Now it’s my turn to snicker. He just doesn’t get it. “Morality? I’m not being moral. I’m being realistic. It isn’t a question of convenience. At all. You want me to deprogram you? Okay, well, that involves shedding layers and layers of emotional armor. It involves intimacy and truth. So let’s start there. Why don’t you tell me exactly how you feel about me? Can you even do that?”
Gotcha, I think to myself. Because although I know that Levi is attracted to me physically (girl, boobs, pretty good hair, an ass I’m proud of—for a white girl—but I’m no supermodel), I doubt very much that he can verbalize his feelings for me beyond that, and more likely than not, there aren’t any of real significance. But instead of trying to avoid the question and redirect the conversation, Levi says nothing. He just stares at me. His gaze is intense. It’s so powerful that it makes me want to look away. I steel myself. I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of watching me squirm.
“Fine,” he says finally. My heart starts to beat a little faster as I realize I don’t actually want him to answer that question. I don’t really want to know the truth, because if it goes beyond the physical, I wouldn’t know what to do with that. It dawns on me that I might have just made things worse between us by asking him to fess up: opening the door to a series of more tense conversations and weird, awkward silences.
But there’s no going back now. He’s already started talking.
“I feel a sense of loyalty toward you, but maybe that’s just because you’re a Citadel. I feel protective of you even though I know you don’t really need my protection. I think you’re strong. I think you’re beautiful, but I also think you’re a pain in the ass, and honestly, I’m not sure I even like you.”
I sigh and throw my hands up. “Well that’s just great. I can totally see how deprogramming someone who doesn’t even like me is going to work.” I’m relieved. He’s confused. He doesn’t know how to separate attraction and real feeling. No surprise there. Still, the conversation has me a little freaked. Hearing Levi say these things makes my heart race a little. Is it guilt? Because I’m with Ezra and I’m pretty sure this level of openness is inappropriate, but since I’ve never had a boyfriend before, it could very well be that this is the absolute best way to handle a situation like this—by acknowledging it, even if there’s no way to know exactly what “it” is. I should probably say something, but Levi holds out a single hand to stop me from continuing.
“I wasn’t finished, so calm down.” I let out a low growl that I’m sure he hears, along with an increasingly ascending pulse, but so what? This shit is intense. There is nothing I hate more than someone telling me to calm down as if I’m some crazy Real Housewife who screeches and wails all the time.
“I don’t know how I feel about you,” Levi admits. “I really have no idea. Mostly I’m just angry and everything else I feel is pretty much a mystery.” Levi stops talking and I sigh. I had been trying to prove a point, that despite our hormones the Blood Lust is not really sexual. I didn’t think Levi understood that, but by the look on his face right now, I know he does. Damn. There is something in his eyes, something lost and bewildered. This is Levi’s version of intimacy. “I am ashamed,” he tells me softly. “I’m embarrassed that, basically, I have the emotional intelligence of an eight-year-old. I know there are other things to feel besides anger and guilt, but fuck, I don’t know how to get to them.”
“Oh, Levi.” I exhale his name, pressing my palms into my eyes as if I can somehow ignite the right answer inside my brain.
“Listen,” he says with urgency, seeing me falter. “I don’t think it matters if I like you. I think what matters is that I trust you. With my life. Right? I need your help, Ryn, please.”
Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to be a good leader and a good person at the same time, because let’s face it, there are precious few examples. After all I’ve done I think it might be too late for me to ever call myself a good person. But a true leader, the kind that I want to be, doesn’t hold fast to an opinion in the face of overwhelming evidence that it’s wrong. A strong leader is secure enough to change her mind.
I stare off into the distance at the light reflecting off the water. It’s gorgeous here, but it isn’t real. It’s a plucked moment. A pause before we jump again. Into God knows what.
There is no absolute right answer here. This isn’t something I can win. This isn’t a contest or a fight. My new partner may or may not have feelings for me that go beyond the way I look in an absurdly tight uniform (I get it, it’s supposed to fit like a second skin, but it’s more Black Widow than real black ops). I shouldn’t deprogram Levi because it’s dangerous and intimate and I have a boyfriend. But if I want to get that boyfriend back in one piece, there’s really only one logical choice.
As much as it annoys me, Levi is right.
It would be safer if he were deprogrammed. He’s asked for my help. He’s done it as honestly and authentically as he can. That’s huge for him. I can’t turn away from that. Ezra won’t like this, but again, props to Levi. I’m trying to apply normal relationship logic to this situation and it won’t work. By agreeing to help with the deprogramming, I could very well be saving my own life and the lives of others. It might be suicide—there’s that, too—but I think the odds are in my favor on this one. Ezra will get over it once he takes the time to think it through. Once I explain to him that it is the best chance that all of us have to survive. So, now the real problem is time. Deprogramming takes time, which we are desperately short of. Once we start, we can’t stop; doing so may ruin any chance he has at being cured.
But really, this mission can’t possibly succeed unless we do it. So …
“Okay. Since you said that you had considered this, I assume you brought a supply of the drug that leaves you open to suggestion? The red pills?” I ask, just to make sure this is even a doable thing.
“I have them. And I put some music, shows, and books on my tablet. That’s what we need, right? Sensory reminders of when we were younger? Before this happened to us?”
I nod my head and zip up my uniform to the neck. But the whole time I want to scream at him: Do you really think that’s all it takes? Listening to some songs? Watching a movie? He has no idea. “Just go take a pill. Take two, actually, just to be on the safe side. We’ll start in fifteen minutes.”
In the meantime, I’m going to pray to something and hope to hell this works.
CHAPTER 6 (#ulink_d83ebcdf-88cb-5726-9486-24cad1a1f4de)
We are sitting side by side, watching the tide as it pulls out farther with each wave. Levi has taken off his uniform and is in his khakis and a T-shirt. My uniform is on and I have put my blond hair, badly in need of a trim, back and up in a messy bun on the top of my head. I am thinking, though I don’t want to say it out loud just in case it isn’t something Levi had thought of, that me throwing the knife at him after he felt the Blood Lust might have ruined any chance of this working. He got turned on and I hurt him, which is how he was programmed in the first place. I can only hope that the drugs, in conjunction with patience and a true desire to kick this, might override what just happened.
It occurs to me that in deprogramming Levi’s Blood Lust, I might also need to deprogram myself of my distrust of him.
Levi has his tablet on his knees. He looks a little nervous. I’m downright scared. When I did this, I had Ezra. Ezra is patient and loving and, for obvious reasons, much more emotionally intelligent than I am. Ezra and I care for each other. Levi and I tolerate each other. If that. But maybe in a way that’s better. Maybe a little emotional distance will be more effective. I have no idea.
And that’s probably what has me the most frightened.
“This is the song my mom sang to me every night before I went to bed when I was little,” he says, showing me the tablet. “Don’t ask me why. Weird choice, I know. She did change up some of the lyrics so that it wasn’t a proper love song, ’cause that would be gross, obviously.”
“Look, you don’t have to defend the choices you make in this process. Ezra read Harry Potter to me. He wore my dad’s clothes. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is that makes you feel safe and takes you back to that place, is not for me to judge. If you feel like I’m judging you or laughing at you somehow, then we can’t do this. It means that we haven’t created a trusting environment. Your guard will be up and things will go badly. Besides, Dolly Parton is amazing.”
By way of an answer, Levi nods his head. He pushes the Play button and “Islands in the Stream” starts up. I don’t think it’s actually that weird of a choice for a lullaby at all. It’s cute.
“Just make sure the song is on repeat,” I tell him.
I let the song play all the way through, and to his credit, Levi doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t demand to know what’s going to happen next. He just sits there, which is good. When the song starts again, I begin to speak, softly: “Now, Levi, imagine yourself as a young kid, in bed, your mom singing to you. Remember how it felt. Live inside this memory for a moment. You were safe, you were loved, nothing bad was ever going to happen to you, because your mom was there and she was going to take care of you. Let the drug work. It will take you deep inside this memory. You have to open up completely and let yourself feel how you felt all those nights.”
Levi closes his eyes. His breathing slows. His heart rate becomes more difficult to hear over the breaking surf. He is calming down, and thankfully, so am I. I let the song finish out and once it starts over, I begin to speak again. “You’re safe here. You have to clear your mind of doubt. In a few moments, I’m going to put my hand over yours. If you need to say out loud that you’re safe and that everything is fine, you should. You should talk. Don’t say that you aren’t going to hurt me. It won’t help. It will take your brain down the wrong path. No one is hurting anyone. Put thoughts of being hurt or hurting someone else far away from your mind.”
I let the song play again. I let Levi live inside this dreamlike state for a while. It’s probably been years since he’s thought about this, about how it made him feel. No one other than a Citadel would know why he has had to make himself forget the innocent child he was. There is no room for sweetness or vulnerability on the battlefield. Better just to put it away, lock it up, forget that we were ever young. “You’re a kid in this memory. You’re a boy and you’re defenseless, but you’ve never felt safer and that’s because love is safety and there is nothing stronger than a mother’s love for her child, not even a Citadel and especially not the Blood Lust. It’s no match for this love.”
I let the song play a little longer. Let him absorb what I told him. Slowly, I put my hand over his hand. I inch a little closer to him. I never imagined I would ever be so physically close to Levi. I can’t imagine being physically close to anyone besides Ezra. To that end, I start to say a mantra of my own. And while I know that what I’m saying to myself is not exactly the entire truth, bringing my boyfriend into the equation makes this whole affair seem like, well, less like an affair.
This is for Ezra. This is for Ezra. This is for Ezra.
While I’m silently saying this, Levi is repeating his own mantra: “I’m safe,” he whispers. “I’m safe. I’m okay.” I sit there unmoving for about ten seconds and then Levi’s eyes fly open and he looks at me with gritted teeth. Shit.
He takes my hand and flips it over, bending it the wrong way. My wrist could snap in an instant. He forces me to my knees and then he takes his free hand and puts it on the back of my neck, forcing my face in the sand. At this rate I will suffocate in a matter of minutes. I have to remain calm, but he’s going to kill me. My training overrides my good intentions. I kick out with my leg. I get him off balance and he staggers just enough so that I can roll out of reach. He lunges for me again and I block his arms.
“Levi,” I say calmly, “stop this. Go back to that place in your mind.” Before I can say anything else he gets a good punch in to my eye. It’s a massive wallop and I can feel my lid swelling almost completely shut. It’s going to be near impossible to defend myself when I’m blind in one eye. Yet if I attack more, then this is all for nothing. So I do my best to keep him at bay. We are dancing in a way. He keeps lunging forward and I keep moving my hands and forearms to various positions to block his attack. He gets in a few more punches that I miss because I don’t see them coming, and all the while I try to reason with him: “You’re fighting the Blood Lust and it won’t work! Surrender to it. Acknowledge the pain you’re feeling and try to pull it inside instead of taking it out on me … Levi!” I scream.
But he can’t hear me. He’s lost to it. This won’t work. I have no choice. I don’t want to die. I kick him hard in the abdomen and he goes flying. I leap over to where he lands and before he can get his bearings I put him in a sleeper hold. I squeeze my biceps. I cut off his air supply until he loses consciousness. I release his limp body and sink to my knees.
Shit. I completely fucked it up.
I may have saved my own life, but I also may have ruined any chance of Levi’s deprogramming ever working with me. My eye is aching. I’m so tired of this. Watching Levi in the throes of the Blood Lust broke my heart. I know my own deprogramming was brutal. I almost killed Ezra, twice. He never fought back, though. He trusted me enough to know I would never take it that far, even when I myself wasn’t sure. He cared about me enough to want it to work more than he wanted self-preservation. I’m positive that’s not the case with Levi and me. For one thing, I don’t love Levi, so I’m not willing to die for his transition. For another, though, Levi’s Blood Lust is different from mine. He becomes primal, more animal than man. He himself may not be able to distinguish his emotions outside of the Blood Lust, but I saw every one of them on his face and in his eyes. There was so much pain there.
Who does this to children? It’s easy to blame the Roones, because it was their technology and their offer that put us here, but it was ARC that demanded this safeguard. The planet could not afford the distraction of teenage drama, so human beings took the risk away. We had to be focused. We had to be single-minded at all times. Guard. Protect. Fight. Kill. It wasn’t a monster that turned us into monsters, it was our own kind.
Human beings took away our humanity.
If I’m going to lead us through this, if I’m going to dismantle ARC and take control, I have to be willing to put it all on the line. I have to be willing to die to save us. I have to trust Levi in the same way Ezra trusted me. Levi said it. I need to be all in. Seeing Levi inside the madness of the Blood Lust has shifted my perspective. Levi absolutely cannot see this as a battle, but I have to. This is a fight like any other. I’m ready to die back home at Camp Bonneville every time I engage. I’m not willing, no, never that, but I’m always prepared for the worst. What’s one more risk on top of everything else? My life is always on the line one way or another.
If I were the type of person who cries easily, I would be teary eyed. I’m not, though, and thank God; otherwise, after what I’ve seen and done in my few short years, I would be hysterical all day long. When I look at Levi lying here helpless, with tiny grains of sand peppering his long, dark eyelashes, the injustice of the Blood Lust and who and why we are suddenly feels explosive. Sadness turns to anger. I’m mad now and more determined than ever to fix him.
It doesn’t take long for Levi to wake up. His eyes flutter open, but he stays on his back in the sand. “I’m sorry,” he says softly.
“No. It’s me who should be sorry. I should never have fought back. I was afraid. It won’t happen again.”
Levi sits up on his elbows. “What are you talking about? You had to fight back. I would have killed you. Look at your eye. I did that to you.”
I get up and wipe the sand off my palms. “Oh, please,” I say, deliberately playing it down. He doesn’t need the guilt. It won’t be useful moving forward. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. “I’ve had worse training with Violet. This is nothing. You’re not some asshole who likes to beat up girls. You’re not some psycho who takes pleasure in hurting women. We aren’t normal people. They did this to us. We’re sick and this is our therapy.” I walk over to his pack and take out another red pill from a container in his Dopp kit.
“You can’t be serious right now,” he says with disdain.
“We’re going to do this. We’re gonna fix you because you deserve to be fixed, even though in general, I think you’re kind of a douche.” I smile. He does not smile back. So much for trying to lighten the mood. “I’m serious, though. It’s too dangerous for you to be at such a disadvantage with this. And while we don’t have time, we also don’t have time not to do it. You were right. You were right from the start and I should have just agreed with you straightaway. Take another pill.”