“No,” I said, horrified. “I just want to know what system, or part of her mind, he affected to leave her like this.”

Chubs sat back, his excitement still there, verging on gleeful. “It’s going to take me a little time to find the answer. I’ll have to go through all of these books.”

“Hey, losers,” Vida said from the doorway, still flushed and dripping with sweat from her workout. “I think you’re going to want to see what they’re working on in the garage.”

18

IT TOOK ME A MOMENT to even understand what I was seeing as we approached. Duct tape held up two white sheets as a backdrop behind Zu, who was perched on a folding chair. She glowed under the flood of light from four desk lamps that had all been turned and angled toward her. They’d set up a poor man’s version of a studio in the corner of the room.

There were two other chairs; the one facing her, next to the camera, was for Alice, who was fiddling with the device. The other was for Liam, who sat to Zu’s right, talking to her quietly.

He was the one that spotted us first, and scowled.

“What’s going on?” Chubs asked, trying to take in the scene.

“Suzume’s agreed to do an interview with us,” Alice said, craning her neck around to look at us. She was still dressed in all black, but her hair was twisted now into a messy bun. Next to her were two different notebooks, each open to a page full of scribbles in blue ink. She had a third in her lap.

Cole said you only get one shot to prove this would work. I almost said it, but it felt petty. After only a few hours, there was no real way to measure the full impact of the first media package they’d already released.

“Is there a problem?” Liam asked.

Vida let out a whistle, as if already predicting how this situation was going to play out. But contrary to what Liam apparently thought, I wasn’t here to pick a fight.

“Zu,” I said, “can I talk to you? Just for a second?”

She nodded immediately, and I felt tension release its hold on my stomach. I led her a little way away from the others.

“Are you okay doing this?” I asked. She gave me a bright nod, and held up her fingers in an “okay” sign.

“And you understand that if you do this, your face will be all over the place—they explained that, right?” I didn’t want her to think I was treating her like a kid incapable of making her own decisions, and I didn’t want to imply that Liam would ever purposefully trick her, but I needed the confirmation from her. My first instinct with the others, no matter what, would always be to act like a shield, positioning myself between them and the prying eyes of the world. And Zu, being Zu, seemed to understand.

She slid the small, narrow notebook out of her pocket and wrote, I can’t fight, right? Not at Oasis. Not at Thurmond?

When I shook my head she didn’t seem upset by it, just resigned. This is the only way I can think of to do something. I want to help!

“I hope you don’t think I haven’t noticed or appreciated all that you’ve done here at the Ranch so far,” I said.

Zu kept writing. What happened yesterday made me realize it’s important to speak up and say your piece—what you believe in.

“Liam has that effect on people,” I said quietly.

She took my arm and moved her thumb from the corner of the page, so I could see what else she had written. I want to be strong like you. I want to do this to help you get what you want. I’m tired of being scared. I don’t want them to win.

The words stole the pain in my heart away, just for a little while. I managed to smile at her, and hugged her tight enough that she let out a silent, shuddering laugh.

“Okay,” I said. “Liam’s talking for you?”

She nodded. I told him he could as long as he wasn’t in the shot. He said it was okay, but I don’t want anyone to go looking for his family because of this.

“What about your family?”

My family is here.

I bit my lip. “You’re right. We are. And, for what it’s worth, I think you’re going to knock ’em dead.”

Zu scribbled something down in her notebook and held it up for me to see. I will. I’ve been practicing. Will you stay and watch?

“Of course.”

Chubs and Vida were still standing where I’d left them, talking quietly to each other, their backs turned to Liam. They stepped away from each other as I came closer, and the quiet conversation between Liam and Alice ended the moment Zu sat back down.

I felt Liam’s eyes flick to me, just for a moment, but I kept my own eyes on Zu, gave her an encouraging little smile when she glanced over one last time.

“Ready?” Liam asked.

“I have paper and a pen for her to write with,” Alice said, picking up one of the bigger notebooks from the floor and holding it out to her. “She can tell me to stop at any point, and I will. She and I shook on it.”

“I know. Go ahead.”

Liam’s jaw worked back and forth, but he said nothing. Alice waited only a moment for me to lodge another protest before she turned. From where I stood behind her, I could watch as she switched her camera over from still photos to video. Zu couldn’t fix her eyes on the camera lens for long, not without a look of wariness. I watched as she adjusted her plain white shirt and jeans, folded and unfolded her hands in her lap. Crossed and uncrossed her ankles.

“Okay, sweetheart, make sure you write nice and big so Liam can easily read it. If you don’t want to answer anything, just shake your head. Okay? Great—let’s start off with two easy ones: can you tell me your name and age, please?”

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