Painter lay awake on his bed, wondering if he’d ever get a chance to sleep. It was a constant battle, trying to maintain some semblance of a normal schedule during the day, knowing that his body was wired for the night. He’d adjusted to some degree, and somewhat better than others. But the early hours of night were always the toughest, trying to convince his body it was time to shut down, instead of wind up.
Not that it was really his bed he was lying on. It was Finn’s. The man who had kindly given up his own room so Painter could stay among them at the governor’s compound.
Why they’d given Painter a room on the same floor as the governor’s personal guard, he didn’t know. For protection, maybe. Though it’d be hard to guess whether they meant to protect him from others, or others from him.
Painter still felt bad about how he’d reacted when he’d seen Snow’s body. Everyone had assured him there were no hard feelings, and that they all understood. But Painter couldn’t let himself believe there were truly no hard feelings. And he was certain they didn’t understand. But he’d taken care of her. She would be OK now. He’d done his part.
Except for repaying those that had taken her from him. That work still remained. Painter didn’t blame Wren, or anyone in the compound. Someone had poisoned her mind. He knew that now. Poisoned Snow against him, and against everyone like him. Against Luck. And as much as her death had broken Painter, it had, in a way, also healed him. Her reaction to him, upon his return, it hadn’t really been her. It’d been what she’d been taught. What she’d been told by others. It wasn’t really her fault. He’d find out whose fault it was, and he would repay them in kind.
It was while Painter was lying awake, thinking through all that had happened to him, and around him, that something sparked in his mind and interrupted the natural progression of his thoughts. Wren is in trouble. He had no idea how or why he knew. But there was no doubt that his little friend needed help, and soon.
Painter sat up in bed. Was there any reason to think Wren was in danger? No. Surely not. He was with his mother, and she was more than capable of protecting him. And even if not, there was his personal guard. Able, and the rest of them. Finn. Surely those would be far more able to take care of the Governor than Painter ever could. It was a silly thought. Painter lay back down and tried to think of other things. But no matter what he did, he couldn’t chase away the feeling that Wren needed him. Him. Painter. And so without understanding why, Painter got up and quickly put his clothes back on.
He’d never been much of a fighter. He believed he had the heart for it, just not the training or skill. But believing it was different to knowing it.
There was really only one way to know for sure. He crept to the door and opened it as quietly as he could.
Wren was focused on the machine. It was complicated. Far more complicated than anything he’d ever imagined, let alone seen before. If his father had used this to control the Weir, it was far beyond Wren’s understanding. At first he’d just been searching for a way to connect, thinking that maybe if he showed he’d accessed the machine, it’d be easier to tell Aron and Connor that he’d really tried and couldn’t do it. But once Wren had gained access, he’d become intrigued by the system. Though it was far more layered, far more intricate, Wren had once glimpsed something like it in a moment of uncontrollable fear and rage. It reminded him of what he’d seen just before he’d… whatever it was he had done to his brother. When he’d sent him away.
It was like that, multiplied by a thousand. Or ten thousand, maybe. Except less organized. Or maybe more so, but with a system too advanced and on a scale too massive for his comprehension. It was impossible to tell, because of the depth of it all. Wren felt himself drawn towards it. Sliding nearer. And for a moment, he thought he might be falling helplessly into it.
But there was a shout from somewhere far away. Somewhere in another world. And then Wren realized it was in his world. His room. Everything came rushing back and he saw everything again as it was. Aron was there. And Connor. And someone else. A Weir. A Weir had come from the machine.
No, not a Weir. Painter. It was Painter. Come to help him.
Aron was fumbling for something inside his coat, and Wren tried to warn Painter, but it was too late. Painter didn’t need the warning. He leapt across the room, literally leapt, and struck Aron in a single motion. Aron’s head snapped back and his feet came up off the floor; he crashed head first against the wall behind him before collapsing down. He landed heavily, and his skull bounced when he hit. It made an awful sound.
Connor was making some noise, yelling maybe, maybe calling for help, Wren couldn’t tell. Everything still seemed like a dream at that point. And Painter — Painter was there, and his right hand flashed out and caught Connor by the neck or by the shirt, Wren couldn’t see for sure. But his other hand, his other hand was a fist and it smashed into Connor’s face. And again. And again. And Connor’s knees buckled and he went to the floor, still screaming. Painter rode him down, and his fist kept smashing. Again, and again. Until there was a wet crunch with every impact, and someone was screaming: “Stop stop stop!” — and Wren realized it was him.
Painter stopped, his hand raised for another strike and bloody, and it was like he was waking up from a deep sleep, from the way he looked at Wren. He was straddled on Connor’s chest. Connor was just laying there, still and silent, and his face was smashed in on one side and his eyes were open.
“Painter,” Wren said.
“Wren. Are you OK?”
Wren swallowed and nodded, but he didn’t feel OK. Connor was staring at him, and Wren could tell even from where he stood that there was no life left in those eyes.
Painter looked down at Connor and then stood up real fast, like he’d seen him for the first time. “What happened, Wren? What happened?”
“They came and took me. They hurt my mom.”
“Is he dead?” Painter asked, looking down at Connor, and then at his own hands. His left one was spattered all the way up his forearm.
“I think so.”
“What about the uh-uh-other one? Did I k-k-kill him too?”
Wren looked over at Aron, crumpled in the corner. He was motionless, and Wren could see there was blood pooling under his head. “I don’t know.”
“I didn’t mean to, Wren, I sss-sss I swear it. I thought they were hurting yuh-you.”
“They might have. They wanted me to do something… something I don’t think I can.”
“What do we do?”
“I think we better go, Painter.”
“I di-di-di… I di-didn’t mean to kill them, Wren.”
“I know, Painter, I know. Come on.”
Wren led the way out of the room, and back through the halls towards his mama’s room, his heart racing and his face cold with sweat. It all felt just like a nightmare, like waking up from a nightmare, except he knew he was awake and this was all happening, and all he wanted was to make sure Mama was OK. He could hear Painter right behind him, but Wren didn’t want to turn around and look — because he’d seen what had happened, and he knew if he looked at Painter now he was going to lose it — so he just kept looking straight ahead, getting back to Mama.
They got back to her room without seeing a single person in the compound, and that seemed wrong. But so much seemed wrong now. Connor and Aron had betrayed them, and who knew who else on the Council had gone along with it. Had they really betrayed him? Connor was right, Wren had said he would do whatever was necessary, if the Council agreed. What if they’d all agreed, and this was what they’d agreed to? Now Connor was dead, and probably Aron too, and no matter what, there was no way to come back from that.
Wren tried the door and found it was locked, but that was nothing to him, not anymore. He barely even had to think about it, and the lock flipped open, and he swung the door so hard it banged into the wall. Mama was still there on the floor, right where they’d left her.
“Help me,” Wren said, moving to her side, but even he didn’t know what he meant. He just knelt next to her and touched her face. She was warm, but limp.
“What do we do?” Painter asked, kneeling beside him.
“I don’t know,” Wren said, “I don’t know.”
Painter put his hand on her upper stomach and held it there for a moment.
“Look,” he said. “Look, she’s buh-buh-buh breathing. I think she’s… OK.”
“Can you pick her up? Get her on the bed?”
Painter shrugged, but scooted around behind Cass and scooped his arms under her shoulders. He stood up, dragging her with him. Wren tried to help with her legs, but it seemed like Painter was doing all the work. They got her onto the bed, though once she was there, Wren didn’t really know why he’d thought that was something to do. She was still out cold. Only now there was blood smeared across her shirt.
“Maybe you should go wash your hands,” Wren said. Painter looked at his hands, and then at Cass’s stained shirt, and then at his hands again. He nodded and went into the adjoining bathroom. Wren sat on the edge of the bed next to his mama and started stroking her forehead, her face, and her hands. Just hoping something would wake her. “Mama,” he said. “Mama, can you hear me, Mama?”
But no matter what he did, she didn’t respond. And he was so scared. So scared that she wasn’t ever going to wake up, and that someone was going to come and take him away, and that this was the end of everything they’d tried to protect. And that thought, the thought that everything was coming undone, really and truly undone, that’s when Wren felt it rising in him. It wasn’t the first time. He just hadn’t known what was happening before. But he was beginning to recognize the feeling now, when it started. And with it, Wren knew somehow he’d be able to do things he couldn’t usually do.
There was something inside him that felt like it popped, deep in his chest, down in his very middle, something so deep it almost seemed impossible that it could be inside Wren at all. And it hurt, and it scared him, but it also gave him strength. Wren stretched out a shaking hand, forcing himself to touch Cass’s forehead, and when he did, it seemed like he could see how she worked. Like a big complicated lock that needed opening. And, after a moment, he unlocked her.
Cass’s eyes floated open, scanned the room, lingered on Wren, unfocused and distant for a heartbeat, then two. Then they went wide and fierce, and she sprang up on a knee and drew Wren to her so fast it made his neck hurt.
“It’s OK, Mama, it’s OK!” he said.
“Where are they? Did they hurt you?” she asked.
Wren wrestled his way free. “No, Mama, I’m OK. Are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” she said. Her tone was sharp and certain, but Wren knew that it was more reflex than truth. “What happened?”
Now that she was back, now that he knew she was alright, he felt the surge of strength melt away, and he was just her son again and she was his mama, and only the fear remained.
“Something bad.” Wren didn’t know how much to tell her or even where to begin, and the tears came. He hated them, he didn’t want to cry, but he couldn’t help it. They just dripped out of his eyes and he kept trying to wipe them away. There wasn’t time for crying.
“They came in the room. Aron and Connor. And Aron hit me with something… dislocator maybe?”
“I think so. He shot you. Four times.”
Cass grunted as her hand went over her chest and stomach, probing the injuries. “No wonder everything hurts. Where are they now?”
“I killed them,” Painter said, standing in the doorway of the bathroom. His arms were wet past the elbows and the skin on both looked raw, like they’d been scalded. “It won’t cuh-cuh-cuh… come off.” There were still little splotches of blood on his forearm, shirt, fist, and sleeve.
“What do you mean, Painter?” she asked slowly. “What did you do?”
“They took me to the machine, Mama,” Wren said. “They wanted me to use it.”
“I di-di-didn’t mean to.”
“They’re dead? Both of them?” she asked.
Wren replied, “I think so. Connor is.”
Cass put her hand over her mouth, but Wren could tell it wasn’t from shock or disgust — she was thinking through everything, coming up with a plan.
“I th-th-thought… I don’t even know wh-why. I thought Wren was in tr-tr-trrr-trouble.”
“I did that,” Wren said. “I called you.”
“What about Able? Or Swoop?” Cass asked.
Wren shook his head. “Uncle Aron said they’d put a trace on the whole team. He said if I tried to call them, they’d know, and they’d hurt you.” It felt weird calling him “Uncle” after what had just happened.
“OK,” Cass said, getting up off the bed and grabbing her jacket. “OK. First things first. We need to get out of the compound.” She looked at Painter. “All of us.” Back to Wren. “Who else is here? In the compound?”
“We didn’t see anybody else.”
“Not even guards?”
Wren shook his head. “Do you think it was just them, Mama? Just those two?”
Cass was already moving towards her closet. “I don’t know, baby. That’ll have to wait.” She opened the closet door and pulled a small pack from the top shelf. “Is there anything you absolutely have to have? We might not be coming back here for a while.”
Wren shook his head again. The idea of leaving seemed so strange. He’d thought about it a lot the past few months, but only as a dream, never as something that might actually require planning or packing or being prepared. He tried to think of what he’d need to take, or what’d he miss, but his mind was coming up blank.
Cass tossed a coat to Wren, and then threw the pack on the bed. While Wren put his coat on, she opened the pack and quickly scanned the contents. Wren couldn’t see much, but he saw enough. It was Mama’s go-bag. Back before they’d left RushRuin, really left, for pretty much as long as he could remember, she’d kept a bag packed. Just in case, she’d always say. He’d always thought it was for an emergency. Until the day they made a run for it. It was then he realized that back then, it hadn’t been for an emergency, it’d been for an opportunity. Maybe old habits were just hard to break.
Cass looked down at her blood-smeared shirt. With a grimace, she ripped it off over her head, wadded it into a ball, and threw it in the corner. Her compression top didn’t cover very much, and Wren could see two spiraling welts on her belly, one just above her left hip, and one on her upper chest, just above her heart. They were an angry red in the center, surrounded by spidery arms of bruising. Painter made a little sound, and when Wren looked at him, his face was all red and he was looking at the floor. Cass grabbed another shirt and threw it on, and then snatched a coat out of the closet.
A thought occurred to Wren. “Wait, there is something,” he said. “In my room.”
“You need it? Absolutely need?” She was already closing the bag back up.
“Alright, let’s get it.”
She crossed the room, slinging on her pack as she moved, and stood next to the door, hand on the handle. “Painter,” she said. Painter was still just standing there in the bathroom door. He was just staring at the floor. “Painter, let’s go.”
His head snapped up and he looked at her, but it was like he hadn’t heard her. “I didn’t… mmmmean to, Cass.”
“It’s done, Painter. We need to move. Listen,” she said, and then again sharply, “Listen!” His eyes focused, like he was finally really hearing her. “Wren and I are going across to his room. We’ll come back to get you in a second. If you’re not ready, we’re leaving without you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, mmma’am, I’ll buh-be ready.”
“Wren, with me.”
Wren moved to her side, and Cass placed a hand on his shoulder. Not for comfort, though. She gripped him firmly as she cracked open the door, ready to move him whatever direction might be necessary, depending on what she saw outside. After a couple of seconds scanning, Cass opened the door further and pushed Wren through, following close on his heels. He made a direct line across the hall, not even daring to look to either side. The door to his room was locked, but in the few steps it took to cross to it, he took care of it.
They slipped into his room in a smooth motion. Cass remained by the partially opened door, keeping watch. Neither of them turned on a light; Wren’s little blue night light still glowed by the foot of his bed.
“Be quick,” she said.
Wren went straight to the table across from his bed and slid open the drawer. It was there, where he always kept it, partially hidden under some clutter. His knife. The one Three had made for him. Mama had kept Three’s pistol, kept it packed away in her room — but it was this knife that reminded Wren the most of the man. He took it out, rolled it over in his hand. Felt the weight, the balance, ran his thumb along the cool, simple lines. The blade was supremely economical. Efficient. Like everything Three had been pressed down into something Wren could hold. It hurt him to remember, but the pain was welcome, familiar. Simple, and real. Somehow things had become so complicated.
“OK, Mama,” he said, returning to her side. “I’m ready now.”
She nodded, and just as quickly as they’d come, they crossed the hall back to her room. Wren risked looking around that time, and just as they were passing through the doorway, his heart nearly stopped with dread. For a split second, he thought he saw a shadow at the end of the hall. Back in his mama’s room, he gripped his knife a little tighter.
“Painter, let’s go.”
Painter appeared from the bathroom, mostly clean now, and looking much more in control. He just nodded and formed up next to them.
“Stay close to me,” Cass said. “And quiet.”
Wren held his breath while she eased the door open again. But whatever he’d seen mustn’t have been there now, because Mama slipped out into the hallway and pulled him along behind her. He was thankful that they were headed the opposite direction from the shadow. Wren was afraid to look back behind them, but he was more afraid not to, so he risked a peek. Nothing was following.
Cass led them around a corner and down a set of stairs to a lower level.
“What about the cuh-cuh-curfew?” Painter whispered.
“It’s alright,” Wren said. “They won’t stop us.”
“No, Painter’s right,” Cass answered. “We can’t let anyone see us. If Connor was in on it, there’s no telling which of the guard might be on his side. And we don’t want anyone to know where we are, or where we’re going, anyway. We’ll have to be careful.” She paused, and then added half to herself, “And maybe lucky.”
They moved through a darkened hallway to a side entrance.
“Wren, door,” Cass whispered. He didn’t really respond, just flipped the lock. She eased it open. Checked for any guards — or anyone else, really. Then she pulled the door closed again, and turned back to them both. “We’re going to move quickly, but keep your eyes open. We’ll try to avoid patrols, but if we get spotted, just keep your heads down and keep moving. Stay with me, alright? Stay right with me.”
Wren nodded, and then Painter did too. And with that, Cass pushed the door open once more, and the three of them moved out into the cool night air. For the first time, Wren felt that it was a far more dangerous thing to be trapped inside the wall than outside.