Whether it’s right or wrong, I need to hear the words from Chance. Out of everyone here, he’s the only person I want to trust.
His eyes lock with mine, and he stares for a moment, then he murmurs, “Yeah, you can trust me.”
A smile curves my lips, but then he gives me a look of warning. “I’m still going to be hard on you, though.”
“So I’ll survive?”
He lets out a heavy breath and nods. “I don’t need your death on my conscience.”
I’m overcome with the urge to hug him. I wonder if he even knows how much I needed to hear that – to have one person I can count on in a world that’s so unforgiving.
“Come on,” he says, nudging me back until I’m leaning against the bench. “Put some of the ointment on your fingers and rub it over your injury.”
He opens the tube, and a strong peppery smell makes my eyes water.
I watch as he squirts a clear gel onto the tip of my pointer finger. I lift my shirt with my other hand and smear the gel over the bruise that’s turning purple in places. It hurts too much, though, and I flinch.
“You have to rub it in, or it won’t work.”
Shaking my head, I take hold of his hand and wipe the gel on his finger. “I can’t, it hurts too much. You just do it.” My eyes lift to his. “Please.”
He tilts his head again, the blue ring around his irises darkening. “Are you okay with me touching you?”
He said it’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t feel wrong. I nod and give my permission. “Yes.”
Chance moves closer to me. “Place your left hand on my shoulder.” The corner of his mouth lifts and it makes my heart skip a beat. “It’s okay if you dig your nails into me.”
I let out a burst of awkward laughter but do as he says. When he lifts the fabric of my shirt again, I stare at where I’m touching him, focusing on how solid he feels.
The moment he starts rubbing the ointment into my side, the pain is so sharp I can’t breathe. Tears brim in my eyes, and I clench my jaw to keep from groaning.
“Almost done,” he whispers.
I gasp through the pain, nodding while my fingers grip hold of his shoulder.
Chance drops the tube of ointment on the seat, pulls my shirt down, and yanks me against his chest. When his arms lock around me like solid steel bands, I let out a sob and try to smother the sound against his shirt.
“Christ, you’re so fucking fragile,” he growls, his hand settling behind my head.
“I’m sorry,” I sputter through the tears. “I’ll try harder to do better.”
I feel his breath on the side of my head, then he presses his mouth to my hair, his arms making me feel safe.
We hear a door open, and when I pull back, Chance lets go of me and stands up. “Let’s go for a walk.”
When I get up, I flinch and wrap my arm around my middle. I follow Chance out of the building, and only when we’re walking through the long grass toward a row of trees does Chance break the silence.
“I got the scar above my eye on my first day. I slammed my head against the last scaffold. Idris drilled the hell out of me. I thought I was going to die.”
I glance at the high wall around the ward, then take in all the greenery. “How did you make it?”
I’m grateful he’s talking to me, and I don’t want to do anything that will ruin it.
“Ethan,” he replies. “I kept telling myself I had to make it for him.”
There’s a hollow ache in my chest.
He sighs, then continues, “When I was chosen as a crusader, I was lucky. I got away from the trackers and ran for my life.”
When we reach the trees, there’s an open field filled with the prettiest flowers I’ve ever seen.
Chance picks one and starts to rip the petals out. “There was no one waiting for me on the other side of the border. By the time I stumbled upon the ward, I was dying of hunger and terrified out of my mind.”
I glance up at Chance, unable to imagine him being scared of anything.
“How old were you when you got chosen?”
His eyes flick to mine, and he places the flower's stem between his teeth. “Eighteen.”
Gosh, that’s young.
“But I survived, and ten years later, it’s hard to believe I was that scrawny kid who didn’t know a fucking thing about the world.”
So he’s twenty-eight?
“Our fathers used to work together in the laboratories,” he says.
My eyes widen, and I stop walking.
Chance turns and locks eyes with me. “One night, my father died, and soon after, I was chosen as a crusader.”