In the end, it didn’t matter what happened to me—I understood what Nico had meant now, when he talked about making amends. I couldn’t go back and change the things that had happened to them, but I could sure as hell put them in charge of their own futures. It would be worth it. Losing this...it would feel worth it. One day.
But now, it only hurt. It felt like tearing myself into pieces. The end came with silence, and I knew Liam felt it, even if he was too stubborn to admit it to himself. There was nothing left to say. I turned and started back up the stairs.
“I’ll be around,” he called after me, “when you decide you want to find me.”
Swallowing the painful lump in my throat, I kept my back to him and said, “Don’t bother waiting.”
I was at the top of the stairs, pushing the door open, when he said, “Maybe I won’t.”
The door swung shut behind me, clicking quietly back into place. I let my body seize up, the pain tearing through me as I went into the nearest bunk room and collapsed down onto one of the beds. I clenched my fists, released them, clenched and released, trying to work out the unbearable tightness, to set some kind of rhythm for my breathing instead of the horrible, rough gasping. Laughing voices drifted down the hall from the big room, at odds with the screaming inside of my head.
I don’t know how it happened, only that my vision blurred. By the time it finally cleared, I was standing inside Alban’s office with no memory of getting there. When I turned, there were two figures standing in the doorway, shoulder to shoulder, wearing mirrored expressions of concern. They seemed to communicate a whole conversation in a single look.
“So...” Vida began. “What did we miss?”
“WHEN DID YOU GET IN?” The question bounced off the walls of the tunnel as Vida, Chubs, and a newly arrived Cole and I all walked toward the bar. “Why didn’t you let us know you were so close? You do actually have Lillian, right?”
“Oh, we have her,” Chubs said, his gaze drifting over to Vida. “And an explanation for not calling.”
She let out a huff, crossing her arms over her chest. “It was an accident!”
“Yes, well”—he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose delicately—“the burner phone we had accidentally fell out of the car, and someone accidentally backed over it. Because someone was in a rush after she accidentally alerted some skip tracers we were nearby when she accidentally used her abilities to move a light pole out of the road after she had accidentally backed into it.”
“Someone better shut their mouth before I accidentally slam my fist into their teeth.” She punched his shoulder, and it was almost...playful.
“Shut his mouth, fist into his teeth.”
“Really? A grammar lesson?”
As we climbed the ladder, I let Cole explain what had happened during the Oasis hit. I felt too newly bruised to articulate what I needed to say, and, worse, the heaviness in my skull made me feel like I was trapped underwater. I couldn’t look Chubs in the eye, no matter what he did to slyly get my attention. Liam would tell him the whole story and he would side with his friend and I just couldn’t. I couldn’t with anything that didn’t directly relate to Lillian Gray or Thurmond.
Vida led the four of us out of the bar’s back room and into the main one. Everything had been boarded up, the useful things like plates and glasses brought down into the Ranch. The shadows were so pervasive, I almost missed the small form cowering in the far back corner booth.
She wore jeans that were clearly too big for her and a button-down shirt that must have belonged to a man. All of her blond hair was tucked up into a Braves baseball cap. She took in her surroundings with a lethal stillness, alert and assessing. The hardness in her eyes, her stance—they were all in her son, too. The sight was enough to halt my steps, turn my blood to ice. I’d always thought that Clancy physically resembled his father, but the details, the tapping of her finger against her crossed arms...She didn’t say a word, but I heard her voice all the same, the echo of what I’d picked up in her son’s mind. Clancy, my sweet Clancy...
I sucked in a sharp breath.
“They weren’t keeping her inside of Kansas HQ,” Vida said. “She was in one of the smaller perimeter buildings. We only knew how to find her because we picked up on radio transmissions between the agents talking about the arrangements to trade her for the agents Gray’s men picked up—they kept the agents alive specifically to get her back. So you were wrong, asswipe,” she informed Cole, “and this better be damn well worth it, because I could have had Cate back and not Looney Tunes over there.”
Cole nodded and stepped forward, approaching the woman with all the care and cautiousness afforded to a spooked animal. “Hi, Dr. Gray. You’re safe here.”
She either didn’t understand, or she didn’t care—throwing his hand off her, she turned to bolt toward the door. The way she pounded her fists against the worn wood made my own hands ache. “Pale...ah...out...car...more...now—now—one, two, three, four, five—”
The words barely sounded like words—they were emphasized and accented strangely, the way someone would talk around a full mouth, or if their tongue was clamped between teeth.
I turned back toward Vida, who only gave a tired sigh. “For someone who can’t talk or understand for shit, she is a major pain in the ass.”
“She’s talking, though—” I was interrupted by her guttural cry as Cole lifted her up and tried to pin her arms to her side.