The kid didn’t let one word finish before starting the next. I blinked, trying to twist away from his embrace.
“Judith, girlfriend looks fresh out of cuddles,” came a low voice somewhere past his shoulder. “Unclench.”
Jude backed off immediately, letting off a nervous laugh. “Sorry, sorry. It is nice to meet you, though. Cate told us a lot about you—that you were in the same camp as Martin?”
There was a weird twinge in his voice when he said the other Orange’s name. His pitch went up, cracking on the word.
I nodded; he knew what I was, then. And he’d still touched me. What a brave, stupid kid.
“That’s Vida on the bed over there,” Cate said, nudging me toward the other girl.
I must have taken a step back; the force of her gaze made me feel like I had been shoved into the nearest corner. I don’t know how I had missed her sitting on the cot, arms and legs crossed with total and complete indifference. But now that I was seeing her, I felt myself shrinking back just that tiny bit.
She was honest-to-God lovely, some perfect mix of ethnicities—her skin a glowing brown that reminded me of a warm autumn afternoon, almond-shaped eyes, hair dyed an electric blue. It was the kind of face you’d expect to see in a magazine: high, bold cheekbones and full lips that seemed always fixed in a small smirk.
“Hi. Nice of you to finally drag your ass in.” Her voice was loud, rich, and every word felt like it was punctuated with a slap. When she stood up to hug Cate, I felt two inches tall and as solid as air.
Instead of reclaiming her seat, she stayed standing, inching in front of Cate so that she stood between us. I knew that stance. How many times had I taken that position in front of Zu, or Chubs, or Liam? How many times had they done it for me? With her back to the woman, Vida studied me closely. “You poor thing. Just follow me and you’ll be fine.”
It’s like that, is it? I thought, bristling at her tone.
When she looked back at Cate, it was all sweetness again. Her dark skin had an unmistakably happy glow.
“That’s Nico in the corner,” Vida said, taking over the introductions. “Dude, can you unplug for two seconds?”
Nico was sitting on the floor, his back to Cate’s tiny dresser. He looked small to me somehow, and I immediately saw what Cate meant when she had used the word delicate. It wasn’t his stature or his build, both of which were slight, but the tense lines of his face. A stray strand of raven-black hair escaped from the clutches of the gel cementing his comb-back as he said, “Hi. Nice to meet you.”
And then he dropped his eyes to the small black device in his hands, his fingers flying over the keys. The device cast his tan skin an unnaturally bright white, highlighting even his near-black eyes.
“So, what’s your story?” Vida asked.
I tensed, one arm crossing over the other in a mimic of her stance. And I knew, without any doubt, that if this was going to work—if I was going to live with these kids and see them and train with them—then there needed to be distance. The one thing the past few weeks had driven into me over and over was the more you got to know someone, the more you inevitably came to care about him or her. The lines between you became blurred, and when the separation came, it was excruciating to untangle yourself from that life.
Even if I had wanted to tell them about Thurmond, there was no way to put that kind of pain into words. No way to make them understand, not when just the thought of the Garden, the Factory, the Infirmary was enough to choke me with anger. The burn stayed in my chest and lingered there for days after, the same way the bleach used to blister our hands in the Laundry.
“What about Martin?” Jude asked. His fingers twisted around one another, wringing his hands pink. “Are we going to have five on our team?”
Cate didn’t miss a beat. “Martin was transferred to Kansas. He’ll be working with the agents there.”
Vida swung back toward her. “Really?”
“Yes,” Cate said. “Ruby will be taking his place as team leader.”
It was over that quickly. Whatever fake pleasantries Vida had managed to summon up for Cate went out with a single, sharp breath, and in that second, I saw the flash of betrayal. I saw her physically swallow the words down and nod.
“Wait, what?” I choked out. I didn’t want this—I didn’t want any of this.
“Cool! Congrats!” Jude gave me a friendly punch to the shoulder, pushing me out of my daze.
“I know you’ll all help Ruby feel welcome and show her the ropes,” Cate said.
“Yeah,” Vida said through her teeth. “Of course. Anything she wants.”
“Let’s go get dinner together,” Jude said in a bright voice. Totally and blissfully ignorant of the way Vida’s fists were clenching and unclenching at her sides. “It’s pasta night!”
“I have to check in with Alban, but the four of you should go—then you can show Ruby where the bunks are and get her settled in,” Cate said.
No sooner had I stepped out the door and shut it behind me than I felt someone grab my ponytail, wrench me around, and throw me up against the nearby wall. Black stars exploded in my vision.
“Vida!” Jude gasped. The outburst was enough to get even Nico to look up.
“If you think for one f**king second that I don’t know what really happened, you’re wrong,” Vida hissed.
“Get out of my face,” I snapped.
“I know that story about Cate losing you is bullshit. I know you ran,” she said. “I will tear you to shreds before you hurt her again.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I said, feeding off her anger in a way I didn’t expect.
“I know everything I need to,” Vida spat out. “I know what you are. We all do.”
“That’s enough!” Jude said, taking my arm and pulling me back. “We’re getting dinner, Vi. Come or don’t come.”
“Have a lovely f**king meal,” she said in her sweetest voice, but the fury that radiated off Vida’s form cut through the air between us and closed around my neck like a fist. Like a promise.
I’m not sure why the ring of empty tables around us bothered me as much as it did. Maybe it was the same reason Jude felt like he had to talk through the entire meal to make up for their silence.
We had only just sat down at one of the smaller circular tables when a number of agents and other kids got up from theirs. They either took their trays and left the atrium completely, or they squeezed themselves onto one of the already full tables farther away. I tried telling myself it wasn’t because of me, but there are some thoughts that live in your mind like a chronic disease. You think you’ve finally crushed them, only to find them morphing into something newer, darker. Of course they’d get up and leave, a familiar voice whispered in my ear. Why would they ever want to be around something like you?