FIVE MONTHS LATER
The wind whipped around me as I headed to my next class, matching the permanent frenzy left in my brain after that fateful night.
The soldiers had taken me to the mainland. I’d sat huddled in the front of the boat, wrapped in a coarse blanket I’d been given, staring into the nothingness as the ocean spray licked at my skin.
They’d taken me to Fervian City. And I’d fallen apart on the shoreline the moment we’d landed, screaming and crying because just hearing the name of the city reminded me of Hendrix. I’d been taken to one of the government shelters for the night, and then a government-sanctioned therapist had arrived the next morning.
“Tell me about your pack,” she said sympathetically as I sat in the overstuffed armchair across from her.
“Why does it matter? They’re gone,” I whispered.
“I’ve heard rumors that you were taken from your original pack by the Khan pack.”
My eyes snapped to hers. She was doing her best to look sympathetic, but I could see the hardness in her gaze. This was just a job to her. She didn’t care.
“I wasn’t taken. I was sold to them,” I murmured, even while I knew it was a little bit of both as I thought about that first meeting with Hendrix in the middle of the night in my room.
“Your alpha in the Hallow Sector was murdered. Did you hear about that?”
I wasn’t surprised. He’d been asking for it. Especially with everything his son had ended up being involved in. His biggest mistake had been his desperation to protect Brayden at all costs.
“I didn’t,” I finally answered, belatedly realizing how long it had taken me to answer.
“You don’t have to protect them anymore, you know. They’re gone now. They can’t hurt you.”
I didn’t know why my first instinct was to protect them and say they wouldn’t hurt me, because obviously, the past showed that they had. “Can you tell me where their compound is? They’ve stolen a lot of things from a lot of people.”
“I don’t know,” I answered coldly.
Her lips pursed in frustration. “You’re suffering from what’s called Stockholm Syndrome, Emersyn. I know you feel like they're important to you. But they aren’t. They were bad men. The worst kind. The world is better off without them.”
I was numb, her words doing nothing to penetrate the sorrow embedded in my skin.
“Emersyn,” she snapped, losing patience with me.
“I don’t know anything,” I responded, staring at the floor.
She stood up and came to sit next to me in the other armchair. “We want to help you. We’re the good guys. You’ve been given another chance in life.” She was trying to be charming, but I didn’t think there was anything she could say that would actually stand a chance of getting through to me.
When that didn’t work, she tried the silent treatment. She just stared at me for what felt like an hour, waiting for me to crack.
What she didn’t realize was that I was already cracked. I’d never been whole to begin with, thanks to my father, but with everything that had happened since that point, the cracks had only deepened. There wasn’t anything left for her to break.
Someone called out loudly to a friend, and I glanced around the college campus where I ate, breathed, and slept. I guess it was generous of the government to send me to Fervian University instead of Reject Island, all on their dime, but it had been a rough adjustment. I’d been holding out hope that news would come in that they had been found alive. But anytime I asked the government agents that had been assigned to me, the answers were always the same. There were no survivors. I’d finally stopped asking last month. That was progress…right?
At first, Fervian University made me think of Caspian surprising me with the news that I’d gotten into Shifter Falls University, which only made me more depressed. But then it was catching up in school when I only had a sixth-grade education and the random books I’d read as my background. It was feeling out of place and everything somehow reminded me of them. It was getting calls from the therapist every week to see if I’d decided to open up more about my time with the Khan pack.
It had taken me a while to open up and actually talk to people, and I still felt like I was just going through the motions. I didn’t have the happy background that most of the people around me did. I’d never been able to laugh as freely, to dream as freely, to live as freely. I felt like I was playing a part. A part where I smiled on command and gave robotic responses to try and fit in with the normal people that surrounded me every day.
I wondered if my whole life would feel that way after everything I’d been through.
“Hey girlie! How are you today?” my friend Kelly asked. Or I guess she was my friend. Could you call someone a friend if they knew nothing about you? She was one of the happy people that I had nothing in common with, but she was genuinely kind, and she’d stuck around the last few months, even when I’d given her very little to work with. She was in half of my classes as well, and she had tons of friends. So it had been nice to have a study group to work with without having to find one myself.
“I finished my assignment last night for Taylor’s class,” I responded with what I hoped passed for a smile. “So I’m doing much better than I was last night when I hadn’t written a word.”
“Pff. He has the biggest crush on you. He’d give you an A even if you wrote ‘Professor Taylor is an idiot’ five hundred times and turned it in.”
I shifted uncomfortably and forced out a laugh. “Right.”
Professor Taylor did have a crush on me. He was the youngest professor at the school and objectively attractive. His classes were always full of girls, all trying to get his attention. If I was normal, his charming smile might have done something to me.
But every time he flirted with me, or asked me to stay after class so he could talk to me about my assignment…aka what my plans were for the weekend, I didn’t feel anything.
Sometimes I wondered if I was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, because at night I would see them. I would see Hendrix’s light blue eyes. I would run my hands through his messy locks. I would feel River’s hands stroking my skin. I would hear Caspian’s laugh. All night I’d be haunted in my dreams with them.
And when I woke up, I was always alone.
I glanced at Kelly, realizing that I’d been lost in my thoughts…once again.
“Sorry,” I said apologetically. “What were you saying?”
“I was asking if you’d come out with us on Friday.”
“Oh, dangit. I have a study group that night,” I automatically lied.
“Syn,” she chastised. “You always say that.”
“I’m so behind everyone.”