And it doesn’t. “I’ve been informed that that woman, Lorraine, was complicit in what was done to my daughter. I promise you, Agent, if I hear even the slightest hint that that girl is part of this, I will bring the full weight—”
“Senator. Let us do our job. If you want to know what happened to your daughter, if you want to get to the truth, you have to let us do our job.” He reaches out to touch her elbow. “I have a daughter only a little younger than Patrice. I promise you, this is not something I take lightly. They are incredibly strong young women who have been through hell, and I will honor them by giving them my best, but you have to take a step away.”
“Could you?” she asks shrewdly.
“I hope I never find out.”
“God help you, Agent, if this blows up in your face.”
Victor watches her walk away, then hits the Up button. As he waits for the elevator, he can see her rejoin her knot of people, giving orders and asking questions, her younger staff members scrambling to respond. The older ones are steadier, less overwhelmed.
He rides up to the fourth floor and steps out into a noticeable hush, so different from the crammed and frantic lobby. The others have waited for him. A cluster of doctors and nurses talk at the nurses’ station, but the presence of armed guards at the doors keeps the volume down.
One of the nurses waves at Ramirez. “Need to talk to the girls again?”
“We have someone else who needs to see them.” She points to the girl and the nurse follows her gesture with an easy smile.
“Ah, yes, I remember you. How are your hands doing?”
She holds them up for the nurse’s inspection.
“The stitches are clean, and there’s no swelling,” she murmurs. “That’s a good thing. Are you picking at the scabs from the smaller wounds?”
“Well, don’t do it anymore. You want these to heal. Let’s get some bandages on these just in case.”
Within minutes, her hands are once against wrapped in gauze that’s carefully taped around her fingers to allow for some mobility. As long as the nurse has her stationary anyway, she does a quick check of the smaller injuries on her side and arm.
“You look good, sweetie,” the woman concludes, one hand on her shoulder. “Agent, you can take her now.”
The girl salutes, making the nurse wave her off with a smile.
As they come to the first of the doors, Inara takes a slow breath, pulling the little blue dragon back out for comfort. “I can’t guess what the dynamic is going to be,” she confesses.
Victor pats her shoulder. “Go and find out.”
The local officer standing guard awkwardly shifts his weight. “They’re all two doors down.”
“All?” Eddison asks sharply.
“They being the traumatized young women?”
“Yes, sir.” He pulls off his hat to scratch at his flyaway blond hair. “One of them taught me a few phrases I’ve never heard even on drug busts.”
“Probably Bliss,” murmurs the girl. Rather than argue with the man, she simply walks down another two doors, followed belatedly by the trio of agents, and nods to the officer at that post. “May I go in?”
He glances to the agents, who all nod. “Yes, ma’am.”
Though individual words and voices are indistinct, they can hear the sound of conversation through the wall. It stops as soon as the door swings open, then peaks when the inhabitants of the room see the girl.
“Maya!” A black and white bare-assed blur flies across the room and into the girl’s arms. “Where the fuck have you been?”
“Hello, Bliss.” Patting the smaller girl’s messy black curls, she looks around the room. Somehow the two-bed room has four beds in it. All of the walking wounded are clustered on the beds of the more seriously injured, holding hands or sitting with arms around shoulders or waists. A few of the braver parents sit on hard chairs beside the beds, but most of them are clustered against the far wall talking amongst themselves while still keeping an eye on their daughters.
Victor leans against the wall with a smile, watching the smallest shadow creep between two of the beds to work her way between the two young women. It’s a joy to see the girl’s gentle smile, how tightly she holds the child against her.
“Hello, Keely. I met your parents.”
“I think I hurt them,” whispers Keely, but Inara shakes her head.
“They’re just scared. Be patient with them, and be patient with yourself.”
Victor and his partners hover near the door for nearly an hour, watching the young women laugh and toss jokes and insults back and forth, as they comfort the occasional breakdown or tears. Despite her obvious distaste for it, the girl allows herself to be introduced to the parents. She listens to them patiently as they tell her all about their searches for their daughters, how they never gave up hope, and the only sign of her cynicism is the cocked eyebrow that sends Danelle into giggles strong enough to set off her heart monitor.
Ravenna he can identify—she looks like a younger version of her mother—and he watches their short conversation intently, wishing he could hear any of it. The senator’s daughter has bandages wrapped around most of one leg. Ravenna’s the dancer, he remembers. As Inara gently touches the bandages, he wonders how this will affect that.
He can name some of the other Butterflies from her stories. For others he has to listen for the names they toss around, try to pin them to their owners. With the exception of Keely, never renamed, none of them use their original names. It’s still the names from the Garden on their tongues, on their minds, and he can see the parents cringe every time. Inara said that sometimes it was easier to forget; for the first time, he wonders if any of them did. Or perhaps she’s right, and they’re not ready for this to be real yet.
It’s tempting to stay there longer, to bask in the sight to push back some of the horrors of the past few days, but Victor can’t relax into it completely. There’s more she has to see, and more she has yet to tell them.
More they need to know.
He lifts his wrist to check his watch and immediately Inara’s eyes are on him, a question that doesn’t need words. He nods. She sighs, closing her eyes for a moment to collect herself, then starts the process of reassuring everyone she’ll be back. She’s almost back to the door when Bliss catches her hand.
“How much have you told them?” she asks bluntly.
“Most of what’s important.”
“And what have they told you?”
“Avery’s dead. The Gardener is likely to survive to stand trial.”
“So we’ll all have to talk.”
“It’s time, and look at it this way: maybe the FBI will be easier to tell than your parents.”
“Her parents are on their way,” Ramirez whispers to Victor, “flying over the Atlantic from her father’s new teaching position in Paris. It’s hard to tell whether they gave up looking for her, or if they simply had to do what was best for the children they still had.”
From her expression, it’s clear Bliss isn’t inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
With a last hug for Keely, Inara leaves the room with Victor and Eddison; Ramirez remains behind to talk with the parents. They pass a string of empty rooms with guards at the doors, all the rooms the girls are supposed to be in but aren’t, then a run of unoccupied rooms that form a buffer between the girls and the rooms at the far end of the hall, with their own guards.
When they stop, Eddison glances in the door’s small window and shoots his partner a curious look. Victor simply nods. “I’ll wait out here,” the younger man says.
Victor opens the door, ushers the girl through, and closes it carefully behind them.