Fuck algebra. They were actually going to use that stuff.
Well, the others were going to use it. Although Rhage had said nothing yet about kicking him out, he had to believe that was coming.
And therapy? With Mary?
Who were they even kidding? The last thing he wanted was to have to talk to Rhage’s shellan about how he was feeling about what had happened. Hell, getting through the facts had been hard enough—and besides, it wasn’t a great fucking mystery. Guilt, regret, shame.
Come on. Like, duh.
After he paced around for a while, he lay flat on the desk and stared up at the ceiling, his lower back pointing out that there was no mattress underneath him, his arm aching because he angled it up and used the thing as a pillow. As the day wore on, he would get up and pace again from time to time, trailing his fingertips on the slick tops of the tables they had all sat at while they had been in class.
He wanted to go back to the student part of things, when the learning had been theoretical. It had been a grand adventure back then.
He wanted to go back to before his cousin had died. Because that had seemed like the first of the bad dominoes to fall.
He wanted to go back to that alley. But he had recriminated enough over what he wished he had done differently there.
When the door opened, he was lying down again and he didn’t bother to look over from his desk-bed. He knew by the scent who it was.
“Hey, Rhage.” Peyton rubbed his face. “You got good news for me? No? Well, at least I’m used to that—oh, wait, this is the part where you kick me out, right?”
“She’s asking for you.”
Peyton jumped to his feet before he was aware of moving. “What did you say?”
“You heard me.” The Brother nodded out into the hall. “She’s waiting.”
Okay, this was a shocker. Unless Novo wanted to yell at him—and hey, if that was what motivated her to stay alive, he was good with being her punching bag.
Out in the corridor, he headed for the clinic area, and as he went along, he pulled up his combat pants and re-tucked his black muscle shirt.
But like she was going to give a shit how he was dressed?
At the door of her hospital room, he knocked—and when he heard a muffled response, he pushed his way inside.
Novo was lying prone in that bed with the high rails, her motionless body hooked up to beeping machines by miles of wires. Her skin was sallow, the yellow tint making him think about her liver—no, wait, was that the kidneys? He couldn’t think. And her lids were down low, her mouth parted as if she were trying to breathe with the minimum amount of effort. Next to her, Ehlena was checking one of the monitors…and then the nurse put something in the IV line, using a syringe.
“Come closer,” Novo croaked. “Not going to bite.”
The nurse glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “I’m glad they found you. I’ll leave you two to it—but Dr. Manello will be coming in very soon.”
As the female left, Peyton went over to the side of the bed. Opening his mouth, he meant to say something appropriate. Nothing occurred to him.
Feeling like a fool, he went with: “Hey.”
Yup, real original, profound stuff right there—God, why couldn’t he have been the one to get stabbed?
Novo lifted her arm, or at least tried to—only her hand got up off the sheets. “Don’t leave.”
“Not until you tell me I have to.”
“No…the program. Don’t leave. I know that’s…what you’re thinking. I know…you’re going to try to…leave.”
For a moment, he considered pretending that hadn’t been on his mind, oh, like, two minutes ago. But she looked so tired and worn out that he didn’t want to waste her energy—even though he couldn’t understand why she cared.
“We need…fighters,” she said hoarsely. “You…good one.”
“How can you even say that?” He pulled a chair over, sat down, and put his head in his hands. “How can you even…”
His voice drifted off as tears came into his eyes. He was so goddamn exhausted with being the fuckup, the asshole, the partyer, the rake…he was a poor excuse for a male of worth, and his father knew it just as everyone who had ever crossed his path did.
And now this incontrovertible evidence of his perennially poor judgment.
This. Here. Lying on this hospital bed. Just out of the operating room, where they had had to repair her heart.
Off in the distance, he heard that patient, the one who was losing his mind, scream like the male was also trapped in some kind of nightmare.
“Don’t…leave…” she said. “Look…at me.”
Scrubbing his face with his palm, he focused on her eyes…her beautiful, direct, intelligent eyes. And somehow, it was not a surprise that as weak as her body was, her stare was, as ever, alert and burning with purpose.
“I am so sorry,” he whispered. “For what I did.”
“No, I was wrong.” As his voice cut out, he forced strength into it. “I wanted to save Paradise, and she didn’t need saving. She doesn’t need it. She’s as strong a fighter as any one of us. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“You…love her.” Novo’s face tightened. “Not your fault. Emotions are…what they are. Trust me, I know this.”
“I didn’t want to hurt you.”
As her eyes closed, Peyton panicked like she was dying in front of him, and he turned to those monitors with their graphs and their numbers and their blinking lights. None of them were showing any alarms. Were they working right?
But Novo didn’t seem in any kind of distress. Her breathing stayed shallow, granted, but it was even, and her face didn’t show any kind of pain.
She really was beautiful, he thought. So strong and unwavering, even in her weakened state.
“You can’t leave the program,” she mumbled. “Everything will fall apart. Brothers…will cancel us all—”
“I’m not in love with her,” he blurted. “I’m not. I just didn’t realize it until tonight.”
Novo’s eyes flipped back open. And then she shook her head a little on the thin pillow. “Doesn’t…matter.”
“You’re right. It doesn’t.”
“Promise…me. No leaving…”
“My fault, too.” As he frowned, she said, “I should have…stabbed lesser. Should have…finished job. I got distracted, too. Part…my fault.”
“You’re wrong about that—”
She put her hand out, like she wanted to stop the argument and lacked the energy to talk over him. “I made mistakes…too. First rule is finish the job. I failed. I got…hurt because…of me, too.”
Peyton had to blink a couple of times before he could be sure he wouldn’t leak. “Let me take the responsibility. The Brothers can do what they want with me.”
“We will fight again…together in field…” She took a deep breath and winced. “Soon as I’m…out of bed…”
You are such a female of worth, he thought.
And the more he dwelled on that conviction, the more everything in the room receded, the monitors, the antiseptic smell, the too-bright lights, and the too-hard chair. And then the airbrushed effect extended out even further, wiping clean the existence of the training center, the mountain they were on…Caldwell, the Northeast…the fucking planet itself.
Novo became all he knew, from the specks in her teal-blue eyes to the way her braid curled around and lay on her shoulder to how she put her hand out as if she wanted him to take it.
Extending his own palm, he clasped what she offered him and felt her squeeze with surprising strength.
“We will fight together again,” she vowed.
Novo fought the ten-thousand-pound drag of pain and drugs in her body and tried to force what will she had into Peyton. The training program had to continue. Without it, she had no purpose and no outlet for all the shit she refused to feel and deal with: If she didn’t accept her part in what had happened in that alley, and if she didn’t forgive Peyton, the class was going to be divided, the Brotherhood was going to lose confidence and patience with them, and then she was going to be stuck going to her sister’s fucking half-human mating ceremony with no battle armor against everything she had lost.