When Cass awoke, she knew it was morning from the light streaming in from the high narrow window above her head. She was still on her back, but her mind was sharper, her vision clear. She recognized the room now. The same one she’d been in during their previous stay at the refuge. Wall on her right. And to her left, on the bed across the small room, Wren sat next to Lil. They reacted to her movement; Lil smiled at her, and Wren slid off the bed and timidly approached.
“Hi, Mama,” he said.
“How are you feeling?” Wren asked.
“Still trying to figure that out. But better, I think.”
“Do you think I could give you a hug?”
Cass held out her arms to him and he came and sat on the edge of her bed. Wren leaned down, gently tested his weight against her. Cass pulled him in tight. He responded by sliding one of his slender arms under her neck and squeezing fiercely, and pressing his face into hers.
“How are you?” she asked. “Are you hurt at all?”
She felt him shake his head against hers.
“I was scared for you,” Wren said. “Mouse said you would be OK, but it didn’t look like it.”
“Mouse was right. I am OK. You don’t need to worry.”
He turned his face into the hollow where her neck met her shoulder, and whispered, “I hate it when you’re hurt, Mama.”
“Well, I’m OK now. How long have we been here?” Cass asked.
Wren finally released her neck and sat back up on the bed. “Just the night. We got back a little before the sun went down. You’ve been sleeping.”
Cass decided to test her strength. She pushed herself up, slowly, to a sitting position. She still felt weak and a little dizzy, but she managed. There were bandages wound around her torso and her right biceps, and covering her left shoulder. She worked her left arm, felt a hollow pang deep, so deep it almost felt like it came from within her shoulder blade. With her fingertips, she gently probed the side of her head, from her hairline backwards. There was a goose egg just above and slightly behind her ear. The skin didn’t seem to be broken. Small comfort.
She drew her legs up tentatively. A burn stretched through her right thigh and made her breath catch. After a moment, she exhaled slowly and patted Wren on the side. He scooted towards the foot of the bed, giving her room to swivel and swing her legs over the edge. She gingerly moved back so she could lean against the wall, and then straightened her legs out again.
The pain was hard to define. It hurt certainly, but the raw edge was missing. Cass wasn’t sure if that was due to the injection Mouse had given her, or if it was a new way her body processed injury. The bandage around her thigh was discolored, like a bruise beneath the cloth, where the wound had oozed, but not enough to soak through.
Once she settled into position, she held up her arm and motioned for Wren. He slid in next to her and cuddled up.
Lil sat across from Cass, watching them together. The smile was gone, but she had a pleasant expression on her face. There was a heaviness in her eyes, though.
“Mouse told me about Elan,” Cass said. “I can’t even begin to express how sorry I am…”
Lil’s gaze dropped for a moment at the mention of his name. But then she gave a nod and looked back up at Cass. “We will all miss him very dearly.” And something in her voice said more, and Cass knew then that there had been more between them than she had previously guessed. More than friendship. Lovers. Perhaps only in secret, or maybe only in their hearts, separated by some other circumstance.
“His son… did I make him an orphan?” Cass asked.
Lil shook her head. “Ephraim’s mother is here with us.”
“How is she?”
“It’s a difficult time for her. Their relationship had been strained for quite a while, and I’m afraid they didn’t part on the best of terms.”
“And how are you?”
Lil hesitated. But she seemed to soften slightly, and after a moment, an unspoken understanding passed between them. “It’s a difficult time for us all.”
The emotions swelled within Cass, the sorrow, the anger, but most of all the guilt. “Lil, if I could go back–”
Lil raised a hand and shook her head. “Don’t, Cass. We know our enemy; our enemy took his life, not you. The seven of us made our own decisions, and we did so fully expecting that some wouldn’t return. That six of us did, with all of you as well… it’s a triumph beyond what anyone would have imagined. If you must feel sorry, pity Mouse. I think he has taken it the hardest of all.”
She dropped her gaze again, but a little smile crept across her lips. “He is something of a mystery. A valiant warrior, yet even more fierce a healer. ‘A poet in a barbarian’s body’,” Cass said, recalling Swoop’s earlier joke. Half joke.
“He fought relentlessly to save Elan. When it was clear we wouldn’t be able to resuscitate him, we had to physically restrain Mouse.”
“That couldn’t have been easy.”
Lil chuckled. “It was not.”
“But you were able to bring…” Cass almost said the body, but stopped herself, “…him home?”
Lil nodded. They sat in silence for a time. Cass ran her fingers through Wren’s hair, kissed the top of his head.
“Can you tell me what happened?” Cass said at last. “It’s all confused in my mind.”
Lil drew a breath and remained quiet a few moments.
“I’m sorry, you don’t have to,” Cass said, but Lil shook her head.
“When we arrived, we spread out just north of the enclave and remained hidden. I came closer than the others, to scout. I confess, I thought you had exaggerated how many Weir were there. If anything, you may have underestimated their numbers.
“After the explosion, the dust and smoke were thick, and I couldn’t see much at first. But we closed ranks as planned, hoping to provide a front against the Weir, for you to retreat behind.”
She paused, her eyes momentarily distant, unfocused. Cass waited patiently.
“You killed a lot of them, Mama,” Wren said. “A lot.”
Cass glanced down at Wren and then back up to Lil for confirmation. She nodded.
“I’ve never seen anyone move like that before,” Lil said. “Even now, I can hardly believe that what I remember is true. The explosion had thrown many to the ground, but it killed only a handful. Fifteen, maybe. We estimate you alone killed over forty.”
“It wasn’t just me,” Cass said. “Gamble and her team were firing from the building.”
“No,” Lil said, shaking her head. “That was before your team made it to the door.”
Cass thought back to the moments before she first heard gunfire. The ground had been covered with the slain, but she’d thought most of them had come from the explosion.
“The Weir didn’t seem to even notice the others until they were already behind us. We called to you then. But you didn’t hear. The Weir…” Lil trailed off for a moment, searching for the words. She shook her head again. “It was like a human whirlpool. Inhuman. That was when we feared for you, and came to get you.”
“I think… I think that was Asher,” Wren said. “He didn’t want you to get away.”
“After I fell, I must’ve already been losing consciousness. I thought I saw…” Cass said; it was her turn to trail off now. She was almost embarrassed to say it. “I don’t know. Something like angels, I guess. And I could swear I heard singing.”
“That was Lil,” Wren said. “She sings.”
“We learned long ago that when one is surrounded by unearthly screams, a human voice can sometimes reduce the terror.”
“No one sings like Lil, though,” Wren added. “It makes you brave.” Lil looked at him with a warm smile.
“Well, that’s reassuring,” said Cass. “Good to know I didn’t hallucinate the whole thing.”
“You didn’t dream any of it, Mama,” Wren said. “They were doing their trick.”
Cass looked at Wren, and then back to Lil for an explanation. Lil didn’t seem to understand exactly what Wren was saying either, at first.
But then she said, “There’s something Chapel taught us. He called it broadcasting. We’re not sure what it really does, or why it works, but it seems to make the Weir more hesitant to attack.”
Cass thought back to her last view of the battle, and though her final thoughts had been full of dread, her curiosity nevertheless won out.
Lil was initially reluctant, but after a moment, she drew herself up on the bed and inhaled deeply. She locked her eyes on Cass’s. At first, there was no change. But after a moment, a faint glow started to gather around her, subtle and shifting, like a thin wisp of electric smoke. Lil closed her eyes briefly. The glow rippled. Where once it had appeared to be drawing from the air around her, it now surged as if emanating from within her. Her skin became as white as lightning, and when she opened her eyes, they burned with white-orange intensity, like coals in the heart of a fire.
She was terrible to look upon. Terrible, beautiful, utterly impossible to withstand. Even knowing that Lil was a friend and would do nothing to harm her, Cass felt her heart quail within her. And yet she felt unable to look away.
In the next instant, the angel of destruction was gone and only Lil remained. Cass realized she was holding her breath. She closed her eyes and exhaled, tried to force the tension out of her body.
“Can you teach me?” Wren asked.
“It was difficult to learn,” Lil said. “But I can try, if it’s OK with your mother.”
Wren looked up at her.
“We’ll see,” she said. And then to Lil, “It was you. It was you that I saw. You came, ran into the swarm and saved me.”
Lil dipped her head forward in acknowledgment, and said, “I was there, with Elan and Mei. Swoop, Finn, and Mouse as well. Together we were able to push the Weir back and scatter them. Then we ran.”
“They didn’t pursue?”
Lil shook her head. “I don’t know why. We thought maybe the daylight made it difficult for them.”
“Asher lost control,” Wren said. “I don’t think he was expecting that.”
“Expecting what?” Cass asked.
“Any of it. For us to attack. Or to have help. I think it was too much for him. This time. I think he’s still learning.”
“I still don’t understand it,” Cass said. “You’re sure it’s Asher?”
“Do you know how he’s doing it?”
Wren looked down at his hands, clasped in his lap. After a few moments, he shook his head. “No, I don’t, Mama. I’m sorry.”
Cass leaned over and kissed him on top of the head again. In her hazy state, she’d almost let herself forget. She wanted to forget. But if it was true, and she had no reason to doubt her son, then Asher was out there, somehow. And that meant that Asher would, one day, come for them.
She thought back to the attack on Morningside’s gate. The destruction of Chapel’s village. Chapel’s village. Had Asher known that they’d sheltered Wren before he first came to Morningside? A sudden chill settled over Cass as the thought crystallized. It was exactly the kind of thing Asher would do. Scorch the earth of any and all who may have had a hand in his undoing. Or something else. Not even revenge. Just to destroy something beloved by his little brother. Pure malice.
It was too much to consider for Cass in that moment. Her thoughts were still scattered, hard to capture. As much as she hated to admit it, she was in no shape to do anything about Asher, or even to think about doing anything.
“You should rest,” Lil said. She got to her feet.
“Didn’t I just do that for sixteen hours or something?” Cass said. But even as she said it, she felt a hint of relief at the suggestion, as if it gave her permission to feel as exhausted as she did.
Lil chuckled. “A drugged sleep is rarely a restful one, and your body needs time. Are you hungry?”
Cass shook her head.
“I’ll check on you in a couple of hours,” Lil said.
Lil bowed slightly and gracefully left the room.
“I think I need to lie down again, baby,” Cass said.
Wren slipped off the bed and stood next to it while Cass gingerly repositioned herself. The mattress hadn’t seemed all that comfortable the first time she’d slept on it, but now it seemed as good as any bed she could remember.
“Can I stay with you?” Wren asked.
Cass scooted over and started to put her back to the wall, but found there was no way she could lie on her back or left side that didn’t cause her some measure of pain. In the end she moved to the edge of the bed, to lie on her right side, and let Wren slide in between her and the wall. He lay on his back, with her arm under his neck and his head on her pillow. The pressure hurt her biceps a little, but she found the comfort of his weight outweighed the pain, reassuring her that he was here and safe. She laid her other arm over him and nuzzled his soft, warm cheek, and let her eyes fall closed.
Wren lay alongside his mother, listening to her steady breathing. It used to help him relax, to focus on her breathing. Now it just made him feel worse. He had lied to her. He’d never lied to her before. But then, he’d never had need to before.
It had been hard to say it, to actually get the false words to come out of his mouth. But he’d done it, and even though he felt bad, he was still sure it had been the right thing to do. Pretty sure, anyway. He’d told her he didn’t know how Asher had gotten into the Weir. But in truth, he knew exactly how he’d done it.
Asher had found his way into Underdown’s machine.
Wren had spent hours running it through his mind, replaying Asher’s final moments, still vivid in his memory. Even after all this time, he wasn’t certain what he had done. He wasn’t even sure what he’d meant to do. He’d just wanted Asher to stop, and to go away, so he’d told him to. And then. Then it was like Asher had just… dissolved.
And maybe he had, in some way. Because Wren had never sensed Asher again. Until yesterday, on the rooftop.
He’d wondered from time to time what might have happened to Asher, of course. And now, though Wren still didn’t have the exact answer, he felt he had at least some clue. Whatever Wren had done to him, Asher had managed to undo. To reclaim his consciousness. Or reassemble it, maybe. Outside the bounds of usual storage. Unsecured.
Wren guessed Asher had interfaced with the machine plenty of times before. He might in fact have been connected to it in that last moment. And from there, it would’ve been a small thing for someone like Asher. A small thing to infiltrate the minds of the Weir, already slaves to some other purpose, and bend them to his will.
The first time, the only time, Wren had connected to the machine, what he’d seen had reminded him of Asher, but it’d never occurred to him then that Asher might really have been there. Wren wondered now what he could’ve done differently, if only he’d recognized it sooner. The system or systems that Underdown’s machine created, or tapped into, had been overwhelming. Underdown’s machine. His father’s machine. His father’s creation had given Asher a place to dwell, to grow in power, and Wren had sent him there. A dark legacy, his to bear, made darker by his own foolishness.
It was his fault. Really and truly. Wren had brought Asher to Morningside. And Wren had released Asher too. And now wherever Wren went, he was sure to attract Asher’s wrath.
He had to fix it. He had to make it right. And that meant Wren had to get back to Morningside to shut the machine down.
Painter sat balled up at the head of his bed, hunched in the corner with his back against two walls and his chin resting on his knees. He’d been sitting that way since before the sun came up, and even though he knew everyone else was up and about, he couldn’t bring himself to leave his room. Not yet.
His mind felt splintered. Not confused, but tangled, like Painter was holding too many contrary thoughts in his head at once. He’d seen the way Cass had moved. The way she’d carved through the horde of Weir. It had awed him. And horrified him.
On one hand, he’d been… what, grateful? Relieved? Emboldened? Some strange mix of emotions had filled him when Painter had come through the front doors of the building, expecting to see the Weir coming from every side. Instead, they’d been pushed back and, carrying Wick, he and Mouse had had a straight and clear path from the door to Lil’s people.
But as they’d approached, Lil had changed. They all had. And they had taken on some new, terrible form. And then they’d gone among the Weir. That was when he’d seen it all from a new perspective. The Weir had ceased to be merely appalling creatures in his eyes; they’d become something more. A community defending itself from some unholy vengeance that had come upon them without warning.
And somehow they hadn’t seemed so different from anyone else. Only a few months ago, he could’ve been among them. Even now, his sister could be. What if Snow had been there? Would Cass have hesitated to strike her down?
And yet. And yet. No matter what he thought, there seemed to always be some other thought alongside it, swirling, countering. Wren was good. Cass was good. Lil was good.
The only thing Painter was certain of was that he didn’t belong. Not here with them. Not in Morningside. Not even among the Weir.
Where was Snow? Where was his sister? He missed her more than he’d thought possible. He wished she’d never gotten caught up in whatever game was being played in Morningside. Even when she’d rejected him, at least he’d known she was out there somewhere, alive. There’d still been hope.
There seemed little of that now.
I can’t promise that, Wren had said. I’d try, Painter, he’d said. A far cry from hope. And though Painter didn’t understand what it meant that this Asher had been in control of the Weir somehow, he knew it was something dreadful. Could Asher jump from one Weir to another? Or was it that he could control many at once? Whatever the case, the thought that Snow might be out there as little more than a puppet for Asher’s malevolence…
Maybe he should’ve just buried her after all. He finally realized how desperate it had been, how foolish. It seemed all too likely that now the only outcome would be that he’d never really know what became of her. He made a decision then, in his heart.
Whatever might come, whatever the consequence, he would return to Morningside. Whether Painter had to live inside the wall or beyond it, he would find her. And then he would do whatever it took to help Snow find her way back.
It was midafternoon before Cass found the strength to come out of her room. Lil had brought her food a little after noon, and Mouse had stopped in to check on her. Gamble, too, had visited for a short time. Cass was relieved to know that she’d managed to cling to Gamble’s knife through the battle. Apparently Mouse had had to pry it out of her hand at some point.
Out in the hall, Cass heard Wren’s voice in one of the other rooms and followed its sound to a door that was cracked open.
“…because the bridge cuts off this loop here, see,” a weak voice was saying, “so it’s actually faster. Just not the safest way.”
Cass knocked lightly on the door.
“Yeah, you can come in,” the voice said. Cass nudged the door open and found Wren sitting in a chair next to Wick.
Wick was propped up on some pillows in bed. He hardly looked like himself, his face was so pale, and his eyes were darkly ringed. An IV bag hung on a makeshift apparatus, the line running to his right arm. “Hey, Lady. How you feeling?” Wick said, smiling broadly. He tried to sit up, but she motioned for him not to.
“I’m good, Wick. How are you?”
“Milking it,” he said. But his voice was thin and didn’t have the same smooth timbre it usually did. “I don’t remember the last time I got to stay in bed all day.”
“Hey, baby,” Cass said to Wren.
“Hi, Mom,” he answered. He glanced at her when he said it, but then went to looking at his hands in his lap. It made her feel like she’d interrupted something.
“What’s the prognosis?”
Wick shrugged about halfway and then grimaced. It took a second before he could respond. “Mouse says four or five days, but he worries like a grandma.” He waggled his arm with the IV in it. “Got me all juiced up out of fear of infection. But I figure I’m up and about tomorrow, maybe day after.”
“You just do what Mouse tells you to. He knows what he’s doing.”
“Likes to give that impression, anyway.”
Cass paused a moment, looking at him there. Grieved by his pain, grateful he was alive. “You had me really worried there, Wick. More than grandma worried.”
“Yeah. I’m really sorry about getting poked, Miss Cass. I’m better than that, I promise.”
Wick seemed genuinely upset with himself, and his apology was sincere. Cass shook her head. “Don’t apologize. I’m just sorry it happened.”
“It shouldn’t have.”
His expression went dark when he said it. Remembering. She could almost read his mind, or at least guess at his train of thought. If he hadn’t gotten hurt, no one would’ve had to carry him, and if no one had had to carry him, there would’ve been two more shooters, and if there’d been two more shooters, maybe Cass wouldn’t have gotten overwhelmed… Nothing she said was going to make him feel any better about how things had gone. She decided to change the subject.
“Wren’s not keeping you up, is he?”
“No, not at all. He’s good company. We were just getting the lay of the land, seeing where we are in relation to everything else. Sharp kid. You should keep him.”
“I plan on it,” Cass said, smiling at her son. Wren seemed down, or troubled. “You OK, sweetheart?”
“Fine,” Wick answered. “Thanks, honey.”
Cass gave a Wick a look, and he just smiled back.
“I’m fine,” Wren said. “Just tired.”
“I was going to see if I could find something to eat. You want to come?”
“No thanks.” He still wouldn’t look at her. Which usually meant he was either upset about something, or that he was wishing she’d leave. Cass motioned with her hands at Wick to see if he needed her to have Wren come with her, but Wick waved her off.
“OK,” she said. “Wick, want me to bring you anything?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “Thank you though.”
“Alright then.” Cass hovered at the door for a moment. “A few more minutes, and then we’ll let Wick rest, OK, baby?”
“OK,” Wren said. There was a brief silence, but then Wren looked over and asked, “Can Lil teach me that thing now?”
It took a second before Cass remembered what he was talking about, and when she did, she didn’t like the thought of it. Seeing her son like that. And Lil had said it was difficult to learn. But there was no doubt they’d be facing the Weir again. Worse. Asher in the Weir.
“If she has time,” Cass said.
Wren’s eyes glinted in either excitement or surprise. Maybe he’d been expecting her to say no. He got to his feet.
“Thanks, Wick. I hope you feel better.” Wren offered his hand. Wick shook it with kind sobriety.
“Thanks for keeping me company, Governor.”
Wren came over and stood next to Cass.
“Open or closed?” she asked.
“You can close it, thanks,” Wick said. “Gonna rack out for a bit.”
Cass chuckled and shook her head. Wick just flashed his grin. She should’ve known better than to think he’d ever ask Wren to leave, no matter how tired Wick was. Cass pulled the door closed, and then she and Wren turned and went down the hall. It was disconcerting how unstable Cass felt on her feet. They walked together in silence.
They found Lil in one of the common rooms on the top floor, talking with Finn and another woman that Cass didn’t recognize. Everyone stood when they saw her.
“Miss Cass,” Finn said. “How’re you feeling?”
“Well enough, Finn. Thanks,” Cass said. “Are we interrupting?”
“No, not at all,” Lil said. “Please, join us.” She introduced Cass to the other woman there with them. “Cass, this is Mei. Mei, Cass.”
They shook hands. Mei was a couple of inches taller than Cass and willow thin. Her hands were surprisingly strong.
“Mei,” Cass said. “You came with Lil to rescue us.”
“What brings you out and about?” Lil asked, as they all took seats.
“Wren had something he wanted to ask you,” Cass answered. Lil looked at him.
“I was wondering if you had time to teach me your trick,” he said. “The broadcasting.”
Lil looked back at Cass for confirmation, and Cass nodded.
“Sure, Wren,” Lil said. “We can try. Here, come sit next to me.” She stood up to grab another chair, but Finn got up and slid his closer to her, and then went and found another for himself. Lil scooted the chair right next to hers and then sat back down and patted it. Wren crawled up into the chair. It was oversized anyway, and seemed even moreso with his small frame in it. Lil angled her body towards him, and Wren mirrored her.
“Now,” she said, “I’ll try to teach you, but you should know that it can be very challenging. Not everyone can do it. So, you have to promise you won’t be upset with yourself if you don’t get it right away.”
“OK,” Wren said. “I promise.”
“OK. Take a deep breath, and try to relax.”
Lil walked Wren through some early steps and explained what Chapel had taught her about boosting her own signal. Wren listened patiently, soaking it all in. As she watched silently, Cass could sense a gradual change between them and could almost imagine the relationship they must have had years ago. Wren seemed more open and comfortable with her than Cass had seen him in days. Weeks, maybe.
After several minutes, Wren gave it his first try. He closed his eyes and scrunched up his face. Cass could tell he was really concentrating. But there was no sign of anything happening.
“Will I be able to tell if I’m doing it?” Wren asked.
“You will. You’ll feel it,” Lil said. “It’s hard to explain, but I think you’ll know.”
Cass almost mentioned that she’d be able to see it, but felt like any comment from her might seem like an intrusion. She remained quiet, as Lil gave Wren some further suggestions. He tried again, with little discernible difference. They worked together for nearly half an hour. Wren became increasingly frustrated, with himself, not with Lil, but Lil picked up on it.
“Why don’t we take a little break,” Lil said. “We can try again later if you like.”
“Can we try one more time?” Wren said. Lil nodded.
Again, Wren closed his eyes, though this time not as tightly. His lips moved slightly, pursing as he focused. Several seconds passed without any noticeable change. And then, there, just at the outer edge of his body, Cass saw it. A thin aura, faint and shimmering.
“There,” Cass said. “You’re doing it!”
Immediately it stopped as Wren opened his eyes.
“Am I?” he asked.
“You were,” she said. “A little bit. I could just see it.”
His shoulders slumped, and he looked dejected. “I was trying really hard.”
Lil put her hand on his shoulder. “That you can do it at all is amazing, Wren. I’ve never seen anyone your age do it before. Not even twice your age. You should feel proud.” She gave his shoulder a little squeeze. “And you promised not to be upset with yourself.”
Wren nodded and sat back in his chair. Lil stood up.
“I should probably make the rounds anyway,” she said. “We’ll try again tomorrow if you like, OK?”
“OK,” Wren said. “Thanks, Lil.” Lil nodded and started towards the door. The others stood as well.
“Guess I’ll go check on Wick,” Finn said. “But maybe next time I’ll try it too, huh?” Finn knocked Wren on the shoulder as he said it, and Wren gave him a little smile in return.
“I could work with you,” Mei said. “If you think it’d help.”
Finn smiled at her. “I’d appreciate it. Whether it helped or not.”
Mei actually blushed a little. If Cass hadn’t known better, she might’ve suspected there was something brewing between the two of them. Finn held out his hand to let Mei exit first, and then followed her out. As he passed Cass, he winked at her.
“Glad to see you up, ma’am.”
Cass nodded back. “Thanks, Finn.”
She watched them as they went out. From behind her, Wren made a little noise like he’d found something.
“Oh,” he said aloud, but almost to himself. “I wonder…” And then to Cass, “Mama, am I doing it now?”
Cass turned, and as she did, she had to squint against the radiance emanating from her son. But he didn’t appear to be her son anymore. Gone was her little boy, replaced instead by an otherworldly being, blazing like a star. The room behind him seemed dim in comparison to his brilliance. Where Lil had retained her general form and size, Wren seemed to grow. And his face changed; it seemed to be constantly shifting like a reflection on waves, his eyes and mouth distorted. If Lil’s eyes had been burning coals, Wren’s now were molten ore. Translucent orange fire seemed to gutter from the eye sockets and issue from his gaping mouth.
“Mama?” the demon said. Cass felt herself taking steps backwards without having meant to.
“Stop,” she said, and her voice came out in a whisper. “Please, stop.”
The light seemed to gather in on itself and moments later it subsided, and there set her son, small, fragile, nearly swallowed by the chair he was sitting in.
“Did I do it?” Wren asked.
Cass nodded, inhaled, tried to calm her pounding heart. “Yeah, baby,” she answered. “You did it.”
“I think there’s an easier way than what Lil said.”
And then, unexpectedly, Wren hopped up out of his chair and came over to her. He wrapped his arms around her waist and nestled his head against her stomach. Cass draped her arms over his back and hugged him. She hoped he couldn’t tell she was trembling.
“I really love you a lot, Mama,” he said.
“I really love you a lot, Wren.” The contrast was almost shocking. The suddenness of it had surprised her, but she wasn’t about to question the moment. It warmed her to hear him say it first.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“OK. Let’s see what we can find.”
She took his hand, and they walked together towards the mess hall. And the whole way, she tried to fight back the tears.
Cass had always known her son was special and capable of great things, things beyond her imagining. And she had been afraid for him countless times. Afraid of what others might try to do to him, or force him to do — afraid of what the world had in store. But for the first time in her life, she had to face the fact that she was afraid of him. She had glimpsed him in power, and Cass knew without a doubt that whatever lay ahead, Wren would one day be beyond any need, or want, of her help. And that day might be much, much sooner than she had imagined.