Amber rolled the pen across Tess’s kitchen table, putting a side spin on it with her thumb. “That’s it, I think.”
“Yeah?” Tess mumbled with her bagel with her mouth and slid the paperwork over. “You deserve a coffee.”
“That sounds great.” She leaned back, creaking the wooden chair, and messed up her bangs. “Honestly? I barely read half of that.”
The other girl clicked the papers into perfect alignment before going to put coffee on. “That’s the point, I think.” She sat and undid her ponytail while still nibbling away at her lunch. “UNGC will try to get you for anything they can.”
This got so messed up. “It’s better than the alternative.”
Tess raised an eyebrow. “I guess so.” She stashed the papers away in a folder. “Ah—” She frowned before continuing. “—did you read that bit about—”
“No guns?” Amber smirked. “Yeah. I got that much.” With a sigh, she crossed her arms. “I’ll figure it out.”
“You could learn hand-to-hand fighting.”
“I’d have to get into shape first.” She stood and stretched, savouring the cracking of her joints. “I’m a little squishy.”
Tess giggled. Her laugh meshed with the rustling leaves outside, a cute melody above the hushed rhythm of early spring. “You look good, though.”
Amber let herself smile. “That’s sweet of you.” Her excitement ended there. “Like I said. I’ll figure it out.” She leaned on the counter, clasping her hands over the sink. “Have you heard much about Kelly?”
A cup scuffed against granite. “Not yet,” Tess said. “She’s still in the hospital, I think. Your coffee’s ready.”
“Thanks.” Amber wandered back to the table and took a sip. “Does anybody know what’s up with her magic?”
Tess shook her head, bobbing her sandy hair along her shoulders. “Everybody’s pretty confused.” She tapped out a beat with her fingers. “It’s not like we understand the science of divergents really well, anyway.” She narrowed her eyes and met Amber’s gaze with a lopsided look. “The way I’ve heard it, she just—doesn’t have an aura anymore.”
Amber let out a single chuckle. “It doesn’t work that way. When has that ever happened before?”
Tess shrugged. “I know. Nobody has an answer.”
“I can ask around.” Amber took her phone out. “A friend of mine is sort of obsessive about chosen history.” After another swig of coffee, she navigated to Juliette’s number in her contacts.
> Morning, Juli 🙂 I have a question for you. Has it ever happened that a chosen lost their magic? Something weird happened to Kelly, and she apparently doesn’t even have an aura anymore. You know a lot about this kind of stuff, so I figured I would ask you.
She plopped her phone on the table and grabbed her coffee with both hands. “I’ll let you know if I get an answer. Not that I expect Yuli to have some crazy insight into something that’s never happened before.” She laughed. “At the same time, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Tess took a long breath and pushed her eyebrows together. “You want something else to eat?”
Amber’s attention snapped to her phone before she could answer. Juliette already replied. “One sec,” she said.
> dont think so
> is she ok?
> if I can I wanna go see her
That was fast. “Yeah,” she finally answered, “I could go for whatever.” She drifted back to her phone.
> Sure. I was going to go visit her and Jessi this afternoon. You should come along.
/ / /
Juliette was remarkably quiet on the way to the hospital. She stared out the window of Tess’s car, spinning her hair around her fingers. Amber tried to spark conversation, but got only murmurs for answers.
“Yuli, is it all right if we go by your place after so I can get my stuff?”
“I guess it’ll be nice to have the place to yourself again.”
What’s up with her? Amber left her alone for the rest of the ride. When they arrived, Tess split off to check on some injured members of her own team. With the medical ward of Guardian Tower destroyed along with the rest of the building, the casualties of the battle spilled over to either Harrier or Phoenix Hospital.
Kelly’s room was quiet. A single vase of fuchsia flowers—Amber didn’t know what kind, exactly—broke the white of the walls and floor. Juliette sauntered to the bedside.
“You awake, Kelly?” Amber said.
She shifted in the blankets. The colour had left her face, and her loose hair laid limp across the pillow.
Amber knelt by the bed, beside Juliette. Maybe… “Kaori?” She nudged her shoulder. “Kaori?”
Kelly’s eyelids twitched, and she peeked through. “Amber.”
“Hey, you.” A welling pulled at Amber’s cheeks. “How you feeling?” Whatever Kelly said, it was in Japanese. Amber shrugged and let it go. A sharp shiver ran through the inside of her chest, sinking into her gut. She clenched her teeth and drew her eyes to the floor.
To her right, Juliette stared wide-eyed with a hand to Kelly’s chest. Kelly didn’t seem to notice. Amber raised an eyebrow, squinting. “Yuli?”
The girl shook her head. What does that mean? Amber sat on the bed and rubbed Kelly’s side. She stirred at the contact. “You’ll feel better soon, Captain.” Amber stared at the floor. Can I really let her take this? “Just get some rest, okay?”
Kelly mumbled and nuzzled back into the mattress. Amber smiled at that.
“Ámbar,” Juliette said, voice low. “This is bad.”
The girl stood, and her features drew hard lines across her face. “This breaks the rules on a lot of levels.”
“What do you mean?”
Juliette shook her head. “I can’t tell you. I really can’t.” She took off toward the door. “Go to my place without me. I’ll see you later.” With that, she ran past the corner, her footsteps echoing through the hall.
Amber blinked. “You know,” she said, switching to English and petting Kelly’s shoulder again, “I’ll never understand that girl.” She moved and put a kiss to Kelly’s forehead. “You get some rest. I’ll come see you later, okay?”
A minute later, Amber hadn’t moved. She stayed there, on the floor, head resting against her friend’s. Her fingers clawed into the sheets. “I’m sorry,” she said, barely a whisper. Her voice cracked. “Everything’s gonna be okay, right?”
Kelly’s eyes twitched, struggling lopsided to open. Amber coughed out a repressed cry. Of course not. Idiot.
/ / /
When Amber saw her mother by Jessenia’s bed, she froze. The tears from Kelly’s room hadn’t even dried yet. Her fingers curled into her palms. All instincts compelled her to leave, pushing her to turn around and shut the door. But she’d already made eye contact—no turning back.
“Mamá,” Amber said, crossing the threshold.
Her mother’s steel-wool hair dangled from her skull in a bun, drawn tightly away from her wrinkled face. “Where were you?” she asked, making the most of her deceptively sweet voice.
“Seeing a friend.”
Her mother frowned. “And what friend is more important than your sister?” She caressed Jessenia’s hair. “Your poor sister has been here all alone, and you’re visiting somebody else instead. How dare you?”
Amber bit her lip and looked away, through the window. “I visit Yessi all the time.”
“Then why do I never see you here?”
Her jaw set itself on edge. “We don’t want to overwhelm her.”
“Family is everything, Ámbar,” her mother said, turning to look at Jessenia. “You never turn your back on family.”
Amber closed her eyes to breathe. “I don’t. And I haven’t.”
“Of course.” The woman let out a teary laugh. “That’s why you never come see me. That’s why you never want to visit Yessi at the same time as me.”
Spare bits of metal around the room clattered in place. Amber’s hands shook. “I’m busy, mamá.”
“So busy!” She threw her hands in the air. “So busy, losing your job, being a criminal! I didn’t raise a criminal, Ámbar!”
Amber opened her mouth but quickly bit her tongue. You didn’t raise me at all. “I got my job back.”
Her mother rolled her eyes. “Yeah? You sleep with the boss?” She wiped her eyes and laughed again. “You have to grow up, Ámbar. You need to learn how to make an effort in life. You can’t keep living like that.”
Amber pinched her tongue between her canines and stared out the window again. “Excuse me? I need to grow up?”
“I shouldn’t say that. It’s not your fault. It’s because of me, I’ve failed as a mother.” She brushed a thumb along Jessenia’s cheek. “Sweet Jesus, what did I do to make such an awful daughter?”
Amber marched to the bedside and grabbed her mother by the chin. She yanked her face up to meet her eyes. “No. You stop that. You stop doing that around Yessi.” Her mother’s beady eyes glistened with tears. “You want to bitch at me? Fine. Whatever. But you don’t do that around Yessi.”
“Oh, and you know what’s best for her now? Did you raise her? Did you feed her, did you put a roof over her head?” Her mother raised a palm, dismissively. “You know, maybe if you’d been better, your father wouldn’t have—”
Amber slapped her, spinning her chin into her shoulder. “No!” The woman yelled and cried, clasping her face. Amber’s heart lifted against her ribs. “Fuck you. You don’t get to say that.”
“Get out!” She flailed at Amber—she dodged the retaliatory slaps—and pointed out the door. “Get out! Get out, get out, get out!”
Amber swallowed back a mess of tears. “Fine,” she said, walking to the door. “Love you, Yessi.” She held a stare with her mother before leaving.
/ / /
In the parking lot, Amber sat on the curb with crossed arms by Tess’s locked car. By the time Tess got out, Amber had exhausted herself of anger and tears.
“Hey?” Tess said, jangling her keys. “You okay?”
Amber looked up and scratched her hair. “Yeah. I’ll be okay.”
Tess tucked her keys away and sat on the curb, hip-to-hip with Amber. “Kelly not looking too good?”
“Ah, it’s not that.” Amber grimaced. “She’ll be fine. It’s just—” She sighed. “I went to go see my sister. And my mother was there, too.”
“Oh,” she said. “Is—how’s your sister doing?”
Right. She doesn’t know. “Same as she has been for a while.” Amber ruffled her hair. “Don’t worry about me. It’s nothing.”
Tess hummed and leaned in with a hug, securing her arms about Amber’s shoulders and leaning her head in. “Everything’s gonna be all right.” Her body fit snugly against Amber’s. “Did you need a ride somewhere else, too?”
Amber smiled. “If you don’t mind. I need to pick some stuff up from Yuli’s place.”
/ / /
Tess waited in the car while Amber went in. She still had a spare set of keys that Juliette loaned her, so getting in wasn’t a problem. The house was quiet and empty. The team hadn’t been staying there long, but it was enough for Amber to be used to ambient chatter from one corner or another. On some level, she knew she would miss having everybody in the same place.
She worked her way through, collecting personal effects in a gym bag. Her favourite plastic cups, the ones with her and Jessenia’s favourite childhood cartoon characters; a small armoury of hair elastics and belts; her toothbrush, towels, and other hygienic things; and the last of her clothes. The only thing missing was a sweater she’d lent to Juliette. Must be in her room.
Hoping the girl wouldn’t mind, Amber creaked open the door to her bedroom. She knew Juliette was likely off doing whatever she tended to do with her weekends, but a creeping anxiety made her cautious. Nobody was there, of course. Juliette kept the biggest bedroom to herself—she had a king-sized bed with dark blankets, with two dressers on either side. A mirror took up the left wall, and a huge desk the right.
It didn’t surprise Amber that Juliette’s bed wasn’t made. The pillows made a small mountain by the headboard, and the blankets swathed out in a sea of fabric. She saw her grey hoodie flopped on a lump of other clothing at the corner of the bed. When she went to grab it, she caught something strange glinting in the light.
A long, bright hair—not even close to Juliette’s colour. Amber ignored her sweater to pluck it and examine it closer. If it were darker, she could’ve dismissed it as a grey hair. But it was nearly white.
Are you serious?
/ / /
Amber promised to buy Tess dinner in exchange for her taxi services. Her next stop: Brand’s apartment. Now that everyone had a few days to collect themselves after the Battle of Guardian Tower—the name the news quickly adopted for it—she expected Brand would jump at the chance to have his own place back.
As she climbed the stairs, she calculated how she would confront him. She’d warned him once about sleeping around. Was it really a surprise that he hadn’t listened? After a few minutes of silent ascent, she made it to his door and banged on it. “Brand! You better be home!”
Amber got herself ready to knock again when the door opened. The boy looked her over with bags under his eyes. “What’s up?” he asked, forcing his lips into his classic smile. He wore a thin button-up shirt with nothing underneath, and simple sweatpants. “Everything okay?”
Of course he just woke up. “Look,” she said, pushing him to make room for herself in the entrance. “I told you not to mess around.” She shut the door behind her and strode into his messy living room. “Sure, whatever, Yuli isn’t part of the team. And I don’t care if she wanted to. You realize Hana’s already on thin ice, emotionally?” She spun on her heels to fix him with her gaze. “And you’re still fooling around.”
Brand wrapped his arms around his stomach. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Amber sighed. “You going to just deny this?” She plopped herself on his couch. “Then whose hair did I find in Yuli’s bed? Who else has hair so blond it’s white?”
He furrowed his brow and shrugged. “Honestly, Amber. I didn’t sleep with Juliette.”
She looked him over. He had none of the energy he usually did. He crumpled in on himself, the way he stood. “Brand?” she said, cringing a bit. “Hey, come here. Sit down.” She gestured him over. “Look. If you’re telling the truth, I’m sorry. But I’m not gonna let you get away with it if you’re lying.”
The boy wandered over and squished into the couch. “Makes sense.” He avoided eye contact at every turn.
Amber collected herself and breathed. “Are you okay?”
He said nothing, but shrugged. He looked away.
“I didn’t know it was him.”
He sniffed. “He looked so different. He didn’t look like the pictures. At all. I didn’t know it was him.”
Amber narrowed her eyes. “Brand, who are you talking about?”
He shook his head. “McTavish. I—I didn’t know it was him.” He dug his hands into his hair. “And I choked. In the fight. Kelly was in trouble. I could have stopped that woman from getting away. I could’ve—I could’ve—”
How am I supposed to deal with this? Amber put a nervous hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, it’ll be okay. What happened?”
Brand stood and crossed the room, making for the hallway that led to his bedroom. “I need to be alone for a while. Sorry.”
/ / /
> Hey. How are you doing?
Amber stared at her phone in the car. She’d finished all her errands, and told Tess to choose somewhere she wanted to eat. Tess insisted Amber didn’t have to pay, though she appreciated the offer.
Finally, Hana answered.
> I’m okay!!! 🙂 I’ve been SO tired all week tho
> hanging out with BB at sheehan’s. You should come! 🙂
“Hey,” she said, looking over to Tess, “apparently your team and Hana are at Sheehan’s Pub? She just invited me up. Want to go?”
“Where do you think I’m taking us?”
“It’s a thing we do.” She let her eyes go wide a moment. “Especially after a stressful fight like a few days ago. We need a way to unwind, you know?”
“Makes sense. We—my team—we used to go to Code Bread for lunch all the time. That was our little ritual.”
The two mused back and forth about the atmosphere of their teams. Tess described how Rangers Kirya and Lenich were practically brothers, especially after they’d had a few drinks. Anglehart was apparently a loner, and everybody thought she and Yancy had a fling going on. The same, apparently, went for Ranger Shane and Lieutenant Carter. Tess glossed over a few years of history, and Amber barely retained it.
This was the team she would work with from now on. They sounded like good people—like the kind of crew that, despite everything going on around them, they could huddle together and make it through.
At the pub, Hana, as social as ever, fit right in with them. They gathered around a long table. Yancy, red-faced, held his team enraptured with a story in his drawl. Laughter burst up at beats in his tale, and clanking cups filled the air.
Tess offered Amber a warm smile. Would things really be okay? Just like that?