I could scarcely breathe. Weight pressed down onto my chest, constricting my breathing. The smell of smoke overtook my senses as did the heat, disorienting me.
With a pang, I realized that I’d been a fool. I’d attempted to open a box with a bomb in it. Not my finest moment. Having been so preoccupied, I’d missed the obvious and was lucky to be alive.
The Forge must’ve planted it to attack the club. The blast had gone off just as Kit had thrown us down. The question was what’d happened to him. Trying to move my arms to see if I could locate him, I quickly realized with alarm what was pressing me down.
My eyes flashed open as I found his body covering mine, chest to chest and his head tucked in next to my ear. He grunted as I moved, his breath ragged. “Kit?”
“Don’t move,” he muttered, sounding pained. “We’re trapped under the rubble and it could still crash down on us. Got lucky and the desk shielded us from the blast. Are you all right?”
“There’s something wet leaking, so a pipe must’ve been hit next to us,” I muttered, going still. Other than my right leg being strangely numb, everything else seemed fine. I couldn’t see whatever was on top of us. With no light, I could only assume the club had been destroyed.
“That’s not water, chica,” he choked out, voice strained.
Fear flooded through me, realizing that the liquid beneath my fingers had a sticky quality. And it was seeping down from above, over my legs. “Blood,” I whispered, realizing that he’d taken the worst of the blast to protect me. “How bad are you hurt?”
“Not mortally, but it’s no flesh wound either,” he replied, voice tightening. “Just do me a favor and keep talking. Distract me. I get claustrophobic and being boxed in is doing me no favors.”
Anything for him since he’d sacrificed himself. My hand found his near mine and I intertwined my fingers with his, unable to comfort him otherwise. “You saved me again.”
His fingers twitched in my grip. “We’re just lucky you heard the beeping or we’d be…”
I swallowed hard, though soothed by his presence. His heart was beating wildly through his chest, the rhythm quickening against my skin. “Where are you hurt?”
“Shrapnel in my back and legs. Blood loss is the danger.” As I went to call out for help, he muttered, “Don’t bother. I tried for twenty minutes while you were out. No one heard. If you’re claustrophobic, too-“
“No. Just need to get you help,” I said, slowly turning my head slightly to the side to see him. I could barely see the side of his face in the gloom. “Could the Lynx have planted the bomb? He was here.“
“No. He would never… That much I know,” he huffed out with hesitation, shuddering against me. “If he’d known, he’d have alerted security, despite having to hand himself over to do so. So you’re engaged to Yaron?”
It was my turn to stifle a shudder as he changed the subject. If he knew the news, it must’ve been circulating around the club for all to hear. “Bastard ordered I strip down so he could ‘inspect me’ before the marriage.”
A curse, one so ugly that I shivered, sounded in my ear, Kit continuing to sputter off profanities in Spanish at the mere idea. Not wanting to discuss it further, I changed the subject for a second time. “How did you get your name, Kit?”
Despite the dire state of our situation, he still giggled faintly. “When I was little, my ears and feet were too big for me, so a bully teased I looked like a caracal kit. So I took ownership of the nickname on my terms.” His head turned ever so slightly toward me as if to monitor my reaction. “And you? What was your childhood like?”
“I was always so skinny that Auntie Lola would joke I was like a skeleton,” I confessed, smiling at the memory. “When El Dia de Los Muertos would roll around every year, she’d paint my face to celebrate even though we weren’t allowed to join directly in the celebrations.”
As a child I’d watch everyone heading to the cemetery, wondering what it’d be like. Families would gather by the hundreds to honor their ancestors. The memories were like a beacon to me, leading back to a happier time. A time when I’d been happily ignorant to the suffering around me. The only time I felt loved.
I sighed heavily. “Sometimes I wonder if she was right about me, though. Maybe I am a skeleton. With the way I live my life, I certainly feel dead sometimes. Muerta.”
Dead. A skeleton of what I’d been before her death. All the joy in my life vanished along with her spirit the day of her murder. Ever since I’d felt like I had no identity or purpose. I longed to feel like I made a difference again; even just for one person. For someone to feel like I made a difference for them.
“But despite it all, you make me feel alive, too, Kit,” I admitted, echoing what he’d said the night previous. Especially with the revelation the Lynx had brought me, though I didn’t dare tell Kit that yet. “More alive than I’ve felt in years.” Silence fell as I waited for his reply. No response came. “Kit?”
With a jolt, I realized that his breathing was growing shallower. While I’d been reminiscing, he’d slipped into unconsciousness. Giving in to my panic, I screamed out, “Help! Somebody get us out of here!”
For the next few minutes, I kept screaming until my voice was hoarse. With every second, Kit slipped toward the very precipice I had been talking about: death. The sticky wetness under me was growing. And I couldn’t handle the idea of anyone else dying for me. Especially not him. I couldn’t lose him.
If I hadn’t been pinned flat and our survival hinging on my screaming, I’d have been clinging to him and begging him to come back to me. The only sanity left to me was the fact I could feel him breathing against me. If he stopped, there was nothing I could do to resuscitate him. With me immobilized, there was no way to do CPR.
As I hit a particularly shrill pitch, I paused as I heard muffled movement from our left. The sound of voices reached my ears, telling me that help was close by.
“Aiyla?!” Teagan’s voice roared back, the rubble shifting slightly. “Keep yelling! We’re trying to get to you. Don’t stop!”
“Kit’s here – he’s bleeding and –“
I cringed as the rubble started to move over us, expecting it to crash down further. Instead, warm light blinded me as the ruins of the metal desk toppled away, revealing Teagan. Bloodied with his clothes torn but otherwise okay, he stooped down to us.
“I’ve got her,” he yelled back to whomever else was searching.
“We’ll get him help,” Teagan assured me, two other men in search and rescue gear coming into my view. As they carefully lifted Kit from the wreckage, my breath caught in my throat.
Kit had lied; hiding just how grievous his wounds were to keep me calm. Burns covered his whole back and glass was embedded everywhere from his neck down. Shards stuck up at odd angles; blood coagulated around the edges like mottled, burgundy stained glass.
All just to shield me.
I sat up to follow him and looked down as I felt a resistance. Once freed, I discovered why my right leg was so oddly numb. A heavy metal pole sat atop my thigh, likely having cut off circulation while I’d been unconscious. And that’d been a mercy unto itself. The ankle was swollen and bleeding, glass embedded in my calf above it.
Once Kit was in the hands of the other rescuers, Teagan stooped down to me and pried the metal pole away from my leg. As he did, the feeling flooded back into it. Gritting my teeth as the pain came to me, I reached out to him.
Ignoring my hand, he scooped me up in his arms to lift me free. “I’ve got you,” he murmured to me, carrying me with ease over the smoking and, in many cases, still burning piles of wreckage. Despite the urgency of the situation, he surprised me entirely by pressing a kiss to my forehead. There were tears in his eyes as he added, “Thank God you’re alive…”
Unable to bear the sight of the rubble and the many bodies I saw as he carried me, I kept my eyes firmly on Kit as he was transported out ahead of us. Still, my breath was robbed from my lungs as I realized that the entire club had been wrecked.
It was a miracle that I’d survived at all. Kit and I’d been insanely lucky to have been where we were. The rest of the building had collapsed, rubble exploding out and tearing into several surrounding buildings around it. We’d been under a section of the building where there was only one story. Others had been four stories high and all of it’d been brought down on those who’d been inside.
The carnage was inescapable, especially as I realized that there must’ve been multiple bombs in the building. Several of the bodies had been decimated entirely, burned beyond recognition. Others had been torn apart by the blast and others crushed.
A tremor wracked my body as I saw flashing lights and police vehicles on all sides, a news helicopter hovering overhead.
“How many?” I croaked, wrapping my arms around his neck.
“Unknown yet, but no small number. Elena got out already,” Teagan said to me, keeping his eyes on the unsteady pieces of concrete he walked over to get us clear. “As did Yaron.”
As soon as we were over the last piece and on the ground, he jogged over to the nearest ambulance. As Kit was placed on a stretcher inside, Teagan gently placed me on the adjacent bench seat in the ambulance. Space must’ve been scarce, seeing that all the other ambulances were full.
Looking up, I saw Haynesworth running toward us after getting out of a police cruiser. He was donned in riot gear, his command of officers pulling up behind him with sirens blaring. An armored SWAT team truck roared down the street behind it, coming to a halt.
He hurried to the back of the ambulance. “Get her to the hospital,” he ordered the EMTs, anger coloring his tone and he looked between me and the scene he’d just pulled up to. “We-“
Screams erupted on all sides as machine gunfire sounded, peppering the police cars with bullets. Haynesworth dove for the pavement as Teagan slammed the ambulance door shut, keeping the deadly hail out.
“Drive!” he bellowed, drawing his own weapon as the EMTs scrambled to do their jobs, the driver trying unsuccessfully to get out of the line of fire.
As a bullet pierced one of the side windows, I made the smart decision and dove for the floor. A wave of pain shrieked through my ankle, but I didn’t care as I searched for the holster I kept hidden under my dress. Before I could get to it, the ambulance screeched out of the space and zoomed for the end of the block.
“Turning into a fucking war zone out here,” one of the EMTs muttered, trying to tend to Kit as the vehicle bounced along.
“What the hell is going on?!” Teagan bellowed back, hovering over me and looking out the windows.
“This wasn’t the only location hit,” the driver called back, swerving around obstacles. “Attacks are progressing all around the city, some in the center of protest zones. People are rioting and panicking amidst it all, blocking the streets. Seems that the Forge was among the demonstrations and infiltrated them to plant bombs. Dozens of improvised weapons have gone off-”
“Shit!” Teagan roared, refusing my gun as I offered it to him. “Damn it to hell! I told them we shouldn’t leave the mansion!“
I just shook as I looked out the window, seeing bullet-riddled windows and police cars heading back the way we’d come. Water mains were blown and water was skiting toward the sky. Street by street was in shambles, people rushing about and trying to take cover.
Plain as day, I knew without asking what was going on. All I could do was hold Kit’s hand from below, trying not to give in to my fear.
The Forge had coordinated a citywide attack to begin an assault on the strongholds of the Hacienda. And they’d left the citizens of the city square in the middle, not caring who was harmed in the crossfire. From here on out, the day was only going to get worse. If they’d gotten this far, this wouldn’t be the first strike.
The city of Dejado Atras was under siege.
We were now at war.
And there was no definitive side for me to stand on.