“But you also wanted to protect your sister,” I said. From me.
“She’s been surrounded by danger from all sides since the day her powers manifested. There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her. To reach her,” Roman said. Then he added, somewhat ruefully, “Lying to someone who was supposed to stay a stranger didn’t feel like that big of a sacrifice at the time.”
“Funny,” I said. “I was trying to keep you a stranger, too.” If there was one thing I was always going to understand, it was doing whatever it took to protect the people you loved. “I set up you and Priyanka to be captured when we got to Haven. Can we call it even?”
His face went slack as my words sank in and he replayed that moment in his mind. To my surprise, he laughed softly, pressing his hand to his head and tilting it back. My eyes fixed on the strong line of his jaw, where there was a small scar just below his right cheek. “Priyanka was right. I’m an idiot. You, on the other hand, are amazing.”
It was spoken as a simple, direct statement of fact. It made me want to believe him, to let that warmth permeate my whole self until it became reality. But all I needed to do was look around me to find the truth. “Yes, amazing at ruining lives.”
The humor left his expression. “That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it?” I said. “I shouldn’t have turned on the phone. I’m not stupid. I really do know better, but I did it anyway, and I brought hell down on these kids. I destroyed the one place they felt safe.”
I’d almost single-handedly killed this dream. The thought of facing Ruby and Liam now left my chest too tight to breathe.
“You did what any of us would have,” he said. “For all we know, they could have been tracking it even when it was off.”
“They would have caught up to us before we ever made it out of Nebraska,” I pointed out.
He gave me a stern look. “You’re interrupting my attempt to make you feel better.”
“You know what would make me feel a lot better?” I told him. “Another rousing rendition of ‘Cheer Up, Eileen.’”
“Well, all right.” Roman sucked in a deep breath.
I held up my hands, stopping him. “Kidding.”
Roman’s face turned more sober the longer he watched me. “I meant what I said before. If you hadn’t gotten the noise turned off, none of us would have made it out of there. Everyone pulls a bad card. What matters is how you ultimately play it. You didn’t run. You stayed and fought.”
“So did you.”
Roman ducked his head slightly, absorbing the gratitude in my words. “You had it handled.”
Behind him, Priyanka broke away from Jacob and the older teens and strode toward one of the clusters of kids. She swung the powered-down drone out in front of her.
“Hello, tiny Psilings!” she said, forcing brightness into her voice. “I’m your new friend Priyanka, and I’m going to show you how to disassemble a drone and steal its useful parts!”
Roman turned, watching as she knelt beside them. “She’s not hurt, either.”
I knew what he meant. “They were together?”
He nodded, his composure slipping just enough for bone-deep exhaustion to slip into his voice. “We’ve all been close since we were kids, but the two of them became something more. They were serious for about two years. From the time we were sixteen until just before we left her.”
“And when was that?”
“About six months ago.”
What felt recent to me was probably a lifetime to them.
“Zu! Are you all right?” Lisa called, waving me over. Several of the kids nearby watched Roman and me with big eyes. I had to look away from their ashen faces.
“One second!” I shouted back, then looked to him. “I have to tell you something. Ruby has been missing for about two weeks, and Liam’s in the wind. If you want to go after Lana, then this is where we’re going to have to split up. I need to find them.”
Roman looked deeply troubled by that information.
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t think we should split up,” he said. “Hear me out—I don’t think it’s a coincidence that your friend went missing just before someone tried to kidnap you.”
“I had the same thought, but Priya believes the kidnappers were after you,” I said. “That it might be the Psion Ring.”
He gave his head a sharp shake. “No, Lana is working with someone else and she’s trying to…force us into the fold, the way she was. Somehow, all of this is connected.”
“You think someone forced her to do this?” I asked, trying to subdue my disbelief. But even as I doubted that, Priyanka’s insistence that something was different about her kept rising back up in my mind.
“I think she’s been…programmed. What’s the word?”
“Brainwashed,” I supplied. “You really think so? I’ve seen Reds who have gone through conditioning, and they can barely function beyond taking orders.”
The thought made me look back across the field, searching for, and finding, Owen’s small form sitting away from the others.
“You don’t know her,” Roman insisted. “Lana changed. Someone has planted a seed of rage in her. They’ve done something to her. There’s no other explanation for why she’s like this.”
Lana did seem troubled, but not in the way the Reds who had undergone Project Jamboree were. That reconditioning had been like a disease of the mind, one that stomped out their spark of life. But Roman, obviously, would know how Lana had changed better than I would.
“If we found your friend Ruby together, could…could she help Lana?” he asked, the words shaking slightly, as if with barely restrained hope. “Get through to her?”
“Ruby’s problem is that she can’t not help, so yes, I think she would try,” I said, wondering at how that little bit of heaviness eased away from me at the word together. “I agree with you that, somehow, all of this—the kidnapping, the frame job, the attack—is connected. Ruby’s a piece of it I don’t understand. You see things more clearly than I do.”
“That’s not true,” he said, almost abashed. This was a thing with him, I realized. He’d always swat down my attempts to compliment him, but when it came to praising me or Priyanka, he refused to let us do the same. “You knew right away Priyanka and I were lying.”
“No offense, but neither of you actually are good liars,” I said. “And anyway, someone once reminded me that there are benefits to stay
“Two more sets of eyes to keep watch,” he confirmed.
“Two more sets of hands to find food,” I finished.
I could do this alone. I knew that, and I could see in his faint trace of a smile that he did, too. When he looked at me, he didn’t see a little girl who needed to be carried and protected. He didn’t see someone who needed to be saved.
I could find Ruby—and catch up to Liam in the process—and I could figure out who was behind all of this by myself. I just didn’t want to if I didn’t have to.
A sharp snap of static bit both of us as I brushed past his shoulder. Roman let out another surprised, breathless laugh.
“Sorry,” I said. “Comes with the territory, as you know.”
“Yes,” he said, that small smile fading.
I accepted his offered arm for balance as we navigated through the mud and released it just as quickly. I was too conscious of everything. The warmth of his skin, the tight band of muscle over his bones, the bump of my hip against his as I straightened. I started toward Lisa, only to be caught again by his soft voice.
“I don’t want to be your stranger.”
I glanced back. “Then don’t be.”
Watercolors couldn’t have begun to capture the sky in that moment, just as it prepared to brighten for dawn. The cruelest truth about life is that it just goes on—the sun rises, gravity keeps your feet on the ground, flowers open their faces to greet the sky. Your world could be dissolving with grief or pain or anger, but the sky would still give you the most breathtaking sunrise of violet warming to shell pink.
Miguel and Lisa sent me twin looks of relief as I came toward them. Jacob stepped back, allowing me to join their circle.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my throat aching. “I should never have come back here.”
“Don’t say that,” Lisa said. “Ruby and Liam would have wanted you to come. You were exhausted and under incredible stress. One of us should have thought to check the phone.”
“But the house…” I closed my eyes, and all I could see were Ruby and Liam standing at the edge of the collapsed porch, their dream reduced to ash and cinders.