In the end, exhaustion won out. I managed to collapse into the passenger seat feeling about as lovely as a wilted head of lettuce, just as Liam climbed into the driver’s seat.
He grinned. “Must be tiring being the big hero.”
I waved him off, trying to quiet the small, ridiculous buzz of happiness in my chest that came with his words. He was just trying to be nice.
“Good thing we had the ladies there to take care of business,” he continued, turning to Chubs. “Otherwise you and I would be rolling around in the bed of a truck, halfway back to Ohio.”
Chubs only grunted, his coloring still faintly gray.
Liam looked a little better, at least. His face was tinged pink from the shock of cold fountain water, and his fingers still seemed to be twitching every so often, but his eyes had lost that cloudy, unfocused look. Considering it was his first time being ear-tased by the White Noise, Liam had recovered fast.
“All right, team,” he said, slowly. “Time for a Betty vote.”
“No!” Chubs startled back to life. “I know exactly where you’re going with this, and I know I’m going to be overruled, and I—”
“All those in favor of letting our girl wonder stay with us for the time being, raise your hand.”
Both Liam and Zu raised their hands immediately. Zu looked at me with a smile that seemed particularly bright next to Chubs’s glowering face.
“We don’t know anything about her—hell, we don’t know that what she has told us is even true!” he objected. “She could be a psychopath who kills us in our sleep, or calls her League buddies in just when we let our guard down.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said dryly, half flattered he thought I was capable of that level of scheming.
“The longer she stays with us,” he added, “the more likely it is the League will catch up to us, and you know what they do to their kids!”
“They won’t catch up with us,” Liam said. “We took care of that already. If we stay together, we’ll be fine.”
“No. No, no, no, no, no,” Chubs said. “I want to register my nay vote, even though the two of you always win.”
“Well, don’t be a bad sport about it,” Liam said. “This is democracy in action.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Of course I am,” Liam said. “What I wasn’t okay with was the thought of dropping you off at some back-of-beyond Greyhound station with no money, no papers, and no way of knowing for sure you got where you’re going safe and sound.”
There it was again—that smile. I pressed my hand against my chest, trying to keep things at bay. Locked inside. To keep my hand from reaching out to brush the one he had put on the armrest of my seat. It seemed so sick, so wrong, but all I wanted to do was slip inside his mind and see what he was thinking. Why he was looking at me like that.
You really are a monster, I thought, pressing a fist tight against my stomach.
I wanted to protect him—at that moment, it was suddenly clear to me exactly what I wanted: to protect them, all of them. They had saved me. They had saved my life and hadn’t expected a single thing in return. If the showdown with the undercover PSFs had shown me anything, it was that they needed someone like me. I could help them, protect them.
I didn’t think I could ever begin to repay them for taking me in and letting me stay as long as I had, but if I could control myself long enough, it would be a start. It was the best I could do with what I had.
“Where are you trying to go, anyway?” Liam tried to keep his voice casual, but his eyes had darkened, obviously troubled. “Could you even get there on a bus if you tried?”
I told them the feeble plan I’d half-baked inside of the gas station. I fingered the ends of my long, tangled hair, and was surprised to feel some of the tightness in my chest ease up long enough for me to take a deep breath.
“What’s in Virginia Beach?”
“My grandmother, I think,” I said. “I hope.”
Yes, Grams, I reminded myself. Grams was still an option. She remembered me, didn’t she? If I could help them find the Slip Kid—and if he could help me—then wasn’t there a real chance I could see her again? Live with her?
It was a lot of ifs. If we found the Slip Kid. If he was an Orange. If he could help me figure out how to control my abilities. If he could help us contact our families.
Once I had tapped into the vein of doubts, the rest came flooding in.
What if Grams—the thought was crushing—had passed away? She was seventy when I was taken, which meant she’d be inching closer to eighty. I had never even considered it a possibility, because I couldn’t remember a time that she didn’t look glowing and ready to take on the world with little more than her silver hair, a neon fanny pack, and matching visor.
But if I wasn’t the same person I had been six years ago, how could I expect her to be? If she was alive, how could I ask her to take care of her freak granddaughter—protect me and hide me—when there was a chance she couldn’t take care of herself?
It was too much to think about now, too much to consider and agonize over in a logical way. My brain was still thrumming from the effects of the White Noise, but my weak heart made the choice easy for me.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll stay.”
And hope that none of us regret it.
The deep wrinkle that had appeared between Liam’s brows eased but didn’t disappear. I knew he was studying me, his light eyes flicking over my face. Trying to figure out, maybe, why I had hesitated so long to agree. Whatever conclusion he came to made him sit back with a sigh and adjust the mirrors in silence.
Liam had the kind of face that you could read and instantly know what he was thinking—it made it easy to trust that whatever he was saying was true. But there was a practiced quality to his expression now, an intense concentration to keep his face blank. It looked unnatural on someone who seemed to always have a grin tucked in the corner of his mouth. I leaned back, trying to ignore the throbbing in my head and the pitiful dying animal noises coming from Chubs once he remembered how much pain he was in.
Liam silently passed him a half-empty water bottle from under the driver’s seat. I glanced back at Zu out of the corner of my eye, but the twilight had lulled her to sleep. A thin sheen of sweat coated her forehead and the skin above her lips.