Chubs made his way up the porch steps, walking toward Liam’s outstretched arm and slinging it over his shoulder under the guise of supporting him. “Honestly, if you’d just be a little more careful…”
“And,” I whispered, trailing behind them, “they’re back.”
VIDA ROLLED UP TO THE house a half hour later. She blew in with the force of a gale, beating the actual thunderstorm that was flirting with the horizon. A piece of bread fell out of Max’s mouth when she announced herself by saying, “That fucking drive through no-man’s-land, Oklahoma, was the icing on a seven-layer shit cake.”
I seemed to recover first, hurrying over to shut the door behind her and take the smaller of the two bags she carried.
“Thank God you’re all right,” she said when I hugged her. “I should kick your ass for making me chase you all over these damn zones. It was really hard to pretend I hated you.”
“I’ll try to remember that next time I get framed for a terrorist attack,” I said dryly.
She slung an arm around my neck. “You look like a fucking street punk. I dig it.”
“Hi to you, too,” I said, then nodded at the bag she’d set down. “What’s in there?”
“The last of my patience and a few assault rifles.”
Chubs stood to kiss her, and it would never not surprise me that Vida let him. She took a step back, attempting to appear nonchalant as she inspected him. “Why do you look like you missed the bus to the science fair?”
He glanced down at himself. “You bought me this sweater.”
“Not to wear with that awful shirt, I didn’t.” When Liam let out a strained chuckle, she fixed her dark eyes on him. “I don’t want to hear a laugh out of you. You look like you’ve been living under a tunnel and subsisting solely on the flesh of rats.”
“It’s been three years since you called me ugly to my face,” Liam said happily, pushing himself up out of his chair. Her put-on look of disdain wavered as she saw him struggle toward her.
Vida stared at the others over his shoulder as he came in for a hug of his own. “And I have no idea who the fuck you three are.”
“That’s Priyanka, Max, and Rambo,” Liam explained. “They’re our new little buddies.”
Roman started to correct him, but Vida held up her hand. “No. I don’t care what your real name is. You are now Rambo.”
“It’s Roman,” I said, shaking my head.
“Thank you,” he murmured. As long as we’d been talking, he’d kept that tense posture. His near-silence reminded me how overwhelming it could be to listen to this group’s back-and-forth.
“Introductions over,” Vida said. She and Chubs took seats on the floor, rounding off our circle. Max let out a burp, pounding his chest as he swallowed the last of the bottles of apple juice. It joined two other empty jugs on the coffee table.
Priyanka and I took turns explaining everything that had happened, pausing now and then to let Roman or Max elaborate. By the time we reached the body of the girl in Baton Rouge, all three of them, even Chubs and Liam, who had already heard the story, fell into a stricken silence. When I described the Pit, both Chubs and Vida looked inconsolable.
“You can say it,” Chubs said, his voice strangled as he looked over to Liam. “You were right.”
For his part, Liam only wiped a hand down over his face, pressing it against his eyes. He shook his head. “Not going to gloat about the suffering of kids. And I wasn’t completely right, either. It’s not like you guys didn’t get good work done—I have no doubt that the world would be a hell of a lot uglier for us right now if not for you. Things were just weighted against us from the start, and we trusted them more than they were ever willing to trust us.”
“The government equipment at the Pit is an indication they’re expanding the program. I never thought Cruz would be that careless.” Chubs looked to Max, who was staring into the empty fireplace. “I’m sorry about everything you went through. We’re going to make this right.”
“She’s not being careless. She’s desperate,” I said. “We know better than to trust that others have our best interests at heart, but we did it anyway out of hope. That’s the limitation of hope—everyone else’s agenda.”
“I understand what you’re saying,” Chubs said. “But if we stop trying to genuinely work with the government, what sympathy the country has left for us will wear thin very quickly. If we move against them, they’ll start seeing us as a true threat, and then the Pit will be only the beginning.”
“But you have to admit that you have your doubts about the system, too, otherwise you would have told me about Ruby being missing,” I barreled on, letting the sting of betrayal back into those words. “You didn’t trust that the government wasn’t listening to everything we said over text, on the phone, in person. You didn’t tell me because you knew what would happen to her if they somehow found her first.”
“We couldn’t let the FBI or the Defenders know that we were reaching out to the Children’s League network, or that we were still in contact with her,” Vida said. “And if the government had her at some black site, we didn’t want them to move her before we could get to her.”
“Jesus,” Liam breathed out, paling.
I recognized that growing blend of horror, anger, and anguish on Chubs’s face—I’d spent the last week lost in it. Only now, I could put a name to it.
He and the others on the Council had tried to protect us, but they had no way of truly blocking the government from enacting something like this. Their outward support of these policies to the public had inadvertently provided a shield that prevented closer inspection of their actions. We had all played a role in normalizing what was happening.
“I realize this is a shitty system, but it’s our shitty system,” Vida said. “Right now the choice is binary. If we can keep Cruz in office, then we have a shot at a better future where someone will at least pretend to care about us. If Moore gets elected, we’re not just fucked, we’re all conscripted into forced military service at best, and imprisoned for life at worst.”
I don’t know how I managed to swallow the scream of frustration building in me. We needed something new, and they couldn’t see that. Not yet.
“How are you doing, Max?” Roman asked quietly. Liam’s gaze shot to the end of the couch.
Max coughed, pounding his chest as he got to his feet. “Let me go wash my face and try to clear my head. I just need a few more minutes.”
“While we wait, I want to hear more about the evidence you gathered,” Chubs said. “Did you get something from the Pit?”
Priyanka pulled a flash drive out of her back pocket. “We got all the raw footage and material we could. Does anyone have a computer we could use?”
Chubs shot to his feet. “I do. Let me just get it out of the car.”
Priyanka met him at the door, prying the laptop out of his hands and plopping down next to me on the couch. She went to work immediately.
“What exactly are we waiting on the other kid for?” Vida asked Liam.
“He’s going to do some kind of reading,” Liam said. “I don’t know.”
“Do you want me to tell it this time?” I asked Roman and Priyanka. They nodded, both looking a bit grateful.
By the end of my explanation, I could have tipped Chubs, Liam, and Vida over like a row of dominos.
“And Mercer has more kids he’s testing on?” Liam pressed his hand to his face. “Yo
u’re right—this has to be what Ruby was chasing. And Clancy was the one to put her on the trail initially, for the sake of his own endgame.”
“What I don’t understand is why Moore thinks other countries are just going to let him have a Psi army,” Chubs said, sitting on the arm of Liam’s chair. “If anything, it’ll cause a war. Or the other countries will have to find a more terrifying way to counteract it. And why the fixation on Zu? If it’s Blue Star framing her…why?”
“I don’t think it is Blue Star,” Vida said, a dark expression on her face. “I think it’s Joseph Fucking Moore. He’s the asshole that’s been playing it up, floating mentions of the Psion Ring any chance he can get. He needs someone to prove his point. But Charlie and I were right there. Why Zu?”
“Too much security,” Roman said. “Zu had a lighter detail. Moore could have asked for the frame job and had Blue Star kidnap Zu so that he could eventually claim the credit of being the one to ‘capture’ her.”
“Damn,” Vida said. “That’s so evil, I’m almost impressed. He gets to be the hero—”
I took a deep, burning breath. “And win the election in a landslide.”
“We need to find Ruby,” Liam said, his eyes wild. He started to rise, only to be ushered back into his chair by Chubs.
Something came together inside me as I watched Liam fall apart. I wanted to lift him out of that dark, suffocating place, the way he had for me all those years ago. He had to be so strong for all of us back then, when we’d been at our most powerless. He could get up again and again after every hit. Even after his brother was killed, it hadn’t occurred to me that Liam could be broken.
I had never once considered that he might have needed Haven as much as Ruby had.
“I know,” Chubs said, locking him inside the circle of his arms. “Lee, we all know.”
Finally, Liam went still, slumping forward to rest his forehead against Chubs’s shoulder.