Fighting is the best way I know to turn a cadet into a killer.
You can give cadets guns, but all the target practice in the world can’t make them bent on survival the way a fight can. To hone that killer instinct and reprogram years of good behavior, you’ve got to get cadets in the ring and make them fight their way out.
There’s something about the smell of sweat and feeling the power in your fists that unleashes the monster inside. That’s what we’re working toward, at least.
“Concentrate, Harper!” I yell, smacking my gloves together. The sound reverberates along the cinderblock walls and sounds harsher than I intended.
She had just dropped her hands, and I had sunk my hook right into her jaw.
“I am!” she growls around her mouth guard, shaking her head and rolling back into her fighting stance.
I’m holding back, but I shouldn’t be. Still, it makes me feel like shit when Harper shrinks back, reeling from my punch. I feel like shit around Harper most of the time these days.
We’ve been at this for hours, sweating in the dingy training center while the heavy bags stand guard along the wall. Even the gym rats abandoned the weight benches and the track an hour ago. Now the training center just smells like stale sweat mixed with bleach.
“Keep your hands up,” I remind her.
“Yeah, yeah,” she mutters, faking a jab and coming in with a cross.
It’s pretty fast, but she overuses that combo. I block her easily and drive her back across the mat.
“You’ve done that a hundred times already. Try something else.”
Two weeks ago, I might have let her have that one, but we don’t have time for any more confidence-building bullshit.
I only have two days left before she’s sent out to the Fringe. She’s dynamite on the simulation course, and all her tracking and navigation skills are right where they should be, but the fear and desperation in her eyes has become more pronounced with every passing day.
I need her to snap out of it. I can’t take her into a war zone scared shitless. That’s when cadets freeze and forget everything they learned.
Harper was born tough, but that’s not going to be enough on the Fringe. When it’s you or the drifters out there, you have to be prepared to pick yourself every time — even when that means hurting someone else. You can’t just run away. Sometimes, you have to stand and fight.
That’s why I’ve been pushing her around the ring all day: I need her to switch to offense.
“You’re thinking too much,” I say. “Don’t think. Just react.”
I misdirect my jab and then throw a cross and a hook to the body. She slips and absorbs the worst of my hook with her arm, but she steps right into my uppercut. I wince as my glove glances off her chin.
“Son of a bitch!” she yells, staggering backward.
“Fight, Riley! Come on!” I yell. “You’re better than this!”
That pisses her off, which is exactly what I need. But I’m unprepared for the animalistic yell that bursts out of her throat.
Without warning, Harper launches herself across the mat and swings a wild overhand right. I block it automatically, but she doesn’t use one of the combinations we’ve worked into muscle memory. She’s going off book.
I don’t have time to block her double jab to the nose, and she doesn’t stop when I cover up. Her long dark ponytail flies back like a whip, and she unleashes a wild storm of punches to my head and body. The fighter in me is screaming to shut her down, but I just keep my gloves up and let her hit me.
She’s angry, which is good. At least anger I can understand. It’s been my primary emotion lately. Harper needs this. Hell, I need this. It feels like penance.
By the time she tires herself out, my arms and sides are throbbing. Her shoulders sag, and she drops her hands.
“You done?” I ask, a little afraid to drop my guard. After how much I’ve yelled at her over the last two weeks, I wouldn’t put it past her to break my nose.
I drop my gloves and bend my head to look into those startling gray eyes. “Where was that an hour ago?”
She shrugs, and her lower lip juts out in a rigid scowl.
“That’s the aggression you need to neutralize a threat.” I lower my voice, deadly serious. “Do whatever you have to do to end them and get out.”
She swallows and nods. The silence stretches between us. I can tell she’s hurting, but Harper tries to kill her vulnerability with anger and aggression.
Still, the look on her face reminds me so much of that night on the observation deck that it hurts. She kissed me, and I pushed her away. I can’t get involved with a cadet, but I’ve regretted it ever since.
Harper worked hard to trust me after I destroyed the case Constance built to frame her for Sullivan Taylor’s murder. Little by little, she managed to chip away at my asshole persona, but I destroyed it in one night.
That’s what happens when you fake it for so long: You become that person.
“Your punches are getting stronger,” I say, desperate to break the silence. “And your shooting’s coming along. You know everything we cover in training for a first-year cadet. I think you’ll be okay.”
She lets out a harsh laugh. “You must be relieved.”
I stare at her, put off by her sudden change in tone. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“No! If you have something to say, say it.”
“It’s nothing. You did everything you could, okay? You won’t have the death of another cadet on your hands.”
“Is that what you think?” I ask in disbelief.
“Why else would you be training me?”
“I’m training you so you have a shot at living!”
“What about the other cadets? They’re going to be deployed soon, too.”
“The other cadets don’t have a hit out on them,” I say, trying to rein in my temper.
“Whatever. That’s not why you’re doing this.”
I roll my eyes. She is something else. “Really? Okay. Well if you know so much about me, tell me why you think I’m wasting my time on Recon’s most annoying cadet.”
“I don’t know, Eli.”
“No, no. You obviously have an opinion, so . . .”
“You’re just training me so you won’t have to live with the guilt!”
Rage flares through me, burning its way up my chest. I take a step toward her, backing her up against the wall.
“So I won’t have to live with the guilt?” I repeat incredulously. “I live with the guilt every fucking day!”
“I know!” she yells. “If I get killed out there, you’ll feel responsible. You think it’s your fault I’m here. You carry around every death like it’s your personal debt to pay. But that’s your shit, Eli. Nobody’s making you do this.”
The look on her face makes me feel sick to my stomach. She really thinks I don’t care about her, and I have nobody to blame but myself.
But in two days, it won’t matter. We’ll have to operate as a unit, and I can’t leave this festering between us.
I take a deep breath, trying to force myself to speak calmly. “You’re right. Nobody’s making me do this. I do this so I can sleep at night. And if you live long enough to train cadets yourself, you’ll understand. Taking away the blame doesn’t make it any less shitty when one of the kids you’re responsible for is shot in the head right in front of you.
“I’m sorry about what happened the other night, but you need to get your shit together. It’s not just your ass that’s on the line, you know. I need you watching my back, not moping around trying to figure out a way to get back at me. That sort of thinking is going to get us both killed.”
Her eyes grow wide, and a dark flush starts to spread up her neck. I know she hadn’t been thinking about her role in all this — what I was risking by going out there with her.
Not like it matters. Constance is trying to get rid of me, too.
When the founders first built the compound, they created the secret espionage unit and spread those people out among all the sections. They wrote Constance a blank check to preserve the human race — even if that meant sending those with bad genes out into the Fringe to die early.
Unfortunately, the only person we know for sure is working for them is Jayden, and she knows I know the truth.
If word spread that the VocAps scores were rigged and that Constance had Sullivan Taylor killed, people would riot. Now Jayden is trying to tie up loose ends by sending me and Harper right into a hot zone of drifters.
The realization that we’re both screwed takes the fight right out of Harper. I’m simultaneously relieved and disappointed.
I love it when she gets all riled up. It reminds me of that night in my room. It’s not the same look she had the night she kissed me for real, but I know I’ll never see that look again.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbles. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“I’ve been training hard.”
“I’m not going to be dead weight out there. I swear.”
I nod, fighting every urge to reach out for her. I hate yelling at Harper.
“I’ve just been really distracted, and I feel like things won’t ever be the same.”
Now there’s the understatement of the century.
I sigh. “You don’t have to be embarrassed about that.”
Oh shit. She wasn’t talking about the kiss.
“You think I’m distracted because I . . .”
Her face bleeds into a deeper shade of crimson, and I grapple for some way to salvage the conversation.
“No, I —”
“I’m distracted because I’m going to be dead soon, you idiot.”
“Sorry! I shouldn’t have assumed that’s what you were saying.”
I can’t backtrack quickly enough, and I briefly wonder when she stopped calling me “sir” and started calling me an idiot.
“Oh, really?” she yells, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “You shouldn’t have assumed that my death would overshadow me feeding your enormous ego?”
“Sorry! I’m sorry, okay? That was a bad night for both of us.”
I have no idea how I always manage to say the exact wrong thing, but Harper has an almost supernatural ability to make me act like a moron. Her eyes are the only part of her expression that indicates her rage has gone from mildly out of control to deadly.
I’ve only seen that look once — right before she punched Jacob Morsey in the face. But that realization comes too late.
Her fist flies out so fast my first instinct is to be impressed by her speed and power. That’s right before I hear the slight crunch of cartilage and feel the crushing pain radiating from the bridge of my nose.
“I’m sorry it was so terrible for you!”
For a second, I just stare at her in disbelief. Then my eyes start to water from the blow, and I feel the hot drip of blood gushing down my face. Harper chucks her gloves at my head and then turns on her heel and storms out of the training center.
I cup my gloved hand over my nose and slide down the grimy wall. I definitely deserved that, and part of me was prepared for it when I threw her in the ring.
Still, I know that outburst won’t be enough to dampen all the pent-up aggression Harper is dying to unleash.
Nudging my nose, I suddenly wonder if volunteering to go out on her first deployment was a mistake. Venturing out into the desert with someone who wants to kill me certainly isn’t the brightest move. And with an arm like that, Harper might be more dangerous than the drifters.