Chapter Twenty Four

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I enter the Training Facility, totally drained of energy. After my encounter in the Atrium, I'd spent the rest of the day wandering the tunnels of the Depot and thinking about Mark. I have yet to understand why I get so upset every time I see my brother. He's here: he's safe. But there's something about the look in his eyes, like he's not really there.

A human shell.

My stomach drops and I frown. Instead of going to the dormitory like I should, my legs carry me to the storage closet. I close the door softly behind me, making certain that I'm not spotted by any stragglers. Matthew isn't here yet. Instead, a single droid stands in the middle of the room, devoid of life. Maybe I should practice on my own, while I have the chance.

Remembering the techniques I'd recently learned from Matthew, I rid my mind of all distracting thoughts and tap the robot's silvery forehead. It flashes to life. I stare into its red eyes, reminding myself that that's all they are: lights. Fake. Mechanical. Lifeless. I raise my arm to press the small button on the robot's forehead. Instantly--as soon as it makes the first millimeter of movement--I know that something is wrong. Usually when I first turn droids on, they try to punch my face. This one's hands dart forward and grip my sides.

In a mindless panic, I thrash around and try to pry its chrome fingers from my ribs, but it's no use. I'm raised into the air with incredible force and thrown against the opposite wall. My body slams into deactivated droids and they topple on top of me, hard bodies smacking my head and my jaw. Screaming nonsensically, I drag myself out from under the metal only to come face-to-face with my original opponent again.

Not again not again not again not again not again..!

Instinctively, I curl up in the fetal position and cover my head with my arms. But the blows still fall on my thighs, my arms, my skull, my ribs... On the outside I am a screaming, sobbing mess; on the inside, the only thing I want is to be knocked out. Dark, unconscious peace. Finally, it's given to me.

* * *

Awareness creeps up on me slowly, like waves gradually washing up higher and higher on the shore. The first sensation I'm aware of is that of a quick bouncing, shortly followed by the sound of urgent footsteps. Confusion clouds my understanding so I lay still. After a moment, I feel soft cloth brush my face and I am laid down on a mattress. A sharp pain shoots up my left leg and I hold my breath to keep myself from crying out.

"Oh dear." A voice. "What on Earth happened to her?" After a moment I recognize the voice as Hope's. I must be in the clinic... But how did I get here?

"She was fighting a droid..." I could recognize Matthew's voice anywhere. Embarrassment slowly washes over me, almost more painful than my physical wounds. Even after his careful training, I still managed to fail. And worse than that, he'll probably want to end our clandestine meetings.

"Well, don't you worry. Go ahead and run along: she'll be fine." I feel Hope press an ice pack to my jaw, right where it was bruised. It takes enormous self-control not to groan.

"Do you mind if I stay?" His voice rumbles through the air like one of the drills. Now I'm confused. Why would Matthew want to stay with me? Probably so he can scold me for being weak, I think grimly.

"Of course not," Hope says softly. "Could you hold this for me?" I feel the ice pack slightly shift as Matthew takes it from her. Now my mind races. He doesn't say or do anything to me, just holds the ice pack to my forehead. Before the tension grows unbearably, I decide to "wake up". Slowly, I open my eyes and shift positions a little. Matthew looks startled at first, and then he lets out a relieved breath.

"What happened?" I ask, eyes wide. I'm quite a good actor, I realize smugly.

"One of the droids beat you up, I think. Do you remember anything?" I nod stiffly. "What happened?" I resign myself to tell the truth. For the duration of my story, Matthew stares at me steadily.

"Pretty weak, huh?" I finish.

"Are you kidding me?" He says, eyes suddenly flaming with anger. Here it comes. "Someone tampered with that droid!" Well, I was not expecting that.

"What?" I gasp.

"You said it was sitting in the middle of the room when you got there? And it picked you up and threw you?" I nod and he laughs a little.

"What's so funny?"

"I'd think someone labeled a spy would have better critical thinking skills."

"Well excuse me for not using them while I was having my head bashed into the ground!" I snap.

"I was joking," he mutters, slightly tugging his eyebrows in. I tilt my head and search his eyes for a while, probably longer than I should.

"She's awake!" Startled, I snap my head around to see Hope rushing towards me. When she reaches the bed, she pulls out two large pills and shoves them into my hand. "You'd better take those for the pain. But be warned: they will make you sleepy." She sets a large glass of water on the small dresser next to the bed then walks off towards her office. I hadn't noticed how strongly my body ached before now; I quickly take the pills. Afterwards I stare at my hands, feeling awkward with him so close. This is the second time he's escorted me to the clinic. Since when did I become so accident-prone?

"What hurts the most?" Matthew asks quietly.

"Um... My leg," I reply, pointing to a throbbing spot on my left thigh. He reaches down and holds the ice pack to the bruise. The tender pain begins to drown in numbness. Now his face is close to mine, but--unlike me--he seems steady and focused on the task at hand. Right before I speak again, I realize that the pills I just took are obscuring my thoughts and I find it hard to focus on anything. Matthew's face starts to twist into strange, bloated shapes.

"Why... Uh, why did you stay?"

"What do you mean?" He glances over at me, and I feel my judgment diminish.

"Why did you stay here with me?" I mutter. His face turns a little red and I laugh airily. Why did I do that?! Stupid medicine!

"I wanted to make sure you recovered smoothly," he says, determinedly staring at the ice pack. Nice of him. Feeling lightheaded, I lay back on the bed.

"What a comfortable pillow," I sigh. "Kind of like sheep feathers, or something like that." Matthew laughs beside me and I find myself laughing also, even though I don't know what's so funny. It takes a while for me to stop.

"You have a nice laugh," I mutter, yawning. The ceiling above me is covered with patterns and I get lost in them. Flowers and stars and trees and-

"Um... Thank you?" His voice is nice, too.

"Hey, Matthew?" I whisper, looking at him lazily. His face is nice, too.

"Hmm?"

"I like you." He seems to stiffen for a second before he gathers himself and fakes a nervous smile.

"Yeah. I like you too, Enna."

"Does that mean we're together now?" I ask drowsily, trying out Leah's word. My exhaustion grows. Matthew stiffens again and seems to struggle with something. Before I hear what he has to say-or what he doesn't-the pain subsides and I fall into a deep sleep.

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