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Subverter – Chapter 1

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Chapter 1 — Reunion

 

It had only been three months since I’d seen him, so I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t recognize him.

My gaze flitted over the rows of shaved heads and green-on-green athletic uniforms lining up in front of us. I searched each stern, unsmiling face, trying desperately to find Damian’s. Finally I saw him, third from the left in the second row, staring straight ahead like the other recruits. Without all his hair he looked so much older. I don’t know if I could say he seemed stronger or tougher or more serious—I’d seen all those qualities in him since the day we returned from Arah Byen. He’d seen the face of war, and it had never left him. Somehow I’d always known he would end up in the military.

Maggie and my best friend Darcy crowded close beside me, almost making me deaf with their cheers and whistles. While me…I couldn’t seem to find my voice. I’d gotten over the whole crying thing a year ago, but this scene was seriously threatening to break my record.

Finally everyone fell silent to listen as someone who looked important started talking about how he had turned these recruits into Marines.

The platoon was called to attention.

I thought my ears would burst with all the screams, and I was pretty sure my heart had burst with pride. It seems lame to say it, but it’s true. You can’t really prepare for something like that, or describe it when it happens. Vaguely I felt Darcy shaking me, heard Mom asking if I’d seen him. Saying how strong he looked. I watched, strangely numb, as the platoon turned and jogged off to finish their motivational run.

The next few hours passed in a blur. We were herded from one place to the next, ending up on bleachers to watch the parade. Finally my excitement caught up with me. I counted minutes until I could finally hug him, talk to him, ask him how he was. Tell him how proud I was. Tell him how much I’d missed him. God, I’d really missed him.

The platoons reappeared, marching now, wearing their cammies. The military band blared a suitably martial song. I didn’t pay any attention to the things that were said, the words of advice for families, instructions to the recruits. I just kept my gaze fixed on the platoon. Then, abruptly, everything dissolved into a chaos of activity. The platoons broke up, the people in the stands were cheering, shouting, and clapping, shoving past and trying to track down loved ones. I stood close to Darcy to avoid being trampled as I watched the recruits milling around below.

“Go find Damian,” Mom said, shoving us gently. “We’ll wait here. Better not make everyone crowd down there.”

Darcy grabbed my arm and hauled me forward before I could even consider the suggestion. We edged through the herds of people, sidestepping enthusiastic hugs and screaming mothers. Where was Damian? I could’ve sworn I’d just seen him near his platoon, but with the forest of people around me, most of them significantly taller than me, I’d lost him.

“Mer!”

I spun around. Damian appeared through a chasm in the crowd, pushing his way toward me, his face one huge smile. I barreled toward him and threw my arms around his neck. He lifted me clear off the ground in his enthusiastic hug. I didn’t want to let go of him. For the first time in months I felt like a whole person again. But Damian released me after a moment, gazing down at me with a strange, almost sad smile on his face.

Okay, he had changed. He’d changed a lot.

I took half a step back, studying him as if he were some strange exhibit in a museum. My mind couldn’t quite process it all. I didn’t know what to think, what to feel. I wondered if I’d changed as much. Everyone told me I had, since I’d come back from Arah Byen a year ago. I’d lost friends over it, friends who couldn’t understand why I was so much more serious, so much more distant than I’d been a few months before. The friends who had stayed friends didn’t understand the change either, as Darcy always reminded me, but they stood by me anyway.

And while Damian had come back knowing exactly who he was and what he wanted to be, all I seemed to understand was who I wasn’t, what I didn’t want to be. Somehow I’d muddled through senior year, at some point applying for my dad’s university and getting accepted. Now I had a shiny schedule of classes all set to start in a few days, and I hardly cared. All I really wanted was to go back to Arah Byen, but that option simply wasn’t one. Besides, the only person I wanted to go back for wasn’t there anymore, either. I had nothing. My heart was torn between two worlds, belonging to neither, with no place in either. An exile, still.

I envied Damian his certainty.

He was hugging Darcy now, grinning at me sidelong as she squeezed him tight, her cheeks bright red against her golden hair. She’d always had a thing for him. Apparently he didn’t mind. Past Damian I saw my parents and Maggie coming toward us, too impatient to wait for us to bring him to them. My mom reached us first, and Damian stooped to receive her proud hug. She clung to him with tears in her eyes, and after a moment I realized he wasn’t just tolerating it. He hung on to her with the same fierce emotion, brows knotted and eyes squeezed shut.

“You must be so proud of yourself,” Mom murmured, patting him on the back.

He lifted a hand to his eyes, while I stared disbelieving. Half of me wanted to look away, but part of me just wanted to console him. I wondered if I would ever really be able to understand, or share, what he’d been through those three months.

I watched him pull himself together, extract himself from Mom’s hug, and turn to Dad and Maggie. Maggie rubbed his shaved head and said something teasing, but Dad just clasped his hand, met his gaze firmly, then embraced him without any words at all. That was so like Dad. He was never one for words when silence could speak just as clearly.

Damian turned away a split second, dashing his hands across his eyes again. I could tell he was trying not to show it, but he failed miserably. We all pretended not to notice.

“Where’s Tony?” he asked, voice husky, as he turned back around.

And that was the question I’d really hoped he wouldn’t ask. Mom smiled at him, sadly, taking hold of one of his strong arms.

“He couldn’t make it, Damian. He sends you his best, though. Wishes he could be here.”

I wondered if Damian could tell it wasn’t true. Poor Mom. I knew from the sincerity in her voice that she desperately wanted it to be true. Tony hadn’t been the same either, since Dad returned with me and Damian last summer. We’d never really been able to explain to him and Maggie where we’d been, or where Dad had been all those years. It wasn’t the sort of thing that could just be casually explained and then forgotten. So Tony’s response was to distance himself from the family.

Damian had seen it happen all through our senior year of high school — how Tony got more absorbed in his studies, spending more time away, avoiding more family gatherings. Since Damian had joined the Corps, I’d only seen Tony once, and that by chance in the university library. He hadn’t said a word to me.

I could tell Damian had been hoping that things had improved. Mom didn’t fool him, though — I could tell by the sadness in his eyes. But he didn’t say anything to upset her. He just returned her smile and nodded.

“So what should we do now?” Maggie asked.

Damian suddenly spun around, scanning the crowds. After a moment he stopped searching and beckoned to whoever he had located.

“Mom, do you guys mind if a friend of mine comes with us? He doesn’t have anyone here with him.”

My mom’s mouth dropped open with complete horror. “What, no family? No friends?”

“Family’s not on good terms,” Damian said. “It’d mean a lot to him. And to me. He’s like a brother.”

The word held the very faintest touch of venom. I thought of our absent brother, then pushed the thought away. Tony wasn’t going to spoil this for us. After a moment I realized that everyone was nodding approval, but Damian’s gaze was fixed on me. I smiled and shrugged, the best affirmation I could give. I couldn’t really say no. I couldn’t be that heartless.

I watched Damian’s friend stride toward us, and Darcy gave me a significant jab in the ribs. My heart sank, just a little. He was tall, well-built like all of the recruits, at least as far as I could tell through the bulk of his cammies. Good-looking, I had to give him that. Why did he have to be good-looking? He carried himself just like a Marine, hands clasped behind his back, head high, but there was a huge, silly grin on his face. His dark eyes flitted over our little group, and the smile got a little bigger when his gaze fell on me. I blushed and stared at the ground.

“Guys, this is Eduardo Garcia. Eddie, my fam.”

He introduced us each in turn. As soon we’d all been identified, my mom seized Eduardo in a warm hug.

“We are so proud of you,” she said warmly, as if she’d adopted him then and there.

My dad shook his hand and gripped his shoulder, then Maggie gave him a hug too.

Fantastic. Thank you, Mom and sis, for setting a precedent I’m going to have to follow. 

Still, my heart went out to Eddie. No one should have to face graduation all alone, without anyone to cheer you on, to tell you they were proud of you. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. And from the way his grin had gotten even bigger than ever I could tell that their hugs meant the world to him.

He turned to me. Damian was watching me too, expectant. Better and better — apparently my brother had joined the conspiracy against me. I sighed, just a little, and opened my arms. I gave an unintentional gasp of surprise as Eddie practically threw himself into my hug, squeezing me tight like I was a long-lost best friend or a long-absent girlfriend. Yuck.

In some corner of my mind, I remembered the last guy — not related to me — I’d let hold me like that. Yatol. I could still feel his arms tight around me. Hear his words creeping back into my memory:

“I would go anywhere for you.”

“I stood at the gates of Hell for you.”

I jerked away from Eduardo, heart hammering. Oh God, I’d heard him. Heard his voice, right there. Right behind me. I swung around, scanning the mass of humanity, but I only saw crowds of families, friends, and young recruits. I realized I was shaking, then after a moment I noticed everyone in my group was staring at me, puzzled. I tried not to look at Eddie, but out of the corner of my eye I saw him with his hands still extended, his face a perfect mixture of confusion and embarrassment.

Damian touched my arm. I hadn’t even seen him come up beside me.

“Um, Mer, what’s the problem?” he said in a low undertone. “It won’t kill you to hug Eddie, you know.”

I couldn’t find my voice. Suddenly Damian pulled his hand away from my arm, studying me now in genuine concern.

“You’re cold as ice and shaking. You okay?”

I instinctively clasped my hands on my upper arms, self-conscious with everyone still watching me.

“Nothing. Sorry, D. I’m okay. I didn’t mean anything by it, just…got a funny feeling all of a sudden.” I had to do something to salvage the situation with Eduardo, at least for Damian’s sake. I racked my thoughts for something to say, then settled on the truth. “I’m sorry, Eddie. I just thought I heard someone call me, and I freaked out. Not so pleasant memories, you know.”

Eddie relaxed, but instead of grinning and waving it off like I expected, his confused expression dissolved into concern, and he hugged me again.

He rattled off a stream of Spanish that I only half-understood — and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to understand the other half — and finally ended in English, “You let me know if anyone here is bothering you, and I’ll take care of it, right? Me and Damian, we got you covered. No worries, okay?”

I hid a grimace behind a smile and nodded. Sometimes I didn’t understand myself. If I’d been any other girl, I would have been in absolute heaven at getting this kind of attention from this kind of guy. Suave, hot, fit, my twin’s best friend — what wasn’t to love? I could feel Darcy’s accusing gaze, wondering the same thing. So why didn’t I seem to get it? I couldn’t help pulling away, at least on the inside. Anything less felt like I was betraying Yatol. All of my sane, mature, practical self was screaming at me to move on, to get over it, to let the past die, but I just couldn’t do it.

My gaze roved one last, desperate time over the people. I’d heard his voice, as clearly in my ear as if heユd been standing beside me — not the vague, quiet, internal voice of memories and dreams. But it wasn’t possible. My throat burned and I struggled to push back the rising knot of tears. I wanted it to be possible. It was all I really wanted.

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