“Okay, I got excited and forgot, can you blame me?” Liam said. “We’ve got visitors, darlin’. Come down and say hello.”
She rolled her eyes, opening one of the umbrellas as she came toward us. My heart felt like it was trying to jump free from my chest. The sight of her in her cozy white sweater and red rain boots, her face free of shadows—it was the best reward after all the frustration of waiting and searching. She pushed the other umbrella against Liam’s chest, then wrapped me in her arms.
“You’re frozen to the touch,” she said, trying to fold me in closer. Her sweater was warm, and she smelled sweet, like cinnamon and cloves.
“I like your boots!” I told her.
She shook her head. “Liam’s sense of humor is as good as ever. I’m impressed you resisted the urge to push him into the lake, Chubs.”
He stared at her, looking almost dumbfounded. I understood it completely. It was like coming face-to-face with a different person. I’d never seen her so calm. So peaceful.
“Yes, well,” he managed, finally. “I can’t say the thought didn’t cross my mind once or five dozen times.”
When she moved to hug him, there was no resistance. Chubs held on to her tightly, his face half-hidden by her loose braid.
“For the record, the twirl thing was funny,” Liam insisted.
“I’m sure it was,” Chubs said, finally sounding more like himself, “when it existed only in your mind.”
I let myself relax at the familiar rhythm of the conversation. Ruby kept a hand on Chubs’s back as she led him up the porch and asked him about the drive.
Liam stared after them, his smile fading.
“It’s okay,” I told him quietly. “He was just worried. Give him a little time.”
“That so?” Liam said. He playfully tugged my hat down over my eyes. “Stop reading my mind, will you? There’s only room for one telepath in this house.”
There was a small wooden sign with the word HAVEN hanging above the door. Within seconds of passing through the front entryway, the name became reality. The house was warm and bright, burning away the chill. A delicious buttery smell found its way to us from the kitchen, and I could hear a fire crackling somewhere down the hall.
Ruby pulled off her boots and left them beside three pairs of muddy sneakers. Liam kicked off his beside hers, which was our cue to do the same. As I took off my damp hat and hung it on one of the hooks to dry, voices trickled down from upstairs.
“I put together something that resembles lunch,” Ruby said. “But would you like a quick tour of the house first?”
“Hi!” a voice called from down the hall. I looked up, unsurprised to find three faces watching us. The boy with the dark skin hushed the girl, but she waved, undaunted.
Ruby and Liam shared a warm, knowing look.
“This is Charles and Suzume,” Ruby said. “And that’s Lisa, Miguel, and Jacob.”
All three of them looked about my age, fourteen, but the second, quiet boy, Miguel, was smaller than the other two, which made him seem younger. They joined us on our tour of the upstairs, the boys showing off their bunk beds and the quilts that Ruby’s grandmother had made them. Lisa had her own room, which she didn’t seem entirely happy about.
“It’s only for a little while,” Ruby told her, returning Lisa’s grin with one of her own. She looked to us. “Sam sent us a message about a girl they’re looking after who needs a more permanent situation.”
I heard her, but her words didn’t actually hit me until a second later. I saw the realization register on Chubs’s face as well.
They’d been in contact with Sam and Lucas all this time?
“How are Sam and Lucas?” I asked, hating myself for needing the confirmation. “And Mia?”
“They’re hanging in there,” Liam said. “Mia wants to go back to school, but she can’t without a guardian—well, I don’t need to tell you guys. I think they’re disappointed we had to put a hold on reaching out to the Reds, which is understandable.”
It was the first time I’d seen Ruby’s expression waver. The regret in her eyes was open and aching.
“I think we are all disappointed about that.” It was the first time Chubs had spoken since we’d entered the house. “But at least with an official monitoring system in place, it’s easier to ensure their safety.”
The sound of rain on the roof filled the silence that followed. Liam rubbed the back of his neck, giving Ruby a look I didn’t understand.
Do something, I thought. We needed something, anything but this horrible, stilted quiet.
“If the second floor is for the kids, where’s your space?” I asked.
Liam’s face lost some of its tension. “We put ourselves up in the attic like little mice. Here, I’ll show you.”
After an inspection of their small, cozy bedroom and its shelves of photos and books, the tour took us back downstairs to the living room. In one corner was an ancient-looking television set with some cartoon I didn’t recognize paused mid-scene on it. Just beside it, a stone fireplace was working hard to warm the room and hall. Mrs. White’s taste for shades of evergreen and ivory was on display, and it was clear that they’d inherited all the furniture, drapes, and rugs. While some of it had gone a bit threadbare, it gave the impression of a house that was well-loved. Liam couldn’t have looked prouder of it.
The other kids joined us for lunch, interrupting Liam’s stories with comments of their own. Ruby’s stew was surprisingly delicious for someone who, like the rest of us, had subsisted mostly on prepackaged junk food for close to a year. Clearly, she’d had time to practice.
“Zu, do you want to see the backyard?” Lisa asked. “We just started a garden.”
“Can we finish the movie first?” Jacob said. “We still have a whole hour left.”
“You can see the garden from the living room window. Two birds, one stone,” Miguel said.
“Yeah,” Liam said, rising to put the dishes in the sink. “Why don’t you go with them? Get to know each other a little better?”
I looked up from where I’d been rubbing the fabric of my place mat. Even though I knew it wasn’t true, looking at the other three kids—how they elbowed and poked and glared and laughed at each other—made me feel so much older. The fact that Liam was trying to send me off with them left me feeling like a child dismissed from the table so the adults could talk.
“Maybe later?” I said to them.
Ruby shared another priv
ate look with Liam as she rose to pour hot chocolate into a set of mismatched mugs. The teens took theirs as they sped off for the nearby living room.
“Don’t run with—” Ruby cut herself off, shaking her head. “I have never sounded more like my mother in my whole life.”
“How is your family doing? Your dad?” I asked.
Back and forth, we traded updates. I told them about Cate and Vida and Nico and school and all the things that had become routine. I heard about Liam’s family, Ruby’s, and the Children’s League kids who had scattered after the camps fell. The longer we spoke, the more obvious it became that Ruby and Liam had been in contact with seemingly everyone but us.
And the whole time, as promised, Chubs kept his comments to himself. A fact that did not go unnoticed by his best friend.
“All right, Chubs, come out with it,” Liam said. “The last time you were this quiet, it was because you’d burned your tongue so badly on soup that you physically couldn’t speak.”
“Come out with what?” Chubs asked, sipping his cocoa.
“Maybe we should—” Ruby began.
“Whatever superior thought is crossing your mind right now,” Liam said. “Whatever insult you’ve been holding back for the last two hours. You think I don’t know?”
“I think you don’t know me at all anymore,” Chubs said simply.
“There it is,” Liam said, splaying his hands out on the table. “Come on, get it out of your system.”
Even I prickled at his tone. Chubs’s jaw worked back and forth, as if he were grinding the words down.
“It’s been six months,” Liam said. “Look, I’m sorry about the way this all went down. There just wasn’t time to explain. We had to cut and run before it got any worse for us or Ruby’s family.”
“I understand,” Chubs said.
“Do you, though?” Liam said. “Because right now it’s not understanding that’s coming through, it’s your very special form of hostility.”
“It’s not—” I tried.