I had somehow managed to get through the day without letting my thoughts turn back to Cate and that expression on her face when she’d realized what Cole and I had done.
“Has she checked in yet?” I asked.
Cole rocked back on his heels, a crease forming between his brows. “Nope.”
“She should have listened to us.” I hadn’t realized the words were out of my mouth until Cole dropped a comforting hand on my head.
“Mark my words, Gem. Conner will come crawling back tomorrow, tail tucked between her legs when they reject her. This’ll be good for her. Everyone needs reality to punch them in the face every once in a while. Keeps you on guard.”
But that was just it. I didn’t want her knocked down like that. My anger had shallow roots. It had hurt me when she left; I didn’t have enough pride to act like it hadn’t. But I could understand her decision, that instinctive need she always had to mend fractures and soothe jagged edges. Cate couldn’t understand that the others would gladly abandon us, use us, hurt us, because she’d never once considered it herself.
To have that be our first and only conversation since we’d arrived at the Ranch—that was quietly killing me. I’d let her down so horrifically in Los Angeles, betrayed every last trace of trust she’d put in my ability to protect our team. I should have forced myself to say something to her before she left, any small conversation to start working my way back to her. Maybe it was too late now, and I’d missed my chance of trying to make things right between us.
That single, poisonous thought made me feel like I’d been turned inside out, dragged against the ground. I just didn’t know what to say, how an apology could ever be enough for her to forgive me. How do you pour the weight you feel crushing your chest into two little words? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry....
I’m sorry wasn’t enough. Not for losing him. It echoed hollowly in the space he’d left behind. I’m sorry didn’t balance out all of the things he could have, and would have, been.
Cole gave a friendly wave to one of the Green girls, Erica, who glanced over. She went bright pink and ducked back down, blocked from sight by Nico. The ghostly blue light from the computer screen gave him the look of a half-frozen corpse. The lines of his face seemed deeper, harsher, the longer he concentrated.
“I don’t think this is a good idea to have him access Clancy’s server,” I said quietly. “His judgment is impaired where Clancy’s concerned.”
“Your reservations have been noted, Gem. But he’s our man on this. I’m willing to bet on him—Nico has the most to prove. He won’t let you or Cate down again, not if he can help it.”
“The if he can help it part is the problem.”
“Hey now. You got to plead Lee’s case. I get to do the same for Nico, and it’s your turn to deal.”
“Liam didn’t give confidential information about the organization to the enemy’s son, the same person who then not only betrayed us and him, but also possibly destroyed our one shot at a cure.” I turned my back on the scene in front of me, leaning against the glass.
“Right, but if he hadn’t involved Clancy, if you hadn’t been tricked into coming back, we wouldn’t even know a cure existed.”
I stared at him, momentarily speechless.
“Didn’t think about it that way, did you?” Cole shrugged. “The loss...it opens a hole you in, a goddamn black hole at the center of your world. It sucks in your thoughts before you even have time to stop and examine them, and it’s always hungry for more. It doesn’t hurt any less to weigh what you lost against what you gained, does it?”
I shook my head. After a moment, I kicked myself off the wall, holding out the piece of paper I’d used to write down the server and password information I’d seen in Clancy’s mind. Cole took it wordlessly, glancing down at my scrawl.
“Hey, Ruby,” he said quietly. “The thing is...what they don’t tell you about forgiveness is this—you don’t give it for the other person’s sake, but your own.”
“Who’d you steal that one from?” I asked.
“That one’s courtesy of having lived and learned.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, I’m sure—”
My mind couldn’t finish the thought. It was there, then gone, just like the shadows that passed in his eyes. The recovery was just as quick—Cole’s eyes jumped from me to the floor, and then the smile he forced onto his face was actually painful to witness. After a moment, he shrugged, his arms coming up and crossing over his chest. He was daring me to say something about it, and the longer I didn’t, the harder it was for him to stand there, stand still. I saw the moment that vulnerability welled to the surface inside of him. The uncertainty of the moment made him look young, like a boy standing there waiting for some kind of punishment to be delivered.
“Who did you have to forgive?” I asked. It wasn’t my business, I knew that, but his reaction had left my chest hollow. I wanted to know; I wanted him to tell me, to ease some of the weight of whatever-it-was off him, just for a second.
“It’s not—listen, it doesn’t matter, just—just think about it?” He fumbled for the words, raking his hand back through his cropped hair. There were so many possible answers to my question: his parents for not seeing what he was, Liam for giving him a hard time, the remnants of the League for turning their backs on him. I knew about all of that, and the fact he wouldn’t say, wouldn’t so much as look at me, told me it had to be something and someone else. It had to be much worse than what I’d imagined.
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