Taylor Brooke © 2018
All Rights Reserved
They buried Plum in the garden.
Rain had softened the ground. Nicoli threw seeds into the dirt with her and said a prayer. Brooklyn couldn’t concentrate on anything. Not the shovel she held or the blood on her hands or the pile of soldiers drenched in gasoline on the other side of the house. Cambria had stopped crying a few minutes ago. They put a bundle of flowers on the mossy mound that served as Plum’s grave. Nicoli didn’t ask for help burying Michelle, but Brooklyn shoveled with him anyway.
Smoke rose from the pile of soldiers they’d killed and Isolation had abandoned, scented like rubber and skin and hair. They had no identification. No phones or pictures or wallets. One wore a rosary, but that was all. Brooklyn and the others waited for a few hours, wondering if the sirens wailing in the distance would grow closer. They didn’t. No police. No other soldiers. No Surrogates. No one came.
Isolation had left them behind.
Brooklyn had no idea what the next move would be—Isolation’s or her own.
“I’m sorry,” Nicoli said. He sprinkled flower petals over Michelle’s grave. “You know that, right?”
Brooklyn didn’t say anything until he looked at her. “Are you talking to your sister or me?”
She listened for chatter. There was none. She listened for doors slamming, plates shattering—for Dawson’s anger. But it was quiet. “Was it true what Kirin said? She would’ve killed us?”
“She would’ve tried to.” He didn’t have much left to lose, but his audacity still surprised her. “Michelle was as right as she was wrong a lot of the time. She didn’t think any of you were capable of having normal lives, doing normal things.”
“We did have normal lives,” she said, tempering the heat in her voice. “We did do normal things.”
“Yeah, you did. Then they took you, and they trained you, and now we’re burying my sister and my best friend, and we’re burning bodies in the backyard.” His gray eyes fixed on her. “What’s next, Brooklyn? How does this end?”
Would knowing make the situation easier? Probably not. She didn’t know if they would make it out of this alive, if they would get Porter back in one piece, if they would get him back at all. She didn’t know if they had what it took to take down Isolation. She didn’t know if Kirin was on their side or his own. Brooklyn didn’t know a damn thing.
“It ends when Juneau’s dead and we’re free,” Brooklyn said. She didn’t know if that was the truth, but she thought it had to be. “You should find somewhere safe for Cambria and Lance. They’ll keep hunting us, and people will probably die. I’d rather it not be you.”
“That’s not an option,” Nicoli said.
“It is now.”
Brooklyn walked away before Nicoli could argue with her. She couldn’t force him to go, but she wouldn’t be happy if he stayed. They had targets on their backs. Blood on their hands. There was no good way out of this, no peaceful resolution.
She found Dawson in the kitchen. He leaned against the counter with a bottle of bourbon tipped against his lips.
“You won’t find him at the bottom of that bottle, D,” she said.
His cobalt eyes met hers as he took another swig. He sucked in a sharp breath after he swallowed. His voice was liquor-rasped, low and scathing. “Won’t know ’til I get there, right?”
A heartbroken Dawson was the worst Dawson.
Brooklyn rolled her eyes. She hung her head back and stared at the ceiling. Blood speckled the walls. Remnants of the smoke bombs still lingered. She smelled burning skin, sour bodies, and the hard bite of the liquor on Dawson’s mouth.
Porter was gone.
Porter was gone.
Amber sat cross-legged on the couch beside Cambria. Rayce was outside with Gabriel and Lance, making sure the gasoline and the flames did their job. She had no idea where Julian had gone with Kirin—she didn’t care. Dawson kept drinking. Brooklyn kept breathing. Everything around her continued to fall apart, bit by bit.
She didn’t think they would ever be the hunters. Despite how powerful they were—because of how powerful they were—they would always be the hunted.
“Dawson,” Brooklyn said, barking his name. He didn’t bother looking at her this time, just tipped the bottle against his lips and walked away. His boots made hard sounds on the tile then the stairs. A bedroom door slammed seconds later.
“You should let him be, Bambi.” Amber sighed from the couch. Her leg was messed up, cut by debris and caked in dried blood. Cambria tended to her with a wet washcloth and a thick bandage. “We all know Dawson’s the cold and quiet type. Pushing him might not be the best idea right now.”
“If he doesn’t keep it together, who will?” The question was low under her breath. If Amber had heard her, she pretended not to. Brooklyn appreciated that. “Rest for a while, okay? We’ll figure out a plan tomorrow morning. We need to eat, sleep… Just… I don’t know, we need to breathe for a minute.”
Cambria cleared her throat. “I don’t know what we’ve got left in the pantry. The smoke probably contaminated the fresh stuff. I think there’s bread in the fridge, maybe some fruit. We’ve got canned veggies too.”
“Good,” Brooklyn said. “We’ll make do.”
She listened for sirens. For gunshots. For helicopter wings.
The property was quiet and forgotten. They’d buried their dead. Brooklyn glanced out of the shattered window over the sink. Gabriel stood in the middle of the backyard, staring at the sky. They’d come this far, and they now they had to go back. Brooklyn watched fractured light bounce off Gabriel’s shoulders and nose and chin and saw the dark remnants of blood on her knuckles.
Julian dabbed hydrogen peroxide over the bullet wound in Kirin’s shoulder. “You’re lucky,” he mumbled. “The bullet went straight through.”
The long cut across his face wasn’t deep enough to warrant stitches, but it wasn’t pretty, either. Julian winced looking at it and winced again when Kirin jerked backward.
“Sorry.” Kirin swallowed hard. His cheeks were flecked with blood that was not his own. His knuckles were pink around the edges, ripped and torn. His eyes, as soft as they usually were, sharpened in the muted light coming in through the window. “About Michelle and your friends. I didn’t mean for any of that to happen.”
“Do you actually feel bad about what you did to Michelle?” Julian finished taping a bandage over Kirin’s shoulder. He rinsed the cloth in a bowl of water and pressed it to the cut on Kirin’s face.
“No,” he whispered. His mouth thinned. He flinched when Julian wiped the blood away, hissed when the peroxide bubbled on the edges of his split skin. “Does that bother you?”
He remembered the way Kirin snapped Michelle’s neck, how he made it look delicate. He shifted and met Kirin’s eye. “It bothers me when you use words you don’t understand. Apologies are supposed to mean something.”
Julian was sure that one day fangs would sprout from between Kirin’s incisors. He was sure that Kirin would rip him open wide, and Julian would bare his neck. He could be bothered by the way Kirin acted, by his barbarism, his mystery, his viciousness, but even then, the truth was branded on the backside of Julian’s heart: He would never leave Kirin.
Quiet slipped between them. Once the blood was gone and Kirin’s wounds were clean, Julian placed the bowl on the dresser and faced the window. Smoke charred the sky. Awful things warred inside him—love, hate, how similar the two were in situations like these.
“Do you honestly think I don’t know what an apology means?” Kirin’s voice was distant. He sat on the edge of the bed, looking out the same window, fingers still in his lap, breathing slow and controlled. “Being sorry and feeling remorse are two different things, Julian.”
Times like these Julian wondered about Kirin. He pondered the existence of a creature like him, damned and saved. Times like these, Julian wondered if Kirin ever wondered about himself.
“What are we going to do?” Julian asked.
Kirin hadn’t reached for him. He hadn’t touched Julian’s hand or cradled his cheek. They teetered on the edge of something they could not come back from. If they landed on one side, one of them died. If they landed on the other, they both died.
Because in the end, that’s what the plan was. What it had always been.
Kirin died and Isolation burned and everyone else lived.
Julian couldn’t place the exact moment. He couldn’t put a memory to the feeling. But at some point, in the last few weeks, he’d decided Kirin’s plan was bullshit.
Maybe Julian loved him.
I can’t. Julian closed his eyes. I can’t love him.
Kirin curled his long fingers around Julian’s jaw. “Look at me,” he said, and Julian obeyed. “We’re going to destroy every shred of research, burn down every single facility, and—”
“And you burn with them, right? That’s the plan, isn’t it?”
Sometimes Julian remembered what it was like to be human. They were endangered feelings, gentle and timid, and caught in a war zone.
He closed his eyes, heavy under Kirin’s watchfulness. “I’ll never be what you need me to be,” Julian whispered. It was a half-truth. “I’ll never be okay with that. I’ll never…” Be able to pull the trigger.
Was this what devotion felt like? Julian’s heart thundered. Yes, it had to be.
“You don’t have to be okay with it,” Kirin whispered. His mouth was close to Julian’s, breath a soft gust on his chin. “You just have to make sure it gets done.”
“Julian,” he snapped. Kirin slid his hand to his face, cupping the top of his cheek, fingers inching into his hair. “Please, just… Not right now.”
Anger flared in his chest and Julian didn’t know what to do with it. Not right now? If not now, then when? They were out of time. They were backed into a corner. They were exposed. But the way Kirin said it—not right now—like someone desperate for a breath, like someone who needed the space to be unhinged, made Julian wonder about humanity.
He always thought that Kirin would wear his innocence like wolves wore sheep’s clothing, but that wasn’t what Julian saw.
Kirin’s eyes softened. His throat flexed when he swallowed and his breath ratcheted from him. This was Kirin who understood sacrifice. This was a version of him Julian had never met.
“I am sorry,” Kirin whispered. He found Julian’s gaze and leaned in to press a kiss to his cheek.
Julian let him. He closed his eyes and craned into Kirin’s warm lips. Julian was a watermark of his former self. No one had ever crawled under his skin like Kirin had. No one had ever seized his heart like Kirin had. He turned and caught Kirin’s mouth.
Kirin moved like a serpent. He slithered closer, fingers tangled in Julian’s hair as they exchanged breaths between parting lips. They kissed softly at first, but then Kirin climbed into Julian’s lap, his teeth found Julian’s bottom lip, and gentleness turned brutal.
“Promise me,” Kirin said. His thighs gripped Julian’s waist. “Tell me you’ll make sure it gets done.”
Julian looked at Kirin from under his lashes. He kissed him again, pulled on his hips, listened to him bite back a gasp, and he didn’t answer.
They tore at each other’s clothes. Their skin was still speckled with blood.
Julian made no promises.
Brooklyn stood beside Gabriel and watched Rayce cover the burned remains of the dead with dirt.
“Lance has the coordinates,” Gabriel said. Her hands were filthy, face splashed with blood, hair streaked red and brown, shoulders loose and face serene. Brooklyn thought she was beautiful like this. Wicked. Strong. Taking on the likeness of a mercenary. Her jungle eyes traced Brooklyn from nose to feet. “You okay?”
“Isn’t there more than one facility?” Brooklyn didn’t bother answering the question. Okay was such a strange, wide word. She didn’t think she knew the definition of it anymore. She was alive. She was in one piece. She was coherent. But she didn’t think any of that meant she was okay.
“Yeah, Lance got the location for the sibling facility in Malibu. When should we leave?”
I don’t know was not an appropriate answer. But, fuck, Brooklyn didn’t know.
“In the morning,” she said. “Do we have a big enough transport for all of us?”
“It can’t be all of us.” Gabriel’s voice lowered. She touched Brooklyn’s knuckles, curled her fingers around her wrist and gripped. Her lips pursed. She let out a long breath and turned, nose close to Brooklyn’s cheek. “The more people we take, the more people we risk.”
Brooklyn bristled. Her throat convulsed and she let out a sharp noise, the beginning of a loud, angry protest.
Gabriel cut her off. “Not you,” she blurted and shook her head. “I would never ask you to stay behind, you should know that already.”
She nodded toward Rayce then glanced over her shoulder, looking past the pillars at the busted French doors that led to the kitchen. “Lance, Cambria, Amber and Rayce. Nicoli, too.”
“Nic won’t,” Brooklyn said. “And I doubt Amber will pass up a good fight.”
“She’ll pass it up to stay alive. They can settle somewhere outside the country. Cambodia, Switzerland, Indonesia, Nepal, somewhere with no extradition agreement with the US. We’ll catch up with them once we get Porter and Charlie back.”
“What about Julian?”
“Julian’s gonna go wherever Kirin goes.” Gabriel’s jaw clenched. She slid her fingertips to Brooklyn’s neck, thumb rubbing crusted blood off her chin. “And it’d be stupid not to utilize Kirin’s abilities.”
She wanted to lean into Gabriel, to take shelter in her. “You’re the one who said Kirin was dangerous.”
“He is. We use him, we don’t trust him. Once it’s over and we get our people back, Kirin and Julian are on their own.”
Brooklyn looked from Gabriel to the middle window on the second floor. Curtains caught the wind. Shadows moved beyond them. “What is he?”
“He’s us perfected,” she said. Her eyes sharpened in the late afternoon light. Somehow, the day had slipped through Brooklyn’s fingers. Minutes had spun into hours and before she realized it, night was almost upon them. Gabriel dropped her hands from Brooklyn’s face. “He’s stronger, faster, deadlier, and he’s been kept in a facility his entire life. Alienation breaks things like him, Brooklyn. Turns them into monsters.”
Aren’t we already monsters? She didn’t argue—she had nothing to argue with. The only one who knew Kirin well enough to come to his defense was behind a locked door with him. She remembered Kirin’s hand around her throat. His desperation. The way he moved. How unhinged and unrestrained he’d been. It made her afraid—that mercilessness—as if she’d seen something wild for the very first time. Brooklyn nodded to Rayce when he approached, thankful for a distraction.
“Fire took care of most of them but wasn’t hot enough to get through the bone. We made two graves—” he pointed to one of the mounds then to another across the yard “—but if someone finds ’em, and I’m sure someone will, we’re done for.” Rayce towered over Brooklyn. He was large-framed and muscular with a square jaw, massive hands, and eyes almost as dark as his skin. He clasped her shoulder and squeezed. “We’ll need to move out soon.”
“We’ll talk over dinner when we’re all cleaned up and…” Brooklyn didn’t know the word. Settled? Calm? Okay? “We’ll just talk at dinner, yeah?”
He nodded, brows high on his forehead. “Whatever you say. Dawson doing all right?”
Gabriel sucked air through her teeth.
Brooklyn steered her gaze to the grass beneath her feet. “Probably not. Have you talked to Julian? He could probably use some familiarity right now.”
Rayce snorted. “No.”
“Didn’t you two…”
“We’ve always been friends, nothing more than that.”
“Weren’t you together—”
“We were never together because we weren’t compatible for that. I’m aromantic,” Rayce said. He shrugged and looked toward the setting sun. “I knew what Jules wanted in the long run, and he knew what I wanted. We understood each other. I don’t know much about this whole thing with him and Kirin. Just hope he’s keeping his heart safe, that’s all.”
“Yeah, I hope he is too,” Gabriel said. She nudged Brooklyn with her elbow. “We should check on him, c’mon.”
They walked through the French doors, riddled with bullet holes, and went their separate ways, Rayce into the living room, Gabriel and Brooklyn up the stairs.
The house was still too quiet. Death hung heavy. Loss was a blatant wound they’d all ignored. Especially Dawson, who had locked himself away with a fifth of bourbon and hadn’t made a sound since. Brooklyn paused outside their guest room. She met Gabriel’s eye and steeled her expression.
She didn’t know what to expect. He might rip the curtains down and break the mirror and cut his knuckles on the walls. He might say nothing to them. He might not even look at them.
Gabriel placed a reassuring hand on Brooklyn’s lower back.
Brooklyn opened the door. A rumpled comforter was still draped over the bed, tossed up on the sides where they’d flown from it this morning. Their boots were toppled over next to the dresser, lamps turned off, curtains pulled to the side to let dusk’s light in. The door that led to the attached bathroom was ajar. Dawson leaned against the counter in front of the old tub.
“D? Hey.” Gabriel eased the door open.
The empty bottle dangled from his fingertips. He didn’t move, not to look at them, not to lash out or recoil. Dawson just stood there, staring at the ground.
Brooklyn reached for his hand and slowly, slowly, grasped the bottle. He let her take it. She wondered if he was going to explode or fall apart, or if this was him doing both at the same time.
Exploding within himself. Falling apart gracefully.
It was quiet for a long time. Brooklyn and Gabriel hovered, near enough to catch him if he fell, far enough to avoid his fists. Finally, once the sun was down and the room was dark, Dawson rubbed his hand over his mouth and chin.
“He’s a clone which means he’s disposable,” Dawson whispered. His voice was harsh and brittle. “They’ll kill him.”
“No, they won’t,” Brooklyn said. She didn’t know if it was the truth or not, but she had to believe it was. “We’re gonna get him back, Dawson.”
Gabriel stepped closer. Brooklyn took Dawson’s hand. His fingers were limp in her palm. He barely breathed.
Everything was still. Everything felt empty.
Dawson’s jaw flexed. He inhaled sharply through his nose and tipped his head back, gazing first at the ceiling then at the ground again. His eyes slid toward her and she saw wetness on his lashes, tears on his cheeks, a dimple in his chin that she’d never seen before.
“He’s probably…” Dawson choked, hiccupping on a racked breath. “He’s probably already dead.”
Brooklyn moved swiftly. She stepped in front of him and he flinched when she grabbed his jaw. “Don’t say that. Don’t.” He tried to jerk away, but she pulled on him again, forcing his gaze. “You can’t,” she said, voice trembling. She could not afford to be weak, but weakness had found her. “You can’t say that, okay?”
Gabriel’s pale hand settled over Brooklyn’s, softening her hold on Dawson’s face. “Easy,” she said. Her eyes flicked between them both. “We need to talk to Lance, figure out which facility they took him to, make a plan—we need to do something.”
Dawson sniffled. He was still covered in blood and residue from the smoke. Brooklyn had dirt under her nails, blood on her skin. So did Gabriel.
“We need to fucking shower first,” Brooklyn said. She reached over and twisted the knob. The pipes clanked, water sprayed from the shower head, and Dawson gave a long, defeated sigh.
He reeked of alcohol, his eyes were glassy and red, but he let them strip him down, stood still while Gabriel unbuckled his belt, didn’t flinch when Brooklyn knelt and peeled his socks off one by one. Once his clothes were gone, Dawson reached for the bottom of Brooklyn’s shirt. They took turns undressing each other then stepped under the hot water.
It was cramped, but Brooklyn didn’t mind. Dawson stood between her and Gabriel, his face tucked into Brooklyn’s neck, hands settled on Gabriel’s arms, wrapped around his middle.
“I’m sorry,” Dawson whispered. “I’m—”
“It’s fine.” Brooklyn washed the blood off his skin. She pressed her lips to his shoulder and listened to Gabriel sigh. “I understand.”
She didn’t tell Dawson that if he fell apart, she would too. She didn’t tell him that she couldn’t accept the idea of Porter being dead, because she could barely handle the fact that he was gone. She didn’t tell him that they’d been here before, that they’d lost Gabriel once already.
Because Gabriel had found her way back to them, and she didn’t know if Porter would.
They washed each other. The water turned pink by their feet, circling the drain. Brooklyn framed Dawson’s jaw in her hands and kissed him. She tasted liquor, felt his breath on her teeth, followed the stroke of his tongue, and wished she would’ve kissed him sooner. Before Porter had been taken. Before they’d escaped the facility. Before their lives became a hunt.
Dawson kissed like she imagined he would. His kisses were like him—strong and fierce and raw.
Gabriel made a small noise, a huff that was closer to a whimper.
Brooklyn kissed the corner of Dawson’s mouth. She followed his jaw and pushed on his chest until he turned, making enough room for Gabriel to press in closer. They stayed in the shower until the water by their feet turned clear. Brooklyn kissed them both. She rested her lips on Dawson’s pulse and let him take her weight, leaning into him. Gabriel’s cheek was on his shoulder, fingernails light on Brooklyn’s scalp, pulling shampoo through her hair.
It was quiet and intimate, sore and anxious.
They stood in the steam, holding onto each other, enduring silence and an unbearable truth: Porter could be alive or Porter could be dead.
The unknown was a heavy, vicious thing.