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       Losing Lila, p.4

           Sarah Alderson
 

  ‘Uh-huh,’ he nodded, one eyebrow raised in amusement. He wasn’t falling for it. Ah, the trials of not having a poker face.

  ‘How did you know about this place?’ I asked as we wandered back towards the room.

  ‘My parents have been coming here every year since their honeymoon. We needed somewhere to rest and wait.’ He shrugged. ‘This place sprang to mind.’

  ‘So, how long are we staying?’ I asked. Beautiful as it was, as much as this had been a fantasy a few short weeks ago, now it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I needed to be in California. I wanted to be doing something to get my mum and Jack back. Waiting was torture.

  ‘We stay until we have a plan. And until Demos finds us.’

  I glanced at Alex. He was so confident that they’d find us, but they’d be looking for us in Mexico City, not here on a beach in the middle of nowhere. Sure, they had ways of finding us, but Nate and Key couldn’t fly around the globe like satellites trying to spot us, and Suki and Alicia couldn’t read every mind in the world until they happened across us hanging out here building sandcastles.

  Alex avoided my look and led me up the stairs instead. ‘Come and check out the hammock,’ was all he said.

  We lay together, rocking peacefully and talking quietly, until the sun dissolved into the sea and the stars lit up the sky. It was so beautiful and such a contrast from the last few weeks that I kept having to squeeze my eyes shut and pinch myself to make sure that it wasn’t all a dream, that my brain hadn’t been fried by one of the Unit’s weapons back in Mexico City, and left me hallucinating.

  ‘Why didn’t they fire that thing at me?’ I asked, twisting in the hammock so I could see Alex’s face. ‘When we were running away . . . they had the chance, but they didn’t do it. Why not?’

  ‘I’ve been wondering the same thing,’ Alex said, ‘and the only reason I can come up with is that they still don’t know about you. We didn’t know for sure, not after what happened at Joshua Tree, but if they didn’t fire on you when they had the chance, it means they don’t know you’re a psy.’

  I raised an eyebrow and propped myself on one elbow to look at him. ‘But if they don’t know about me – about what I am, what I can do – then why were they firing at us at all? Why are they even bothering to chase us?’

  A pained expression crossed his face. He looked away, up at the sky. ‘I broke my oath, Lila. I broke into the base and kidnapped two prisoners.’

  ‘They weren’t prisoners, they were hostages,’ I retorted angrily.

  ‘That’s not how they see it,’ he sighed. ‘And I fired at my own men.’

  I sank back into the hammock. It wasn’t fair. What choice had he had?

  I felt his lips press against my forehead and I knew he was trying to tell me in his own way that it didn’t matter – but it did. He’d been forced to do all those things because of me. If the Unit caught me, they would discover what I was most probably, and then they’d experiment on me, but if they caught Alex – what would they do to him? I didn’t dare ask. Instead I changed the subject.

  ‘So, now you’re John Bartlett and I’m Emily Roberts,’ I said, referring to our new passport names, ‘are you sure they won’t be able to find us?’

  ‘Yes,’ Alex answered, ‘but we’ll still need to be careful when we cross back into the States. They’ll be watching the borders closely now they know we’re in Mexico.’

  We rocked silently for another minute, then Alex turned his face to mine. ‘So, tell me again what happened when you were with Demos.’

  I paused, running over the conversation in my head. I’d thought about it so much while we were on the run. I’d already told Alex about Demos and my mum. How he was trying to get revenge on the Unit for killing her, that he had loved her and that she had gone to him when she needed help, just days before the Unit killed her . . . or pretended to kill her. I still couldn’t understand how they had faked the murder. That was the least of the things to get my head around, though. Ten days ago I hadn’t even known that people like me existed and then, within the space of a few hours, everything I’d ever understood had been exposed as lies. I guessed it was still a shock to Alex too, which was why he was asking to hear it again.

  ‘Demos loved her. I couldn’t believe it until he showed me the photo of them together. Then it all just made sense. I could see it in his eyes, Alex. The way he looked at me, like I reminded him of her. Like all this love was just there under the surface still.’

  ‘You do look like her. I told you.’

  I sat up suddenly, throwing my legs over the side of the hammock, making it rock wildly. ‘What are they doing to my mum, Alex?’

  It was a question I’d been too scared to ask up until now. I waited, my stomach clenched hard as a stone. Alex leaned up and put his arm round my shoulders. ‘I don’t know,’ he said quietly. ‘Honestly, we never knew they were experimenting. We thought they were just containing people like—’ He stopped.

  ‘Like me?’ I finished for him.

  ‘Yes,’ he sighed. ‘Yes, like you, but people who had committed crimes, Lila, as we believed, and who couldn’t be imprisoned in a normal facility—’

  ‘I saw him,’ I said, cutting him off.

  Alex fell silent, but I knew he was thinking of Thomas as well – of the bundle of rags that Jack had pulled from the car, the zombie-like shape, shuffling and stooped over. Thomas had spent five years contained – imprisoned – by the Unit. God knows what they had done to him in their efforts to understand how he could project out of his body. I had tried to imagine what those experiments might look like, but every time it felt like I was pressing my face to the window of a car crash. I didn’t want to see what horrors were inside.

  I heard Alex sigh again. He dropped back into the hammock behind me and I turned so I could see him. His face was haunted and silver in the moonlight.

  ‘Whatever they did to Thomas they’re doing to her too, aren’t they?’ I asked.

  He hesitated before he answered. I could see his eyes were shut. ‘Yes, probably,’ he said after a while.

  I got up and walked shakily to the edge of the balcony, listening to the surf crashing onto the beach as if it was trying to reach us all the way up here. Alex came and joined me, his arms snaking round my waist.

  ‘She’s alive, Lila. That’s what you have to focus on. A week ago you thought she was dead.’ He bent to whisper in my ear. ‘You’ll see her again.’

  ‘How?’ I shouted, twisting out of his arms.

  It was impossible. How would we ever get back on the base? How would we ever get anywhere near her? The Unit were a small army. We were just us. And even if Demos and the others found us, we still weren’t enough to take on the Unit, that much had been proven in Joshua Tree. Ryder had died; how many more people were going to risk their lives for a fight that wasn’t their own? Demos had a reason – he loved my mum. But Suki? Nate? Key? Amber? Why would Amber want anything to do with us now the man she loved had been killed?

  Tears started to slide down my face. Ryder had been so good to me. And now he was dead. Killed by the Unit right in front of me.

  ‘How will we get onto the base, Alex? It’s impossible.’

  Alex was looking out at the dark expanse of sea. ‘There’s always a way in,’ he said, turning slowly back to face me. ‘That’s what they taught us. There’s always a chink in the armour. We just need to find it.’

  5

  ‘I love you,’ I whispered.

  I had said the words only once before, the first night we’d run from Joshua Tree, leaving Jack lying bleeding out in the dirt and Ryder dead beside him. Alex had skidded the car into a truck stop an hour down the road. I was shaking, my arms wrapped round me, trying to contain the spasms, the sobs trapped in my chest making me gasp for air. Alex had unbuckled my seat belt, reached across and pulled me into his lap, rocking me, holding me, trying to get me to calm down. I had gripped him back fiercely, my fingers claws, and he’d taken my face in his hands and, with
his lips against mine, whispered to me in the dark, over and over, that it was all going to be OK.

  It had taken a while for the shaking to stop, for my hands to loosen their grip on his shoulders and for my breathing to calm. He held me the whole time, his voice low and steady in my ear, his hands warm against my skin, and when I had found my voice, with my lips against his neck and my body slumped against him, I whispered the same words I whispered now: I love you.

  Even though for the last seventeen years I had whispered them in my head – hell, I’d shouted them, yelled them, sung them, screamed them in my head for most of that time – the words were so new between us they practically had a price tag still attached. Heat flooded my face and my legs turned to jelly, even though I was lying down. ‘I love you,’ I said again, this time holding his gaze.

  ‘I know,’ Alex answered, unplugging the light with his free hand and pulling me close. ‘Since you were five.’

  I poked him in the ribs.

  ‘I can’t believe I never saw it.’

  Yeah, neither could I. I couldn’t have been more obvious if I’d tattooed his name and a love heart across my forehead.

  ‘I never in a million years expected you to like me back,’ I murmured, running my hand over his chest. It was an action I’d never, ever get tired of doing.

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because.’ I shrugged. As though it needed explaining.

  He laughed then traced a finger up my cheek and across my lips, leaving a low, burning throb in its wake. ‘You have no idea how hard you were to resist. Not when you were five,’ he added quickly. ‘Cute as you may have been back then, I have to say I never thought of you like that until you came back a few weeks ago.’

  ‘Yeah, well, you could have fooled me. You didn’t act like you thought anything of me.’

  ‘What can I say?’ Alex shrugged. ‘I’m trained in subterfuge. You remember that night you stayed at mine? After the alarm went off at the base? I was awake all night.’

  ‘Are you serious?’ I laughed and rolled onto my back. I had been torturing myself that night with the belief that Alex liked Rachel and had spent eight sleepless hours wishing that Rachel would strut her perfect body in front of a bus. ‘But the next day at dinner, at the bar even, you were so cold with me,’ I said, sitting up so I could look at him better. ‘You acted like I didn’t even exist.’

  ‘Yeah, sorry.’ He pulled a guilty face. ‘Trying to distance myself. I never expected—’ He broke off suddenly.

  ‘Expected what?’ I asked.

  He took a deep breath before letting it out with a sigh. ‘This,’ he said. Then, after another pause, ‘You’ve always been in my life, Lila. I knew you before you could even talk.’ His head flopped back on the pillow. ‘God, I miss those days.’

  I elbowed him in the ribs again.

  ‘What I mean is,’ he said, turning towards me, catching my hand in his and holding it tightly, ‘I was used to thinking about you one way – as Jack’s little sister – and then,’ he laughed softly, ‘there you were. No longer little. No longer Jack’s kid sister. You were all grown up.’ His eyes swept up the length of my body before settling on my lips. ‘And far too sexy for your own good,’ he added. ‘That I wasn’t expecting.’ He ran the flat of his hand up my arm. ‘I guess this proves you can’t fight the inevitable,’ he said, with the faintest of shrugs.

  I narrowed my eyes at him. ‘The inevitable, huh?’

  He paused and gave me one of his looks, the kind that melted me like I was butter in a hot pan.

  ‘Yes, the inevitable. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it was that moment when you were five, when you broke your leg. You saw it before me, that’s all.’

  I tried to suppress the smile, lying down again and nestling my head under his chin. ‘When did you know?’ I asked. ‘Was it my grand entrance? When I fell down the stairs? Is that what you meant?’

  The last thing Alex had told me before leaving me with Demos was, When you fell down the stairs, that was the moment.

  ‘Because, you know,’ I continued, ‘that was an orchestrated move on my part. It had nothing whatsoever to do with clumsiness or nerves. I fully intended to land at your feet.’

  Alex laughed under his breath. ‘Yes, that’s what I meant. The stairs. I didn’t want to let you go when you fell on me.’ His fingers were lightly stroking up my arm.

  ‘But you did,’ I murmured, closing my eyes.

  I heard him sigh into my hair. ‘I had to. Jack was right there.’

  ‘Inevitable.’ I toyed with the word in my mouth. It felt good. I tipped my head back so I could look at him and smiled what I hoped was a seductive smile, though it had hitherto not had the desired effect. ‘So, if this is inevitable like you say, unavoidable, completely and utterly meant to be,’ I tiptoed my fingers up the taut lines of his stomach muscles as I said each word, ‘why are you fighting it now?’

  ‘What?’

  Oh, this was embarrassing. ‘You know what I mean,’ I mumbled, wishing for the first time I still had long hair and could hide behind it.

  He looked at me, confused. I stared at the bed sheet. It was tastefully embroidered.

  He finally figured it out. ‘Because, Lila,’ he said, stroking my cheek, ‘you’re tired, there’s a lot going on in here,’ he tapped the side of my head, ‘. . . too much . . . and there’s a right time. It isn’t now. Besides,’ he added, ‘it’s still illegal in the state of California. You’re not eighteen for another four months.’

  I leaned up on one elbow. ‘We’re not in California,’ I said, scowling at him. And besides, why was he caring about the illegalities of that when we’d broken at least fifty other laws and were on the run from a team of special ops Marines who wanted to kill us? It wasn’t like I was going to file a police report in the event. But Alex just laughed at me.

  ‘You’ll thank me later,’ he said.

  I wouldn’t thank him later, but there was no point arguing.

  6

  ‘Are we interrupting something?’

  ‘Suki! It’s Suki!’

  Alex was already halfway across the room. I scrabbled like a crab over the surface of the bed, pulling the sheet round me, then leapt after him.

  She was banging on the door. Alex opened it and she burst through. I stumbled crazily towards her, pushing Alex out of the way and throwing my arms round the tiny Japanese girl with sunglasses the size of dinner plates and a dress so mini it would barely cover a Bratz doll.

  ‘Suki! You found us! You found us!’

  She hugged me back. ‘Of course we found you. What did you expect?’ She pulled her sunglasses down and peered at me over the top of them. ‘What did you do to your hair?’ she shrieked.

  ‘Hi, Lila.’ Demos was standing behind her, in the doorway.

  I extricated myself from Suki’s arms and turned to Demos. ‘Hi,’ I said.

  He smiled at me. There was little joy in it, though. He glanced down at my sheet toga and then at Alex in his boxer shorts. A wry smile formed on his lips. Then he took hold of Suki’s elbow. ‘Come on, Suki.’ He pulled her towards the door. ‘We’ll see you downstairs,’ he said over his shoulder.

  ‘Bye,’ Suki called out, her eyes so glued to Alex’s bare chest that she failed to watch where she was going and walked straight into the doorpost. We heard her giggling all the way down the stairs.

  ‘Where’s Nate? Where’s Key?’ I asked, looking around and feeling all my elation drain instantly away.

  Demos, Suki, Alicia and Harvey were sitting on sunbeds beneath the shade of a palm tree, quietly conferring. There was no sign of Nate or Key. I frowned and did another headcount. Amber and Bill were missing too.

  Demos stood up and walked towards us. ‘Nate’s in his room, resting,’ he said. ‘Key’s gone back to see if he can find out what’s happening to Jack.’

  At the sound of Jack’s name I felt a familiar lurch in my stomach. Demos must have realised how I was feeling because I felt his hand on my shoulder. I looked up
into his flat blue eyes and something passed between us – some kind of reassurance that he understood how I was feeling and that everything would be OK. Or maybe he was doing some kind of Jedi mind-trick on me – I wasn’t sure, but I did feel calmer.

  ‘Where are the others?’ I finally asked.

  ‘They’re in Mexico City,’ Demos said.

  ‘What are they doing there?’

  ‘Thomas needed medical help.’ He glanced darkly in Alex’s direction and I stepped slightly in front of him as though I could block Demos’s anger. Alex hadn’t known what the Unit was doing to Thomas; it was hardly fair to blame him.

  ‘And Amber? Bill?’ I asked.

  Demos’s expression turned darker still. He looked at me. ‘Amber’s not in a good way. Bill’s doing his best to look after both of them.’

  Of course Amber wasn’t in a good way – she’d seen the man she loved killed right in front of her. I didn’t know what to say to that.

  ‘Demos.’

  I looked up. Alex had stepped forward and was holding out his hand. ‘I’m Alex Wakeman. We never got to meet properly.’

  There was a moment when no one breathed. We all stared at Alex, wondering what Demos would do. Whichever way you looked at it, Alex and Demos had been fighting on different sides of the war until just over a week ago. No one was sure whether the truce had been temporary or if it would hold.

  I looked at Demos. His eyes were a match for Alex’s in both the blueness and the as-inscrutable-as-a-rock stakes. He considered Alex for a few seconds before taking his hand and shaking it. We all breathed out in unison.

  ‘Thank you for fighting with us back there,’ Demos said.

  Alex nodded. ‘It was the least I could do. I’m sorry.’

  ‘You weren’t to know. I’m sorry I kidnapped Lila from you.’

  A scowl crossed Alex’s face. Then he took a deep breath and walked over to where Alicia was sitting. She looked up at him. The bruise on her face was still there. It had mellowed to a yellowish colour, but it was still a clear reminder of her recent imprisonment.

 
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