The air was fresh and dry here, and for a while, all I did was listen to my breath wheeze in and out as the smoke finally left my lungs. I’d hoped it would carry some of my humiliation out with it, but the momentary peace didn’t last, and I couldn’t hold back the torrent of thoughts. All my questions seemed to shift with the wind. Why did they lie? became Why did you believe them?
Their desire to help Lana had explained everything I needed to know, and their willingness to help save the Haven kids had told me everything else that mattered.
Was I really that desperate for friendship, for any real connection, that I’d stopped questioning and analyzing everything that was happening? Had it been worth it to trade control and survival for a few minutes of laughter and living?
This has only ever been about using you.
That was truth of my life, wasn’t it? For a long time, I hadn’t been able to accept it, never mind do something about it. I’d had friends once, but lately, people only pretended to care about me as long as I could do something for them. Even Mel had been assigned to me. It hadn’t been a choice.
I couldn’t separate the thought of Mel from that of her death, and I couldn’t stop crying once I’d started. I leaned forward, bracing my arms against my knees, letting the tears drip off my face into the dirt.
“You’re—” The words locked in my chest. You’re so stupid. How could you be so stupid?
I wasn’t stupid. I had never been stupid. I was just…alone.
Wiping my face with my shirt, I took in a deep breath. Somehow, in the last few minutes, I’d become smaller, folding down into myself. I straightened. My hands toyed with the loose gravel on the road.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” I said, repeating it until the words became stronger, a command. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
I didn’t have time for this. The killers were still out there. My name was soaked in blood. The kids at Haven were counting on me to find Ruby and Liam.
“You didn’t leave.”
I hadn’t even heard the door open, or his footsteps—but that was just Roman. For all his strength, for all his deadly training, he moved through life like a whisper. Standing outside the headlights, his outline was only a bit darker than the night sky behind him, a shade away from disappearing.
Despite everything, his voice still made my heart lurch. “Is that disappointment I detect in your tone?”
“Zu—Suzume,” he corrected himself. I didn’t understand why that formality, of all things, cut me.
“Where could I have gone?” I asked him seriously, looking back. “What could I have done that wouldn’t have involved dumping your unconscious bodies on the side of some road?”
He moved unsteadily toward the hood of the car, sitting on it.
“You would have been within your rights,” Roman said. “I wouldn’t have blamed you.”
“Is Priyanka awake?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Are you worried about it at all?” I asked, unable to keep the bitterness from edging into those words. “Or is that something I don’t get to know either?”
“I wanted to tell you—”
I pushed up onto my feet. “It doesn’t matter what you wanted to do. It matters what you did. Which was lie to me.”
Roman, at least, didn’t try to dispute that. I came to stand in front of him, crossing my arms over my chest. His eyes found the bruises on my neck and stayed there, until what little color there had been in his face was gone.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
Roman didn’t look away. His hands turned up in his lap in a pose of supplication.
“Will you hear my explanation?” he asked. “I understand if you want to leave. But I need you to hear this, because it affects you. Your safety.”
“I’m willing to hear your explanation, but I can’t promise I won’t interrupt you with a hard punch,” I said. “Right now, that’s all I really want to do.”
You made me like you.
His gaze had fallen onto the sedan’s hood. At that, he looked up again. “You can. If it’ll make you feel better. Priyanka tells me there are moments I am highly punchable.”
I wanted you to like me, too.
I shook my head. “Just talk.”
He released a long breath.
I leaned a hip against the hood of the car, letting the night seep into my skin. Waiting. Roman seemed to need a moment to gather his thoughts, or, at least, construct a story in his head. It should have been my first indication there were no easy explanations.
“Have you heard of an organization called Blue Star?” he asked.
“You mean the organization you actually worked for?” His eyes widened as I said, “I heard Priyanka saying the name in the house. Your sister charmingly filled in the details for me.”
He blew out a hard breath. “Then you know that it’s a crime syndicate. A family. Run by Gregory Mercer.”
“I’ve heard of him,” I said. “He’s a smuggler. Mostly weapons.”
Roman nodded. “Running guns is a lucrative part of his business. When he was first starting out, building his name, he would take on hired work—assassinations, art thefts, bribes, money laundering. But his business didn’t expand until he started developing new drugs and flooding the market with them.”
“Whadda guy,” I said flatly.
“The drugs weren’t originally meant for market. They were the byproducts of another one of his schemes—finding a way to re-create the chemical that induced the Psi mutation in children.”
“Agent Ambrosia,” I supplied.
“Right. Agent Ambrosia.” Roman took one last deep breath. “Years ago…when I was only five, and Lana was three, our mother fell on very hard times. I told you about my father.”
“She wouldn’t take that money from him. She tried to keep us fed and safe and warm on her own. She tried.” It seemed important to him that I understand that. “We were living in Tolyatti—in Russia—when we started to hear about the troubles in America. How they were cursed with illness and their children were dying. It frightened everyone when there were a handful of cases in our country. We were no longer sent to school. We were no longer allowed outside to play with the other kids in the nearby flats. But the worst came when the economy in America crashed. The illness did not spread like we expected, but the collapse of businesses did. The car manufacturer our mother worked for closed. She lost her job, and we nearly lost everything.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and somehow, it didn’t feel like enough. “But…how did you end up here in America?”
He tilted his head, letting it lean toward his right shoulder. “Our mother would work odd jobs at all hours of the day and night. We were left to ourselves most of the time. One day, when Lana and I were outside playing, a police officer approached us. He said that our mother had been in a horrible accident, and that we needed to come to the hospital with him.”
I straightened. “Was that true?”
“No. We were loaded into a van with a few other kids and told to be quiet, or they’d kill us. We were going to a new home. They took us to an orphanage thousands of miles away, in Ukraine. They—these men”—Roman’s hands tightened around the hood—“they tried to separate me and Lana, but she was so sick. She was sick all the time. They quickly realized I would take care of her and keep her alive. They didn’t care how it was done, they just wanted their money. We were only at the orphanage for a year before Mercer bought us.”
“Bought you?” I repeated.
“The United States had closed its borders. He couldn’t legally bring us in. He couldn’t legally adopt us. The man in charge of the orphanage was willing to secretly work with him. Times were bad, and he needed the money….” Roman shook his head. “Mercer purchased me, Lana, and six others. They brought us to the country inside a shipping container. One of the boys who was traveling with us died—he froze to death
, it was that cold. Occasionally, someone came to trade out the waste bucket or bring us food, but for weeks, we lived like that. When they put the three of us in that shipping container in Pennsylvania…that was Mercer. That is the level of detail in his cruelty.”
The words locked in my throat. I could only stare at him, absorb the pain radiating from every inch of his body.
Roman’s face fell. “You don’t believe me. I understand why—I know. It sounds impossible.”