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all we've got is each other

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1-

They make it to the safe house at two in the morning. As soon as the car stops, just past the entrance gate to the property, Toni presses her forehead against the tinted window, but the night is so dark that she can’t see more than shapes: the looming, rectangular mass of a tall, wide building, bunches of vertical lines, which must be trees, the blur of other, smaller buildings in the distance.

She narrows her eyes, trying to make out any other details, until, giving up, she turns to Martha instead, who’s snoring lightly in the seat next to her. “Hey,” Toni says, softly, touching Martha’s shoulder. “Wake up, Marty. We’re here.”

Martha’s eyes open, and she blinks, bleary. She looks as tired as Toni feels - it’s been an exhausting day, both physically and emotionally. They had to say goodbye to Martha’s family at dawn, when federal agents for the witness protection program arrived as scheduled in their fancy black car, and took them away. Seeing Bernice cry was probably the worst part of it, but the rest of the day wasn't particularly fun either: they were either traveling, by car or by plane, or waiting in tiny secluded rooms, with bland food and nothing to distract themselves, since they both had to leave their cellphones behind. Toni is not even that into social media - not like Fatin, who seems to post a TikTok every ten minutes - but she already misses the familiar weight of a phone in her pocket. During those three weeks they got to spend at home - after they were rescued from Gretchen’s underground research bunker, after a couple days stuck in a federal military hospital, being checked for wounds and illnesses and evaluated for trauma - Toni’s phone was the one thing that served as a tangible reminder that it was all real. That she was one text, one phone call away from the other girls. From Shelby. (Not that she dared call Shelby, after their last conversation at the hospital, but still. She could have, and that was almost as comforting.)

“What are we waiting for?” Martha asks, sleepily.

“No fucking clue. Want me to try and ask the driver?”

They’re separated from the driver by a glass panel, and the guy has mostly declined to answer their questions, but patience has never been Toni’s strong suit. Martha shakes her head. “They’re probably just checking that everything’s safe, or waiting for the others.” And indeed, right as she says this, the car door opens, without any warning. Toni starts, before getting a hold of herself and cautiously exiting the vehicle. A stocky woman is standing by the car, feet planted on the loose gravel of the driveway; she has pale skin, very short brown hair, a neutral expression, and a torch light so bright it blinds Toni for a second, after the darkness.

“Hello, Miss Shalifoe, Miss Blackburn. I’m agent Clipper, please call me Sam. Let’s get you inside.”

Toni nods, silently, and then helps Martha get out of the car, and tries very hard not to stare at the gun hanging from the woman’s shoulder holster. Martha links their hands together, and squeezes, a wordless gesture of reassurance. Toni has never felt comfortable around the authorities, be it a regular local cop, or a super important secret agent, or whoever this Sam is. The sight of weapons and badges always turns her stomach, but she grits her teeth, and, hand in hand with Martha, follows the woman towards the main house - a two-story building she can now see, emerging from the dark night, thanks to the agent’s flashlight. An owl hoots, somewhere behind them. Toni’s hold on Martha’s hand tightens.

“Oh, that’s not good,” Martha mumbles, shakily.

They’re safe, Toni tells herself, sternly, as gravel crinkles beneath her shoes. It’s just a stupid bird. She doesn’t believe in any of that ill omen stuff Martha’s family always whispers about. Still, she feels better once they’ve made it inside the house, and into a lobby, well-lit and spacious. The woman leads them through a vast living-room, then up a flight of stairs. Toni is too tired to focus on any details, but the place seems clean, and smells of wood and dry herbs and old furniture, a surprisingly pleasant mix ; nothing pings as dangerous, so she relaxes, slightly, unclenching her jaw. She’s used to being brought to strange houses in the middle of the night, thanks to her years in foster care. At least that part’s familiar.

On the upper floor, the stairs end in a large room, furnished with colorful sofas and chairs, a television and a coffee table, and tall sets of shelves filled with books and board games, all warmly lit by a few strategically placed lamps - some sort of play room, maybe - but before Toni can absorb what she’s seeing, let alone say anything, a body collapses against her own, and suddenly she’s trapped in a fierce, almost violent hug.

“Leah, let her breathe,” says someone to Toni’s right - Fatin, she recognizes immediately, though she can’t see anything with her entire face pressed into a woolen cardigan. Yeah, that’s Leah alright.

“I’ve missed you,” Leah says, somewhere above Toni’s head.

Toni returns the hug. “Missed you too.” Her voice cracks unexpectedly, and as she says the words she realizes how true they are, even if they’ve only been apart for less than a month - she has missed Leah. She’s missed them all. “Please stop trying to crush my ribs,” she adds, voice rough.

Leah lets her go, and smiles, apologetic, before she subjects Martha to the same treatment. Toni turns to Fatin, who gives her a much gentler hug. “You good?” Fatin whispers.

Toni shrugs, and glances around them. There’s the woman, Sam, and another agent, a man with darker skin and a clean-shaven face, also armed. Hard to feel comfortable. “You?”

Fatin sighs with the panache of an actress in a tragic play. “I’m already suffering from withdrawal. Can you believe I won’t be able to tweet for months? Because I still can’t. This is fucking torture.” There’s a little smile dancing at the corner of her mouth, so Toni knows Fatin’s laying it on thick on purpose, and she shakes her head, amused despite herself.

“You know what I didn’t miss? Your dramatic ass.”

Fatin, not duped, gives her a little shove, just as they hear the sound of people coming up the stairs. The four of them turn around. Toni’s stomach brims with anticipation, and she can’t tell if she feels relieved or disappointed when a third agent - a white man with shockingly red hair and a burly frame - leads Rachel and Nora to them, before going back to the first floor.

“Hi guys!” Martha says, brightly, despite her obvious fatigue. She pulls both of them into her arms. The twins stand, a bit rigidly at first, then melt into Martha’s embrace, and Toni smiles to herself. That’s the Marty effect, right there : no human being is immune to a hug from her best friend.

Rachel pats Martha’s back with her prosthetic hand, gently, before she moves to greet Leah, Fatin and Toni. Nora waves at everybody ; she keeps her distance, but her smile is genuine. The twins aren't just tired, like the rest of them, they look on edge - from traveling together Toni guesses, and she’s suddenly very grateful that things between Martha and her aren’t weird, even if Martha won’t talk to her about the last few days on the island, about her injury. At least they didn’t have to go through this horrible day with unresolved tension.

Speaking of unresolved shit. Toni turns her head towards the stairs, and her heart registers before her mind does, with a confusing pang of joy, relief, and hurt. Blond hair, very short. Green eyes. That warm smile, the one Toni still sees in her dreams every night.

“Hey, y’all,” Shelby says. Leah and Martha both rush to hug her. Toni doesn’t move, petrified, staring at her the way flowers turn to face the sun. There are bruises under Shelby’s eyes - dark smudges that tell Toni she hasn't been sleeping well. The column of her neck is taut, her shoulders tense, anxiety written in every line of her body. But her smile is sincere as she greets the other girls, as she presses a kiss to Martha’s forehead and cups Leah’s cheek and squeezes Nora’s shoulder. God, she's missed her.

It’s been twenty-two days since Toni last saw her, but it feels like an eternity has passed. She remembers vividly how their goodbye went - how, at the airport, before the flight that would take them both home, in front of everyone, including her parents, despite the awful conversation they’d had only a few days prior, when she’d asked Toni for time, Shelby grabbed her by the shirt and planted a quick, impulsive, desperate kiss on Toni’s lips. And then looked terribly guilty, like she was going to cry, or apologize - and which of these options would have been worse, Toni still doesn’t know - so Toni caught Shelby’s face between her palms. She did not kiss her, Shelby’s words still ringing in her ears - “It wasn’t real, Toni. None of it was real.”- but she pressed their foreheads together, and held her close. For a sprinkling of seconds, it felt like everything was going to be okay after all.

(It hasn’t been okay. Toni’s given her plenty of time, and distance, but they haven’t talked since, and now they’re in this weird limbo and Toni can’t stand it, sick with heartbreak and the nauseating uncertainty of hope.)

“‘Sup, bitch,” Fatin says with a wide smile, as Dot appears at the top of the stairs, behind Shelby.

“Hey, asshole,” Dot says. She gathers Fatin in her arms, grinning at the rest of them. “Well, I haven't missed any of you fuckers!”

They all start laughing, but then someone coughs behind them, and they swivel towards the sound. “Hello. I am agent Sam Clipper,” says the woman who greeted Toni and Martha, in a voice that commands attention. “This is agent Will Boone-” she points to the dark-skinned man, before turning to the third agent -”and agent Brett Swanson. We are your handlers, responsible for your safety while you’re a part of the witness protection program. If you see anything suspicious, come to one of us immediately. If we tell you to do something, do it without questions. We are here for your protection - it is our priority.” She pauses, peering at them. Toni wonders what she sees. A group of eight frightened, shaken girls in need of sleep, probably, because the woman’s voice softens. “We can talk about all of that when you meet the rest of the staff, tomorrow. You must all be tired. Come, let me show you to your rooms. Your bags arrived before you did.”

It’s said gently, but under the air of suggestion, it’s an order, so they file after her, as she leads them down a long corridor on the right. She tells them, in the same matter-of-fact, polite but efficient tone, where they’ll find showers and bathrooms, before stopping in front of a door.

“Blackburn, Campbell,” she says, and then opens the door, and looks at the group of them, expectantly. Dot shrugs, gives Shelby a little pat on the arm, and goes in. Martha follows suit, with one last look at Toni, and Toni has to stop herself from going after her. She swallows. Right. With the joy of seeing everyone again, she almost forgot. This isn’t a vacation.

Sam keeps walking, stops at the next room. “Goodkind, Jadmani.” So clearly they went with alphabetical order. Fatin blows them all a kiss before going in, but Shelby pauses at the door, turns around slowly. Their eyes meet, and longing overcomes Toni, all of a sudden, like a wave that’s been building, growing, from the depths of the ocean, and now unfurls onto the shore, unstoppable, inevitable. Fuck, she wants her. She wants Shelby to tell her that they’re okay, that she’s thought it through and realized none of what they learned about the island changes what they had together, how they felt. How they still feel. She wants Shelby to want her enough that she won’t leave, like everyone else, because Toni’s worth fighting for.

“Goodnight” is all Shelby says before she closes the door. Toni’s chest turns cold, then hot, then cold again, the sudden burst of familiar anger drowned out by sadness and disappointment. She stares at the closed door a beat too long, before following Sam and the others down the hallway.

Next is the Reid twins, and then there’s only Leah and Toni, alone in the room they’ll be sharing for months. Their bags are, indeed, already there, propped against the wall. It’s a very nice room, all things considered. Big and clean, furnished with two queen beds, two bedside tables, an antique armoire, a small white sink in one corner. Decorations hang on the walls, old photos, movie posters, quaint little paintings of farm animals, and a big, comfy armchair sits by the window.

“Fuck,” Leah exhales. She’s glaring at a realistic drawing of a duck hanging above one of the beds as if it were a threat, a sign, a clue to decipher. “I feel like I’m in a dream. Or a nightmare.” Toni hums in agreement, disoriented by the sudden quiet after the exhilaration of their reunion, and, to her horror, an unwelcome pressure builds behind her eyes.

She turns away from Leah, and exhales, keeping the tears at bay. It’s so awfully familiar - memories of foster homes, of strange bedrooms and new faces flash in her mind, along with the usual dread, and a terrible, overwhelming loneliness. She's tired of feeling untethered.

But she’s not alone, Leah’s here, Marty is here, a few doors down the hallway. Shelby, and the other girls, too. Toni grits her teeth. In the pit of her stomach, she stokes the fires of anger, forcing herself to think of her mother, of broken promises. It helps ; it always does. Then, she turns back around, like nothing happened, and starts unzipping her suitcase. If Leah notices anything, she doesn’t say. Drowsy and quiet, they both change into their pajamas, brush their teeth, get ready for the night.

“I’ll take the bed with the duck drawing,” Toni offers. “Since you clearly hate it.” It’s also the one closest to the door, to an exit, but she doesn’t say that.

“Cool.”

They stand by their beds, awkward, hesitant. “I guess we should go to sleep,” Toni mumbles. It sounds like a question.

“Hmm. Do you want to know what I think?” Leah asks, in a conspiratorial tone that, historically, has rarely led to good outcomes.

But of course, Toni is intrigued. “Do I?”

“We should go check on the others. Make sure everyone’s okay.”

Toni grins her approval. “Fuck yeah.”

Turns out, they’ve all had the same idea, because when Toni opens the door, everyone else is already in the hallway, chatting in low voices, in their pajamas. The agents are nowhere to be seen, so they all gather in Martha and Dot’s room and, unwilling to be away from each other, exhausted and overwhelmed, they pile up into the beds. It’s a tight fit, but with Rachel’s back to hers, Martha in her arms, and Shelby on the other side of Martha, Toni feels right at home.

She’s asleep before she even closes her eyes.

 

2-

Nora is awoken, too early, by the sunlight streaming through the shutters, and the loud trills of an excited mockingbird.

She blinks, confused. Right in front of her, so close their noses almost touch, Dot is sound asleep, drooling on their shared pillow. In a rush of images, it comes back to her: leaving her parents, the long day of travel, the arrival at night, everyone falling asleep in the same room.

Carefully, Nora sits up. The room is quiet, but for the sound of soft breathing. Beside Dot, there’s Fatin, curled on her side, with one arm around Dot’s waist, and on the other side, Leah, her forehead pressed between Fatin’s shoulder blades. Nora looks at them, looks at the other bed, equally crowded, and smiles. There’s a diffuse sensation of warmth in her chest. The eight of them sleeping together again feels right. Safe. The only safety they had on the island was at night, when they’d lie around the campfire and pass out from sheer exhaustion, despite the hollow stomachs, the aches and pains, the fears, and spend a blissful few hours unaware of their predicament. Nora would watch over them, often, at night, while they slept. It helped with the guilt.

After, when she was taken away from them so abruptly, she was sometimes allowed to watch them on the screens, in Gretchen’s control room. But it wasn’t the same, of course ; she was no longer one of them - was she ever? - she’d become someone they thought was dead. A ghost, staring at her friends, unable to talk to them, desperate to reach out through the screen, forced to watch them grieve for her.

(She had been so grateful, then, for Leah’s suspicions, because Leah did not mourn her, Leah never bought her death, even when it put her at odds with everyone else, in the days right after the shark attack, when they were frantically trying to save Rachel’s life, and no one had any patience for Leah’s wild theories.)

It hasn’t been easy, winning them back after they learned the whole truth. In fact, most of her friendships are still fragile, like just-healed broken bones. When they found out she was alive and well, in the bunker, they all cried. Even Rachel, who’d insisted time and time again that Nora wasn’t dead, couldn’t be dead, she would know. Even Leah, her rage forgotten, gathered Nora in her arms and sobbed in relief. Then, they all went their separate ways, for those three weeks of August, before the safe house, and everyone's been friendly, but Nora can sense the lingering hurt, the distrust - she’s always been perceptive. And Rachel… No. Rachel said she was working on it, and Nora will give her sister, who has suffered more than anyone else, all the time she needs. She owes her as much.

Martha moves in her sleep, interrupting Nora’s thoughts. As silently as possible, she leaves the bed and her sleeping friends, swings by her room to get dressed and grab her backpack, and pads down the stairs.

The house is quiet, and huge. She crosses an empty living-room with comfy looking furniture, objects that look frankly exotic to Nora’s city girl eyes, and, napping on a thick, beige rug, a black cat, who lifts its head and stares at Nora with curious golden eyes. Nora blinks, smiles, and gives the cat a polite nod as she passes by, following the smell of bacon and eggs and toast all the way to the kitchen. There, she finds an old kettle whistling on the stove, a stained wooden table, with benches on either side, drowning under an amalgam of round plates and white faience bowls, tin cups and cutlery, fruits and bread and pots of jam, and, in front of the stove, poking into the contents of several huge pans with a wooden spoon, a stranger in overalls.

“Mornin’,” the stranger says, even though Nora’s pretty sure she hasn’t made a sound. He turns around. “Name’s Joey. Pleasure to meet ya.”

“Nora,” says Nora, graciously, cocking her head to the side. He’s not one of the agents from last night. He doesn’t look the part, either: grey-blond hair, greyer beard, the tanned skin of someone who’s spent a lot of his years outdoors. He must be around fifty, in good shape, though he limps when he brings Nora a cup of coffee, before going back to his pans.

“There’s milk and sugar and cream on the table, help yourself. Food’s almost ready, lotta bacon. I made some beans, too, just in case. These government folks never did tell us if some of y’all were vegetarian or not.”

Nora smiles. “One of us is, she’ll appreciate it.”

“Well, good.”

There’s a silence, and she sits down on one end of the bench and sips her coffee- black, no sugar - as he finishes cooking breakfast. She opens her backpack and takes a book out - they’ve been given syllabi and textbooks for each subject they’re taking this year, since they’ll have to do distance learning. When the man is done, he joins her at the table, and smiles, and there’s something kind in his smile, something Nora trusts instantly.

“You sleep okay?” he asks. “I know it can get hot in these rooms, sometimes, and awfully stuffy.”

Nora thinks of eight girls sleeping in the same room, piled in two beds. “I slept great.”

He hums, nods, takes a sip of coffee. She can’t resist asking.

“Excuse me, but, who are you?”

“Oh, I’m Joey,” he says, looking up in surprise, “Joey Clark, I live here. This is my house. Well, me and Marco.”

“Marco?”

“My husband. He’s outside, feeding the horses. Only three of ‘em, but they take their sweet ass time. Not like Edith and George, these guys are fast. Would eat anything, too. Our goats,” he explains, when Nora makes a small grimace to indicate her confusion.

Goats? Nora frowns. Aren’t they supposed to be in a safe house? “You... work for the federal government?”

“In a way. Me and Marco usually foster kids, year-long. Kids who need to be away from everything for a while. Kind of a boarding school, in a way. But this year we were contacted about you guys. I think the program needed a big enough place since there’s eight of you, and we had enough space to house y’all without suspicion, and--” he gestures around himself “-- we’re in the middle of nowhere, which is the safest you could be.”

Where in the middle of nowhere are we?” Nora asks. They weren’t told the location of the safe house. Not even their families know. It’s a safety precaution, until the trial is over, but Nora can’t help being curious.

He chuckles. “‘Afraid I can’t say. I’ve signed the papers and all.” Then he winks. “But I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Seems like you’re a smart one.” He gestures with his chin to the textbook she has laid open on the table, between a jar of honey and a pot of cream.

Nora ducks her head, touched by the compliment. It shouldn’t mean anything, coming from a man who has known her for ten minutes, but it makes her feel comfortable. Noticed. “I’m doing pre-calculus. It’s not that hard, once you get used to it.” She pauses, hesitant. “I find it soothing, actually.”

Joey shakes his head. “Well, I’ll take your word for it. Never been a math guy, myself. Marco has a better head for numbers, though I can’t say he’ll be of any help to you, you’re doing some advanced stuff.”

“So you aren’t teachers?” Nora asks, one finger rubbing the hard edge of the textbook. “You said this is a boarding school.”

“Oh, no,” Joey laughs. “No, me and Marco, we’re more like foster parents, not teachers. If we can help with homework, we will, but usually we have instructors and tutors coming during the week. The kids we foster, they’re old enough to do most of the studying on their own.” He shrugs. “I believe that’s what’s gonna happen for y’all as well.” Then he smiles, warm and easy. “It’s fun, you’ll see! Gives you a taste of college independence.”

Nora nods, but her chest tightens. She thinks of her college visit, of Quinn, and she has to close the textbook, suddenly unable to even look at it.

Their conversation is interrupted by the rest of the girls trickling down the stairs, in various states of displeasure and awakeness, flanked by agents Clipper, Boone and Swanson. Joey salutes the group with a cheery wave, before he makes himself scarce, grabbing an old hat and limping out of the backdoor. Nora finds herself missing his presence. In contrast, their three handlers seem even more rigid and serious than last night.

“Why don’t you have breakfast, and then we will give you a tour,” agent Will Boone says, when everyone is settled around the table. Just like last night, it’s an order phrased as a suggestion. “We’ll meet up with the rest of the staff back at the house afterwards for orientation.”

The girls eat in silence. Nora, who’s already done with breakfast, stays, and tries very hard not to feel like an outsider, a stranger among friends - like a ghost.

 

3-

It’s a beautiful place, this isolated, vast chunk of land where they’re going to spend the next ten months or so, completely isolated from the rest of the world. Leah can’t deny it, it has a lot of charm. The house, with its whitewashed walls and wooden shutters, the front courtyard, the lawn, bracketed by tall, imposing trees, the fields behind the house, the patch of woods, the charming barn, the small pond with its banks covered in tall reeds and its clear water. They even have animals here - horses and goats and chicken and ducks, a house cat and a brown dog who’s been following them on their tour outside. They have flowers and fruit trees and a vegetable patch, like some sort of countryside paradise. Yes, what a beautiful place. Or rather, a beautiful prison, because all Leah feels is trapped, and she hates it.

“No going past the property line at any point,” that annoying agent, Sam Clipper, lectures them on the way back as they walk alongside the gate. “You are to stay inside the perimeter at all times.”

Leah can’t help herself. “Or what?” she challenges, arms crossed against her chest as she stops in her tracks. Her stance is a bit less impressive than she’d hoped, because the dog, who has apparently decided he loves her, sits at her feet, big brown eyes looking up at her as if he’s expecting a treat. She resists the urge to pet him.

The rest of the group halts, looking at her, and there's a tense silence. Sam cocks her head. “What was that?”

“I said: or what?” Leah repeats, enunciating the words slowly and clearly, not intimidated in the slightest.

Agent Brett Swanson turns red across the cheeks, frowning in frustration. The other agent, Will, clears his throat, and says, hurriedly: “Or it’s harder for us to protect you.”

Leah wants to snap, wants to say she’s heard all of this before - “It’s for your own good,” croons Faber’s voice inside her head ; she feels the sting of a syringe piercing the muscle of her shoulder, or her thigh - but before she has time to talk, Fatin strides towards her and grabs her by the upper arm, and Leah freezes. Fatin touches her so rarely these days. Something like an electric current races through her, leaves her spine tingling.

“Is there a problem, Leah?” Sam asks, peering at her closely. Leah doesn’t look away, stubborn, not quite tamed by the press of Fatin’s fingers on her skin. “I’m sure you’re aware that these rules were put in place for your safety. And that you agreed to abide by them when you entered the witness protection program.”

“No, no, we’re all good here,” Fatin replies. She squeezes Leah’s arm, once, a warning, and then lets go. “Leah loves following rules.”

“Since when?” Dot grumbles, and that breaks the tension, making the other girls snicker.

The three agents exchange a few concerned looks, but don’t comment further, ushering them back towards the house. Fatin casts her a stern, worried little glance, one Leah is more than familiar with, though she hasn’t seen it since the island ; it means we’ll talk about this later. Sam stares at Leah the whole walk back to the house, like a hawk who’s found its prey. Good, Leah thinks, pettily. They had little choice in coming here - the federal government did not want to risk their precious witnesses, the girls didn't have much say in the matter, even the more recalcitrant parents capitulated - so if she’s to lose her freedom again, barely a month after she was subjected to an illegal experiment, Leah doesn't intend on making it easy for anyone.

In the lobby, Shelby slides next to Leah. “Not even twenty-four hours here, and that Sam agent is already annoyed with you. You sure are the most talented of us when it comes to alienating people,” she murmurs, teasingly.

Leah scoffs. “Hello, have you met your girlfriend?” she retorts, but immediately regrets her choice of words when Shelby tenses at her side. She knows Toni is a sore subject. Shelby and her have talked quite a bit about the experiment, about the way it has messed with their minds, and their ability to trust themselves - or to trust others.

“Sorry,” she mumbles, catching Shelby’s hand in her own, briefly.

Shelby gives her a smile that’s more of a wince. “It’s all good, Leah.” It doesn’t make Leah feel any better, but then they’re in the living-room, surrounded by people, and there’s no more time to talk. They’re directed to sit, so they do. The room is crowded, between the eight of them and - Leah counts, quickly - eight adults, three of which are their handlers. Sam introduces the rest of the federal staff assigned to this mission, who won’t be living in the safe house with them, listing their names and titles: Danielle, chief administrator, Joana, psychotherapist, Matt, nurse practitioner, Miriam, communication supervisor.

They go over some guidelines for a while. Leah tries to pay attention, but it’s the same stuff they already know, that was explained to them and their families before they were enrolled in the program. No contact with anyone, except their legal guardians, twice a month. Supervised access to the internet. Many, many security protocols. Sam reiterates the importance of staying within the property's limits, and looks right at Leah as she says it.

Then Joey and Marco Clark introduce themselves, and talk about the house rules, and what their daily life will look like. They seem nice enough - Joey, in overalls, with freckles dotting his sun-tanned face ; Marco, bronze skin, dark curly hair, warm voice - smiling as they welcome the eight of them in their home. But it’s stifling, to be treated like children again after everything they went through, to be given a chores chart and a curfew, to be told what is and isn’t allowed.

Abruptly, Leah stands up.

“Orientation isn't over yet. Where are you going?” Sam asks, curtly.

“To the bathroom.” Leah can feel the other girls’ eyes on her, worried, on edge, and it reminds her of the island, of how they acted when she would go on a rant about Nora, about her suspicions and her theories. Guilt, and shame, simmer in her stomach, like always when she thinks of the wrongful accusations she hurled at most of them, or the way she behaved, irrational and obsessive and unable to stop herself. But there’s something else, too. Something hard, angry and resentful. It makes her face the agent. “Sorry, do you also have rules about how and when we can take a piss? ”

There’s a brief, shocked silence. All the adults in the room stare at her. “Of course not, Leah,” the therapist, Joana, says, placating. Like Leah’s a wild animal they have to approach with caution. Her anger grows.

She stomps out, up the stairs, and to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. Her breath is shallow. She stares at the mirror above the sink, and wonders if she’s going to have a panic attack, distantly, but before that can happen, the door swings open and there is Fatin.

“I’m fine,” Leah says before Fatin can ask, not looking at her. “Just needed a breather.”

“What you need is to chill the fuck out.” Leah bristles and spins around, but Fatin isn’t looking for a fight. Her face is open, her eyes soft, disarmingly so, and all at once the anger pulsing at Leah’s temples evaporates, and tears fill her eyes instead. She swallows, forcing herself not to cry, and slides down against the sink until she’s sitting on the floor, knees up, arms around her legs.

“I can’t do it,” Leah whispers. “Fatin, I can’t do months of this again - being watched and controlled and stuck and kept in the dark, always wondering if we’re being told the truth, not knowing what’s real and what’s in my head.”

Fatin crosses the room and sits next to her, close, but not touching. Leah thinks of that day by the waterfall, of Fatin’s hands on her neck, of Fatin’s lips brushing hers, of things that could have been, and her belly twists, unpleasantly, with longing and regret, and then, in a brutal, unwanted flash of memory, she sees Jeff - his eyes, gleaming with betrayal, with disgust. His mouth moves, and she hears his angry voice, you lied to me, you’re a child, get out. Nausea stirs in her stomach, just like it did then, in Jeff’s car. Just like it did when Fatin tried to kiss her.

“I can’t do it,” Leah repeats, and she’s not sure what she’s talking about anymore.

“Yes, you can,” Fatin says, simply, unaware of the whirlwind of emotions Leah’s experiencing. “This isn't the island, or the bunker. And you have all of us, Leah, you’re not alone. But you have to calm down, okay? Keep yourself in check. Don’t get yourself in trouble now over some stupid shit. I need -” she cuts herself off, bites her lip. “I want you to be safe. And staying here is the safest thing for all of us. Gretchen's people want to hurt us, Leah. Don't make it easier for them.” Leah, defeated, lets the back of her head fall against the sink. “Hey, you know I’m on your side, right?” Fatin adds, in that soft, careful tone of hers, the one she only ever uses with Leah. It stings, a bit. Everything about Fatin’s gentleness hurts nowadays.

“I know.”

“Come on. Let’s go back downstairs, before Dot sends a search party.”

“Fatin,” Leah starts, right as they leave the bathroom. She stops herself. Fatin looks at her, and there’s something apprehensive in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” Leah sighs, eventually. It’s not really what she means to say. She wants to explain herself, she wants to ask… but she’s paralyzed by shame and guilt and fear.

Fatin shrugs. “You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

But Leah does. She does. She ruins everything.

 

4-

Dot wakes up with a gasp, and fumbles for the light switch in the dark.

She was dreaming of the bunker, of her small cell and the smell of concrete and bleach, of the unbearable isolation ; sweat beads at her brow, drenching the back of her pajama shirt. She breathes, steadily, in and out, until her heartbeat slows down, and lets her eyes roam around her. It was just a dream. She’s been out of the bunker for two months now, and living at the safe house for one of them. She’s okay, and no longer alone, with her thoughts and memories and feelings for only company.

Except, she is alone, she realizes, as her gaze falls on the other bed which stands, empty and unmade, across the room. Martha is nowhere to be found. Dot frowns, and sits up. The alarm clock says it’s one in the morning. Where the hell did Martha go? She seemed tired when they all went to bed, around ten, and she fell asleep before Dot did. A few minutes pass, as Dot waits, hoping to hear footsteps, or any sign of activity. Maybe Martha just went to the bathroom or something. But the big house stays quiet and still around her, like a huge sleeping animal, and Martha doesn’t show up.

So Dot sticks her feet into her slippers - huge, furry, pink atrocities, a gift from Fatin - and goes to search for her missing roommate. She’s thankful for the distraction, her nightmare forgotten now that she has something to focus on, but part of her is genuinely concerned. She’s been worried about Martha ; she remembers all too well her recklessness, on their last few days on the island, her agitation. Her accident had been, they’d learned later, the reason they were evacuated. Now, Martha seems herself again, grounded, stable, but Dot has been keeping an eye on her. She’s worried.

She worries about all of them to be fair. About Toni, and Shelby, and whatever’s brewing between them after their sort-of breakup. About Rachel and Nora, of course, and all the ways they're hurting. Leah, still so on edge. Fatin’s quiet heartbreak.

(Not herself, though. Dot doesn’t think about herself at all.)

She makes her way down the corridor, and steps into the large bathroom, which she finds dark and empty. She checks it meticulously, but no one is hiding in any stall, or behind a shower curtain, so she heads back towards the bedrooms, and quietly opens Leah and Toni’s door. If Martha had trouble sleeping, she probably went to seek Toni.

Dot expects to find darkness, but one of the bedside lamps is on, and she frowns at what she discovers instead: Nora is sitting in Toni’s bed, back propped against two pillows, a book open on her lap. “Hey,” she says, cocking her head as Dot in the doorway. “What’s up?”

There is no trace of Toni, or Martha. Or Leah, for that matter.

“Nora, what the hell?” Dot whispers. “What are you doing here? Where are Toni and Leah?”

Nora shrugs, closes her book. “I don’t know. I couldn't sleep earlier, but I didn't want to keep Rachel up, so I went to see if I could borrow one of Leah’s books. The room was empty when I came in. It seemed like the perfect place to read without bothering anyone.” She gives Dot one of her curious looks, a gentle assessment. “I assume you’re not after Leah’s books.”

“Hell no,” Dot says, with a shudder, and a glance at Leah’s side of the room, where piles and piles of books lay haphazardly against the wall like the worst kind of death trap. “I’m looking for Martha.”

“I haven’t seen her,” Nora says. “But I’ll help you find her.” She hesitates, and winces. “I mean, if you want me to.”

“Yeah, dude, of course.” Dot doesn’t miss the relief on Nora’s face as she scrambles off the bed, and her heart aches. Poor Nora has been trying so hard to present a brave face, but Dot knows it’s been hard on her, the distance from the others, the tension, that weird in-between, of having been forgiven, but not quite absolved. She resolves to give a few of the girls a stern talking-to. Yes, Nora betrayed them. Yes, she knew the truth all along. But Dot knows first-hand how persuasive Gretchen Klein can be, how easy it is, for this wretched woman, to worm her way inside a grieving heart.

The next room is the one Nora shares with Rachel. Again, Dot expects to find darkness and people peacefully asleep where they should be, and again, she's wrong. When she pushes the door open, Fatin and Toni both raise their heads with twin looks of surprise. They’re sitting on the rug in their pajamas, cross-legged, holding cards in their hands.

“What the fuck,” Dot says, tiredly.

“Is that my deck of cards?” Nora murmurs.

“Hello to you too, Dorothy,” Fatin replies, with a smirk. She gestures to the cards on the floor between her and Toni. “You guys want in? Shalifoe’s losing badly, turns out she sucks ass at poker. I could use a worthy opponent.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Toni grumbles. She stretches one leg in front of her, and peers at Dot and Nora. “Why aren’t you in bed?” she asks, as if she’s not playing poker with Fatin at one thirty in the morning in Rachel and Nora’s bedroom.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Dot says, with her hands on her hips. “In fact, I am asking you the same thing. What’s going on here?”

“Jeez, okay, don’t go all mom friend on us,” Fatin says, rolling her eyes. “I was on my way to get a midnight snack when I ran into Toni. We stole some cookies from the kitchen - remind me to compliment Joey, they’re incredible - and then we realized we didn’t really want to go back to sleep. This room’s door was open, and nobody was there, so we decided we might as well stay. The cards were on your nightstand,” she adds, looking at Nora, who’s biting her lower lip. “Sorry, we should have asked.”

“Oh no, that’s okay,” Nora says, gently. “I’m glad you found them. I’m just wondering where Rachel is.”

“And Martha. And Leah.” At Dot’s words, Fatin and Toni both look up, sharply. “Yep, everyone’s fucking wandering around, tonight.”

“Let’s check the last room,” Nora says.

Toni stands up, Dot hefts Fatin to her feet, and they all walk together to the adjacent room. For the third time tonight, Dot turns the handle, as quietly as possible, and pushes the door open. But this room is dark, and occupied.

Martha is asleep in Shelby’s bed, one of Shelby’s arms slung tight around her waist, her dark hair contrasting with Shelby’s short blonde curls on the pillow. Their chests rise and fall, harmonious, the rhythm of their breathing synchronized and peaceful. In the other bed, Leah and Rachel sleep curled together.

“Is Rachel spooning Leah?” Toni murmurs, in awe. She's not even looking at Martha and Shelby. “Fuck, I wish I had my phone.”

“Same,” Fatin whispers, but there’s an edge to her tone that Dot can’t help but notice. She closes the door very carefully, and turns around to face the three of them.

“Okay, well, I don’t know why Shelby’s the only one sleeping in her own damn bed, but everyone is safe and accounted for, so I guess that’s the end of this little mission.” She pauses. None of them moves, standing still in the dark corridor. “Y’all gonna be able to sleep?” Dot asks, in a low voice, though she can already guess the answer.

“I don’t think so,” says Nora.

“Nah,” says Toni.

“Definitely not,” says Fatin.

Dot sighs. “Wanna go in my room and watch a DVD on one of the laptops we use for school? I found Marco’s collection of action movies, they’re not half bad.”

They all end up in Dot’s bed, watching men with too many muscles run from way too many explosions, until they pass out in the early morning. The next day, they are, of course, exhausted, and not particularly inclined to study. Dot tries to focus on her Spanish textbook, but all the words blur together, so she gives up, goes to the kitchen to clean her coffee cup, and then sneaks outside through the back door. It’s lightly drizzling, but not cold, not really. Dot, hands in her pockets, walks across the courtyard, and then around the barn, towards her favorite hidden spot - a wooden bench, under an awning, between the barn and the chicken coop. To her surprise, there’s already someone there : Rachel, sitting on one end of the bench.

“Hey,” Dot says.

Rachel nods. Dot sits on the other end, and grabs her cigarettes and lighter from her pocket. “You mind?”

“Nah,” Rachel says. Then she adds, drily :”You know that stuff’s gonna kill you, right?”

“Yeah, no shit.”

Rachel shrugs, like she doesn’t care either way. Dot knows she does, but she appreciates the absence of a lecture nonetheless. Rachel always knows when Dot’s already beating herself up for something. Raindrops splatter on the ground before them, dotting the mud with dark, wet spots. Far away, in the fields, the horses have found refuge under the tree-line. It's always so quiet, here, nothing like Texas - but Dot doesn't mind. She lets out a puff of smoke, watches it swirl away with tired eyes, and turns towards Rachel. “What are you doing out here, anyway? The weather’s shit.”

“Just needed to get away for a minute, everyone's getting on my nerves this morning,” Rachel says, but her fingers close around her wrist, the one missing a hand, and Dot narrows her eyes at her. She hesitates, but then she’s never been tactful, and she isn’t going to start now.

“You in pain?” she asks, bluntly.

“No,” Rachel says, but then she sighs. “I mean, not more than usual.”

“I’ll take you to the nurse,” Dot offers, “just gimme two minutes. He said to come by if you ever needed painkillers, right?” Better this than her Spanish homework.

Rachel looks at her strangely. “You know, you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to look out for us anymore. We’re safe here. You can stop.”

“Ever heard of friendship, dumbass?” Dot retorts. “Jesus. I’m not gonna stop caring for you just cause we made it out of the island.”

But what she doesn’t say is: no, I can’t stop. I don’t know what would happen if I did. I don't know what else to do.

 

5-

Agent Samantha Clipper
Field notes on mission [redacted] for the federal witness security program, with unaccompanied minors.

10/10
Good weather. Nothing to report. It seems all the girls have acclimated to the safe house, at least to some degree. I had a conversation with one of the tutors, who said they were all doing well with their school work. He noted that the lack of rigid school structure may actually be very helpful, as it encourages them to study together and help each other in subjects where some may have more difficulties than others. I will transmit this information to parents and legal guardians. This is also pertinent data for future programs with unaccompanied minors who can't go to a normal school.

10/11
Weather was cold, light rain. I did the usual headcount at approximately 18:00, and noticed L. Rilke missing. I immediately alerted the other agents, then proceeded to search for her. Found her at 18:15, on the main road, walking away from the property. She made no effort to hide, but refused to come back with me, arguing that she was not a prisoner, and should be allowed to leave for a “hike”. She relented after I made it clear that I could and would employ force if necessary. I notified the therapist of her behavior, as well as all personnel, and recommended closer supervision. I am concerned that L. Rilke may pose a threat to herself, and to the operation in general.

10/12
Cloudy skies, light rain, windy. Sudden noise at 03:00, coming from the second floor, as I was doing my rounds. Went to check immediately, found all the girls in bedroom number 002, playing a game of strip poker. A number of them were only partially dressed, so I asked them to put their clothes back on. Found clear evidence of alcohol consumption - the girls were inebriated - as well as a pack of cigarettes. M. Blackburn admitted to stealing a bottle of rum. Reminded everyone that they are under 21, and that the house rules prohibit alcohol and other substance abuse, then sent them back to bed. They complied, and all were back in their rooms by 03:40. Allowed D. Campbell to keep the cigarettes if she promised to only smoke outside.

10/13
Heavy rain, everyone stayed indoors. Mood was low, until J. Clark and S. Goodkind made chocolate chip cookies. Nothing to report.

10/14
Clear skies. Sunny afternoon. All girls volunteered to help M. and J. Clark with outdoor work, which is unusual. Agent Swanson suggested they were probably feeling “cooped up” after the last few days of rain. R. Reid sustained a minor injury - bruises- trying to use a hammer one-handed, and I pulled her off the activity and sent her to the nurse. N. Reid volunteered to go with her, but R. Reid didn’t want her sister to come. Before things escalated, M. Clark intervened, and defused the situation by asking for N. Reid’s help, and sending M. Blackburn with R. Reid instead.

10/15
Good weather. Group therapy was held outside. At around 17:30, F. Jadmani demanded access to a cell phone. When asked why, she stated that she wanted to “check her finsta”. Request was denied by the communication supervisor and myself, despite protests. It appears she then attempted to “seduce” agent W. Boone into lending her his cell phone, which also failed. Unrelatedly, at 20:00 I sent an email to my supervisor, asking for my next assignment not to be with teenagers.