Cinder was still for a moment. Then he took his cap off and slipped it through his belt. He walked deeper into the cave and turned, facing Perry. The veins at his neck took on the glow of the Aether, which seeped up over his face like water snaking through a dry river. His hands came alive. His eyes became bright blue points in the darkness.
Aether burned in the back of Perry’s nose, and his heart raced. Then, as gradually as it had brightened, the glow in Cinder’s veins faded away, the sting receding, leaving just a boy, standing there again.
Cinder pulled on his cap back, tugging it down and brushing wisps of straw-colored hair away from his eyes. Then he went still and watched Perry for a few moments, his gaze direct and open, before he spoke at last.
“It’s harder to reach it in here,” he said. “I can’t call it as easily as when I’m outside, right under it. ”
Perry moved closer to him, eager to learn what he’d wondered for months. “What does it feel like?”
“Most of the time, like right now, I feel hollow and tired. But when I call it, I feel strong and light. I feel like fire. Like I’m part of everything. ” He scratched his chin. “I can only hold on to it a little while before I have to push it. That’s all I can do is just bring it to me, and then push it away. I’m not very good, though. Where I’m from—Rhapsody—there were kids who were better at it than me. ”
Perry’s heart thudded. Rhapsody was a Pod hundreds of miles away, past Reverie. “You’re a Dweller. ”
Cinder shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t remember much from before I broke out of there. But I guess … I guess I could be. When I met you in the woods and you were with Aria? It didn’t seem like you hated her. That’s why I followed you. I thought maybe you’d be all right with me, too. ”
“You thought right,” Perry said.
“Yeah. ” Cinder smiled, a flash in the dimness that faded quickly.
A hundred questions buzzed Perry’s mind about how Cinder had escaped Rhapsody. About the other kids, who were like him. But he knew to tread lightly. He knew to let Cinder come to him.
“If I could help you with the Aether, I would,” Cinder said, the words sudden and blunt. “But I can’t … I just can’t. ”
“Because it makes you weak afterward?” Perry asked, remembering the way Cinder had suffered after their encounter with the Croven. By calling the Aether, Cinder had destroyed the band of cannibals. He’d saved Perry’s life, and Aria and Roar’s too, but the act had left him cold as ice and drained to the point of unconsciousness.
Cinder looked past him, like he was worried Reef would be there.
“It’s all right,” Perry said. He could trust Reef with secrets—Cinder’s scent probably already had Reef suspicious—but Perry knew Cinder would only be at ease with him. “Reef’s outside, and he’ll stay there. It’s just us. ”
Reassured, Cinder nodded and replied, “Every time, I feel worse afterward. It’s like the Aether takes part of me away with it. I feel like I can barely breathe, it hurts so much. One day it’ll take everything. I know it will. ” He brushed away a tear from his cheek with an angry swipe. “It’s all I have,” he said. “It’s the only thing I can do, and I’m scared of it. ”
Perry exhaled slowly, absorbing the information. Every time Cinder used his power, he gambled with his life. Perry couldn’t ask that of him. It was one thing to take chances with his own life. But he couldn’t put an innocent boy in that position. Not ever.
“You’re well if you don’t use it?” he asked.
Cinder nodded, his eyes downcast.
“Then don’t. Don’t call the Aether. Not for any reason. ”
Cinder peered up. “Does that mean you’re not streaked at me?”
“Because you can’t save the Tides for me?” Perry shook his head. “No. Not at all, Cinder. But you’re wrong about something. The Aether isn’t the only thing you have. You’re part of this tribe now, no different from anyone else. And you’ve got me. All right?”
“All right,” Cinder said, fighting off a smile. “Thanks. ”
Perry thumped him on the shoulder. “Maybe one day you’ll let me borrow your hat, if it’s all right with Willow. ”
Cinder rolled his eyes. “That was … that wasn’t …”
Perry laughed. He knew exactly what it was.
Twig ran up on the trail as they returned to the compound. “Gren is back,” he said, panting for breath. “He’s brought Marron with him. ”
Marron was here? It didn’t make sense. Perry had sent Gren for provisions. He hadn’t expected his friend to deliver them personally.
He stepped into the clearing and saw a filthy, weather-beaten group, roughly thirty in number. Molly and Willow were giving them water, and Gren stood with them, his face tight with worry.
Perry clasped his hand. “Good you’re back. ”