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When I’d opened the birthday gift Kaden had given me and found a key, I hadn’t expected this. I thought it was for the outpost—not that I’d ever seen one used. Or a key for a studio, or maybe a small apartment at most. But no. That wasn’t how Kaden worked.
I gazed around the town house, my town house, at least for the time being. It was nearly as large as his. The architecture and design was clean and simple, as if he’d somehow known exactly what I’d like. The colors were neutral and calming. It wasn’t furnished, as if he’d known I’d prefer to do that myself. There was only one huge, glaring problem. This town house was right next to his.
It would almost be like living with him. He’d know every single person who came and went. Every. Single. One. Gram wouldn’t stand a chance of slipping past him to get to me here. It had to be the reason he’d gotten me this place. Why else?
I’d given my word that I wouldn’t act against him, but he’d taken out an insurance policy on me for the price tag of a town house. It appeared as if he trusted me about as much as I trusted him. Was there a chance he’d done it because I was wholly unprepared for all that dwelled in Nowhere? Maybe, but taking one glance over at him gave me the distinct impression that was not the case.
Kaden was leaning against the counter, watching me. His dark hair was pushed back and his light eyes nearly glowing as they watched me. The angle of his body, the slight arrogance of his expression, was of someone who thought they had it all under control, the writer of the play we were all acting out per his direction. Yep. There was a reason he was keeping me close, and it had nothing to do with benefiting me. This was nothing but a potential trap.
When certain things came to light, certain relations, this wasn’t the place I’d be able to hole up. Only a lunatic would hide in plain sight of the person who was hunting them. I hadn’t needed to know Kaden long to know that hell might be preferable to his wrong side.
“What’s wrong? You said you wanted to live in Nowhere, and yet you don’t appear happy about this?” he asked.
“I am. I’m definitely happy.” I smiled so hard my cheeks wanted to break. I made a show of looking around the place before my face cramped from strain. “It’s very generous, but…maybe too much? I did only just start with the company, after all. I’m not sure this is appropriate?” I laid a hand on the railing that led upstairs, keeping my gaze on anything but him.
It really wasn’t fair that I had to perfect my lies with someone who’d surely lived for centuries. I’d barely made it two and half decades and hadn’t started practicing deception until much more recently.
“I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end. Not to mention there wasn’t that much available, so it’ll have to.” He was leaning and smiling, plotting and maneuvering—it was all working out exactly as he wanted.
We’d see about that.
“Is there a realtor or someone who handles these things? Maybe something else will open up?” I stared down at the wood flooring, admiring the grain as if the finish were my biggest concern in life at the moment.
“Sure. I’ll get you his number. He should be back in a few months or so.” He strolled over, stopping not far from where I stood at the bottom of the stairs. “I’d get settled in while you wait. No rush, right?” He dug into his pocket, pulling out a key. “A spare, not that you need to lock it. No one would dare break in here.”
Just as I figured. This place was literally an extension of his town house. I nodded, taking the key, too aware of even the most casual brush of hands.
I needed to start dating. If my life weren’t in complete upheaval, it would be easier to do so, but my hormones didn’t care that I was in a mess. They seemed to want to fixate on the closest source of testosterone around, and that was Kaden. It didn’t help that he had so damned much of it.
He watched me as if he could sense my thoughts. He couldn’t, but even the possibility warmed my cheeks. I took a step back, taking a spin around the living room and putting a healthy buffer in between us.
The door swung open, and Cookie, the biggest mood killer and my savior, barged in.
Kaden nodded to us both and left, swaggering out. Of course he’d be feeling his oats. He’d worked me into a corner, gotten his way, and we were both well aware of it.
Cookie walked in and spun around, curling up her lip. “Man, this place is sterile. It’s going to need a lot of work to make it livable.” She patted the air in my direction. “Don’t worry, though. I know a guy. He owns the place I got the furnishings for the outpost. He’ll hook you up.”
Oh no, not that. This place would look like a seventies sitcom set after its twentieth season of use.
“Yeah, that’s really nice of you, but I can’t put you out like that. I can manage.” For once in Cookie’s life, please let her be easy about something and not dig in. It was bad enough I was going to be stuck here under surveillance. Couldn’t it at least look pretty?
“You’re my girl. I can’t let you live like this.” She was shaking her head, throwing her hands in the air and circling. “You’ll die of depression coming back here night after night. I know no one likes my taste that much, but I’m telling you, you’ll come to see the wisdom of my design aesthetic. You just need to give it a few decades to grow on you. You don’t like it after that, do whatever you want and I won’t say a thing.” She made a motion of zipping her lips.
A few decades? She was staring at me, waiting for some acknowledgment. Hopefully I wouldn’t be here more than a few weeks, so it wouldn’t matter. I gave a nod and the best smile I had left, which didn’t say much.
Connor walked in, glanced around, and shrugged. Having given his stamp of approval, he headed over to the kitchen, opening up the empty fridge. “Any food in this place?”
Connor had to eat constantly to feed all those muscles.
“Not yet,” I said.
Cookie was walking toe to heel across the living room area counting, but stopped long enough to say, “Dice is bringing some.”
How much time did I have? Would she go shopping without me? It didn’t matter. I had to keep remembering that this was temporary.
Dice walked in a minute later with bags and boxes in hand, following Connor’s earlier path.
“Nice place,” he said, dropping all his goods on the kitchen island. “But I can’t believe you want to live right next door to Kaden. He’s going to know every single thing you do. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I kind of figured.” Which was why instead of grabbing a slice of the weird-looking pizza he was pulling out of the box, I wanted to slam my head into the stone counter. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want the town house. It just wasn’t compatible with my long-term survival.
Cookie grabbed a slice of the black dough coated with what appeared to be some sort of melted cheese. “It’s got decent bones, but I’ve got to help her make it livable.”
Both of the guys laughed, Connor looking like he was choking on his pizza.
“Screw you both. I have good taste.” Cookie pointed at Dice. “You think black tie means to polish all your guns for the affair.” She turned to Connor. “And you. I don’t know what shit you’re taking, but you can’t even put those arms down anymore. You won’t have any shirts that fit soon. Time to quit it.”
Connor, usually either silent or nodding, actually looked offended for the first time. “Hey! I’m in good shape. I care about my body.”
Cookie planted both hands on the island and leaned toward him. “Why? We. Don’t. Die. At least not from poor health. You’re the only tinker I know who morphs and still has the same crazy body. Take a day off once in a while.”
She spun to go at Dice again, but he cut her off first.
“Oh no, you ain’t talking more shit about my guns after how many times they saved your ass.”
She shrugged. “Fine.” The room fell silent before she looked at the food. “I’ll leave the guns alone, but a little stingy with the food, no? What, Kaden cut your pay or something? Too many hookers this week?”
“Considering she doesn’t even have a plate or napkin for us, I’d be happy there’s anything,” Dice said.
They all turned to me.
“He’s right,” Cookie said. “If you’re going to have us over, at least have a couple plates, and maybe a chair wouldn’t kill you.” She was already chowing down on another slice of pizza.
Oh no, they weren’t turning this on me.
“I don’t remember inviting any of you,” I said.
“You had to know we’d be showing up,” Dice said, as if that had been the lamest excuse ever.
“Fine. It’s my fault,” I said with the tone of someone saying shut the hell up. I took a slice before I didn’t get one. There weren’t that many left, and it wasn’t looking as if they were going to save me one. “Where do you get this stuff?” The flavor was a little strange, but in an oddly intriguing way.
“Place a couple blocks away. I’ll show it to you tomorrow on the way to the furniture store,” Cookie said, and then took her pizza back to the living area and started doing her heel-to-toe measurements again.
Connor and Dice were looking at each other, choking on laughter. They looked my way as if this were the funniest thing they’d seen in a year.
“By the way, you are stingy with the food,” I said.
It didn’t so much as ding their smiles.
“The surprise is here?” I asked, following Cookie upstairs in my town house.
She stopped in front of the door to the master bedroom and flung it open. “Ta da!” she said.
I braced myself for what I was about to see and then stepped into the room. I should’ve taken a few more minutes to prepare. There was a black dresser on the side that looked shiny enough to see my reflection in. The patchwork quilt on the bed had colors that never should’ve touched each other, ever. Then there was the pompom rainbow fringe.
“Is the bed…” I moved closer to make sure the strange color combination wasn’t creating an illusion of a dent in the center. I reached down to touch it but stopped short. It might be wise to put on a pair of gloves before touching anything.
“Amazing? Yes. It’s already got a dent to roll right into.” She followed me into the room, looking around and nodding. “Now this is comfy. No throw pillows to fuss with. If you come home drunk, you won’t care if you leave your boots on with this cover.” She dropped onto the bed, kicking up her feet to demonstrate.
“You’re definitely right about that.” I wouldn’t care one bit if this stuff fell apart. If it got stained, it would blend in with the other ones it had.
“Give it a couple of decades. I’m telling you, it’s going to grow on you.” Her smile was exploding with pride, almost to the point of supernova. She was so pleased with herself that I couldn’t summon up a rain cloud. “You’re shocked at how quick I can pull a place together, right? I have had centuries of practice, though.”
“You do work quickly.” It had been one day. I’d planned on dragging out my move from the outpost, but it wasn’t going to work out well if she kept this up. Although it might offer me cover. No one would wonder why I didn’t want to move in. They’d be more surprised if I rushed.
“Are you busy right now? We can go get some more shit.” She jumped off the bed a little too quickly to be bluffing.
No way was I going to the origin of this stuff. This room had been more than enough for one day.
“Actually, I wanted to head back to the outpost and start packing a few things.” And it was going to take me a very long time to do so.
“That’s fine. I’ve got a couple more things to do around here anyway,” she said as she followed me out of the room and downstairs.
She headed toward a box in the living room and pulled out a pillow with moth holes and a ripped throw blanket. “I know you don’t have a couch yet, but I couldn’t resist. It was such a good deal. Ninety percent off. Can you even imagine? They were practically giving this stuff away.”
Unfortunately, I could. I didn’t want to see what else was in that box.
“See you in a bit.”
I didn’t bother telling her to lock up on her way out. I’d consider myself lucky if I got robbed.
I headed out, not sure where I was going, but anywhere was better than getting dragged to the scary place she bought these items. I headed down the streets of Nowhere, still feeling out of sorts roaming this place, let alone having a home here. The eternal night, even with a sky full of swirling stars, didn’t offset the strange feeling of the darkness at noon. But the night fit this place. Its shiny black streets reflected the glowing lights from the establishments, some of which seemed to be created right from stardust. Everything felt alive, even the signs that would twist and turn or twinkle. The people were even odder, almost as if this place was composed of carnies.
I tried to keep my gaze straight ahead, not meeting eyes with any of them as I passed. I’d been warned by Cookie, Dice, and Connor to stay on the main roads, not to engage. They said if I minded my own business, I’d probably be okay.
Kaden hadn’t given me a warning of any kind. Cookie said he’d warned all of Nowhere that I was officially part of his crew. Apparently that carried more weight than anything else. As long as I didn’t look for trouble, it most likely wouldn’t find me.
Or he’d find them.
Still, everyone else’s warning had me ready to launch into an attack when a pair of hands landed on my back.
“Turn here,” Gram said before I could get my bearings and swing.
“Gram?” I would’ve turned and hugged her, but she kept steering me into the nearest dark alley.
The second she stopped, I threw my arms around her, squeezing her tighter than her old bones could probably take. In this new world, my closest friends were people I’d only known for a couple of months. But she was a piece of me, my life, a person who knew me better than anyone. My throat swelled and I dragged in a shuddering breath.
I held on to her as if she’d get taken away at any second, but the longer we hugged, the more I noticed something odd. I’d hugged her more times than I could count. I knew her hugs the way I recognized my own face. The body I was holding didn’t feel like Gram, unless she’d gotten a grammy makeover, and even then it was iffy.
I backed up and took in her frame. She still looked like Gram, but there was something altogether different lurking underneath.
“Why do you feel…different?” I took another step back. Was this Gram at all? My gut said yes. I could even smell an aroma of lingering marigolds. But something wasn’t lining up.
“I didn’t want to alarm you, but I’ve upgraded a bit since the last time I saw you. You want to see?” she asked, her voice shifting into a higher and younger version as she spoke. She took a step back, smiling as she put her hands on her waist as if posing her new look.
Did I? It wasn’t like I could say no even if I didn’t, the way she was waiting.
Gram melted away, and all of a sudden there was a drop-dead gorgeous creature in front of me. She looked like a bombshell from the fifties with bright red hair and curves that were high and round. This wasn’t the Gram I craved when I was feeling lonely and down. This looked like a party friend. I’d never been much of a partier, but it looked like I’d have to adjust.
“How exactly did you upgrade?” I asked.
“Don’t look at me that way. It’s completely normal. That old lady’s body was dead and lying in a box back on Earth. I had to do it. Plus it’s a bit of a perk from having the friends I have.”
“Where did you get a new one?”
“Had it ordered. They grow them on Omega Nine. I’ve got some pull over there. But we’ve got more important things to talk about. I need—”
“We do. How do I get in touch with you if I need to talk to you? Where are you staying? I have no way of getting to you.” There was no way I was letting her disappear again with no option of getting in touch with her.
“You can’t. I’m not staying in Nowhere. This place is too hot until we get some things settled.”
She spoke as if it weren’t a big deal I couldn’t get to her, so I tamped down how jumbled up it made me feel. It wasn’t as if it made a difference if I complained. If there was a way to get in touch, she would’ve told me.
“Because of Kaden? What is the problem with you two?” I asked.
“It’s a long story and I don’t have time to get into it. I don’t want to stay too long. I can’t risk being spotted. I just wanted to let you know I was around and that I’ll be back.”
She took my hands in hers. Even her grasp felt alien, her bony hands gone and replaced with a young woman’s, complete with long, pointy nails that sparkled.
I was staring at those hands as she asked, “I can depend on you, can’t I?”
I glanced up. How could she even ask such a question? My entire life, it had been Gram and me.
“You know you can,” I said, searching this new face for a sign of why she’d even doubt that.
“No, I mean really depend on you.” She moved her grip to my shoulders. “This isn’t Earth. The stakes are a lot higher. I have to know that you’ll step up if the time comes.”
Step up? A question I’d taken as innocent before was suddenly feeling a little messier and more sordid. This wasn’t my older grandmother asking if I’d be there to drive her to the doctor.
Was she… She didn’t mean to act against Kaden, did she? Maybe not. Either way, I’d made a promise to him as well, and I’d meant it. Unless he was actively trying to hurt her, I couldn’t imagine a way to justify going against my promise. How to explain that to her, though? She’d never been a fan of buts.
“You know that I would always be there for you in any way you needed—”
“Shh.” She held a finger up to her lips as she turned her head, listening for something. Her attention focused on a little mouse that was standing on its hind legs at the edge of the shadows. “Gotta go. I’ll be in touch soon.” She took off down the alley.
“Gram? What the hell? It’s just a mouse.”
She was already gone.
Gram 2.0 moved a lot quicker than the previous version, and I was yelling at an empty alley. No wonder I’d been hanging on to her for dear life. This was becoming a serious issue with her. Now when would I see her? I hadn’t had a chance to warn her about the town house, although she probably knew.
I stared in the direction of where she’d disappeared, not finding any trace of her, just inky darkness. I continued to stare for another few minutes as I replayed what she’d said, and everything about it made me want to shudder.
We needed to have a long talk. Enough with these short meetings. I needed to know what was going on between her and Kaden. I’d given my word, and I hadn’t done that lightly.
I should probably get out of this alleyway, though. This was exactly the thing the guys and Cookie had warned me about. If standing in a dark alley wasn’t asking for trouble, nothing was.
I spun to leave and then stopped. Kaden was there at the opening of the alley. He was standing so still that I wasn’t sure he was breathing.
The look on his face made my lungs stop working. My heart seized and a tremor ran down my spine. Had he been somewhere close? Had he heard me talking to Gram? How much had he heard? What had I said? I replayed every word in my mind. If he’d heard only that last bit? It wasn’t good. No, it was worse than not good. It was horrific. The more of the tail end of the conversation he’d witnessed, the worse it all appeared.
Knowing him, that was where his mind would go. He wasn’t the trusting sort. He’d think I was colluding with my grandmother and not just reassuring the one I loved I’d always be there for them. If he wanted to, he could twist that conversation into all sorts of horrible things—and from the look in his eyes, he was already hard at work.
This was it. This was what had kept me up at night, made me fear getting too close, too settled. From his expression, it was going to be every bit as bad as I’d expected it to be. Every time I thought of this moment, I’d gotten a knot in my stomach, and the reality felt a million times worse.
If he’d hear me out, give me the benefit of the doubt… I had to try, and I had to do it now, because he wasn’t going to give me another opportunity from the looks of it.
I took a few steps toward him but then paused as his gaze hardened even more on my approach.
“Kaden, I don’t know what you heard, but that conversation—”
“Do you realize who your gram is? That the one you assured your loyalty to is the infamous Rathia?”
I wanted to declare that whoever he was talking about wasn’t my grandmother, that he was mistaken. Except I’d heard that name before. Grandpa used to call her that. I remembered asking him why he had, since it wasn’t her given name. He’d said he didn’t know himself, other than it made her happy.
“I don’t know what your issues are, but she’s not the monster you think.”
“I guess that depends on what side of the line you’re on, and you’ve made it very clear where you’re standing.” His voice was chillingly cold.
“Don’t accuse me after what you’ve done. Why did you want me at the town house if not to keep tabs on me? What are you doing now if not spying on me?” Instead of keeping it cool, trying to talk to him, I was yelling and throwing accusations back.
He stared my way, his anger filling the alley. “You need to leave Nowhere tonight.”
That was it. I’d been judged and sentenced in all of a few minutes. Why had I ever imagined anything else?
It didn’t matter. He could say whatever he wanted. It was my life, and I was done taking orders.
“I’m not leaving,” I said.
“Nowhere is mine, and I want you out. You won’t have anywhere to stay unless I allow it.”
He said that Nowhere was his. But it wasn’t. No one owned Nowhere. Not even the king himself.
“I’ll figure it out on—”
He turned his back on me mid-sentence, not willing to hear another word. That was it. We were finished.
I didn’t think we’d be best friends, but I’d thought we’d formed some kind of relationship that would merit at least his hearing me out. But this was it. I didn’t even get to attempt an explanation of what happened. He just cut me off. Just tossed me out like last night’s leftovers.
I stood there, debating my options until a fine drizzle turned into rain. I was standing in a puddle as I sorted through what my options were.
Gram hadn’t given me a way to contact her, so she wasn’t an option. Did I pack a bag and go Topside? I still had money. I could find somewhere to stay.
The clerk at whatever hotel I found might not remember me for more than five minutes, but I wouldn’t be without shelter. It would just be a miserable existence of no one ever knowing me. If I left here, I’d be doomed to a life of invisibility. Every meeting would be a one-off. A life filled with elevator conversations.
If my prospects Topside were bad, Nowhere was worse. I wouldn’t even have a roof over my head in Nowhere because Kaden would surely lock me out of the town house.
Unless I had a job, and a new position. I did have options. There was always Alaric, but I didn’t want to show up there, wherever he was, in the middle of the night, drenched and desperate.
So where did that leave me? With one option.
I stood on the stoop to Cookie’s place. She was as loyal as they came, but she was also independent. Would she hear me out, or would she immediately side with Kaden? I’d spent the entire walk envisioning her kicking me down the front steps with her steel-toed boots. Even if Kaden had already told her I was to be banished from Nowhere, maybe she’d at least listen to my side, try to understand where I was coming from. She was my best bet—and also my only option at the moment.
I was mid-knock when she flung open the door and looked at me for a half-second. That was all it took for her forehead to bunch up like a used accordion and her jaw to drop.
“You look like shit. What happened?” She waved me in.
Cookie didn’t care for upscale furnishings, and she also didn’t care if you dripped all over her floor. There was something very endearing about that when you were down and out, and forming puddles wasn’t even on your radar.
“Before I tell you, I need you to promise to hear me out.”
She sucked air in between her teeth. “That bad, eh?”
It wasn’t bad if she’d listen. If she heard the story from Kaden, though…
“On the surface, it might appear that way. I swear, though, it wasn’t what it sounded like. Will you hear me out?” If I couldn’t get Cookie to listen, it would be downhill from here. Without her help, I’d be doomed to live a nameless life in Topside. The guys might not condemn me, but my hunch was they’d ultimately follow Kaden’s lead. Gram was as dependable a shelter as a tent in a hurricane.
“Of course. I’d probably say almost anything at this point to hear what happened.” She walked toward her living room, motioning me farther in.
Dice and Connor were lounging on her couch, and my brain skipped. It was going to be bad enough telling her, but I was going to have to tell all of them? At the same time?
I’d have to. If I didn’t, Kaden would.
“Damn, you look almost as shitty as that first day you showed up at the outpost. Remember? You thought you were going to get tossed off the bridge,” Dice said, and then laughed.
That had to be the worst memory he could’ve recalled. They didn’t know how close their boss was to throwing me into the river himself right now.
“Well? Out with it,” Cookie said. “You can’t make an entrance like this and then leave everyone hanging.”
I glanced down at Cookie’s feet. At least she didn’t have her steel-toed boots on. Dice had his guns, but they were holstered. Connor was slumped, muscles looking lax. None of this guaranteed my safety, but I’d have a better shot.
“I’m guessing you all remember there were some questions around who my grandmother was.”
“Shit. I’m not sure I want to hear this,” Dice said, then leaned forward, making sure he wouldn’t miss a word of it.
Connor rolled his eyes and let out a low groan.
Cookie dropped onto her couch, still looking unaggressive. “Oh no, this ain’t going to be good. I mean, I knew it would be bad, but I thought there’d be some entertainment value in it. This isn’t going to just be bad—it’s going to be bad bad, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Just get it out,” Dice said.
I nodded again and then began to pace the room in front of them. “I didn’t know who my grandmother was initially, but I’d come to suspect in the last few weeks that she wasn’t just the little old lady I loved. She was also someone Kaden didn’t particularly like. Tonight, he found out who she was, and it didn’t go well.” I ran through the entire story, knowing at this point that there was no holding back.
I finally stopped pacing and looked at my audience. All three of them were gaping at me.
“Wait, who did you say your grandmother was?” Dice asked.
“You heard her. It’s Rathia,” Connor said, and then groaned again.
“That’s pretty bad. But you know that, right?” Cookie asked, looking subdued for the first time since I’d known her.
She shrugged but didn’t stand up, or scream that I needed to get out of her house right then and there. Dice wasn’t pulling out his guns, and Connor wasn’t flexing. They didn’t instantaneously hate me, and I was finally feeling like I might not have to make a mad dash for the door and run for my life. They were doing what I’d hoped Kaden would’ve done, but hadn’t—they’d given me a chance to explain. They’d trusted that I wasn’t a monster. They’d heard me out and understood.
“Oh, what a shit pile this is. And Kaden only heard the end of the conversation?” Dice asked.
“I don’t know, but I think so. I just don’t know…” I began to pace again. It was better than watching Connor hide his face in his palm, Dice shake his head, and Cookie frozen in her cringe face.
“I can’t even imagine how pissed he was,” Dice said.
“He told me I have to leave Nowhere.” Kaden had kicked me out. Not just of the house, the outpost, or his life. He found me so detestable that he’d booted me from an entire place.
“Well, that’s a little severe. It’s not like you were working with her,” Cookie said, but still looked a bit dazed.
“I’ve barely seen her. How could I have been plotting with someone I haven’t talked to for more than a handful of minutes in months?” I threw my hands up, feeling like I was spinning out of control. Why couldn’t Kaden have listened to me? Just heard me out?
“We all know she’s too shitty a liar to have pulled that off,” Dice said, and then looked over at me. “No offense. It’s working in your favor, and right now, you need all you can get.”
“None taken.” I walked over and dropped onto the chair. “The only reason I didn’t say anything when I first suspected there was a problem was that I was afraid of this very thing happening. And now it’s as bad as I feared.”
“When did you suspect that your grandmother was working for the other side?” Dice asked.
“The first time was when she sent me a message asking for a meeting at that bar in Nowhere. Kaden showed up instead, saying he was looking for someone he didn’t exactly get along with. It might’ve been a coincidence, but then I saw Gram again and questioned her. She said there was some bad blood but didn’t say anything else. I still don’t know what the problem is. I only know they’re on opposite sides of a fight.” Whatever the cause, it was bad enough that I was getting hit with shrapnel because of proximity.
“It’s a pretty big divide. The people she’s with have done some bad things,” Dice said.
I waited to see if he’d continue. It would be nice to know why I was getting excommunicated.
He shook his head. “Kaden should really be the one to tell you.”
“Sure.” Didn’t look like I’d ever know, because Kaden might never speak to me again.
Cookie kicked my foot with hers. “Look. He’ll get over it. I’m not saying that it won’t be awkward for a bit, but he’ll realize you weren’t trying to screw him over. It’ll get better. He doesn’t like surprises.”
“You really think he’ll get over it?” I tried to focus solely on Cookie and ignore the looks flying between Connor and Dice.
“Of course.” She flipped her hand, as if this wasn’t the end of the world. “It throws you when you first hear it, but I’m already adjusting to Rath”—she took a deep breath—“Rathia being your distant relation. He’ll adjust.”
Distant relation? I swallowed. Even Cookie had to pretend to get past it.
“So what do I do now?” I asked, glancing around.
The three of them looked at each other, no one saying anything. In spite of what Cookie said, this was bad. Nothing would make me think anything else.
“You come to the outpost tomorrow like nothing happened,” Cookie said, breaking the silence.
“He doesn’t even want me in Nowhere. I’m not sure the outpost is the way to go. Maybe he needs a cooling-off period?”
She shook her head immediately. “Kaden is like forged steel. Once he cools down, he hardens more. He’ll be set in his ways. Better to get him while he’s still malleable, or as much as he can be. You’ll stay here tonight and go in with me tomorrow. It’ll be fine.”
“That’s a solid plan. Yeah, it’ll be good.” Dice gave me a thumbs-up.
I glanced over at Connor, who was quiet. He opted for a noncommittal shrug. It wasn’t confidence inspiring. In fact, it gave the impression that he thought this was going to go down in flames. That made two of us.
I was on my spot on the couch in the outpost, going through lollipops like an alcoholic throwing back shots on a wicked bender. I’d had five in this last episode of Seinfeld alone. It was a particularly funny one, and it still couldn’t keep my attention. All I could do was watch the door, waiting for Kaden to walk through it.
It felt like we were all waiting. Dice had cleaned the same gun barrel three times. Cookie was putting back almost as many lollipops as I was. Connor, who was always quietest, had been pretty much mute the whole morning. It’s as if we were all expecting a storm to touch down and none of us knew if it would come in as a breeze or take out the entire town.
Kaden would be walking through that door any second, and my gut was saying no amount of lollipops was getting me through this unscathed. Cookie had thought this was the way to go—just show up like I should be here. She hadn’t heard him last night, seen the way he’d looked at me. Dice had sought him out earlier today, but no one had been able to reach him, which was unusual. He’d been so angry at me he hadn’t wanted to speak to anyone.
Cookie nudged my leg with her foot. “Calm down. It’ll be fine.”
“I’m good.” I took a deep breath and then another, but no amount of breathing seemed to unclench the tightness around my chest or the ache in my gut. I wiped my palms on my jeans.
She’d known him much longer than I had, by a measure of decades. She thought this would work, and I should believe her. Who was I to say she was wrong? I was some Johnny Come Lately, a newbie without a clue. But no matter how I tried to convince myself, I still couldn’t seem to unclench my muscles or stop staring at that door, almost wishing I could get this over with one way or another.
It turned out I didn’t have to wait much longer. The man of the hour walked in fifteen minutes later. His gaze met mine the second the door swung open and didn’t leave it.
The room went still. Or stiller. Even Seinfeld seemed to shut up, but it might’ve been the blood pounding in my ears, dulling the noise coming from the television. My lungs burned because I’d stopped breathing at the same time my heart decided it was running a marathon.
He stopped at the edge of the sofa where I sat. His expression was closed off, giving me no idea if he was going to tell me I had an assignment or point at the door and tell me to get the hell out.
“Why are you here?” he asked, his voice cutting through the ringing that had filled my ears.
“I…” I swallowed, suddenly losing the ability to speak. This hadn’t been the right move. In fact, it couldn’t have been more wrong. He hated me, and this would not end well. “I, uh…”
His gaze skimmed me before returning to my face. “I thought I made myself clear last night that you aren’t to come here anymore. You’re. Not. Wanted. Here.”
Kaden had never looked at me so coldly, not even the first time I met him. I felt like I was six years old again, abandoned and unwanted.
“We told her to come,” Cookie said, getting to her feet. Dice stood as well, along with Connor, gathering around me.
I was the only one sitting, feeling like I was almost cowering, but it took everything I had not to crumble. My eyes were burning; the tears wanted to come and shame me even more. My bottom lip trembled until I pressed my lips tightly closed.
Cookie moved forward until she was standing in front of me, placing herself in between us. I wanted to take back every horrible thing I’d ever thought of her when we first met. She might be the best person I’d ever known, and as soon as I could talk, I’d tell her.
Kaden turned his icy gaze on her. “You shouldn’t have. She needs to leave. Now.” He took one last glance at me, and then I was dismissed as he turned and walked away.
Silence followed. Dice and Connor might’ve been whispering something to each other, but I couldn’t hear it. Couldn’t compute anything past the humiliation I was feeling. I leaned forward, resting my arms on my legs and letting my head drop forward.
I’d lost my human life months ago. I was supposed to be an accountant, but that future was gone. Then I was going to be a tinker, but now I wasn’t that either. I’d barely been clinging on to this new world, hardly had my feet underneath me, and now this life was gone as well.
I had nothing. I was nothing.
No. That wasn’t totally true. I could get other work. Alaric might still want me. I’d go to his organization and pray he never figured out my weird link with Chaos. Would Kaden tell my secret? I hadn’t believed he ever would, but I’d also hoped this wouldn’t come to such a dire end.
I dragged myself from the shock of what was happening to hear Cookie chasing Kaden down like a pit bull.
“Kaden, she didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
“She’s out of here. Now.” His tone reverberated down the hall, as if his wrath could shake the building.
The sound of his footsteps faded.
Cookie was back, one hand on her hip, another pointing in the direction of Kaden’s office, as she stared at Dice and Connor. “Are you two going to do something? Get in there and help me try to fix this.”
“I’ll go try to talk to him,” Dice said, but he sounded already defeated. He knew it wasn’t going to work, just the way I did.
Connor nodded, not looking any more optimistic, but following Dice anyway.
I sat there, not moving. I had to move. Dice and Connor were only going to make this worse. Cookie might’ve known Kaden longer, but my instincts about this had turned out to be more accurate. If I didn’t move, Kaden might come back and drag me out of here. It would be a final blow I couldn’t handle. I had to get to my feet and get out of here, but I was paralyzed.
I finally looked up and saw Cookie staring at me with pity. I’d cut my teeth on pity and had never acquired a taste for it. It was bitter and salty and all-around crap, and I’d never wanted to see that look again. The only thing it did was force me to my feet so I wasn’t so pathetic looking.
“I’m fine,” I said, even though that was ridiculous and we both knew it. I glanced at both exit doors: one that would lead to Nowhere and one that would lead to Topside. There was nothing left for me Topside. I couldn’t work, have friends, or a life at all because no one would remember me.
But my options in Nowhere were bleak as well. I had no place to go, and Kaden would try to drive me out.
“What’s wrong? Come on, you’re going to come with me,” Cookie said, as if she could hear the mental debate in my head. She grabbed my arm, tugging me toward the door to Nowhere. “You’re one of us, and you belong in Nowhere.” She motioned to the door to Topside. “There’s nothing for you there.”
I nodded, moving in her direction before she decided to drag me across the room.
She went to open the door, and I pulled back. There was one final thing I needed. I couldn’t be a coward and leave without it.
“I need to talk to him one last time before we go. Can you give me a minute?”
“You sure?” She didn’t have any of the hope she’d clung to yesterday, or even a couple hours ago.
“Yes. It has to be done before I leave.”
She nodded, seeming more at ease. This wasn’t going to be some sort of last-ditch begging affair where she’d have to come drag me out.
I took a deep breath and headed toward Kaden’s office, now expecting things to be as ugly as I’d feared. I kept walking, praying my knees wouldn’t give out, steeling my spine as I did. All I wanted was to leave this place, but I couldn’t. Not yet.
Connor and Dice were walking out of the office as I approached.
Dice opened his mouth and shook his head.
“I’ve got to,” I said, moving around them as they both stood there, stumped at why I’d subject myself to anything further.
The door was ajar and Kaden was standing behind his desk, looking down as he sorted through papers. I shut the door to the office, not wanting an audience to any further humiliation I’d endure.
He wouldn’t look up, even as I neared.
Each further insult from him battered against the steel I was trying to keep erected, making it look more and more impossible that we’d ever speak again. Every step closer was further confirmation he was turning his back on me for good. I’d started to believe Kaden would be someone I could rely on. I’d expected him to be mad, but not to cut me out like this.
Yes, I hadn’t told him that Gram might be someone from his past, but it wasn’t as if I’d conspired against him. Was I expected to give him blind loyalty? For what reason? He’d never given it to me. We’d never signed some mutual pact that said we had to tell each other every detail of our lives. I’d sworn I wouldn’t act against him, and I hadn’t.
I stopped right in front of his desk, refusing to say a word until he acknowledged me, as my own rage rose to meet his.
He finally looked at me. “What?” The word was short, clipped, and cold, and that was nothing compared to the hoarfrost generated by his stare.
In this moment, I hated him. Hated that he could turn against me so easily. Hated that I’d trusted him even a little. Hated that I might’ve started to care for him. It had been a one-way street. No one who cared for me could turn their back like this without hearing me out.
“I need one thing from you. That’s it, and you’ll never have to deal with me again.”
If he cared, he didn’t show it. His face was stone cold.
“Then get on with it,” he said, having already dismissed me and going back to shuffling through some papers.
“I want your word you won’t tell anyone about Chaos.”
His hands stilled for a second. “I told you I wouldn’t.”
“You’ve told me a lot of things.” Things I’d believed. Not anymore.
His hand stilled for a fraction of a second. I wasn’t delusional enough to believe it revealed some softer emotion. He was heartless.
“I won’t. Now if that’s it, get out.”
I turned and left, swearing I’d never come here again, not even if he begged me on his hands and knees. I’d swallow a bullet first.