These Broken Stars Page 33

“Lilac,” he begins, reaching up to curl his hand around my upper arm. Warm. Steadying.


He reaches up and brushes the hair back from my face, an uncharacteristically tender gesture. As he drops his thumb to my cheek to brush away the dampness there, he murmurs, “Promise me that no matter what you hear, you won’t go off on your own to investigate. I want your word.” There’s a command in his voice, soft as it is.

I want to tell him that leaving his side is the last thing I want to do right now, but my throat has closed completely, and I can do nothing but curl up more tightly and nod. He keeps his arm around me, holding me through the shivering. I ought to be scandalized at his closeness, demand he keep his distance, but my mind is too full of the things I wish I could say. His touch just feels right.

“We’ll work it out,” he says. “There’s a reason for it. Maybe when you hit your head in the pod—that was a beautiful shiner you gave yourself. At least you don’t have the taste of dead rat in your mouth, hmm? A soldier in my platoon got that on Avon. Couldn’t taste anything else for weeks after she smacked her head.”

I recognize his tone. He’s trying to cheer me up as he did before. He needs me moving, and to keep me moving he has to keep me sane. He doesn’t know that I’m tasting blood and copper at the back of my mouth. I draw in a shuddering breath.

“Well,” I manage, summoning an even voice from God knows where, “if all she had to eat were those ration bars, maybe it’s best she couldn’t taste properly after all.”

He laughs, the sound barely more than a quick exhalation by my ear. “You’re really something,” he says softly, giving me a tiny squeeze that nonetheless robs me of what breath I have left.

A thrill runs down my spine, the tiniest of sparks to remind me I’m not lost yet. The tears are still there, clawing to get free, clogging my throat and my voice.

“I think you’re doing incredibly well,” he continues. “Really, you’re coping much better than half the soldiers I know would in this situation. We’re both still on our feet, we’re heading in the right direction. We’re sticking together. That’s why we’ll be all right.”

The lie is so blatant that it cracks my resolve. I can’t stand his pity, not now after everything.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. My cold lips fumble the words.

“Don’t be.” His voice is a low rumble against me, the sound carrying through my bones, clearer than any of the voices I’ve been hearing. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”

“I do too.” The dark of the night is like a shield of anonymity, despite the fact that we may well be the only two people on the planet. Curled up in these blankets, I might be in a confessional, and before I can stop myself the words that have been roiling around in my heart since he got me out of that tree come pouring out.

“I’m sorry I can’t do things, I’m sorry you have to keep stopping for me, I’m sorry that you have to sit and watch me go mad. I’m sorry I ever dropped my glove for you to pick up.” For a moment I’m choked by my own voice.

But none of this is what I really want to apologize for.

“I’m sorry I said those things to you on the observation deck because Anna was there, because of who I am. It was mean and petty and I only said it because I couldn’t afford to let myself say anything else.”

I can’t find the words for what I want to say next—that I’m not what he thinks, that I wish I had a picture that could make him understand, the way he showed me his life in one snapshot. I gasp for breath and fall silent.

He doesn’t answer me right away, and for a few insane moments I think maybe his ability to sleep anywhere extends to dozing while faced with semi-hysterical girls blurting out apologies.

Then his arm tightens around me, his breath warm against the back of my neck. The tangled words choking my throat ease, and let me take in a long, shaking breath.

“I appreciate the apology.”

From anyone else I’d know it was a platitude. But there’s a sincerity to his voice when he says it that tells me he means it.

I shift, trying to get comfortable, and my eyes fall on one of the moons, which has cleared the plains. It’s the first time we’ve been able to see this one clearly, unobstructed by the forest canopy.




He lifts his head, and I feel the moment he sees it; his arms tense around me, his breath stops.

What I’d always thought was a smaller, second moon is actually a grouping of cold blue lights, too steady to be any kind of aircraft, too regular to be any kind of asteroid cluster. Seven in all, arranged evenly in a circle, one in the middle.

“What is it?” My voice is shaking, but this time it’s not because of the voices.

Tarver props himself up on one arm, staring over me at the phenomenon. He says nothing, and after a moment I turn to look at him. His face is set, jaw clenched—but he doesn’t look surprised. He looks thoughtful.

“When the pod was going down,” he says slowly, “I saw something in orbit. Something other than the Icarus. Went by too fast for me to get a good look, but I could see enough to know it was man-made. How big would something like that have to be, to be visible like this?”

I draw in a slow breath, mind running through the calculations. “Each of those objects would have to be dozens of kilometers across at least, to reflect that much sunlight.”

Tarver lowers himself down again, arm circling my waist. His voice is soft and warm by my ear. “What is this place?”

I have no answer for him, and we watch the false moon in silence. For a dizzying moment I see us as if from above, a tiny lump in the blue-black sea of grass, nearly swallowed by the vastness of the plains.

At some point while we talked, the voice out in the night fell silent, and the tremors racking my body have calmed. And so I listen to Tarver’s breathing as it slows, and his heartbeat, and the breeze slipping through the long grass all around us, and eventually I sleep too.

“Every planet has its eccentricities.”

“That’s true.”

“What did you notice about this one?”

“The lack of company.”

“Major, that’s unhelpful.”

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