giving his ribs no reason to complain. But he’s anxious for the surgery tomorrow; it’s been killing him to only get his workout fix after everyone else has gone to bed, and after surgery even that will be gone. They reach Citrus’s office and Dudley knocks heavily.
Citrus opens the door, brightening when he sees them. “What a pleasant surprise, Lady. McGrahm.” He inclines his head, then opens his wide arms. “Come on in.”
They walk into his office. The cream walls and oak floors are simple, only decorated by the occasional photograph of a younger Citrus with a squadron of mystery men in camo next to a Enforcer transport, and one of his wife holding his daughter when his daughter was three – the year they both were killed in a car crash. A safe stands in the far corner.
“What can I do for you two?”
“I want to invite my friends to the beach house, but I need to have my story straight.” Bella explains and Citrus smiles, the dark skin around his stoic eyes crinkling.
“No problem.” They turn on their communicators to record what he says. “Alright, so it would be the four of you, Randall, Sissy, and I. Bella, your parents are on important business. There’s a product fair of sorts going from next Sunday to the next Friday evening, and Whitticker Innovations has a major presence. The other parents are invited, but it’s sort of a teen thing – they’ll understand. Since Sissy’s a cook, we’ll keep her identity true – she is the chef your family uses, as your mother is often too busy to cook. Randall is your trusted uncle, brother of your father and owner of the beach house. Your father sent me in order to keep everything responsible and controlled – I am his right-hand man and I watch over you often. We’re there because there must be adults, and Sissy is there because neither of us can cook.” He smiles. ”Any questions?”
Bella and Dudley shake their heads. “Nope.” They reply simultaneously.
“Great.” Citrus straightens, smiling. “Feel free to call your friends.” He hands her the paper. She thanks him and bounds from the room, Dudley saluting before trailing after her.
“Piper!” Bella squeals as soon as Piper picks up.
“What-er?” She laughs.
“I’m going to the beach for a week and I can bring friends! Dudley’s coming and if you and Ian can come you’re welcome to!”
“OMG!” Piper jumps up and down so violently her earbud falls out and she has to thud to her knees, scrabbling to pick it off the ground. “And you’re parents are cool with that?” Who am I kidding? This is Bella.
“Duh! And the best part is,” she pauses, holding the suspense
like a charge, “they aren’t coming!!!”
“Yeah! They have some company thing they have to do, so it would be you, Ian, Dudley, and me, with my cook, my uncle, and my sort of babysitter guy.”
“Sort of babysitter guy?”
“Right hand man in the company – he takes care of everything when the ‘rents aren’t around. He’s even my godfather. He’s not strict – no worries.” Because he follows my orders. She adds in her head, liking to think it’s truer in application than it really is.
“That sounds so amazing – I’ll ask my parents and call you back!”
As soon as she hangs up, Piper bounds down the stairs and into the studio , where here parents are sitting across from each other, her dad, Ron Thomas, painting a picture of Elizabeth Thomas, Piper’s mom, painting him. Elizabeth is busy with the reverse. Piper falters, blinking at the paint-ception before snapping a photo. “Mom! Dad! Bella invited me to go spend a week at the beach! Can I go? Please!”
They look at each other, then back at Piper.
“Who would be going?” Elizabeth asked.
“The same people I always hang out with. Bella, her friend-slash-bodyguard Dudley, and our friend Ian. Oh and her cook, her godfather and her uncle, who owns the beach house.”
Ron and Elizabeth look thoughtful. “And the two boys? What are they like?” Her dad asks, following the job description of ‘father of teenaged girl’, despite the ‘of course’ all over his face.
“Dudley’s 17. He works for Bella’s family’s company – Whitticker Innovations –“ their faces are impressed and shocked before their lack of regard for ‘worldly goods’ kicks in again, ”as Bella’s bodyguard. They’re really good friends, and he’s really nice and a gentleman.” She sees their worries lighten. “And Ian’s this great-“ the adjective tastes bitter-“guy about 16 that Bella and I met at a school dance. He’s from 5, his dad’s an Enforcer, and he’s currently going to military school, and will be heading of to Sector 6 for training in the fall.” She holds her breath; apprehensive despite her certainty they will say yes.
“Well that sounds like amazing opportunity – how about you invite them over tonight so we can meet them?” Elizabeth offers, getting an approving look from Ron. Piper is already on her way out the door.
“Great! Thanks so much! I’ll call Bella!”
Within an hour a plan has been made for Piper’s family, Ian’s family, Bella, Dudley, Randall, Citrus, and Sissy to meet at a local upscale restaurant simply called “The Shire”. Bella’s crossing her fingers – if it all goes well, two weeks will see them at the beach.
“Oh just come here.” Bella groans, pausing her eye shadow application to secure the tie around Dudley’s thick neck. He pretends to choke and she loosens it slightly. “I swear, guys can’t tie ties on purpose.” She complains and Dudley shrugs innocently, even though she’s right. He can tie a tie in his sleep but nothing replaces her cool fingers doing it for him.
“I swear,” he replies, “girls learn how on purpose. Besides – don’t think for a minute that we believe you can’t zip your own dresses.”
She laughs – he has her there. “Speak of the devil, will you….” She stands up, her green dress half-zipped. Dudley laughs and steps forward, feeling slightly tempted to pull the zipper down rather than up, but doing as she asks. “Thanks.” She says with a smile. “You’ll behave tonight, right?” She raises her eyebrows as she waits for his response. All summer the girls have been the targets of prank after prank. Just yesterday Bella walked back from the bathroom in the park to find her purse filled with shaving cream. Luckily Dudley had insisted that the contents be placed in little baggies first, but the purse itself took several washes to come clean.
“Of course I will – they’ll think I’m the Representative’s kid instead of you.”
“And you won’t talk about weapons? Or violence? Or working out?”
She sighs but doesn’t push it; afraid that if she insists, he’ll take is as an order. And she hates when he makes himself seem like her toy. “I hope their parents let them come with us.”
“How do you know?” She frets.
“I’m a psychic.” She shoves him and he laughs. “You just need to chill. Even if you are meeting Ian’s parents…”
She blushes. “So!” She protests.
He shakes his head. “So, he’s a guy after all.” He teases.
“Whatever. He’s just my friend, nothing more. But you and Piper...” She counters. He isn’t expecting that, and for a moment he doesn’t know what to say. Piper? That’s news to me.
“You would know.”
He smiles. “We’re gonna be late.”
She looks at her watch and panic crosses her face as she jumps up. “You’re right! Let’s go!” She totters down the hallways in high heels, leaning heavily on his arm. He only pretends to mind, teasing her about it as they walk. The three adults are already in the car, opting for a fancy black suburban rather than the pompous limo. Bella breathes a sigh of relief as she climbs in and Dudley sits himself down next to her.
She spins the tail of her seatbelt in her hands repeatedly, until one of his palms presses hers, stopping their nervous motion. “They’ll love you.” He assures her. He’s rewarded with a thankful smile and the warmth of her relaxing into him. He looks down at her and a tingling feeling he hasn’t felt before starts to creep from the spot on his shoulder where her head rests. The urge to kiss her forces itself upon him, catching him off guard. He suddenly feels panicked, ambushed, and he grapples internally, trying to rid himself of the feeling and – if possible – forget he ever felt it. Luckily, he can distract himself once he sees it. The black smudge above her eye. It’s nothing to him, but if she realizes it’s there and he didn’t tell her, she’ll be upset. “Um, you have mascara on your face. Want me to get it?”
She looks relieved. The amount of gratefulness over a little black smudge makes him bitter. Why does she care so much? She’s beautiful. He takes a wipe to it, wondering how she can preen for the rest of the world and not pay the slightest attention to him. But as he folds his hands back into his lap, the answer screams at him from every scar.
When they arrive at The Shire, Bella jerks from his numbing arm – something he tells himself he’s glad about – and turns to him. “How does my hair look?” She runs nervous fingers through it.
“It looks beautiful. You look beautiful.” He replies, and hates how much he means it. She beams at him, but when he adds a smile for good measure, she really lights up. But just as he starts to feel better, Ian dashes up from behind him and catches Bella in a brotherly bear hug, as if it’s been weeks instead of hours.
Once again, Dudley finds himself wishing Ian were somebody he could hate. Some creep who only wants to get in her pants or a slob or a hippie. But no – he has to be Dudley’s best friend, or as close as anyone can be. Even now, he lets go of Bella to say ‘hi’ to Dudley, tell him about the paintball slingshot he ordered online, and warn him not to sit next to his brother – Robert to most and Bobbert to Ian. Dudley nods and smiles, playing the game he always plays with his feelings, but more on autopilot than anything.
“We’ve heard a lot about you two!” The bright-eyed blonde who can only be Ian’s mother smiles warmly at Bella and Dudley as they walk in, trailed by Citrus, Sissy, and Randall, who introduce themselves as well. “I’m Annie,” She says as a tall figure with a posture like Dudley’s and a flat top shakes their hands.
“And I’m Les.” He says. He grins like Ian, lopsided and humorous. As if life’s a joke and he’s lucky to be in on it. Bella shakes his hand, her face slightly flushed.
“Nice to meet you sir, ma’am.” Bella says.
Les makes a face that reminds Bella of when Dudley dared Ian to bite a lemon. “They call me sir on base – you can call me Mr. Les.”
“And I’m Mrs. Annie.”
“You can call me Liz.” Piper’s mom interjects.
“And me Ron.” Her father adds. Liz has frizzy red curls and Ron’s hair is light brown, though the mutual wildness in their hair and eyes tie the two together. They look like chefs or inventors or artists in addition to their agricultural duties, and the splattering of paint on Liz’s outstretched hand confirms the third. Bella smiles charmingly and Dudley puts on his best behavior face, which, by all accounts, is rather convincing as a ‘having a good time’ face.
He watches Bella get pulled away by Ian as they join Piper at the table, trying to behave in front of their parents, though Dudley knows they want to be at each other’s throats. He’s about to go join him when he feels a touch on his arm. He turns to see Les. “You’re Dudley, right?” The man even talks like his son. “Ian has told me a lot about you.” Dudley wonders if he’s heard how he broke Ian’s nose, but smiles.
“I am.” He says, to confirm that he is, indeed, Dudley. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Bella’s bodyguard.” He doesn’t say it in the ‘oh, so you’re her human shield’ way; it’s more like the respectful and exclusive way of speaking between military men. Dudley grins, glad for the bit of who he is after the strangeness of feeling.
“Yup. Ian says you are in the military as well.”
Les smiles. “Yup. Ian wants to join the Enforcers too, though I’m sure he’s told you. Of course, as his dad, I want him to finish his education first.” Les pauses to chuckle. “What about you? What’s your interest? Your plan?”
The question makes Dudley feel slightly odd. At once it makes him feel self-conscious because here he stands with all his scars and his stains and this fellow still thinks that a higher education is an option and basic schooling existed in its entirety. But at the same time he feels proud because, despite all this, he knows his interests and he does indeed have a plan. “I plan to go back to basic school, then take advanced classes while in the Guard, and maybe make it into the Protectors. I’m decent with strategy.” It’s an understatement, but the whole thing would reveal his true job, and self-flattery isn’t worth that.
Les looks interested. “The Protectors? Pretty high aspirations.” High aspirations for anyone, but especially for dropouts. Dudley shrugs, noticing he’s taller than Les and a good 50 pounds heavier. That awkward moment when… “Who knows.” He replies to Les, not wanting to get any further into the topic, but especially not wanting Les to know he’s skirting the subject. Les gives him the feeling he knows what he’s thinking, same as Ian, and it makes him uncomfortable. Luckily the next words out of Les’s mouth are, “I’m sorry – Ian’s yelling for you.” And he drifts towards the other parents.
The rest of the night is rather odd, in that it seems weighty to each of those attending, but the mood is light and festive. As if each person is trying to get a feel for the others without them knowing it. Other than a couple awkward moments – like Bella saying ‘crappers’ when asking for the crackers or Ian and Piper getting caught kicking each other beneath the table – it goes rather well, and everyone but Dudley leaves feeling lighter. Elated, really; Citrus, Randall, and Sissy managed to quell any doubts the parents have about letting Piper and Ian go.
Dudley, on the other hand, is rather distracted – enough that Ian gives him several long x-ray looks over the course of the dinner. Dudley kicks himself. It’s bad enough he likes her, but horrible for his feelings to distract him. He’s going to get her killed.
When they pull up at the estate, Dudley says goodnight to Bella but instead of going down to his room, he goes for a drive to clear his head. The next thing he knows he’s walking down the streets bordering the Badlands, grubby hobos crumpled on the park benches glaring at him as he walks by, running his hands over his arms. A girl pops gum loudly in his ear as she slinks from her post by a streetlamp. He wonders dryly if that would have been him, had he been a pretty girl rather than a huge guy.
“Hey honey.” She snaps her candy, keeping pace with him. “How would you like the best night of your life?” She talks about making him feel good, and he grinds to a halt, unable to stop thinking about what she might be feeling. He digs in his pockets, flashing the handful of Knicks so only she can see, not for his safety but hers. She lets out a low whistle that reminds him of the keening of a lonely dog. “That’ll buy you two hours.”
“I just want an answer.” Her eyes dart nervously and he feels a stab of pity for her. Even as low as she is, it’s nice to have secrets to call your own. But she must be desperate, because she nods. “Why are you doing this?” He gestures to her mostly naked body. She gulps but the money in his hand pulls her in.
“Because there’s nothing else for me.”
He exhales sadly, pressing the money into her hand. Her face lights up and it makes him want to run far far away to someplace his scars can’t follow. It makes him want to grab cold steel and feel his muscles scream. The lights of an empty diner glow from across the street. “Can I buy you a tea?” He asks and she skitters back slightly, as if the gesture has turned him from a target that she controls to a man that she cannot hope to outmatch. But he walks towards the diner anyway and sometime between when she retreats and when he reaches the door she has decided that if he wanted her dead he could have done it on the streets, and pops up beside him. He asks her how she likes her tea then orders it, handing it to her.
“Don’t you want something?” She asks, suspicious.
“I have a surgery tomorrow.” She glares at him like she doesn’t believe him and he merely shrugs. Eventually though she drinks the tea, just like she crossed the street. “Are you stoned?” She looks offended, like if the tea were a little less cozy and she were a little less thirsty she would storm out.
“No! Just because I need money doesn’t mean I’m trash!” She snaps.
“Just because I’m from the shiny side doesn’t mean I think you’re trash.” He replies evenly and she freezes, her tea halfway to her lips.
“The shiny side.” His eyes hold hers and she gulps, setting the tea down. The shiny side is what the outskirt rats call the parts of sectors that hold the well off. The ones that can afford shiny cars and shiny boots and shiny clean hair. She doesn’t know what to make of it – Shinys aren’t supposed to know that’s what they’re called. It’s against the way it’s supposed to be – it means that somebody has crossed lines, has revealed the culture to somebody Outside. To do so is dangerous for everyone, especially for those who are being looked for, and those who blab usually end up hurt.
“Who told you about that?” She squeaks.
“I picked it up myself.” He looks at her eternally scared hazel eyes – the eyes of the hunted – and remembers when his eyes looked like that. Frightened and haunted, when he was sober, at least. He thinks back to the car ride, wanting to kiss Bella then panicking because of it, and realizes that it isn’t something new.
He first saw her two years back, a delicate little creature that a strong gust could blow away, completely out of her comfort zone, facing her doubts in order to ask giant men about their feelings. About why they were in that transport line. She had struck him then, how she walks as if she owns the world but speaks as if every being is her equal. He fell in love with her the first time he laid eyes on her, he sees that now, but he must have been too afraid of feeling to be able to notice. Just like the girl across the table from him is too afraid to try to pull herself out. Just like he used to be too afraid to turn things around.
He straightens a bit and the girl shrinks from his sudden movement. It was stupid for me to be afraid of my feelings - feelings have never hurt me before, and that doesn’t have to change now. Why be afraid of something I can control? I love her, but she can’t know, so I need to get over it like I’ve gotten over everything else. It’s just another obstacle that I will brush aside. Same as always. He feels like he’s walking out of a fog; in the world of logic he can handle himself, he can find a strategy like he always does. He shakes his head, amused that having tea with a hooker did more to help him remember himself than an entire dinner with friends could manage.
“Um, are you okay?” She’s looking at him in a way that makes him feel like she’s a few moments away from cowering behind the seat and poking him with a stick like he’s a dead animal she’s afraid isn’t quite dead.
“What?” He snaps out of it. “Oh right, yeah. I’m fine.” He beams at her and she tenses. “You know what? I think, if you really try, you can pull yourself out of this. You have to really want it of course – you’ll have to put your heart out there instead of your body, which is much scarier. But you can do it.”
She rolls her eyes, her confusion turning into frustration. “Easy for you to say.” She huffs. “That’s what they all say. After their session, of course. Never before.” She stands to go and he quickly grabs another bit of cash and his card, holding it out with his left hand this time. “I know it seems that way, but I know what you’re going through. And if you try, you can beat it.” She reaches for the cash, intending to ignore his comments, but as she does her eyes settle on his forearm. To an average upstanding citizen it seems to be covered only by the unfortunate scars from a fire. But the girl staring at him isn’t an average upstanding citizen, and she sees something else, faded by years and nearly hidden by his tan pigment and mottled skin, but still there, and in no small number. The telltale pockmarks of Paxine addicts.
Bella is struck by how venerable Dudley looks, out cold in his rumpled blue hospital smock, IVs stuck in his arm and the white sheets pinning him like a straight jacket. But the longer she stares at him, the more his scars stand out in the stark whiteness of it all, and the more he starts to look like Dudley. The soft version of him disappears entirely the instant he opens his eyes, blearily taking in his surroundings.
Bella puts a finger to his lips. “The doctor said not to talk more than you have to. I just didn’t want you to wake up alone.” He smiles at her, and she gives his shoulder a squeeze. “You’ll be on Paxine while you’re in here, and you should be able to leave in three days at the most. Basically, they reformed seven of your ribs, so they don’t curl in. Anyway, I’ve got to go to dinner. Want me to turn on the TV?” He shakes his head and she tousles the scant two inches of hair he has, then hurries from the room.
As soon as she’s gone, Dudley steels himself before pulling the Paxine drip from his arm. He lets it go and it dangles limply, dripping liquid onto the tile floor. Not twenty minutes later, a nurse comes in, her cheery smile fading into a confused frown as she sees the loose IV. She hurries to grab it, shaking her head.
“You’ve lost your IV dear, hold on a moment and I’ll fix it up for you.” She reaches for his arm and he pulls away. Her face clouds. “It won’t hurt a bit. Don’t worry.” He shies from her second attempt.
“No thank you. I pulled it out on purpose.” He thinks fast. “I don’t believe in pain killers.”
The nurse makes a clucking sound. “Don’t be silly – you’ve just had your chest cut open and seven ribs broken. You need your Paxine.”
He smiles dangerously. “I didn’t have it when I broke them the first time, and I don’t need it now.” His eyes dare her to challenge him, and some of his mightiness can be seen even in his disheveled state.
The nurse glowers but, unable to argue, takes down the IV bag. Dudley relaxes as she leaves, glad to be rid of the temptation. After about a half hour, however, his chest begins to throb, and he starts to regret cutting his ties to the painkiller. Within hours, he’s clutching the sheets with desperate hands, his face beaded with sweat and every breath burning. He groans piteously every once in a while, when the pain is too great and he is confident no one will hear.
When Bella walks in, he is crushing the life from a sweat-soaked pillow. She rushes to his side. “Dudley! Are you alright?”
“Dandy.” He grunts.
Her eyes dart, her fingers tightening on his shoulder. “Why don’t we ask them to up your Paxine?”
“I. Don’t. Want. Drugs.” He tries not to snap.
“Why the h*** not?”
“I don’t. Do. Pain killers.” Not anymore. Going on three years.
“Fine.” She caves; she’ll never convince him. “I’ll leave you be then.” She pushes through the stark white door. “Mental.” She mutters to herself, sure he can still hear. He grimaces.
"Can I come in?" Ian calls around the corner. Dudley flips off the virtual reality.
"Sure thing mate." he says with a smile. In the last two days, the splitting pain has dulled to an ignorable throb, and any desire for Paxine is gone. Ian ducks in, head to toe camo, including his face. Dudley grins, laughing too painful. "What the?"
"Shush." he messes around a bit with the projector, then steps away. There are just trees on the screen. "We're going hunting." he gently hands Dudley a foam-arrowed crossbow. “Careful – it’s loaded.” His eyes flash with amusement.
“You’re mad.” He says, but he raises the head of the bed and handles the bow with care anyway. “Guess the secret about my mom is out now, eh?”
Ian takes his time to answer, wanting to get it right. Finally he meets Dudley’s eyes. “Everyone has skeletons in the closet bro. What doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger.”
“Or stranger.” Dudley banters, grateful.
“I kind of assumed you had some sort of a past – you’re the strongest and strangest dude I know.” Dudley rolls his eyes.
“A**hole.” He throws a half-hearted punch at him, and Ian dodges, his eyes laughing.
“I’ll be at the stand at dusk.”
About an hour later, the virtual surroundings start to darken, and just before all vision is lost, it clicks to green night vision. Ian waves at the camera then settles down with his super technical blow dart gun, completely motionless. Dudley scans the area for deer but doesn’t see anything. Finally, as sleep is threatening to pull Dudley away, a whitetail wanders into Ian’s range. Quick as a wink for the fun of it, Dudley whips out the little bow and shoots the at the image, nailing the deer at the same time Ian’s real dart hits it.
It crumples as the self-accelerated needle enters its chest, paralyzing it’s heart, and Dudley hears Ian’s whispered ‘yes!’ as he crawls from the deer-stand to claim his prize. Dudley calls him on the communicator, feeling sad for the deer, but also hungry. “Ebay, it’s Roger – I’m expecting stew. Over.”
“Roger, roger.” Ian laughs back.
“Going to sleep. Over.”
Dudley puts down the communicator and turns off the light, slipping into a fitful sleep.
“I’m sorry! Don’t hit me – I’m sorry!” I cower as she lurches towards me, near-empty bottle in her hand.
“Sorry! You try to run away and you say sorry? Where were you going? Dragging your lazy a** to the fuzz?” My fear causes the cheap frozen chicken nuggets I just ate to rebel in my stomach. “Is that what you were trying to do? Rat me out to the f***** pigs??? YOU DROVE ME TO THIS! IT’S YOUR FAULT!” She shoves me and I slam my head on the creaking staircase, the world spinning. The nuggets come up as the bottle comes down, shattering my cheekbone and covering me with vomit and blood.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’ll never run away again! It’ll never happen again!” I plead, blubbering and trying to shield my face.
“Da** right it won’t happen again! You won’t live for it to happen again!” She grabs the hand-me-down bat I forgot to take upstairs after playing baseball at recess. “F****** useless! Would have been better if you’d never been born!” She brings the bat down on me and I feel my ribs crack, constricting me. I try to scream but can’t make a sound. She brings the bat down again and I roll, causing it to hit my leg. I can’t run, can’t get up. I’m trapped, trapped, trapped. Watching her lift her lighter to her joint then holding it out to her side. Then the fire. The curtains don’t stand a chance, and soon the rest of the ramshackle room catches like dry timber, the crackling and roaring of flame drowning out all but my mother’s deranged cackles and my own screams. The fire licks at me, engulfing my body. Black and red edge at my vision, a small square of light my only hope. I crawl towards it, the smoke emptying what’s left of my dinner. Must. Get. Free.
Dudley jerks awake with a start, and for a moment all he can see is the smoke and the shadow of his childhood’s dump-scrounged furniture. His ribs ache with fresh wounds and nausea incapacitates him, his mouth tasting like cheap chicken nuggets. He leans over the side of the bed and hurls.
Slowly, the room comes into focus as a nurse rushes in, laying a cool cloth on his forehead. “Are you alright dear?” He nods weakly, shaking.
“I’m fine. Bad dream.” But it’s not a dream. It’s real. And no matter how hard he fights, how fast he crawls, he knows he can never get free.
A week later, the four of them are in a limo on the way to the beach. Dudley lies across one seat, ice on his chest, and Piper sits near his head, amusing herself by messing with his hair. Bella and Ian sit on the seat across from the other two, Bella’s head resting on Ian’s shoulder. With Piper in the car, it doesn’t stay silent for long. “Can I dye your hair?” She asks Dudley, hands hovering over it.
He scoffs. “When I’m dead.”
“I don’t want to dye a dead guy’s hair, genius.”
Bella grins. “What color?”
Piper runs her hands through it, how it’s nearly a buzz on the sides and peaks slightly at the top, in gelled disarray. “I’d do the tips of it bleach blonde, and leave the rest of it black.”
There’s a long pause, then Dudley shrugs. “Yeah, okay.”
Piper looks shocked and Ian chokes on his sweet tea. “Really?” Bella asks in disbelief. Dudley shrugs again. “I don’t see why not. Sounds bada** enough, and it will keep her from asking again. But it comes out as soon as we leave the beach.”
“Deal!” Piper eagerly agrees and Dudley closes his eyes, bored of being cooped up. He hears a slight buzz and a few minutes later, an angry Piper shout. He opens his eyes to see Ian laughing and Piper pulling a tiny airplane from her hair. He laughs softly and forces himself up, grabbing Piper’s arms as Ian readies another plane. She screams and kicks at his shins, but he just grins and holds her down as she’s bombarded. But the truth is she doesn’t mind. The warmth of his hands make her wrists burn pleasantly and he smells strong and masculine, natural but not overpowering. She almost likes Ian for starting it. Almost.
But then Dudley lets go and stops leaning over her and she bats off the airplanes with one hand, letting her fingers trail his arm as he shifts away. He doesn’t even notice. Dejection wells inside of her. For the months she’s known him, she’s wanted him. Proud, sure, strong, and a little bit cold, he’s the bad boy she’s drawn to without the consequences of an actual bad boy. Yet even when they danced together, he has never looked at her with more than the detached interest one has for a friend of a friend or a stray cat.
Somehow his emotionless brown eyes dehumanize her more than any crude gestures or tuneless wolf whistle. Because instead of looking at her like a piece of meat, he looks at her like an amusing pet.
“Are you gay?” She blurts, frustrated. His head snaps around, his eyes showing the only emotion she’s ever seen in them – horror.
“What? Who?” Bella’s hands flutter helplessly, like she’s trying to reel Piper’s words back in.
“You, Dudley!” Piper exclaims. She throws her hands in the air. “I’ve been flirting with you for months and it’s like you don’t even notice!” Bella puts her face in her hands and Ian’s clearly trying not to laugh, enjoying watching her fall on her sword. Dudley looks like he’s been shot. “You never even talk about girls! You go shopping with us! You’ve even cooked deserts for the rest of us! You’re so tame!”
“I’m not tame!” He splutters, his face flushed and his eyes wide. Ian can’t help but be amused by him being so unglued.
“I don’t care if you’re gay, but you should just tell us instead of taunting us girls from the closet!”
“What the h***???” He recoils. “I’m not gay! I’m sorry I think with my head not my d***!” Ian laughs, unable to hold it any longer. “I didn’t know being a decent human being offended you!”
It’s Piper’s turn to flush, but being ginger, she turns beet red. “I’m a decent human being! You don’t have to hide everything – if you are it’s fine.” She tries to touch his arm but he scoots away, moving faster than Bella has ever seen somebody with seven broken ribs move.
“I’m not gay! I’m very straight!” He looks to Ian and Bella for help, and Ian wipes away the tears of laughter long enough to nod emphatically.
“You should hear him when ya’ll aren’t around.” He coughs, laughing again. Bella just gasps for air through her giggles. Dudley looks deeply hurt by their amusement, but Piper crosses her arms. Knowing he just isn’t attracted to her is worse than thinking he shoots the other way.
She glowers at him for the rest of the ride, feeling rudely rejected. He avoids her gaze, occasionally flexing his muscles as if to assure himself they’re still impressively manly. When not flexing, he looks out the window with an expression mirroring the face of a cat that has been dropped in a tub.
The limo pulls up at the beach house in time to avoid a second Chaos. Barely. The four of them burst from the car like it’s running short on oxygen, Dudley sulking at the edge of the group. But the view is enough to push their irritation away for a moment. “Dang.” Piper breathes, transfixed by the entire scene. The bright beach house is separated from the bleach-white beaches by only a short wooden boardwalk. Waves lick the sand as the tide come in and palm trees sway in the warm breeze.
Even Dudley takes a moment to stare before he positions himself behind Bella, his feet spread to the width of his shoulders and his arms crossed, looking as manly as he can. He’s frustrated with himself for allowing his feelings to hold so much power, but, though every other shred of his being has been doubted and questioned, he has always thought himself very masculine. To hear that Piper doesn’t was extremely offensive, and he has no problem with letting her know it.
After a few minutes of admiring the water, they grab their stuff and head inside, Dudley carrying his and Bella’s luggage, and Ian and Piper carrying their own. The inside of the house is roomy but homey, with a beachy feel, gleaming wood walls and ceiling, and tile floor. The first story is mostly windows, with a large area to relax and a spacious kitchen that Sissy – who drove up in a different car – is already setting up in. The four friends climb the spiral staircase to the next story, which has fewer windows, and houses three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a large game room. Another spiral staircase leads them to the round two-bedroom top story, which is also filled with windows, and has a home theatre in the center circle.
Each bedroom is shaped like half of a giant donut, but that’s as far as the similarities go. The house was designed to be the location of fun beach parties and large groups, allowing the Representative to follow the trend of entertaining important people and friends alike, so the rooms are bunkroom style, one for girls and one for boys. The girls’ room has a delicate beach theme, with whimsical artwork and chiffon and beautiful shells. The sound of the ocean drifts through the window. The boys’ room is more ocean themed than beach themed, with deep blues and greens, and furniture artfully crafted from driftwood, and cleaner lines than the flowing look of the girls’ room. Each room has two bunk beds, two twin beds on each, and a large entertainment system. It only takes a minute for even Dudley to cheer up a bit.
Bella hurries into the boys’ room, her tee shirt already replaced by a bikini top. Dudley focuses on adjusting his sandal strap. “Piper and I are going down to the beach, if you two want to come.” Dudley straightens with a sigh as she leaves and pulls off his overlarge polo shirt, revealing an arsenal of weapons over an Underarmor shirt. He feels light without his flak jacket – which the doctor deemed too heavy for his recovery period and Citrus deemed too weird on a beach. Ian raises his eyebrows – it’s the first time he’s gotten to see Dudley’s portable armory. Some of the weapons he doesn’t even recognize, but Dudley continues to strip military hardware like nobody’s business. Two small bows, a smoke pod, some sort of blow gun, and an odd lighter-shaped thing Ian doesn’t recognize come off the straps on his chest, soon joined by a club, taser, and set of throwing knives from the belt tucked under his waistband. Finally, he rolls up the cuffs of his pants to reveal bands around his ankles, from which he removes another knife and a pair of metal knuckles.
If Ian was stunned by that display, he is floored by what comes out of Dudley’s backpack. It’s a thin belt equipped with a watertight case containing something Ian can’t see, and a high-tech knife – equipped with a dull-free blade, waterproof communicator, and stunner. Ian’s only read about it, and he’s amazed Dudley has one. Dudley busily packs away his other weapons and grabs his swim trunks, a black “Running is a clear sign of guilt” shirt and the thin belt, then heads off to the bathroom. He comes back looking as normal as he could ever look, joining Ian, who is wearing green swim trunks and a camo shirt and wishing he was packing half Dudley’s heat. The two of them go downstairs to find the girls waiting for them – Bella in a cute lime-green polka-dot bikini and Piper in a blood red one. Dudley gives Piper a wide berth, and stands behind Bella, having difficulty keeping his eyes high. I can’t believe Piper thought I’m gay. He thinks bitterly. But as he fights to keep his eyes off Bella he realizes, with a sinking feeling, it would probably be easier if he were.
“No! No!” Bella squeals as Dudley scoops her up, tossing her into the foaming surf. She screams and goes under, splashing and coughing. He laughs and gives Ian a fistbump, but when Piper offers her fist he recoils like she has the plague. She blows off steam by hitting Ian square in the chest with a glob of seaweed, starting another war. “Don’t hit the guy with stitches!” Bella pipes up, staggering from the water, a large clump of sand in her hair.
Dudley rolls his eyes, not needing her protection but a little glad she said something. He wouldn’t have spoken up, and it probably would have stung something awful. That being said, he sees no reason not to hurl handfuls of seaweed at the others, and soon they’re all running after each other like they’ve just escaped their straightjackets. Dudley’s chest is off limits, but he soon gets bombarded everywhere else, and even gets a load in his mouth while yelling to Ian. He swears good-naturedly and chucks a slimeball Bella’s way in retaliation.
Eventually his breath runs out and he stops, hands on his knees, laughing and spluttering. The others slowly gather, lungs panting and legs aching from sprinting in the sand. Bella giggles, plucking a string of seaweed from Dudley’s hair. “We look like sea demons.”
“I was going to say walking dead.” Ian says in a poor imitation of Bella’s Sector 1 accent as he pretends to stroke a beard he doesn’t have, trying to look like an expert on something, if not the walking dead.
“Mummies.” Piper argues.
“I bet they do this in spas and charge a fortune.” Bella muses, picking at some of the green papery substance on her arm. Dudley and Ian exchange glances and laugh, then wade out to the water. Dudley pulls off his shirt and Bella’s breath catches. The scar from his surgery – illegal to seal seamlessly for fear he’ll attempt to lie if his health ever comes under scrutiny - reaches from his belly button to his collarbone, and his ribcage is completely malformed. Scars cover him, especially on the left side, where a huge burn goes from his shoulder, across his back and, well, down. But despite all of it, he’s not unattractive, and she can’t believe she didn’t notice before. He have gotten fitter since last summer - his skin is still tan but his muscles bulge and ripple as he and Ian use his shirt as a bucket for seaweed.
He and Ian come back with evil grins. “G’Day Mees. Velcome to za beest sva. Vere ve give seaveed wroops and buried avive treetmeents.” Ian says in a horrible fake accent from a place of his own creation. Bella giggles and holds her arms out like wings, allowing the other three to wrap her in seaweed. Her arms tingle as Ian’s fingers smooth the cold seaweed over them, her heart pounding under the plaster Piper is smearing onto her chest as the saltwater trickles down her awkwardly. Dudley starts on her feet and works his way up, but stops halfway between her knee and hip. She’s thankful for his tact.
A half hour later, Ian and Piper step away and Dudley makes her close her eyes, his rough thumb gently smoothing the last thin sheet over her face. Next thing she feels is his strong arms grabbing her, careful not to bend her coated joints, and laying her stick-straight into a shallow pit Ian has been digging. She giggles as they heap sand onto her, packing it tightly around her body and making it heavy to breathe.
“Now ze zeavater treemeent.” Ian says, and she barely has time to protest before the cascade of water dumped onto her head forces her to hold her breath. She splutters and Ian and Dudley cackle, dancing horribly in celebration of their successful prank.
“Alright boys,” Bella coughs. “This is war.”
They stay out on the beach until they’re called in for dinner, bolt it down, and go back to the water. When they’re finally drug in for the night, Dudley looks at his watch. “It’s only midnight. Who’s down for Chaos Firefight?” There’s a chorus of cheers and they file to the boy’s room, clearing the floor of beanbag chairs. They grab the imitation 21st-century weapons and set the simulation to multiplayer, Piper and Bella on a team against Dudley and Ian. They stand tensely in the middle of the room, scanning for any sign of movement. Piper and Bella make their doppelgangers walk next to each other, creeping along the alleyways of Brazil. Suddenly Dudley’s bandana and Hawaiian print clad avatar dashes across the screen, accompanied by Dudley’s very real maniacal laughter and shouts of “DIE!!!” as he kills the two girls, who exclaim loudly and curse at their controllers. This happens twice more before Piper catches Dudley’s avatar out of ammo while Dudley himself is celebrating his kill streak. Then Piper’s fellow is shot from the back and Bella recoils as blood splatters from the avatar.
“Not cool!” She shouts, turning her camera around to take Ian out with a grenade.
“No!!!!!!! You killed me!” He laments and she cackles.
“You deserved it!”
“What did I ever do to you?”
“You killed Piper!”
“Oh right. Sorry.”
“You should be.” She giggles. They play for about an hour before Piper finally gets bored. “I’m going to bed.”
Bella stands up, yawning. “Me too. Night guys.” They turn off their motion detectors and close the door behind them.
Dudley stretches with a painful yawn, then he and Ian play a couple more rounds against each other, the insults more vulgar and the laughter less sane than when around the girls. In each others’ presence alone they aren’t concerned with showing how much they actually enjoy it. They lean forward in the beanbags, knuckles white from their grip on the flimsy plastic weapons. Each virtual kill is outnumbered by real-life taunts and shoves as the boys grapple for wins, all gloves off.
“You better watch out mate.” Dudley growls, eyes locked on the simulation. “You’re about to die.”
In the girls’ room, the car ride is the hot topic. “What on earth possessed you to ask if he was gay?” Bella asks, still aghast.
Piper screws up her face, glaring at the bottom of Bella’s bed. “I’ve always thought he’s hot and I thought I made it pretty obvious, but he didn’t seem to care. Plus, have you ever heard him say anything about girls?”
Bella’s quiet for a minute, embarrassed. “Well maybe…. actually yes. He likes tough girls who are totally fit and pretty muscular, with wide cheekbones and big…. eyes. And stuff.” She finishes lamely.
Piper humphs. “You could have told me that before he made me some sort of blood enemy.”
Bella snorts. “Don’t worry about it – he’ll be over it in a day or two, tops.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“I am. The only time he’s ever been mad at me is when I told his superior he’d been working out about two hours a day outside of training, and he was forced to cut it to an hour. He refused to speak to me, but it only lasted a day and a half.” Bella says, trying to cheer her up.
“Besides, I think it’s more a matter of wounded pride.” They giggle, remembering how he’d evaluated his muscles for the rest of the drive.
“It’s kind of funny, actually.” Piper concedes.
“Kind of?” They chuckle. “It’s hysterical.”
“Alright. It is. I’m going to sleep – night.”
“Night.” Bella giggles, still grinning as she says her prayers.
Summer does crazy things to teenagers, no matter who they are. Over the course of the next three weeks, Piper, Ian, Dudley, and Bella get to see each other in a completely different world. A world where Ian actually lives through a day without wearing camo, Piper lets her eyes go bare and her hair go ginger, Bella dares to break the rules and Dudley – after a day of sulking – allows his hair to be dyed and reveals himself as a prankster to rival even Ian.
What started as friendly teasing morphs into a full on prank war. “We’ll launch a multi-fronted attack.” Dudley tells Ian one night. “Straight-forward bombardment such as rigging doors with water buckets and plastic wrapping walkways. Then we’ll add some chemical components – like putting dye in their shampoo.”
“And wrap it up with these.” Ian drops a bag of realistic worms made of putty-colored gummy candy, which result in a fair amount of screams the next morning.
The boys don’t have long to celebrate their victory though – after their showers the next morning Ian has pink hair and Dudley has to use a sandy towel, and a few days later they have to chase the seagulls away from their clothes after the girls raid their closet and stuff every pocket with bait fish.
Besides pranks, whole days are spent swimming and surfing until they get so shriveled and full of salt that they have to drink tons of water and devour chocolate ice cream to feel well again. Dudley’s ribs heal and he proves himself excellent at beach volleyball, though Piper keeps the title of “Epic Beast Who Crushes Everyone”.
Needless to say, when Bella wakes up and realizes that, in exactly one week, they will be going home, she’s sad to know it’s almost over, and the others feel the same way.
“I can’t believe we’re going home next week.” Bella says, picking up her fried egg and checking it over for suspicious material. She sighs and pulls a fake spider from the bottom of it, tossing it’s squirming body across the table into Dudley’s orange juice. “I wish summer could last forever.”
“You and me both, sister.” Piper goes to take a drink but goes running and spits it out when she sees the spider. “DUDLEY! I don’t want to drink Bella’s egg spider out of your dirty glass!”
Dudley snickers. “At least you two will stop having your butts kicked….” Ian laughs and Bella sticks her tongue out at them.
“We’re beating ya’ll, thank you very much.”
“Not a chance, mates.” Ian sneers.
“Says the guy whose hair is still tinged pink.” Piper retorts, and Ian stands up, clearing his plate.
“Whatever. I’m going on a beach walk, who wants to come?”
“I’m down for a walk.” Piper says.
Dudley looks regretful. “My CO will kill me if I don’t do some training today, but I’ll run to catch up with you as soon as I’m done.” He’s surprised by the genuine disappointment he feels. Since they’ve been at the beach, he hasn’t needed to work out to feel good enough. For once the ghosts have been ignorable. He knows that once he has responsibilities again the feeling will go away, but he clings to the freedom while he can.
“I’ll stay here until you’re done.” Bella says, surprising him.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to – besides, it won’t kill me to get a little exercise.” He smiles.
“Alright. I guess we’ll catch up to you two.”
“Yeah, okay.” Piper says. It isn’t until she’s heading down the stairs with Ian at her side she realizes that she’s stuck with just him. But he doesn’t harass her, so she doesn’t complain. They walk for a while, side by side, waves lapping at their toes. “What’s it like in Sector 5?” Piper asks, tired of the silence.
Ian’s face lights up. “I love it there. Best Sector in the world, in my opinion. No offense.” She laughs. “It’s so much colder than here. And it smells different. And people don’t fry everything. It’s not nearly as organized or private either – people just get up and go when they want and make themselves at home in strangers’ empty houses, and if the strangers come home, the new people are treated like honored guests until they decide to leave. But the best part is, everyone’s so chill but unpredictable. The only thing that doesn’t change is the go-with-the-flow attitude, and moving around so much, I’ve seen all sorts of things. And the Pilgrimage! It’s our Rytual, and we go Hopping all alone for the first time, crisscrossing across the Sector on our own whims. There’s nothing like 5… Sure, we have our problems, but we’re so free and there’s nothing you can’t do, nothing you can’t be.” He looks down, realizing how silly he must look to her. He clears his throat. “It’s pretty swell.” He concludes, bracing himself as he turns to Piper.
To his surprise she isn’t laughing. She’s looking at him like she’s never seen him before. But she remembers herself and looks out to the ocean. “Sounds swell.” His hand bumps hers as they walk and they step away from each other, looking opposite directions.
“Dudley and Bella should be here soon.”
“Yeah. He hasn’t been working out much, have you noticed?” Piper says.
“I did notice. Odd, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know… maybe it’s a good thing. He was always sore.”
Ian snickers and Piper rolls her eyes, smacking him. “You creep.”
“Who’s a creep?” Dudley pops up beside Ian, slowing from his jog, barely out of breath. Bella pants beside him.
“You are, Dudley.” Piper teases.
Tears spring to Dudley’s eyes. “You think I’m a creep? I didn’t know….” He chokes through sobs, and Piper’s face contorts with shock and guilt as she splutters. Then Dudley’s face breaks into a goofy grin. “You’re so gullible.” He teases, receiving a handful of wet sand in the face for his efforts.
Bella rolls her eyes and sidles up to Ian, messing up his hair. “Piper’s right – it is still pink.” She laughs and he sticks his tongue out.
“Real men wear pink.”
Piper looks unimpressed. “Yeah, so why are you wearing it?”
“BURN!!!!” Bella laughs, rubbing it in. They continue to walk along the waterside for about a half hour before finally turning back, starting to get hungry. Once they get near the house, Bella gets up the guts to grab Ian’s hand and pull him towards the kitchen, Piper jogging along with them. Dudley trails behind a bit, letting the cool sea breeze quench the heat in his lungs for a moment before following them inside.
“You love her, don’t you?” Ian asks without looking away from the simulation, his avatar taking cover behind a parked tank. Dudley’s heart hammers, but he doesn’t take his eyes from the game either as he finds Ian’s character in his sights. He tosses a grenade.
“Who?” The grenade kills Ian’s avatar, but then the tank explodes and Dudley’s guy is killed too.
“Bella. I see your face when she messes with me, and I see your eyes when she’s near you.” Ian’s soldier stalks Dudley’s, pinning him in a corner. “I’m not blind.”
Dudley gulps, looking for a defense and fiddling with his weapon. Out of ammo. “Okay. So maybe I do.”
“You could have just told me, dude.” Ian’s avatar jumps out from behind a wall and kills Dudley’s.
“It’s not something I want to admit.” He growls.
“Come on dude – it’s not that bad.”
“I’m her bodyguard. It would be completely frowned upon.” Ian’s avatar falls from Dudley’s sniper attack.
“Yeah.” Dudley urges his character forward a little too angrily and hurts himself by falling off a set of stairs. He curses. “What did they used to make body armor out of?”
“Well, I can’t convince you it’d be worth it, but I wish you the best.”
“You do? I thought you two-“ Ian laughs.
“No way bro. Just friends.” Dudley’s avatar steps onto a grenade he should have seen and he curses under his breathe, more because of real life than the game. You let your emotions cloud your judgment. Idiot! What if Ian were an actual enemy?
Dudley turns off the simulation, tired of playing. “Thanks mate. I’m going to work a bit – Night.”
“Night, bro.” Ian says, powering down the projector.
Dudley creeps downstairs to the exercise equipment, pitting himself against it. You’re a fool, Dudley. You’ve gotten too soft.
“I think I’m going to ask Chand to the start of term dance.” Bella blurts from her perch on her bunk bed.
Piper raises her eyebrows. “Chand?”
“That guy I’ve told you about, the family friend.”
“I’m still confused.”
“Oh! Prestigious. Why?”
“Because I like him.” Bella laughs. “Why else?”
“But why do you like him? You don’t seem to talk about him much. Why him and not, like, the hot ice cream parlor guy with a Sector 1 farmer’s tan? Or Dudley.”
Bella looks horrified. “DUDLEY????” She repeats.
Piper shrugs. “Well what do you like about Chand?”
“He’s sweet, funny, caring, a gentleman…”
“Dudley’s all those things. What’s wrong with him?”
“Everything’s wrong with him!” She says, shocked that Piper can’t see it. “He’s two years older than me and acts ten years older, he never shows any emotion….”
Piper rolls her eyes. “I know the kind of guy you drool over. His personality fits perfectly.”
“Fine. So he’s hot and my type. But it’d be so wrong. He’s like my big brother, and he’s my bodyguard. He’s my employee and my pincoushin – it would never work, even if I was interested. Plus, Dudley’s a great guy and all but Chand is…. I don’t know, he’s special.”
“Wuv, twu wuv….” Piper teases.
“Oh shush.” Bella giggles, hurling a pillow down into Piper’s bunk.
“Hey! When are you going to ask him?”
“Tomorrow. I’m going to call him.”
“Good luck.” She says, sleepiness washing over her. “Imma sleep – night girl.”
“Night.” Bella says, closing her eyes.
“May I have this dance?” Chand asks. I smile at him, my heart fluttering.
“Of course you can.” We spin out onto the floor and I press my head to his chest, my own heart hammering. We become the only ones in the world, blissful for a moment.
Then I see him. Dudley, standing by the punch table. He’s in a black t-shirt and camo cargo pants, wearing his body armor and weapons. His scars and burns stand out like they’re fresh, and his ribcage is grossly twisted, the mangled body of the dragon the knight didn’t hesitate to brutalize. He’s watching us, his dark eyes setting me on edge. I turn my back to him, slightly horrified, and hold Chand close.
Suddenly somebody shouts and I turn to see a masked man holding the real version of the guns in the game, pointed straight at me. Chand is suddenly far away and I’m screaming. There’s a gunshot and Dudley leaps forward, saving my life. The man disappears and the room twists to nothing and it is just me and Dudley, who is bleeding but I don’t know where from. He stands up, looking inhuman, then he too fades away, and I am alone.
Bella is so nervous in the morning that every bite of her pancakes goes down like cement. She wouldn’t be eating at all if not for her fear of being asked about it. But she can’t stop thinking about asking him, what he might say, what she might do. She barely talks and focuses on eating just one more bite at a time.
When she looks up, Dudley’s eyes are drilling into her, not threateningly, but not randomly either. She gulps, and she knows he knows exactly what she’s planning to do. And the hair on the back of her neck stands up for some reason she can’t explain. Before her alert can be raised above a slight itching, however, he puts some easiness in his eyes and gives her a goofy smile. “What are you looking at?” he teases and she grins, sure she imagined the moment of tenseness.
“The wall above your head, of course.”
He nods like he would look at it too, if he were her. “It’s a sexy wall.” He looks at it and wiggles his eyebrows and she giggles. She loves how can always make her laugh, no matter what.
“Very built.” She winks at it and they all chuckle. Their smiles give her a surge of courage and she gulps. “But he can’t dance. So I’ll be right back.” She pushes away from the table and hurries to the other room, calling him before she loses her bravery.
“Hey Chand – it’s Bella. Listen, there’s a dance at my school in a few weeks – September fifteenth - and I was wondering if you wanted to come with me. I understand if you don’t it’s just I really would love to have you come….” She holds her breath, her whole being teetered on a moment. There is a hopeful pause before it all goes downhill.
“I’m really sorry Bella – this is Chand’s father. Chand’s not here right now, but he has a concert that night.”
Her cheeks are on fire, her heart hammering. “Okay.” She squeaks. “That’s fine. Tell him good luck.” She hangs up, tears springing to her eyes. She can’t breathe, can’t think, can’t speak. After an instant of blind thoughtless panic she licks her ruby-red lips and walks like a zombie back to the table. She feels like her heart is falling, and right before it hits the ground and shatters completely, she reaches the point where she feels completely empty and lost. All she can think is that everything is falling apart, and the only straw she has to cling to is the idea that she can act like it’s not killing her. She fakes a slight smile. “Well that was interesting.” She forces herself to finish her breakfast, then clears her plate and slinks upstairs without a word. Dudley stuffs his last tomato into his mouth and follows her, leaving Piper and Ian alone at the table. Ian looks at the staircase, confused.
Piper sighs. “She asked a guy to the dance. Guess it didn’t go well.”
He winces. “Ouch. Poor thing.”
Dudley gently pushes open the door to the girls’ room, instantly taking in the situation. Six darts jostle for the bulls-eye of the dartboard above the desk, and a small mass in the bed is Bella. She’s facedown in her pillow, her body shaking with sobs, headphones in her ears, and she’s surrounded by a tissue graveyard. He sits on the bed next to her and she starts.
His fingers tangle in her hair and she pulls herself up, wrapping her arms around him and pressing her face into his chest. “Hey, shh, shh…” He coos as her tears soak through his shirt and warm his skin.
“That was so embarrassing!” She whimpers, her shoulders shaking. “He can’t come, and I accidentally said everything to his dad and he’s going to laugh at me and I bet he wouldn’t want to go even if he could. Everything’s ruined.” He holds her tight, wishing he could take her pain for her, soak it up like her tears. But all he can do is wrap his fingers around her hair and his arms around her body.
“Nothing’s ruined. He knew you liked him before you told him.” Dudley reassures her, remembering the few times he’s met Chand. How cold Chand is towards him, how he stares at Bella when she looks away. She sniffs and looks up at him, her eyes already red-rimmed. “He did?”
“Yeah.” He says. Either he knew or he wished.
“Then it won’t be awkward.” She bursts into tears, “he just doesn’t like me.” She smothers herself in his chest again. “Nobody ever does! Why the h*** is that? I’m not ugly! I’m not mean! I’m not even girly! Is it because I’m not girly? I’ll never get a boyfriend!” She laments, her shamed heart overpowering her logic.
He bites his lip. If this were a fairytale, he’d be the prince and he’d tip her head up and tell her he’s there for her and loves her, and then they’d kiss and live happily ever after. But this isn’t a fairytale. She might be the closest thing to a princess but he’s no prince, and the trackmarks on his arm and bars on his heart remind him every day. If she knew half of his secrets she would not speak to him, let alone lie pressed to him.
“You’re lovely Bella. Trust me. I’m sure he thinks so too – maybe he’s just been to shy to say so. He looks at you like you hung the moon.” He says levelly. “Don’t worry.”
She doesn’t reply, and after a few minutes he realizes that she has reached that point girls get to where they cannot stop sobbing, even if they want to. His leg starts to get numb where her elbow prods it, and his shirt becomes thoroughly soaked. As much as it hurts him that she and Chand will probably end up together in the end, it hurts him more that she’s crying because she doesn’t believe when he tells her.
Downstairs Ian and Piper stare at each other awkwardly over the table, the leftover food long turned cold.
“They’ve been up there a while.” Piper notes.
Ian looks dejected. “Poor thing.”
“It happens, unfortunately.”
“Yeah, but I hate to see her upset.”
“I know. Me too.” They fall back into silence, and Ian licks his lips.
“You know, Piper, I don’t really hate you all that much.”
She smiles, warmed by his statement. “Thanks, I suppose. I don’t hate you most days.”
“I don’t think I ever have.” He confesses and she gives him a small smile.
“That makes one of us.” She says with a wink, and he laughs.
Bella finally pulls away from Dudley’s chest, leaving him feeling a bit cold. He attributes it to the dampness and absence of her warmth. “You okay?” He asks, genuine concern in his eyes.
She gives him a watery smile. “Yeah, I’m okay. It was silly to be so upset – these things happen. It was just embarrassing.” She juts out her chin and gets up, her hips swinging confidently as she walks to the bathroom, covering up her red-rimmed eyes with a deftness that concerns him. When she turns back only the veins in her eyes alert him to her sobbing less than an hour before. It amazes him how she can get a mood out of her system and snap back so quickly. He knows she isn’t as happy as she would have been had the morning gone differently, but it’s a huge improvement over sobbing, so he’s not complaining.
They stop by the boys’ room so he can change to a fresh tee shirt and head downstairs. Piper and Ian perk up when they arrive. Piper gets up and gives her a hug.
“You okay, girly?”
Bella gives a wide smile. “Just dandy.” She forces cheer. Behind her Dudley shrugs, but she doesn’t notice. “Three more days guys. Let’s get onto the beach.” She strides towards the door purposefully, leaving the others no choice but to follow her.
“Can we have a party?” Citrus lowers his paper to see Bella’s expectant face peering at him. Piper and Ian are next to her, and Dudley stands behind them with a ‘life is rather short you know’ look on his face.
“Ask your father.” He replies and pulls the paper back up.
Bella calls Goffert’s cell phone. “Hi Dad.” The others watch as she drums her fingers on her hip, listening. “Yeah it’s been great. I was just wondering if we could have a party, you know, last day… Yeah of course we’ll keep it small… Dad when have I ever been irresponsible?... Yeah.” She holds out the phone to Dudley. “He wants to talk to you.
“McGrahm.” He straightens a bit, as if it’s a hologram instead of a call. “Sir yes sir… Of course sir… Yes sir… Thank you sir…” he hangs up.
“He says a party is fine as long as you guys listen to my good judgment, and that I can even be off duty.” He summarizes, and holds out his fists for simultaneous fist bumps.
“Partay! Partay! Partay!” Piper chants, sharing a look with Bella. Dudley grins as they jog back upstairs.
“Who are we inviting?” Ian asks.
“It’s pretty short notice, so probably just anybody who seems interesting and has nothing to do tonight.” Bella replies and Piper shrugs.
“As long as there’s guys I’m down with it.”
Dudley raises his eyebrows. “Hey now. It’s my farm in the fire if this gets out of hand, so they’d better get my approval.”
Piper glowers but Bella just rolls her eyes. “Just don’t scare them away like you did Anthony.”
“Hey! He was shifty!
“He was from church.”
“Yeah well so was I, and I was packing more heat than a jalapeño.”
“Anthony?” Piper asks, her eyes dancing.
“He was this guy I had a thing for last year. Dudley felt possessed to take him aside and suggest he guess where the thirteen weapons-“
“Thirteen because that was back in the days when I carried poisoned toothpicks. More trouble than they’re worth.”
“-were hidden on his person. Yeah, the guy never talked to me again.”
“I think he moved.”
Piper bursts into cackling laughter and Ian shakes his head, chuckling. “Hats off to you man.”
Dudley shrugs. “Some people don’t understand my genius.” He sticks his tongue out at Bella and she laughs.
“Now you mates know the story-“ She doesn’t get a chance to finish before Ian leaps up, pointing at her.
“YOU SAID MATES INSTEAD OF YA’LL!!!!!” He hoots. “I’ve invaded your mind!!!” Bella shoves him, but can’t help grinning.
“Shuddup. As I was saying, let’s try to gather some guests, shall we?”
“Agreed. It isn’t a party if nobody comes.” Piper says.
“Thank you Captain Obvious…” Ian sneers.
“My pleasure Lieutenant Sarcasm.”
“Congratulations – you’re both leaders of last century.” Bella interrupts. “I’ll call Alyssa, Jane, and Gabriella and some of the other girls from school.” She offers, feeling too awkward to call Chand.
“Things would get too rowdy with the Boys,” Dudley says, “But I’ll make sure we have enough to eat and drink. And a DJ of course.”
“I have a couple guys I can call.” Ian offers, earning winks from the girls.
“What about Chand?” Piper asks. Bella’s heart sinks.
“I’m too embarrassed.”
Piper rolls her eyes. “What’s his tag?”
“CA4725.” Bella sighs and Piper calls it.
“Is this Chand?”
“This is Piper. I’m a friend of Bella’s. We’re having a party at her beach place. Starts at six – hope you show.” She hangs up. “Easy as pie.”
Bella huffs and starts going through her list as the others do the same. It’s a small party to say the least – with only fifteen people invited, but they expect it to be fun nonetheless.
And fun it is. Even Chand shows up, and it’s not long before there’s a ring of people around Dudley on the beach, chanting as he attempts to avoid dancing in the sand.
“Come on Dudley!” Piper yells. “You can’t be that bad!” He shakes his head and starts to leave the center but Bella stops him.
“Please?” He sighs and backs up. The group cheers and the DJ stops the music, awaiting a request.
“Kung Fu Fighting.” Dudley calls out half-heartedly. There’s no way he can dance. So he wiggles his eyebrows, scuffs his toe a bit in the sand, and attempts to swing his extremely tight hips as the music starts. But as soon as the singing begins, he acts out surprise at the fighting lyrics and starts goofily ‘trying out’ the moves. By the middle of the song he’s using his real skills, the fight moves spinning so fast and fluently they’re almost a dance themselves.
The song ends and the shocked crowd hoots and hollers. Dudley grins, barely winded, then gives a stiff bow before ducking out of the circle. Ian, Piper, and Bella shoot him knowing grins before Chand is urged on. He steps into the circle and requests a slow song, then asks Bella to dance with him. She smiles and steps into the center, her bare feet gliding across the sand.
She leans against Chand and they dance like they are one, twirling weightlessly, lost in their own world. They sway for a few moments after the beach falls silent, so filled with the moment that they don’t notice the music’s end. Finally they part with starstruck smiles, drifting back into the group.
Ian looks at Piper. “That was a good idea.” He suggests.
“I can’t dance.” She replies, goose bumps rising on her arms.
“Neither can I.” He says with a smile as he takes her hand, twirling her out into the circle. The DJ puts on another slow song and she rests her cheek on his chest. He lets his head sink to her level, her hair sweet smelling and softly brushing his face as he whispers to her. “We can learn together.”
“Ian?” She breathes.
“If you’re that sappy again I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“We’d better get home.” Dudley says, gently sliding his arm out from behind Bella’s back. The uncovered bar of park bench is warm on her neck and she sighs, slowly opening her eyes.
“Aren’t you the life of the party.” Piper teases as she slides her feet off Bella’s knees, recovering from how she’s been laying with her shoulders on the ground and her legs in the air. Ian abandons his attempt to catch a nearby cricket, which he’d planned to drop on Piper, just to freak her out.
“Why don’t you come to my place for dinner?” He offers. Bella looks at Dudley, silently pleading, knowing that he wants to hit the gym. A look passes between him and Ian, then he shrugs.
“I’ll call your parents.” He sighs. Bella grins and pulls herself off the bench while he gets on his communicator. Piper holds out a freckled hand and Ian pulls her up. Bella can’t help but smile. Ever since they stopped hating each other, they’ve looked so in love. Ian bends down towards Piper, wrapping his arms around her waist. Bella groans, causing them to stop and laugh.
“Get a room!” She complains, but they just roll their eyes and carry on. Dudley walks back into view.
“Oi! Lovebirds! Everything’s cleared with the Man, and I’m starving. It’s our last night before you lovely ladies go back to the wasteland.” He wiggles his eyebrows and Bella smacks him, “So let’s have fun.”
“Sir yes sir.” Bella mocks his tone. Give the guy a badge and he acts like the weight of the world’s on his shoulders. But she decides not to tease him for it – since he turned eighteen yesterday, it’s his first day on duty without Randall, and she knows how much it means to him. So she just gives him a friendly shove as the four start the long walk to the bus station.
“You need a boyfriend.” Piper says out of the blue, and Bella facepalms.
“What happened to ‘boyfriends are overrated and only worth it for the benefits?’” Ian fakes shocked offense but can’t hold in his laughter.
“What happened to prince charming?” Piper has her there.
Bella narrows her eyes. “Touché.”
Piper smiles smugly, swinging Ian’s hand. Bella notices Dudley isn’t next to her, and turns around to see him standing stock still, tensed ever so slightly. “Dude, you coming?”
His thoughtful look melts into an uneasy smile and he jogs to catch up. Ian shrugs. “Us boyfriends are pretty awesome you know…”
Bella throws a punch at him and he dodges it with an easy laugh.
“Aw you two need to shu-“ Bella’s words are cut off by an odd pop, like somebody sitting on a balloon. Before he can even reach his belt, Dudley staggers, a red dart sticking out of his neck. A scream rises in Bella’s throat as she tries to turn and run, but gloved hands stifle her. Blood roars in her ears and she writhes and flails, fighting with strength she didn’t know she possessed as panic rises inside her. The hands grasp her tighter, pulling her against the body of her attacker, and a few times she feels her flailing limbs come into contact with soft areas, rewarded by grunts of pain. But then something is shoved under her nose and her senses dim. Her movements begin to slow, she’s fighting through Jell-O, her mind leaving her body. She watches Piper and Ian go down the same way through watery eyes, darkness edging in on her as Dudley fights the faceless ones like a crazed animal, becoming more lumbering as he loses the battle against the tranquilizer. Then everything is black and cold.
Slowly Bella’s senses start to return. As soon as she’s conscious, fear yanks her from the arms of sweet nothingness, as she quickly becomes aware a foul stench. Next she can taste a bitter rag, and realizes she is sitting in a chair. With a jolt she understands she must be tied to it. The silence rings in her ears as she fully awakens, and her eyes shoot open.
Blinded on so many levels, she doesn’t know what to do but squeeze them shut as quickly as she opened them. A bright light is shining in her face, Dudley and Ian are strapped next to her with Piper on her other side, the four wearing nothing but their underwear, and a grotesque man is watching them wake. But soon the suspense and fear is too much to bear, and she cracks her lids again, bracing herself and taking in the situation.
The four friends are indeed tied to chairs screwed into the stained cement floor, gagged by dirty rags. Bella gulps and the bitter taste fills her mouth as she fights the tears in her eyes, but she forces herself to keep looking, skin crawling. The room’s cinder block walls are stark white but smell of decay, as if something was covered up in preparation for their arrival. A single fluorescent light straight out of a history book hangs in a metal disk above them, dimly lighting the small room and letting out a low buzzing sound. There a long metal table in the center of the room, a few feet from Bella’s knees, and the man stands behind it, arms crossed. He is tall but bony, scarred as badly as Dudley or worse, with stark white skin and unnaturally pale hair. His blue eyes stare at his quarry hungrily, but instead of feeling like she’s being undressed by his eyes, Bella’s skin crawls with the sensation that if this man had a chance, he would take great pleasure in reducing her to a pile of shredded flesh.
Bella jerks her eyes from his sunken face and looks to the side, at her three best friends in the world, her heart going out to them. A trickle of blood drips from Piper’s lips, and small beads of it cling to her wrists. The rubies of life grow bigger as she continues to struggle against her bonds, choked shrieks gurgling in her throat. The need to fight bubbles inside Bella, but it’s crushed by the need to check on the others. She slides her eyes to the other side of her chair, feeling nauseous.
She finds Ian’s lanky form. His tan muscles are tight with tension, every fiber of his being silently straining. Each steady pulse of energy makes her want to scream in anger and agony, but the true knife of pain strikes through her heart when she sees Dudley, his hulking figure slouched in the chair next to Ian. Savage tears mar his flesh and the tiny red signatures of three darts stand boldly on his neck, sure signs of his initial resistance. But now he is still, slumped in his seat as if life itself is beating him to his knees. His lips are moving silently on either side of his rag, but she knows him well enough to know what he is saying, and it makes the bile rise in her throat.
“It was my own f**king fault. My own f**king fault. My own…” He repeats it to himself, determined to brand himself with his shame. All she wants to do is touch him, help him somehow, and she tugs against her bondage, straining and thrashing, but the cables are too strong, and the only thing that gives is the flesh of her wrists and ankles. Suddenly the ghostly man speaks, and her heart and movement stop, a shudder going through her body instead. She jumps a bit when she sees he has slunk to the near side of the metal table and is peering at Piper, his foul being within inches of her face.
“Piper Thomas.” His voice is hard and cold, like frozen steel. Ian has the odd thought that he must practice in front of the mirror, but Piper’s green eyes bulge when he calls her by name. “You have put your faith in the wrong people.” Bella’s own heart starts to hammer and Piper’s face twists in terror and fury. The man doesn’t seem to notice. Or care. “Your best friends have let you trust them, knowing that, if their precious government were to be seen as it really is, they would be the first targeted.” Piper’s confused expression cuts Bella like a knife. “After all,” he grates, relishing it, “she is a Lady.” Not even the gag can stifle Piper’s gasp of surprise. Of shock. Of betrayal. Tears run down Bella’s face, scalding and deserved. Dudley doesn’t stop whispering to himself, his massive body shaking with sobs that will not come. But when Bella looks at Ian, cold chills run down her back. His face is streaked with tears, his wrists with blood, but he does not look surprised. And what is most shocking is his mouth – it’s corners turned up into a forced smile.
The ghostly man sees it too and turns on him, a shark rushing to blood. “You think that’s funny Ian Benning?” His pale fingernails lock onto Ian’s face as he forces the latter to look up. But he can’t stop Ian from rolling his eyes. His talon-like nails dig deeper. “Let’s see how funny you think this when the fun begins.” A bone-chilling sound bursts from him, and Bella’s stomach turns when she realizes it’s laughter. Just then the door swings open and another man enters the room, shocking the prisoners almost as much as the Ghost Man did.
If there is an opposite of Ghost Man in this world, he just walked through the door. The new hulking figure could single-handedly carry the skeletal being already in the room, and his skin and eyes are darker than anything Bella has ever seen. But after a few moments of staring, the prisoners realize that as different as they look, the two men are cut of the same cloth. In the face of the new arrival is the same bloodlust and madness, and in his hand is a long silver blade. The gag in Bella’s mouth stops a scream in her throat, and for a moment she loses control of her fear. Hot liquid trickles down her legs and she is instantly ashamed, the power of the emotion even dulling her horror. The Ghost Man screeches his laughter again, but this time he’s joined by the deathly boom of the dark man’s chuckle. Then several things happen at once.
Piper’s green eyes well with tears as she starts to shake, hating them with Bella, whose expression is murderous. Dudley’s head snaps up, his eyes burning with a protective fire, and he makes a mad push towards the men, the bolts on his chair groaning but not giving as he strains. The men lunge for him, knocking his skull with the side of the blade. And Ian starts humming “We Shall Be Free”.