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Her attempt at drifting back to consciousness was about as smooth as experiencing airplane turbulence. There was nothing gradual about it. The moment her body became aware of itself, the pain started, wrapping Lee in a vice she could barely breathe around. Her head throbbed like her skull was a pipe and someone was beating a frantic message on it. Even with her eyes closed, the pounding was intense. Opening them just elevated it into an all-out assault on her senses.

She knew, somewhere in the scrambled depths of her memory, something had happened. There were fragmented glimpses, prisms of images floating across her mind's eye. A fire escape. A window. The rush of pride and excitement at seeing Alex. Then...something else. A bang, or maybe a thud. Then the world flipped on its side, taking her with it.

Had something hit her? It felt like all the times she had accidentally rammed her head into the underbelly of a table or caught it on the end of a pipe...only a million times worse.

Relaxation didn't dull the throb. Shifting worsened it. Trapped in a hazy fog that splintered her focus, time and its progression became irrelevant. All she could feel was the pulverization of her skull with each volcanic heartbeat.

Sometimes, the pain was so intense Lee thought she was hallucinating. Bathed in sweat, she opened her eyes and her mother would be there. Or Emilia. Or Alex, her face swimming into view. Sometimes there were tender touches, fingers sweeping her hair aside, gentle words she couldn't understand. Other times it was a soft hand on her back, rubbing circles as Lee puked into a trash can that materialized out of thin air.

What was happening, she wanted to ask. Where was she? Why did it hurt? But every time her mind moved to form words, there was an atrociously bright light and the sense she misplaced something important. Then the darkness came and took her away, and oh, what sweet relief there was in dreamless sleep.

Her second attempt at coming back was more successful and slightly less painful. Content on lying still and letting the cacophony leave her skull, Lee permitted other senses to absorb the information her eyes couldn't. One: the plush comfort under her suggested she was lying on a bed. Two: the pillow propping her up smelled familiar. Three: there was something warm to her right and every two seconds a puff of air brushed against her-

Lee's eyes snapped open, the spike of her pulse sending a lance of pain behind her left eye. Though it made the feeling worse, she turned and bore down on her back molars to keep from jerking out of shock. As far as she could tell, this wasn't a hallucination, and she wasn't sure if that was a kindness either.

Alex lay beside her, close enough if Lee turned completely they would be within kissing distance. She appeared to be sleeping-curled on her side like a cat, using an arm for a pillow. It was hard to say whether or not she fell asleep in that position or rolled there. Either way, Lee was finding it hard to wrestle her pulse into a manageable tempo that didn't sound like a jackhammer.

Disconcertingly, some time seemed to have passed since her trek Topside. How? Hadn't she just gotten there? The pale light of pre-dawn peeked shyly between the seams of drawn curtains, gently illuminating Alex's sleeping form, turning her hair into an auburn halo that highlighted the faint dusting of freckles spattered across the bridge of her nose and the soft angles of her cheek-

Lee wrenched her eyes to the ceiling, swallowing against a dry throat. Oh no. Oh, this wasn't right. She couldn't do this. Her plan hadn't entailed this.

Back in the tunnels when this insane idea came to fruition after wringing Alex's address from a flustered Jerry, she hadn't thought beyond the driving singularity of wanting to see her friend. It had been a grand total of two weeks since Alex returned Topside. Fourteen days. Three-hundred and thirty-six hours. 20,160 minutes. Not like Lee had been counting. That would be weird.

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