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Gauntlet: Chapter 7

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #007 back issue.

It was strange what a few weeks’ difference made. Everyone Clio came across seemed to know her now, if only by sight. They paid her a subtle deference that she could only attribute to her closeness to August.

It made her feel a little weird, especially when someone would ask her to pass on a message for them, as if they were asking a great favor. At least there had been no more outright hostility. She hadn’t seen Angela for days, and everyone else was distantly friendly.

Well, except for Chance. He was as blunt as ever, which was almost a relief, honestly. He reminded her a little of Britt.

Sunshine, of course, never spoke to her at all. She had no idea how he felt about her, despite how often she was in his company. He was like some bizarre appendage of August, which almost made it like she was dating him, too.

Maybe dating wasn’t the right word, exactly. They couldn’t go out to the movies or anything, but they were together. Everyone certainly saw them that way. Clio had all but given up her room to sleep with August in his. So far that was all they’d done; well, mostly all they’d done, but things were definitely leading up to more.

She smiled without realizing it, suppressing any other reaction to the warm tingle in her stomach that made her want to hug herself in self-conscious embarrassment.

“What’s with the weird expression?”

Clio narrowed her eyes and tilted her head up. Chance loomed over the breakfast table, ignoring everyone else in the public dining hall. It was moments like this–when he stood before a backdrop of shuffling, laughing people–that really drove home just how damn stiffly he stood.

“You mean this?” She feigned a look of horror. “I was just remembering that you were about to show up.”

“Cute.” Chance poured himself a cup of coffee, and then walked off.

Clio jumped out of her chair. “Hey, wait!” she called after him. “I thought you’re supposed to be my escort or whatever today.”

“Then why are you standing there?” Chance kept walking, so Clio ran to catch up. She had to pump her legs quickly to match the stride of his long legs.

“I wish August wasn’t busy,” she muttered.

Chance cast a sidelong glance at her, but didn’t react to that barb. “Why the sudden urgency to explore?” he murmured.

“Because,” Clio replied, surprised to be asked, “I’m going crazy around here. I mean, it’s nice, and I’m grateful to be here, but I want to do something.”

He led her outside. They turned toward a wide alley between two buildings–Clio knew it was a shortcut to the outskirts of the main activity hub.

“Like what?” His sharp gaze turned fully on her. “Other than taking a scenic walk around town.”

Clio scowled at him.

“Well, I want to help. August says people are looking for me right now, so I can’t do much. But I want to. Either with getting Britt back or…or with…anything. Finding other people. Getting out. I’d love to find the ones who did this to all of us and…”

“And what?” Chance’s amusement tickled his brow.

“I don’t know,” Clio said sulkily. “I’d like to use some of their methods on them.”

Chance laughed without humor. “I can’t see it.”

“August said he’d show me his lab.”

“Really?” It was a pleasure to see Chance taken aback for once.

August had told her that, besides Chance and himself, not many had had the privilege of seeing the lab–because as safe as they tried to make their little sanctuary, they couldn’t be certain about who was trustworthy.

When she thought about that, she realized that he had very little reason to trust her, and the fact that he did was probably based on him liking her. It was flattering, but she recognized the risk he was taking.

“I asked him about how he…helped Sunshine,” she murmured at last. “So he said that he would show me.”

“I see.” The forbidding expression was back on Chance’s face, and a hard lump settled in the pit of Clio’s stomach. Even if they weren’t the best of friends, she’d thought they were getting along a little better. He obviously still didn’t think much of her.

“I’m not– I mean, I understand that it’s not meant to be talked about,” she offered. “And I won’t talk about it. You can trust me. I just want to understand everything that I can about this place, and what the people behind it are capable of.” Clio searched Chance’s face, but his expression remained shuttered. “Sometimes I’m still really not sure if it’s all real or all pretend.”

“Does it have to be all or nothing? Maybe the point is that you’ll never know.”

Clio wasn’t sure what to say to that, and Chance offered nothing else.

They passed through several streets that pretty much all looked the same. The fresh air and warm sunlight felt good, and the exercise made Clio feel better than she had in a long time. It would have been more fun with August, or alone, but she had to admit it felt nice that Chance wanted to protect her.

Chance had kinda gotten stuck with the duty, though.

“Sorry,” she suddenly muttered.

Chance raised a quizzical brow. “For what?”

“That you got volunteered to babysit me.”

“Who says I didn’t volunteer myself?” She looked at him quickly, but his smirk made her roll her eyes.

“August said he’d have you do it,” she retorted. “I tried to call it off because I knew you wouldn’t be thrilled, but he insisted.” Clio gave him her own version of a smirk. “He said you would complain about missing your patrol because you like nothing better than strutting around and intimidating people with your grumpy expression.”

“The view is nice, at least,” Chance said blandly. After a beat, and somewhat disappointed by his lack of reaction, Clio was about to agree–because they’d climbed up a gently arched bridge to see a pretty little view spread out below them. But then his mouth twitched up at one corner. “Even if you are wearing a stupid dress.”

Clio gaped at him a second and then laughed. “Thank you. Ugh, I hate it. I like dresses just fine, but these are ridiculous. And these shoes. I would kill for my boots right now, but my clothes seem to have been misplaced.”

“August enjoys the spectacle.”

“Sure, it’s fine for you guys. You get to wear pants.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for something from this century when I’m on a scavenging run, but you’ll still have to convince August to compromise his extravagant fashion vision for our citizens.”

Clio giggled, feeling a little guilty for it.

“So you’ve known him for a long time?” she asked.

“Since we got here. We ran into each other quickly and got along well. We had similar backgrounds outside; it made sense to work together. We figured we could beat the system in no time.”

“But you didn’t…” Clio said tentatively.

“Let’s just say, we–August in particular–got distracted.”

“By what they were doing to people?”

Chance turned away, looking out over the narrow pathways and intimate squares that spread out below them. “Yes. He was actually a neurobiology grad student–and top of his class. He might seem…like some superficial party boy at times, but he’s extremely gifted.”

“You said you had similar backgrounds.”

“Yes. His focus at university was cognitive neurobiology, while mine was behavioral. We found one of the labs here and saw some of what the Gauntlet brass were doing. What they had been doing for decades. The older studies were fascinating, especially with the progression. August was…well…hooked.”

Clio shivered in the heat. “So that’s how he was able to help Sunshine?” she asked. “August was able to reverse everything?”

“Something like that.” Chance pointed northeast. “Do you see that building with the tower at the corner?”

“Yeah, I do,” Clio said, a bit surprised at the random subject change.

“They’re scattered all over this walled-off section. Look.” He pointed out a few more peaks to her, until Clio learned to spot the slender towers that rose far above the roofs of the other buildings. The outer wall, which she could see circling the entire sector, still dwarfed the towers.

“What about them?”

“They’re completely sealed off. No one can get in. We’ve tried.”

“Oh.” Clio looked at him oddly. “Why do you want to get inside so bad?”

A snort accompanied Chance’s tilted grin this time. “It drives August crazy to be told he can’t do something. If he decides he wants something, he can’t be talked out of it.”

Clio gave a little laugh. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”

“It shouldn’t.”

She glanced at Chance again, but he was still looking at the towers. “Do you think they’re important?” she asked at last.

She wasn’t prepared for the smile he turned on her. It was one of the few true ones she’d seen, and it took her aback. She realized how attractive he would be if only he showed that expression more often.

“I think they’re intriguing,” he murmured. “Don’t you? A mystery to be solved. Isn’t that what life is all about?”

Clio beamed, surprised by Chance of all people expressing such a sentiment. So even his hard heart could long for something.

“Yeah.” She looked back at the towers. “You might be right.”

Proceed to Chapter 7, page 2–>