I held up my cuffed hands, feeling strangely hollow as I forced myself to shrug.
Finally, Priyanka’s gaze fell back on Roman. She blew out a long sigh, then started again, her voice softer. “Look. While I will confess I am not unfamiliar with certain criminal elements in this country, these guys honestly just seemed like your run-of-the-mill, stereotypical bad guys. They were clearly trained, so maybe ex-military? Former PSFs hiring out their services to third parties? I mean, would it kill you to just…?”
“What?” I prompted.
“My stupid, heroic Boy Scout of a best friend survived a bomb blast and still ran toward you, not because of who you were, but because he thought you needed help. And yet, it feels like you think we’re the bad guys,” Priyanka said. “Can we please just focus on getting out of here?”
An unwelcome flicker of guilt moved through me. The rawness of her voice had been…
I looked away. If it turned out this was all true, I could feel guilty and apologize later. For right now, I needed to smooth things over. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m just trying to make sense of what happened.”
“What’s…happening…?” a soft voice interrupted. Then, stronger, “Priya?”
Both of us startled as Roman rolled onto his back. He blinked fiercely in the dim light.
“I’m here,” she said as she leaned over him. “You okay, bud?”
Moving slow, dragging himself out of the pull of the drug, Roman tried to get his feet flat on the ground. The zip tie restraints around his ankles locked up where they were looped through the ones binding his wrists behind his back.
That one small tug of resistance was enough to send a shock through his whole body. Roman jerked, turning back onto his side with a thin sound of panic.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Priyanka’s voice rose as he continued to struggle against the restraints. “Roman, just wait. Don’t do it—don’t you dare—”
Roman’s body contorted into an agonized pose, his shoulders hunching forward, the muscles of his back and arms straining—
“I’m not popping it back in again!” Priyanka said. “Don’t—”
There was a sickening, wet pop as the zip tie that had locked his hands behind his back snapped, and his left shoulder dislocated.
I reared back at the horrifying sound. What the hell?
Priyanka gagged. “Jesus! Will you stop hulking out on me?”
Roman struggled to sit up, keeping one hand pressed against his shoulder.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Priyanka said. “You’re not going to do it right—let me—”
She braced one hand against his shoulder and set her jaw. I had a half second to look away before she realigned it. The only noise from Roman was a grunt of pain, and then a long sigh.
“What? You’re not going to chew through the ankle restraints?” Priyanka groused, watching him examine them. The truck swerved right, rocking all three of us. “Or are you done showing off?”
He looked down at the zip ties, cocking his head to the side. Considering.
“I…” I began, awkwardly holding up the blade. “Knife?”
“The man didn’t say anything about who they are or where we’re going?”
Roman’s dark head was bent over my handcuffs as he turned my wrists this way and that. His touch was soft, and it confused me, just for a second, into forgetting that his palms and fingers were covered in calluses, the kind that come from handling many weapons over many years.
I hadn’t noticed before, but the back of his right hand was covered in a web of dark scars. It looked beyond painful; I turned his hand slightly to get a better look, but Roman immediately tugged it back.
“Sorry,” I murmured. What could have caused something like that? Fire?
Roman kept his face turned down, even as he returned his hand to the cuffs.
“It was a stupid thing I did,” he explained quietly. “My fault.”
When I didn’t respond, he looked up at me through the strands of his tousled hair, bright eyes rimmed with full lashes. Even if his face betrayed no hints to his thoughts, those eyes had currents of emotion in their depths. The danger was that they kept drawing me in, even as my head was telling me to look away.
Eyes of a poet, hands of a killer.
Who the hell are you?
“We really owe you,” he said, nodding toward the dead man. “He must have had no idea what hit him.”
In the moment, it had felt like I had no other option but to attack the man, but now I wondered if I’d made a mistake in revealing what I could do. “He deserved it.”
My skin heated under the scrutiny of Roman’s gaze, but my head was a mess. He looked at me the way he did when he helped me out of the wreckage from the bombing. It was a potent combination of relief and gratitude, and I didn’t understand it.
Distance, I reminded myself.
I pulled my hands back, straightening the best I could. “Anyway, the only thing I got from him is that they changed the Op in some way. He did mention we still have hours ahead on the drive.”
I tried not to think about the context in which that little piece of information had come up.
“Op.” Priyanka snickered, repeating the word. “Op.”
“What’s your problem?” I snapped.
“I need you to stay very still for just a second,” Roman interrupted, his voice as quiet and steady as the stretch of road beneath us. “I can’t get the cuffs off without a key, but this should give you a better range of motion.”
He brought up the tip of the knife, wedging it between two of the narrow links connecting the cuffs. If he could keep his hands steady in this situation, even with the swaying of the truck, I sure as hell wasn’t going to let mine shake.
“It’s just funny to hear you say that,” Priyanka said, pitching her voice up higher. “Op.”
The metal links split
and my wrists fell away from each other.
“You find yourself in handcuffs often?” I asked Roman, rubbing at the metal rings still circling my wrists.
He looked down at the knife’s blade, clearly trying to decide how to answer. “Are we still trying to relieve stress?”
My nerves were sparking, flaring hot and fast with no sign of burning out. So, yes.
Priyanka held up her hands. “Could we now turn our attention back to the situation at hand? How many people do we think are in the cab of the truck?”
“I heard two voices respond to the guy back here,” I said, crossing my arms over my stomach.
Priyanka rose to her full, impressive height, knocking into one of the empty racks that lined the roof of the truck. “Ow, dammit. All right, then, spark plug,” she said, her hand rubbing her head. “You’re up. Can you stall the truck?”
“What did you just call me?” I asked.
Roman sighed, giving Priyanka a look. “She means that you’re classified Yellow. A surge of power could stop the truck’s engine, right?”
I nodded. “But if they’ve insulated the cab, too, it’s going to be a problem for us.”
Roman’s mouth flattened for a moment, his brows drawing down in thought.
“You’re a Yellow too, right?” I pressed. “I didn’t imagine your button?”
In spite of everything, including my fears about them, it would almost be reassuring to have another Psi like me here. It would help explain why I felt a small instinctive tug toward him, even now. Yellow-classified Psi could connect to each other as they felt out the same electrical currents—one flicker of power brushing up against another.
Some days, that passing sensation felt like the only reassurance that I wasn’t alone.
“You didn’t imagine it,” he said. “But you have the better control by far, and I don’t know how useful I’ll be. How do you want to play this?”
I rubbed at my face, thinking. Control would be key here. It meant the difference between stopping the engine and exploding it, which could kill all of us. “I can take care of the engine. It’s going to come down to using the element of surprise. One of you can get the door open; the other is going to need to be ready to fire at any of the soldiers who come back to investigate.”