11 - The Ruins (II-III)

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II

Philip stood, waiting for her. His dark skin blending with the shadows. He cracked a wicked smile as she approached, but never wavered from his post. Instead, she ran to him, feet light, flying above the ground until they were together. Pressed against the trees. The crackle of a laugh escaped him. She never imagined she'd find beauty in their hissing tongue but it was always in his. Always. He laughed at her in a way that always said hello there even if neither of them had the words for it anymore. She could feel it in his long-toothed smile. Sense it in the careful sureness of his hands as he cupped her elbows and held her close.

He pressed his nose into her hair and inhaled. She wondered if he could smell everywhere she'd been. Everything she'd seen. She wanted to share it with him, but how. He couldn't read much. She was still learning. They would have to chatter about it sometime. But not now. Now she was too caught up in that sunny feeling, the feeling of becoming a beacon all her own, to think about the dark places she had to hide. Besides, to chatter would mean to tell the hive. Which would have to wait until later, after she saw Hailey.

"Maria?"

Her smile drooped a little at Mikie's call. She was like her mother, that girl. A fire in her. But not hot. No. Mikie's was cold. Like the darkness of the night when there were too many clouds. She blocked out all the stars. Maria wondered, as she turned toward the young girl's pull, if she could even block out the sun.

Philip caught her hand in his. His talons were shorter than her's, his dress much better. His hair less-matted, but it always was. He gave her a look. Don't go.

Must. In their little shadow of the trees, she could imagine the hive was all their own. And for just a breath it was. The other chatters vanished. But she knew they were all still listening.

Return soon. The look in his vibrant orange eyes was pleading. He'd missed her for too long.

She nodded, and with that, tore back into the sunlight.

Hailey was waiting for her. No, not Hailey. Mikie. All of them. They stood beside the cars, bags slung over shoulders. They stood too close together. Huddled, a group against the sun before them. They faced Hailey but shied away all at the same time. She knew the look. She'd seen it many times before, with each Viral that President brought to face her. She saw that look. Both fear and awe and a strange comfort. She felt it too. Inside her bones. No, just above them. There was something deeper in the bones. Something primal. She didn't like that feeling. Though she knew they all shared it.

Deep within the bones was fear.

It's what kept them alive. Every new Viral and every original. All the way back to Iasa.

And she could see it in them, too. The humans. The ones that Hailey had hoped for day in and day out. They were afraid. They were all afraid. And then Hailey turned to her and she was face to face with a living beam of sunlight and to look her directly in the eyes burned. But she did it anyway, waiting for the moment for her vision to go white, which she knew wouldn't come. It never did. But there was something blinding about Hailey. And the woman reached forward, gently placing a hand on Maria's shoulder.

She had to grit her teeth to keep from pulling away as chatter rose in the hive. No one got touched by Hailey. Not even President. There were moments when she'd reach but he'd never let her touch. That was their rule. She could look all she wanted and they would show up for what she called treatments. They would endure the sun. But they would never be touched by it.

It didn't burn like she expected. It was simply warm. A much more pleasant warmth than the true sunlight overhead. A relief, almost. And then her fingers tightened. Ever. So. Slightly.

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