“Forgive my hostility,” Chubs began, his voice low. “I suppose I’m just wondering why, if the two of you are so happy and settled, you waited until now to finally get in touch to let us know you were still alive.”
Ruby and Liam shared another look.
Chubs’s hand slapped down on the table. “Stop that! Just say it.”
“We wanted to make sure that…” Ruby’s voice trailed off. “We needed time to set this place up, and to get a clear view of what was happening in Washington. Since they don’t seem to have pulled back on the search for us—”
“They haven’t pulled back at all,” Chubs said sharply. “You want to know why Vida couldn’t come? Because the only way she could avoid being detained for obstruction of justice was to agree to join the task force looking for you!”
I didn’t know that. I just assumed she and Cate were working on a number of national security matters, like zone-crossing control.
“I’m sorry,” Ruby said, rubbing at her forehead. “I should have realized something like that would happen.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” Liam said vehemently. “Forgive us for thinking our friends might want to come live here with us and do some actual good.”
Some actual good.
The words pierced my anxious swirl of thoughts. Chubs’s whole body stiffened, absorbing that blow.
“You want us to…live here?” I asked, wondering why I couldn’t feel my hands, why my whole body seemed to be going numb.
“Yes,” Liam said. “It’s safer for you. For both of you. Plus, you’ll be with kids your own age. We can figure out a way to get Vida here, too.”
He said it with such sincerity, with all that hope and goodness that was Liam, I couldn’t bring myself to say the words that were locked in my throat.
This was the person who had lifted me out of the snow and carried me to safety.
This was the person who had held me after every nightmare.
This was a person I loved. Who I never wanted to disappoint, not ever.
But the only answer I had to his offer was I’m not a kid.
If I stayed here with them, it would always be this way.
I didn’t want to live outside of the system, not anymore. I didn’t want to live with the uncertainty of one day being discovered. I wanted to be hopeful. I wanted to help make things better for everyone, not just seek safety for myself. Liam and Ruby could help a dozen kids here, but I could help thousands.
I didn’t want to feel powerless anymore.
“I didn’t fight so hard to survive so that I could live out in the woods and commune with nature or whatever bullshit you’re going to accomplish out here,” Chubs said, rising out of his chair.
“Tell me how you really feel,” Liam said, his voice colder than I’d ever heard it. Ruby closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath. I wondered if, in that moment, she wanted to disappear. Or if she wanted the rest of us to.
“You’re trying to protect kids? Great. Save them. Be the savior—that was always your favorite role, Liam, because it’s uncomplicated. It doesn’t make you doubt yourself. It doesn’t make you feel bad about having to make hard choices. Meanwhile, the rest of us are back under every lens imaginable, under threat every single day, trying to make actual lasting change happen.”
“Yeah?” Liam said, standing. “And what have you accomplished? Forcing everyone to wear those stupid badges so other people can scorn and belittle them? Making kids go back into the same homes that rejected them in the first place? How are those promised reparations going, by the way? Think we’ll see any sort of apology, any sort of amends by the next century? Or are you going to roll over on that one, too?”
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. The world went out of focus. Chubs and Liam stared at each other from across the table, both trying to control their expressions. Finally, Liam turned, disappearing through the living room.
Chubs took one last look at Ruby. Then he was gone, sweeping out of the kitchen. The back door slammed shut. The front door followed a second later. I jumped both times.
Ruby leaned back in her chair, releasing a slow, heavy breath.
“I’m sorry.” The words were strangled by the painful knot in my throat. “I didn’t think it would be like this….”
“This is pretty much exactly how I thought it’d be,” Ruby said faintly. “I knew Chubs would be upset, but I think…I didn’t realized he’d feel so betrayed.”
“You left us,” I whispered. Somehow, I got my feet under me even as it felt like my whole body was dissolving. It was embarrassing to cry, but I couldn’t help myself. This didn’t feel right.
“I did,” Ruby said, her expression crumpling. “I know I did.”
“I can’t stay here,” I told her. “This place is perfect. You will give these kids the love they need. But it’s not for me.”
“I understand,” she said.
Did she? I felt like I needed to explain, like I had to pour my heart out to her so she’d know that I loved her, that I loved him, that I loved the us that used to exist. But I couldn’t be powerless. I couldn’t stay here.
“It’s all right,” Ruby said, coming around the table to hug me. “I promise that it’ll be all right. Everything changes. It has to.”
“Not us,” I cried. “Never us.”
She leaned down, whispering, “It’s painful because we care. Don’t ever stop caring. Don’t let anyone make you cold. You are already the strongest person I know.”
I shook my head as she eased me back, smoothing the stray hairs off my face. “You know where to find us now. You can come back anytime you’d like. No matter what happens, there will always be a place for you here.”
“Will you…will you tell him I’m sorry?” I said, looking in the direction Liam had gone. “He’s going to hate me.”
“He would never,” Ruby said. “Never. I know it seems like…like what we’re doing is small, but this…” She took a deep breath. “I know what people expect from me, what they need from me, but this is what I can offer to the world right now. This is a piece of myself that doesn’t need mending. It doesn’t need to be healed. It’s something new and fragile that I need to protect. I know that might not make sense to you now, but this is my place. Every kid we help puts the pieces of my heart back together.”
“But you find what you’re meant to do,” Ruby said. “I will be there to help you, no matter what.”
It felt like I was leaving my body as we walked toward the front door. Ruby hovered nearby as I slipped my shoes back on. I started to pull my hat off the hook, but stopped myself. “Maybe the new girl will need it?”
Ruby tried her best to smile, pushing back the flood of emotions. Hugging her arms to her chest, she said, “I’ll see you later, okay?”
The possibility was a dream, and I think we both knew that. There could be no casual drop-ins. I wouldn’t be calling them for weekly updates. We’d barely managed to get away this time, and I knew, after the stunt we’d just pulled, there’d be even more focus on our movements.
I looked back at her one last time, my hand on the door.
“Go on,” she said softly. “Chubs needs you.”
The rain had eased up by the time I stepped onto the porch. I waited there, just for a moment, to see if Liam might appear, but Chubs had already gone on ahead. I didn’t want him to leave without me.
Tears blurred again in my eyes as I followed his fresh tracks back down the trail, the cold stinging my cheeks and hands. By the time I reached the lake, Chubs had already dragged the boat toward the water. As my shoes crunched on the pebbles, he spun around, nearly dropping the oars. The look of surprise on his face nearly broke my heart all over again.
Together we eased the boat back into the water and, together, we rowed back to the opposite shore. The fog swirled behind us, erasing the sight of Haven’s trail.
“I hate this rain, you know?” Chubs said, turning his tea
r-slick face up to the overcast sky. “It just never stops.”
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” Liam kept repeating the question, sounding as dazed as I felt. “What in the world are you doing here?”
I couldn’t speak. I held on to him tighter, my face pressed into his flannel jacket, like he was a mirage that could fade at any minute.
Liam suddenly tensed, turning to face the entrance to the barn. Roman’s gun was inches from his skull.
“Hey, Rambo,” Liam said through gritted teeth. “You want to take it down a notch?”
I stepped back out of his arms, and, at my nod, Roman lowered the gun.
“Sorry,” he murmured as he passed by us. “Old habits.”
“Yeah, I’ve got some of those, too,” Liam said, still eyeing him warily.
Roman stepped into the barn to scan its shadows and many hiding places.
“Hello…stranger Zu seems to like,” Priyanka said, leaning into the barn to take a look. Her whole face lit up. “Ooh! A horse!”
Priyanka ran right past us, heading straight for the nearby stall. A white horse watched the scene unfold, casually chewing on its food.