She was standing at the entrance to the A line, the one that went straight up to Cord’s place. Why not? she decided; he wouldn’t be home till much later anyway. It would be nice to escape for a while into Cord’s safe, blackmail-free, upper-floor world.
* * *
Several hours later Rylin was curled up on an armchair in Cord’s library, with the fireplace holo turned on and an old instaphoto book of his mom’s in her lap, when she heard a noise in the doorway. “Cord, I’m sorry,” she said, only to look up and see Brice. She hadn’t even realized he was back in town.
“Looks like you’re working hard,” he drawled.
“Cord lets me take breaks,” she said defensively. But she knew what it looked like, her making herself at home like this, and he knew it too.
Brice threw up his hands in surrender. “Far be it from me to criticize. I like jobs with benefits too, you know.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Rylin said. He took a step forward, and she shrunk back, holding the book in front of her like a shield. “Listen, why don’t you—”
“What’s going on?” Cord stood in the doorway. Rylin’s heart gave a grateful lurch.
“I was just having a scintillating conversation with our maid here, about work ethics.” Brice winked and slunk out the door.
“I’m sorry,” Rylin said uncertainly, though why she was apologizing, she wasn’t sure.
“Oh, that’s just Brice. He acts all scary, but his heart’s in the right place.”
Is it, though? Rylin thought. She knew that Cord’s assholeness was just an act—and she knew where he’d learned it from—but she wasn’t so sure with Brice.
“What are you looking at?” Cord nodded at the book as he took the seat next to her.
“Nothing, really.” Rylin had been flipping idly through the photos, looking for more images of her mom, though she hadn’t found any so far. “I didn’t mean to lose track of time,” she added, but Cord waved her protest away.
“I love this room too.” He glanced around at the shelves of antique books, the floral-printed carpet under their feet, the simulated fire, crackling and emanating heat so convincingly that it seemed real.
Rylin looked from the antique clock on the wall to Cord. He was wearing a plain gray T-shirt, and there was dirt caked around the hems of his jeans. “You skipped school again today?” she asked, though she already knew the answer.
“Special occasion,” was all he said. Then, “Hey, I haven’t seen those pics in forever! Are those of my fourth-birthday party? The Aladdin-themed one with the holo genie?”
Rylin wordlessly held out the photo album, and Cord began flipping through the pages; stopping here and there to point out childhood versions of his current friends, an enormous cake with far more than four candles, a holographic magic show that apparently scared Brice so much he wet his pants. Rylin nodded from time to time, not really paying attention. In her mind she was still in that prison visiting room, seeing Hiral in a new light.
Cord had stopped talking and was looking at her expectantly, clearly waiting for an answer to something. “Oh!” Rylin exclaimed, startled. “That’s so … um …”
Cord put his hand over hers. “Rylin. What’s going on?”
Rylin flipped her hand over and laced her fingers in his. She hated that she couldn’t be fully honest with Cord. She was trapped by all the lies she’d told, building and building on top of one another like that old party game where you stacked tiles until they fell over. “A friend of mine was arrested. I visited him in jail today,” she admitted, telling as much of the truth as she could. “It’s got me a little shaken up, to be honest.”
“I’m sorry,” Cord said. Rylin gave a helpless shrug. “What was he arrested for?” he added after a moment.
“Did he do it?”
Something about the question put Rylin on the defensive. “Yeah, he did,” she said shortly.
“You don’t get it, okay? You don’t understand what it’s like downTower, that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to! Because you don’t have a choice!”
“You always have a choice,” Cord said quietly.
Rylin stood up abruptly, closing the instaphoto album and putting it back on the shelf. A rational part of her knew that Cord was right. But for some reason she was still upset.
“Hey. I’m sorry.” Cord came up and wrapped his arms around her from behind. “You’ve had a rough day. I didn’t mean to … I’m sorry,” he said again.
“I’m fine,” Rylin protested, though she didn’t move.
They stood for a while like that, saying nothing. There was something strangely calming about his stillness. Finally Cord stepped back.
“I, for one, am starving,” he said, in a clear effort to break the tension. “What should we order?”
“Do you always get delivery?”
“Well, I’d offer to cook for you, but my skills in the kitchen are limited to frozen noodles and, apparently, making an ass of myself.”
“You deserved that slap,” Rylin said, smiling in spite of herself at the memory. It seemed like a long time ago.