Whatever. I’ve got work to do before we can Rift out. I walk to the other side of the beach and collect more seawater in a metal can about the size of a coffee canister. I drop in a pill to desalinize the water and then I undress, putting my underwear, bra, and bandages inside of it. This is yet another great Roone invention: a tiny, portable washing machine. I take a drop of soap and snap the lid shut. I hit the On button and quickly slither into my extra undergarments. I slip on a pair of leggings and a T-shirt so that I can air out my uniform. I jump up a few feet and attach it to a small palm leaf.
When I turn, Levi is back. His uniform is unzipped about as far as it can be without it being indecent. His V, which is admittedly glorious, is as defined as an underwear model’s. I also notice that his face looks fine, as if he’s a little sunburnt. His nose is peeling, though, and he gives me a sheepish grin.
“God, Levi,” I say while rolling my eyes. “Why don’t you just get naked?” I’m frustrated. We need boundaries here more than ever. The Blood Lust isn’t a problem for me anymore, but Levi is still susceptible. This is no time to be reckless.
“Do you see anyone here? There is nothing. No one. This is literally a desert island. I didn’t realize you were so uptight.”
Am I being uptight? Would I care if it were Boone or Henry? No, probably not. But Henry is gay and Boone is in love with Violet. So no, I’m not uptight. I’m wary and Levi is playing a dangerous game because even though he’s one of the most irritating people I know, he also has Captain America’s bod. Which is doubly annoying, really. This partnership of convenience would be so much easier if he were hideous because even though he’s Levi, it’s hard not to stare.
“Whatever.” I shrug my shoulders, unwilling to let him know that he can affect me in that way, or in any way. “I’m doing a wash of my bandages and some … other stuff. You should do yours. They were pretty gross.”
“I will. I need to eat first, though. I actually don’t think I’ve ever been hurt so bad.” Levi proceeds to set up our camp stove and sets the water to boil. Then he grabs a food pack and dumps it in to heat. Sitting on the ground with his face in his hands, he does look more worn than I’ve ever seen him. My stomach growls loud enough to get my attention, and probably Levi’s, too. So I grab my own food pack and put it inside the boiling water and wait a few minutes.
I am not thinking about the injuries we just sustained or how sensitive my skin might be, and I pick up the hot package of food from the pot, unprepared for the searing pain in my fingers. I drop my meal and stumble backward, right into Levi. I land squarely in his lap.
He is almost naked and I am not wearing my uniform. It takes only a second for me to realize what I have done. We lock eyes momentarily. I had been so wrapped up with what Levi might be up to that I’m the one who fucks up. I lost focus.
I scramble up, hoping that our brief contact was not enough to trigger the Blood Lust. But his eyes narrow and take on a look of absolute malice, and I know that all the wishing and hoping in the world is not going to change what my clumsiness has just done. As Levi said, we are on a desert island. It’s just the two of us and I didn’t just brush against him. I landed on him.
“Levi,” I say gently as I back up. I don’t have very long before he comes at me. My soothing tone fails to even register. “Levi!” I snap, this time with authority, as if he’s an attack dog and I can get him to heel by playing alpha. That doesn’t work, either, but to his credit, he hasn’t yet lunged for me. Maybe he can fight it.
Then again, probably not.
I have no doubt that if I don’t manage this situation, Levi will kill me. I’ll put up a hell of a fight, but he’s better than I am, and bigger. I have to think, quickly. There’s only one thing that will stop him. Pain. A lot of very, very bad pain. I look around for anything I can use. I’m almost up against our stove. I could throw boiling water at him, but if it gets in his eyes it could blind him, maybe permanently. I need a partner who can see.
I notice his utility knife in the sand. He probably left it out to puncture the food packs. It’s still sheathed, but I’m fairly certain that I can get the blade out faster than he can get at me. He sees me look at the knife.
Levi pounces as I jump for the knife. He lands where I just was while I somersault away again, taking the knife out as I do. I put the blade between my teeth so I can use my hands to do a back handspring away. This is a pretty show-offy way to distance myself from him, but it’s also something he’s not expecting, and I can get a tremendous amount of space between us because I’m using both my arms and legs for power.
I don’t have time to bask in the glory of nailing the landing. I whip the knife out of my mouth and throw it. He’s not expecting this, either. He wants to kill me, but he wants to use his bare hands. He wants to strangle me or maybe punch my head until my skull shatters into a hundred pieces. You don’t think about knives or guns so much inside the Blood Lust, because the kill would be too clean, too unsatisfying. You want blood, and you want to feel that you caused it.
The knife lands squarely in his right shoulder, exactly where I meant it to. I threw it hard and it’s now embedded deep inside the muscle. That’s an actual skill they teach during Citadel training. At the time I believed it was utterly ridiculous. Who has the luxury to stress about missing a vital organ when you’re fighting for your life? Sadly, since then I have honed this throwing talent and used it many times. Do I worry about being killed on the battlefield? Absolutely. But I worry more about killing unnecessarily. There are only so many lives you can take without it completely, irrevocably, fucking you up.
My plan works. I watch Levi’s face change from fury to frustration to outright pain. He looks at the knife and I look at him. He closes his eyes and clenches his jaw.
“I am so, so sorry,” I say as I walk toward him, picking up the med kit from the pile of our stuff on the way.
“Ryn, stop,” Levi commands, with more defeat in his voice than I have ever heard. I do as he says. I want to keep on apologizing, but I feel like it’s better if I don’t speak, and follow his lead. “Just throw the med bag over here,” he asks softly.
“Levi, come on …,” I practically plead. “You won’t be triggered again. You’re in too much pain. Let me help you.” I take another step.
“Seriously, Ryn, back the fuck up!” I wince at his sudden burst of anger. I’m used to him like this, of course, but right now I’m feeling guilty. I’m vulnerable to his tone. I swallow hard.
“Fine,” I tell him as I throw the bag. It lands at his feet and he squats down, opens the case, and grabs an anticoagulant gel, superglue, and a bandage. I can’t believe he’s going to do this by himself. I blow out in frustration and wish that I could turn away, but I have to make sure he patches himself up decently because he won’t let me help.
Levi remains on his knees. He slowly pulls the knife out. I watch the blood drain from his face. Without the knife as a kind of stopgap, the wound begins to bleed profusely. Levi doesn’t even seem to notice. He rubs the anticoagulant on it and the bleeding stops within seconds while the wound bubbles and foams. He doesn’t have a mirror, so he can’t really clean the cut properly and he doesn’t even bother to try. Levi closes the slit as best as he can with the glue, though it’s still filled with coagulant and covered in blood. Then, he undoes a large bandage and slaps it on his shoulder.
Using the sleeve of his uniform, he picks up his food out of the pot on the stove and opens the pack with the same knife he had just pulled out of his body. Gross. He pours it into a bowl and starts to eat in silence.
There’s nothing I can do now. He’s going to blame me for this for a while, and I suppose it’s mostly my fault even if I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t give him the Blood Lust. I didn’t even ask him to come along with me through the Rift. All I did was trip, but he’s the one parading around half-naked and acting like this is some sort of vacation. If he’d been acting normally, then I wouldn’t have been worried about this exact thing happening. I realize there’s a causality thing going on here that if I think too hard about will do my head in, so I dismiss it.
The silence becomes increasingly awkward. We focus on eating our food and hydrating the cells in our weakened bodies. Regardless of our superhuman abilities, that last Earth pushed us to the limit. I know we need to get moving, but right now I just want to sit here. I’m exhausted from the drugs and it takes a lot of concentration not to think about what just happened. I’m so lost in my own thoughts that I am startled when Levi finally speaks.
“We can’t do this,” he tells me solemnly.
“We can. We just have to be more careful. Maybe we jump with our masks on next time or—”
“No,” Levi interrupts. “I don’t mean the mission or the Rifts. And you know that I don’t. I mean, this—me and you together all the time, alone. I’m going to kill you.”
“You won’t,” I assure him as I put down my canteen. “It was bound to happen once. Think of it as a warning shot. Now we’ll be extra vigilant.”
“Jesus,” he says as he shakes his head. “For someone who is so smart, you really can be dumb as shit sometimes.”
I throw him a nasty look. “You’re trying to bait me, but it’s not going to work. I made a mistake. I’m not going to make it worse by getting into an argument.” And then, he actually laughs.
“Make it worse? Worse than a knife in my shoulder? Worse than the fact that I can barely do my job because I’m so friggin’ scared of accidentally touching you? What if we’re on another Earth and some poor girl who doesn’t know the rules puts her hand on my shoulder? What then? I just kill an innocent person because that’s how it is?”
I slowly lean back, away from him. “What are you saying?”
“Stop it!” Levi yells. “Stop playing dumb! You know what I’m saying. You know what we have to do, and don’t for one minute tell me that you haven’t considered it.”
“No,” I tell him, and I shoot up, off the sand, onto my feet. “It is way too dangerous.”
“More dangerous than what the fuck is going on right now?” Levi gets up, too, and faces me in a standoff. “You know,” he says with a sarcastic huff of a laugh, “if I thought you were saying no because you were afraid for your own safety that would be one thing, but that’s not you. That’s not Saint Ryn, leader of Beta Team, the savior of all Citadels. That isn’t the case. You won’t do this because of Ezra. You don’t want to cheat on your boyfriend. Look around you!” Levi yells as he points at the bandage on his shoulder. “Look at me! You think normal rules apply? You think life and death is more important than disappointing some kid?”
I take a long breath in an attempt to calm myself, center myself. I told myself that I wasn’t going to let him bait me and I’ll be damned if I let him play me like that, even as I want to tear his face off for the contempt that dripped from his voice. I’m almost proud of myself for my restraint. He just has to think this through.
Shit, I need to think this through.
What would it mean, really, to deprogram Levi? He’s asking me not to consider Ezra, but that’s impossible. I could fight beside Levi all day long, but touch him? Softly? The way I let Ezra touch me? Alarm bells and sirens and a robotic Danger! Danger! voice goes off inside my head. He doesn’t know what he’s asking me. He thinks it’s something easy. That it’s something we can just do in all our spare time jumping from Earth to alternate Earth.
He thinks, but he has no frickin’ idea.
I have to handle this very carefully. I begin to talk, but I make sure to keep my tone level and empathetic. Well, as empathetic as possible for me: “Were you listening when I explained to everyone what the Roones and ARC did to us? We were fourteen when they figured out exactly what turned us on and exactly what we thought would be romantic and loving … and then they drugged us and beat us and broke our bones. We were tortured. The Blood Lust isn’t something you just get over. So this is not about cheating. It’s not about sex, it’s about feelings. And as strong as you are about everything else, you aren’t good with the feelings, Levi. In fact, you suck at them. You aren’t ready.”
Levi folds his arms, one over the other, and then nods his head slowly. “Yeah I was listening,” he tells me, as stone-faced as I’ve ever seen him. “I was right there when you laid out all the big bad secrets ARC had been keeping from us. I was also there when Edo hit the kill switch on more than a few of my friends when they disagreed with your assessment that ARC is the devil.”
“Are you kidding me?” I throw my hands up. I can’t believe what he’s saying. He doesn’t think that ARC is the enemy? “Are you saying you agree with your brainwashed friends?”
“I never said that, Ryn. I just said that I was there. I was there when they died and I was there when we pulled in their parents and gave them the deluxe ARC treatment so that now they think their kids are off at some year abroad. They can’t even grieve their own children’s deaths.” Levi kicks his toe in the sand. It hits me that maybe Levi might actually have feelings, as I see this particular injustice weighs heavy on him. I could try to justify my actions, but there’s no point. Even though it was the only way to ensure the life of our rebellion, he is right: It was a vile thing I did to those Citadels’ moms and dads. I hate that I have to defend those decisions, so I remain silent while Levi keeps talking. “I was also there when you made sure that everyone else on that base was either loyal or drugged to become loyal. This is a messy, ugly thing that you started. I’m not saying you weren’t right to do it, but your methods? Not good, Ryn.”
“You’re right, I fucked up,” I admit. He’s not saying anything I don’t know and haven’t agonized over already. “But I’ve copped to that and I’ve apologized as much as I’m ever going to. I was only trying to save everyone, so please stop holding my good intentions against me. They don’t teach ‘How to Effectively Start a Coup’ in our training, you know?”
To my surprise, Levi starts to laugh again, though I am sure it’s not because of the joke I just made. He’s laughing at me, not with me. Then he drags his hands through his hair, clearly frustrated. “I’m not holding anything against you. I’m trying to make you see how huge this fucking thing is. It’s bigger than you and your Boy Wonder. It’s way bigger than your bizarre sense of morality. You can’t not help me because it’s inconvenient, not when you’re all in everywhere else.”