20 - The Flames and the Fury (I)

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Mikie squared her jaw and stared at the door, trying to remember whose house it used to be. She'd been there before, ages ago, waiting for someone she couldn't remember to come out and play. Now she waited on Reem.

Pax barked from inside. She caught the jingle of his six-year-old dog tags on his collar as he jumped at the window, ears flopping. A smile itched at the corner of her mouth, but the twilight at her back kept her frozen. She could hear the other virals in the shadows and swallowed. She used to live for these moments, toeing the line between escape and letting herself get caught. She used to love the adrenaline coursing through her before she had a name for it. Before it became an enemy. Now, she realized, what she used to shrug on like a second skin was fear.

She'd spent her entire life comforted by it, living in fear of everything, with the hope of finding something as she stumbled along surviving.

But she'd found Reem. And Reem had shown her there might be more than fear. Reem knew of freedom, a place that had been unreachable before—not even a thought. Now her bones were torn between the fear and the hope of reaching California with Andy and the others in toe. And she hated the fact it all rested on his shoulders.

She knocked again, puffing out her cheeks.

Three eyes on her back, a fourth set peering past the falling privacy fence. All virals. All friendly—for now.

She swallowed. Come on, Remus.

There came a click and the door opened a crack. It was only a fraction of a second, as he counted the eyes on them before he threw the door open. That was the plan, pretend nothing was wrong. Pretend they weren't being watched. Pretend every word was normal.

It'd taken all day to plan it. All day when they weren't being watched by Virals or her mother for them to sneak a few words about escaping the mess they'd found themselves in. She only prayed that no one had managed to listen hard enough to their whispers between the walls of the labs, on their walk to dinner—which her mother still insisted they all share despite Garrett's empty seat at the table.

"Hey." Reem's voice was nothing more than a breath. As if the world no longer held enough air for both of them. "You ready?"

Mikie shifted her weight, uneasy. Pretend to be embarrassed. Pretend you made a mistake. "Yeah, sorry again. It was stupid of me to leave that notebook behind. I just..." She turned, peering at any spot in the twilight that didn't hold a viral. If they thought she was an awful mark, maybe they'd all back off a bit. "I know it's safe, but they still freak me out a bit. Walk with me?"

Reem shrugged. "Only if Pax can tag along."

She pretended she hated the dog. But she was grateful for the jingle of tags as they took to the street. The Orion labs were a ghost town. Not a viral in sight. Not really. They were all behind them—at least the ones set to watch the remains of the human race tonight. Mikie just hoped there weren't this many eyes on Andy as she flagged the rest of camp through the base.

That's what she'd chosen to do, lie out on the roof and act as their eyes as Maria led the rest of camp into a war zone. Meanwhile, Mikie and Reem would pretend to search for a non-existent notebook and stock up on as many weapons they could find.

It seemed simple enough, after all.

The hard part would be fighting their way back out again.

"There's not going to be enough ammunition to get us all the way to the camp." Those were the words they'd said at three-sixteen. It was then the lab had grown deathly quiet. Andy would have her gun—stealing it from their mother's closet while she was out to the lab. But Mikie and Reem? Not enough to get the both of them from one end of Orion to the other. There were too many virals. And they had no idea how many more they might not even know about.

Did her mother control all of them? The entire country's worth? She couldn't tell.

She certainly didn't want to risk it.

The windows of the Orion lab came into view, an eerie orange glow against the darkening sky. The stars would appear in a matter of minutes, which would mean every Viral on the property would be very much awake. Mikie swallowed. It also meant her mother was already well at work on her experiments. She only hoped none of them involved turning anyone else into a vicious flesh-craving monster tonight.

"Third floor, right?" Reem asked. "That's where you left it?"

Mikie could only nod as they made their way up the stairs to the main entrance.

"Hey." Reem threw his arm over her shoulder, drew her in close. All at once her skin bristled, her shoulders tensed, but a step later they loosened. He was throwing up a shield, pressing his head close to hers so they could speak and hopefully not be as easy to read. "Don't sweat it. We'll get it and be gone. It could have happened to anyone." And with that he gave her a grim smile, dropping his arm again.

Their fingers brushed and in a half-stride, she realized just how calloused his were compared to her smooth, faceless fingertips. She stretched her hand out, his closing around hers in response. There was no lightning bolt, no flare of love by any stretch. Instead, what she felt was an incredible calm. The only kind that could come from a silent partnership. She glanced up to find him watching her with the same, calculating look she wore in her own eyes. Both asking and silently answering the same question. Neither was about to let the other die tonight.

If they went down, it'd be together.

Reem had told her to trust someone. And she realized as he pulled the lab door open, she did.

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