“What about Lee?”
“He’s a security risk now that he’s seen this safe house and the agents here. He’s safer with us, Ruby. The president wants him dead. I’m sure he’d come to see that…eventually.”
My hands twisted against the pale bed sheets. A weapon. Liam as a weapon. Liam, who could barely lose his temper without feeling guilty. He had fought so hard to escape this violence, and I’d turned him right back toward it. They’d put their hands on him and press him into their mold, and he’d come out the other end of it as the same dark creature he had struggled to avoid becoming.
I was breathing hard now, though inwardly I was as calm as the waters on East River’s lake. All at once, the final piece clicked into place, and I knew what I was going to do.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll stay and I won’t fight you or manipulate you. But if you want me to do as you say…if you want to use my abilities, or do testing on me, I have one condition. You have to let Lee go.”
“Ruby,” she began, shaking her head, “it’s too dangerous, for everyone involved.”
“He’s a Blue. You don’t need him. He won’t ever be a fighter, not like you want.”
And if he stays here, you will kill him.
You will kill every good part of him.
“I can do so much now,” I told her, “but you won’t see another hint of it until you let him go. Until you swear you will never chase him down.”
Cate watched me for a moment, a hand pressed to her mouth. I could see the indecision in her face. I had used Martin to show her exactly what I could offer them, and he, apparently, had already proven to them how valuable an Orange could be. These were not, however, the terms she would have chosen.
“All right,” she said, finally. “All right. He can go.”
“How do I know you’ll keep your promise?” I asked.
Cate stood and reached again into her pocket. The silver Calm Control device, the only thing keeping me out of her head, was still warm when she pressed it into my palm. My fingers closed around hers.
“So help me God,” I said slowly, clearly, when Cate looked up at me. “If you go back on your word, I will tear you apart. And I won’t stop, not ever, until I’ve destroyed your life and the lives of every single person in this organization. Believe me, you may not always keep your promises, but I do.”
She nodded at me once, and there was something almost like pride in her eyes.
“Understood,” Cate said, and we did.
They kept Liam in the bedroom at the other end of the hall, in a room painted a soft blue. The kind of color you’d only find in the sky just before sunrise, maybe. It might have been a nursery once. There were clouds painted on the ceiling, and the few pieces of furniture left seemed too small for an average adult.
Liam sat on the tiny bed with his back to me. At first, as I shut the door behind me, I thought he was staring out the window. As I came closer, I saw he was actually fixated on the wrinkled sheet of paper in his hand.
The bed dipped as I crawled across it, wrapping my arms around his chest from behind. I pressed my cheek against his, letting my hands wander until they found his steady heartbeat. He shut his eyes and leaned back.
“What are you looking at?” I whispered.
He handed me the paper wordlessly as I moved to sit beside him. Jack Fields’s letter.
“You were right,” Liam said after a moment. “You were so right. We should have read it. We would have known not to bother.”
It was the dead way he spoke, so flat, so coated with grief, that made me crumple the letter and throw it across the room. He only shook his head, pressing a hand over his eyes.
I fumbled with the inside pocket of his jacket, where I had stashed Chubs’s letter all those days ago. Liam watched me pull it out, and sagged beside me.
“He told me he didn’t write it for them,” I said. “He wrote it for you. He wanted you to read it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Yes, you do. Because when you get out of here, you’ll want something to say when you see him again.”
“Ruby.” Now he sounded angry. His arm dropped from around my shoulders, and he stood up. “Do you really think that if he lives, they’re going to let us see him? Do you think they’re even going to let us stay together? That’s not how these people work. They’re going to control our every move, right down to who we see and what we eat. Trust me, it’ll be some precious piece of luck if we even find out if he’s alive, never mind if they’ve brought him in for training.”
Liam paced the room once, twice, three times, and it felt like an hour had passed before I worked up the nerve to open Chubs’s letter myself.
The room was silent for a long time.
“What?” Liam asked, finally. His voice was laced with fear. “What does it say?”
It was blank. There was nothing written on the sheet of paper aside from Chubs’s parents’ name and their address, and there had never been. Not a single drop of ink.
“I don’t understand…” I said, passing it to him. That couldn’t have been right. Maybe he had lost the original letter, or was carrying the real one? When I looked up again, Liam was crying. One hand destroying the letter in his fist, the other pressed against his eyes. And then I realized I already knew the answer.
Chubs hadn’t written anything because he didn’t think he had to. He thought he was going to be able to tell his parents everything he wanted to say in person. He believed he was going to get home.
Liam’s knees seemed to buckle out from under him as he sat back down on the bed. His forehead came down to rest against my shoulder, and I wrapped both arms around him. He did believe you, I wanted to say. All along, he believed you.
I felt so much older, then. Not sixteen, not sixty, not even a hundred, but a thousand years old. Older, but not brittle. I felt like one of the oak trees that grew along the highway overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, with deep roots and a strong core.
He gets to go, I thought. He gets to go home.
For a long time I did nothing but hold on to him. I wanted to memorize the way his hair curled at the ends, the scar at the edge of his lips. I had never felt time’s sting as sharply as I did then. Why did it only ever seem to freeze or move forward at a barreling speed?
“The crazy thing is, I had all of these plans,” he whispered. “What we were going to do. All the places I was going to take you. I really wanted you to meet Harry.” The window breathed in afternoon light. I felt his hand trail down the length of my arm. “We’ll be okay,” Liam said. “We just can’t let them separate us.”