"We have to go find her."
"You heard me," Niki said shortly.
"You have got to be kidding me. First you let her talk you into going to goddamn Poland - which I had to pay for - and now you want to go to the Russian border -"
"Maybe I wouldn't have to if you didn't talk me into leaving her there!"
"Oh, so now it's my fault for trying to keep you safe from some wacko who's killing people who look like you?" Aleks folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe of Niki's room, watching her rummage in her closet for a duffel bag. "How do we know that wasn't them calling on the phone this afternoon, trying to lure you out?"
"Because, it was Veera." Niki finally spied the strap of her duffel bag dangling from the top shelf in her closet.
"She said it was Veera. It could be anyone, faking her voice."
"It wasn't. I know her." She stretched to the full extent of her meager height, reaching for the strap with groping fingers.
"For three days," her boyfriend said, unimpressed. "And what are you doing? If you need help reaching something, just ask me."
Niki's eyes narrowed, and her fingertips just barely caught the strap. She drew it incrementally closer and clenched a fist around the blue nylon. Her jaw clenched, too. She pulled, heedless of the extra blankets and unused sweaters that cascaded down on top of her along with the body of the bag.
"So what?" Niki said loudly. "I know it was her, and she needs help. Every time I don’t take her seriously, something bad happens. She literally begged me not to go, back in Gdansk. But I left her, and she got kidnapped. Before that, I didn’t believe her about her creepy uncle, and he nearly kidnapped me. I'm not doing it again." She didn’t say the rest of her thoughts, because she knew they would only make Aleks more defensive. But Veera was the one who had saved her from ‘Uncle’ Matti and his tranquilizer needle, not Aleks or any of Niki’s other friends or family. And Veera was all alone. Who else was going to help her?
Niki shoved the fluffiest of the fallen sweaters into the bag, and shoved a revolting chenille Christmas one into the surprised Aleks' chest with some force. "If you're not gonna help me, then Suvi will." Suvi had been her best friend since grade school, and even if lately she’d been becoming more something.... else, Niki was sure she would help. Pretty sure. She grabbed Veera's computer from where it lay on her pink bedspread and threw it into the bag along with a few granola bars. She tugged on her gray coat with the fur-lined collar, and stormed down the street to Suvi's house in the chilly late afternoon.
She was three-quarters of the way through convincing the reluctant Suvi to "borrow" her dad's car for them when Aleks finally caught up to her, his own car keys in hand. By that point, Suvi was insisting on coming along, too, unhappy but unwilling to let Niki go without her. Niki could have given herself the world's biggest facepalm for getting herself stuck in a car for hours with her two - whatever-they-were's - but Aleks couldn't be allowed to wonder. So she set her jaw and folded her arms and sat subtly seething in the passenger seat, meeting no eyes.
It didn't matter that much, really. As long as she was going to get Veera.
When she saw her again, Niki couldn't help rushing the barbed-wire fence that separated the deep woods into two forests: one with her and Aleks and Suvi in it, and one with Veera, who was supporting another girl who appeared wounded and emaciated, yet unmistakably familiar. Another twin.
"Veera!" Niki said. It was less a shout and more an internal cry unintentionally expelled as a whisper.
"Help. Help us over the fence," Veera called to her. Her voice was tired but steady, and the sound of it and the sight of her still wearing that same hooded jacket filled Niki with warmth. The fence evidently wasn't electrified, since Veera and the wounded girl were both resting a hand on it, so Niki reached out to clasp one of her own over Veera's as she came up against it.
"Oh god, I'm so glad you're okay," Niki said breathlessly, squeezing Veera's hand. Veera let go of the wire to interlace her cold fingers with Niki's warm ones. They held that living linkage threaded between the strands of twisted metal, each assessing the other briefly in the chill evening shadows cast by the surrounding pines. Beneath the familiar purple awning of that hood, Niki could see what must have been only the second smile she'd ever seen Veera make. Due to either the scarring across her cheek or just her quirky personality, it was slightly lopsided, and narrow but piercingly genuine. Somehow, it was already as familiar to Niki as her own home. She found herself mirroring it in her own toothier fashion, before she let it fade and turned her attention to the new girl. She stood as if her bones were heavily burdened with the task of keeping her thin frame upright, and she was bald and covered in tiny cuts on her skin and clothes, like she'd crashed through a glass window.
"Who's this?" Niki asked quietly. Two sets of approaching footsteps scuffed the cold ground behind her, announcing Aleks and Suvi catching up to her.
Veera's ephemeral smile had vanished, too. "This is Jade. She's another one of us," she said unnecessarily. She let go of Niki's hand. "But she's hurt. I - I messed up. And her ankle's twisted. I couldn't get her over the fence. Can you..."
"You can't be serious," Aleks said. "Another one?"
"This is just..." Suvi said, at a loss for any other words.
Niki turned away from the fence toward them, flicking her blonde hair out of her way with a toss of her head. "Aleks, could you grab our wool blanket from your car so we can cover the barbed wire?"
"You're serious? You wanna smuggle a couple of your creepy twins across international borders right now?"
"Aleks, we can't leave them here! Please," Niki said, laying a hand on his arm. "Can you just help me out here? Then we can go home."
Aleks stared into her eyes for a moment, then sighed and trudged back toward the car, hidden not far back in the trees.
"Niki..." Suvi said slowly. Her beautiful green eyes were watching her uneasily, wide with the beginnings of real fear for the first time. "What is this? What does all of this have to do with you? This is dangerous."
Niki sighed heavily. "I don't know." She stared down at the brown, needle-covered ground. At least there hadn't yet been any snow to show where they'd been. Not that that would have stopped Niki, anyway.
"Jade knows a little," Veera said through the fence. Niki turned back to her. Her hand was clamped around the wire again, and her other arm was still supporting Jade, who held her injured foot in the air gingerly.
"I know more than a little," Jade said in a small but irritable voice. It was in the same range as Niki's and Veera's, but had a brittle sharpness that neither of them possessed.
"Jade knows some," Veera amended. "And I may have a lot more. I stole one of their hard drives. But I won't know until I can connect it to my computer. Did you bring it?"
Niki had to smile again, letting out a little huff of amazement at Veera's resourcefulness. She'd not only escaped the creepy lab she'd mentioned over the phone, but successfully made off with evidence and an injured fellow prisoner. "Yeah. I did. Don't worry," Niki said. "It's gonna be alright."
Once Aleks came back with the blanket, they ended up sending him over the fence to help boost the weakened Jade over it and into Niki and Suvi's arms. Niki started helping the limping girl toward the car, since Jade didn't seem too keen on Suvi, and Suvi's face made it all too clear that the feeling was mutual. Aleks would have boosted Veera over the fence, too, except that she refused to let either him or Suvi touch her. She insisted on awkwardly scaling the blanket-padded wires herself, while Niki helped settle Jade into the backseat of the car with the fluffy spare sweater she fetched from the duffel bag.
By the time Jade was as comfortable as Niki could make her, the other three had all gotten back onto the Finnish side of the fence and taken the blanket down. Aleks tossed the blanket into the trunk and slammed it shut. He paused only long enough to give Niki an unhappy, troubled look before clambering back into the car. Suvi quickly followed suit, obviously eager to be gone from the incriminating scene. The closeness of the tall trees muffled the twin thuds of the driver and passenger doors closing. Niki hated seeing both of them like this. She hated being the one who put them in this position. But what choice did she have? She shut Jade's door, too, and turned around.
Veera was there, standing quietly a few meters away with her arms hovering at her sides. She was leaning slightly forward, as if wanting to step closer but unsure of whether she was allowed. Unsurprising, given Aleks and Suvi's cold welcome. The girl might have difficulty reading people as easily as Niki did, but she was all too aware of when she wasn't wanted.
Maybe, then, she'd also be well aware of it when she was. Niki ought to make it crystal clear, though, just in case.
Niki trotted over to her, hesitating only an instant to check that Veera wasn't drawing back before throwing her arms around her. She was rewarded with an immediately returned embrace in the form of arms locked around her midriff, surprisingly strong. Niki simply clutched her close, one hand on the back of her head and one flush against her back, ignoring the sharp corners of what was presumably the hard drive hidden in Veera's jacket digging into her ribs.
"I missed you," Niki whispered sideways into the soft purple fabric of her hood.
"Mmm," was the only sound that came out of Veera's tight throat. She merely held on tight.
"I'm so, so sorry I left you there. I'm never gonna do that again." Niki gently released her and smoothed her shoulders down a few times, and let her hands rest there lightly. Veera's arms fell to her sides to hover uncertainly again. She was shivering a little. "I'm sorry," Niki says again, "I only brought the one spare sweater and Jade's got it, you didn't tell me you had anyone else with you - do you wanna wear my big coat for a bit? It's really chilly out here -"
"No, no, it's alright. I'm alright." Veera lifted a hand to hold onto one of those clasping her shoulder. "I'm just. Glad to see you."
Niki felt another smile crinkling at the corners of her mouth and her watery eyes, and pulled Veera into another hug, softer this time. They found themselves sharing a long, deep sigh in the same breath.
Despite the way that this mystery twin conspiracy was looming larger and scarier than ever, Niki felt almost as light as a cloud, now that the worry of the past twenty-four hours was falling away from her. The tension that had lingered in her muscles since Gdansk was suddenly released by the deepening realization that Veera was safe and here and real, and more or less okay.
The intensity of her own emotional reaction surprised Niki. She wasn't sure when in the past - was it really only three or four days? - that Veera had become one of her closest friends. Maybe it was that very first night in the treehouse, when Veera had saved her life. Or the second night, on the ferry, when they'd shared secrets, like sisters. The sister Niki never had and had always wanted. Someone who was there for her in a way that no one else was, right from the start. Someone who believed her ‘crazy’ memories and cared about the truth as much as she did; who didn’t even blink at the idea of her and Suvi, but who understood what hiding felt like. Someone, Niki realized, that she really, completely trusted. This - this made every awful thing that had brought them together worthwhile.
"Thanks. For coming to get me," Veera said, leaning her head sideways against Niki's.
"Hey. What did we say?" Niki said, pulling back and holding her crooked pinkie finger up between the two of them. "I've got your back."
Veera linked a finger with hers, and smiled a third time. It was even smaller and subtler than the first two, hardly disrupting the filigree pattern of scarring that detailed the right side of her face. Still, it filled Niki's chest with sunlight even in the gathering dusk.