Chapter 21 As my friend

His response is brief. "I can't." His features twist into a bitter, self-deprecating smile. "Even though I've been trying to hate you from the moment you suggested it."

Is he being sarcastic? I'm desperately trying to read his expression, and I'm failing dismally.

"I don't hate you," he repeats in confirmation of his true meaning.

The spark within me is bursting into flames that threaten to engulf my heart. My face is wet again with inconvenient tears that blur my vision and cloud my thinking. I feel besieged. All my gates of self-control are being dismantled, my walls of rationality being demolished. I'm falling apart and I don't even know why.

He has his feet planted firmly on the floor, looking ready to stand and walk out of my IRU and right out of my life. I stand as well in readiness to hold him back, no matter how futile an endeavour that would be.

"So what now?" he asks.

Just three words.

It is such a simple question. And yet it is the hardest one I've ever had to answer. I can't think of anything. For the first time in my life, my genius intellect fails me.

"So what now?" he asks again, with no more emotion than he had the first time.

I have lost, it seems, even my command of the most basic of language functions. Those sounds make no sense to me. I can only echo them uncomprehendingly.

He gives in to a single tongue-click of impatience before explaining, "What are you going to do with me?"

I look away from him while allegra offers me a list of options. I don't really want to look at them, but at the moment they are all I have since my own thought processes have knotted themselves into an immovable tangle. Not that considering allegra's suggestions make things any clearer for me. I can make sense of none of them either.

So I snatch up the first option and offer it to him: "I could… send you back to the Burbs."

He laughs without humour. "You're going to put me less than five distUnits from Zombcon Headquarters?"

I respond with an automatic "Yes" and then I shake my head at his expression of incredulity. "No?"

He shakes his head slowly, telling me without words just how inadequate my answer is.

"I don't know," I whisper. I've not said those three words in so long that I can't remember when I last did. This feeling of not knowing is an alien one and it stings to give in to it. But it is the unshakeable truth and I am forced to admit it.

"I don't know what to do," I repeat.

He doesn't speak immediately. On his face, there is an expression that I am unfamiliar with. I realise after a moment what it is: pity. The thought is quite startling.

Why should he pity me when I've done him so much harm?

He stands up. "You do know that I'm still your Zomb, don't you?" Somehow, just by standing up, he has added a shade of menace to his voice.

I am lost for words again. Every answer I could possibly give to that question seems loaded with implications. Yes stinks of sarcasm and No reeks of outright deception; None of your concern and Makes no difference are no better, the former for unprovoked aggression and the latter, blatant arrogance.

He continues after a considerable period of my silence with another question. "How do you think Zombcon will take it when they see one of their Zombs wandering at will around the Burbs without his Owner?"

The pure logic of his question is like a slap. He is absolutely right and I am an utterly brain-dead cretin. He had meant nothing ulterior with his question and I had been completely unreasonable to read so much into his words. It's just a rational discussion of the predicament that we're both in right now; nothing is going on between us.

So why is my heart racing?

/status report: elevated puls— /

Shut up, allegra.

He takes two steps towards me. I retreat the same distance he has advanced. He continues to walk towards me, and I continue to step back. While that is happening, he goes on speaking.

"Unless you dissolve the Promise at Zombcon."

I nod vigorously. Yes, of course, dissolve the Promise... that's the solution. I wonder why I hadn't thought of that earlier. The relief at having solved the problem is dizzying.

"But if you do," he continues, "they'll find out everything you've done."

My emotions plummet again. The cold logic of those words sobers me out of my momentary euphoria and suffocates me with despair at the same time. That's right: I put my nanobots in him and I cheated him into the Promise in the first place. That's why I couldn't just dissolve the Promise. And now I've stolen his personal data, and carried out an unauthorized transfer. I'm looking at much more than just having my Delta status revoked. I could even be expelled from First City for these crimes against the greater good.

I force my attention back to Zech because he is still speaking. "You can't let that happen, can you?" he asks.

With the last word, he is right in front of me, and I find that my back is against the wall. I want badly to continue to retreat, but I have nowhere left to retreat to.

I seize on allegra's second suggestion in desperation. "You could… stay." My own words come as a shock to me. "Here." I falter at the enormity of what I'm suggesting, but manage to finish, "with me."

He is still right in front of me, and now he puts his arms against the wall, trapping me between them. I have an overwhelming desire to attempt an escape from this increasingly uncomfortable situation, and yet I also have a manic urge to pull those arms down around myself.

"Stay as your Zomb?" he asks softly, dangerously. If a spring that was coiled to the limit of its tensile strength had a voice, that would be the voice that he's using right now. Chills undulate along my spine.

I shut my eyes for a moment. "No!"

There is silence, which makes me snap my eyes open again in alarm. Zech hasn't moved. He looks slightly taken aback by my vehement denial, but the cage of his arms still traps me. Slowly and deliberately, he leans in to stare at me.

"As what then?" The voice is the same, tense, volatile, on the edge of disaster.

"As my companion."

"Companion?" He laughs a short, harsh laugh, again without humour.

"Please..." I whimper.

There is open disbelief in his eyes, and I am not surprised. My voice is thin and broken and completely unconvincing.

"Stay with me." I look down at the floor, unable to meet his eyes. "As my… friend."

Silence. But he's still staring at me; his gaze is palpable even with my eyes averted. I try to wriggle out from between his arms, but he grasps my wrists and holds them above my head, pinning me to the wall. This is clearly a threat to my safety; I don't need allegra's frantic warning messages to recognise it. I should be struggling. But all I want to do is surrender.

"Aren't you afraid that I'll take revenge on you?" he asks, "Do something to you in your sleep? Sell you out to Central?" With every word, he moves a fraction closer, until we are touching, forehead to forehead. "Or simply kill you?"

My heart is hammering and I feel like my lungs are being squeezed out of my throat, but somehow I find the breath to answer him. "It would be what I deserve for everything I've done to you."

"You…" He suddenly lets go of my left writst and brings that hand towards me in a swift movement. I squeeze my eyes shut, steeling myself for the blow that is surely coming.

But all he does is to force my chin up to look at him. "You drive me crazy, Allegra."

I exhale, and in tandem, he inhales, as if to breathe me in. And when he breathes out, I do the same. The thought that we have exchanged air is sweetly comforting and frighteningly provocative all at once.

He still has me by one wrist, so I can't escape when he whispers into my ear, "And if I tell you I won't do any of that… would you believe me?"

"Yes." It is the truest answer I have ever given to any question.

With that gasped word, I find the strength to break free of his grasp, only to find that my legs refuse to support me. I slide down the wall like a melted memory orb. He follows me down until he is straddling me; holding my wrists against the floor and gripping my hips with his knees, caging me under the curve of his body. Now I am well and truly trapped. I close my eyes, resigning myself to whatever is going to happen to me.

"What you did wasn't right, Allegra." His voice is as soft as a caress, sending tiny shivers up and down my spine. "But I can't say it was wrong either."

I'd thought I would start screaming, but I don't. I just whisper his name while my overtaxed brain tries to put sounds together into words.

"I'm so confused right now," he says, killing whatever I was trying to say.

I'm confused too. My brain and my heart have stopped talking to each other. I can't even hear allegra anymore. There is only Zech, the sight the sound the scent the touch of him, filling up all my senses.

"But I do know one thing at least."

I squeeze my eyes shut against whatever sentence he is going to pronounce on me. His hand is on my cheek, wiping away tears that I don't realise I've shed.

"I'm not ready to give up on you, Allegra."

I open my eyes to his gentle smile. I want more than anything to enter the light offered by his words, but the last tiny scrap of dark doubt hangs on tenaciously to my heart. Doubt that makes me close my eyes again, like I'm blinking in slow motion.

How could he possibly not hate me?

There'd be many many more noughts than seven that need to be in front of a number to express that probability. He isn't ready to give up on me; very likely he's just stalling while he thinks of the things he'd like to do to me in revenge. So what now? I make a decision at last. I will not run from the consequences of my actions.

I open my eyes to take whatever's coming to me. His gaze is waiting for mine. His eyes speak, but I cannot read the message that he is sending; I am illiterate in this wordless language of the body.

"I guess that means I forgive you," he says solemnly.

I don't know what to say, if I need to say anything at all. But when I put my arms around his neck and pull his lips down to mine, I finally begin to understand how it is that two people can neither one of them own the other, yet truly, completely, belong to each other.




Will there be more of AoH? I'm thinking hard, and I'm getting... ideas... but I don't know how long it'll take me to turn those into chapters. So... you know what to do, good people.