He startled at the sound of my voice, then passed a trembling hand back over his head. “Sorry, I was thinking…I thought they’d be more afraid.”
“Me too,” I admitted. In situations like these, a little fear was probably healthy—it kept you on your guard.
“She can switch it back on when we’re done,” I reminded him, “if that’s what you want.”
“No. It’s not that,” Max said. “I’d just…forgotten what it felt like. It’s like a storm trapped in my skull. If I pass someone who’s thinking of another person, or missing them, the power wants to seek out that connection. To find them.”
“To go fishing,” I said, using Priyanka’s word.
He nodded. “Lana would sometimes use her ability on us while she was first learning to control it—testing her limits as a Limit, you know? Those moments of quiet felt like a relief to me. When I fish for someone, it’s like a fever in my brain. There’s no separating my reality from the other person’s. Sometimes I connect and fish when I don’t want to, and I see things I never should.”
“That’s not your fault,” I said. “The same thing used to happen to Ruby, until she finally learned to control it.”
“I wondered about that,” he said. “I used to think about her a lot, make a game of trying to guess what it was really like. My father had all sorts of theories about how her ability worked. She was his obsession as much as she was Mercer’s.”
“Roman and Priya mentioned that,” I told him. “I have to tell you, I don’t understand your father at all. It wasn’t even that he experimented on other kids—he did the same to you, his own son.”
“He didn’t have much of a choice,” Max said, hugging his arms to his chest. “Do you remember all of that mandated testing for the kids who hadn’t turned yet? My dad worked for Leda Corp, at the old Philly lab they shut down, and he would bring me in to work to have all of that done—and change the results to make it look like I hadn’t been affected. Back then, I was a Prodigy.” He paused, letting out a startled laugh. “Wow. I never even admitted that to Priya or Roman.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I already felt like an outcast because of my father. I didn’t want to give them another reason to potentially hate me.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he shook his head. “Anyway, I was just good with numbers and memorization. It was easy enough to play off. My father is the smartest man I’ve ever known. It wasn’t a stretch in most people’s minds I might be like him or my mom, who was a math professor.”
The dreaded was. “Is she…?”
Max’s grip on his arms tightened. “Mercer had her killed. Her and my sister both, though I think my sister was an accident. She should have been working that night. She always worked Thursday nights.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “I’m so sorry. Why would he do that?”
“When the four of us came through the transition, Mercer felt like my father had intentionally messed up to avoid giving him a Fader—giving him his own Ruby,” Max said. “Kill one family member to show that there are consequences for disappointing him, keep the other alive with the threat hanging over them. It’s classic Mercer. Neither he nor my dad would have ever told me, I don’t think—it would have turned me against Mercer, and I was useful to him.”
“How did you find out, then?” I asked.
“I saw it happen,” Max croaked out. “When I was trying to work out how to use my power, I figured out that I was able to connect to my mom. To see her and Neve. Once that connection was there, I could always come back to it. And then, one night…”
“Max…” I began. Everything else just felt trite.
“Come on, we doing this?” Cubby said, stalking up behind us. “Night’s not getting any younger.”
“Could you be a little less eager about this, please?” Max asked, sounding pained. “I realize you hate me, but—”
“I don’t hate you, Monk,” she told him. “You just piss me off.”
“That wasn’t—” Max began. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
“You ready for this?” I asked her. “If things go sideways—”
“Then I’m gonna die a legend before I let anyone stomp me out like a worm,” Cubby finished. “We know what happened at Thurmond, and I’m going to make damn sure that people know what happened at the Pit, too.”
I turned toward Max, but he was already pulling back the tent flap to begin the show. He paused before he exited. “I know I’m not supposed to want it, that there’s peace in releasing all this hate…but some people are just monsters. Their only goal is to keep devouring us.”
“Well, Mercer’s about to choke,” I said.
With a faint laugh, Max slipped out of the tent.
“You don’t look like someone whose master plan is about to fall into place,” Priyanka said, coming up behind me. Her pupils had returned to their normal size, and she was no longer bouncing from foot to foot, having worked off some of the rush with a jog along the perimeter of the Pit.
“I am nervous,” I admitted, tracking Cubby as she made her way through the tent, punching and slapping her crew’s shoulders, telling them something I couldn’t quite hear. “I was a little surprised she said yes so easily. There was always a chance she’d take more convincing.”
“She lives in a literal mud pit,” Priyanka said. “Pretty sure it was a no-brainer.”
I worried my bottom lip. “I got the impression we could trust her, but I can’t say my intuition has been great, as of late. She could still betray us.”
“I’m happy to betray her first on your behalf, if that makes it easier,” Priyanka offered.
“Your incredibly selective conscience is one of my favorite things about you,” I told her, “but I don’t think that’s going to be necessary.”
I looked up at her, then over to where Cubby was surreptitiously streaking her face with mud. The caked-on mask was terrifying to look at, which I supposed was the point. Her crew began to do the same.
“Seriously, though,” Priyanka said, “we don’t have to like the girl. We just have to trust she likes living in the mud less than she likes us.”
“They’re getting into position,” Roman said, striding toward us. “Where do you want us to be, Priya?”
“I’m about to go look. We’ll be able to get into the wider system as long as they have a device on them that connects to a server in the main building,” Priyanka said. Just before she went outside, she wrapped her arms around both of us, squeezing tightly. “Be excellent, my friends.”
“It’s okay if you can’t do it all,” I told her. “And if it’s too dangerous to get upstairs…”
This was the part of the plan that hinged on chance, and I didn’t like it. After we got the gate down, she and Roman would try to locate whatever functioned as the control center. We needed evidence that Moore had lied about his training program, and if there was security footage from the last few days, there was a chance they’d caught Mercer on it. Linking him to Moore was crucial. Without any concrete proof, our version of events would just sound like conspiracy theory to the general public.
Priyanka waved off the concern. “I don’t need my powers to pull security footage onto a flash drive. I’ll be all right.” As she turned to go, she pointed at me. “Come together, leave together.”
“Come together, leave together,” I echoed.
Roman started after her but stopped suddenly. He turned to face me and started to lift his arms, as if to place them on my shoulders, but quickly let them fall back to his sides. His face looked progressively more agonized as he glanced from my face, to his shoes, to something very interesting I couldn’t see in the mud.
In the end, he stuck out a hand, and it took me longer than it should have to realize I was supposed to shake it.
We both jumped as I accidentally shocked him, but he didn’t release his grip.
I didn’t want to insult him by checking again that he would be able to mirror Priyanka; he’d said
yes once, and that was enough for me. But he seemed to read my thoughts anyway.
“If I pass out…” Roman began, still grasping my hand.
“We’re not going to leave you behind,” I told him. “So don’t bother suggesting that.”
“Right…right. If I’m dead, though, you shouldn’t bother with that, either,” he said, visibly flustered.
For someone with such steady aim, I could feel his hand shaking.
I took an unconscious step toward him, giving in to the sudden warm tug in my stomach. My heart kicked against my ribs as I moved between nerves, excitement, and fear.
And then he dropped my hand and all but ran out of the tent.
“You tell him he smelled like shit or something?” Cubby asked.
Stunned, I shook my head.
“Well. Save whatever the hell that was about for later. Ready?” Cubby rolled her shoulders back, shaking out her arms.
“Don’t hurt him,” I muttered, following her out of the tent. “It’s pretend, remember?”
She glanced back over her shoulder, the dried mud on her face cracking with her humorless smile. “I’m tired of always pretending, aren’t you?”
“Cubby!” Max roared from outside the tent. “Come out, you coward!”
“That’s my cue,” she told me. “Don’t fuck this up for us.”
It was Max who threw the first punch.
It landed strong against Cubby’s jaw, the force of it nearly spinning her back. The mud latched onto her feet, keeping her upright long enough to lash out a leg. Max hunched forward as the air blew out of his lungs. Back and forth, they hit, kicked, slapped at each other, their feet stamping a circle into the mud. The occupants of the Pit descended on the fight, hooting and cheering as they circled around them.