Except Priyanka shifted, turning so her back was fully to me. Even without the seat belt strapped across my chest, there was no way of reaching the phone without climbing over Roman.
“Shit,” I breathed out, turning my full attention back to the road. My hands gripped the wheel so tightly, I felt the old leather crack beneath my palms.
Priyanka and I had walked for hours, carrying Roman’s unconscious form between us. Wild grass turned to cornfields, which had led us to an abandoned farm and a junker truck left to be buried by a collapsing barn. All I’d had to do was use the last bit of power in the house’s generator to jump the engine.
The truck was an old model, with its best years in the rearview mirror and a broken fuel gauge, the latter of which added some unwelcome mystery about how much gas we actually had. Liam would have loved it, though. He’d call it a “classic beauty,” and name it after some old rock song.
Maybe…he could be my second call, after I let Chubs know where I was and that I was okay. If I still had the right number.
I rolled down the window’s hand crank, hoping some fresh summer night air might keep the fog of fatigue from creeping too deeply into my thoughts. We had to hit some kind of home or motel or even gas station eventually. The trick was just staying awake.
I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in what felt like days. No rest outside of the drug-induced stupor they’d put us in. Maybe that’s why Priyanka hadn’t fought me to drive—she really thought it would only be minutes before I pulled off the road and tucked into sleep, too.
I glanced over at her again. The gun was in her lap, her hand resting on it. The phone I’d stolen from the soldier hadn’t had a signal at all—either there were no cell towers out here, or someone had figured out what had happened and immediately discontinued service to it. In the end, it didn’t matter. I’d probed what was left of its battery with my power as we’d climbed into the truck, but it had already died.
Awake, I thought. Just stay awake.
What my mind wanted was coffee. What I had was a radio.
The signal had started out dodgy, sputtering between songs and silence. It got stronger with each mile we gained, which made me hopeful that we were on the verge of finding civilization again. And even if we only got that one throwback station, it at least gave me something to do—Liam’s favorite trick to stay awake: singing.
I whispered the words to the REO Speedwagon song, but my head felt like it was a thousand pounds, and I couldn’t seem to grasp the melody.
“I’ve never heard this song before.”
The truck swerved into the other lane. My heart just about rocketed out of my chest, shredding itself against my rib cage. “Jesus!”
“Sorry!” he rasped out. “I should have—”
“No,” I interrupted, pressing a hand against my chest as I steered us back to the right lane. “It’s all right.” Adrenaline had dialed my nerves up to a hundred, and the way he was looking at me now, so concerned, filled me with this angry confusion. “You’re awake.”
Don’t be nice to me, I thought, forcing my gaze back onto the road. Don’t pretend.
“Where are we?” he asked, rubbing his forehead. He leaned forward, turning to get a better look at Priyanka, assessing her with those bright, worried eyes of his. She didn’t stir.
“No clue,” I said curtly, sitting up a little straighter. “I’m just driving until we find someplace that’ll let me make a phone call.”
“How long have I been out?” he asked, sounding like he might not want to know the answer.
“A few hours,” I said. “Long enough that I was starting to seriously doubt you’d ever wake up.”
He swore quietly. “Hours?”
“Hours. Priyanka explained about your migraines,” I told him. “How they’re triggered by stress. Is that true?”
“They hit me like a hammer and take me out, but it’s usually only for an hour at most.” Roman ran his scarred hand over his face again. “What else did Priyanka tell you?”
It sounded like he didn’t want to hear the answer. Of course. Maybe he’d be the easier one to drill for answers in the end.
“About your past with the Psion Ring,” I said, watching his face for his reaction. “How you were at the school for a ‘fresh start.’”
“The Psion Ring?” He leaned his head back against the seat, his mouth stretched into a tight grimace. I didn’t miss the glance he slid her way. “Then she told you too much.”
“Why?” I began, trying for playful. “Is it an I’d-tell-you-more-but-I’d-have-to-kill-you kind of operation?”
“Yes,” he said flatly. “The more you know, the more dangerous they become to you. There are…added risks to you since you work in the government.”
I ignored the cold prickle on the back of my neck, keeping that same joking tone. “Because they have spies in our ranks?”
“No, because you can report our involvement, and then we’d be taken in for questioning.”
I glanced at him, stunned. “I won’t do that.”
“Why wouldn’t you?” he asked, staring through the windshield. “It doesn’t matter what you’d want to do personally—it would be your duty. Your responsibility.”
I don’t know why that rankled me. “I’m capable of working for the government and doing a little bit of off-the-books help if I have to. If it’s true you want a fresh start and you left that life behind, then I have no reason to say anything.”
But that wasn’t exactly true, was it? The government had been searching for any leads on the Psion Ring for years. Knowing I had something potentially helpful would gnaw at me. Maybe I would feel like I had to say something.
That only mattered, though, if there was an ounce of truth to this story. And every interaction I’d had with the two of them pointed to it being a convenient cover, including Roman’s reluctance to say more now.
“I’m sorry,” he said in that quiet voice of his, the one that didn’t disturb the silence so much as give it depth. “God, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what else to say, other than thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” I said, ignoring the pull of those eyes. Pain had its own gravity, and his words were heavy with it, threatening to pull me in. “I really didn’t do much.”
“You stayed with Priyanka,” he insisted. “You helped her.”
Helped would have implied I had a choice. But even if nothing else he said was true, those words, at least, felt genuine to me.
“I’m going to make it up to you,” he said, his low voice rumbling. “I won’t forget this, and I won’t ever let you down like that again.”
At that, the words blistering with sincerity, I finally looked. Roman was watching me intently, his face a kaleidoscope of barely restrained emotions.
“You couldn’t help it,” I said, feeling my skin heat up again. The way he looked at me was like…
Like a liar.
I turned back to the road. “It’s fine. Really. Don’t make a big deal out of it.”
“It is a big deal,” he said quietly. “It’s my only deal. At least the only one that matters to me.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I didn’t understand why I wanted to say something to that. In that moment I felt as soft as a petal, when all I’d ever wanted was to grow a few thorns.
“Priyanka and I…We…” Roman struggled to put the thought together.
“You only have each other,” I finished. “She told me that, too.”
He shook his head, running a rough hand back through his dark, thick hair.
“What? Is that not true?” I pressed.
“It’s true enough,” Roman said, rubbing at the back of his scarred hand. “I had…I lost my sister. I lost her, just like we’d lost our mother years before. As hard as I tried to take care of her, it all fell apart in the end. The man raising us had the heart of a snake, and I couldn’t save my sister from him. I couldn’t keep my family together.”
/> I tried to swallow whatever was lodged in my throat. “I’m sorry.”
“Even if it doesn’t make sense to you…when I say that what you did in helping Priyanka means everything to me, it’s the truth. It’s my absolute truth.”
“I understand,” I said before I could stop myself. “Probably better than you think.”
I hadn’t been able to keep my family together, either.
Maybe this was all a play, part of whatever their bigger plan was—get me on their side by working some quality emotional manipulation. Even as the thought crossed my mind, I wanted to brush it away. The only times I felt like they were being real were the ones where their control over the situation slipped and they spoke or acted from a place of deep feeling. These little glimpses of who they were beneath the deception, two kids who fought like hell for each other, made me think the endgame wasn’t to hurt or kill me. Or at least I hoped.
It was a good ten minutes before I realized Roman and I had been sitting in silence. I stole a look at him out of the corner of my eye, but he seemed as unbothered by quiet as I was.
For the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel like I had to say anything. There was no one to comfort or convince. There was no one to charm or encourage. I disappeared into myself as I drove on, trying to find my center. I could breathe. Be still.
What I hadn’t expected was how much Roman seemed to need it, too.
Some people feared silence. They did anything to fill it, talking about things that didn’t matter, asking questions just to hear some kind of response. It seemed to me that a lot of people saw it as a kind of failure. Evidence that they weren’t interesting enough, or that a bond wasn’t strong enough. Or maybe they were just nervous about what it would reveal about themselves.
“Do you want a break?” he asked quietly, catching me looking.