Soren stared down at her with brown eyes that swam in rage, his lips pulled in a tense, grim line. He was holding his breath, just as she was.
He looked the same. Tan. Big-boned. Handsome in a harsh way, the angles of his face just a little too sharp. He held his chin at a condescending tilt. She couldn’t help but compare him to Perry, who never seemed to look down at people despite being much taller.
Soren hadn’t changed except for one significant difference. The set of his jaw was slightly off, and a scar ran through his bronzed skin, from the left corner of his mouth down to his jawbone.
Perry had given him that scar. That night in Ag 6 he had stopped Soren from strangling her. She’d be dead if Soren didn’t have that scar. But she knew he hadn’t been in his right mind. He’d been affected by Degenerative Limbic Syndrome—a brain disease that weakened basic survival instincts. It was the same disease her mother had studied.
“It doesn’t look that bad,” she said. She knew what it was like in Reverie. No one had scars. No one even had scratches. But she couldn’t believe what she was saying. Was she really consoling Soren?
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Not bad? When did you get to be so funny, Aria?”
“Recently, I guess. You know, they’re all scarred on the Outside. You should see this one guy, Reef. He’s got this deep scar across his cheek. It’s like a zipper running through his skin. Yours is … I mean, you can barely see it. ”
Soren narrowed his eyes. “How’d he get it?”
“Reef? He’s a Scire. Those are Outsiders who … never mind. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that someone tried to cut his nose off. ”
Her voice rose at the end, making it sound like a question. She was trying to seem unfazed, but the brutality of the outside world seemed even more pronounced in such an elegant place. Aria studied his scar more closely. “Can’t you get your father to hide that for you in the Realms? Wouldn’t it just be simple programming?”
“I could do it, Aria. I don’t need my father to do anything in here. ” His voice rose almost to a yell. Then he shrugged. “Anyway, why bother? I can’t hide it in the real. Everyone knows I look like this. They know, and they won’t ever unknow it. ”
Soren wasn’t the same at all, she realized. His usual smug expression looked forced, like he was trying too hard to keep it there. She remembered that Bane and Echo—his closest friends—had died in Ag 6 the same night as Paisley.
“I can’t talk about what happened that night, to anyone,” he said. “My father says it would threaten the safety of the Pod. ” He shook his head, pain flitting across his face. “He blames me for what happened. He doesn’t understand. ” Soren looked down at his hand, still gripping the seat beside him. “But you do. You know I didn’t do anything to you on purpose … don’t you?”
Aria crossed her arms. As much as she wanted to blame him for what he’d done to her, she couldn’t. She’d learned about the disease in her mother’s research files. After hundreds of years in the Realms and the safety of the Pod, some people, like Soren, had lost the ability to cope with real pain and stress. He’d behaved the way he had in Ag 6 because of DLS. She understood—but she also couldn’t let him off easy.
“I feel like that was an apology in disguise,” she said.
Soren nodded. “Maybe,” he said, sniffing. “Actually, it was. ”
“Apology accepted. But don’t ever touch me again, Soren. ”
His eyes flicked up, the look in them relieved, vulnerable. “I won’t. ” He straightened and ran a hand over his head. The softness she’d seen vanished, replaced by a smirk. “Did you know not everyone has DLS? I’m part of the crazy group. How’s that for luck? Doesn’t matter. I’m getting the meds. A couple of weeks and I’ll be ready. ”
“What meds? And ready for what?”
“Experimental cures so I won’t go mental again. And immunization to outside diseases. They give them to Guardians who work on external repairs in case their suits rip or break. Once I have them, I’m coming out there. I’m done with this. ”
Aria gaped at him. “Out here? Soren, you have no idea how dangerous it is. It’s not like going to a Safari Realm. ”
“Reverie’s breaking, Aria,” he snapped. “We’re all coming out there sooner or later. ”
“What are you talking about? What’s happening to Reverie?”
“Promise to help me on the Outside and I’ll tell you. ”
Aria shook her head. “I’m not helping—”
“I could show you Caleb and Rune. Even the Savage kid you’re always asking about. ” Suddenly his back straightened. “Gotta go. Time’s up on the scramble. ”
“Wait. What’s wrong with Reverie?”
He grinned, tipping his chin up. “If you want to know, then come back,” he said, and fractioned out.
Aria blinked at the space where he’d been standing, and then at the empty opera hall. An icon flashed up on her Smartscreen, taking the spot next to the one for Hess.
It was the white mask of the Phantom of the Opera.