Instead, he ignored me as he started pinning up another section of the dress. He was humming to himself, some melody I knew but couldn’t quite place, and his hands trembled slightly as he worked. Was I in trouble? I ran through a list of possible things I could’ve done wrong, but came up empty.
“What are you making for dinner?” I asked, trying to coax him into a conversation as I placed the yearbook down on the kitchen counter. He didn’t respond. I gathered up his paintbrushes scattered on the dining table and dropped them back into the brush jar with a clatter then wiped the table clean with a damp cloth. His laptop was open on the table, and I caught a glimpse of a site with numbers in bold red, along with images of dice and cards and a symbol I didn’t yet know was a gang’s sign.
It read, -$3,290.
“Dad?” I asked. “What’s this?”
“It’s nothing,” he replied without turning around.
I didn’t understand yet that it was a gambling site belonging to a criminal ring, but I did know what a minus sign in front of red numbers meant. I sighed loudly. “Dad. You said you’re not supposed to be spending money like that.”
“I know what I said.”
“You said you’d stop.”
I didn’t catch the warning in his voice. “You promised,” I insisted, louder now. “Now you’re not going to have money again. You said—”
His voice cracked like a whip. I froze, my words withering on my tongue, my face turned up in shock at my father’s expression. His eyes had finally found mine, and the light in them shone feverish with fury, red from crying. In a flash, I knew what had happened. There was only one thing that could turn my father from a gentle, lighthearted man into someone angry and cruel.
He’d heard from my mother.
Already, the furious light had started to ebb from his face. “I didn’t mean that,” he said, shaking his head as if confused. “Emi—”
But my own anger had risen now. Before Dad could say anything else, I took a step away and tightened my lips. “She messaged you, didn’t she? What’d she say to you this time? That she misses you?”
“Emika.” He reached for my arm, but I’d already twisted away and was hurrying toward my room. A high-pitched ringing echoed in my ears. The last thing I saw before I slammed my door was the sight of my father standing there before his half creation, alone, shoulders sloped, his figure turned in my direction. Then I crawled onto my bed and began to cry.
Hours passed. Later that night, my door creaked open an inch and I saw my father peek in, holding a plate piled high with pizza. “May I?” he said quietly.
I glared at him from under my blankets as he came in and shut the door behind him. Dark circles rimmed his eyes. For the first time, I realized how exhausted he looked, that he must not have slept well for days. He sat down on the edge of my bed and held the plate out at me. I wanted to be stubborn, to stay mad, but my stomach growled at the smell of tomato and melted cheese, and I dragged myself into a sitting position and reached for a slice.
“Your yearbook looks stunning, Emi,” he said after I’d wolfed down a slice. He gave me a weary smile. “I can tell how hard you worked on it.”
I shrugged, still not ready to let him off the hook, and grabbed a second slice of pizza. “So what happened to you today?” I grumbled.
He stayed silent for a long moment.
“What did she want this time?” I asked. But I already knew. Every six months or so, my mother would contact him because she missed him, only to disappear again. She never mentioned me. Not once.
When I asked again, Dad finally took out his phone. He held it out to me without saying anything. I peered down at it.
My mother had sent him a photo of her hand. On her finger was a large diamond ring, cut into a brilliant square.
I looked back up at my father’s tired eyes.
She was so beautiful. But beauty can make people forgive a thousand cruelties.
We sat for a while without saying a word. Then I touched Dad’s hand quietly with my own. He looked down, away from me, ashamed to meet my eyes. “I’m sorry, Emi,” he said in a small voice. “I’m so sorry. I’m a fool.”
I just shook my head. And when I wrapped my arms around his neck, he held me tight, trying to piece back together the lives she’d left behind.
• • • • •
I STIR FROM my dream, my hands clenched into fists. The time on my phone reads 3:34 a.m., and the TV in my room is still on, cycling through the news.
I lie still in the silence. It takes a long time before I finally relax my hands and let myself sink back against the bed. I watch the news without paying much attention to it. The reporter has already started discussing the Wardraft runners-up wild cards who will replace me and Ren.
“—Brennar Lyons, Level 72, a wild card from Scotland who will now represent the Phoenix Riders as their new Architect. And Jackie Nguyen, a Fighter—”
The reporter’s voice fades into indecipherable noise as my thoughts turn to my teammates. What are they thinking now? The public explanation for Ren leaving was that he had been caught gambling. The explanation for me was that I’d received death threats for news about my relationship with Hideo going public.
Hideo. His declaration replays in my mind, as surely and sharply as if I had recorded it as a Memory.
My eyes wander to the box Roshan and Hammie had given me before they left, and I reach for it again, opening it to run my fingers against the broken ornament shards and scraps of canvas. My heart rate still feels elevated; my chest, still pained.
I punch my fist down against the bed. Zero is going to get away with everything. My thoughts run through all that we’d managed to uncover so far. Coordinates of all the major cities where Warcross tournaments were going to be held. Disrupted patches inside each Warcross world in the championships. A file that had self-destructed; an assassination attempt. And a soundtrack Ren had created, potentially to be played during the final Warcross game.
So many pieces. I repeat them in my head until the news cycle on the TV has finished and starts all over again.
Then, a new message appears in my view.
My thoughts scatter for a moment, and I glance at the note to read it. How did this message get through? It’s not from someone I’ve approved. In fact, there’s no tag on it at all. I hesitate—and then I reach out to tap it.
For you, from one hunter to another.
That’s all it says. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. From another hunter? Somehow, one of the other bounty hunters had found a way to hack through my own shields. They know who I am.
My head jerks up to the security cam in one corner of my room’s ceiling, wondering if they are hacking it to watch me, and then my attention goes back to the message. It has an ACCEPT INVITE? button attached to it. I sit up straighter. Then, with trembling fingers, I decide to accept.
A virtual figure materializes a few feet away, his hands and arms hidden behind armguards and gloves. His blue eyes are stunningly bright. A jolt hits me as I see his face.
He raises an eyebrow when he sees my shocked expression. “Hello, Peach,” he says, a sneer spreading on his face. “What an honor.”
“I—” I start, then stutter to a halt. “You’re one of Hideo’s other hunters?”
He offers me a mock bow. “I looked just as surprised when I found out about you.”
“How did you get a message through my shields?”
“You’re not the only one with a few tricks up your sleeve.”
“Why are you contacting me? Why are you showing your face?”
“Relax, Emika. I found something that you might be interested in.” Before I can ask him what it is, he reaches up and makes a swiping motion with his hand. A file materializes between us, hovering in the air like a glowing blue cube.
“You have the other piece of this file,” he says.
I frown at the glowing cube for a second before I realize that I’m looking at another piece of proj_ice_HT1.0. The same file that I grabbed from Ren before Hideo’s attempted assassination. “How do I know you’re not just trying to give me a virus?”
He actually looks offended at my question. “You don’t think I could find a subtler way of doing that? I’m trying to help you, you idiot.”
I scowl, my teeth clenching. “Why? We’re supposed to be rivals.”
He smiles again, touches two fingers casually to his brow, and salutes me. “Not if Hideo already dropped both of us from the job. I’ve received a compensation payment already, so there’s not much incentive for me to stay on this hunt. I have bigger hired jobs to concentrate on right now.” He tilts his head at me. “But I bet you’re still keen on protecting Hideo, aren’t you?”
I blush, annoyed.
He nods at the hovering file. “Thought I might as well pass along what I’ve collected. A gift from one hunter to another. That way, if you find Zero, you’ll know who’s responsible for your win.”