Thirty-three

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I slide across to the driver's seat, the leather feeling cold against the nape of my still tender neck. My hands instinctively move to the steering wheel, gripping it hard as I glance in the rear-view, able to make out Reece's tense silhouette through the dark.

This is the right thing to do. Reece isn't going to want to help me now that he knows the truth. He can't even stand to be in close proximity to me, and if I'm going to survive in this new world alone, I'm going to need a vehicle.

I've watched Reece driving long enough to know the basics of operating a car. I'm certain that after a few minutes of driving, I'll be just fine navigating the roads. I'm a quicker learner, after all.

They made me that way.

Yet my fingers stay frozen to the wheel, my eyes glued to Reece's shadow as he looks up at the jet-black sky, no doubt regretting having ever helped me in the first place.

A part of me just wants to flee just so that I don't have to face him. So that I don't have to see the betrayal in his eyes at having discovered I'm not the Aura he thought was worth saving–the Aura he's risked everything for. I'm not the innocent mermaid who needed help escaping her captivity, I'm the ruthless creature who does whatever she must to survive, even if it means hurting others to do it.

But I don't want to be the kind of person who chooses self-preservation above all else. I want to be different, better, and maybe it's too late to take back the things I've done, but I still have a chance to be better than the girl I was yesterday.

With a deep breath, I carefully swing open the driver's door and creep towards Reece. He turns on his heel at hearing my footsteps, only his pale eyes visible through the dark.

"Are you okay?" I ask, able to see the hurt plaguing his features.

I'd thought he'd perfected the art of hiding his emotions, but right now he looks as broken as I imagine he feels inside.

"I don't know what's going to happen to him," Reece says, his voice shaking slightly. "Marine World doesn't take kindly to failure."

"But they must have known he wouldn't turn you in," I say. "You're family."

Reece lets out a humorless laugh. "It's because we're family that they sent him in the first place." He half-turns to face me, his pained expression lit up by the streetlamp's soft glow. "This was never supposed to be a capture, Aura. This was a threat. Marine World's way of reminding me they have somebody I love in their clutches. My dad's so hell-bent on following orders, he doesn't even see he's being played."

"That's why they didn't send more guards," I say, searching Reece's face for confirmation.

He nods briefly. "Sending a group of guards after us would have raised suspicion. They knew we'd never go quietly. When they catch us, it will be when we least expect it. When we think they're no longer looking for us. This was just a way for them to tell us to keep quiet until they do."

I clutch at the compact mirror deep within my pocket, thinking about those who have already suffered because of my escape: Muriel Two, Reece, his father–it seems the pursuit of freedom is not so free, after all.

Something must always be sacrificed.

I take a brief moment, gathering the courage to speak. I want to be able to admit to the terrible things I've done without trying to justify them, because Muriel Two deserves more than just an excuse. She deserves an apology, even if she's not around to hear it.

"There's something I need to tell you," Reece says first, his words almost buried by the rustling of leaves. "And you're not going to like it."

I slowly raise my gaze to meet his, surprised to find his expression etched with guilt. "What is it?"

He steps forward slightly, taking my arm in his hand. The heat from his fingers sends warmth up my skin and I inhale slightly, allowing him to pull me in closer until our faces are inches apart.

"I lied to you when I said there was nothing we could do to help Asia and Jewel," he says.

My heart all but stops in my chest. "What are you talking about?" I ask.

His red, bleary eyes refuse to meet my own. "We have what's called the police here. People who are supposed to protect us, and if I'd just gone to them first instead of breaking you out, they could have saved all of you before Marine World had time to try and cover anything up."

I swallow hard, searching his eyes for a sign that what he's saying can't possibly be right, but only the truth stares back.

A/N

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