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This is chapter 5 of Cliffton book 1. It's mostly new stuff, because my original first Brendan-POV chapter is going to get split and have parts of it used elsewhere. As always, concrit is much appreciated. Rip me to shreds. I don't mind. Warning for a tiny bit of language, not Devin levels.

If you're reading Cliffton for the first time, here are the previous chapters so you can catch up:
Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Burning Up
(Brendan -- one day before the bomb)

Breathe in, slowly and evenly. Breathe out. Lift and lower, smooth and controlled.

I focus on the weights, on making their movements slow and purposeful. It's all I can do, train and keep breathing. Train away the rage before it swallows me whole. Kalen's team deploys in two weeks, and me? I'm still waiting. Never mind that I've worked harder than anyone, because Kalen doesn't have to work for what he wants. For what I want.

Breathe in, breathe out. Lift and lower. Control the weights. They're all I can control.

I'm mad, scary mad, and I'm not even sure why. All the things Kalen's done, and this is what sets me off? So he lied. It's not like it's the first time that's happened. Or the second, or the third. Not like his whole life hasn't been a lie for years. No one knows that better than me, maybe not even Kalen. Why should this time be any different?

Breathe. Lift. Lower. Do it again.

Thing is, I thought it would be different. I thought Kalen was finally buckling down. Finally accepting his birthright, the one I wish I had. He told me he was going camping with some guys from our year, Cameron Gables and Braddock Kingston. Said it was prep for team traning, and you know what? I was actually proud of the little asshole.

Only I saw Braddock in the locker room today, when I went to change into my workout clothes. Funny thing was, he didn't know about any camping trip. He said he hadn't seen Kalen all summer. So who the hell was Kalen really with?

Breathe -- oh, fuck this.

Now my jaw's aching, because my teeth are on edge and the exercise isn't enough. I load on more plates. There's nothing but the bar. Nothing but pushing it as hard as I can. So much for keeping the monster in check. At this point I'll be lucky if no one gets hurt. I'll only be able to do a few reps at this weight, but --

"Brendan?" Heather's voice. I'd know it anywhere -- spent enough time hearing her shout out answers in class.

I set the bar down with a loud clunk and sit up. Oh, man. It figures she would show up now, when I'm pissed off and stinky. That's just my luck, isn't it? I pull up the collar of my shirt and use it to wipe the sweat off my face.

"Hey, Heather." My rage drains away, because it's kind of hard to be mad when I'm looking at her. She's freshly showered, unlike me, and she radiates good cheer. Dark, wet curls bounce vigorously over her shoulders, and even without any makeup on, her tan skin glows. Her coppery eyes crinkle at the corners, every bit as bright as her smile.

Heather looks me up and down. "Training as hard as ever, huh? You look great!" She gives my bicep a light squeeze. "Like a brick wall." Her face is still flushed from her workout, and it just makes her even more appealing.

My own face feels overheated, but it's not from exertion. Heather can see the wet circles under my armpits. She can probably smell them. "Y- you're looking good, too." More sweat rolls down my back as I curse my fumbling tongue.

Could this possibly be any more awkward?

Heather doesn't seem bothered, though. "It's been ages since I saw you. Want to go get a FreezeCream?"

Do I ever. I take a "barracks shower," fast and efficient as humanly possible. Good thing I've been practicing that since I could stand. I'm at the front entrance of the Upper School in less than ten minutes. Heather's waiting just inside.

We walk out together, saluting the security personnel as we leave. The soldiers return the gesture, but no one breaks form. Full-Unit Security never does, standing stiff and silent in the brutal sun for hours. But future recruits are the City's most valuable resource -- protecting them is crucial. Too bad it looks so boring, too.

Come next Reaping, I might be here. My options for an armed service career aren't great if I don't make it onto a fighting team. I can join Ground Forces or Full-Unit Security. Or law enforcement, maybe, but if my marks aren't team material, they probably aren't good enough for the military police, either. They could have been, though, if Kalen had cared.

Only I'd rather not think about that with Heather here.

"So what have you been up to all summer?" I ask as we walk to XtraScoop, my favorite FreezeCream parlor.

"You know, the usual." Heather shrugs, but her voice is eager. "Working out. A whole lot of working out. It was nice not to have to study, though. My team's moving out next week, and -- "

Just like that, the monster's back -- not that it was ever really gone. It's with me all the time, lurking just under the surface. I'll be damned if I'm going to let it out now. So I force my fists to unclench and my jaw to do the same. Not like it's Heather's fault I didn't do better in school. She probably would have tutored me, if I hadn't been too shy to ask.

"What about you?" she's asking when the rushing in my ears subsides.

"Just training." I smile weakly and thank the gods that I don't have to say more, because we're here.

I wave to the guards hanging out by the door. A place like this doesn't warrant Full-Unit Security, just a couple of uniformed roundspeople. They canvass the area every couple hours, looking for kids stealing or writing anti-War graffiti. They're the bottom of the military food chain, though they probably see more action than the school troops.

One of them's a guy I don't know, a few years older than me, maybe. He waves back as he lounges against the front of the shop. I know his partner, though -- Shannon Helms. She's sitting on the retaining wall, her uniform jacket laid neatly nearby. She stiffens when she sees us, crossing her bare arms so they ripple with muscle.

Shannon was in my year, and she's from a long line of generals. She has the ideal woman warrior's build -- and the pride and persistence of a fine soldier, too. Too bad she also has feet clumsier than a seven-legged bumbler dog's. Heather and I say hello to her and she nods curtly in response.

Funny how things change. Back in school, Shannon practically had to fend the guys off with a nanoblaster. Meanwhile, Heather couldn't even get a date for the Reaping Dance, just because she's a middleweight. As if there's anything wrong with her body. Nothing wrong with her strong broad shoulders, defined arms and trim waist. And her curvy --

The point is, she's gorgeous. Smart, too -- Kalen almost lost the top grade spot to her. She's the best female fighter in our year, and that just shows how stupid the "ideal build" thing is. Shannon was supposed to be a shoo-in for a team. Now Heather's about to deploy, and Shannon's stuck here scolding kids who kick the cacti.

As if I don't know that feeling. My heart speeds up, but Heather's already pulling me inside.

The place is packed with teens sneaking their last tastes of summer. At least it's not hot in here, though. We place our order with the SalesBot -- Triple Choco Ripple for me, Peanut Caramel Crumble for her. Heather insists on paying and I let her, because it's polite. Because I like her. My face heats up as we watch another robot making our treats.

When they're ready, we carry them to the back and sit down. There's a table of uniformed troops next to us, chatting and enjoying their desserts. They're off duty, or at least you're supposed to think they are. They could be CovertObs instead.

Off-duty troops tend to stay in uniform and carry their weapons, because it's better than paying the penalty for losing them. The CovertObs people are usually young, and they always blend in. Always look relaxed. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Only I can tell this group's off-duty, because one of the girls has sandals on instead of boots.

"Want a taste?" Heather asks, and my gaze snaps back to her.

All of a sudden, I don't care about the soldiers anymore. My face is pretty much permanently on fire now. I curse my dirty mind as I take her spoon and put it in my mouth. The FreezeCream chills my tongue as I let it melt. It's thick and creamy with just a little crunch. Not like I can fully appreciate it right now, but at least it cools me off a little.

"Mmmmm, so much better than chicken." I dip my spoon into my own cup and pass it to her.

"I know, right?" Heather nods emphatically. Her springy hair dances around her face, and it's kind of hypnotizing. "My grandmother told me that in the old days, desserts used to be bad for you. Can you imagine?"

Not really. FreezeCream has as much protein as a whole chicken. Only I don't really care about nutrition right now, because I'm not even sure there's still any blood going to my brain. So much for cooling off.

"S- so," I stammer, "You're leaving next week. Are you excited?"

"Yeah... mostly." Heather plays with her spoon, watching it intently.

She reminds me of Kalen when he's hiding something, which is all the time. My stomach clenches up, and my fingers want to grip the table until their knuckles go white. But I take a deep breath and put my hands in my lap. I will myself to calm down, because Heather's not the one I'm mad at. "But?" It's a struggle, but I keep my tone even.

"I'm going to miss my friends, is all." Heather's eyes flick up to mine almost coyly.

My ears burn, and my tongue feels huge. "D- do you know where you'll be stationed?"

"They haven't told us much yet. Nothing about our assignment, or when we'll be coming back. Not even where all the fighting is." Heather swirls her spoon around inside her almost-empty cup. I can't read her expression. "It must be somewhere on the Other Side, right? Otherwise, we'd have seen some of it, or at least heard explosions."

It must be, because there's never a way to contact people on the teams once they leave. Not until they come back, and from what I've heard, that can take a long time. Not that I've heard much, since Kalen doesn't talk to me anymore. Rage rises like bile in my throat. I grit my teeth as the edges of my vision go fuzzy. Not here, not now. Please.

"I wonder if they have FreezeCream on the Other Side." Heather tugs idly at a lock of her hair. "Do they even have food at all? I bet they have, like, nutrient injections or something instead of real food like us."

It's like I'm seeing her through some kind of rounded lens. I can't answer her question, because I'm too busy keeping my breathing even, making the world stay real. Too busy trying to keep the monster at bay.

"Did you know they're allowed to live on our side? Be citizens and everything?" Heather sounds weird. Tinny. "Amber Stallings saw one in the City once, said she looked like one of those space aliens on NebulaQuest."

I'm crouched in the tumblebrush, staring at my brother's back. My nose is filled with the scent of dust and desert plants. The nightbirds call to each other from the tiny stand of trees nearby. We should be inside. Shouldn't be here at all. No one goes to the border, especially this late. Only someone must, because he's here, talking to Kalen.

Looking at him from across the fence.

My heart turns to stone. All this time, I knew Kalen was sneaking out to meet
someone. I sort of figured it was a guy, because he's never been interested in the girls who throw themselves at his feet. Figured he had to hide it from his perfect school pals. They wouldn't be too happy if they knew. I never understood why he wouldn't tell me, though.

Guess I do now. Kalen
is meeting a guy, but not just any guy.

Even if I weren't looking at him from across the fence, I'd know he was from the Other Side. He's freakishly long and lean, the planes of his face angular in the weak glow of the border lamps. Kalen's taller than Father already, taller than everyone in tenth year, and this guy towers over even him. My throat closes, my fists clench up all on their own, and --

"Brendan? You okay?" Heather. She sounds wrong, far off.

Just like that, I'm back in my seat. I'm making an excuse, but I barely hear it. My fingers dig into my knees under the table. Our voices still sound far away. I'm pushing my chair back, telling her goodbye. Backing away slowly. Better to get out of here now, before it happens again. I never know what I'll do when I get like this.

All I know is the monster's on its way, and I don't want Heather to meet it.

(Next chapter is here)
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