Brian shook his arms and legs. Weird. He’d never heard of anyone recovering from a stun blast this quickly. Fyliza’s gun must be faulty.
Still aching, he pushed himself to his feet and listened. He couldn’t hear any sounds of gunfire or any shouts. He didn’t know what it meant. Had Angel taken care of everything? Somehow Brian knew she had won. He’d never known a woman as strong as her. Even Fyliza was nothing compared to AC-Free.
Even though he’d only just stood up, Brian felt himself sinking back down to the ground, and it had nothing to do with the stun blast. He was thinking about he was going to do to Nick and AC-Free. He was supposed to hand them over to Zenok. What did he do?
Zenok had never appreciated him and Brian wanted that so much. He wanted things to change between them, even though he wasn’t sure they could. He knew his father would be pleased if Brian brought back Angel and Nick.
But he might also be angry at Brian for running away. He’d sent Fyliza after them and given her orders to shoot him. Brian pressed a finger to the ring beneath his shirt. Zenok wouldn’t’t be happy Brian had taken the ring.
“What do I choose?” Brian murmured to himself. Zenok or his friends?
Angel had been kind to him. Nick was different. He was a bit of a bastard but he’d still saved Brian’s life. And just because the blond annoyed Brian didn’t’t mean he wanted to hand him over to Zenok.
Gods, what did he do? What did he do? If he stayed with Angel and Nick then he would be permanently on the run. Zenok would send others after them. If Brian was caught and dragged back, the consequences would be far worse than if he went home willingly.
“Don’t think about Zenok. Think about what you want,” said a voice in Brian’s mind.
Turning his head, Brian saw a strange bird watching him from the ground. He smiled at it. It looked cute. It was round and covered in light gray fluff like a baby. Two huge eyes watched him. Brian knew he wasn’t crazy anymore. Somehow he could hear these animals talk. He stretched out a hand. The bird waddled over to him and jumped onto his fingers. Brian drew it closer to his face.
“How can I hear you?” he asked it.
“You just can.”
“What do I do?”
“You know the answer.”
Yes, he knew it. He closed his eyes. If he handed Nick and Angel over then he knew what would happen. Angel would be executed or tortured depending on how Zenok was feeling. Brian knew there was a torture room back home. He’d heard the screams. When he was little he’d found his way down there. His mind turned black. He didn’t want to remember what he’d seen.
He wasn’t sure what would happen to Nick. Nick was one of the ring bearers and Brian didn’t think Zenok would want him dead. But that might mean Nick would visit the torture room too.
And as for Brian… he might be adored for a while but it wouldn’t be love. It wouldn’t be what he wanted. He’d want to kill himself with Angel and Nick suffering.
His eyes ached with tears. He was never going to go home. He’d hated Zenok at times and every day back home he’d cried. Never going back still made him unhappy. He’d never have Zenok’s approval. He’d never have another home because he would always be running.
“I’ve made my choice,” he said softly. He stroked the bird’s fur for a moment and then placed it back onto the ground. It rubbed its head against his leg for a moment, as if to comfort him, and then suddenly it turned and peered along one of the paths.
“Your companions come,” it said, ducking into the foliage.
Brian wiped his eyes. He’d stay with them but he’d never tell them… or maybe he should? Another choice waited before him. Brian covered his eyes. He didn’t know what to do.
Angel’s voice had fallen behind. Nick was filled with energy, even after the exhausting trek through the jungle and the fight with Fyliza. There was a new danger that needed confronting. He forced himself to take larger strides, knowing he would outrun Angel.
She was too gentle, too kind. She’d be too soft.
Brian didn’t deserve any of that. Maybe he had known about Fyliza. He could have been working with her. The bastard! Nick ached to grab him, hurt him. He was the spawn of the most malevolent man in the galaxy.
“Nick!!” Angel screamed, but her voice was distant.
Nick glanced down at the tracker in his hand. Brian was just up ahead and then suddenly he could see the clearing and Brian beside a tree. As soon as he caught sight of Nick, Brian stood and opened his mouth. Nick leapt on him before the smaller boy could do anything.
“You bastard, you bastard!” Nick screamed, throwing Brian against the tree and slamming his head against the bark.
Brian’s eyes widened and fear struck him. “Nick?” he asked. His voice trembled. Nick didn’t care. The fear only made him angrier. Brian was a coward, just like Zenok.
“Did you think we wouldn’t figure it out?” Nick snapped. “Did you really think we wouldn’t realize who you were?” He went to punch Brian in the face but suddenly something flew at his head and claws scratched his shoulder.
With a yell, Nick spun around and saw a gray bird flapping and chirping angrily at him while its claws searched for bare flesh. “Get away from me!” said Nick, throwing out an arm to swat the bird away.
Brian tried to run. Nick whirled and grabbed the boy’s leg, dragging him back to the ground. Brian yet out a yelp as he hit the floor and Nick leapt on top of him, pinning him down.
“Get off me!” Brian cried desperately. He kicked and struggled but Nick was easily bigger and stronger. Brian was not escaping.
“What were you planning?” Nick held Brian’s wrists tightly and he saw red marks glowing beneath his fingertips. He knew he was hurting Brian. And he didn’t care. His heart was burning. He hadn’t trusted Brian completely but that hadn’t stopped Nick from considering him a friend and he’d never thought he would be a traitor.
Brian started to cry. Tears ran down his cheeks and his chest heaved as he sobbed.
Nick laughed even though the tears stung him. Brian looked so small and a new thought pushed at Nick’s mind. How would he like to have a father like Zenok? He shoved it away. There was no time for sympathy. He didn’t know what Brian was going to do.
“Oh no, you don’t get out of this that easily! You think crying will make me go easier on you?” said Nick. To his despair, his voice was catching in his throat.
“I’m sorry!” Brian sobbed. “I’m so s-sorry!”
He sounded like he meant it. But just as Nick’s heart opened, he thought of Angel. Her secret had been uncovered. She would be in danger. Nick knew why the emperor wanted him and he also knew he probably wouldn’t be killed. It was different for her. A new anger found Nick, and he squeezed Brian’s wrists tighter, ignoring the squeal of pain that escaped Brian’s mouth.
“Tell me,” Nick hissed, “were you going to hand us over? Were you working with Fyliza?”
Still crying, Brian tried to speak but the words were unintelligible. Instead he sobbed harder but he managed to shake his head.
Nick didn’t believe him. He clenched his fingers tighter until he swore he felt Brian’s bones ready to crack. Brian let out a scream.
“Nick, get off of him right now!” Angel suddenly screamed, finally catching up.
Nick didn’t listen. He stared into Brian’s eyes. Again he felt sorrow creeping over him but he thought of Fyliza and the spell she had cast over him. Looks could be deceiving. Brian might look pathetic but he had Zenok’s blood in him.
“I swear Brian; I’ll make you pay for this. You’re his son! I’m going to leave you on this planet, in this jungle. I’m going to leave you here to die!”
Brian’s eyes flooded with more tears.
“Nick!” Suddenly a hand connected with the back of Nick’s head. He groaned and instinctively he released Brian and clasped his head. Angel’s hands grabbed him, dragging him away from Brian.
Nick stared at her. He had known she would be like this. Her eyes were hard but it wasn’t because of Brian’s betrayal. That gaze was directed at Nick. He glared back at her. He had known she would take Brian’s side. Maybe she liked him more than Nick. He remembered the way her eyes had strayed on Brian when he’d first come aboard. She’d said it was because he was familiar, but now Nick realized it could have meant something else.
“I knew you’d take his side,” Nick snapped.
Angel’s eyes turned stonier at his words. “I’m not taking anybody’s sides but I don’t want you to kill him or hurt him!”
“He was going to hand us over to Zenok! You would have been killed!”
Brian still cried. He sat up, his face stained red and white with blotchy tears. His wrists were red and already turning black from Nick’s hands. He didn’t try to run away. He didn’t seem to have the strength. He stared at Angel.
“Don’t think I have sympathy for you,” Angel said to Brian, her voice just as harsh as it was when she’d spoken to Nick. “I don’t want you dead or hurt because you have information to tell us. You’ll know all about Zenok’s plans, his space base locations and everything like that.”
“I don’t know anything,” said Brian, finally finding his voice and shaking his head.
Nick shoved past Angel and grabbed Brian’s hair, pulling him to his feet. “Then I’ll make you tell us!”
“Nick, don’t hurt him!” cried Angel.
“He deserves it!”
“But – ”
“Stop taking sides, Angel! Who do you know to be the most trustworthy? Me! Look at him! He’s Zenok’s son! He was going to have us killed! He probably planned everything with Fyliza!”
“Nick – ”
Suddenly a roaring noise filled the air. All three of them raised their heads. It took a moment for Nick to realize what the orange line streaking through the sky was and then it hit him. Angel’s ship. Fyliza.
“Gods damn it!” Angel screamed. “That bitch, that bitch! She’s stolen my ship!”
“And she’ll be going to tell Zenok that we’re stranded here!” said Nick. Everything everybody had gone through for him was in vain. He was about to be captured. He stared back at Brian, blaming everything on this boy. “Well done, Brian. You’ve got everything you wanted! Daddy will be coming to pick you up as soon as possible!” He yanked on Brian’s curly hair, but suddenly Brian swung his arm out and caught Nick on the chin. With a surprising strength, he shoved against Nick, throwing the blond to the ground.
“What did you expect me to do?!” Brian screamed. “Just tell you I was related to the man you hate most in the entire universe? I didn’t tell you because I knew this would happen!” He held out his wrists for Nick to see. Each of Nick’s fingers had been perfectly marked with a dark, unnaturally colored bruise.
“What did you expect?” cried Nick. “You were going to turn us in! Did you think we could just all be friends and we’d walk freely into your sick little trap?”
“There was no trap! You don’t understand anything at all! You don’t know what it’s like when everybody judges you and hates you! You don’t know what it’s like to be beaten by your own father every week and to be hated by him because you’re not what he wants! I had nothing to do with Fyliza! I didn’t want her or any other of Zenok’s spies to find us anymore than you did! I don’t want to go home!” Brian’s voice was clotted with tears. He couldn’t speak anymore. “And… And…” He burst into a fresh sob. He visibly trembled. And then he turned and ran.
Angel had a stun gun in her hands, but she didn’t shoot. “Brian!” she called.
Nick stayed where he was on the ground. He couldn’t move. Brian hadn’t been sent to infiltrate us. He’d run away. He remembered hearing something about that. He’d thought the brat would be doing it for attention. He’d thought he would be just like Zenok.
Angel stared at Nick. He stared back at her. Neither of them spoke. Nick glanced down at his hands. They were still red from where he’d gripped Brian so hard.
“Come on,” said Angel softly. She held out a hand and helped Nick to his feet. They didn’t release each other’s hands as they took off along the path after Brian.
Brian hadn’t gotten very far. They soon found him. He’d sunk to the ground again crying. Gently Angel released Nick’s hand and leant down. She wrapped her arms around Brian.
“Tell us everything,” she said softly.