“Well, I didn’t go into detail . . .”
I elbowed him, and he grinned. “I told him that . . . I like you.”
I wasn’t sure how I could be thinking so much about dying and still have this kind of giddy smile keep creeping onto my face. “Oh,” I said. “Okay, then.” I linked my fingers more tightly through his as we walked under the portraits of stern-looking men and women gazing down at us from the walls.
It turned out our friends paid no attention to us at all. Everyone’s candles were on the floor. Luc and Rocco and Jack all had their tuxedo jackets off, and the three girls were sitting on them like sleds.
“À vos marques,” Luc said, crouching like he was at the starting line of a race and gripping the arms of his jacket, “prêts, partez!” They took off, the boys pulling the girls, dress shoes echoing on hardwood floors. Colette fell off Rocco’s jacket immediately, collapsing in a laughing heap on the hardwood. Elodie’s and Luc’s feet got tangled up, and Luc yelled as they fell.
“We win!” Nisha exclaimed. She leapt up before Jack had even stopped, and tackled him in a hug. He picked her up and twirled her around with a grin that made me think of all the time Jack had spent getting briefings from the scientists the past couple days, and wonder, just for a second, whether there was something going on there I hadn’t seen. I squinted behind them. “Is that the Mona Lisa?”
“It is,” Stellan said. I let go of his hand and ran across the room, sliding in my slippers on the hardwood. Don’t think about the fact that this might be the only time you’ll see it, I told myself.
“It’s so small!” I said.
Elodie stood beside me, crossing her arms and squinting at Mona’s enigmatic smile. “At least you get to see it up close, without six thousand people taking selfies in front of it.”
“Ugh.” Luc came up behind me. “It’s so boring, and so terribly overhyped. That’s the valuable one.” He gestured over his shoulder at a painting on the opposite wall that must have been twenty feet tall. “It’s a portrait of the Circle from centuries ago. We made up that the Mona Lisa mattered so no one would ever make a move against the one we care about.”
This was something almost no one in the world knew. Almost no one in the world had run around the Louvre at night, or flown in a private jet all over the world. Whatever else the Circle had done to my life, I’d also gotten to do some amazing things.
From outside, there was a boom so loud, we all went quiet.
“Firecracker,” Stellan said after a second of silence. “It was just close.”
Jack nodded. I still couldn’t help but watch the walls like I could see through them to what was going on outside.
Luc grabbed both my hands. “It was only a firework, chérie. They set them off every New Year’s, and it sounds like the world is ending. Do you like your present?”
“This is the best birthday I’ve ever had,” I said truthfully.
Luc pulled me down the corridor and everyone else followed, Rocco ducking into gallery after gallery and shouting out what we had to see. Nisha gave us a lesson on one of her favorite paintings, and Colette and Luc contorted their bodies into the poses of statues while Elodie took pictures. With the domed skylights overhead letting in silvery moonlight, we crowded down a short flight of stairs, and then suddenly, we were in the Louvre lobby.
The outside of the Louvre was one of the most iconic images in the world, but inside was just as beautiful. The pyramid overhead formed a giant skylight, putting the Paris night sky on stunning display. Through the lattice of metal and glass, I could see part of the Louvre façade and beyond it, fireworks from the rioting all over the city. It was the most beautiful and most terrible thing I’d ever seen.
I was still staring when a new song started up on a tiny radio Nisha was carrying.
“Oh!” Luc said, and started to sing along.
Stellan set down our candles, then swept me into his arms and sang something off-key, but enthusiastically. “What song is this?” I asked, but they ignored me.
Luc and Rocco started dancing, too, and Elodie did a ballet leap across the open expanse of floor. When I looked up at the glass above, I could see the reflections of all our candles flickering.
Stellan twirled me, and I caught a glimpse of Jack, leaning against a pillar with his arms crossed over his chest, but smiling. I smiled, too, at this thing that looked suspiciously like joy, pushing defiantly through the terror and sadness.
The song broke into the chorus, and Jack joined in, a deep baritone that rose above the rest of the voices. One by one the rest of them dropped out, and we all turned to stare at him. When he realized everyone else had stopped, he cut off in the middle of a word. “What?” he said.
Elodie giggled and ran up the spiral stairs in the lobby’s center to look out of the pyramid into the Louvre courtyard. The rest of them followed. Jack was the last to leave, and I could tell he was waiting to bring up the rear of the procession, always vigilant. When he realized Stellan and I were still dancing, he gave a quick nod and jogged off to catch up to the rest of them.
My heart squeezed and I rested my forehead on Stellan’s chest, feeling the thump-thump of his heart. I pulled away just enough to look up at him, to run a finger down his jaw, down his neck, to the glowing white of his tuxedo shirt. Then I reached up and kissed him along the same line.
He shivered. “What was that for?”
“Because why not?” I whispered. I might be keeping some of my feelings in check tonight, but in this, I saw no reason to hold back.
“Well, in that case—” He leaned over and pulled at my earlobe with his teeth, and I got goose bumps.
“Come on,” I said. I dragged him across the open expanse of floor, awash with moonlight and the distant flickering of our candles, and held his arm up to twirl myself again and again so my dress fluttered around me. I giggled, felt dizzy, went crashing back into his arms. “Ow!” I squeaked, cradling my injured shoulder. I couldn’t stop laughing. My eyes were filling with tears. I pulled away from Stellan and sank to the floor, still holding my arm, my lacy dress pooling around me. There were more green and red pops through the triangles of glass, blurred now as my eyes swam. I wiped away one tear, two, but didn’t let it go further than that.
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