Solo’s ears twitched.
The other male from yesterday chortled. “As badly as me, I’m betting.”
“It’ll be a shame, though, seeing that pretty face all busted up.”
“It’s always busted up.”
A pause. “Okay, here’s a question for you. There’s a gun to your head and you have to do Vika or the bearded lady. But if you pick Vika, Jecis gets to do your wife. Who do you pick?”
“Jecis can have my wife, the little witch. I’ll take Vika for sure.”
Vika. They were discussing Vika. Jecis was going to beat his own daughter? His “heart?” Surely not. Surely the man would spank her, and nothing more. But the males had mentioned a busted face, hadn’t they.
Little black dots flickered through Solo’s vision.
He didn’t know the girl, and he didn’t trust her. Why should he? He shouldn’t want to help her. And yet . . .
She had thrown him the bag of food. He didn’t have to look to know that was what was inside the burlap. He could smell the milk and flour in the bread, as well as the sweetness of the honey and the tang of the meat.
Why would she do such a thing, especially since, according to the brute, she wasn’t supposed to enter this area today? She had risked—and would receive—punishment.
He had to help her.
“Vika!” Before Solo even realized he’d moved, his fingers were wrapped around the bars. He was shaking his cage . . . shaking . . . so angry his bones were vibrating. “Vika, come here!”
Just as before, warmth shot into his wrists and quickly spread through the rest of him. Within minutes, his arms felt weighted down with boulders. Frustrated, helpless, infuriated all over again, he ground his teeth and forced himself to still.
His mother was probably turning over in her grave. A woman was about to be beaten within his vicinity—he was right here, relatively strong, somewhat capable—yet he could do nothing about it, was just going to let it happen.
“We must do something, Solo,” X said, materializing, looking stronger and steadier than yesterday.
No matter where the pair went when they vanished, they always sensed a change in his emotions and returned to him.
“I say good riddance to the girl. He doesn’t want a female like that,” Dr. E said as he, too, materialized, looking weaker and paler than yesterday.
A female like that. For some reason, the phrase irritated Solo. She was a female who had tended him gently. A female who had kissed him as if he were precious to her. A female who had nibbled on his lip as if she liked the taste of him and craved more.
But was she as concerned and kind as she seemed, risking castigation to feed him—why him?—or as deceitful as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, tempting him, luring him into a sense of safety before ultimately striking him down?
There had been true fear in her eyes, and he couldn’t imagine she would endure punishment simply to trick Solo into . . . what? Not softening, as he’d first assumed, for softening was far too mild to elicit any true results in a situation such as theirs. Perhaps she’d hoped to trick him into trusting her. But why would she want him to trust her? He was already locked up and weakened besides. She had no need for his cooperation. To make her job easier?
He barely stopped himself from punching the floor of the cage. He was confused, and he did not like being confused. He preferred things in black and white. Or, in the case of X and Dr. E, right and wrong.
“What can I do for her?” he whispered fiercely. He so rarely asked the pair for advice, they sputtered in bafflement. “I’m trapped.” But he had to do something. Had to repay her generosity.
In all his life, in all the precarious situations he’d been in, he’d only ever been trapped without any sense of hope once. He’d been a child, and as young as he’d been he probably shouldn’t have retained the memory of what had happened, but he easily recalled sitting in his playpen, his biological mother kissing his cheek and telling X to take care of him while she showered . . . and Solo having to watch as three masked men burst into the house and gunned her down. Her body had fallen, a pool of crimson flooding her.
He’d smelled the tang of gunpowder, felt the warm stickiness of the blood.
His father had run in from the other room, his skin already changing from bronze to crimson, his eyes glowing with concern. He opened his mouth to speak, but the boom, boom, boom of bullets drowned out his voice as he, too, was gunned down. He toppled mere inches from Solo’s mother, his own blood deepening the pool. Both of their eyes had been wide with fear and pain, the light inside dulling. . . .
One of the men asked the others what to do with him. All three had peered down at him, discussing the matter and deciding to shoot him, too. An argument ensued as the shooter was chosen. A gun was raised. Another boom thundered. The pain . . . the utter darkness that had descended over Solo . . . X cooing, “Sleep now.” The return of consciousness, with Michael cradling him close, shouting for paramedics.
“Bid me to help Vika,” X said now, his voice terse with the force of his determination. “Just bid me, and trust me to do it. You’ll see. You can sit back and watch as miracles happen.”
Dr. E snorted. “If you help the girl, you’ll be in a weakened state and unable to help Solo if something happens to him. He’s not stupid enough to allow that.”
“Solo?” X said, ignoring the other being. “Come on. Bid me.”
Solo didn’t mind losing X’s strength, not for something like this, but they had gone down this road before and X had only disappointed him. A best friend had never appeared. A good girl had never chosen him above all things. His adoptive parents had not risen from the dead. He had no more trust to offer.
“Solo?” X prompted.
But . . . maybe a good girl had finally chosen him. Vika had helped him despite the danger to herself. Such generosity was better than heat in a winter storm, light in a darkened cavern. Hope bloomed. “What will you do for her?” he demanded.
“Why are you even asking? You can’t escape if you’re weak. Therefore, you can’t risk anything that has the potential to make you weak.” Dr. E paced from one side of his left shoulder to the other. “Plus, when X fails, and he will, you’ll be upset and unable to function properly. If you can’t function properly, you can’t, what? Escape.”
And he wanted to escape more than anything. Right?