A minute; five, twenty. Cass couldn’t be sure how long it’d been since the explosion. Not long enough to catch her breath, too long to be safe. She forced herself to her feet, calves searing, thighs hollow and trembling from the effort. A deep breath. Focus. She readjusted her backpack.
“Can we wait? Just a little longer?” Wren asked, hopeful, barely audible.
Cass just shook her head. She didn’t have the courage to look behind her, so she took his hand in hers, and started off again. One step at a time. It was all she could manage. Out of the corner of her eye, Cass saw Wren glance back over his shoulder. She stole the chance to wipe the tears from her eyes.
It wasn’t the loss. At least, that’s what she told herself. They’d been on their own, on the run, too long for their brief time with Three to really make much difference. For the first time, though, she felt an emptiness that hadn’t been there before. A quiet resignation. Her body would go through the motions for as long as she could force it to, but somewhere between the wayhouse and wherever they were now, her heart had given out. Hope can only be offered and snatched away so many times before it becomes a mockery. It didn’t seem to matter now. There was nothing more this shell of a world had left to give that could make her feel safe.
“Are we going to die now?”
The question jolted Cass from her haze. Wren had an uncanny knack for asking the very questions she was asking herself.
“Of course not.”
She wanted to reassure him, but that was all she could muster.
He took it at face value, and for that she was thankful. They walked a little ways in silence, and then Wren spoke again.
“Will you tell me when?”
“When what, sweetheart?”
“When it’s time for us to die.”
Cass’s heart practically stopped. What mother could possibly answer such a question? And what did it say about her, that her child, so young, would even think to ask it? She couldn’t stop the tears then. She sank to her knees, and drew Wren close, hugged him, drawing comfort more than offering it.
Wren squeezed back.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
Cass just squeezed harder.
“It’s not you, sweetheart.”
“It’s me,” a nearby voice said.
Cass and Wren both jerked at Three’s sudden reappearance. She swiveled on a knee, instinctively grasping Wren’s arm to pull him behind her. Three stood at the entrance of an alley, just a few feet from them.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she replied, hastily clearing the tears. “I’m used to you disappearing.”
He grunted at that, the closest thing to a chuckle she’d heard from him.
“Come on this way,” he answered, motioning them over.
Cass stood and readjusted her pack, but made no movement towards him.
“We’ve got about nine hours of light, and ten hours of travel. Sooner is better.”
Still, she held her place.
“You were right, you know,” she said. “No promise. No debt.”
She glanced away, back towards the Enclave. She and Wren had made it a long time without help. They could do it again. Especially now that Fedor, Kostya, and probably Jez were all gone.
“Maybe we should just say our goodbyes, while we still can.”
There was a stretch of silence. Wren shifted beside her, fidgeting as children do.
“Well,” Three said. “I did say I didn’t owe you anything.”
His nonchalant agreement surprised Cass. She’d expected at least some marginal protest, some semblance of noble gesture. But he had left them behind once before. It was probably a relief to do so again, this time without the guilt.
“I never said you didn’t owe me.”
She looked back. He was staring right at her. Grim. Determined.
“I’ve put too much on the line to just let you crawl off and die. So come on.”
He didn’t sound angry. There was no malice or menace in his voice. Just raw determination, as if by his words he’d eliminated any other choice. And to Cass, it was as if he had. Still, she hesitated, more out of pride than uncertainty.
“How do I know you’re not just going to leave again?”
“Because I’m here now.”
She gave a final glance in the direction of the Enclave, feigning the act of weighing her options. Finally, she nodded, and taking Wren’s hand in hers, made her way over.
And without fanfare, Three led them off down his side alley, perpendicular to their previous route. Within the first few yards, he was back to his old self, hesitating every so often when some instinct kicked off a silent warning. He seemed to be straining every possible sense, listening, watching, feeling for any hint or sign of danger. After some indeterminate span of time, Cass began to feel that her own measured breathing was too loud for his liking. Even so, she had to hazard a question.
“How many of them did you get?” she whispered.
Three shot her a sidelong glance, then went back to scanning the way ahead.
He must’ve misunderstood. She clarified.
“I meant with the explosion.”
“So did I.”
Cass couldn’t understand Three’s matter-of-factness. All the trouble he’d gone through, the risk he’d taken, and he hadn’t killed even one of their pursuers. She would’ve thought there’d have been some hint of embarrassment, or disappointment at least. He must’ve picked up on that.
“I wasn’t trying to kill them.”
Surely this was some sort of defensive response, a casual I-meant-to-do-that.
“Nah, I was killing us.”
She rolled it over in her mind, making some sense of it, but not a lot. The explosion, the rubble, the plumes of concrete dust. Maybe the wreckage would disrupt signal enough to buy them some time. Or maybe Asher was busy sifting through the wreckage for her body, or for some trace of residual impulse. Too many maybes, never any answers.
She opened her mouth to ask another question, but Three pressed ungentle fingers over her lips and shook his head. Enough talk. The rough, callused skin left a trace of heat when he pulled his hand away. He set off again wordlessly, silently, a mist of a man dissipating across the jagged asphalt terrain.
For his part, Wren was holding up well, keeping pace without complaint, picking his feet up instead of scuffing them along as he was wont to do. He had declined a piggyback ride, which was practically unheard of. He seemed more relaxed than Cass could remember him being, more confident. Older somehow, though she couldn’t be sure when he’d grown.
Progress was slow, but steady, and after the first two or three hours, Cass grew nearly accustomed to the broken rhythm of the journey, the patternless flow that Three kept without any apparent effort. At first it had irritated her, being unable to predict how long they might crouch in the corner of an abandoned building, or how far they’d travel across open space before they stopped. But eventually Cass discovered the benefits of it. Alertness. Focus. Rhythm bred complacency, and that was one thing none of them could afford.
“We’ll rest here,” Three said, almost at full voice. The sudden volume was shocking in the dull and heavy silence that pervaded the dead city around them, and Cass couldn’t help but flinch.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” she whispered.
“Not at all,” he answered. “But you need it.”
He glanced to her briefly, caught her eye, added a little nod. Cass had started to protest, but Three’s tone was neither condescending nor accusatory. Not gentle, perhaps, but there was a hint of care or concern in his voice that she hadn’t noticed before. And suddenly, she was glad for it. Cass only now realized how exhausted she was.
They found a niche in what had once been a large fountain, though no water ran there now; a curving serpent wrapped around a stylized mountain, which offered them cover from three sides and some slight concealment from the fourth. Cass and Wren nestled together with their backs against the concrete base. Three produced some sort of ration from his harness: a synthetic combination of carbohydrates and protein; spongy, flavorless. They ate it without conversation or enjoyment, though Cass could tell it was at least nourishing.
After they’d eaten, Wren lay down and put his head in her lap, while Cass leaned back and let her eyes drift closed.
“So what’s the plan?” she asked without opening her eyes again.
“North a few more miles, then west.”
“Where does that get us?”
He inhaled deeply.
Cass cracked an eye open. Three crouched by the opening, hands clasped, elbows resting on his knees; the closest thing to relaxed Cass had yet seen of him. Whether he had intended to say more or not, Cass wasn’t sure, but he reacted to her when he saw her looking. A half-smile, one corner of his mouth turned down slightly. A lightness in his eyes. A joke.
“The Vault’s up that way,” he continued. “Heard of it?”
Cass shook her head.
“Yeah, not many have. Not the nicest place, but it should be safe for a night, maybe two. Gatekeeper’s a friend of mine.”
“You have friends?”
Three exhaled abruptly through his nose; apparently his version of a chuckle.
“Enough to get by,” he replied. Then added with a nod, “Get some rest, girl. We’ll move soon.”
Cass let her eyes fall closed again, felt herself drifting off already, welcoming the deep embrace of sleep under Three’s watchful eye.
Three ran a thumb back and forth over the checkered grip of his holstered pistol, mind working to calculate all the variables that would affect the rest of their travel. He’d already let the woman and kid sleep nearly half an hour. Every minute that ticked by robbed them of precious daylight, their only ally out here in the open. They’d been making better time than he’d expected. Much better. Tough as the two were, though, they’d been showing signs of exhaustion. Three didn’t know how far he could push them.
Five more minutes. Then he’d wake them.
Three scanned their surroundings from his constrained viewpoint. Less visibility than he would’ve liked. And it was rarely a good idea to back into anything that only had one way out. But he knew Cass and Wren would feel safer here, surrounded by walls, hidden from view.
He chuckled humorlessly at that, touched the shallow, weeping cut across his throat. Seemed like he’d been making a lot of compromises lately.
He glanced over at the slumbering pair, and found Wren sitting upright, staring at him with glassy eyes, blond hair standing straight out from the side of his head where he’d been lying in his mother’s lap. Three nodded. Wren wiped an eye with the back of his hand and tossed a casual wave in response. For a moment, they just sat there, looking at each other, Wren’s sea-green eyes fixed unblinking on Three.
Three flashed back to when he’d first seen those eyes, back at the Enclave, back in that dive bar. Days ago? Another lifetime. Something in those eyes had captured his notice and escaped his definition then. Even now, sober and alert, Three found he couldn’t quite identify what he saw there. Something hovered at the outer edge of his consciousness, just beyond his grasp, a vanishing dream he fought to recall. Something…
Cass spasmed abruptly, eyes wide, hands shooting up from her lap; the sudden movement made Wren jump.
“They know,” she rasped. “They know I’m alive.”
Three was already in motion.
She shook her head.
“Can’t be. But he knows.”
Three’s mind scrambled through the scenarios. They’d been headed in a different direction before the blast. Not directly opposite, but far enough off-track to make other routes equally plausible. They’d avoided the obvious double-back. And there was an outside chance that the Vault was off-grid enough to escape Asher’s notice… No. No reason for optimism now. Three never counted on the outside chance, unless it was bad.
“If he can’t track your signal, he’ll have to split his crew, three, maybe four ways to cover the bases. Worst case, I figure we get to the Vault a good hour before they do, and by then, well…”
He trailed off; probably best if she didn’t know just how close they were cutting it.
“We’ll stay ahead of ’em,” he added. “We’ll be alright.”
Without hesitation Three stood and stretched a hand out to Cass, helping her to her feet; action conveying his certainty better than words. He dropped low, and glided out, quickly surveying the area before committing to an exit. Cass gathered their things, prepped Wren.
And once again, they were on the move.