Ethan shot up in bed, his momentum throwing most of the meager blanket to the floor. He tried to calm his breathing, which was heaving through his chest as rapidly as if he’d just sprinted up the scaffolding. Without realizing it, he was shaking.
He swallowed and closed his eyes. Breathe, he told himself.
It was a dream.
It was the middle of the night. Breathe. He was alone — but not like it had been in the dream.
He was still shaking. From a dream? Dreams never did that to him. He had them often enough, they were as much a part of his sleep as his living nightmare was a part of his waking.
But they never affected him like this. They woke him up, sure; left him edgy, anxious — but that’s not what this was.
It was a dream. It was just a dream.
It must have been Terrell’s turn on watch. Now he’d seen Ethan awake. Great.
Not that he didn’t want to be seen, or that he wouldn’t want to talk about it. At this second, that’s exactly what he would have wanted most, to have someone listen to him without judging him, reassure him it wasn’t as bad as all that.
But that wouldn’t happen. Terrell wouldn’t understand, and he wasn’t good with talking about things like emotions, anything other than the facts.
Terrell’s silhouette appeared from the corner by the entrance, backlit by the little light burning faithfully on the wall. Ethan tried to calm himself down, if for appearances only.
“Ethan, you all right?”
Ethan mustered up what he hoped would be a voice steady enough to reply. “I’m fine.”
He reached over to grab his blanket off the floor. If he lay back down, maybe Terrell would leave him alone, and he could try to forget about the dream.
But Terrell didn’t leave him alone. And it was just as well, because he couldn’t forget about the dream.
“It was just a dream.”
“What was it about?”
That actually surprised him. Terrell wasn’t one to be much concerned with feelings or the abstract, and dreams definitely qualified as abstract. “You’re asking?”
“I just did.”
“It’s … not important.”
“You look freaked out. So tell me.”
Ethan drew a breath. “Disclaimer, it’s about — Kierah,” he said. Her name felt warm on his lips. He’d never used her name with Terrell before. It was always just “the girl.”
But Terrell didn’t seem surprised. “I figured.”
“And you still want to know?”
“If you’ll ever actually say anything worth knowing, yes.”
Ethan had given him fair warning, and Terrell still asked for it. So he told him.
“I’m scared,” he started simply. “I’ve never felt like this before, and I just — I don’t know what to do with it. I mean, how many girls have I even met in my life? I know guys are supposed to like girls, whatever — but I don’t know what that’s like. What is that like? I don’t even know if that’s what this is.”
He knew his experience with women had been limited, at best. How many had he known? He didn’t remember his mother. There were a few servants at Hatteras’ plantation he’d known in passing, but he hadn’t been allowed to talk to them. Mama Mahrya had been the first, and only real, female influence in his childhood.
And of course, there were the women in the Underground, exhibiting both sides of femininity to his inexperienced eyes — the rough, harsh Ender women sprinkled among the audience, chanting and raging along with the men; and the scantily clad showgirls, slaves like him, offering a respite of entertainment between the fights.
That’s what he knew of women. What good did that do him? Men were supposed to have some sort of relationship with them, but he didn’t know if what he felt now was what that was supposed to be. He didn’t have anything to compare it to.
“That’s what you’re scared of?” Terrell asked, clearly trying to find something to say that didn’t sound too negative, considering Kierah was the subject. “Deciding how you feel?”
Ethan thought for a moment. “No,” he said at last. “I’m frustrated with how I feel, but that’s not what I’m scared of.”
Terrell didn’t say anything. Ethan didn’t know if it was because he didn’t know what to say, or because he was waiting for Ethan to continue. The thoughts were tumbling over themselves in his head, fresh as day, after his dream. He’d calmed down outwardly, but his mind was more shaken than he wanted to admit.
No. That wasn’t true. He did want to admit it. He wanted to spill it all out, every last ounce of it, wanted for someone else to listen even if they didn’t understand.
Terrell was giving him the chance.
“With her, it’s not like it is with you guys. With you, it’s simpler — there’s us, and there’s them,” he indicated the other side of the Wall. “You’re either with us, or you’re not. And if you are, I know what to do with that. I can handle that. I don’t have to second guess myself every time I’m around you because — because I know you’re still gonna be here no matter what. We’re all stuck here, together. It just — it makes it easier to figure out what I’m supposed to do, that’s all.
“But with Kierah, it’s not like that. For her, it’s not just ‘us’ and ‘them’; it’s here, and — out there. We pick a side and stay on it, but she has two sides, and she lives in both.
“And when she’s out there, on the other side, that’s her real life. Out there, she’s … free. She knows people, meets people who will get to know her for who she really is. There’s so much more for her out there, the whole world. She can go anywhere, see anyone, do anything.
“Out there is her real life.
“And — and that’s the way it should be. She’s worth it. She’s beautiful and amazing and every time she speaks, you’re hanging on every word, and when she looks at you, it’s like the world stops, everything else disappears — the pain, the hunger, Garn, the guards — none of it matters, as you realize for just that instant of time, you’re the one that takes up her attention, and you can only wonder if you’re worth it, if you’ll ever be worth —” he stopped himself.
What was he thinking.
“But what’s the point,” he continued softly. “There’s probably dozens of guys out there who think the same thing, except they’re better than me. They know what they’re doing. They’re not scared of every breath they take in front of her, terrified they’ll say the wrong words, do the one thing that’ll change her mind and make her decide it’s not worth coming back. When they’re around her, they don’t feel like they’re holding their breath and gasping for air at the same time, dreading and loving every second they get to see her.
“And then she’ll go back, out there, where they’ll be waiting for her, the guys who don’t have to live in fear of their own existence. And out there, there’s nothing holding them back. Compared to them, what am I to her?”
He fell silent. His thoughts ran ahead of him, but he had no more desire to voice them. It was enough. It was everything — yet it didn’t even come close to doing justice to that lingering fear he still felt from the dream.
Terrell was watching him, and Ethan looked away. He’d said too much.
“That’s what you’re afraid of?” Terrell asked after what felt like an interminable silence. “That she’ll leave and won’t come back?”
The dream. So much like the one he’d had of Terrell being dragged away, taken from him forever, and the agony of that separation — but still different. It was Kierah gone, but gone because she wanted to be. Gone, not because she was taken from him, but because she left him. The difference was a canyon.
“I know, you don’t like her,” Ethan shoved the words out of his mouth, trying to backpedal against everything he’d just poured out. He should have known Terrell wouldn’t understand.
Terrell wouldn’t walk away, but he wasn’t around for heart-to-heart talks. His was a role of silent strength, of being a hand to pull Ethan up, not a shoulder to cry on. Ethan cleared his throat. This subject needed to change.
But before he could try, Terrell cut him off.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” he said. “You’re right, I don’t like her. But whatever you said about you being worth nothing to her — yeah, don’t say that. Because anyone with half an eye can see that it’s not true. Maybe you can’t because you’re in it, but believe me, anyone else can.
Ethan didn’t answer. He was too surprised at what Terrell was saying to begin to formulate a response. Terrell was still talking anyway.
“You notice her. You pay attention to her, and I guess … you’re afraid to lose her. But you’re not the only one who’s paying attention. She’s noticed you too. And now, you mean something to her.
“And that’s what scares me.”
– – – ———- – – – –
“Have you decided what you’re going to wear, yet?” Terula asked as she pulled open the curtains to let the morning light into Kierah’s room.
“I’m already dressed,” Kierah pointed out as she sat on the couch to put on her shoes.
“Yes, I can see that. I don’t mean today, I mean for the prince’s birthday.”
That was the last thing on Kierah’s mind. “The prince’s birthday? Um, I have no idea.”
“Well, you should decide soon, dear.”
“Eh, I’ve got time,” Kierah brushed it aside. She really didn’t care about the party. It would just be another publicity extravaganza for the prince and his Nobles, another awkward event she’d have to drag herself through with a smile, all the while wishing she was somewhere else. Anywhere else, really, but one place in particular.
She’d thought about what Ari had said, and had tried to make sense of what she’d do about it.
“We can’t control how much time we have. But we can control what we do with the time while we have it.”
She hadn’t decided that yet. The thought of telling him anything was both terrifying and thrilling, not to mention a little overwhelming.
But she didn’t have to decide at this second. She still had time.
“No, you actually don’t have time,” Terula’s voice called Kierah back.
“You don’t have time to put off deciding what you’re going to wear. I’ve been hounding you for days now, dear, and you need to pick something.”
“Why is it so urgent?”
“Because the party is in three days.”
That got Kierah’s attention. “What? How is it that soon?”
Terula sighed patiently. “The invitation came two weeks ago. I’ve been trying to get you to pick an outfit since then.”
Had it really been two weeks? Kierah remembered the official invitation arriving to all the Enders the day after she’d run into the prince near the kitchens, when he’d invited her in person.
Maybe she was just tired, but she’d only half-paid attention to the buzz and conversation among the other Ender girls, including Zera, as their excitement grew. She’d half-noticed all the preparations around the palace as the day got closer. She just had no idea the day was quite that close.
“How did you forget it? Why do you think I’ve been hounding you?” Terula smiled and shook her head.
Without meaning to, Kierah yawned.
Terula chuckled. “Ah, I see.”
Kierah frowned and reached for her notescreen. Pulling up the calendar, she looked at the date that apparently was already marked for the party.
“Well, this is going to be a problem,” she said.
“You still can get something to wear, dear, it’s just going to have to be today so we can get it to the tailor if it needs adjustments.”
“No, not that. I’ll wear whatever you want me to, I’m not picky.”
Kierah’s eyes locked onto another date on her notescreen calendar. Nothing was written on it, but she knew she had plans that day.
“The night before,” she said, “I was going to bring Rothan to Kelmar. That’s the first night this week that Danan and Tate are on a shift. I’m not missing that. I’m just afraid it’ll leave me too tired the night of the party. And the prince already suspects…” as if on cue, she yawned. “He suspects there might be something else causing my tiredness.”
“You have been acting more tired lately,” Terula confirmed. “I’ll confess it’s had me worried.”
“I know. And the problem is, the prince knows it, too.”
“The prince knows what?”
“That I’ve been slipping in my, uh, performance. My test scores have gone down, ya know, stuff like that.”
“Coffee can’t fix everything,” Terula frowned. “What you need is rest. There’s a lot of pressure on you, especially as the experiment goes on. The closer it gets to the end — whenever that will be — I can only imagine the scrutiny on your behavior will increase.”
“I know. I’ll be careful.”
“But if people are already noticing the effects of your excursions on your scores… Just remember this party for the prince is going to be a big deal. You might not care about it, but everyone else does. Including the prince. And whether you want to or not, you really should care about impressing him. Because guess who gets to decide the outcome of this experiment.”
Kierah frowned again. “I know. I know he does.”
She thought about what Ari had said.
“We can’t control how much time we have. But we can control what we do with the time while we have it.”
“So even the night before the party,” Terula asked, “there’s no chance you’ll skip going?”
Kierah shook her head emphatically. “Nope.” And she promptly yawned again. “I need coffee,” she said again.
“No,” Terula said softly. “What you need is rest. You need a break from all this late-night madness, my dear.”
“Madness?” Kierah didn’t like that choice of words. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The only negative thing about your excursions is its impact on your health,” Terula clarified. “It’s done amazing things for your mind and your mood, but I’m concerned for your physical wellbeing.”
“You don’t need to be,” Kierah brushed her off. “I’m fine. Really. A little coffee and I’ll be good as new. And maybe a nap.”
“Followed by more coffee. And another nap. And more coffee.” Terula sighed. “Little bandaids like that won’t fix it, Kierah.”
“What are you saying, Terula?” Kierah asked cautiously.
“I’m saying I think perhaps you should consider taking a break,” Terula ventured, knowing she were approaching a delicate subject. “I think it would be good for your health.”
“My health?” Kierah repeated, getting irritated. “My health? We’re concerned about me? Have you seen what those boys go through? And we’re concerned about my health? I think I can put up with a few long nights, compared to what they go through. They’re the ones that need help, not me.”
Terula hesitated. “But my dear, you are of no help to them if you get caught.”
That stopped Kierah a little.
“If you said you’re drawing attention to yourself because your scores are lagging, you want to get any suspicions off your trail, don’t you?” Terula continued. “Maybe wait a while, let things go back to normal, that would be my suggestion. I know you care about the boys more than anything. But to help them, you need to help yourself, here.”
Kierah didn’t answer right away. Not seeing the boys, not seeing Ethan … It was more than she wanted to picture. They’d become her lifeline. Her argument was that they needed her, but she knew she was the one who needed them more.
One of them in particular.
She blushed a little. As it was, going mere days without seeing him was tough to wait through, like holding her breath underwater. If she had to wait a week, or more, she feared she might drown.
“I don’t like it,” she said quietly.
“I know you don’t. I don’t like saying it, believe me. But I do think it’d be for the best,” Terula nodded.
Kierah sighed. “Okay. Maybe for a week or two.”
“At least two,” Terula suggested firmly.
Kierah sighed again. “Maybe two, then. But I need to go back to tell them that. They need to understand why I’m staying away. I need to go back one more time.”
Chapter 27: The beginning coming Friday! THE LAST CHAPTER!
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