Never Fade Page 60

“And if you think you haven’t been acting the same exact way he has for the past six months, then you’re a goddamn idiot, too.” Vida turned me back in the direction of the road and gave me a hard shove. “Go get him, then. If you’re not back in five minutes, we’ll head out on our own to find Stewart. You said you didn’t have a choice in joining the League? Well, congrat-u-freaking-lations. Now you do. Come back with us or don’t, but I’m more than capable of doing this Op without all of your boo-hoo issues holding me down.”

I read her meaning loud and clear. “I’ll be back,” I told them. “Right back, I swear.”

I took a lurching step forward, keeping my eyes on our staggered footprints in the snow. Keeping them focused down and ahead, because I couldn’t stand to think of the others watching me go.

I can’t leave them. Any of them. Not Vida, who was too headstrong for her own good. Not Jude, who couldn’t stand the silence or the dark. Not Chubs, not after everything.

The SUV was still there, parked crookedly on the shoulder. He was in the driver’s seat, leaning against the steering wheel. I walked around the back of the car, glancing both ways down the road to make sure there were no other eyes on us, then pulled Liam’s jacket around me tighter for support.

He didn’t see me. His shoulders were shaking, but I wasn’t sure if he was only breathing hard or actually crying. I knocked on the window. And Chubs—my Chubs—about leaped into the passenger seat in terror.

I’m sorry, I mouthed through the glass.

He had been crying. Something inside me twisted, sharp and firm as Chubs opened the door. “You scared the hell out of me!” he shouted. “Do you know how easy it is to fall and break an ankle when you’re walking without directions? Or into a frozen river? Do you know what happens when you get hypothermia?”

I leaned in and wrapped my arms around his shoulders.

“I’m—I mean…” he began. I felt his hands bunch up the back of Liam’s jacket with the effort to keep me there. “I’m not the same person. I’m not, and I know that. I’m not okay with who I am or what I had to do, but I’m also not okay with us separating again! Don’t do that! Don’t just disappear! If you’re mad at me, then hit me or something—just don’t think that I don’t want to stay with you. I’ll always want to stay with you!”

I tightened my grip on him, pressing my face against his shoulder.

“You’re different, too,” he said. “It’s all different now. I just want it to go back to the way it was, when we were in that stupid minivan—Jesus, will you say something?”

“Don’t,” I said, “call Black Betty stupid.”

I don’t know if he was laughing or just crying again, but both of us shook with the force of it. “I miss him,” he was saying. “I miss him so much—I know it’s stupid. I’m just, I’m scared—”

“He’s not dead,” I cut in. “He’s not. He can’t be.”

Chubs pulled back slowly, lifting his glasses to swipe his arm over his eyes. “That’s not what I mean. I’m scared of what he’ll say when he finds out about…this.” His hands settled again on the wheel. “All of this.”

“He’ll probably make some stupid joke at your expense,” I said, “and give you another dumb nickname.”

“No,” he said, clearly struggling, “he’ll know…”

I suddenly felt very still. There was no other way to describe the dread that crept over me when Chubs turned away from me.

“I told you before about all the paperwork that you need to fill out to register as a skip tracer,” he said, “but…that’s only half of it.”

“Half?” I repeated.

He nodded, looking miserable. “In order to establish yourself, you have to turn in a kid. There’s no other way to put your name in the rankings. You can’t cheat the system. Believe me. I tried.”

It took an immeasurable amount of time for what he was saying to sink in. With each second that passed, his face became more and more transparent. His thoughts and fears flashed by, unchecked.

“Who?” I asked finally.

“Some Green kid I found in New York.” Chubs swallowed hard. “He was… He had been living rough for a few years. I could tell by the look of him. Haunted, you know? Hungry. He was practically gaunt. I only saw him because he was trying to break a vending machine at one of those outdoor malls. It was in the middle of the day. There was a whole crowd of people watching him, not getting close to him.”

“What happened?”

“He…I don’t know, he didn’t even put up much of a fight,” Chubs said, his voice hoarse with emotion. “He just looked at me, and I could see that he had given up. And at the time, I was thinking, you know, that he would at least have food in a camp. He would have a bed. He was only a Green. They would treat him okay if he kept his head down.”

“You had to.” What else could I say to that? “It was the only way.”

“Is that how I’m supposed to explain myself to Lee? Oh, sorry. Your life was more important than his? He’s not going to understand.” Chubs cleared his throat. “The fact of the matter is, I would have done a lot worse. I would have done anything to find you guys. It scares me. I feel like if there’s not someone there to stop me, I’m not sure what I would do.”

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