As it was, most of the furniture had come included with the apartment lease. The couch and chairs in the living room had a weirdly overstuffed design, like they’d sprouted from the carpeted floors like fungi.
Cate must have come home in the early hours of the morning, because there were new stacks of case folders balanced at the edge of the coffee table. She’d likely only stayed long enough to shower and change before heading back out to work on whatever project she and Vida were currently assigned to.
Out doing real work, not basic algebra.
Mrs. Fletcher was only in her early forties, but the last few years had carried twice the stress, twice the fear, twice the anger, and it showed on all of us in different ways. There were two deep frown lines on either side of her mouth. One, I decided, for her students, and one for her own son, who should have been sitting at the kitchen table with her, if life were even remotely fair.
“It must be hard to adapt to a routine after everything,” she said softly. “I’m sure this is unbearably boring after what you’ve seen.”
I whispered back the same words Chubs had told me after helping me set up my room at Cate’s new apartment. “Boring is good.”
After he’d left, I’d sat alone on my bed, listening to the last comings and goings of the movers bringing the new bed for Nico. Unlike the other rooms in the apartment, our two small bedrooms hadn’t come furnished. The movers kept referring to them as the guest rooms, and Cate corrected them each and every time. But there was truth in that. I was only staying until I got approved for my own apartment in the building where they’d set up Chubs, Vida, and the others working on the Psi Council.
I liked Cate—I liked her a lot. But it wasn’t like either of us had any real choice in this arrangement. The law said any Psi under eighteen years old had to live with a non-Psi guardian, and she was the only adult my friends fully trusted. And Cate was too damn nice to say no.
The bedroom, for now, was my space. Cate offered to let me paint and decorate it however I liked, but that didn’t feel right to me. All I had really wanted was the door. The one I could open and shut as I pleased. The one that locked from the inside, not the outside. The one that divided my own space from the rest of the world.
Boring was good. Every night, when I lay down on that same bed, I didn’t have to be afraid of what might happen when I fell asleep.
“If not boring, then…foolish. For what it’s worth, I do think I understand somewhat,” Mrs. Fletcher said. “When you go through something so earth-shattering, everything else will feel trivial. Unnecessary. But, please…all I’m asking is for you to be patient with this. Learn everything you can before you go out into the world. It’s something no one will ever be able to take away from you.”
I looked up at her from beneath my bangs. “What do I even have left for them to take?”
“I hope you never learn the answer to that.” Mrs. Fletcher let out a soft sigh, leaning back. “All right. Let’s have a quick break—but after you check your message, turn the phone off, all right?”
I slid off my seat and forced myself to walk, not run, into the living room. Nico actually looked up as I passed him, searching the couch cushions for any sign of the cell phone. He pointed to the table beside one of the chairs.
“Thanks—” I began.
But he only gave me a small smile and returned to his work.
The phone’s face was turned down, but the pink case Vida had bought me was bright enough to spot under the stray sheet of newspaper. My heart seemed to climb higher into my throat with each step I took.
Only to sink the second I turned the cell phone over.
It was Chubs. CAN YOU DO FAMILY DINNER TONIGHT INSTEAD OF FRIDAY?
What other plans do you think I have? I wanted to write. Instead I typed, SURE. YOUR PLACE OR VI’S?
MINE. WHY DON’T YOU MEET ME IN THE PARK AT 6:30?
I glanced out of the window. The weather had been alternating between sleet and freezing rain that week. Both his and Vida’s apartments had been bugged from the start. If we were meeting outside, he had something he wanted to share with me alone.
I’d felt the little pinpricks of the microphones’ batteries the first time I’d visited his place. Later, when he was walking me out to meet Cate, Chubs told me not to worry about them—that the bugs would reinforce they could be trusted.
“All right, Suzume, ready?” Mrs. Fletcher called.
I quickly responded to Chubs’s last message and turned the phone off, as promised. I had no idea how I was going to concentrate for the next two hours. “Ready.”
Chubs was waiting for me at his favorite spot in Meridian Hill Park. It was a few blocks away from the small apartment building Cruz and the others had set aside for members of the Psi Council, which included at least one representative from each of the rehabilitation camps. Though the park’s overgrown landscape had been tamed when it reopened along with the city’s other green spaces and monuments, its most impressive feature, a grand fountain, was still turned off, and the only water that filled the nearby reflection pool was from the steady drizzle of rain.
Chubs didn’t seem to mind, though. He sat on the ledge, staring up the fountain.
My feet slowed as I approached. Something about seeing him there sent a pang through me. It left me rubbing at my upper arms, trying to erase the prickling beneath my skin. He was drenched; he’d dressed for winter, but not the rain. No umbrella. No knit cap like mine. I cocked my head to the side. Not even gloves?
Something’s not right.
He tucked his chin deeper into his scarf, rubbing his bare hands together. The wet briefcase at his side was almost identical to the one all the other business and government types were carrying as they hurried along the park’s intersecting paths to get home. One young woman did a double take as she saw him, nearly tripping.
He instinctively reached out to try to steady her, but the woman yanked her arm in close to her side, paling. She put her head down and hurried away without a single word.
My heart clenched into a fist at his confused expression. That woman had no idea the kind of person Chubs was. I shook my head, forcing out a hard breath through my nose. That was the point of this. That’s why he and the others were working with the Council. We had to prove to people they had no reason to be afraid.
She wasn’t afraid, a little voice whispered in my mind. I knew what fear looked like, and that wasn’t it. She was repulsed.
A few feet away, Chubs’s security agent Frank frowned while he pretended to read a newspaper. But Chubs only sat back down, bracing his hands on the freezing stone. His shoulders were bunched up at his ears, as if he were trying to protect them from the cold. I couldn’t tell if his expression had tightened because of the woman or because he had something on his mind—I didn’t like either option.
The rain pattered loudly against my pink umbrella as I closed the distance between us. Finally, Chubs turned toward the sound of my quick steps splashing through the puddles.
“Nice night you picked for a walk,” I said, holding my umbrella over the both of us.
One of the things I really loved about Chubs’s smile was how rare it was; when you got it, you knew it was honest.
“Hey—” All of a sudden his eyes seemed to focus on me from behind his glasses. “Wait, where’s your security agent?”
He meant Aurelia. She was even nicer than Frank and had taught me how to French-braid my hair. “She got recalled. The office said I wasn’t a public figure anymore, and I could rely on Cate for anything I needed.”
Frank glanced over at us, then went back to casually scanning the park. He stood, stretched, and moved to sit across from us on the path, giving us a little more space. His khakis seemed out of season, but Frank didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who put a ton of thought into seasonally appropriate fabrics.
“We’ll see about that!” Chubs huffed. “Not a public figure? As if you didn’t have your name and face splashed out on the news f
or months. I just saw one of the channels replay your interview the other night! Unbelievable. I know exactly who’s going to hear—”
“Do you think Frank only owns that one pair of pants?” I interrupted. “Should we buy him some kind of wool blend if you’re going to make a habit of sitting outside in the middle of winter to think your deep thoughts?”
“Don’t even think about stealing his clothes from his closet and ordering him new ones,” Chubs warned.
“You look so nice in them, though, and I got all the sizes right, didn’t I?” I said.
Chubs had always cared about his appearance, even when we were traveling in Betty. Liam used to poke fun at him for ironing his shirts, but that was just who he was. Chubs was a reliable, put-together person; during his first few press conferences he’d had to borrow one of his father’s old suits, and it hadn’t fit him right. He wouldn’t take money from his parents to buy a new one, either—not when they needed it more to cover medical costs when his dad had open-heart surgery.
I asked Cate if Chubs could have a small clothing allowance so he didn’t have to riffle through donation bins to find proper business suits. We petitioned Cruz, and she wrote me a personal check for the cost of three new suits Chubs could rotate through until he earned enough of a salary to add to his collection. A regular paycheck, however, was likely still years away. Chubs and Vida both currently worked for housing and a grocery stipend now that we were through the horrifying, mismanaged rationing of the months that had followed the United Nations ousting Gray.
Chubs worked so hard, only for people to cringe away in parks or shout obscenities at him while he took the Metro to his office. He deserved to feel good about this one thing.
“You made me think I’d gone into someone else’s apartment, I almost had a heart attack—” Chubs’s eyes narrowed on me. “Okay, distraction over. If an agent didn’t drive you, how did you get here? If you took the Metro alone, please just lie to me.”
“The Metro is totally safe now.”
“Says who?” he said.