A/N: Hey all, long time no see. I've come to the realization that I am never going to be able to finish this particular draft, at least. I'm very sorry. There are too many threads for me to coherently pull together in a story that rings true, considering that there are chapters from 6 years ago and there are chapters from over 2 years ago, and no chapters from less than a year ago. And over that past year, even, my writing has changed so much.
But it's not fair to leave you guys without some kind of idea of what I had planned for the story and characters, and so I am going to post what amounts to a bare sketch of the rest of the story, a collection of driblets, that have been sitting on my computer waiting for incorporation into To Fight or Fall. They have been written over the course of years, sometimes far apart from one another in time, and so I apologize in advance for the unevenness in tone, for one. Occasionally I have taken lines from these sections to place in other stories, because somewhere deepish down I knew that I would never really make it far enough in this story, so if you note anything that sounds aggravatingly familiar or repetetive, I have probably plagiarized myself. These sections/chapters leapfrog from one time to another, too. Additionally there are huge gaps in plot information, and generally the writing is pretty messy and I've barely edited what I have recently realized is my tendency towards melodramatic and hyperbolic language, but they proceed in about the chronological order I was planning on placing them in.
Hopefully, too, you'll enjoy these! Again, I'm sorry for whatever disappointment you might feel that this story never became what it should have become. Who knows, though, you may see it again in a different form years from now. (Secretly, I totally envision this as the kind of terrible but action-packed television show you watch in your bed with a pint of ice cream when the world sucks.)
A key to my markings: The straight line across the page signifies an entirely new segment, or 'chapter' if you will. 'xxxxx' signifies a break, or scene change, in that discrete chapter. The italics are, in general, (obviously) just my notes or introduction to that chapter.
And so, I bring you to a sort of ending.
What I had written about two years ago, immediately following the last chapter. The writing is pretty mediocre and not very much happens, but there are moments you might find amusing and there are some specific plot points that are necessary:
The first sound Cale heard when he woke up was a small burp from the tent next to him. The shock to his system upon hearing that would have required a ballad to summarize. His world tilted a bit; he stared sightlessly at the polyester walls on his right and nibbled absently on air. He was having trouble accepting the fact that Ember was not a robot, and she too ate and digested and released the remains rather than photosynthesized.
He shook himself back on track when he heard the second noise, which was the rustle of a tent flap.
The third noise was a horrified gasp.
All noises that came after that were indistinguishable as individual sounds rather than rabid howls. Cale quickly shoved himself out of his sleeping bag and cautiously lowered his eyeballs to the ground so that he could peer from the slit between his tent and the ground, and see what in the name of caffeine was going on.
It looked like the entire camp had shown up to present their complaints to Ember (because as of yet, no one knew Cale was operational, and looking at their displeasure he wanted to keep it that way). Or at least, people had shown up to present their complaints and had dragged all their friends with them. Perhaps the amount of complaints that needed to be handled was only a fraction of the amount of people trampling the grass in front of their sleeping area. Good. Because that meant Ember could deal with it on her own.
A giant foot squished his face into the dirt and Ember bellowed from somewhere above him, "Seranden, put some pants on and get your foul self out here immediately!"
If it wasn't for the fact that any refusal to do so would result in both a detrimental blow to his authority as co-leader of the camp, and a potentially detrimental blow to all that made him male, he would have crawled right back into bed. Instead, he forced himself upwards, guffawed at Ember's "Larry's Lobster Shack!" oversized t-shirt (please note the exclamation point), and languidly got to work.
It soon became quite clear that the system was not working. Someone would bombard Cale with some issue, he would resolve it quite comfortably, that someone would immediately hustle over to Ember, get an entirely different answer, and then the cycle would start all over again. People began to get angry, and even Cale's considerable people skills weren't enough to combat Ember's…lack thereof.
"But Eeember, Cale said—"
Her clear, cool response: "What he did or did not say is none of your concern. If even some of your synapses are still firing after prolonged contact with him, you ought to recognize that when it comes to our tampon supply, you should be talking to me." All right, this was one thing upon which Cale agreed with her completely.
Some little boy whose voice hadn't yet cracked: "This camp sucks! Last night I cut myself on a rock, you bitch!"
Cale looked over just in time to see Ember give the boy such a ball-shriveling look of pure malice that the kid's eyes began to water. "Don't call me bitch, bitch." She hissed into his face. He ran off wetting his pants.
Cale whistled lowly.
"What?" She whipped around, no-nonsense ponytail flying up and taking out the eyeballs of the next person in the mob. She waved away the people near her imperiously.
"There's no need to be so touchy, you know."
"Yes, Cale, there is." She snapped. "Because there's no middle ground for me, you know that? If I'm nice, maybe I'll be the person people want to talk to, but I don't get respect. If I'm mean, I get called a bitch, but people listen. It doesn't work that way for you. So you know what? You don't get to say anything. There's a goddamn double standard and you know it."
"You're so crude in the morning!" Cale flapped his tongue, staccato-rapid. "I kinda like it."
"At least people leave me having accomplished something."
That soured his mood considerably. He had noticed that the 'cycle' frequently stopped at Ember. Not that he was going to let her know he'd noticed, because that would be like…admitting he was stoopid!
He settled for shaking his head. "Anyway, fine, let's work this out if you're so unsatisfied with the current arrangement."
She looked at him, shocked.
He looked back at her, appalled.
He wondered if he should pretend that he hadn't just said that, but then she surprised him by saying, the stick just slightly wedged out of her ass, "Okay."
They divided up responsibilities and, to Cale's surprise, the camp as an organization (as opposed to a circus made of particularly mean, dumb hippopotami) seemed to perform a bit better afterwards. More efficient, like. They enlarged the cave by a few crucial feet by moving, in teams of twenty, various heavy boulders. Food was finally inventoried and stowed carefully away. The watch system was on its way to perfection. More people learned how to climb trees, walk carefully in the woods without leaving tracks, various nature-cohesive stuff like that from The Boy Scout Dude.
Things were moving. Funny, that.
Mac dug his fingers into Sara's wrist, trying not to wrap them around Tiffany's throat.
"Are you out of your completely addled mind? No!" It was going to be his ass on Ember's hot plate. His ass scrambled by her spatula. (Not the spatula!) "No, no, no, no—"
"Your vocabulary totally leaves something to be desired and yeah, I am going back. I mean, do you know how much harder they're going to look if I, like, really do disappear? They'll interrogate the children and ravage the town or something. Oh my gawd, at least with me you'll have someone on the inside and I'll get ahold of you somehow. I'm not stupid."
For the first time in the four years he'd known her, Mac almost believed the last sentence.
"Tiffany, I hate to break it to you, but playing the hero really doesn't suit you."
"Oh. My god. Do I look like I want to be the hero?"
"Well, actually, that's what I just—"
"Je-sus. You're all brainwashed by those two back there. I'm thinking for myself." And what a terrifying prospect that was. "So let me go with you and let them capture me. It'll be a distraction so that you can find your way into the school, at the very least."
"This. Is. Preposterous—" Mac spluttered, and then, with a horrified yelp, shut himself up as he was attacked by the realization that he sounded exactly like his father. Which gave him the motivation to just give in, especially once Sara also decided that Tiffany had the right idea, and informed him about her change of mind by pinching his ass.
It still didn't mean he couldn't sulk about it and delay notifying Ember about Tiffany's AWOL status until after the deed had been done.
"Good." Tiffany smirked, smoothing down her ragged skirt. "Now, did anybody manage to steal a cig from that warehouse-y thing?"
"No! And we're leaving!" Mac yelped, grabbing Sara's right hand with his left, and grabbing Tiffany's no-longer-so-perfectly coiffed hair in his right. "Now!"
"I didn't even get to say bye to Ricky. Or Simon. Or Pablo." Tiffany pouted.
"You were here for less than 24 hours. How the hell did you—"
She winked up at him from below his handful of her hair. Given her current positioning, she was surprisingly docile. "Stamina."
"Oh, gross." Sara and Mac muttered.
"Just kidding." In a split second, she'd kicked Mac's feet out from under him and was wobbling in front, still having managed to retain her—"Dolce & Gabbana," Sara whispered to him—her Dolce & Gabbana pumps. "Shit, at least I won't have to deal with these bloody trees once I'm back in prison." Tiffany muttered.
They approached the school after a few hours of unpleasant journeying. No matter how nobly Tiffany's action could be construed, Mac would never like her, even if Sara was beginning to warm up to her. ("She actually reminds me a bit of Ember." "What? You're crazy! Tiffany's a shallow nicotine-addict! Ember's a cold, cutthroat bitch!" "Well, you have to admit, they're both kind of bitchy." "Different degrees of bitch, my dear. Like you, you're a closet verbal bitch who creeps on people." "Aw, thanks.")
"Woah." Mac peered between branches as he took in the renovations that Johnson had installed at Westfield.
"Now do you appreciate how hard it was for me to get to your pathetic little camp?"
Tiffany stabbed a chipped nail in the general direction of the series of barbed wire fences that blocked their way into the school. Mac grew ever more nostalgic for the days when skipping school was as easily done as forging a hall pass and blithely skipping out through one of the secret exits in the stone walls. "I was running and running…"
He saw the black figures moving in an intricately organized pattern over the bare ground, and made a mental note to come back later to figure out exactly what the pattern was. Even if the organized defense was impenetrable, the pattern was breakable. Thus, shoopadoop, defense—penetrable!
"Are you sure about this, Tiffany?" Sara asked, gently rubbing the fabric of Tiffany's sleeve between her slender fingers.
"As sure as I am that gray is the new black. Hey, tell Ember to stick it up hers."
With that, Tiffany fake-stumbled out of the forest and into the open, falling to the ground. She crawled forward as if trying to pull herself out of the mud, and opened her mouth wide with a cry when one of the men gave a shout and came running towards her, barking harshly into his walkie-talkie. He grabbed her by her arm, ignoring her spitting curses and shrieks, and pulled her back behind the barbed wires.
Mac watched Tiffany's blonde head vanish into the swarm of insect-like black blobs through the wires, and imagined that it was Sara's head with a shiver.
"Come here." He said roughly, pulling Sara into his arms and pressing light kisses to the crown of her head. Her short curls were beginning to grow out a bit, forming ringlets instead of tight corkscrews.
She placed a placid hand against his cheek and nuzzled into his neck. "It's okay, Mac," she whispered. "I'm right here. You don't have to worry about me. I'm not going anywhere."
"What if they're hurting people in there?"
"Then you will find out what they're doing, and Ember and Cale will stop them. They have a plan. I know they do."
"Famous last words." Mac responded grimly. "Knowing our fearless leaders, they're probably arguing about the correct way to pronounce aluminum."
"Oh, silly." She mussed his hair as he hoisted her up for a piggy-back, having spotted the gap in Johnson's defenses. "Have a little more faith."
"We don't have a plan."
"Calm down, Briar. We don't need a plan just yet."
"Of course we need a plan!"
"…I am chill. I am chill like a popsicle in Siberia. I am chill like your mother's libido."
"You are in fact freaking the fuck out and honestly, Briar, it's making me all sweaty under the arms."
"Seranden, you would never allow yourself to suffer the indignity of sweaty pits."
"You know me so well, love. Now, would you like some antiperspirant from the Thuper Thecret Warehouse?"
"Made you look."
I narrowed my eyes at the cretin as his eyes darted across the improvised shelves, built from stacked rocks, that held the knick-knacks we had managed to nick-nack from the warehouse. "What are you looking for, boy?" Haughtily. I'd beat him with an excess of poise.
"Oh, Lord, save us all from Cale Seranden's thundering sex drive. But wait, is that possible? Because it followed us into the MIDDLE OF THE FOREST!"
"Come now!" Cale turned around with an excruciatingly joyful expression. "You can't mean that! How else am I supposed to have children?"
"If ever you spawn, I shall promptly grab the nearest vaguely pointy object and thrust it through my imploding brain."
"I didn't know I could induce such passion in you. Please don't end your miserable life just for me; we'll save that present for a special occasion."
"I can't imagine what woman would consent to having mini-Cales in her womb for nine months."
"Oh, of course, Satan," I sneered back. "Send me the invitation to your baby shower; I bet it'll be a blast."
This was, of course, the moment that Johnson got her crap together and a Runner from Perimeter 5 informed us that a party of twenty men in Johnson's uniform had breached the outermost border of our territory.
We should have expected it sooner, after all. That we had even had these days to prepare was more fortunate than we could ever have anticipated. Now that they were here, though, nearing the clearing that was quickly becoming a living organism of a home, we were woefully unprepared.
Perimeter 5 was five miles from the center of camp; Johnson's men were approaching from 30 degrees north, meaning that they had circled around part of the forest before picking an angle from which to penetrate the forest. I wasn't sure what had made them pick exactly that point from which to proceed; I made a mental note to have Sara check whether some trace of our activity had been accidentally left behind there.
"They know we're in the forest, then." Cale said grimly. "Well. I suppose there are only so many places we could have been, anyway."
"We're trapped." I mumbled. "This was a terrible idea; there's nowhere to run to. We have too many people to keep changing locations. The forest is finite. They'll find us eventually."
But Cale was already striding ahead. "Carly Ross, Josh Rosenberg, Saad Buhpathi, Derrick Monke, Nicole Chao. And oh, Lyssa, you too. Get the leftovers from earlier this year."
What Cale meant by "the leftovers" were the unused materials that were supposed to go towards pranking earlier this year, when the worst abuse we had to suffer at the hands of our fellow human beings were excessive sneezes and itchy asses. I looked sharply at him; those were supposed to be for Mission X12ELM.
"Your pessimism throws off my groove," Cale said flippantly over the buzzing of the camp while Daniel started explaining the situation in his calm, soothing tones. "Come now. We made plans for this, and they'll hold. The timeline just speeded up."
I took a gulp of air; the chill hurt my lungs, but brightened my eyes. I felt my smile grow sharp. "You're right. We might be contained here, but we'll just make the forest so troublesome, they'll find any excuse to avoid it."
"Mac and Sara are at the school now, helping Tiffany get recaptured, true?"
Cale's jaw grew slack. "Wha…?"
"Did you not notice them slinking away earlier? Ugh, you're hopeless. Anyway. Who is the best runner here?"
"Ben Brigman," Cale responded immediately, "but why—?"
"You get him!"
"I'm going to shoot—"
"Please don't, I'm here, I heard my name!" A redhead with the gangliest limbs I'd ever seen screeched to a stop in front of us. "What can I do?"
"Oh. Very good. I need you to give Mac and Sara a message—they're currently back at Westfield; do a loop around the area of the forest that borders the wall; do not go through the sector between north and 30 degrees north. When you find them—" I grabbed the pen from behind my ear and scrambled for a scrap piece of paper behind me before jotting down the missive, though the customary code was unnecessary for this message—"give them this, and run back here. We might need you again. Alright, go."
Ben nodded shortly and then he was sprinting off, a gray blur through the gray trees.
"What did you tell them in the note?" Cale was rather disgruntled. "And seriously, I think we need to talk about your control issues, because if you're going to send out an important memo I think I should at least be able to see it."
"I told Mac and Sara to give them hell."
"Well, then." A chuckle burbled out of Cale's throat, unwillingly. "We need to get a move on doing the same on our side of the forest, now."
"Hey ho, let's go!" I clapped my hands. "You know, I'm actually kind of looking forward to this."
"I do love it when you're evil." It was almost admiring.
Now we get to the skipping around part.
There is probably the biggest time and plot gap between the previous section and the rather dramatic chapter that follows here. In fact, almost everything that follows is rather dramatic, so you're not going to get much breathing space. After all, I suppose what ends up getting written down in advance and saved are moments of emotion drama and exhaustion, because that's what catches me, at least.
I can't tell you what has happened between before and what is coming up, other than that there have been a series of small confrontations and escapes between our wood-dwelling students and Johnson's men, especially as our band of merry women and men have embraced their role as protectors of the townspeople—who are perfectly capable of looking out for themselves, thanks very much, but they appreciate the help. Our students have had to survive winter in the wild as well as Christmahanukwanzaakah and Valentine's Day. Occasionally they are able to steal their mail. Angela is also running through the woods and mountains trying to make her way back to civilization so that she can also be a hero. And is meanwhile working through her psychological issues. More on that later.
There has been more interesting action-oriented, er, action, but I don't know what it was. Learning more about Johnson's scary biotech lab, for instance. Daniel and Hot Nicole Gardener talk more and Nicole clearly has the hots for Oblivious Daniel. More bickering between Ember and Cale, as usual. More moments of generosity between them, too, though. Ember is also beginning to realize that maybe what's important isn't being a 'Leader', and all the stupid arrogance and self-aggrandizement and snobbery that self-imposed label implies.
But voila! Drama ahoy! Cale has been acting strangely today—at least, more strangely than he usually does. Also, a reminder: everyone in this story seems to have family baggage, because that was what I was into when I was fifteen. I guess every family has their baggage, though.
"What is your problem, anyway?" I followed him as he strode out of the main camp area. I had never seen Cale quite so out of sorts. And I don't mean just in the fact that he'd woken up with bed hair this morning. I continued to track Cale as he continued thrashing through the woods, murdering millions of growing things and baby crawly creatures under his monstrous feet. The stupid coward. "What the hell is your problem, Seranden? Answer me!"
We'd only made it to the outskirts of camp, and so everybody else was in perfect earshot of the screaming match that I could practically taste on the horizon. "No, you demanding bitch!" Cale whirled around, and I raised my eyebrows in disbelief to see his already pale face even more haggard and sickly than usual. His eyes were red-rimmed. "I am under no obligation to answer you, and you should remember that."
I took a deep breath and glared. "Yeah? Well, I wasn't the one running around all day breaking up friendships and relationships by making out with four different girls and picking fights with kids who, as you know full well, don't have the physical strength to fight back, you sickening, loathsome, bullying, miserable asshole!"
He'd punched a thirteen-year-old. With glasses. And a sweater-vest. And what kind of jerk does that.
"My grandfather died!" Cale roared.
"You don't even like your family!" I screamed, and we both reeled back from the spoken truth. For a moment, there was silence.
Cale stiffened and froze, and when he spoke, for a moment his voice was so changed that I wasn't even sure it was him. Quietly, he said, "You. Shut. Up."
It burst out, suddenly, and while his usually maddeningly expressionless, dead face changed, his face twisted so horribly with hate and loathing that I nearly cried out. "Don't tell me who I am, Briar. Don't you dare tell me who I am."
"Don't scream at me," I howled. "Don't scream at me because you have hated hearing truths since you were young, okay? Don't scream at me because you're a damnable, sniffling runner, okay? Do you understand me?"
"Truths? Fine, you want your truths, Briar?" Cale shoved me, and I was suddenly too startled and a little scared to retaliate for a moment. Because…guys didn't hit girls, right? Good guys didn't hurt girls. (Except that Cale…wasn't that good a guy. And he'd hurt girls—a girl—me—before.) "Here's an honest to god truth, Ember. Your family doesn't know you exist. They don't know who you are. That's why you've been able to get your supplies using your parents' cash and influence—because they don't care enough to check up on what you're doing with your life."
"Shut up, Cale!"
"And what else, huh? What else? Do you love your family, Ember?" His voice took on a hideous, baby-talk quality. His capacity for cruelty again amazed and sickened me and I wondered what twist in his brain let him say these things because he was too much of a soft-palmed, spoiled rich boy to do it physically. "Do you love even your family? Choice between your life and your…father's, perhaps. Whose would you pick? Hey, I know! Your own, you selfish, vain, alienated—"
"I hate you!" I bawled, shoving him with all my might, with all the choking misery sliding up my throat that was enough to stop the breath in my lungs. "I hate you, you asshole, and I hope you die! I hate you so much! I HATE YOU!"
He dreamed once of a beautiful land, where wind whistled across sloping landscapes and created music from the sky, and the sands billowed until the end of time. It was so different from his land of cold mists and polluted heat.
There was a tree in that dream, as well. It grew green and yellow in the acrid dryness of the desert. There had been an impermeable feeling of peace about all of it.
(Halfway through the dream, an enormous penguin had attempted to shoot up a liquor store that only sold clown shoes, and the beauty of the dream had disintegrated into ridiculousness. But it was a nice dream, all the same.)
There was a part of him that still tried to get back to that peace.
"You don't know what you're talking about." Angrily, Ember shoved him again. "I love my brother. And I would die with my family. I would die with them!"
"But not for them," Cale shouted back. "Choose your words carefully, Briar, because they betray your ice cold fucking heart!" He chuckled a little hysterically.
They were shouting now, and it was strange, because this was a different animal of inflicted pain than anyone was used to. People avoided the area and scurried, terrified, around the perimeter for fear that they might be caught in the crossfire.
"How dare you speak to me this way, you worthless piece of shit?" Ember screamed at him. "How dare you, when you are so faulty—when you are as flawed as the rest of us? How dare you adopt that attitude of superiority and pretend you're better than anyone else?" This was a fight that they had never waded through.
Cale's eyes narrowed in his pale, white face. "Superior?" He roared. He almost tried to hold back the madness that he could tell was tinting his speech, but then released it with a kind of harsh and exhilarating and devastating relief. "You hypocrite; if anything, I have adopted the attitude from you, Madame Ice Queen; o towering statue, o holy holy night. Well, fuck you. It's ice that runs through your veins, Ember…ice, not the warm blood of a human. Your condescension for your fellow human beings disgusts me—you tread on their backs and spit in their faces because you are so maddeningly better than them.
"You've lost your humanity and I hope you laugh for the loss when you go to bed at night. It's that cold vessel of logic in your skull that allows you to judge people so freely, when you have no right to. You, Ember, are nothing but a wraith of a person, because you are cruel."
Huge gray eyes were lifted to his. "That," she whispered, "was an awful thing to say." Her lips trembled, and suddenly she was just a small vulnerable animal in a corner.
And Cale chanted in his mind, Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.
Because one cannot violate the innocence of children, and beneath everything, sometimes Ember was still just a girl.
And then she was running away, and the taste of victory was bitter in his mouth.
What was the point? I wondered hazily, embracing the long, hollow grass and the dark, hollow earth of the ground with tears and snot and all manner of unpleasant things that they never tell you about in fairy tales. There was a certain boy with eyes that were bright with the hard gleam that anger casts over features, who was sharp and cruel and all the things that someone who was a leader shouldn't be. Was there a point to all this if there was nothing to keep me going but the words from the mouth of a beautiful boy convinced he lived in an ugly, ugly world?
Was there a point to this if he was right?
And there had to be something beyond this.
"I wasn't always like this, you know." I wailed to the implacably impersonal sky, hating it for being, if not sunny, then not rainy and misty and cold and glum like weather was supposed to be when the heroine felt like her world had shifted under her. "I wasn't like this, and I used to smile a bit more and I wasn't…I wasn't…" I could barely breathe, aware that the great, gasping, open-mouthed breaths that seemed to be the only kind of respiratory activity I could manage were forcing me to eat grass. "I'm not…" I sobbed miserably again, my mouth bitter and sour and tasting of sorrow and anger and a thousand other things I could not name.
The animalistic grieving sounds issuing from me frightened me, and the still quiet of the scenery was mocking. Stupid little girl who got all broken up because a boy had called her names. And I did not want to be that little girl. I'd worked my whole life against being that little girl, aware that it only produced pleasure for the provoker and I would not allow them that happiness.
And yet I apparently had. A quick footstep sounded, and I turned around and discovered that Cale was not finished with me. I turned around and there he was with his profile outlined in the late afternoon like the gilded outline of a god-statue, a hero, and I felt small beside him as I contemplated that sort of immortality. At least, I felt small beside him until I looked beyond that outline, looked beyond the stray hairs that floated in the remorseless light of this setting and saw him literally collapse under my stare.
He had paused at first, as if he had misplaced the reason for his being here, at once furious and guilty and grieving and utterly unsure, but when I turned to him with, I could only imagine, a similar expression, his face crumpled. His eyes were curiously young, his elegant hands suddenly only desperate extensions of the rest of him as he reached them out, a supplicant begging grace, and the cry burst out of him like the flight of a thousand blackbirds into silence. "Why do you hate me?" It was the last question in the world I would have ever expected from his lips.
It crippled me.
"I'm tired of it," I replied, gulping back mucus and tears as they angrily rushed forward again. I had never been much of a crier; I was not about to start now. My tear ducts evidently had other plans and called for reinforcements for their mutiny. "I'm tired of this, and I'm tired of hating you so much that I don't know what to do except fight and fight, and I hate that too…and I'm tired of fighting because there is nothing else, do you know that? I'm tired…I'm tired of looking for something beyond whatever it is that's here and oh god, oh god…"
I was crying harder than I ever had in my short life, crying like I was going to heave my liver out of my throat, crying like grief and aching was poisonous, crying with huge wheezes and indecipherable bellows and wails of abject misery. And six feet away from me Cale had collapsed onto his knees and his nostrils were flaring like a hypoglycemic horse after it's run a race without having eaten for a week, and a part of me was obscurely pleased by that.
Through the watery screen of my horror I realized that he was not quite weeping, but aching, too, and I nearly smiled at our ridiculous tableau, but that faint humor disappeared soon. "I'm so tired of being lonely." I choked again, expelling those words with another wet honk. "Cale, I'm so tired."
I could feel the energy of struggle coming off his body. The contortion in his face told me he was trying so, so hard to speak, to tell me to shut the hell up because he was feeling…bad. And at the same time I thought he was also searching for words of comfort, but then…but then, those were not the kinds of words he had ever been good at.
He crawled to me, following some instinct that led him in the direction of crying female. I sniffled again, following course in his direction and I didn't know why—only that here was somebody else who knew this, who was also scared of who we were, and what was going to happen to us. I dug my fingers into the dirt, pushing myself forward and towards him and when we reached the middle, that metaphorical precipice that would dictate the end, we crashed against and into each other like we had no one else.
It would have made so much more sense if around us there had been blood, or tragedy, or rain or victory or anything else. Yet there was nothing to make the situation more plausible. We had only a silent clearing filtered with dim afternoon light, only two scared children clutching each other. And it was okay because the outside silence could not be heard over our snorts and heartbeats, and inside there was a new kind of quiet.
After a while, we calmed down—my crying subsided into his shoulder, his hand gentled on the back of my shirt. In the half-embrace we both curled into, emboldened by the white noise of his heartbeat against mine, I said, "Do you hate me so much?"
It was a long time before he answered, and when he did his whisper sounded raw, like tide pulling away from sand. "No." His small smile curved into my neck. "Only a very little bit. And only sometimes."
"Okay." I whispered back, and it was so quiet that he shifted to hear me. "Okay. And I don't really want you to die. I really don't."
Stay. Stay. Someday we'll be better.
This is either what was supposed to be a meeting for peaceful negotiation, or Johnson surprised the group in the woods. Either way, Johnson, Cale, Ember, and their respective teams are in the woods, a gathering that does not make for goodness. Also I was actually never quite sure whether this chapter, or the one you just read, should come first. Both are big emotional wreck sort of things, so. Order them in your head as you please.
"Calm down and cease this silliness, child," Johnson said in a scolding, motherly tone that infuriated me. Beside me, Cale's arms were so rigid that the tendons in his arms strained against newly bronzed skin. "And everything will be all right."
Three men in black stood impassively beside Johnson, and effectively shielded her from whatever we could throw at her. (Which was, to be quite frank, a large bundle of nothing…aside from our own bodies, which could be mowed down by a clean round of gunfire before we could do any harm.)
They weren't shooting us now, though. I took this for granted with the simple acceptance of a child; with a naivety about the duplicity of the real world. I was complacent about the behavior of adults—because when grown-ups said something, they meant it, because they'd promised.
Cale was not, because Cale was a bit less sheltered than any of us, aside from Mac. Because Cale had at least caught glimpses of the real world outside Westfield and outside of our cushioned, glittering life in the suburbs. And so Cale was the only one who never took his eyes off Johnson and off her men and off their shining, dark gun barrels. He moved a fraction of an inch, and with this tiny movement his stance shifted from aggressive to protective.
I looked at him strangely, and then quickly glanced behind me to check up on the students. All four were present, hard-eyed and suspicious, but perhaps a bit less so than we should have been. There was Megan with her curly red hair, Timothy with his freckle-covered face, and delicate Trisha, and quiet Mark.
"Well?" Johnson said again. "Come now, we aren't so bad. This is all for your own good. This teenage rebellion is just a phase, and you'll regret it. Yes, you will. Now come back to us, and your complaints about the…management of the school will be answered with due process." Her soft voice was unexpectedly compelling, but it was nothing when faced with Cale at his most persuasive. I had resisted that bastard. I could ignore this bitch, no problem.
"Really, now?" I said. "Now what do you possibly have that could persuade all of us to return?" At once, all six of us tilted our heads in mock curiosity and cocked our eyebrows.
In reply, Johnson's men cocked their guns.
Johnson had realized as soon as I opened my mouth that there would be no peaceful surrender here. We weren't children-children any longer. We were not complacent, and she would try to trivialize us? No. We were self-sufficient, we outnumbered her, we were angry.
"Death." Johnson murmured with a smile, and the guns were aimed.
Instinctively the younger ones drew themselves into a huddle behind the weak shelter that Cale and I offered. And then they yanked away from each other again, the spirit that had been brought forward by the cold winter and their experience of fear urging them to stand beside their peers, their friends.
With a harsh gesture matched to his firm, suddenly granite-like features, Cale pushed them back behind him, and even attempted to do the same to me. I slapped his presumptuous arm away.
He couldn't afford to look at me while he kept every square millimeter of eyeball trained on the enemy, and neither could I, but we could feel each other's frustration practically burning the air. I could feel his anguish and his desire to be a goddamn guardian stabbing viciously at any obstacle in the way of what he perceived as his duty. "No." He muttered angrily at me.
"Yes." I replied stubbornly.
A yowl of something ripped its way through his voice box but he managed to keep it checked. "You can't."
"I will." I whispered back, and reached over to squeeze his hand in warning and in anger. It ended up being a shy touch of reassurance, and even as an odd jolt shuddered through my system at the contact, I saw his shoulders relax and felt the throbbing in my temple subside.
"So what now, children?" Johnson asked us smoothly.
"If you kill us," I said courteously and coolly, "our parents will find out and send every investigator in this country and the next sniffing around your arses until they find something."
"Perhaps," Johnson said complacently.
Cale's voice carried clearly across the clearing. "And the survivors will tell someone of what you've done. You can't kill all of us to prevent this because you'd be clapped in irons the second you stepped aside—I'm afraid that 500 dead minors is a very suspicious situation, Headmistress. In short, Johnson, you can't kill any of us without someone finding out and eliminating what sorry future you do have. Oh, I suppose you're able to; capable of it. It comes down to whether you want to."
"Oh, bravo, bravo." Johnson said softly, and Cale, recognizing the tone where I didn't, stiffened. "The thing is…" Mark stepped out to stand beside us, fierce and proud, before anybody could pull him back. "…I don't care."
"Don't you?" Cale asked lazily, before his eyes widened suddenly with an epiphany that came too late, and Johnson breathed happily:
There was a crack that blinded and deafened and felt as if it killed us all and Mark…Oh, god, and Mark fell to the ground with a thud and a horrifying, gurgling noise.
A thin, high scream emitted from Trisha's lips as she fell over and scrabbled at the ground to pull at Mark's sleeve. The children behind us whimpered piteously and even tough, wannabe-thug Timothy opened his mouth and shouted and cried. Cale hadn't moved at all, and now stood like a board as if afraid to look, and his eyes had sheltered their owner with the thickest, most opaque veil I had ever even seen Cale pull over his face. It even lessened the brightness, the curious gold that demanded that people fall in love with him.
I nearly bit my tongue off, trying not to faint from the sheer desire to un-recognize this reality, and trying not to cry. Mark's eyes were still open in shock, and a bubbling mix of red began to seep from his mouth. "Oh, shit. Shit." I swore tearfully, trying to find a fucking leaf to…to wipe that off his mouth, because it didn't look right, because…because he was dead…? Dead. He was dead, and it was so different from the movies. How could someone be dead, though? Just gone, without final last words or anything? He was younger than me. He'd wanted to be an astronaut. And he was dead, like people in movies, only not, because he was still warm and I wanted so badly for him to wake up and grin like this was a dreadful joke…
"Oh, fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck," I screamed into my hands, suffocating my voice between them and frantically wiping off the tears that kept coming and wouldn't stop. And…"Cale…" popped hysterically out of my mouth before I could think.
It seemed to wake him up, and now he sprung into action, the protection of everyone else foremost on his mind. Sobbing and hysterical, the others didn't even hesitate to rush behind Cale's comfortingly solid back. I tried to step beside him again but he shook his head, pushed me behind him, and he meant it now. This wasn't a fucking metaphor because I was still equal and he was still equal and we all knew this, even as we knew that something in Cale made it easier for him to deal with this situation, at least for the time being. "Not this time." His voice cracked, and he raised his gaze to Johnson's eerily calm, benevolent face.
I hadn't been prepared for this, which was the opposite of what true life was supposed to be in our imagination. And I needed the soothing strength of another human body against my own, a buffer, a shield, a means to delay reality, to tell me that I was still alive. I was that girl.
And I didn't mind so much as I shuddered against Cale and felt the muscles and bones of his back shift beneath me. As I turned away from the sight of Mark's still, cold body and towards the surprising heat of Cale's, I leaned ever so slightly forward, wiped the rest of my tears and snot onto his shirt, and readied myself for an escape that would surely require a sane, coherent, stronger me.
I was wrong about the need for action in an escape. Cale was a mass of wire-braided strength and muscle, ready to spring, when Johnson just uttered a small, short laugh of disdain and motioned for her men to turn around.
And they left. They left, just like that, having taken the life of a child without repentance. They didn't turn back. But Johnson couldn't resist having the last word and her voice came floating back. "Talk to me when you're ready to be good."
Perhaps some more space to breathe, in which Ember and Cale have to inform the camp what happened. Also a cut back to Westfield, where Tiffany is settling into her new position as a sort of leader of this faction, dismayed by her burgeoning understanding of what it means to be compassionate as she struggles to keep the rest of her flock of students safe.
He broke down later that night. In the tent next to mine, as a thick silence filled with grief settled over the camp, Cale suddenly broke the stillness first with a choke, and then with a childlike wail that he tried to muffle with his pillow, with his blankets, with his hand. I heard a heaving sob and a low moan of grief, an echo of my own earlier tears. The sound of Cale breaking down—of Cale breaking down, of the untouchable that everybody had built in their minds falling to pieces—made my own misery well up again when I had thought I was all cried out.
That wail broke my heart, just a bit.
It was too much. I rubbed my leaking nose against the back of my hand, quickly wiped my own cheeks of the few tears that had managed to escape, and quietly padded over to Cale's tent because…because he had held me up the entire walk back and had let me bawl all over his shoulders and had calmed me down by just being him in time for me to inform the camp of everything that had happened. Because nobody deserved to be alone when they were that sad and because I knew, deep within me, that despite his half-hearted attempts to achieve isolation, Cale was not really a solitary creature even at the worst of times. It was part of the reason he had become a Leader in the first place.
And it's not like it hurts me, I thought hysterically. It's not like Cale is unable to handle this, it's just that…it's just that…I couldn't finish the sentence, and so I resolutely shoved it into the very deepest corners of my self.
Quietly, I slipped between Cale's tent flaps and stood there for a shocked moment, watching his shoulders heave and listening to his hysterical wheezes and hoarse swearing as he tried to suppress his sobs and failed. And it took every drop of empathy I had to walk those five steps to Cale and touch the sleeve of his thin T-shirt and brush against his shoulder.
He started and stiffened, sitting up in panic and slowing down with reluctance and shame when he realized that it was me. For a long moment we just sat silently in front of each other. We stared into each other's red-rimmed gazes, searching each other's faces for something that we weren't sure existed.
Muddy tracks painted through the gathered dirt that had collected on his cheeks these past few days. The taste of a memory was on my lips, spread softly through my mind and in the corner of my eye, collected at the tips of my eyelashes and my ears and my nose. I caught a glimpse of a well-known stranger with gentle, laughing eyes and messy hair and I wasn't sure if it was me or him but there was a strange certainty in the memory that was and was not, that told me, This is new.
In the dim non-light I considered rushing out that door, back to the safe place where boundaries were set and I was not sitting in front of my worst enemy (and oh, and oh, how childish that term sounded in face of everything that had happened) aching to brush away the tangled hair that hung in his face and simultaneously scratch out his weeping eyeballs because Cale's eyes should not look that soft and sad. I wavered between wishing and wanting things to be different, and dealing with the aftermath of something that was exceedingly different from what I had planned. In the grayish darkness of midnight I wondered who would first break the silence.
It wasn't me.
We kneeled in front of each other, inches away, and his lids closed briefly over his traitorously, implausibly vulnerable eyes and then lifted again. He looked at me and I saw fear.
"I'm sorry." Cale croaked.
His eyes filled again at the same time mine did, and a tear leaked down his cheek. In that one tear I finally found the humanity that gently took any remaining hatred I had for him and bore it away to a place of soft shadows and memory.
This is most definitely towards the end, as the Westfield students prepare for the final confrontation with Johnson. But Ember might have other plans.
"Never thought it would be you, sneaking off like a rat to the sewers."
My body clenched inwards upon itself and if it was already difficult for me to breathe, it became much harder when I saw Cale standing in the glade, all pitiless gold in the sun. A disengaged part of me snarkily observed that he had probably set up this particular fancy 3-point lighting technique on purpose, rearranging the solar system so that it hit the good side of his face. The rest of me, the part of me that knew that this was abhorrently wrong but was resolved to do this anyway, shuddered. "Oh? Who did you think it would be?"
"Me," Cale replied immediately. I blinked. "I have never been a part of this school the way you have, Brier. I have never cared the way you…did. But now, with everything, and you…"
"So what is it? You hate me so much that you'd cut off your nose, etcetera? Or what. You're really the heartless bitch that you tell people you are. Or, in a startling turn of events, ladies and gentlemen, will the real coward please stand up!" Cale's face twisted more with each sentence. "And you're leaving us. Now. At this moment, when we need every warm body we got, when we need a leader. You're leaving me like this. Who are you? I don't know you."
I whispered, "Yes."
He let me walk past him. Our eyes did not meet. I couldn't pull them up from the ground. "I'm not asking you to stay," he said. His voice was more clipped than I had ever heard it; any harder, and words would shatter. In that moment, he hated me genuinely and truly and as if he had never known me, and he was thinking that he never had, and I recognized the grief. I had not known myself until this moment. And it was not knowledge that I wish I had ever had because if this was who I was, stripped of the coverings and the words and my self-imposed station as a moral pole to which needles pointed, then I was nothing.
But I would be alive. I would see my brother. I would, perhaps, have a family. And I would not suffer.
"I know," I said, and began to cry as I walked further into the isolation of the woods and lost any sense of human heat around me.
Maybe hate belongs to children and maybe it belongs only to whatever's left over.
I have hated. I have vomited putrid, stinking hate for so many years that it has become a phantom vein in my body. And I've received it in return, incorporated it into my body like rocket fuel. You stupid boy. You stupid girl. I will rip your eyes out and I will feed them to the starving dogs in the hole, and the world will forget your name.
(All truth be told, I don't even remember what it means anymore.)
I fell into a hole.
This is not a figure of speech designed to cleverly depict the anguish and despair sucking at my soul. I literally fell into a hole. I fell into an animal trap that we must have forgotten about, and twisted my ankle, and stuck my wrist into a pile of raccoon poop. How did I know it was raccoon poop? Because there was a dead one touching my face.
This made me throw up. And that, along with some other things, made me cry for the next hour.
And I missed my family. I missed my parents.
And I would never get them back, not the figures of my childhood, and not all the self-loathing in the world would fix that. And my brother, my brother…
"Have a little faith in me, Em, Jesus!"
What a stupid thing to think about. It was not at all a convincing flashback.
"I will kick your fucking asses, you toad-shit-eating motherfuckers, lick my asshole while I piss on you with my street-fighting skills! I will FUCK YOU UP!"
Better. More comforting.
Ethan. He was so cute when he was threatening burly military-trained men with butter knives. In the bottom of that hole, finally motionless enough to think, I considered death. I considered love. You may refer to Wise-Things-Written-By-Dead-Greeks-and-Frenchpeople, page 44. I thought that they were both beginnings and endings and mine did not belong in a dank pit, and they did not belong in a cold house in Connecticut, and they did not belong to a retreating back.
I decided, for the first time in my life, to believe in people.
Perhaps when it came down to it, my obsession with leadership and control was based on a lack of faith in the people I loved, and in the people that I did not love. Ironically I had the most faith in the people I despised. And so I tried to take control back from the latter because there was power in that, just as there was too much power in the hands of the people close to me. While I played at stepping all over people's senses of their self-worth when they actually stared pityingly at me from above, I was in fact a paranoid, neurotic, selfish hoarder and all my more terrible idiosyncrasies leered over my shoulder every day.
It was time to shove all those gremlins with their funky breath into a small jar, and shoot them in the head.
Climbing out of the underground, however, temporarily offset that more noble ambition. Each time I pressed my palm against the wall, the dirt crumbled around me, refusing me a proper grip. How could I make my glorious return if I couldn't make it out of this hole? I mentally noted to shove Smug Self-Conceit into the jar too, noting that my return would not be glorious, as it came hard on the heels of a most inglorious attempt to—
I sighed. To run away. All those things that I thought I had hated and it turned out that I was a whole capsule of them. Well. We always fear the things in ourselves, most of all.
"Who's in there?"
I looked up, my vision momentarily fading to a shocking white as the sun blinded me. There was no way. It had been months…
"What the fuck are you doing in there?"
I cackled wildly. I almost cried again. She had always had the most perfect imperfect timing, an art she had perfected and usually used in order to make an appropriate entrance to a party. "It's a long story. The past few months have been a long story, rather. Oh god, I've missed you—"
"Being mad at one another was so stupid—"
"—I was such an idiot—"
"—I was such a bitch—"
"We're running out of time." A new, deep voice broke in. "Let's get her out. This is Ember?"
"Yes," I heard Angela say wetly and joyfully, "this is Ember."
"And who the hell are you?" I snapped at the new face that appeared at the edge of the large circle of light above me, taking in his dark stubble and…the shine of metal on the uniform of the Johnson's men. "Angela, get away from him." I leapt to the farthest edge of my pit. "He's one of Johnson's men."
"Was," Angela said completely unconcernedly. "And believe me, the two of us already had our big confrontation about that. And I trust him."
The serious male face changed a little. "Really." He said, obviously struggling to sound neutral.
"Ugh, come on, Bran. Didn't I tell you? Oh. Oops. Guess I thought it was, like, implicit. Anyway, I trust you. I love you. Let's move on."
"You love me?" The guy squawked. Suddenly even his badass Johnson uniform couldn't hide the fact that when he stopped putting his serious face on, he looked like a ten-year-old. With stubble. And 190 pounds of muscle.
I watched as Angela rolled her eyes, flipped her dark hair, and pulled Bran in for a long, and seemingly very enjoyable, kiss. "People. Things would be so much simpler and less dramatic if people just said what they were thinking. So get used to it, buddy, because you're going to be around me for a while." Bran dropped his gun and literally leapt on my friend, effectively pulling the both of them out of my realm of vision. The bit of metal fell into my little nest of dead raccoon and feces. I considered it for a while, imagined pulling it solidly against my shoulder and using it as a different sort of leverage.
No. Though I didn't trust him, I would trust Angela.
"Add another couple to the list of people falling in love all over the place," I mumbled to myself. "So once you guys are settled in, mind pulling me out of this dank hellpit?"
"So what's your story?" I asked nervously as we got closer and closer to camp. Angela made a noise of discomfort as my arms tightened around her waist. "I've told you what happened with us back here while you were gone, and what happened with me just now. How did you pick up that lunatic?" I gestured towards Bran, who rode behind and to the left of us. His eyes were darting all over the place, probably scouting things out, which contributed to the look of crazy on his face. His overly intense and vaguely unhappy-looking expression didn't help.
"Eh. He was following me on Johnson's orders. I noticed after a couple of days and took him out—and took his gun, HA—by the end of the week. But I was also totally lost, which sucked, you have no idea, and he said he knew the way out if I was willing to come back and spy for Johnson after I did my thing for the sake of appearances, because yadda yadda he knew I had left you guys unhappily. Obviously I would never, but he didn't know that at the time, so I blithely agreed because I don't have your rigid sense of honor.
"Except then we both got lost because he was totally bullshitting me about knowing the way out, which is why it took so long to get back. And then my feminine charms and large boobies won him over and we fell in love after many conflicts, secrets shared, other bad guys defeated, etcetera. By the way, though it took a lot of convincing—I mean, boarding school in the middle of nowhere used to test experimental biotechnology on teenagers? You call in the X-Men for that—I've got the government coming to dust the Milky Way with Johnson's ass; they should be here in a few hours."
This was a lot to take in.
After a moment of processing, I kissed Angela on the cheek and said, "You've actually driven me speechless, in the best way possible. You're a goddess."
"Aw, thanks, girl! Now let's get you and Cale to kiss and make up, too."
"Excuse me? No kissing. You're mad as a hatter. Things haven't changed that much."
"Yeah. Okay." Angela snickered.
"What is that supposed to mean? Just because you're basking in the glow of newly announced and reciprocated love doesn't mean everyone around here is falling prey to their hormones."
"Ha! You admitted your hormones get excited around our golden boy, though!"
"Angela." Bran broke in. "Ember." He added as an afterthought. We had made it to camp. And someone clearly was not propelled into ecstasy by this.
Cale strode across the ground towards us, pushing small children out of his way, with vengeance clearly on his mind and fueling his footsteps. He might as well have been carrying a flaming sword. I clutched Angela more tightly, aware that I deserved whatever he felt like hurling into my ribcage. He howled, moving closer all the while, "You flaky, wish-washy, poxy, tail-turned defector. Three hours and thirty-five minutes is all it took? God, have the decency to stay away once you decide to turn your back on the people who trust in you, because you make me sick, I can't look at you, I don't even know how I'm going to forgive you—"
"You're going to forgive me?" I asked in a tiny voice. Hope floated like a tiny golden bird above the massive pile of maggot slime that I felt like.
"Of course I'm going to forgive you eventually," Cale snarled, "because you're Ember Brier despite everything, and even though I'm just fucking furious with you, if you hadn't come back I probably would have found a lake to drown myself in after all this was over."
I tumbled off Angela's horse and knocked Cale to the ground. For a moment I just breathed, and felt his arms whip around me, holding me hard against him. He snuffled into my shoulder. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sorry. There were some things I needed to work out for myself, by myself. I'm sorry it took so long for me to come back."
"I knew you would," he said breathlessly. "I knew you would as soon as I couldn't see you anymore. So I didn't tell anybody. Because I knew. But you always surprise me, and so I was afraid that this time you would, too."
"I'm going to tell them. They deserve to know and to be apologized to, and to push me out if they feel it is right."
"And I knew that too." I sat up a bit and pulled away from Cale. Half-lidded, his eyes were taken over by golden irises, as though Cale held the sun beneath his skin. Something like affection held his arms by his sides now. "Because you are brave. It took more courage to come back then it did for me to stay here. I couldn't have done that."
I coughed. "You're a stupid flowery idiot." Beneath me, his body rose with his breath, pushing his sternum against mine.
"So. We fight?"
"Yes." I looked up at Angela and Bran, and Sara and Mac, and Daniel, and timid fierce Trisha, Mark's tiny grave on the hill, and all the people who had stood by me as equals and loved me and joked with me and hated me. My family. I unwound myself from Cale and we turned to face our small, laughable, beautiful army. "We fight," I announced to the gathered crowd. This was as far as my inspirational talk would go. The time had long passed for extravagance. Looking at the resolve on everyone's faces, I knew that, words or no, it came down to soul and heart and mind. And my people had all of those in excess, and they swirled around everyone like the most lethal ribbon dance you have ever seen at the Olympics.
"Also," Angela jumped in chirpily, "masses of government troops, of the strong and bulky and totally not-at-all-fun anti-bullshit type, are coming in a few hours, so we just have to last until then, as long as we get our people out of her creepy little laboratory prison. Hey everyone, I'm back! Also stop circling Bran, he's totally harmless."
"I'm not harmless."
"He's totally harmless to us, then. He'll take down Johnson's men in a cute second. Don't worry, love, I know you're a bad, ruthless man." Bran preened a little.
I looked up at Cale and felt strong. "We fight."
Suffice to say, our ragtag band of school-teen heroes rescue the people trapped in the school thanks to a devious, clever plan that involved bribing the janitorial staff, because Johnson's people were lazy and still needed someone to clean their toilets. The list of rescuees include Ember's 12-year-old brother Ethan—who had not been introduced into the story at the time of my stopping point. But he was coming! He had run away to Westfield to see Ember, totally unaware that madness was going down, and managed to finagle his way into town when Ember and Cale's people managed to spot him and take him back to camp. He eventually got captured by Johnson despite all of Ember's neurotic efforts. Anyway. He too was rescued, though it turns out he didn't really need rescuing after all. By the time Ember's prisoner-rescuer squad got to the holding facility where all the students were imprisoned, Ethan had managed to escape from his captors, who had totally underestimated his power to fuck them up with his street-fighting skills, and was organizing a mass breakout like the pre-teen diva he totally is.
Tiffany has also, surprisingly, been a huge help with this.
Then there are real battles and skirmishes throughout the school, Ember and Cale's old hunting ground, except now these are physical. Which totally sucks. Warden (resident student doctor-in-training) is kept busy. Luckily, most of Johnson's guns have been taken away, broken, or deprived of a second source of ammunition once the first rounds are finished. Bran is also a big help, in his own stoic and stubborn sort of way. Sorry I didn't get to introduce him either, he's a cutie, but I had Angela explain their story in brief above. I would have had Angela's plotline told separately from her point of view so that you could see the actual unfolding of their relationship.
Actually, this whole battle part is kind of funny, because most of our poor students—including Cale and Ember—don't really know what they're doing; they just have rage and the profound desire to distribute justice to hapless men in black fueling them. Though this gives them surprisingly good mileage. Still, they rely more on underhanded tricksy tactics to taken Johnson's men down and imprison them in various handy classrooms. Thank you, previous experience with prank wars on their resumes!
Cale manages to make his way to Johnson's office:
The woman looked piercingly at him, and then her withered lips curved into a smile. "Ah. Well, I can't say I wasn't expecting this, Cale. You're much angrier than your little friends." She wrapped her tongue around the sounds of his name like a caress, using the familiar address as a weapon. Cale wanted to vomit. His hands shook around the gun, and he blinked sweat away from his eyelashes. His hair had turned a muddy brown with dampness.
"I could," he panted. Something awful surged powerfully and triumphantly in him. He felt sick and exhilarated, a bit loopy, terribly aware of his strength.
"I know you could." Johnson pouted her lips coyly like a little girl. She only needed Westfield's plaid skirt and a lollypop to complete her image. It was disgusting, it was somehow violating, in the same way that she had attempted to violate the sanctity of her prisoners' cells with her syringes. "Is your dick big enough to do it, though?"
Around the bile in his mouth—was this how psychopaths hit on people? Ember would smack him and say that Johnson wasn't hitting on his egotistical person, this was just the phraseology of evil—Cale grinned maniacally and tutted, "You were an etiquette teacher? Because that was terribly rude."
"I dare you," Johnson tittered. She was batshit off-her-rocker crazy. If Cale looked more closely at her, he was willing to bet her pupils were shaped like spear points and leant sideways, like goats'.
"You killed Mark." Grief swelled through him anew. Cale was momentarily startled yet again by his capacity to feel, but it was nothing quite as new as it had been even a few months ago, back when he and Ember were first pulling together their motley family in the woods. "You just shot him."
"Mark? Oh. The little boy."
"Yes. The little boy. He was only a kid, you…" He had no word for her.
"So I deserve what you're about to mete," Johnson said. "Please, let's get this over with."
Cale looked at her suspiciously. "Don't try that line on me, you soap opera escapee. What do you gain by that? You get to show me that I'm as inhuman as you are? I know that plot point."
Johnson deflated a bit into her flowered Peter Pan collar. Ahe said sulkily, obviously preparing for her villainous monologue, "Fine, caught me. But I've seen your file, Cale." She perked up a bit at this. Her puffy sleeves stood to attention. She looked positively happy, once you looked past her fangs. Not really. "The only thing you know how to do, and do well, is hurt others. Poor Miss Brier, for one. Such a brave girl, standing up to you all these years. You're such a huge figure in the eyes of all these students. A statue. An idol. A god. But the Destroyer." Her eyes blinked owlishly and maliciously as she crooned, "How does it feel?"
He tried not to be affected by her, really. This was the oldest trick in the book and he was a rational human being who had come to terms with his demons.
"Oh, Jesus, he's not a god," a familiar voice said exasperatedly from the doorway. "I know that. Everyone knows that. Good looks and charisma, that's what he has, but he's also a huge dick who doesn't know his calculus. Oh, shit." Cale heard some huge lumbering ogre in black thunder down the hallway into Ember, and then, from the sound of Ember's furious yelps, a physical altercation. That Ember was winning, judging by the exhilarated "Woohoo!" that traveled down the hallway, with the pleasure that came from having her natural affinity for violence satisfied.
It was enough to jolt Cale back into reality. "Yes," he smiled gently at Johnson. "I am incredibly attractive, magnetic, and intelligent, my calculus grades notwithstanding. But I also know my mortality. Which is why I am going to shoot you."
"What?!" Was all that Johnson had the time to gasp in disbelief before two bullets lodged in her shoulder. "My speech…is not…supposed…to work that way…" she squeaked, before she passed out.
"Yes, well, I hate to be predictable." Cale pushed his hair back into place and sauntered to the doorway, feeling at peace. But before he exited to help Ember with the enormous man attempting to crush her with his bare hands, he looked back at the former Headmistress's, current evil megalomaniac's, slumped form. In her unfortunate tube-like flowered dress, she looked like a link of sausages tied with string. Another gun rested in her now-revealed palm. "I'm throwing you the psychological bone you wanted here," he said quietly. "Though you can't hear it. I could have killed you, because you were going to kill me. I would not have hesitated. But I would have been desperately alone, in that moment, and especially afterwards." Cale looked at Ember. Her calves kicked at her opponent and she gestured for Cale to come help her. Her sinews practically sung with strength, and she was beautiful as she tried to shove her fingers into the huge man's eyes.
He ran to her side.
So. Cale's moment of epiphany and revelation. Soon after this, the sound of helicopters, and then huge men with weapons are falling from the sky! To take the remaining bad guys down, and bag and tag the rest! And thank god, because Westfield's students have had enough. They miss hot water. They miss processed food. They miss their families. Special Ops can deal with the rest. It's time to go home; sign secrecy waivers so that nobody finds out about this until the government decides to inform the public (if they ever do); figure out summer schooling so that they don't all have to repeat the school year, and maybe the government can help with that, too.
Our main characters form a touching tableau. Mac and Sara clutch one another, having moved on from their huge fight that occurred an invisible chapter back because the threat of imminent death makes other things less immediately important, although Mac has a giant head wound so his glorious hair will have to be shaved off. And who knows, maybe he'll actually keep it his original color this time. Also, when he very virtuously attempts to turn himself into the law for some remembered offense, out of some remembered fear, they laugh in his face and tell him that he was just a kid, and there's no need to punish himself for his mistakes for the rest of his life. And that there's no reason for him to be afraid anymore. That he needs to just live his life. And stop being a paranoid motherfucker, Jesus!
Daniel and Nicole are finally making out in the corner. He shoots Cale a thumbs up and then a middle finger when Cale accidentally walks into the bush they're hiding behind as he searches for his friends. Tiffany is busy explaining tersely to everyone who asks her about her heroism during their long imprisonment in Westfield that really, it was Ember who deserved a lot of recognition. Ember is not a little appalled by this personality switch. Then Tiffany shouts that she still thinks Ember is an ice bitch, and balance is restored. Little Trisha, who was in love with Mark, sits by his grave and talks to him. Ember hugs her brother Ethan very tightly for a long time.
Angela holds Bran's hand with a fierce expression on her face as mysterious men in suits interrogate him. As they finally let him go for now, although they will be back for more questions as soon as he is recovered from his broken wrist and bullet wounds, he mumbles,
"Yup," Angela kissed his left ear.
"I'm done," Bran said, more dazedly. She kissed his neck, and looked at his unusually shaped eyebrows and the face that had grown so dear to her, freed of its Johnson-regulation mask. In some lights, he totally looked like a young Clive Owen. And hey, their relationship would be legal in ten days, and he was only two years older than her, and…
She settled back and asked cautiously, "What do you think you'll do now?"
"Don't know. I got into this without knowing what I was doing. I don't know who or where my family is. And I don't—" He composed himself and said very sternly, "I'll figure something out. And Ang, I care for—I love you, but you have school. Friends, family, a life. And I want to be somebody—"
Her silly noble boy. "You are somebody. You're Bran. You hate raisins and love horses, like me. You appreciate trees and pretty scenery, not like me, but I'm beginning to see where you're coming from. I love you, and you are going to live with me and we will take care of each other and be each other's family and that's that."
Once, she had peeked on Bran when he was washing himself in the river. He had a perfect butt. It was nothing compared to the glory of the smile that stretched across his face in that moment as he wordlessly touched her nose with the tip of his finger and then pressed his forehead into her shoulder with one deep whuffling breath, like the sound of love that her horse Pepper made when she knew she was coming home.
Ember and Cale, meanwhile, look around at everyone else and sit awkwardly apart on bench. How are they supposed to relate to one another, now? What do they talk about, how do they act. Things have been so different, and now things are vastly different again. There is no way they can go back to where they were before.
So they talk about the first things they are going to do. Then they talk about their shared childhood with more fondness and laughter and less remembered resentment and pain. Then they begin to talk about museums, and then historical evil-doers. And then favorite superheroes. And soon they will talk philosophy, politics, literature, and art. (Not really. But those pretentious late-night, too-much-wine conversations are on the horizon.)
Then it's time to go home on special government helicopters. Ember dramatically watches Cale's small figure in the distance get smaller and smaller. Until the next helicopter catches up to them and she can see him bullying the pilot into going faster so that they can pass her helicopter, which she pretends to scoff at but is actually amused by. Their helicopters fly side by side ish in the sky, which is beginning to lighten as dawn approaches (yes, they have been fighting all through the night, thank you adrenaline), AWWWW. Ember wonders about what life is going to be like now, but actually just wants to have a giant cheeseburger and sleep. All the students head back to their families who have actually been pretty frantic since the government informed them what was happening to their children. Ember is a little hopeful about her family for the first time, though she knows they will never be close. And so the summer passes. And actually she does not see Cale the whole while, because he is apparently avoiding her, the sonuvabitch. With that anger, somewhere along the way she realizes that she misses him. Not just arguing with him, though there's that, too. Talking with him. Sitting with him.
Epilogue/final chapter: Senior Year at Westfield! New Headmaster with an annoying Dumbledorian twinkle to his eye, new faculty, new facilities, and new and updated means of keeping in touch with the modern world. This is good in some ways, considering how easily Johnson was able to cut Westfield off. But Ember is still nostalgic, sometimes.
Cale is obviously still avoiding her. People have kind of accepted that the whole ridiculous Ember-Cale war has been put on permanent hold—they've all already been through their war, and honestly conflict is exhausting. So in order to entertain themselves, students have taken to facebooking.
One day, Ember heads to the woods, back to their old campsite. Which obviously means that she bumps into Cale, because after all, this is a cliché. After more arguments, the moment it has taken far too long to get to…
"I am extremely displeased to inform you that I have learned to think and care outside myself. About all those idiotic kids that were our family throughout the ridiculous, painful, surreal experience that was last year. About things like ideals, which, frankly, I thought I was allergic to. And about you."
"I know you heard me. I think I love you. I do love you. You—forgive me for this—make me a better person. But I don't even just love you because of who I am with you. I'm actually a right bastard when I'm with you. I can't explain why I love you, but I would drag you back from the Underworld if you left me without wanting to, and not Hades or some mindfuck rule about not looking back would stop me because I would have a video camera attached to my back so I could check on you without breaking the agreement because I'm devious that way and I don't trust Hades, he kidnapped his wife after all and you can say I'm presenting a very unsophisticated understanding of death and love but I love you, I would die for and with you and yes, I would fight wars for you with my stupid phallic sword, but I would prefer just that we be together for as long as you want me—"
Enough words. I pushed myself to him, clumsily, and kissed him, finally.
My lips were dry and chapped against his smooth ones. It could have been reduced to two random bits of skin against each other but it wasn't, because there was suddenly fire roaring through my entire body and besides, this was Cale. This was Cale whose lips were warmer than I'd ever have imagined them to be, had I ever stopped to imagine this. So much wasted time. All that seemed to keep me from flying into the air were my arms locked tightly against his neck because this was right. He tasted of sacrifice and apology and above all, hope. He bit my lip with eagerness and for one sharp second I tasted blood, too.
His big, cool hand cradled my cheek so gently, as if afraid he'd break it, and I broke away with a hiccupping laugh at the irony. Normally sharp, interminably aware eyes were glazed over and it was a good look for him.
"What's wrong?" His voice cracked, and a light flush spread over his cheeks.
Still shivering and shaking lightly and not unpleasantly, I blurted out before I could lose the courage and tried to calm my trembling hand still pressed against Cale's beautiful, beautiful collarbones. "I'm not that kind of girl that you should…be with."
"I know." His hand crept up to my neck again.
"I'm not sweet and gentle and spontaneous and cheerful and the sort of girl that would be good for your personal growth, and I've never read War and Peace even though I say I do because it impresses people." I was scared. I was so scared to lose this—whatever this was—that some messed up part of me had decided that if I was going to end up losing it, it would be on my own terms. I couldn't stop it. I watched the train of my own destruction and hoped that Cale recognized it as it approached, enough to help me stop its careening down the mountain.
"I know." He moved a bit closer. I could see where he had cut himself shaving that morning and I resisted the urge to kiss that very kissable angle of his jaw.
"We still have problems, and they're not going to go away. Sometimes you are awful, and I'm awful back. If you cheat on me, this is done. I don't know if we have a happy ending way down the line." I finally let go.
For once—for the first time—he didn't reply with another stab, another hit, another sentence full of spite and insult. He just brought his cheek to mine, tangled his fingers in my hair, and whispered just a little sorrowfully, "I know. But don't tell me we're not going to go against ourselves and fight for it."
He kissed me again, and it was soft and tender, then hard and fierce and sweet and it scrawled the history of us into our bones. It scripted our battles and our losses and all the love we had never known we were capable of until we were forced to shield others with it. Cale pressed against me, his palm curved against my waist, and I pressed back with a small smile at the defiance. But this time we gave as much as we took. I loved him, I loved his many faults and his many kindnesses. I couldn't say it yet, but I would, and soon. I remembered his hilariously bad, achingly perfect articulation of love for me, and thought that if he would defy the end of the world, I would begin the world anew.
An epilogue would have to follow; this may not be enough. But this is what I have, and I hope that this has answered some questions, and that you enjoyed these pieces.
It's been a long, frustrating, demoralizing, inspiring, wonderful, hilarious, educational marathon with you all—not to completely soak you in platitudes. I'm feeling quite nostalgic and sentimental about seeing this through to a (yes, okay, an ersatz) finish. I am sorry I couldn't complete this story with the kind of resolution, detail, and coherence that you all deserved, but it's been far too long already. I feel like I can breathe a bit better now, though, knowing that this much is up—and these are all the most important parts.
If you have more questions, I may put up another chapter answering them to the best of my ability.
Again, I want to thank you for all your amazing support and feedback over the years. This was one of my first stories up on fictionpress and I remain so excited by the fact that I still get reviews from other people who are also still excited by it. I'm probably not going to be active on fictionpress for much longer—arguably I haven't been active for the last two years—but I got my first useful critical feedback and praise from this wonderful, warm community and of course I'm going to remain attached to it, like I am the affectionate gray gum on the bottom of your desk. Much love to you all.