“That’s Snowflake,” Liam said. He did a double take as Max trailed in after her. “Careful, she…uh, she bites when she’s nervous.”
Then he looked down at me with a clear who-are-these-people? expression.
“Something we have in common, precious Snowflake,” Priyanka cooed, stroking the horse’s nose. “Also, it’s probably weird I know the horse’s name before I know yours…?”
“That’s Liam Stewart,” Roman said, circling back to us. “You are him, aren’t you?”
I could see why they might be confused. The only word to describe Liam’s current state was rough. His hair was overlong and shaggy, and he had a full beard. From what I could make out beneath the facial hair, his complexion looked almost ashen, which only served to deepen the dark grooves beneath his eyes. A whopper of a bruise covered his left temple, and the collar of his undershirt was torn.
“In the flesh. Most of it, anyway.” Liam grimaced. “Could you introduce your friends to me, Zuzu?”
Oh, right. “Snowflake’s new best friend is Priyanka, Roman is the only one who remembered to be careful about entering an unknown place, and Max is—” I looked around. “Where is Max?”
“Here,” he called from the back of the barn. He stood directly beneath a sunbeam shining through a crack in the roof. “It’s so beautiful. Like a golden ribbon.”
Priyanka angled her head toward him. “Okay, I think you need some sleep, Maximo.”
Liam let out a ghost of a laugh, shifting his weight. His movements were stiff, slow, almost like—
I grabbed his arm to keep him still. A small crimson stain was visible on his undershirt, just above his left hip. I pushed his jacket out of the way, revealing the splotch of dried blood and the jagged hole in the fabric. Panic jolted through me.
“Oh my God,” I said. “You were shot?”
“I’m all right,” he said, putting a hand over mine.
All this time we’d been looking for Ruby, he’d been hurt. He’d been shot.
“Zu,” he said, tightening his hold until I looked up. “I’m all right now. Sam and Lucas have been taking care of my sorry self the last few weeks. But I need to know that you are okay. I saw everything on the news, and you know I adore you, but you look like fresh hell.”
“I haven’t been shot,” I told him, fighting the temptation to shake him. Instead, I wound my arms around him again and felt him sag against me. “I also don’t smell like hay. Are they making you sleep out here? Where are Sam and Lucas anyway?”
Liam took in a deep, labored breath. “They’re out looking for Ruby.”
“Well, isn’t that just a crazy coincidence,” Priyanka said, all traces of humor gone. “So are we.”
Liam took us to the front door, shooing the rooster off his perch on the porch. He leaned heavily on the railing. Waving a hand over the old lock, we all heard the definitive click as he moved the dead bolt.
“Old-school,” Priyanka said approvingly. “I like it.”
The house was small, enveloping you like a warm hug the moment you stepped inside. I’d only met Sam and Lucas twice—back then, we were all orbiting Ruby—but as little as I knew about the two of them, I saw shades of them in their home. Sam’s boldness, reflected in the colors on the walls and the mismatched furniture that somehow worked together. Lucas’s quiet, sweet demeanor in the many Polaroid photos framed in the house. In the corner of the living room, there was an easel with an unfinished canvas. All I needed to see were the jagged slashes of crimson and black paint to know who had painted it.
Liam’s whole body tensed as we walked through the house. I was surprised he hadn’t scratched up the walls by this point. He stopped in the tidy, old-fashioned kitchen, moved toward the counter beside the stove, and picked up a cell phone charging there.
“Water?” I asked.
“They pull from a well and have their own purifier,” Liam said. “Give me a second and I’ll grab you some glasses.”
“Who are you messaging?” Roman asked from the other room.
Priyanka had sprawled out on an old leather armchair. Max was asleep at one end of the couch, his face mashed against his palm. But Roman sat at the other end, ramrod straight, eyeing both of us where we stood in the kitchen.
“Their friend Vida,” Priyanka said around a yawn. “She wants to know if Zu had anything to do with the rumors she’s hearing about ‘an incident’ at Moore’s training facility. Apparently he’s already trying to spin it on the news.”
Liam almost dropped the phone. He shot me an uneasy look. “That is some guesswork.”
“Not guesswork,” I said. “My friends are different.”
He raised a brow. “We’re all different.”
“Differently different,” I clarified.
Liam started to type something in reply, watching Priyanka with narrowed eyes.
She looked over at him, bored. “Yes, I can read that.”
He swore under his breath, deleting the text. “I’m going to need an explanation in a minute, but first I need to let Sam and Lucas know to come back.”
“Is that their phone?” I asked.
“Sam’s,” Liam said. “I’ve been relaying messages between them and Vida as they’ve been searching. Seemed safer to have an intermediary, especially since Vi was only just able to shake the rest of the agents and head out alone.”
“Are those lines secure?” Roman asked, taking a position by one of the windows. I watched him, wondering why he seemed unable to relax, even for a second.
Liam looked up from the screen again, this time in disbelief. “I was sending secure messages while you were still eating your own boogers.”
I gave him a look as I filled the glasses. “He’s my age, old man.”
“Boys do develop slower than girls,” Priyanka pointed out.
“Why are we talking about my mucus?” Roman said.
The phone buzzed again.
“What do you want me to tell her about the facility?” Liam said. “Moore’s making it sound like you burned a sweet little red schoolhouse to the ground.”
Priyanka rolled her eyes. “We would have burned it down, but there was too much concrete.”
“Ask her if she or Chubs knew about it.” I needed to know. I needed to understand why.
Liam’s expression turned grim again as he quickly typed out the message. Finished, he reached out, running a gentle thumb over my black eye, examining the treasure map of cuts and bruises on my face.
I stepped away and took a long drink of water. “It’s been a busy few days.”
Liam’s smile was strained. “Attagirl. Let me get you some ice for that shiner.”
Gathering the rest of the glasses and jam up into my arms, I moved back into the living room. Liam trailed after me with the bread and a bag of frozen peas, which I took gratefully as I collapsed on th
e couch. When Roman glanced over from his position at the window, I motioned to the empty spot beside me.
Finally, he released some of that tension in his expression. I was aware of every place his leg touched mine as he sat down next to me.
“Vi says she’ll be here in an hour,” Liam said, looking between all of us. “She’s been following your trail since you left Haven, apparently.” He struggled to keep his face neutral. “Is it at all salvageable?”
That small bit of hope in his eyes almost did me in. I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t force any of the words out. Instead, all I kept seeing was his face as he’d given Chubs and me the tour of the house. The pride and happiness that radiated off him.
Even Priyanka fell silent, leaving the job to Roman.
“The structure can be saved, but the location has been thoroughly compromised. You cannot ever go back there.”
Liam gave him another long look. “Thanks for pulling that punch.”
Finally, the pressure building inside my chest broke wide open. “It was my fault. I can’t tell you…I can’t begin to express how sorry I am. If I’d had any idea that we were being followed—”
“You did exactly what we wanted you to do, and don’t you ever forget that,” Liam said. “I’m just mad as hell I wasn’t there to help protect the kids. Thank you for helping them get out.” He looked to the others. “Thank you. The kids are safe with Mom and Harry for now, and that’s all that really matters. It was always more of…Well, in any case, we’ll all rebuild it together.”
He wants to go back, I realized. He still didn’t want any part of the wider problem.
“What happened to you?” I asked. “All Miguel, Lisa, and Jacob said was that you’d been in touch, but they hadn’t been able to follow up with you about Ruby’s last known location. How did that”—I gestured to the gunshot wound—“happen?”
Liam blew out another long, deep breath as he lowered himself into the worn leather armchair. “I got a tip through the usual network we use to find endangered Psi. There was nothing to make me suspect it wasn’t a typical pickup, even when my phone started to flip out on me nearby—you know how unreliable the cell networks can be. Even the address for the abandoned apartment building in Kennett, just over in Missouri, wasn’t anything alarming. Lots of kids will squat in places like that thinking it’s safe.”