“Your Rating is wrong,” Vance said. “Their precious Rating system says absolutely nothing about you and what you’re capable of.”
I shook my head. “So far, everything I’ve done has proven my number absolutely correct.”
“Treena.” His tone softened. “I don’t know why you that happened to you. But I do know one thing.” He stopped on the step below me, and I whirled to face him. We were the same height now, and his expression was fierce. “You are the most loyal, the most determined, and the most fascinating girl I’ve ever met. No number could ever describe you.”
The deadness inside cracked, and the pain came flooding back. I felt like a five-year-old again. Falling, grasping for a handhold, for something to save me. “It doesn’t matter now. Tali's dead.”
He gave me a long look. Then he sat down, right on the steps, easing me down next to him. I lay my head on his shoulder and let him pull me close. The warmth of his embrace felt completely and utterly right. For a long moment, I allowed myself to forget about the past few days. There was no empress, no punishment mode, and no mission. There was just us. The world was cool and dark, and his touch sent my heart pumping as if it had just awakened from hibernation.
“Dying isn't the worst thing to happen to someone,” he continued thoughtfully. “Anyone coward can die. The hardest thing is being left behind, trying to make sense of a world without them.”
I tilted my head back and allowed myself to look up into Vance’s eyes. They were dark, pulling, as if absorbing all the light that entered, saving it for some future purpose. His eyebrows were choppy, untrimmed, and his lips chapped. But somehow, it worked. It was simply . . . him. No surgeries, no tallies of volunteer hours and checklists. Vance just took life one day at a time, keeping his family safe, trying to put the pieces of himself back together. I could see it, the pain in his heart. It was something we shared now.
A warm feeling spread through my chest until I thought it would burst. This was who he really was. The tumultuous battle within him seemed to have trickled away, leaving one gallant, vulnerable boy. A boy who was looking at me as if I were something precious—who looked at me, instead of at my Rating. His eyes flitted between mine, his confidence replaced with uncertainty.
“It feels good to finally choose sides, doesn’t it?”
“Whose side are you on, then?”
His chin was just above mine, and he lowered it until our eyes were level. Then his hand tilted my chin upward toward his. His fingers brushed the side of my face, cradling it gently in his firm hand. I felt his breath on my face, felt the battle within him as well as I felt it in myself. But something pulled me toward him.
“Yours,” he said. He closed the distance between us, slowly, then paused.
And our lips met.
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