Evie looks suddenly exhausted. She pinches the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger.
“Darling,” she says, but she isn’t looking at me, she’s looking at my father. “Will you handle this, please? I have a terrible headache and several urgent phone calls to return.”
“Of course, my love.” And he pulls a syringe from his pocket and stabs it, swiftly, into my neck.
The common room is really growing on me.
I used to walk by, all the time, and wonder why Warner ever thought we’d need a common room this big. There’s tons of seating and a lot of room to spread out, but I always thought it was a waste of space. I secretly wished Warner had used the square footage for our bedrooms.
Now I get it.
When Nazeera and I walk in, ten minutes late to the impromptu pizza party, everyone is here. Brendan is here. He’s sitting in a corner being fussed over by Castle and Alia, and I nearly tackle him. I don’t, of course, because it’s obvious he’s still in recovery, but I’m relieved to find that he looks okay. Mostly he looks wrung-out, but he’s not wearing a sling or anything, so I’m guessing the girls didn’t run into any problems when they were patching him up. That’s a great sign.
I spot Winston walking across the room and I catch up to him, clap him on the back. “Hey,” I say, when he turns around. “You okay?”
He’s balancing a couple of paper plates, both of which are already sagging under the weight of too much pizza, and he smiles with his whole face when he says, “I hate today. Today is a garbage fire. I hate everything about today except for the fact that Brendan is okay and we have pizza. Other than that, today can go straight to hell.”
“Yeah. I feel that so much.” And then, after a pause, I say quietly: “So I’m guessing you never had that conversation with Brendan, huh?”
Winston goes suddenly pink. “I said I was waiting for the right time. Does this seem like the right time to you?”
“Good point.” I sigh. “I guess I was just hoping you had some good news. We could all use some good news right now.”
Winston shoots me a sympathetic look. “No word on Juliette?”
I shake my head. Feel suddenly sick. “Has anyone told you her real name is Ella?”
“I heard,” Winston says, raising his eyebrows. “That whole story is batshit.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Today is the worst.”
“Fuck today,” Winston says.
“Don’t forget about tomorrow,” I say. “Tomorrow’s going to suck, too.”
“What? Why?” The paper plates in Winston’s hands are going translucent from pizza grease. “What’s happening tomorrow?”
“Last I heard we were jumping ship,” I say. “Running for our lives. I’m assuming it’s going to suck.”
“Shit.” Winston nearly drops his plates. “Seriously? Brendan needs more time to rest.” Then, after a beat: “Where are we going to go?”
“The other side of the continent, apparently,” Ian says as he walks over.
He hands me a plate of pizza. I murmur a quick thanks and stare at the pizza, wondering whether I’d be able to shove the whole thing in my mouth at once. Probably not.
“Do you know something we don’t?” Winston says to Ian, his glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose. Winston tries, unsuccessfully, to shove them back up with his forearm, and Ian steps up to do it for him.
“I know a lot of things you don’t know,” Ian says. “The first of which is that Kenji was definitely hooking up with Nazeera, like, five seconds ago.”
My mouth nearly falls open before I remember there’s food in it. I swallow, too quickly, and choke. I’m still coughing as I look around, panicking that Nazeera might be within earshot. Only when I spot her across the room speaking with Sonya and Sara do I finally relax.
I glare at Ian. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Winston, at least, has the decency to whisper-yell when he says, “You were hooking up with Nazeera? We were only gone a few hours!”
“I did not hook up with Nazeera,” I lie.
Ian takes a bite of pizza. “Whatever, bro. No judgment. The world’s on fire. Have some fun.”
“We didn’t”—I sigh, look away—“it wasn’t like that. It’s not even anything. We were just, like—” I make some random gesture with my hand that means exactly nothing.
Ian raises his eyebrows.
“Okay,” Winston says, shooting me a look. “We’ll talk about the Nazeera thing later.” He turns to Ian. “What’s happening tomorrow?”
“We bail,” Ian says. “Be ready to go at dawn.”
“Right, I heard that part,” Winston says, “but where are we going?”
Ian shrugs. “Castle has the news,” he says. “That’s all I heard. He was waiting for Kenji and Nazeera to put their clothes back on before he told everyone the details.”
I tilt my head at Ian, threatening him with a single look. “Nothing is going on with me and Nazeera,” I say. “Drop it.”
“All right,” he says, picking at his pizza. “Makes sense. I mean she’s not even that pretty.”
My plate falls out of my hand. Pizza hits the floor. I feel a sudden, unwelcome need to punch Ian in the face. “Are you— Are you out of your mind? Not even— She’s, like, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life, and you’re out here saying she’s not even that pretty? Have y—”
“See what I’m saying?” Ian cuts me off. He’s looking at Winston.
“Wow,” Winston says, staring solemnly at the pizza on the ground. “Yeah, Kenji is definitely full of shit.”
I drag a hand across my face. “I hate you guys.”
“Anyway,” Ian says, “I heard Castle’s news has something to do with Nouria.”
My head snaps back up.
I nearly forgot. This morning, just before the symposium, the twins told me they’d uncovered something—something to do with the poison in the bullets Juliette had been shot with—that led them back to Nouria.
But so much happened today that I never had the chance to follow up. Find out what happened.
“Did you hear about that?” Ian asks me, raising an eyebrow. “She sent a message, apparently. That’s what the girls are saying.”
“Yeah,” I say, and frown. “I heard.”
I honestly have no idea how this might shake out.
It’s been at least ten years since the last time Castle saw his daughter, Nouria. Darrence and Jabari, his two boys, were murdered by police officers when they refused to let the men into their house without a warrant. This was before The Reestablishment took over.
Castle wasn’t home that day, but Nouria was.
She watched it happen. Castle said he felt like he’d lost three children that day. Nouria never recovered. Instead, she grew detached. Listless. She stopped coming home at normal hours and then—one day—she disappeared. The Reestablishment was always picking kids up off the street and shipping them wherever they felt there was a need to fill. Nouria was collected against her will; picked up and packaged for another sector. Castle knew for certain that it happened, because The Reestablishment sent him a receipt for his child. A fucking receipt.
Everyone from Point knew Castle’s story. He always made an effort to be honest, to share the hardest, most painful memories from his life so that the rest of us didn’t feel like we were suffering alone.
Castle thought he’d never see Nouria again.
So if she’s reaching out now—
Just then, Castle catches my eye. He glances at me, then at Nazeera. A hint of a smile touches his lips and then it’s gone, his spine straight as he addresses the room. He looks good, I realize. He looks bright, alive like I haven’t seen him in years. His locs are pulled back, tied neatly at the base of his neck. His faded blue blazer still fits him perfectly, even after all these years.
“I have news,” he says.
But I’m pretty sure I know what’s coming next.
Nouria lives in Sector 241, thousands of miles away, and cross-sector communication is nearly unheard of. Only rebel groups are brave enough to risk sending coded messages across the continent. Ian and Winston know this. I know this.
Everyone knows this.
Which means Castle is probably here to tell us that Nouria has gone rogue.
Like father, like daughter.
“Hi,” I say.
She turns at the sound of my voice and startles when she sees my face. Her eyes widen. And I feel it, right away, when her emotions change.
She’s attracted to me.
She’s attracted to me, and the revelation makes me happy. I don’t know why. It’s not new. I learned, long ago, that lots of people find me attractive. Men. Women. Especially older women, a phenomenon I still don’t understand. But this—
It makes me happy. She finds me attractive.
“Hi,” she says, but she won’t look at me.
I realize she’s blushing. I’m surprised. There’s something sweet about her, something gentle and sweet I wasn’t really expecting.