“Come on,” he—she?—yelled through the mask.
Other firemen followed, and two of them took Desmond from us. It wasn’t particularly fresh, but we got the first free air we’d had in forever, and the few girls who weren’t crying already started as they stepped onto crisp autumn grass and felt the cold air wrap around us. Some of them fell to their knees in shock and had to be dragged away.
I was trying to count heads after they took Desmond, and I could see Isra doing the same thing in the outer greenhouse, both of us trying to figure out how many we’d lost before we reached this point. Then there was this . . . this . . . whump and another explosion billowed out from one of the rooms and the last I saw of Isra, she was flying sideways in a ball of fire, three of the others still clinging to her, the Gardener on the ground with flames dancing over him. I tried to run to the girls, but one of the firemen grabbed my wrist and yanked me away.
“And then the ambulances, and the hospital, and the room where I met you,” she sighs. “And that’s it. The whole story.”
She closes her eyes, bringing the hand with the little blue dragon to her cheek. “My name.”
“The Gardener has his name now. Is yours really so terrible?”
She doesn’t answer.
He stands and brings her to his feet. “Come on. One more thing to see.”
She follows him out the door, passing by a frowning Eddison talking to a scene tech in a windbreaker, and into the door across the hall. This time he takes her all the way to the bedside before she can see who it is, and when she does her breath hitches.
Desmond’s eyes open slowly, unfocused from drugs, but when he sees her, a faint smile curves his lips. “Hey,” he whispers.
She has to shape the word several times before her voice catches up to the impulse. “Hey.”
“No . . . no, you . . . you did the right thing.”
“But I should have done it a lot sooner.” His hand moves atop the blanket, plastic tubing curling under the tape keeping the needle under his skin.
She moves as if to take his hand, but her fingers clench into a fist before they touch him. She stares at him, mouth slightly open, her lower lip quivering with shock.
His eyes slowly close as he falls still. Asleep or unconscious is anyone’s guess.
“He’s still weak,” Victor says quietly. “He has a long recovery ahead of him, but the doctors say he’s probably out of the woods.”
“He’s going to make it?” she whispers. Her eyes gleam wetly, but no tears fall. Clutching the little blue dragon in one hand, she folds her arms across her stomach, a sense of protection she shouldn’t need anymore. “He’ll be tried as complicit,” she says eventually.
“That isn’t up to us. There may be a deal of some sort for him, but—”
“But he should have called six months earlier, and soon everyone will know it.”
Victor scratches at his scalp. “I admit, I thought you’d be more relieved to see him alive.”
“I am. It’s just . . .”
She nods. “It might have been kinder to leave him without the consequences of his cowardice. It was far too little and far too late, but he finally did the right thing, and now he’ll be punished for taking so long. Maybe he could have died brave, but he’ll live a coward.”
“So it never became real?”
“Real enough to leave scars. So not very real at all. How could it have been more?”
“He’ll very likely stand trial to some degree. You will probably be called to testify against him.”
Still looking at the young man in the bed, she doesn’t answer.
He’s not sure there’s anything to say. “Inara—”
“Inara!” calls a female voice from the hall. “Ina—yes, I see your badge, you arrogant bastard, but that’s my family in there! Inara!” There are sounds of a scuffle, then the door slams open to frame a woman of average height and maybe thirty years old or so, faded auburn hair threatening to tumble from a scraped-together bun.
Inara freezes partway through turning to the intruder, her eyes impossibly wide. Her voice creeps out as little more than a breath. “Sophia?”
Sophia runs into the room, but Inara meets her halfway, and the two of them cling to each other with white-knuckled grips. They sway from side to side from the force of the embrace.
The Sophia? The apartment mother? How did she even know Inara was here?
A thunder-faced Eddison stalks into the room, glaring at the woman as he passes. He thrusts a plain black scrapbook, thick with pages, into Victor’s hands. “It was in a locked, hidden drawer in his office desk. The techs were running the names when they found something interesting.”
Victor almost doesn’t want to know, but this is his job. Tearing his eyes away from the two women, he sees a green sticky note fluttering from the edge about two-thirds of the way through. He opens to a few pages before it.
A young woman with terrified, tearful eyes stares back at him from a photo, shoulders hunched and hands partly raised as if caught in the process of trying to hide her naked breasts from the camera. Beside it, a picture from behind, showing fresh wings. Beneath it, those same wings in a fresh display case, the crisp edges of the wings blurred by the glass and colorless resin. In the empty space, there are two names—Lydia Anderson, on top, and below, Siobhan—in a firm masculine hand, followed by “Gulf Fritillary” and dates four years apart.
The next page has a different girl, and the one after, the one with the sticky, has only two pictures. And only one date. Beneath the picture of an auburn-haired beauty with wary hazel eyes, the writing says—
“Sophia Madsen,” Victor reads aloud, stunned.
The woman looks at him over Inara’s shoulder. She says the next line for him. “Lara.”
“No one would have talked of a Butterfly escaping if one never had,” Inara mumbles into Sophia’s hair. “It would have hurt too badly.”
“The escape was real. You . . . you escaped?”
They both nod.
Eddison scowls. “The tech analysts typed in the name and it hit against our list of Evening Star employees. They sent someone to the restaurant and both listed residences, but she wasn’t there.”
“Of course I wasn’t,” retorts Sophia. “How could I be there when I was already on my way here?” She pulls back from Inara. Doesn’t let go, just steps back enough to take all of her in. Sophia’s shirt is worn and overlarge, the gaping neck sliding down one shoulder to reveal a bra strap and the edge of a faded wingtip, stretched with gained weight. “Taki saw you on the news, being brought into the hospital, and he ran to the apartment to get everyone. They called me, and oh, Inara!”
Inara wheezes in Sophia’s renewed embrace, but doesn’t ask her to let go.
“Are you all right?” asks Sophia.
“I will be,” Inara replies quietly, almost shyly. “My hands are the worst, but if I’m careful, they should heal.”
“That’s not all I’m asking, and I am asking. I have my own place now, I can break the apartment rules.”
Inara’s face lights up, all the uncertainty and shock vanishing. “You got your girls back!”
“I did, and they’ll be so glad to see you. They’ve missed you as much as the rest of us. They say no one reads to them as well as you do.”
Eddison doesn’t quite manage to turn his laugh into a cough.
Inara gives him a sour look.
For his part, Victor’s almost relieved to see her sidestep the more probing question. At least she does it with everyone. He clears his throat to get their attention. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have to insist on an explanation.”
“He usually does,” Inara mutters.