She looked at me expectantly and I said nothing. She returned her gaze to her plate in disappointment.
“The food makes me feel a little better, though. Less shaky,” she added.
I felt a pang of something, perhaps that guilt again, and I quickly slid my meat onto her plate. She looked up and smiled at me gratefully.
“You can have my food, too,” Twenty-two said, beginning to slide his tray over.
I grabbed the edge of the tray and pushed it back, giving him a warning look. “At least eat a little. You need your strength for training.”
“Why do you get to do it?” he asked, pointing to where my meat used to be.
“Because I tell you what to do, not the other way around.”
Ever giggled as she popped a giant hunk of beef into her mouth. “I prefer the meat, anyway.”
“Do I ever get to tell you what to do?” he asked me.
“I doubt it.” I grabbed my tray and got to my feet.
“No, please don’t go.” It was Ever who spoke, her eyes wide and pleading. She looked like the thirteen-year-old girl I met years ago, sitting on the bed, absolutely terrified to be rooming with One-seventy-eight. She didn’t speak a word to me for a month. One day she had simply piped up with, “I’m from New Dallas. You?” and continued talking like we’d been friends all along. She’d had four sisters back home and I think she eventually decided she had to adopt me as a sort of replacement or she would lose her mind.
Still, I never would have guessed I was any sort of comfort to her. I wanted to sit back down and enjoy the sense of being needed, the feeling of someone who liked things about me other than my number and criminal-catching skills.
I sat. It felt like the right decision as soon as I did it. Ever smiled gratefully and I smiled back. Twenty-two looked so delighted suddenly that I dropped my eyes to my plate and concentrated on eating my beans.
A low growl woke me in the middle of the night. I rolled over on my mattress, blinking in the darkness. Ever stood over my bed.
I bolted up to a sitting position, my heart pounding furiously. Her growling stopped and her bright eyes bored into mine.
“Ever?” I whispered.
She lunged at me and I scrambled out of bed and across the room. She bared her teeth as she turned to look for me.
I pressed my back to the wall as she approached, my heart beating faster than the time twenty townspeople had chased after me with lit torches and various kitchen knives. I’d been stabbed multiple times before I managed to outrun them, but somehow a weaponless, growling Ever was scarier.
“Ever!” I said, louder this time, and I ducked below her arm as she lunged at me again.
I ran across her bed and dove for the call button. I pushed it repeatedly, frantically, until Ever threw herself on top of me. Her fingers closed around my neck and I gasped, pushing her off with all my strength.
She slammed into the glass wall and sprang to her feet, tilting her head to the side as if examining her prey. I balled my fists, the heat of a fight bursting through my body. She charged at me and I dropped to my knees, grabbing one of her ankles.
She smashed to the ground with a yelp and I twisted her leg until it cracked. She let out a scream that must have woken the whole wing. She came for me again, trying to balance on one leg, so I broke that one, too.
She collapsed flat on her back, whimpering slightly. I sat down on my bed, looking at the door. The humans must have been on their way.
But by the time both of Ever’s legs had healed they still hadn’t come. I broke them again before she could get to her feet, covering my ears with my hands when she began yowling.
They never came.
They must have known. Those human bastards must have known that Ever was losing it, that she attacked me, that I would have to stay up all night, again, to watch her, even after she passed out.
They knew and they didn’t care.
I shouldn’t have been surprised—Reboots were property, not people—but I felt the anger clenching at my chest anyway. I had always been afforded a little more leeway, a little extra respect because of my number and my track record.
But they didn’t care what happened to us.
The people of the slums knew HARC didn’t care a lick for them. I’d known it, as a child. HARC might have been a “savior” to the last generation, to the humans they’d helped fight the Reboot war, but not to those of us starving and dying in the slums.
After I became a Reboot, they fed and clothed me and I thought they respected me as the best. I thought maybe they weren’t so bad.
Maybe I was wrong.
When morning came I left the room before Ever stirred, but as I walked into the showers after my run I found myself searching for her in the sea of Reboots. A few gave me odd looks, which I ignored. I needed to talk to her and this was the only way.
Ever wouldn’t know that I broke her legs four times last night. She wouldn’t know what they did to her.
Not unless I told her.
She came out of the changing room wearing only a towel. She stopped and looked at me curiously. I gestured for her to continue and she did, stepping behind a curtain and snapping it closed.
I took a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching and darted behind the curtain with her.
She turned around and arched an eyebrow at me, a little smile at the edge of her mouth. I blushed as I took a step back, hitting the curtain.
“Hi,” she said. It was more of a question, and her smile grew as she hiked her towel farther up her chest.
“There’s something wrong with you,” I blurted out.
“What do you mean?” Her smile faded.
“You . . . you’re having nightmares or something. You’ve been screaming at night and you attacked me.”
A gasp escaped her throat just before she hit the ground. Huge sobs racked her body as I stood there frozen. I didn’t know what to think of that response. It seemed a gross overreaction.
Unless she knew what was going on.
I knelt down beside her. “Ever.”
She continued to cry, rocking back and forth on her knees with her hands over her face. The sound made me uncomfortable, made my chest tight. I didn’t like it.
“Ever,” I repeated. “Do you know what’s going on?”
She took in desperate gasps of air, lowering her hands from her face.
“It’s . . .” She collapsed into sobs again, falling against me.
I almost pushed her off. No one had used me for comfort, perhaps ever (unless I counted the times my mom leaned on me when she was too high to walk). This was an awkward time for me to start, with her being almost naked and all, but I beat down the urge to nudge her away.