“Right,” Zima grumbles, pretending to read the book in her hand. She hasn’t made any progress in over an hour and with Rosa’s sudden intrusion, she’s beginning to realise she isn’t fooling anyone. Least of all, herself.
Her surroundings feel inconsistent, weaving through her periphery, barely noticed. Has she really been absent for so long? She chalks it up to being busy, tired, worried—
Istina has been unconscious for days.
The creak of floorboards makes her flinch as Rosa begins to approach. Zima braces herself. She knows that neither of them have ever been good at baring emotions.
“Taking all of those missions by yourself was dangerous and stupid. We were really worried.”
Zima glances up at this. She had been expecting an accusation, sure. But the low voice, the concern, it breaks her every time. She doesn’t quite know how to respond, opting to fidget with the sleeve of her jacket, her second skin, just one more layer between her and the brutal realities of the world.
It was one wrong move, one stray blast on the battlefield, one step too late—
She can’t save anyone.
“I don’t think it’s wise for me to be around Istina while she’s recovering,” Zima says, mouth dry but voice steady. She’s been practicing the lines, dreading the moment when she’d have to explain to them why she’s been missing.
Rosa almost scoffs. “Well, you couldn’t be more wrong.”
Zima snaps the book shut, hands clenched to ease the quiver in her voice. She’s not sure it helps.
“It was my fault. Again. My fault. People die around me, Natalya. I’m the problem. Don’t you fucking get it?”
It seems like Rosa wants to argue but all she does is sigh. “How could you have known?”
“She deserves more than—”
“Have you ever thought about what Anna wants? What she really deserves?” Rosa retorts, mismatching eyes unwavering.
Zima falters, speechless. The void in her chest hurts, aching like the cracked skin of her knuckles. She isn’t ready for this. Heat rises in her face, stinging at her eyes, and she scrambles to hide it.
Rosa sighs again, this time out of sympathy, letting the silence settle. “I’ll come get you at six.”
“I’m not taking no for an answer anymore, Zima. See you tonight. And pick up your phone for once.”
Zima barely catches the last part as the door clicks shut. The old office is still once more but the echo of her thoughts is deafening.
Dinner is in a couple of hours.
She trudges back to her room, eyes glazed over with thoughts of their impending reunion. Stupid Amiya. Stupid group. Stupid phone.
What was she supposed to say?
Hey, the guilt is eating me up inside. Don’t worry. I’ll call you back never.
Zima showers gingerly, soap stinging at fresh wounds, angry red lines against her pallid skin that makes Rosa’s concern ring sharply in her ears.
She grabs the nearest bottle of shampoo, realising too late that it’s the scent of all things too snowy until it hits her with the force of a slap. The plastic container clatters against dark tiles only to be shoved back into place by shaking hands.
Zima stares at the wall, water running rivulets off her face, scrubbing her arms until they’re raw.
An alarm has been set off inside her mind and she can’t seem to find the switch. She doesn’t register her own motions until she’s back in her small room, careening into the present, clothes strewn around her in indecision. Nothing seems to fit right, nothing feels okay.
She stares at her reflection for the first time in what feels like days, perhaps weeks, and it’s surreal. A pale ghost stares back at her, expression strained, movements stiff. The blue of her eyes is dull, bloodshot. The lightness of her voice is forced when she tries to speak.
This isn’t right. This isn’t—
A sudden knock at the door makes her jump so violently she almost falls. She hastily puts on some guise of a normal expression before unlocking it.
Rosa appears surprised through the sliver of space between them. “You’re here,” she says.
Zima blinks, confused. “You said six.”
“I—well, I didn’t think you’d actually come. I was expecting an empty room.”
Right, Zima thinks sadly. She is the one who charges off, the one who leaves.
Rosa fiddles with the ribbon on her dress for a second before Zima realises she needs more time.
“I’m almost done,” she mumbles, letting the door swing open to allow entry.
Rosa slowly steps inside, eyes scanning the space. She recognises some things: a makeshift axe, a worn backpack, old photographs of school days long gone. But the room is otherwise bare and bleak and upsetting.
They remain silent as Zima hurriedly pulls on an acceptable outfit. She throws her jacket over her shoulders, disappearing into its depths. Rosa eyes it with concern before accepting Zima’s dark silhouette, somehow too gaunt yet too bulky.
It’s wrong. But it will do.
They arrive first.
Rosa strides in comfortably as Zima trails behind. There’s a table set for four but her heart isn’t there, her body recoiling from the scene. Already, she can’t find her place, her sense of belonging, and it fills her with dread.
She’s nervous, she’s tired—she’s not ready when Istina enters the room. Her pale hair seems to glow, her presence stark against the rest.
Zima knows there’s hesitation in icy eyes when they sweep the space. She thinks her heart stops when that gaze meets hers for the first time since—
It’s like nothing’s changed, like Istina was never injured, like Zima never failed. But everything is different.
“Zima!” Gummy’s voice is followed by a crushing hug. The sudden contact makes her flinch, from reflex or pain she’s not sure anymore.
“Heya…” Her awkward greeting is fortunately drowned out by the small chef’s excitement.
“Where have you been? We’ve missed you!”
Zima feels all eyes on her, feels her head lower compulsively, mouth going dry. “Uh… I’ve been busy.”
“Let her breathe, Gummy,” Istina says, tugging at her friend’s sleeve. “We can all talk soon. I’m starving.”
The airy drone of her voice sounds forced to Zima, and nothing Istina does is forced, ever concise and articulate. She sneaks a glance, and another. She’s drawn in already, like a moth to flame. That will also never change. Certainly there is some tension. But at least Istina looks well, Zima thinks, settling into her chair.
Dinner is made and served by Rosa, a true historic moment according to Gummy.
“Are you sure this isn’t just takeout?” Gummy says through a mouthful of food, waving her fork about in suspicion.
Rosa huffs as Istina chokes on a laugh.
The pressure is lifted, the banter is easy, and for the first time in months Zima wonders if they will be okay.
Istina gives Zima her attention like nothing else matters, like no one else exists in the dark classroom of their minds. They reside there alone, together. Always alone. Always together.
I’ve missed you, she wants to say, I’ve been waiting all this time, but the words never appear.
She sees the exhaustion in Zima. It exudes from her bones. There’s caution in her movements, heaviness in her breath. She spies bruises decorating those lean arms, peeking from under that fur jacket and it wrenches at her heart.
Zima’s always been so reckless. Zima’s always been so stubborn.
Zima’s always steadfast in the things that will break her.
Especially now, drunk on wine, in the aftermath of their gathering.
Zima winces at the gentle call, head lolling to face piercing turquoise, the only other gaze to remain. The fog of alcohol allows her to answer with some semblance of confidence. “Anna.”
“Are you done?”
“Done? Oh, you want some?”
An empty bottle is proffered by an unsteady hand. Istina shakes her head and Zima doesn’t press it, curling back into herself. The room begins to spin.
“Shining says I’m fully healed,” Istina offers lightly, hoping to sound assured, hoping to distract them from the silence that’s settled about the room.
But Zima grips her fist tight. She’s seen that fresh scar marking porcelain skin, impossible to erase. “That’s good news,” she mutters, averting her eyes. “Great news.”
“Is it?” Istina sighs. She reaches out like she’s done so many times before. But this time, it’s with a surge of something pressing, something consuming. She needs to convey one important message:
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Zima starts, and her gaze lifts once more, this time shrouded with anguish. She doesn’t see Istina. She sees weakness, condemnation, and a body count that she will never forget.
“What are you talking about?” she stammers.
Zima flinches at her name, uttered so gently again. It feels like an unravelling, her stitches undoing at the seams. Her jaw clenches, walls rising, only to crumble swiftly at the hand encompassing her own. It’s small, but undeniably strong.
“You are not to blame. It was a mission-wide failure.”
“I was right there. I was so close. I could’ve—”
“You couldn’t have possibly made it and that’s not your fault.”
Zima sucks in a breath at the sharp words. She watches carefully but finds no blame, only unbearable candour. It’s true, she was much too far. It’s true, she shouldn’t be feeling this way.
But the mind is a terrible foe.
Istina whispers mournfully, something soft that Zima doesn’t catch in her intoxicated state. She only knows that she’s shaking.
The Winter General, frozen to her core.
Zima pulls back, disconnected. “I just… You know I can’t stand the thought of… losing you. After everything… You, unmoving on the battlefield, the same cold expression as those… lives I took with my own hands…”
Istina rises to place herself upon Zima’s lap, drawing her into the crook of her neck. Her hands brush at brown locks, offering solace within her embrace. “I hate hearing that,” Istina murmurs sadly.
Zima shivers, voice harsh yet hushed. “You think I saved you. But I was the one trapped in that room. I needed saving. I…” Her eyes close, memories bleeding into the forefront of her mind. Her voice cracks. “I killed so many, Anna.”
“It was war. We were desperate. We were…” But it’s the first time Istina’s voice wavers, like she can barely stand to utter such excuses. Her words break and fall to the floor, heavy with the weight of her sins.
“It can’t be undone,” Istina says quietly, lamenting something unseen.
Zima barely processes it all. She thinks she’s suffocating, blinking in and out of darkness. The only light glints at her from a golden eyepiece.
“I’m tired, Anna. So tired. I just want to… forget.” A strange void materialises within her chest, churning, roiling. A soulless smile touches her lips. “Maybe Rosa was onto something.”
Ah. She doesn’t mean that, not really.
But it’s too late.
Zima has never seen the face before her turn so severe, such a visceral reaction, eyes burning with distress. Istina says nothing but Zima can sense the shatter of glass between them.
“Don’t,” Istina whispers at last, eyes downcast. “Don’t leave me.”
Zima wants to retort with something airy but her voice dissipates in her throat, scratching and aching. She hears the heartbreak, sees the grief. But still, she can’t find her answers. And as it turns out, she’s never been very good at lying.
They don’t get put on the same team again for some time, keeping their distance for reasons unspoken, and that has always been the problem.
“Talk to her,” Rosa implores. “She won’t listen to anyone else.”
But Istina watches on, shackled between the guilt of her past and the fear of her present.
“I’m giving her space,” Istina mutters, but her heart throbs, making its anger known. Oh, it’s livid at her. Suddenly the truth is clawing through her ribcage, confessions of a coward, bursting through. “I can’t lose another.”
Rosa freezes, giving her an odd look, something very disappointed, something immensely concerned.
“This is how you will.”
Istina feels the words slam into her chest. But she continues to stare past the book between her hands, stubbornly silent.
Istina thinks of the darkness that connects them, the corners they all reside in, and realises something has changed. That room appears in her mind as it always does, but now her hands are splayed against the windows. For the first time, she’s peering in from the outside, slamming her fists against the icy surface.
She’s punching and kicking and crying.
But the ghost of Zima remains inside, unmoving.
The book goes flying, thrown across the floor in her despair. Pages flutter and crumple, like the hope extinguishing within her chest.
How is she supposed to save someone she can’t reach?
“Pick up the pace!”
“It’s a literal fucking minefield,” Zima snaps when the terrain becomes near impossible to traverse.
Their target is escaping.
Blaze is hurtling towards the other side of the city, feral determination upon her face. Adrenaline seeps from her veins, drips from her skin, like the blood of their wounds, barely noticed. Her weapon rumbles through the air, metal teeth grinding furiously.
Zima can hardly spare a second to admire her fierce squad leader. She braces herself, rushing forward.
“Glad you’re not just talk after all that bragging,” Blaze says, casting a wild grin in Zima’s direction. Heat begins to radiate off her form, simmering the air before them.
“Not a chance.” But Zima’s bravado is tragically short-lived.
They hear it before they see it, the sizzle of a purple bolt, the one that sinks into Blaze’s thigh, ripping through.
There’s a roar of pain, a frozen breath, before Zima once again realises the very real danger they’re in.
This is no schoolyard. There is no such thing as reprieve.
People die around me—
“Go ahead. Move!”
“No, I’m not leaving you!”
Blaze straightens, hauling her massive weapon up with shocking ease despite it all. Zima is suddenly reminded of the power difference between them.
“You’ll only be in my way.”
“I can help!”
“Listen, kid.” Blaze looks over, burning like the sun itself, a striking vision of command. Something in her gaze has changed, an unfamiliar gravity. “I’ve been watching you run yourself haggard. I can see what you’re trying to do.”
Shit. No. Don’t say it—
“Stop trying to die out here.”
If the bones of her knuckles could burst from her skin, Zima is sure they would have exploded. Instead, her fist remains firmly clenched at her side. She’s stunned, shaken.
“Whatever resolution you’ve come up with… let me tell you, it’s not going to fix anything.”
Zima sucks in a breath, throat aching with the heat that’s clawing up her face. She trembles at last, hating the sound of her voice, so naïve, so small in this moment. “Won’t it?”
“There’s a difference between risking your life… and throwing it away completely.”
Zima hears it, knows the truth of it. She’s just so scared.
“War is unforgiving enough. You don’t need to give it any more reason…” Blaze trails off pensively.
“Why didn’t you stop me from coming with you?” Zima says.
Blaze tugs at her collar unconsciously, revealing the plane of her shoulder, black crystals gleaming. She thinks of Rhodes. She thinks of Reunion and the Infected. Her answer is tinged with sadness, her brazen energy muted this once. “I can’t save people who don’t want to be saved.”
Zima recoils in shame. She stutters something incoherent. She’s not sure what she wants to say. Everything feels like an excuse, an escape.
“It’s complicated, I’m sure.” Blaze says softly. “Don’t feel—”
“No. I—” Zima growls abruptly at the shadows moving beyond her periphery. Right. They have more pressing matters at hand. She takes a step back, raking sweaty bangs from eyes that refuse to look up. “Meet you on the other side.”
Blaze grins, recovering her laidback air. “I’ll be right behind you.”
The crank and grind of a chainsaw is the last thing Zima hears before she turns to run.
Istina spies the top of fluffy brown ears ducking under a metal door. The airship has just landed, ejecting two tattered figures from its depths. One staggers into the other, knees buckling.
Her feet are flying forward now.
She’s scrambling to reach out, desperate to make sure…
I’ve been waiting. I’ve been waiting.
Don’t go before I can tell you—
Those blue eyes flit up, meeting her with a lightness that hasn’t been felt in months.
Suddenly, Istina is no longer pounding on that windowpane. The shadows have receded. The ghost of Zima approaches and she finds herself beckoned forward. The classroom is gone, falling away to dust, and they find themselves standing in the snow, freshly fallen. Winter melts. Winter scatters. Winter releases its choking hold on them, just for a moment.
A hand touches her own.
“I’m okay. Blaze is okay—”
Istina blinks away her haze. “Right. I’m glad.”
They carry Blaze to the hospital, and in the quiet aftermath of their departure, Zima stops to tug at Istina’s sleeve.
The air stills between them.
“Hey. I think I’m ready…” Zima glances away nervously, arms frozen to her side.
Zima inhales with great effort, shoulders rising. “I’m ready to get help,” she exhales. The tension in her body releases until it feels like they’re floating.
There’s stunned silence as time weaves around them.
“Okay,” Istina answers gently, voice quivering. “Whatever you need, I’m here.”
She thinks she could repeat that forever and still find it true.
“I won’t let those lives go to waste… or mine.” Zima’s fingers hover tentatively over Istina’s hand, travelling up her arm to rest against her cheek. A thumb strokes the skin beneath her eye, comforting, calming. “I’m sorry. I know who I want to protect. That has not changed.”
Despite appearances, Istina isn’t fragile by any means. She collides heavily into Zima’s arms, holding tight.
Zima grunts at the impact, feet lifting into the air. “Hey—I said I’m sorry!”
“I’m forgiving you,” comes the muffled reply.
It’s their dearest wish.
There is a mountain to break through, an ocean to swim, but it’s never too late to start.
Don’t go before I can tell you:
I’m glad you’re alive.