Never Fade Page 9

“Vida!” Jude gasped. The outburst was enough to get even Nico to look up.

“If you think for one f**king second that I don’t know what really happened, you’re wrong,” Vida hissed.

“Get out of my face,” I snapped.

“I know that story about Cate losing you is bullshit. I know you ran,” she said. “I will tear you to shreds before you hurt her again.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” I said, feeding off her anger in a way I didn’t expect.

“I know everything I need to,” Vida spat out. “I know what you are. We all do.”

“That’s enough!” Jude said, taking my arm and pulling me back. “We’re getting dinner, Vi. Come or don’t come.”

“Have a lovely f**king meal,” she said in her sweetest voice, but the fury that radiated off Vida’s form cut through the air between us and closed around my neck like a fist. Like a promise.

I’m not sure why the ring of empty tables around us bothered me as much as it did. Maybe it was the same reason Jude felt like he had to talk through the entire meal to make up for their silence.

We had only just sat down at one of the smaller circular tables when a number of agents and other kids got up from theirs. They either took their trays and left the atrium completely, or they squeezed themselves onto one of the already full tables farther away. I tried telling myself it wasn’t because of me, but there are some thoughts that live in your mind like a chronic disease. You think you’ve finally crushed them, only to find them morphing into something newer, darker. Of course they’d get up and leave, a familiar voice whispered in my ear. Why would they ever want to be around something like you?

“—is where we eat and hang out if we have some downtime. After Mess hours they clean everything up so you can come in and play cards or, like, Ping-Pong, or even just watch TV,” Jude said around a mouthful of lettuce. “Sometimes an agent brings back a new movie for us to watch, but I mostly stay downstairs in the computer lab—”

It was bizarre and sort of dizzying to be in the circular-shaped room, and the feeling was intensified by having ten televisions in eyeshot at all times. Each was tuned to the single surviving national news channel—it turns out when you’re willing to jump into the president’s pocket, you find quite a bit of money there—or giving us a riveting view of silent static. I didn’t have the stomach for whatever horrors of the day the anchors were trotting out. It was a much more interesting game to see which new arrival to the atrium broke away to which table. The kids, after they picked up their food from the buffet tables, flocked toward the other kids. The beefier guys that were probably ex-military sat with all the other guys with the exact same look, with only a few female agents scattered in there for some variety.

I was so focused on counting the women off that I didn’t notice Cate at all until she was standing directly behind Jude.

“Alban would like to see you,” she said simply, reaching over to take my tray.

“What? Why?”

Jude must have mistaken my revolted look for one of fear, because he reached over and patted my shoulder. “Oh, no, don’t be nervous! He’s really nice. I’m sure…I’m sure he just wants to chat, since it’s your first day. That’s probably all it is. A one-and-done kind of thing.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, ignoring the note of jealousy I detected in his voice. Apparently being summoned wasn’t a typical thing. “Sure.”

Cate led me out of the atrium and back into the hall, leaving my tray on a waiting cart beside the door. Instead of taking a right or left, she guided me toward a door on the opposite wall I hadn’t noticed before, half dragging me down the stairwell behind it. We bypassed the second level, winding down and around to the third. I was happier from the second she shouldered the door open. It was warmer, dryer than the creeping dampness of the upper floors. I wasn’t even bothered by the smell of static and hot plastic as we passed the large computer room that sat where the atrium did on that level.

“I’m sorry about this,” Cate said. “I know you must be exhausted, but he’s so eager to meet you.”

I clasped my hands behind my back to hide the way they’d started to shake. On the flight over, Cate had tried to paint a noble portrait of Alban as a gentle man of true intelligence—a bona fide American patriot. Which was, you know, a little at odds with everything else I’d heard about him: that he was a terrorist who’d coordinated more than two hundred strikes against President Gray around the country and killed a good number of civilians in the process. The evidence was everywhere—agents had tacked up newspaper articles and newscast screen shots on the walls, like the death and destruction were something to be celebrated.

This was what I knew about John Alban from personal experience: he’d formed an organization called the Children’s League but was only willing to break kids out of camps whom he saw as powerful. Useful. And that if the man was one to hold a grudge, there was a decent chance I’d be punished for making that plan as difficult as possible for him.

We walked to the other side of the loop. Cate tapped her ID against the black pad there, waiting for the beep. A part of me already knew to hope it wouldn’t flash green.

There was no trace of heat left as we made our way down the cement stairs. The door slammed shut behind us on its own, sealing with a sucking noise. I turned back, startled, but Cate gently nudged me forward.

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