BOOK 2 // SIXTEEN: Under Attack

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            The next few hours were a blur.

Through some peculiar perception, I didn't even feel like I was really there: once I'd let go of Jace's hand and moved aside to let Nova and Thomas do their work, I was overcome by an out-of-body sensation that made me feel like I was looking down on the scene from above. I could see myself there, kneeling on the side lines, pain carved into my expression as I refused to take my eyes off Jace.

Now armed with a fully stocked medi kit, Thomas was able to patch up the wound on Jace's leg with proper bandages, which – unsurprisingly – were a whole lot better at stemming blood flow than my ripped shirt. Once they were fastened, it took our combined effort to haul him onto the stretcher, which Thomas and I then carried back through the woods.

Nova led the way, while I took the end of stretcher by Jace's head. Every so often, he'd lift it so our eyes would lock – and each time, I gave him a mildly scolding look. He knew full well he was supposed to be resting, not straining his neck to make eyes with me. But I couldn't help myself. After just a second's glimpse of his expression, of that glimmer of hope and contentment and almost mischief in his eyes, I couldn't stop the smile curling the corner of my lip.

It was a single moment, just for us, undetected amidst the chaos of everything else.

And somehow, it was everything we needed.

When Nova glanced over her shoulder, checking we were still following close behind, I wiped any trace of the smile from my face sharpish – but that didn't erase what it had meant in the first place.

Art met us about half of the way back; we heard his pounding footsteps long before he emerged between the trees ahead, skidding to an urgent halt. From the way he struggled to catch his breath, it was obvious that he'd come as fast as he could, and the flash of panic in his mismatching eyes definitely didn't go unnoticed.

"What happened?" he asked. "Is everything okay?"

"It's alright," Nova told him, raising a hand. "It's under control."

"You guys need any help?" When I looked up, I noticed Art's gaze was directed at me, and the grip I had on the handles of the stretcher. "Astrid? You want me to take that?"

For a moment, I considered it. The stretcher was heavy, even with Thomas taking half the weight, and a dull ache had set into the muscles in my arms. However, as my eyes trailed downward, landing on Jace's dirt- and blood-stained face, I shook my head.

"Thanks," I told him, "but I've got it."

We carried Jace all the way back to the university lab, where there was a room that doubled up as a sick bay whenever needed. Among a group of modified people, that wasn't often, but it was safer to have it on standby. Supercharged immune systems might've been able to ward off the nastiest of bugs, plus heal injuries more quickly – but even we weren't immune to the initial trauma of a gunshot wound.

Thomas wasn't a qualified doctor, but he was the best we had, and some level of basic training had given him a level head and a foundation of knowledge stable enough to stack everything else on. We were ushered out of the sick bay once Jace was settled in, to reduce the amount of people standing there peering over him, but there was no doubt that he'd been left in the safest pair of hands.

However, with Jace at the start of his road to recovery, our minds naturally turned elsewhere. Though any urgent concerns about his welfare may have subsided, the leftover space didn't stay empty for long: after all, we still had the obvious to consider.

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