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Fox

It was hot, so hot that I thought my skin would come sliding off my bones in blackened strips. The air was thick with smoke, cutting off my breath. My eyes stung from it so I squeezed them shut as if I could ward off the danger that I couldn't escape. My leg throbbed but it was a distant pain compared to the damage the fire left behind; the entire right half of my face screamed in agony, searing through skin and muscle and into my bones. I was blinded by the pain and could only curl tighter into a protective ball, unable to move, to get to my feet, to run to safety. I was trapped, and now I would die.

There were distant voices somewhere but I couldn't hear what they were saying. I couldn't be sure of who they belonged to. They shouldn't have come, whoever they were. They would die, too.

Somewhere was something that sounded like it might have been my name, but each time my mind sorted out senseless noise into a word it was snatched away and lost to the pain that overtook everything. A moment of silence and then again—a familiar voice, something I was supposed to respond to but couldn't, and then it was gone. The dark nothingness pulled at me, promising release. An escape from the orange light that burned my eyes even when they were closed, from the heat that tore through everything it touched as effortlessly as if the world was paper against a sharpened knife. The dark was cool and calm; it dulled the pain until I could feel it no longer and my frantic heartbeat, racing like the wind to its end, slowed to nothing. With feather-soft fingers it stroked my hair, my ruined face. It whispered a lullaby into my ear, sending me drifting further down into a deep, welcome sleep.

A scream shattered the calm, and suddenly rather than floating in the blissful nothingness I was bound to it, chains wrapped around and around my wrists and ankles, clattering as I fought against them. The screaming continued above me, the sounds of the agony I had been so eager to escape. I could wish it on nobody, especially not my companions. Their pain was my fault. I had led them to their deaths.

I pulled at the chains with all my strength, shouting as they dragged me further into the dark. I tasted ash, the bitter taste of death on my tongue. Among the screaming came one word, spoken so softly it hit me far harder than anything else. The name I had ignored before, and now it was too late to answer.

"Fox."

His voice was broken with pain and longing and my heart crumbled away. It was hardly a whisper, but it echoed in my mind again and again, leaving me screaming. Our voices mingled, two different kinds of pain, until his faded to nothing and only mine remained.

My eyes snapped open and the screaming continued unbroken, my own ragged, raw cry that rose as the chains around me tightened. I was no longer in darkness but in a ceaseless light so vivid and bright it burned as painfully as the fire, the color of snow. The chains did not pull me down but held me against something, and voices swam above me. My voice died as soon as I realized with a start I was not dead but awake, leaving my throat sore. I struggled to suck in a breath, my chest aching. The air was clear and clean, not black and smoky, but the smell of antiseptic stung my nose and lungs. The faces and voices around me were unfamiliar, frighteningly different from the only ones I could remember ever knowing. But they knew me; they spoke to me by name.

"Fox, it's alright. You're fine."

"Calm down. Everything's fine."

"Can you hear me, Fox?"

"Fox?"

My name echoed in a million foreign voices—Fox, Fox, Fox, Fox.

"Fox!"

I gasped as his voice reached me, the only familiar thing in a sea of confusion, and jerked away from the hands that held me down. They stepped back, letting me roll off the bed and scramble to my feet. My dark hair fell in long tangles around my face and I pushed it away so I could see, unused to having it down. It took a moment for my vision to clear so I could see him, tall and lean and proud in the doorway, flanked by two men in white coats. They held him back and his dark eyes burned.

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