Their love and their leadership have been tested. Now it’s time for Perry and Aria to unite the Dwellers and the Outsiders in one last desperate attempt to bring balance to their world…
Anger made Perry feel strong and clear-headed. Sharper than he’d felt since he stepped into the cave.
He drew a few breaths, forcing his muscles to loosen. To let go of the drive to attack.
“Stay,” he said, looking from Roar to Aria. “Everyone else, leave.”
The chamber emptied in a rush, Reef quelling Soren’s objections with a few firm pushes, Bear last to step outside. Perry waited for the knock of his walking stick to fade away before he spoke. “Are you hurt?”
Aria shook her head.
“No?” he said. She was lying to protect Roar, because the answer was obvious in her braced stance.
She looked away, her gaze falling to the table. “It wasn’t his fault.”
Roar scowled. “Really, Perry? You think I’d hurt her? On purpose?”
“You’re out to hurt at least a few people. I’m sure of that. What I’m trying to figure out is how wide you’re casting the net.”
Roar laughed—a bitter, clipped sound. “You know what’s funny? You, acting so superior. What I did was an accident— what about you? Which one of us spilled his own brother’s blood?”
Anger washed over Perry. Roar was throwing Vale’s death in his face. A low blow—the lowest—and totally unexpected.
“I’m warning you this once,” Perry said. “Don’t think you can say or do anything to me because of who you are. You can’t.”
“Why? Because now you’re Blood Lord? Am I supposed to bow to you, Peregrine? Am I supposed to follow you around like your six loyal hounds?” Roar tipped his chin toward Perry’s chest. “That piece of metal has gone to your head.”
“It better have! I swore an oath. My life belongs to the Tides.”
“You’re hiding behind that oath. You’re hiding here.”
“Just tell me what you want, Roar.”
“Liv is dead! She’s dead.”
“And you think I can bring her back? Is that it?” He couldn’t. He would never see his sister again. Nothing would change that.
“I want you to do something. Shed a damn tear, to start with! Then go after Sable. Cut his throat open. Burn him to ash. Just don’t keep hiding here under this rock.”
“There are four hundred and twelve people under this rock. I’m responsible for every one. We’re running out of food. We’re running out of options. The world outside is burning, and you think I’m hiding?”
Roar’s voice dropped to a growl. “Sable murdered her! He fired a crossbow at Liv from ten paces. He—”
“Stop!” Aria yelled. “Stop, Roar. Don’t tell him this way. Not like this.”
“He put a bolt through your sister’s heart, and then stood there and watched the life pour out of her.”
The instant Perry heard the word crossbow, his body went rigid. He’d known that Sable had killed Liv, but not how. He didn’t want to know. Images of Vale’s death would haunt him for the rest of his life. He didn’t need nightmares of his sister, pierced through the heart by a piece of wood, as well.
Roar shook his head. “I’m done.” He didn’t say it, but with you echoed in the beat of silence that followed.
He made his way out but turned to add, “Keep acting like it didn’t happen, Peregrine. Carry on with your meetings, and your tribe, and everything else, just like I knew you would.”
When he was gone, Perry gripped the chair in front of him. He lowered his gaze to the table, staring at the grain of the wood as he tried to slow his racing pulse. Roar’s temper had brought a fine, charred scent to the chamber. It felt like breathing soot.
In more than ten years of knowing each other, of spending every day together, they’d never fought. Never like this, in earnest. He’d always counted on Roar, and he’d never expected that to change. He had never imagined that with Liv gone, Roar might be lost to him too.
Perry shook his head. He was being stupid. Nothing would sever their friendship.
“I’m sorry, Perry,” Aria said softly. “He’s hurting.”
He swallowed through a tight throat. “I got that.” The words came out sharp. But Liv was his sister. The last of his family, except for Talon. Why was she worrying about Roar?
“I only meant that he isn’t acting like himself. It may seem like it, but he doesn’t want you as an enemy. He needs you more than ever.”
“He’s my best friend,” he said, lifting his gaze to her. “I know what he needs.”
Aside from Liv and Perry—and now Aria—Roar had only ever loved one other person: his grandmother. When she’d died years ago, he’d stormed around the compound for a month before settling down.
Maybe that was what Roar needed. Time.
A lot of it.
“You don’t know what it was like, Perry. What he went through in Rim, and afterward.”
Perry went still, blinking at her in disbelief. He couldn’t stand to hear that right now. “You’re right,” he said, straightening. “I wasn’t there when Liv died, but I should have been. That was our plan, remember? We were going to go together. As I recall, you and Roar left without me.”
Aria’s gray eyes widened in surprise. “I had to go. You’d have lost the Tides otherwise.”
He needed to leave now. Frustration and anger still roiled inside him. He didn’t want to take that out on her. But he couldn’t stop himself from replying.
“You made that decision on your own. Even if you were right, couldn’t you have told me? Couldn’t you have said something, instead of leaving without a word? You vanished on me, Aria.”
“Perry, I was… I didn’t think you… I guess we should talk about this.”
He hated to see the small line between her eyebrows, hated to see her hurting because of him. He should have never opened his mouth. “No,” he said. “It’s done. Forget it.”
“Obviously, you haven’t.”
He couldn’t pretend otherwise. The memory of walking into Vale’s room to find her gone still played in his mind. Whenever he left her side, a flicker of fear taunted him, whispering in his ear that she might disappear again—though he knew she wouldn’t. It was an irrational fear, as Marron had said. But when had fear ever been rational?
“It’ll be morning before long,” he said, changing the subject. They had too much else to consider to dwell on the past. “I need to get organized.”
Aria’s eyebrows drew together. “You need to get organized? So you’re going this time?”
Her temper cooled by the second. She thought he was leaving her. That he was getting back at her for leaving him by going without her tomorrow.
“I want us both to go,” he rushed to clarify. “I know you’re hurt, but if you feel well enough, I need you on this mission. You’re as much Dweller as you are Outsider—we’ll be facing both—and you’ve dealt with Hess and Sable.”
There were other reasons. She was clever and tenacious. A strong Aud. Most importantly, he didn’t want to say goodbye to her in the morning. But he didn’t say any of those things. He couldn’t bring himself to open his heart only to have her choose not to be with him once again.
“I’ll go on the mission,” Aria said. “I already planned to. And you’re right. I am hurt. But I’m not afraid to admit it.”
Then she was gone, taking all the air and light in the cavern with her.
Aria returned to the Dweller cavern.
Work would help her sort through her anger and confusion. It would help her forget the sound of Perry and Roar shouting at each other. Maybe, if she busied herself enough, she’d even get the words You vanished on me, Aria out of her head.
Molly moved amid the sickly bundles that stretched back into the darkness. Some of the Dwellers seemed to be stirring now, and a few of the Tides were helping Molly tend to them. Blond hair in the distance caught her attention. She spotted Brooke carrying a jug of water from one person to another.
Aria knelt by Molly. “What’s she doing here?”
Molly drew a blanket over a young girl. “Ah,” she said, looking up and seeing Brooke. “You two didn’t get off to a good start, did you?”
“No… but only one of us is responsible for that.”
Molly pursed her lips. “She knows she treated you poorly, and she’s grateful to you for bringing Clara back. This is her way of showing it.”
Brooke must have felt their attention because she looked over, her blue eyes moving from Aria to Molly. Aria saw no apology in them. No gratitude.
“Interesting way of showing it.”
“She is trying,” Molly said. “And she’s a good girl. She’s just had a tough stretch.”
Aria shook her head. Weren’t they all having a tough stretch?
She settled to work, delivering water and medicines to the Dwellers who had stirred. She knew every one of them, but some better than others. Briefly she spoke with a friend of her mother’s, aching for Lumina, and then checked on Rune, Jupiter, and Caleb. Her friends were still barely conscious, but just being near them felt good, nourishing a part of her that had been dormant for months.
Gradually, Perry and Roar faded from her thoughts. Even the pain in her arm did. She immersed herself in work until she heard a pair of familiar voices.
“Can I get some water?” Soren asked. He was sitting up and looked healthy enough to get his own water, but the meeting earlier had drained the color from his face.
Brooke knelt and shoved the jug at him.
“Thanks,” Soren said. He took a slow drink, his gaze never leaving Brooke. Then he grinned and handed the water back. “You know, you’re really pretty for a Savage.”
“Three days ago you vomited all over my sleeve, Dweller. That wasn’t pretty.” Brooke stood, moving to the next patient.
Aria fought back a laugh. She remembered that Brooke and Liv had been close friends. How was Brooke coping? Grief simmered right on the surface with Roar. On his face, in his voice. Where was it in Brooke?
For that matter, what about Perry?
She sighed, looking around her. Would she really contribute to the mission tomorrow with her arm the way it was? Did the Dwellers need her to be here for them? The real source of her apprehension, she knew, was Perry.
How were they supposed to get past the hurt she’d caused him when he wouldn’t even discuss it?
The ring of a bell echoed into the cavern.
“Supper,” Molly said.
It didn’t feel like suppertime. Without the sun, it could’ve been morning or noon or midnight. Aria let out another slow breath, rolling back her shoulders. She’d been helping for a few hours.
After Brooke and a few others left, Molly came over. “Not hungry?”
Aria shook her head. “I don’t want anything.” She wasn’t ready to see Perry or Roar again. She’d grown tired. Her arm ached. Her heart ached.
“I’ll have something sent over for you.” Molly patted her shoulder and left.
When Aria went to check on Caleb again, she found him waking. He blinked at her in confusion. His red hair, a few shades deeper than Paisley’s, was matted down with sweat. Fever had left his lips chapped and his eyes glazed.
He took a slow, artist’s perusal of her face. “I thought you’d be happier to see me.”
She knelt beside him. “I am, Caleb. I’m really happy to see you.”
“You look sad.”
“I was a minute ago, but now I’m not. How could I be, now that you’re with me?”
He smiled softly, and then his gaze drifted around the cavern. “This isn’t a Realm, is it?”
She shook her head. “No. It’s not.”
“I didn’t think so. Who would want to come to a Realm like this?”
She sat, resting her hands on her lap. A knot of pain throbbed deep inside her right bicep. “They wouldn’t… but it’s all we have.”
Caleb’s gaze came back to her. “I’m sore everywhere. Even my teeth hurt.”
“Do you want something? I can get you medicine or—”
“No… just stay.” He gave her a shaky smile. “Seeing you is good. It’s making me feel better. You’ve changed, Aria.”
“Have I?” she asked, though she knew she had. They used to spend afternoons cruising the art Realms. Seeking out the best concerts, the best parties. She barely recognized the girl she used to be.
Caleb nodded. “Yes. You have. When I get better, I’m going to draw you, changed Aria.”
“Let me know when you’re ready. I’ll get you some paper.”
“Real paper?” he asked, brightening. Caleb had only drawn in the Realms.
She smiled. “That’s right. Real paper.”
The spark of excitement left his eyes, his expression turning serious. “Soren told me what happened. About Ag 6… and Paisley. Have you forgiven him?”
Aria glanced toward Soren, who had fallen asleep nearby. She nodded. “I had to, to get you out. And Soren has DLS—a disease that makes him volatile. But he’s on medications to control it now.”
“Are we sure they work?” Caleb said, with a weak smile.
Aria smiled. If he was making jokes, he couldn’t feel that terrible.
“He wasn’t the reason Pais died,” Caleb said. “It was the fire that got her that night. Not him. He was crying when he told me that. I never thought I’d see Soren cry. I think… I think he blames himself. I think he stayed and helped us get out of Reverie because of that night.”
Aria believed it because it was true for her as well. She’d brought Paisley to Ag 6. Because of that night, she’d never again leave someone she loved in need, if she could help it.
Caleb squeezed his eyes shut. “Pain is such a pain, you know? It’s very taxing.”
She knew. Aria lay down, settling in beside him, feeling like she’d found part of herself. She saw her past in Caleb. She saw Paisley and the home she’d lost, and she never wanted to forget them.
“Not exactly the Sistine Chapel, is it?” she asked after a while, staring at the jagged shapes that pierced down from the darkness.
“No, it’s rather purgatorial,” Caleb said. “But if we squint really, really hard, we could imagine it otherwise.”
She pointed with her good hand. “That big one there looks like a fang.”
“Mm-hmm. It does.” Beside her, Caleb scrunched his face. “Over there. That one looks like a… like a fang.”
“And just to the left? Fang.”
“Wrong. That is clearly an incisor. Wait, no… it’s a fang.”
“I’ve missed you, Caleb.”
“I’ve mega missed you.” He peered at her. “I think we all knew it was going to come to this. Everything started to change after that night. You could feel it.… But you’re going to get us out of here, right?”
She stared into his eyes, finally clear about where she was needed. She’d do more good on the mission than she would here, regardless of her arm or any lingering tension between her and Perry.
“Yes,” she said. “I am.” She told him about Hess and Sable, and about the mission she’d be part of in the morning.
“So you’re leaving again,” Caleb said when she’d finished. “I guess I’m all right with that.” He yawned and rubbed his left eye, where his Smarteye would have been, then smiled tiredly at her. “The Outsider you were with when we left Reverie—is he the reason you were sad?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “What happened was my mistake, mostly. A few weeks ago, I was trying to protect him, and… I ended up hurting him instead.”
“Tricky, but I have an idea. When I fall asleep, go find him and apologize.” He winked at her. “Mostly.”
Aria smiled. She liked that idea a lot.
Into the Still Blue © Veronica Rossi