Never Fade Page 111

She was shaking hard, cussing as she dropped the shells she was trying to reload, and she disappeared behind the shelf of ChapStick to retrieve them. I positioned myself over Liam and took aim through the gold frames of the coolers. When she popped back up, I was ready—squeezing off two shots that lodged into the wall behind her.

I don’t think she even looked at me before she fired that one last shot and bolted. I ducked on instinct, though it was obvious she had aimed wide. The front window of the store shattered as the shotgun’s slugs tore through it. And it was all thunder and noise, anxiety and terror, and glass. So much glass.

Liam groaned at my feet. I dropped down, brushing the shards from his hair and front. My hands slipped inside his jacket again, feeling for blood. The floor was clean and my fingers came away the same. Not hurt. The thought was fleeting as I hauled him up into a sitting position. He slumped against the cooler’s frame, clearly stunned. His ears must have been ringing something terrible.

I cupped his face between my hands in relief, pressing my lips to his forehead, to his cheek. “Are you okay?” I breathed out.

He nodded, pressing a hand over mine. Falling had knocked the breath out of him. “I’m okay.”

A car engine roared to life outside. I pushed back, sweeping the gun off the floor.

“Ruby!” Liam called after me, but I was already running, ramming my shoulder into the broken, swinging back door. The taillights were burning bright red, growing smaller and smaller with the distance the woman put between us. I ran after her as long as I could, surging forward on a tide of anger. She’d come this close to hurting him, to killing him.

I planted my feet and raised the gun one last time, my aim fixed steadily on her back left tire. If she had seen one of us and still had enough wits left to report us—

No. My arm dropped heavily back to my side, and I switched the safety on with my thumb. Even if she had seen us, even if she had figured out what we were, this was the beating heart of the Middle of Nowhere. It wasn’t a town, let alone a place skip tracers or even PSFs would think to haunt. She could call, but it would be hours, maybe days, before someone responded.

I rubbed the sweat off my forehead with my wrist. God. That woman had probably come in looking for food, maybe shelter. She hadn’t been trained, and the sloppy way she’d held that gun made me wonder if she hadn’t fired those first shots by mistake. Liam and I hadn’t been quiet in the garage. Maybe she’d heard us, heard him coming, and panicked at the thought of being caught stealing?

It wasn’t worth it to try to puzzle it out, and I didn’t have the energy to. My problems weren’t up ahead anymore. They were standing right behind me.

I turned on my heels slowly, walking back toward the gas station where Liam was waiting. With the sun rising steadily at his back, his face was thrown into shadow. There was still crushed glass dusted across his shoulders, but I kept my eyes on the backpack clenched between his fingers. His cracked, white-boned knuckles.

There was a new cut across the bridge of his nose, and blood oozed from an open gash on his chin, but that was the worst the flying glass could manage. I only had to take one look at his face to know that what I’d done had cut him to the core.

He waited for me to reach him, one agonizing step at a time. I felt a flood of hot shame wash down through me, tightening my throat, pricking my eyes with tears. A flush of red swept up his throat, over his face, to the very tips of his ears. Liam watched me, the longing on his face etched bone deep; I knew how hard he was struggling with it, because I was fighting with everything I had not to reach out and take his hand, run my thumb over the warm pulse in his wrist. It was unbearable, that thing between us. How much I wanted to pretend we’d never lived a life outside of this moment.

“Did…” Liam pressed a fist against his mouth, struggling with his next words. “Did you just not want to be with me?”

It was almost too much for me to take. “How could you think that?”

“What else am I supposed to think?” he demanded. “I feel like I’ve been…underwater. I can’t get a thought straight, but I remember that. I remember the safe house. We were together; we were going to be okay.”

“You know we weren’t,” I told him. “It was the only thing I could do. It was the only way they’d let you go, and I couldn’t let you stay.”

From almost the beginning, Liam and I had a kind of understanding between us that lived without words, only looks and feelings. I knew, instinctively, why he made the choices he did, and he could trace my lines of thought as easily as one would follow a lit road. I’d never thought this moment would come to pass, but I also never believed he wouldn’t just know why I’d made that decision.

“You’re not even sorry,” he breathed out.

“No,” I managed to say around the stone lodged in my throat. “Because the only thing worse than being without you would have been watching them break you day after day, until you weren’t yourself anymore, until they sent you on an Op that you didn’t come back from.”

“Like they did to you?” said Liam harshly. “And now I just have to accept it? You took away my choice, Ruby—and for what? Because you thought I wasn’t strong enough to survive being with the League?”

“Because I’m not strong enough to survive seeing you with the League!” I said. “Because I wanted you, after everything you went through, to have a chance to find your parents and live your life.”

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