“Leda!” A blond whirlwind hurtled forward to engulf her in a hug.
“Avery.” Leda smiled into her friend’s hair, gently disentangling herself. She took a step back and looked up—and faltered momentarily, her old insecurities rushing back. Seeing Avery again was always a shock to the system. Leda tried not to let it bother her, but sometimes she couldn’t help thinking how unfair it was. Avery already had the perfect life, up in the thousandth-floor penthouse. Did she really have to be perfect too? Seeing Avery next to the Fullers, Leda could never quite believe that she’d been created from their DNA.
It sucked sometimes, being best friends with the girl too flawless to come from nature. Leda, on the other hand, probably came from a night of tequila shots on her parents’ anniversary.
“Want to get out of here?” Avery asked, pleading.
“Yes,” Leda said. She would do anything for Avery, although this time she didn’t really need to be coaxed.
Avery turned to embrace Leda’s parents. “Mr. Cole! Mrs. Cole! Welcome home.” Leda watched as they laughed and hugged her back, opening up like flowers in sunlight. No one was immune to Avery’s spell.
“Can I steal your daughter?” Avery asked, and they nodded. “Thanks. I’ll have her home by dinner!” Avery called out, her arm already in Leda’s, tugging her insistently toward the seven-hundredth-floor thoroughfare.
“Wait a sec.” Next to Avery’s crisp red skirt and cropped shirt, Leda’s end-of-rehab outfit—a plain gray T-shirt and jeans—looked positively drab. “I want to change if we’re going out.”
“I was thinking we’d just go to the park?” Avery blinked rapidly, her pupils darting back and forth as she summoned a hover. “A bunch of the girls are hanging out there, and everyone wants to see you. Is that okay?”
“Of course,” Leda said automatically, shoving aside the prickle of annoyance she felt that they weren’t hanging out one-on-one.
They walked out the helipad’s double doors and into the thoroughfare, a massive transportation hub that spanned several city blocks. The ceilings overhead glowed a bright cerulean. To Leda, they seemed just as beautiful as anything she’d seen on her afternoon hikes at Silver Cove. But Leda wasn’t the type to look for beauty in nature. Beauty was a word she reserved for expensive jewelry, and dresses, and Avery’s face.
“So tell me about it,” Avery said in that direct way of hers, as they stepped onto the carbon-composite sidewalks that lined the silver hover paths. Cylindrical snackbots hummed past on enormous wheels, selling dehydrated fruit and coffee pods.
“What?” Leda tried to snap to attention. Hovers streamed down the street to her left, their movements darting and coordinated like a school of fish, colored green or red depending on whether they were free. She instinctively moved a little closer to Avery.
“Illinois. Was it as bad as usual?” Avery’s eyes went distant. “Hover call,” she said under her breath, and one of the vehicles darted out of the pack.
“You want to hover all the way to the park?” Leda asked, dodging the question, trying to sound normal. She’d forgotten the sheer volume of people here—parents dragging their children, businesspeople talking loudly into their contacts, couples holding hands. It felt overwhelming after the curated calm of rehab.
“You’re back, it’s a special occasion!” Avery exclaimed.
Leda took a deep breath and smiled just as their hover pulled up. It was a narrow two-seater with a plush eggshell interior, floating several centimeters above the ground thanks to the magnetic propulsion bars in its floor. Avery took the seat across from Leda and keyed in their destination, sending the hover on its way.
“Maybe next year they’ll let you miss it. And then you and I can travel together,” Avery went on as the hover dropped into one of the Tower’s vertical corridors. The yellow track lighting on the tunnel walls danced in strange patterns across her cheekbones.
“Maybe.” Leda shrugged. She wanted to change the subject. “You’re insanely tan, by the way. That’s from Florence?”
“Monaco. Best beaches in the world.”
“Not better than your grandmother’s house in Maine.” They’d spent a week there after freshman year, lying outside in the sun and sneaking sips of Grandma Lasserre’s port wine.
“True. There weren’t even any cute lifeguards in Monaco,” Avery said with a laugh.
Their hover slowed, then began to move horizontally as it turned onto 307. Normally coming to a floor so low would count as serious downsliding, but visits to Central Park were an exception. As they pulled to a stop at the north-northeast park entrance, Avery turned to Leda, her deep blue eyes suddenly serious. “I’m glad you’re back, Leda. I missed you this summer.”
“Me too,” Leda said quietly.
She followed Avery through the park entrance, past the famous cherry tree that had been reclaimed from the original Central Park. A few tourists were leaning on the fence that surrounded it, taking snaps and reading the tree’s history on the interactive touch screen alongside it. There was nothing else left of the original park, which lay beneath the Tower’s foundations, far below their feet.
They turned toward the hill where Leda already knew their friends would be. Avery and Leda had discovered this spot together in seventh grade; after a great deal of experimentation, they’d concluded it was the best place to soak in the UV-free rays of the solar lamp. As they walked, the spectragrass along the path shifted from mint green to a soft lavender. A holographic cartoon gnome ran through a park on their left, followed by a line of squealing children.