My mouth nearly falls open before I remember there’s food in it. I swallow, too quickly, and choke. I’m still coughing as I look around, panicking that Nazeera might be within earshot. Only when I spot her across the room speaking with Sonya and Sara do I finally relax.
I glare at Ian. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Winston, at least, has the decency to whisper-yell when he says, “You were hooking up with Nazeera? We were only gone a few hours!”
“I did not hook up with Nazeera,” I lie.
Ian takes a bite of pizza. “Whatever, bro. No judgment. The world’s on fire. Have some fun.”
“We didn’t”—I sigh, look away—“it wasn’t like that. It’s not even anything. We were just, like—” I make some random gesture with my hand that means exactly nothing.
Ian raises his eyebrows.
“Okay,” Winston says, shooting me a look. “We’ll talk about the Nazeera thing later.” He turns to Ian. “What’s happening tomorrow?”
“We bail,” Ian says. “Be ready to go at dawn.”
“Right, I heard that part,” Winston says, “but where are we going?”
Ian shrugs. “Castle has the news,” he says. “That’s all I heard. He was waiting for Kenji and Nazeera to put their clothes back on before he told everyone the details.”
I tilt my head at Ian, threatening him with a single look. “Nothing is going on with me and Nazeera,” I say. “Drop it.”
“All right,” he says, picking at his pizza. “Makes sense. I mean she’s not even that pretty.”
My plate falls out of my hand. Pizza hits the floor. I feel a sudden, unwelcome need to punch Ian in the face. “Are you— Are you out of your mind? Not even— She’s, like, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life, and you’re out here saying she’s not even that pretty? Have y—”
“See what I’m saying?” Ian cuts me off. He’s looking at Winston.
“Wow,” Winston says, staring solemnly at the pizza on the ground. “Yeah, Kenji is definitely full of shit.”
I drag a hand across my face. “I hate you guys.”
“Anyway,” Ian says, “I heard Castle’s news has something to do with Nouria.”
My head snaps back up.
I nearly forgot. This morning, just before the symposium, the twins told me they’d uncovered something—something to do with the poison in the bullets Juliette had been shot with—that led them back to Nouria.
But so much happened today that I never had the chance to follow up. Find out what happened.
“Did you hear about that?” Ian asks me, raising an eyebrow. “She sent a message, apparently. That’s what the girls are saying.”
“Yeah,” I say, and frown. “I heard.”
I honestly have no idea how this might shake out.
It’s been at least ten years since the last time Castle saw his daughter, Nouria. Darrence and Jabari, his two boys, were murdered by police officers when they refused to let the men into their house without a warrant. This was before The Reestablishment took over.
Castle wasn’t home that day, but Nouria was.
She watched it happen. Castle said he felt like he’d lost three children that day. Nouria never recovered. Instead, she grew detached. Listless. She stopped coming home at normal hours and then—one day—she disappeared. The Reestablishment was always picking kids up off the street and shipping them wherever they felt there was a need to fill. Nouria was collected against her will; picked up and packaged for another sector. Castle knew for certain that it happened, because The Reestablishment sent him a receipt for his child. A fucking receipt.
Everyone from Point knew Castle’s story. He always made an effort to be honest, to share the hardest, most painful memories from his life so that the rest of us didn’t feel like we were suffering alone.
Castle thought he’d never see Nouria again.
So if she’s reaching out now—
Just then, Castle catches my eye. He glances at me, then at Nazeera. A hint of a smile touches his lips and then it’s gone, his spine straight as he addresses the room. He looks good, I realize. He looks bright, alive like I haven’t seen him in years. His locs are pulled back, tied neatly at the base of his neck. His faded blue blazer still fits him perfectly, even after all these years.
“I have news,” he says.
But I’m pretty sure I know what’s coming next.
Nouria lives in Sector 241, thousands of miles away, and cross-sector communication is nearly unheard of. Only rebel groups are brave enough to risk sending coded messages across the continent. Ian and Winston know this. I know this.
Everyone knows this.
Which means Castle is probably here to tell us that Nouria has gone rogue.
Like father, like daughter.
“Hi,” I say.
She turns at the sound of my voice and startles when she sees my face. Her eyes widen. And I feel it, right away, when her emotions change.
She’s attracted to me.
She’s attracted to me, and the revelation makes me happy. I don’t know why. It’s not new. I learned, long ago, that lots of people find me attractive. Men. Women. Especially older women, a phenomenon I still don’t understand. But this—
It makes me happy. She finds me attractive.
“Hi,” she says, but she won’t look at me.
I realize she’s blushing. I’m surprised. There’s something sweet about her, something gentle and sweet I wasn’t really expecting.
“Are you doing all right?” I ask.
It’s a stupid question. The girl is clearly in an awful position. Right now she’s only in our custody for as long as it takes my father to decide what to do with her. She’s currently in a fairly comfortable holding facility here on base, but she’ll likely end up in a juvenile detention center. I’m not sure. I’ve heard my father talk about running more tests on her first. Her parents are apparently hysterical, desperate for us to take her in and deal with her. Offer a diagnosis. They think she killed the little boy on purpose. They think their daughter is insane.
I think she seems just fine.
Better than fine.
I can’t stop looking at her. My eyes travel her face more than once, studying her features carefully. She seems so familiar to me, like I might’ve seen her before. Maybe in a dream.
I’m aware, even as I think it, that my thoughts are ridiculous.
But I was drawn down here, magnetized to her by something beyond my control. I know I shouldn’t have come. I have no business talking to her, and if my father found me in here he’d likely murder me. But I’ve tried, for days, to forget her face, and I couldn’t. I try to sleep at night and her likeness materializes in the blackness. I needed to see her again.
I don’t know how to defend it.
Finally, she speaks, and I shake free from my reverie. I remind myself that I’ve asked her a question.
“Yes, thank you,” she says, her eyes on the floor. “I’m doing fine.”
I want her to look up, to meet my eyes. She doesn’t, and I find it frustrating.