“You can climb the wall, hack into Headquarters, and deliver a baby via C-Section with absolute and almost scary accuracy and precision,” he said, sighing, “Can you not step on my toe every time?”
“No,” I said with frustration, stepping back from my stance again. “Because I’d rather do all of those things rather than learn this ridiculous dance!”
Collin spoke into his watch.
“No,” he said, “End Dance 3. Again.”
The music cut off instantly.
“It was quite the show,” George said. “I was almost certain it was going to end in a spar. We could check off physical training and Histculture at once. We’ll call it dance fighting! It could catch on, you never know.”
I was so thankful that George was joking that I finally cracked a smile. But Collin looked frustrated at me. I could tell I was disappointing him. I had passed all my finals. We were striving to improve everything from my appearance to my demeanor, so I could successfully infiltrate a Citizen or Elite event.
I’d get caught by the Republic, not getting caught stealing babies from the lab, but because I had danced one move wrong or sipped my coffee the wrong way. That infuriated me.
Collin was calmer, but he seemed to be shorter in his commands today.
I would ask why, except he was acting more like George, and it was almost refreshing to have someone giving me drills again.
“Again, first without me,” Collin said. He restarted the music. I went through the motions, dancing with air, which felt strange.
I was five steps in, when he said, “Shoulder’s down, back straight, like there’s a string—”
“From my spine to the top of my head. Got it,” I quickly said.
“Okay, better. Now relax. You’re too tense. You’re not even holding anything, but you look like you’re going to choke the air.”
I kept dancing, trying to do what he said, but my shoulders still felt tense.
George said, “Technically, he would want to choke whoever she’s dancing with,” he said, still typing on his MCU. He was looking over paperwork again. I felt bad that he had so much to do. Hannah had put him in charge of checking the messaging schedule this year to make sure it was varied enough from last year. Because of the breach, she was being extra cautious. George seemed okay with the assignment, and it allowed him to stay off his feet. He’d been ten days without an incident, and with only two more weeks of training to go, I had hoped that his illness had been temporary. He had even spared with me and went climbing with Collin the day before.
“Slower,” Collin said. “This isn’t a fight. You’re not jumping on moves, you’re gliding into them.”
“We didn’t have ‘gliding’ lessons at the Academy, Collin,” I said.
“Arms up. Face relaxed, not in pain,” he said, but then answered, “That’s because dancing isn’t allowed, because it’s seen as something from the Republic that’s too distinctly theirs to be good. But really, there’s nothing inherently evil about dancing.”
I felt my core and legs burn, and as my arms extended, I felt I would rather lift fifty pounds on the barbell.
“I would argue that. This is some form of torture.”
He sighed. “Remember, feet low… low-”
Collin paused. At first, I didn’t see why, but then I heard George grunt.
“George?” Collin asked, the tone of his voice changing.
“It’s fine,” he said, but he was pale suddenly, clutching his side. “It’s not as bad. I’m just going- I’ll get something quick,” he said, putting the Computer and MCU down, and walking away.
George moved quickly, his one elbow on his side, his other hand pointing at Collin, who was turning towards him. “I’m serious, don’t stop. It’s nothing.”
I nodded, placing my arms back up in a pose as if one was on my partner’s shoulder and one was in my partner’s hand.
Collin said, “Start Dance 3 music again,” into his watch. The speakers in the room played the music, and I moved with my imaginary dance partner, obedient to the rhythm. Collin didn’t move or give me any corrections. I turned towards him, but then froze in the position I had been in when George had left the room.
Because I could hear George vomiting in the med room.
I listened as the music played, but I stayed still, my arms choking the air.
I was expecting Collin to remind me to keep going, but he didn’t.
He moved in front of me, taking my hand and moving so his hand reached my back as mine touched his shoulder.
His jaw clenched, to stop it from shuddering. I rested my one arm on his shoulder as he stood up straighter.
“George said keep dancing. That’s what we’re doing,” he said.
I nodded my head and took a breath. “Understood,” I said.
He nodded. “Start on the 3rd measure. 4, 3, 2, 1, 4, 3, 2, 1, 4, spin.”
I spun and turned to face him again. We started. But I didn’t move as fast. I felt like I had to control every movement.
“Like that,” Collin said. “Don’t rush it. Don’t worry. Maybe it’s nothing. This isn’t a fight. You’re not jumping. Maybe it’s nothing.”
I took a breath, sure we weren’t talking about dancing. “He was finally fine, Collin. I thought maybe he just needed some time—”
“I know,” Collin said, gripping my hand tighter. “We have two weeks until you go out. You’re prepared, and he knows that. I’m thinking maybe, if it’s an ulcer, he just might be stressed because you’re going out.”
“Great, so my incompetence is causing him to get sick—”
“Don’t tense up,” Collin said. He moved his one hand to push against my shoulder.
I almost lost my pace in the dance, but he kept pace.
“Don’t rush it. Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out. We’ll figure out a way to help him.”
I felt weaker, which I hated. I could go out in two weeks and save a life. I had all this power, hours of running, climbing, training, but it was now useless if I couldn’t fight what small thing was destroying George’s body and save his life.
I heard a knock. It distracted me for a moment, but then I remembered Tessa was coming by.
“It’s just Tessa,” Collin said with an urgency that didn’t match his calm demeanor. “Get her out of here before she hears George. Now.”
I nodded, moving for the door.
Tessa was waiting, looking a little surprised we were leaving my Circle. The last two sessions had been in the Histculture room.
“Avery is only giving me twenty minutes tonight,” she said, her black eyes looking tired. “I have my field test tomorrow night. He wants me to rest up.”
I nodded. “That’s one thing I avoided this year,” I said, relieved. “Which poor senior from the Academy did they pick to be the Vessel this year?”
“Evangeline, I think,” Tessa said.
“Don’t let you her hear you call her that,” I said, moving out of my Circle. “It’s Eva.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “Where did you learn to dance like that? Flawless.”
“It’s not perfect, or so I’ve been reminded. It’s all I’ve been working on. I need a break from my Circle, though. I need to walk without worrying about pointing my toes,” I said, and she laughed at that. I continued, “I need to diversify, especially since I’m more at risk of getting recognized if I hang out in the same places. That’s the problem with being a repeat Protector. Eventually, someone might recognize me or I might start to get too comfortable in one role. The bad news is… having to learn how to dance.”
“Well, at least Collin is good for something,” she said. “And then you’ll be allowed to go into all the districts and even up to 10th Street? That would be amazing.”
I ignored her insult. Whenever she mentioned Collin, she criticized him, which means that Avery wasn’t keeping his mouth shut. But I quickly distracted her.
“Well, and I might as well learn dance. It’s not worth it for me to work all those hours to get a faster time climbing to the top of the wall when someone is going to break my record the next day.”
That made her smile, and I genuinely said, “Congratulations, Tessa. Really, no hard feelings. You beat my time by five seconds.”
“Thanks,” she said, but something shifted in her demeanor. “Does that mean you trust me more?”
“Maybe,” I answered. “You’ve certainly proven yourself these past weeks, but I have a feeling you want to know something specific.”
She paused, looking at me intently, as if she had to be brave to ask.
“You’ve told me everything about the scary stuff, all the sad stuff, all the good stuff,” she said, hesitating, “But not the impossible stuff. How did you get twelve babies out of the Republic in a little more than a month?”
I was wondering when she would bring this up. If Avery was dropping comments about how much he disagreed with Collin, I wondered why he hadn’t shared about Heather still.
“Didn’t Avery tell you yet?”
“I asked,” she said, looking timid now, but I was sure she was faking it. “He said it was confidential. It’s in your debrief. It would need to come from you.”
I paused. Hannah must have wanted to share this with her.
To help her learn from my mistakes.
We were in the garden now. I stared at the stone with Heather’s name on it.
“Heather. Her name was Heather,” I started.
I was afraid, but I loved Heather too much to not say her name.
And I did what I never wanted to do: I told Tessa about my worst mistake.
Heather’s idea. Her rebellion. How she continued help to get 12 babies out, the last one being Elise, who she wanted to come back with.
“So the Sentry shot her, and then… there was no way to track her…”
“The other Sentry didn’t kill her. Hydech let her bleed out to see if she’d reveal her source. But I took the first shot, Tessa. And then the other, and then another. She was already bleeding out, Tessa. I gave her hope. It was hope… but only waiting, promising, but never closer to her escaping.” I wished I could say it better, so she understood.
“So the babies she got out of the lab, the last one…”
“Elise,” I said.
“Is that why her name is on the rock? For Elise?”
I blinked, proud of my composure so far, and looked over at Heather’s rock.
“No,” I said. “It’s for all of them. It should be for all of them.”
Tessa nodded. “She was brave. Maybe she saw that in you.”
I looked at the rock.
I wasn’t brave.
I was afraid, but I just kept my feet moving.
Just like her.
I turned back to Tessa.
She must have known she didn’t say the right thing, so she tried again.
“I’m sorry,” Tessa said. “If you could go back, and do it again—”
“Tessa, I can’t,” I interrupted. “And that’s the point. I can’t. And neither can you. I did this… as the Protector with the record numbers and the best stats. The best times climbing up the wall and the best scores in a field test won’t matter if you forget why you’re doing this. Do you know why you’re doing this?”
“Yes,” she said, and in strange silence, she looked down at her phone. “I do now.”
Her phone beeped, which I was almost thankful for. “Oh, that’s my reminder. Sorry—”
“No, go,” I said, glad I wouldn’t have to navigate the transition. “You’ve got to get back.”
She walked quickly, only lingering once. Her eyes lingered on the torch that was for Heather. Not the rock.
I hoped I had used the right words to tell her the story in a way that would help her understand.
I heard a door open up from Central.
“What are you doing out of your Circle?” Emily asked.
“Taking a minute,” I said, still staring at Heather’s rock, but I stood up to leave.
“Yeah,” she said, turning away from the rock as well. “Brie?”
“What is it?”
“Is George… is he okay?”
I paused, clenching my jaw for a moment.
“Why don’t you ask him?” I shot back, harsher than I wanted to, but then I added, “It wouldn’t hurt for you to just ask him if he needs help, if something is wrong.”
She looked calm, almost eerily, but then her face shifted to look at the floor.
“Yes, it would,” she answered finally. “And you know why.”
“Because he’ll find out that you care about him?”
She glared at me with a stare that would make my best glare shrink and hide.
“Don’t you ever think you know what I feel. I don’t know—” She trailed off, still staring at me. “I’m too afraid that I’d regret it. He could overthink or misinterpret my feelings—”
I shook my head. “You’ll never escape your fear, Emily. He’ll find out one day, that you do feel the same way. But you can’t escape the fear. I think I just realized that I’m never going to escape the fear that I’ll fail again. I can’t shake it. I won’t.”
I swallowed, looking at all the other rocks. “But I’d rather be afraid to regret it than afraid to not go back,” I said. “So, I’ll go. And be afraid forever.”