I’d never met anyone who’d been in a relationship like this.
He tilted his head at me. “Will you judge me? Us?”
A bitter laugh spilled from my lips. “Are you joking?”
“Good, pequeña,” he said. “Do you believe a heart can be big enough to love two?”
“I know for a fact that it can.” The Lovers—for all their disgusting faults—could detect what was in a person’s heart. Mine was divided evenly. “I’m in love with two.” Jack was foremost in my mind right now, of course. I was crazed to bring him back because I’d seen him die. But I was plagued with worry about Aric too. Though his armor weighed so little, it would have to hinder him in the water. What if—
I shut down that thought. Going back in time would protect him as well.
Sol frowned, as if I might be pulling his leg. “Truly?”
I nodded. “Jack and Aric.”
“So now you will be with Aric?”
“It’s complicated.” One of my favorite non-answers.
“Sí, it can be.” He gazed into the fire. “I loved them so much.”
“What were they like?”
Raising his face, he said, “Beatrice was this warm, affectionate angel with a backbone of steel. She volunteered at the hospital each Monday, reading to kids with cancer. She was brave and helped them be brave—but she would bury her face against my chest during scary movies.” His eyes watered. He didn’t seem to realize he was rubbing his chest, as if he could still feel her. “Joe was an ex-linebacker, law student. He planned to be a big-shot lawyer—but he couldn’t knot his tie. I had to do it for him. I’d bought engagement rings for them. Would have married them both.” Gazing past me, he said, “But then, on our anniversary, I got them . . . hurt.”
Chills tripped up my back. “I don’t understand.”
“It happened on Day Zero. The three of us, business partners as well, were in a basement, setting up for a rave. I needed more supplies. Instead of getting them from the van myself, I asked Bea and Joe to go.” His expression was stark. “I sent them outside of a perfect shelter—just in time to see the Flash.”
My head whipped around to the Bagger cage. Oh, dear God, those creatures were his girlfriend and boyfriend. Joe, the law student, and Bea, the hospital volunteer. They stared at nothing, cracked lips moving soundlessly.
I’d threatened them. No wonder Sol had freaked out. In his mind, I was the monster.
For so long I’d been fighting Bagmen or running from them. I’d hated them for causing my mom’s injury. But I’d rarely stopped to think that they’d once been people.
Maybe Sol wasn’t evil. Yes, he delighted in blood-sport contests. But if I lost Jack and Aric, I would do far, far worse.
Sol’s troubled gaze rested on Bea and Joe. “While I was alone down in the basement, I got sick, felt like I was spinning, and passed out for what must have been hours. I woke just as they were finding their way back inside. They attacked me, holding me down to drink.”
I couldn’t imagine how horrific that must have been. To see loved ones turned?
“Understand me: I would have died before I hurt them. I resisted, but I couldn’t hit them. Then, as I told you, they obeyed me.” He paused to clear his throat. “When more Bagmen descended into the basement, I began to suspect that the Flash had created countless legions like them. We emerged, and I saw all the world was broken.”
I recalled my first look around after the apocalypse. If I hadn’t had my mother with me . . .
Had Sol been all alone? I glanced at the Baggers again. No—not in his mind.
“Empress,” Sol murmured, his brows drawn. “Do you think Bea and Joe could ever turn back?”
Never. Their bodies were too damaged, their minds gone. But I said, “Maybe none of this is permanent, Sol. Maybe they’ll come back when the earth does. I wouldn’t bet against anything right now.”
He narrowed his eyes at me, all light extinguished. “You don’t believe that. But you were kind enough to play along. . . .”
Day 391 A.F.
Sol and I stopped at a fork in the road. One way was unpaved and rocky. The other was a highway, cleared of wrecks, but with litter all along the shoulders.
As if a large army had marched that route, pitching trash on the way.
“The area’s starting to look familiar,” I said. We were at the fork between the treacherous slaver route—the one Jack, Aric, and I had taken to the Lovers’ hideout—and the Azey army’s highway. “I think I know where we are.”
Sol exhaled a relieved breath. “Ah, gracias a Dios.”
I frowned at him. “What?”
“Past that last interstate, I had no clue where I was going.”
“You lied.” I lowered my voice menacingly. “You shouldn’t make me angry, Sun.”
“Why are you whispering?” he whispered. “One second you’re crying, the next you’re scary. Then you’re really sexy. Then you’re sexy/scary.”
“You lied to me.”
“I didn’t want you to kill me!”
I twirled my thorn claws at him. “Why shouldn’t I now?”
“Because I make you stronger.” Expression growing troubled, he said, “I wonder if someone like you should be stronger.”
I lowered my hand. “Just head down the highway. Follow the trash. And don’t lie to me again.” The only reason I wanted more strength was so I could eviscerate the Emperor while he was still alive. I imagined using my claws on him, slicing him to ribbons. Or should I choke him in vine? Flay him with my thorn tornado—