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Authors: Francine Pascal

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Contents

Gaia

Bizarro World

The Power

Oliver

Home Sweet Home

Hidden in Shadow

The Beautiful People

All the Freaks

Easy Answers

Love and Hate

Oliver

New Gaia

Jake

Oliver

To Johanna Stokes

GAIA

Idon't have any cold, hard statistics to back this up, but I think it's safe to assume that at one point or another, everyone must become pretty damn sick of themselves.

I mean, honestly, how could thisnothappen? How could peoplenotgrow dizzyingly, violently sick of themselves after a while? Because what are we really talking about here? We are talking about twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That's how much time we are forced to spend with ourselves, sleeping, eating, talking, fighting, dressing, undressing—it never stops.

I have spentevery waking momentof my life with me. And the truth is . . . I am sick to death of it.

I can't really fathom who, in their right mind, wouldnotbe sick of me at this point. My life, after all, never seems to change. Well, it did: Ella died; Mary died; Loki ceased to exist.But really, it didn't: Natasha appeared; Tatiana appeared; Yuri came back from the dead. My life really just repeats itself over and over in this dismal cycle: tragedy . . . then hope . . . then something very closely resembling actual happiness, and then—without fail—tragedy again. I'm a tragicomic broken record—a study in numbing emotional monotony. I'm one very long sad-ass story thatneverseems to end.

Until now.

Now I am stating it for the record. If I could scream it to this entire pain-in-the-ass city, I would. If I could take out an ad in every piece-of-crap paper in New York, I would do it. Because I want everyone who has ever known me to hear this and to understand it:

I am hereby changing my life.I am breaking the cycle. I am breaking it here and now and forever, because I can—because for the first time in God knows how long, I think I have a realchance to do it. I have the pieces of a real life staring me in the face, and I swear to God, I am going to put them together if it kills me.

I have a father. I have an uncle I can trust. My enemies are gone: Yuri, Natasha, Tatiana. . . . I have abrother—arealbrother. And I have this boy . . . Jake. I don't even know what we are yet, but I refuse to screw it up. I have a chance to do itrightthis time. All of it. A chance to bereal—a real girl with real feelings—no matter how pathetic I might end up looking, no matter how embarrassing my complete emotional ineptitude might be at first.

A new beginning. That is what I have here. That is what this is going to be for me. A new beginning with a new Gaia. A Gaia who doesn't bitch and moan about her existential woes. A Gaia who doesn't repeat the same fatalistic routine over and over again. A Gaia who doesn't have to be nauseatingly sick of herself anymore.

I've already been given my first test.

The Agency has sent my father off on another assignment.

Already.

I had him safe and sound back home for a piddling couple of weeks, and now he's already been called away again to oversee some big hush-hush op in Syria.

Now,oldGaia would be ranting about this already—launching into the same old orphan sob story. But I am not going to be that Gaia anymore. I'm not. I'm just going to recognize the facts for what they are: My father is a high-ranking agent in the CIA. This is his job. And if he needs to leave on another mission, so be it. I'm not going to cry about it. And we've already agreed: I'm not going to live in that Seventy-second Street apartment while he's gone. No way. Not without him there. Those kinds of hideously lonely days are over.

So I've agreed to stay in some kind of boardinghouse downtown. Iguess it's some kind of CIA safe house where kids of agents can stay while their parents are on assignment. The only other thing I really know about the place is that it's run by a Japanese governess named Suko Wattanabe. Apparently my father knew her back in his intensive martial arts training days. Whatever. At least I'll be downtown again—free from the horrifically bland shackles of the Upper East Side, back in the real world where there are actually people with ages and incomes under sixty-five.

Jake's going to help me move my stuff into the boardinghouse tonight, and that will be that. No bitching about another foster home or being left with strangers.No more bitching, period.Because I am so sick of it. I am sick to death of the half-assed, violent, depressive soap opera that's been shoved down my throat for the last five years. It's not a life. I'm not even sure what you would callwhat's been passing for my life. I think you'd call it “God's cruel joke.” And I don't even believe in God.

It doesn't matter. The point is, I'll tell God or the Fates or anyone else who wants to listen:

The joke is officially over. I am pressing reset.Do over.I am starting my life again.

bizarro world

No one was going to be scared of that bitch anymore. Now it was her turn to be scared.

Finding God

MALCOLM COULD TASTE THE CITY DIRTon his tongue. Dry weeds and raw sewage. Disgusting. Another morning after in Washington Square Park . . .

Not morning like those 1A.M.Sweaty Egg Mcmuffin mornings, but morning likereal freaking morning.Dawn. Everything was just starting to light up in sharper and sharper lines, turning from that weird comic-book blue to pasty gray.

Malcolm sat up on the grass and kicked Devin's pale, skinny ass to wake him up.

“Dude,” he uttered, hawking up a night's worth of smokes and spitting at Devin's feet. “Get the hell up, dude, it's five-thirty.” He smacked his watch until it stopped beeping in his ear.“Goddamnit, I told you we'd pass out. If we missed him, I'm gonna pound you, I swear.”

Devin kicked him back in the leg and then dragged himself up to a sitting position, rubbing his bony fingers over his stubbly shaved head. “We didn't miss him,” he said. “Five-thirty. You can only find him at five-thirty.”

Last night's stink was pouring off of them both, penetrating Malcolm's pierced nostrils with the rank odor: spilled beer on his jeans from his last forty, the burnt taste of the crappy weed they'd smoked. He remembered about a quarter of the night. They'd ripped off some NYU bitches in the park. He'd beatenthe crap out of some Chelsea asshole at CB's who'd had a problem with his swastika earring, and then they'd spent the rest of the night just looking for some decent E. All they'd gotten was crap. Total bunk. Children's aspirin and some Tylenol Cold with a smiley face punched into it. He'd been just about ready to cram his knife right through the last dealer's gut when they ran into Max.

And that's when Max told them abouthim.

Max swore that he'd met the guy. For real. He swore that it wasn't just a rumor being spread around by the brotherhood and every other skeevy lowlife in the park.

“I'm telling you, dude, this is no bull,” Max had promised. “He'll be there. At five-thirty. He'll be sitting on the bench by the MacDougal Street entrance. He's got spiky blue hair. Blue shades. Real cold and calm. Like a ghost or something. But don't get spooked. Here's what you gotta say to him: You gotta say, ‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I want to pray.' Then you gotta say, ‘I don't want to be afraid anymore.' And if you do it right, he'll hook you up. And it'scheap,yo. Five doses of Invince for fifty bucks.”

“You're so full of crap,” Malcolm had argued. “Invince is such a lie.”

“No, dude. This is for real. This is realer than real. Five-thirtyA.M. Western entrance. That's the only time he's there. That's the only time you can find God.”

Malcolm would have laughed right in Max's face except the truth was, he had seen what the stuff coulddo—at least what everyone was saying it could do. He and Dev had both seen it. It was like E times ten. It was like super-E or something. Only it was better than that. It was more than a high. He'd seen a few of the other skinheads trip out on the stuff like they were goddamn superheroes, like they were bullet-proof or something.

Mal had to get a taste of IV. He had to. And not just for the rush. No, he had another reason.Revenge.Revenge for what she had done to his cousin and to half the other brothers, too. He knew they would all back him up on his plan.

But first things first. It was all just a fantasy until he and Devin could find him. It was time to find God.

Malcolm shook the grass and dirt off the T-shirt he'd used as a pillow and stretched it over his tattooed chest. “Come on,” he said, flicking the back of Devin's neck to get him moving.

They strode through the park, their combat boots crunching the dead grass and then clomping on the barely sunlit pavement. Mal kept an eye out for cops, but there was really no need. Everybody knew they didn't sweep the park for assholes until six.

They started to close in on the MacDougal Street entrance, nearing the third bench on the path. . . .

And goddamn if he wasn't sitting right there. Malcolm could still only see him from the back, but that was all he needed to see.

This was the guy. The one and only “God.” His shock of spiky blue hair reflected the grayness of the morning. His long arms were spread out like an eagle's wings across the back of the bench, a thick silver bracelet on each wrist. He sat completely still, like a washed-out photograph or a painting. It was just like Max had said. He was like a ghost. . . .

Malcolm and Devin both held up about six feet away, though Malcolm didn't know why. No, that wasn't true. He knew why. He was scared. At least he could admit it to himself, even if he'd never say it out loud to Dev. Even from six feet away, God was freaking creepy. There was just no denying it.

But that was exactly why Malcolm wanted the stuff, wasn't it? He wanted to kill that feeling. He wanted to feel totally invincible. Even if only for a couple of hours. That was the plan. That was how he'd finally get his revenge—how they would all get their revenge on that blond bitch.

They stood there staring at the back of God's head.

“Is that him?” Devin whispered.

“Of course it's him.” Malcolm rolled his eyes and lit the last bent cigarette from the crumpled pack in his pocket. “Who the hell else could it be?”

“Hey! Are you God?” Devin called out.

Malcolm jabbed him hard in the ribs. “Shut thehellup, asshole!” he whispered.

“What?”

“That's not what yousay.Don't screw this up. I want thatstuff.”

“Well, so do I—”

“Thenshut up.”

Malcolm shoved Devin back two steps. He stubbed out his cigarette with his boot and then gazed at the back of God's head. He took a deep breath and then he forced out the words. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. . . . I—I want to pray. . . . ”

God's head did not move, nor did his arms.

“Dude, this is total bull—”

“Wait,” Malcolm snapped, shutting Devin up. He turned back to face God's deadly still body. “I, uh . . . I don't want to be afraid anymore. . . . ”

Silence filled the edge of the park. And then God's head finally began to turn. He turned his head about fifteen degrees, and he spoke. He spoke in a hushed and measured baritone.

“Sit with me,” God said calmly.

Malcolm and Devin began to approach, but God stopped them.

“Just the one,” he insisted.

They froze in place. Malcolm glimpsed Devin and then began his solo approach, moving even more slowly this time. The closer he got, the farther away he wanted to be. But finally he managed to sit down at the end of the bench, trying not to stare too long at God's profile or his blue shades, which were just startingto pick up the first real glints of orange sunlight.


Page 2

They sat for a moment in silence. Malcolm tried to steady his shaky leg.

“God . . . ” He puffed out a nervous laugh. “That's, uh . . . that's a ballsy name for a dealer.”

God turned slowly and faced him dead-on. “You obviously haven't tried this stuff yet,” he said. He reached into his pocket and presented a blue cellophane package that fit in the palm of his hand. “Fifty gets you five. One for ten.”

“I need ten.”

“I thought you might.” God slid the package across the bench and Malcolm trapped it under his fingertips. There were ten small diamond-shaped yellow pills inside. Then he handed God the hundred bucks from inside his boot.

Thank you, rich NYU bitches.

“D-Does it . . . ?” Malcolm stammered. “Does it really work? I mean, if, like, some . . .dudeand . . . his whole gang had been beating the crap out of me and my boys for a while, you know . . . messing with us in our own park . . . ? Would we be able to—?”

“That dude wouldn't stand a chance,” God said. “It wouldn't matter how big his gang was. You drop one of these, and you won't care if an armored tank is coming at you.”

“Sweet,” Malcolm said, trying for a moment to bond with God. But he didn't even need to see God'seyes behind those blue shades. He knew he should shut up instantly. Shut up and go.

“Tell your people,” God said. “Tell them to come and pray while supplies last.”

“I will,” Malcolm said. “Totally.” He looked back at Devin, waved the package, and grinned.

Oh, this was going to be so beautiful.

Thedude.What a joke. The “dude” with a “gang.” They all knew she was no dude and there was no gang. Just her. It was always just her. And even though not one of them would have ever said it out loud in a million years, Malcolm could at least admit it to himself. He'd been scared of her. They all had. Mal's cousin should have been; he just hadn't known any better. That's why they had all just started staying away from her.

But things were going to change now. No one was going to be scared of that bitch anymore. Now it was her turn to be scared.

Giddy Lovesick Child

EVERY NOW AND THEN GAIA MOOREwas convinced that she had stepped into an alternate universe. Some kind of bizarro world where blackwas white and up was down and intensely stupid people were intelligent. Today Starbucks seemed to be that universe. That was the only possible explanation for what she was witnessing.

Chess. A swarm of the absolute dumbest, richest, shallowest party girls the Village School had to offer had all gathered en masse in a corner of Starbucks to watch two boys playchess.Actually, from what Gaia could tell, they had really only clumped around one of the boys. Granted, he was attractive enough to warrant a fair amount of attention—tall and slim, with close-cropped flaxen gold hair and the kind of perfectly sculpted features that you usually only see in painted portraits of aristocracy. But still, however attractive this regal boy might be, could that really be enough to make a slew of nitwit FOHs watch an entire chess match as though they were watching a Prada show? It was just a little too strange. And it was making Gaia wish that she had picked anywhere but here to meet Jake after school. But now, unfortunately, she was stuck here until Jake arrived.

She sat on one of the frayed vinyl couches behind a scratched table, a steaming black coffee in front of her, with her legs pulled up against her chest, thumbing through her battered paperback copy ofCrime and Punishmentand pretending she wasn't sneaking a glance, every ninety seconds, out the dirty sunlit windows.

Looking for Jake. Gaia's new favorite pastime.

The wall clock said 3:20.

She knew that Jake had math class and that he'd told her he'd come to Starbucks right after he got out. So wherewashe, anyway?

She kept trying to read her book, but she was finding it damn near impossible not to let her eyes drift back up toward the bizarre spectacle in the corner.

For one thing, what the hell was this boy doing playing chess at Starbucks? He must just completely suck. But the longer Gaia watched him play, the more she was forced to give up that theory. He was good. Actually, from what she could see from this distance, he was very good. He was using the king's gambit, for Christ's sake. That wasn't a maneuver for fake chess players. Who the hell was this kid?

Jesus, now I'm doing it.

Gaia suddenly realized that she was apparently no better than the worst of the FOHs. Now she, too, was staring shamelessly at the young chess prince. She shook it off and turned back down to her book. But it wasn't long before her eyes had popped back up and begun to stare.

Of course, there was another reason she probably found this image so compelling. Just how many perfectly sculpted young chess players were there in the world? Gaia had met only one other. And while this boy looked nothing like Sam Moon, how could she not be reminded of the very first time she'd laid eyes on Sam in the park?Inhumanly good-looking and unexpectedly skilled on the board—it was an unusual combination to say the least. It wasn't that Gaia was attracted to the boy. Those kinds of feelings were now reserved entirely for Jake. But fascinated . . . she couldn't help but be a little fascinated. And neither, it seemed, could any of the rich girls at school.

“Wait,” Laura said, leaning down by the boy's ear in an act of shameless flirtation. “If you move your horse there, won't he—?”

The boy silenced Laura by simply placing his finger to his lips. He didn't turn his head or acknowledge her presence in any other way.

“Sorry,” Laura whispered earnestly, melting back into the crowd. Gaia couldn't help but smile a little at his total control over the bitchiest of girls and his utter disregard for one of the prettiest of the idiot crew. His priorities were clear. The game first. Doting ninnies later.

“Hey.”

Andfinally,there he was—right in front of her. Jake Montone had stepped in front of her view of the chess game, big as life, complete with his gleaming white teeth and smooth olive skin. Gaia looked up at him gratefully as he dropped his book bag and collapsed into the chair opposite her.

“Hey,” Gaia said, smiling at him. It was clearly time for her to make a smart-ass comment about him beinglate. But that was so “old Gaia.”

“What—no clever put-down?” Jake said, as if he'd read her mind. He leaned forward and swatted at the book in her hands. “All this Russian literature's messing with your head.”

And then they were staring at each other again. Gaia's other new favorite pastime. This was happening all the time now—every time they met, it seemed. A few moments of awkwardly intense staring that continued to leave Gaia with an inexplicable rush of blood to the center of her chest. She always tried to pass it off as more of a staringcontest,but she had a feeling that Jake could see past her competitive veneer.

“How freakin' weird is this?” he said with a subversive little smile.

“How weird is what?” Gaia asked, feeling an unexpected tinge of insecurity. Was he talking about them? Weird that they'd been making goo-goo eyes at each other? Weird that they were even hanging out like this at all? Itwasweird, wasn't it? It was so out of nowhere. But Gaia had thought it wasgoodweird. Didn't Jake think it was good weird?

“This,” Jake said, shrugging. “Us. Here. Like this. Weird.”

“What's weird about it?” Gaia said, far too defensively. She felt her spine stiffen. “I don't see anything weird about it—we're just . . . I mean, whatever.You'reweird. . . . ”

“Whoa.” Jake laughed, squeezing Gaia's hand. “I meantgoodweird.”

“Oh.” She started to relax again. Maybe she had been burned by this boy-girl thing one too many times. Maybe—

That thought was cut short by the sudden pang of complex emotions jabbing at her heart and pricking her spine. That was always the feeling she got upon spotting Ed Fargo.

Ed and Kai were sitting across from each other at one of the smaller tables in the back of Starbucks, and Gaia's eyes had just met Ed's by accident. It was the kind of moment she and Ed both worked very hard to avoid in school.

That was the standard now between Gaia and Ed. Distance. Distance and avoidance. Gaia still felt like such an extraterrestrial whenever she let herself think about it for too long. How could two people who had been so utterly and completely in love now be going out of their way to avoid anything more than a second's worth of eye contact? She did her best to dump the little pangs of jealousy she was feeling about Ed and Kai, because it was such a ridiculously unfair double standard. Here she was, rushing to Starbucks for another rendezvous with Jake, so what right did she have to be even the least bit resentful of Ed and Kai? None. She had no right whatsoever. Because this was the deal now. This was how thingsworked. Ed and Kai over there and Gaia and Jake over here . . .

Gaia and Jake . . .She ran the phrase through her head again.Gaia and Jake . . . Is it “Gaia and Jake” now? Is that what we call it?

Gaia turned back to Jake and began to stare at him again, the rest of the world drifting off into space.

“What?” Jake asked defensively, looking at her again. “What's the problem?”

“No,” Gaia assured him. “No, nothing. I wasn't—”

“What was that look?”

“I was just . . . ” Gaia found her hands reaching behind her head and fiddling with her hair. She readjusted her ponytail, but it only made the hair fall farther into her face. “Nothing, just . . . It's not abadlook,” she explained. “I was . . . This is mehappy,okay?” she announced. She practically slapped Jake in the face with the words, but at least she'd managed to get them out of her mouth. “I mean, this is what I look like when I'm . . . happy.”

A grin began to spread across Jake's face. A wide, pearly white, excessively hot, excessively confident grin.

“Stop it,” Gaia warned, trying to suppress the embarrassed smile that was about to pop up on her own face. This giddy lovesick child thing was going to give her a goddamn ulcer.

“Stop what?” Jake asked, his smile increasing as he tried to regain eye contact, which was difficult giventhe fact that Gaia's hand was beginning to involuntarily mask her eyes.

“Stop it,”she muttered between clenched teeth, “or I swear to God, I will mash your face against this table and that grin will be forever altered.” Gaia collected herself and tried to look back in Jake's eyes, but his smile had only grown larger.

“You have noqueen,” the blond chess player taunted his opponent across the room. Now even some adults had come over to watch. The crowd around the table had grown. “You have no rooks, you have no queen . . . you have no chance, my friend.”

Jake leaned toward her. “We need to talk,” he announced. He locked his eyes so tightly and securely with hers that she didn't even try to avert his glance this time. It was almost like a mild form of hypnosis.

“About what?” Gaia uttered.

“Not now,” he said, looking over at the wall clock. “I've got to pick something up for my dad. But we're going to move your stuff over to that boardinghouse later, right?”

“Right . . . ”

“So I'll be done in about a half hour. Then we'll walk a little bit before we head uptown. And we'll talk.”

“Aboutwhat?” Gaia repeated. But of course some part of her was smarter than that. She could see in his eyes what he wanted to talk about. He wanted to talkabout them. He wanted to talk about what was clearly happening between them and what wasgoingto happen between them. He wanted to talk about when talking would not be what they spent most of their time doing. He wanted to talk about everything Gaia had been having a delightful timenottalking about But exactly how long was she planning to avoid that talk? Old Gaia would have voted for as long as humanly possible, given how ridiculously burned she'd gotten with all this romantic stuff. But new Gaia . . . ? What would new Gaia do?

“Not here,” Jake said. “Later. We'll talk. You and me.”

Gaia looked deeper in his eyes. “Okay,” she heard herself answer.

“Okay,” he said. And before he'd even finished that one word, he'd pressed his large hands against the table, leaned his entire torso across, and kissed her. Short, sweet, and deep on the lips. In the middle of Starbucks. With everyone watching.

It was so unexpected. And yet it was so natural. As if it belonged. As if they'd been together for months. And for that one moment Gaia felt like they had been. She felt like everything was right. She felt undeniably normal. For one perfect moment, with Jake's lips pressed to hers, she felt like one of those real girls, complete with real girl tingles down the back of her neck and her real girl hands clasped tightly to her seat. And just as quickly Jake pulled away, backing himself out of Starbucks as he smiled at her.

Then he was out on the street and gone.

Star-Crossed lovers

A VOICE ECHOED THROUGH ED'Shead. Something about bands that would be playing that night around town. Something else about the movies at the Film Forum. Some part of his brain realized that the voice was Kai's—that she was talking a mile a minute, with her usual unbridled enthusiasm about their potential plans for the evening. But Ed really couldn't hear a word. He couldn't hear Kai, and he couldn't hear the commotion surrounding the nearby table where two boys were playing chess. He couldn't hear much of anything at the moment. All that seemed to matter right now was what he could see.


Page 3

Gaia and Jake. Kissing. Gaia and Jake kissing across a table in the middle of Starbucks like the happiest teenage lovers in the worst kind of movie.

It was like they were one of those couples whose names had become one word at school:Are Jake-and-Gaia coming? Hey, did you guys go to Jake-and-Gaia's party last night?It was making Ed feel unexpectedly ill.

But that really wasn't any of Ed's business anymore, was it? No, that really had nothing to do with Ed in the least.

And why the hell do you care?Ed hollered internally as Kai continued to read out options fromThe Village Voice. Youdon'tcare, Ed. You don't give a crap. That's Gaia's life over there. This is your life over here. You and Kai. Making plans. For Christ's sake,you'rethe one who finally called things off with her, remember?

Of course he remembered. This was just a freak momentary lapse in sanity, that's all—little moldy leftovers of the kind of jealousy Ed didn't even feel anymore. Gaia deserved to be happy, and so did Ed. And clearly there was no way they could be happy with each other. Gaia's life was just too freaking insane.

Too freaking dangerous.

There was never an ounce of peace in her life, so how could there be an ounce of peace in her relationships? It was impossible. There was always some massive tragedy just around the corner—always some giant horrific detail Gaia was neglecting to mention. A man could not be happy while attached to Gaia Moore. Period.

So what the hell are she and Jake doing in7th Heavenover there?

“ . . . at the Knitting Factory?”

Ed had missed something. Kai's inflections suggested she'd asked a question.

But what the hell was the question?

“Ed? Hel-lo?”

Ed whipped his head back toward Kai and hit herwith a good strong dose of eye contact. “What? Yes,” he said blankly. “I mean,hell,yes, the Knitting Factory. Definitely.”

Kai tilted her head and leaned in closer. Her hair was done up in so many pigtails, she looked like a porcupine. “That's what you want to do?” she asked dubiously.

Ed wished he had any idea what they were talking about. He could think of nothing else but to widen his smile and agree. “Yeah.” He nodded emphatically. “I love the Knitting Factory.”

“Huh . . . ,” Kai uttered, maintaining her perma-smile. “I didn't know you were into Christian heavy metal. . . . ”

“What?” Ed blurted far too loudly. “Christian heavy—?”

“Whereareyou, Ed?” she groaned. Her smile stayed firm, but Ed could locate true frustration in the corners of her mouth. “You're not listening. Whereareyou today?”

“No, Iam,” Ed insisted. “I'm totally listening.” His eyes darted one last time toward Gaia and Jake's table. Jake was backing away toward the plate-glass doors with the most over-the-top star-crossed-lover gleam in his eye. And Gaia was gazing back at him with a look to match. Ed felt his stomach kick, and then he snapped his eyes back toward Kai, wishing very much that he'd resisted the second look. Because she'd caught him looking.

And Ed could see the hurt just barely registering in Kai's eyes.

Say something, Ed. Say something fast. Keep the conversation going.

“What about Luna Lounge?” he asked, far too brightly. “Who's playing at Luna tonight?”

Kai didn't respond. Her eyes dropped down momentarily to her lap as her glittering eye shadow reflected the fluorescent lights.

Don't be mad,Ed begged silently.Please don't be mad. I didn't even mean to look over there. I don't even care what's going on over there.

“Kai?” He tried to sound as matter-of-fact as possible. “How about Luna?”

Kai took a short breath and then took hold of Ed's hand. It was a most unexpected public display of affection. “You know . . . ,” she began slowly, “I have a better idea for tonight.”

“Um . . . okay,” Ed replied cautiously. He wasn't sure what to make of this particular touch of her hand. But he knew something was different. He knew that in that little moment, Kai had just made some kind of decision.

“How about no music?” Kai seemed to turn on the high beams in her dark brown eyes. “No music, no movie, no X-treme skating event. How about tonight we do something more . . . romantic?”

Ed felt a slight hitch in his throat. Hadn't they sort of been through that approach already? They had tried making things more romantic, but Ed just wasn't quiteup to that level yet. Not that Kai wasn't adorably sexy. Not that he didn't love spending all this time with her. Not that they wouldn't probably get extremely romantic sometime very soon, but right now, fooling around with Kai was still kind of awkward.

So how exactly was he supposed to deal with being put on the spot like this?

“Well . . . ”Uh-huh. Good start, Fargo. Smooth.“I, uh . . . I mean, I think . . . ” The longer he stammered, the more he could see Kai's smile beginning to fade ever so slightly.

Don't ruin this, Ed. Kai is awesome. She's hot, she's funny, she's different. She can freakingskate,for God's sake. Do not screw this up.“I think—”

“Checkmate!”

Ed looked over at the chess game. It appeared that the blond boy, whoever he was—Ed had never seen him before—had won. The other boy was sullenly knocking over his own queen. Ed could see only a couple of his pieces remaining on the chessboard.

“Wow—that was socool!” Tannie Deegan squealed reverently. Ed realized that the Friends of Heather had formed an admiring clump behind this young chess genius—and they were all applauding.

And he realized something else as his gaze flicked uncontrollably over to Gaia (and Kai caught him doing it again). Gaia was interested. She was watching.

“Who's next?” The blond boy had started restoring the pieces on the chessboard. “Come on—who's next?Is there anyone here who can play chess?”

“I'll play! I'll play!” Laura yelled. She was bouncing on her toes with excitement.

The blond chess wizard shook his head condescendingly. “I meant, can anyone hereactuallyplay chess?”

“Ed?” Kai was asking. She was moving her head around, trying to regain eye contact with him. “What were you saying?”

Gaia was standing up. Ed didn't want to look—he didn't want Kai to see him do it. But it was like he'd lost conscious control of his eye-balls. Gaia was hefting her book bag—and walking over to join the chess players.

“You think what?” Kai was asking. “Ed?”

“Hmmm?” Ed could read Kai's annoyance. “Sorry. I was just—they're playing chess over there,” he explained lamely.

“Do you want to go watch?”

“No, I—”

Kai's eyes darted up to meet Ed's. This time she didn't even bother hiding the hurt in her eyes.

“I have to go,” Kai said suddenly. She rose out of her chair.

“Wait a minute,” Ed complained. He shot up from the table and tried to get some solid eye contact back from Kai.Make it better, Ed. Make it better fast.“Wait, I want to talk about tonight,” he sort of lied. “I want to make a plan.”

“Sure, yeah, anything,” Kai said far too bouncily. “Imean, I'm really up for whatever.”

Ed knew she was lying. And he wasn't particularly proud of himself for pretending to believe her. “Okay,” he said. “How about bowling?” He smiled. “Tonight? Bowlmor?”

Bowling. Very romantic, Ed.

“Bowling, sure,” Kai agreed, staring down at the floor. “I love bowling.”

Kai rammed the double doors open with her butt and disappeared without a good-bye or another glance in Ed's direction.

Follow her, asshole,Ed told himself.Now's the part where you're supposed to follow her.

Ed sank back into his wooden chair. He picked up his forgotten grande mocha, which was now room temperature.

He should have just gone after Kai and set things straight.

He really should have.

Queen of Toothpaste

“I CAN PLAY,” GAIA SAID.

She was standing in front of the wooden table where the blond boy had justsoundly defeated the other chess player. The loser had already sullenly shaken hands and left—Gaia saw him over to one side, throwing out his empty paper coffee cup.

The new boy looked up at her. Tannie and Laura and the others stood behind him, glaring at Gaia as if she'd barged into their private room at a country club.

I do believe I'm socializing,Gaia thought dazedly.Will wonders never cease?

Standing up, walking over, Gaia had realized that she was behaving strangely. But it felt good; there was no denying it. Jake's kiss was still tingling on her lips as she crossed the room, wondering what possible force of nature could have actually propelled her toward the Friends of Heather and their new boy toy. But strange or not, here she was.

Old Gaia would have buried her nose in her book and fiercely ignored the invitation to play chess. She had come very close to doing just that—it was only a sudden impulse that had made her answer the challenge.

“Can you play arealgame?” the blond kid demanded. He was frowning sternly at her, as if he was done wasting his time with amateurs.

“Yeah,” Gaia said.

Without a word, the blond boy held out his two closed fists.

Gaia pointed at his left hand. He opened it up—itcontained a black pawn.

“Look at that,” he remarked bemusedly. “Already losing.”

“Do you want to talk,” Gaia asked pleasantly, “or do you want to play?”

The boy smiled and made a courteous gesture toward the empty chair facing him.

“The lesson begins,” the boy said, advancing the pawn in his king's file. The chess piece clicked against the board, a tiny warrior challenging its enemies.

Gaia didn't bother to speak. She advanced her queen's pawn two ranks.

“Can she do that?” Laura yelled out. “Wait, that's two squares.”

“Can't you all go to a shoe store or something?” Gaia asked the Friends of Heather. One move into this game, she was realizing how long it had been since she'd played. She honestly wasn't sure how she would do. “We're concentrating.”

Laura glared at Gaia, as if the idea of a girl concentrating on anything besides oatmeal-and-apricot-based facial rinse was unthinkable. “Gaia,” she began in her coldest voice, “not like we'd expect you to understand this, but even the most basic social interaction begins with—”

“It'sher,” Megan interrupted. Her perfectly applied mascara fluttered as she stared over Gaia's head at the door to Starbucks. “Oh myGod—it's her. It's totally her.”

Gaia's opponent had made a move. He had brought his queen's bishop out. And she had missed it. It was very annoying.

“Itisher—oh myGod,” Laura confirmed.

Gaia was staring at the white bishop, but the question distracted her. Who could possibly warrant such a reverent response from the world's most irreverent bitches? Some meaningless Mandy Moore-type celebrity?

Gaia turned her head and followed the FOHs' gaze.

The girl who had just breezed through the glass doors of Starbucks was no celebrity. Gaia was almost sure of it. She just walked like one.

Everything about this girl had theshineof a celebrity—her angular cream-colored face, her near floor-length buttery leather coat, the perfect golden highlights of her hair that could only be obtained from the salons on Fifty-seventh Street; even her catlike tortoiseshell glasses that sat halfway down her elegant nose, attached to a platinum chain that wrapped around her neck. Everything about her was just . . . perfect. Repulsively, hideously, and disgustingly perfect.

“Oh,Jesus,”Gaia murmured, turning back to the chessboard and making her move.

“What is your problem now?” Megan complained, taking a break from gawking to give Gaia the evil eye. “Gaia, would you like to purchase a clue? Do you evenknow who thatis?”

“No, thank God, I don't,” Gaia told Megan.Can't you all just go away?she thought furiously, watching as Mr. Blond Chess Demon brought out a knight—clearly preparing to castle.

“You will lose this game,” Gaia's opponent informed her in his smooth, charming voice, “unless you start paying attention.”

“No trash talking,” Gaia said, advancing a pawn—not the strongest move she could make, but one that would at least disguise her overall intentions. Meanwhile, she let her eyes drift slightly to the side and watched the girl float up to the counter and order something that surely had a six- or seven-word title—some nonfat, half-soy, double-foam, ten-dollar cup of flavored water.

“That is Elizabeth Rodke,” Megan stated. She sounded like she was announcing royalty. “She and her brother have just enrolled at our school.”

“Well, three cheers for them,” Gaia muttered.

“Okay, I suppose you've never even heard of the Rodke family,” Laura said.

“Thewho-key family?”

“Rodke?” Tannie said, staring at Gaia like she was mentally challenged. “As in Rodke and Simon? As in they make just about everything you buy at Duane Reade? Aspirin, soap, shampoo, toothpaste . . . ?”

Gaia's opponent was thoughtfully scratching hischin, grinning privately as he considered his next move. Gaia raised her face and stared directly at the Friends of Heather. Enough, she had decided, was really enough.


Page 4

“Tannie,” Gaia said. “Megan, Laura—let me just make a very small point.” They stared back at her, their arms crossed identically, their perfectly waxed eyebrows arrogantly raised. “We”—Gaia indicated herself and the blond boy across from her—“are playingchess.That means we're concentrating on an intellectual task. Meanwhile, your queen of toothpaste is over there buying coffee. Once she'sgother coffee, she'll leave. Now, it seems to me that the smart move for you three would be towalk away from usandgo bother her.Doesn't that seem reasonable?”

Gaia's opponent was smiling at her. Behind him, the FOHs were speechless.

“Whatever,” Megan said finally. Then the FOHs mercifully took their leave of Gaia, and, lo and behold, within a matter of seconds they had begun introducing themselves to Elizabeth Rodke.

“Bravo,” Gaia's opponent said, staring at the board. With the FOHs gone, it was blessedly quiet. “You've certainly got a way with people.”

“Well, how can I kick your ass if neither of us can concentrate?”

“Good point,” he agreed while deftly exchanging his king and rook. “And I liked ‘queen of toothpaste.' ”

“Well, Ihatethat whole status game,” Gaia told him. It was funny that she was being so open and honest with someone she didn't even know—but she was liking this blond boy's attitude more and more. “We've got the rest of our lives to be fake and shallow—what's the rush?”

“Ex-act-ly.” The boy put out his hand. “I'm Chris, by the way.”

“Gaia.” They shook hands over the chessboard.

Meanwhile, at the counter, the queen had received her royal coffee while Megan, Tannie, and Laura fluttered around her like the loyal subjects they were, trying to make their formal introductions. The whole sight was so sickening. The queen had already begun flashing them her expectedly pearly whites, shaking their hands, and exchanging the most unbearable brand of giggles. She must have recognized instantly that these girls were her “people”—the closest thing the Village School had to an aristocracy.

“Your move,” Chris said.

“Right.” Gaia tried to tear her eyes away and focus on the chessboard. She wouldn't be missing anything, anyway—the image only grew more grotesque when the queen took a call on her needlessly minuscule cell phone. Now she was weaving her perfect little way through the room, with her soy double-foam nonfat latte in one hand and her little silver cell phone in the other, gabbing away in grandiose fashion as her loyalsubjects followed close behind.

She held out her finger to the FOHs with excessive politeness, indicating with another melodramatic grin that she was occupied on the phone. The FOHs kept a respectful distance. Gaia had seen more than enough—she turned back to the game and freed a knight, fortifying her advantage on the board. While she was staring at the pieces, waiting for Chris to make his next move, a shadow fell over the chessboard.

She looked up—and saw that the queen was right there. Standing at their table, making eye contact with Gaia.

Go away,Gaia was screaming internally.This table is taken. Please, queen of toothpaste, find yourself another goddamn table.

But the queen didn't budge. She just stood there looking directly into Gaia's eyes, a ludicrously wide smile stretched out across her perfect face. Chris was oblivious—his tanned arm was poised over the chessboard as he prepared to pounce on one of his pieces.

When the queen spoke, however, Gaia became very confused.

“Are they still behind me?” The queen barely moved her mouth to speak. She kept her smile completely intact, but she spoke quietly through her clenched teeth like a ventriloquist. Gaia couldn't tell if she was talking to the phone or to her. But the way she was looking at Gaia, she seemed to be waiting for an answer.

“Are you talking to me?” Gaia finally asked.

“Shhh,” she pleaded quietly. “Yes,” she uttered through her clenched-teeth grin. “You. I'm talking to you. Are those vultures still behind me?”

Gaia looked behind her and saw the FOHs huddled just a few tables back. They were just standing there, honoring their queen's request for appropriate distance.

“Yeah. They're still there,” Gaia reported.

“Oh God.” She sighed, maintaining the smile. She turned back toward them and shrugged grandly, pointing to the phone, indicating that she'd probably be on for a while. Then she turned back to Gaia. “Please,” she muttered. “Please save me from those girls.”

Gaia found a smile creeping across her own face. She was beginning to understand the extent to which she might have misjudged the queen of toothpaste. “What should I do?” Gaia asked.

“Can I just sit down at this table for a minute and finish my fake phone call? I won't disturb your game; I promise.”

“Well—sure.”

“Thank you.” Rolling her eyes with relief, the queen dropped down in the chair next to Gaia and indicated once more to the FOHs that her call was going to be a while. She kept the phone glued to her ear and continued to speak into it. “Uh-huh . . . uh-huh . . .right . . . ”She snuck another look at Gaia. “Are they gone yet?”

Gaia looked back and saw Megan, Laura, and Tannie finally give up on the wait. They headed for the door. “They're leaving.”

The queen breathed a sigh of relief, slumping in her chair.

Finally she turned to Gaia. “Thank yousomuch,” she told Gaia. “I thought there was no escape. I'm Liz, by the way.”

“Gotyou,” Chris blurted. He grabbed his knight and took Gaia's queen's pawn. “I'll forgive you for being distracted. Hey, sis.”

“Hey, Chris,” the queen of toothpaste said, closing her cell phone and dropping it on the table. “So we made it through our first day, huh?”

“Barely,” Chris agreed. “Gaia, this is my sister, Liz Rodke. Liz, this is Gaia.”

Sister—?

Gaia could feel her face flushing. The FOHs had mentioned that the queen had a brother. They'd apparently had no idea that he was sitting right here, playing chess with Gaia. And Gaia had called her—

“You're the queen of toothpaste, by the way.” Chris said pleasantly.

“Queen of—” Liz Rodke was laughing. “Wait, that's hilarious.”

“I thought so, too,” Chris said. Gaia's face was burning. She had no idea what to say.

“I—I am sosorry,”Gaia stammered. “I didn't mean—”

Liz touched Gaia's arm reassuringly. “Please don't worry about it. I'm the one who pays the price of being known. Chris is anti-society page. I get so jealous.”

“So you've both started at the Village School?” Gaia asked, still so flustered, she'd lost sight of her strategy.

“Yeah, where apparently you're the queen,” Liz said.

“So we've come to the right place if we want to get acquainted,” Chris went on.

I'm the queen of the school?Gaia thought wildly.That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.

Of course, the Rodkes had just arrived at the Village School. It wasn't their fault—they would soon find out how ridiculous that premise was.

“But I'm not—” Gaia began.

“This girl has been dominating Starbucks since she got here,” Chris insisted, looking up from the chessboard. “She's got a very pretty boyfriend whom she kissed good-bye about five minutes ago, and everyone in the room watched. Especially that equally lovely boy in the back of the room.”

He means Ed,Gaia realized.He hasn't missed a thing.

“And those three badly dressed cows aredesperatelyjealous of her,” Chris went on. “I'm pretty jealous myself, with all the male attention she's getting.”

“Gaia, do those girls represent the majority of the student body?” Liz was smiling a real smile this time—it was easy to see the difference. And her name wasLiz. Not Queen Elizabeth. Not the queen of toothpaste. Just Liz. “Because that would be bad.”

“No, I think you've seen the worst of it right there,” Gaia said. “You didn't have to be so nice to them.”

“Yes, I did. I've learned that the hard way. If I gave those girls an ounce of attitude, then I'd get a permanent rep at this school in two seconds:rich bitch.Boom.”

Gaia felt instantly guilty. Liz had Gaia's first impression of her totally pegged. And it wasn't fair. She didn't want to be judged for her gray sweatshirt. Why should Liz be judged for her leather coat?

“But youarea rich bitch, sis,” Chris said, while staring at the chessboard. Liz thwacked him on the shoulder without looking.

“Besides,” Liz went on. “Nice is just easier. You know what I mean?”

“I guess,” Gaia said dubiously. “Where are you from? I'm sorry—I suck at small talk.”

“No, that'sgood,” Liz assured her. “Small talk takes up half of my life. We much prefer ‘actual' talk. We're always making speeches; you can't shut us up. It's awful.”

“Who's ‘we'?”

“My whole family,” Liz replied, taking a sip from her coffee. “My father and mother, me—even dimwit here.”

“I make speeches, I play chess,” Chris agreed readily, “and I'm smart enough to befriend the school's most popular girl since it's the easiest way to meet the cutest boys.”

“But I'm not—”

Gaia stopped, looking down at the table and at the white and black queens facing each other across the chessboard.

I'm not popular.

But Liz wasn't what she seemed, either, was she? Not to Gaia or to the FOHs. And neither was Chris—she hadn't guessed that he was gay until he'd made it clear.

What's real? What's a pose? What are people you haven't met yet like? How can you tell?

Life as new Gaia was getting interesting.

the power

And for just one moment Gaia could see it in Jake's eyes: actual terror. Real live childlike terror.

OLIVER

DearGaia,

You and I have so much catching up to do. Years' and years' worth. So I thought I might try writing you letters. For me as much as for you, I suppose. Just to try and connect with you as much and as often as possible. I need that.

I'm writing for two reasons. The first is to let you know just how sorry I am for everything that's happened. It isn't easy for me to face the truth of what I was and what I've done over the years—to you, to your father, to your poor mother, and to so many innocent people. The only chance I have of finding any kind of peace is if I try to keep making amends and try to devote myself to being the best person I can be and the best uncle I can be to you. When I look in the mirror, I want to see plain Oliver Moore and not that monster, Loki, and all the terrible things he's done. That's only possible if I make amends with thepeople I've hurt. And that means Tom and you. Gaia.

Here's the second reason I'm writing, Gaia. I want you to know that you can depend on me. You're a very brave and very intelligent young woman, and you certainly don't need an old uncle's help to live your life. You've shown over and over again that you're more than capable of holding your own. But if there's anything you need, ever, at any time—especially with Tom out of New York—please don't hesitate to let me know, and I'll take care of it. It would be an honor.

Like you, I'm sure, I'm doing my best to resume a normal life and put all the events of the past behind me. I've moved into this new apartment on Broome Street. It's not that far from your school—just a short walk across town. I'd love it if you came by to see it. You're welcome anytime, along with Jake or any of your friends you want to bring, whenever you just want to get away from everything and relax.

It's strange, as a middle-aged man, to try to resume a life that I never really led to begin with. But it feels good to be doing the right thing and to be on the right side again. I don't know how I ever could have gotten so lost and so turned around, as I was for all those years. It seems like just yesterday that I was wrestling with your father when we were kids or dropping by that rat's nest of an apartment he had up by Columbia. Those memories are so vivid, it's hard to believe that I've been robbed of all the time—time I could have been spending with you or your father or even with Katia. I'd give anything to go back and do it over, but of course that's impossible.

Nikolai is dead already—I know that. There's no way to kill him again for what he did to me, to all of us. And of course Yuri is finally out of our lives. I find it difficult to think about that—that monster, that abomination—without being overcome with rage. All the thingshe took from us, from all of us; things we can never get back. . . . It's probably best for me not to think about that.

But I can't help it. In the end, the blame goes all the way around, doesn't it? We all played our parts in the big game, and we each made our mistakes. In the end, it was a game about being smart, wasn't it? About having the willpower and the intelligence to control events by controlling the people around you. Gaia, if you had joined my side, we could have taken control of all of it. I'm sure you realize that. The smartest and bravest people end up in charge, and who can argue with that? It was stupidity, plain human stupidity that caused all the sadness and loss in our lives. Tom's awful stupidity first, the way he stole Katia away from me. Then Rodriguez at the CIA, but let's face facts, Gaia, when have they ever been smart about anything? It makes meso angry.And angerhelps me see thetruth.And thereal truthis that the only way to get what you want in this world is to be smart enough and brave enough to force things your way. You can't have the life you want if you're afraid of your own power—you have totake controlof


Page 5

Violent Tendencies

OLIVER STOPPED WRITING.

He raised his head and looked around. He felt dizzy. For a moment he wasn't sure where he was.

But of course he knew exactly where he was. The smell of coffee and the ticking clock told him: he was at his own kitchen counter in the middle of his new loft. Behind him, the empty living room reflected the bright afternoon sunshine from the skylights high in the wall. There was no sound but the ticking of the antique clock over the refrigerator and the murmur of Manhattan traffic outside.

Oliver looked down at the letter he'd been writing. He massaged his hand, which was aching and throbbing. It was easy to see why: the ballpoint writing, which looked so mild and neat at the top of the letter, got darker and more violent as it went down the page. The last paragraph was written in thick block letters, gouged deeply into the lined paper. Oliver saw that he'd actually torn the paper as he wrote.

He put the pen down on the counter and took a sip of coffee. It soothed him. He took a deep breath, looking over the letter, and then, in one fast move, he ripped the page from the pad and savagely crumpled it up. He had to crumple the next page, too, since the savage writing had gone through the paper.

A loud buzzer went off. Oliver jumped, spilling the coffee onto the stone counter.

What the hell?

It was the door buzzer, Oliver realized. Somebody was here to see him. He had never heard the sound before. In the short time he'd lived at this new Broome Street loft, nobody had ever come to visit. He had no idea who it could be.

Gaia?

That would be nice,Oliver thought as he crossed the wide floor toward the big industrial front door. It would be nice if Gaia dropped by.Speak of the devil,he would say, smiling and hugging her.I was just writing to you.

Then he would offer her coffee, and they would sit on his new Bauhaus sofas and talk, and for a little while he could put the past behind him.

His footsteps clattered loudly in the vast, empty loft. He remembered the landlady who had shown him the place, pointing out the skylights and the stone kitchen counter and the metal door and all the other beautiful details. The middle-aged realtor had smiled at Oliver flirtatiously as she showed him around, explaining how he could cook for twenty in the huge kitchen when he gave a dinner party. He didn't tell her that he never gave dinner parties because he didn't have any friends.I may look like a forty-year-old man about town,he could have told her,but you don't know the truth.

“Who is it?” Oliver called out.

“Mr. Moore?”

It was a male voice. Muffled by the thick metal door but clearly a young man's. Oliver didn't recognize the voice at all.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Moore, this is Agent Rowan with Central Intelligence. I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes, if that's all right.”

Oliver cringed.

Agent Rowan?

He didn't know any Agent Rowan. In all the hours the CIA had spent interrogating him, pumping him for every piece of information about his activities in the Organization, tape recording every word he'd said, he hadn't met an Agent Rowan.

But I can't say that,Oliver thought. Standing there with his thumb on the intercom button, with his coffee getting cold on the counter behind him, Oliver realized that he had to let the man in. Because the last thing he could afford to do was look suspicious or like he had anything to hide. With his history, his background, the things he'd done, it was a miracle he wasn't in a Guantanamo Bay prison. He was lucky to be alive, let alone relaxing in an expensive New York loft.

Rowan was a new agent; that was all. They hadn't met. Fine. Everything was going tobe fine.

Relax. Act natural. Cooperate. Be good, Ollie.

Oliver pulled the door open.

Rowan wasn't alone. There was another man with him. They both wore drab suits and ties like CIA, but Oliver still didn't recognize them.

“Mr. Moore? I'm Jim Rowan,” the taller, younger agent said. He gestured at the other man. “This is Agent Morrow.”

Ask to see their badges. Ask for a warrant.

But he couldn't do any of that. He had to appear as cooperative as possible. He had to get on with this.

“Come in.” Oliver smiled, stepping back and holding the door for them. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No, thank you,” Rowan said briskly. Morrow followed him into the room.

“What can I do for you?” Oliver said warmly. He led them into the loft, toward where he'd been sitting.

“Well, we're still trying to wrap up some loose ends, Mr. Moore,” Rowan explained, pulling a small voice recorder from his shirt pocket. “We just have a few more questions for you, all right?”

Oliver could feel his pulse speeding up, but he kept himself in check. “All right.” He sat down, aiming to look as neutral as possible. The sooner they got through this, the sooner they would leave.

“Good.” Rowan spoke deliberately into the machine. “Mr. Moore, what can you tell us about a Doctor Glenn?”

Oliver's mouth went dry. He stood up and walked to the sink to pour himself a glass of water. “Dr.Glenn? Well . . . didn't we cover Dr. Glenn in the Agency interrogation already?”

Oliver could see a hint of annoyance in Rowan's eyes. “Of course,” Rowan said. “Yes, we did . . . but . . . we'd like to go over it once more, all right? Dr. Glenn. We've recovered the majority of his files, but there's still a great deal missing. Blood work on Gaia Moore, DNA coding tests on Ms. Moore, some documentation on Glenn's serum. What can you tell us about that serum and those missing files? Where would we locate those missing test results?”

Oliver had trouble paying attention to anything Rowan had said after the wordserum.It was a word he would have been more than happy never to hear again. That fearless serum had been among the most heinous of Loki's twisted endeavors, and the last thing Oliver wanted to do was focus on it or the lives it had ruined.

Talking about the serum was only going to bring out the worst in him.

And he was trying very hard to present his best.

“Look, I'm . . . I'm so sorry,” Oliver said, working harder to maintain the smile. “But I really have told the Agency everything I know about that serum and Dr. Glenn and everything else that . . . Loki did . . . and so I really think you'd be best off just going back and checking the Agency transcripts for—”

“Mr. Moore, we've beenthroughthe transcripts,” Rowan complained. “We would just like you to answer some of the questions again. For our records. Whydon't you just answer the questions and we'll be done here much sooner, all right?”

Oliver locked his eyes with Rowan's. He didn't care for his tone at all, but he was trying to stay in control. And control seemed to be something that was increasingly difficult for Oliver lately, particularly when Loki's actions were being discussed.

Stay calm. Stay calm at all costs. Do whatever you have to do.

“Look, Agent Rowan.” Oliver smiled through clenched teeth. “Maybe we could just . . . reschedule this interview for a little later. I do have some appointments I should really—”

“Mr. Moore, this isn't asocialvisit. We don't reschedule at your convenience.” Rowan challenged Oliver with his eyes. And Oliver didn't like it. He didn't like it one bit. He felt his hand forming a fist and quickly focused all his energy on stretching the fingers apart. He turned to Agent Morrow and smiled.

“Agent Morrow, please,” Oliver said sweetly. “You can understand how difficult for me this is, can't you? Don't you think you might be able to speak with your partner here about relaxing his attitude—?”

“Moore,”Rowan snapped. He shot up out of his chair and stepped much closer to Oliver's face. “Are we having a communication problem here, Moore? I think we're having a communication problem. Because I just need you to answer thequestions.That's it. That is all.The equation could not be simpler. You tell us where the missing files on Gaia are, and weleave.Do you understand?Simple.Cut-and-dried. Where are those files?” Rowan thrust his hand forward and stuck his digital recorder back into Oliver's face.

Suddenly Oliver found himself reexamining Rowan's deeply frustrated eyes. And his slightly wrinkled suit. And his slightly loosened tie.

Because Oliver Moore had been with the CIA for many years in another life. And “Agent” Rowan had just broken Agency protocol with almost every word he'd said. “Agent” Rowan had suddenly seemed much less like an agent and much more like a man who was hungry for information. Information that the CIA should have given him already—if hewasin fact with the Agency. . . .

“I'm sorry—who are you again?” Oliver uttered suspiciously. He faced down “Agent” Rowan as he pushed the recorder out of his face.

There was the slightest delay in Rowan's reply. “Excuseme?” he asked indignantly.

“I said,who are you?” Oliver repeated, his eyes beginning to narrow. “If you have a badge, I'd like to see it. Because I'll tell you one thing: You're not CIA.” Now he wasn't working quite so hard to keep his fist from clenching. In fact, he wasn't working at all.

Rowan glanced back to Morrow momentarily, who seemed unsure how to react. “Mr. Moore . . . I'm not surewhat exactly you are trying to pull here, but I suggest you stop it right now. We really don't want to have to—”

“Towhat?” Oliver spat. “To take me down to headquarters? Whereareheadquarters, ‘Agent' Rowan? Do you know? Can you tell me?”

“Mr. Moore, I think you're acting a bit unstable here.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then why don't you take me in?” Oliver presented his wrists to Rowan. “I suggest you take me in right now,AgentRowan, before I turn any more unstable.”

Rowan began to back away slowly from Oliver. “Mr. Moore, I am warning you. Stay calm. I believe you're becoming paranoid right now, and it is important that you remain calm. Peter . . . ” Rowan was signaling for Morrow to get involved, but Morrow didn't seem any more confident about what to do, either.

“Who are you working for?” Oliver demanded. “Who thehellare you working for? Whoareyou?” Suddenly Oliver had grabbed hold of Rowan's shirt and tugged him much closer. Hs fist was clenched so tightly now, he could feel his own fingernails digging into the skin of his palm. “What do you want fromGaia?I swear, if you go anywherenearher, if you touch a hair on herhead,I will—”

“All right,enough!” Rowan shouted. “That'senough.”

Oliver felt something jab at his stomach, and he realized that Rowan had pulled his gun.

“All right, stepback,” Rowan ordered. “Get your hand off of me, Moore, and take two steps back.Now.”

“Why don't you just take me in?” Oliver dared the obvious phony. “What are you waiting for?”

“You need psychiatric assistance, Mr. Moore. We'll be filing a report on this incident,believeme. Paranoid, unstable, violent tendencies—it's all going into my report.” Rowan and Morrow backed quickly toward the door.

“I'll find out who you are,” Loki shouted. “Who youreallyare, I mean. You can count on it. You have no idea who you're dealing with here!Noidea!”

Rowan slammed the door behind him, and Oliver could hear the two phonies scuffling for the stairs. He ran and hoisted the door open again, shouting down the stairwell at them. “Stay away from Gaia Moore!” he hollered. “I am warning you!”

Oliver slammed the door behind him. Leaning against the door, he realized he was sweating like mad. His heart was pounding, and there was a slight trembling in his hands.

Who were they? What just happened?

Looking over at the kitchen counter, Oliver saw the crumpled note he'd written to Gaia.

Anger helps me see thetruth, he'd said.

Oliver nodded. He was angry. And there was something else, too.

He was frightened. Frightened for Gaia.

FIELD REPORT: INTERVIEW WITH SUBJECT A-2-A

Rowan, J., and Morrow, P., reporting

Interview was conducted at 11:50A.M. EST at subject's address. The subject, Oliver Moore, aka Loki (see attached file 45071-a), gave ambiguous answers to several questions (concerning the serum we have code-named BLUEBELL) before terminating the interview and physically assaulting the interviewers. Attempts to convince the subject to resume the discussion failed.

Throughout, the subject showed signs of instability, anger, and nervousness, which are clearly associated with the “Loki” personality. This instability was expressed as paranoid delusion: Mr. Moore referred both to his CIA training and to the more lethal techniques he had developed in his role in the Organization.

The information provided by the subject was inconclusive, and given Moore's refusal to cooperate further, the investigation must proceed using different methods.

Arrangements are being made for the next interview to be conducted within days, allowing for travel time (to upstate New York) and other factors. A subsequent field report will be submitted thereafter through the usual channels.


Page 6

END

Pathetic Hesitancy

THIS WASN'T JAKE. NOTHING ABOUTthis was Jake. Jake didn't wait. Jake didn't hesitate. Jake wasn't patient. If there was something he wanted, he set his sights, and he locked on target, and he went for it.

Be a man.That was the point It was a stupid, ancient, macho cliché, fine, but that didn't make the sentiment any less true, and it didn't mean they weren't words to live by. They were in fact words Jake generally lived by. And they had done him nothing but good for the first eighteen years of his life. So why should this be any different? Why should tonight be any different?

But it was different. It was different because it was Gaia. And that meant a few things. It meant that what was happening between them was a little more awkward than it should have been—than it ever had been for him before. It meant that it was serious because Gaia was serious: she didn't titter and squeal and chase after boys and parties like the majority of the girls he'd spent his time with. And most of all, it meant that it was complicated. Gaia was complicated. Her life waswaymore than complicated. Jake might consider himself a pretty simple guy, but nothing was simple when it came to this girl. He knew that. He understood that.

But still, it was time. It was time to make his point. It was time to get the words out. It was time to tell herthat he didn't want to wonder anymore. He didn't want to wonder exactly where they stood or where they were going. He wanted the whole thing—the entire package. Jake and Gaia. Boyfriend and girlfriend. Completely committed and together. Fighting, walking, eating, sleeping. Together.

And sex. Yes, he wanted that. He wanted that very badly. But the point here—therealpoint here . . . was love.

Jake was in love with her. And he simply needed to know that she was in love with him. Which he was very much starting to believe she was.

Or maybe she wasn't? She was so goddamn awkward, serious, and complicated, he still honestly wasn't sure. “This is my boyfriend, Jake.” Those were the simple words he wanted to hear coming out of Gaia's mouth. But did she want it or not? The only way to know was to ask. To ask her point-blank.

So why had he spent the last who-knows-how-many hours with her walking and hanging out all over the Village, doing everything but? They'd talked about every other conceivable topic. They'd eaten hot dogs from Gray's and fake ice cream. She had rested in his lap on park benches and given him light kisses on the stoops of brownstones. She'd held his hand almost the entire time they'd walked, which, from what Jake understood, was a pretty un-Gaia-like thing to do. Of course, they were supposed to be heading up to her Seventy-second Street apartment to pack upall her things and move her down to that boarding-house, but neither one of them had really wanted to get to that. It seemed like they'd both just wanted the evening to go on like this for as long as humanly possible, without ever calling it a night.

But he still hadn't asked her. Hestillhadn't found the right moment to lay it on the line. And it was only getting darker and darker. And he was only starting to feel more and more like a chicken. Less and less like a man.

And as it got on past eight, they had found themselves coming nearly full circle as they strolled onto the darkened pavement of Washington Square Park. Which was fine with Jake. Because it somehow seemed like the most appropriate place to ask. It was her place, Jake knew that. It sort of represented her somehow. Urban and beautiful. Gorgeously light when it was light and incredibly dark when it was dark. And maybe now Washington Square Park could be the place Jake and Gaia remembered as the exact spot where they officially started going out.

Jake finally shook off his pathetic hesitancy and grabbed hold of Gaia's arms under a huge overhanging tree, planting her still on the ground so he could look straight into her eyes and cut the crap.

“Gaia.”

“Jesus, what?” Gaia's eyes widened with surprise at the force of Jake's hands around her arms. Jake loosened his grip a bit. But not much. This was too important.

“Gaia, listen,” he said quietly. “I don't know what's wrong with me here. I'm avoiding my ass off. So just listen.”

“Jake—”

“No, listen.” The wind had kicked up through the park, carrying that uniquely New York sound that combined distant traffic and a far-off industrial whir with the rustling leaves of the trees. The huge expanse of white noise surrounding them only made their voices seem closer.

“You know,” Jake said, “every day I'm zoning out completely through all my morning classes, just staring at the clock. I burn freaking holes in that thing, trying to force the hands to hit twelve so I can break for that stupid cafeteria and find you.”

“I know,” she said, puffing out an embarrassed little laugh. “Me too. It's sick, isn't it?”

“No, it's not sick. There's nothing sick about it. The same way there's nothing sick about the way I want to find you after school. And stay with you for the rest of the day. And stay with you for the rest of the night. It's not sick, Gaia, it's just—it's just . . . what we should be. I mean really be. Officially. You know what I mean?”

Jake searched Gaia's eyes for clues. But the deeper he searched, the less he could understand. And the longer she stayed silent, the more he was starting to feel like the world's biggest asshole.

Invincible

NOW'S THE PART WHERE YOU'RE SUPPOSEDto talk. Isn't that obvious?

Every additional word in Gaia's head was only making her pathetic silence last longer. And so the silence went longer and longer as an endless stream of words piled up in her head.

So much of her wanted to break the goddamn old-Gaia spell. She knew what Jake wanted. She knew what he was asking for. She'd known it all day. He wanted the whole thing. The real thing. The full commitment. And so much of her wanted it, too. So much of her wanted this to be a huge part of her new beginning. It started with her family, but getting things right with Jake was just as important. She didn't just want to give over fully to Jake; sheneededto. She needed to prove to herself that she could do it.

Old Gaia couldn't. She'd proved that with Sam. She'd proved it with Ed. Old Gaia couldn't make it work. Not with her life in a continuous shambles. Not with sick, twisted assholes chasing her down and ripping her heart out all the time. But new Gaia . . . new Gaia didn't have all that crap to contend with anymore. At least, she wasn't supposed to. . . .

But God help her, she still couldn't shake it. She couldn't shake off all the times she'd been burned before—all the innocent people she'd hurt. She couldn't drag another boy in. Even if the dangerseemed miles away—even if itseemedlike it was never coming back—she couldn't trust it. She couldn't bring another boy into the middle of that danger ever again.

Except . . . in Jake's case . . . maybe she could?

Jake could handle himself. If that danger ever presented itself again, they could help each other. They couldprotecteach other.

And what if the danger never did resurface? What if the danger was truly over? She could go on for years like this, never letting anyone into her life, only to find years later that she'd lived her whole life alone for no good reason.

No. She had to take the leap. She had to. She had to believe that the danger was gone. If she couldn't take that leap, then there was no way she could truly start her life as new Gaia. And if she couldn't be new Gaia, then there was really no point in anything anymore. New Gaia was the entire and only point now.

She had to tell Jake that she was ready. Whether she was or not. She had to tell him that she was ready to go there. . . .

“Oh, that isso her,man. That issothe very samebitch!”

The repellent voice had blared out from the bushes just across the pavement. Gaia dropped her eyes from Jake's and scanned the bushes, trying to target the origin of the voice.

No,no. Not now. This has to be a joke. Someone istrying to play a practical joke on me here, and they just don't know that they've chosen a very, very bad time.

“Oh, man, what the hell was that?” Jake growled, pounding his fist back against the tree. He was clearly just as frustrated as Gaia was with this asshole's timing. If the dude wanted to pick a fightanyother night,anyother time, that would have been just fine by Gaia. One more god-awful street spat in the park for old times' sake. If it had to be, it had to be. But notnow.Not at this particular moment.

“Gaiaaaa,” another voice called out. “Is that Gaiaaaa?” Then he howled out the most disturbing and pathetic cackle.

Great. Now there are two of them. That's just exactly what I need right now.

“Let's just take 'em,” Jake said, moving in front of Gaia to protect her. “We deal with them, and then we get back to our conversation.”

“No, Jake, let's just go,” Gaia complained, pulling him back behind her. “We don't need anymore of this—”

“Let'ssliceanddice!” another voice howled out.

And before Gaia and Jake could even move, they suddenly found themselves in the middle of the fastest ambush she had seen in quite some time.

There were at least six of them. No, seven. Then eight. Skinheads, of course. The world's most ignorant brotherhood. With their offensive swastika T-shirts,and their ten thousand piercings all chained together, and their stupid hard-core combat boots, and their phallic-substitute Leatherman knives. All the same old crap.

Only something was different. Something was very different. In their eyes. In the expressions on their faces. Even their voices . . .

“You're going to eat this knife,” one of them bellowed, creeping quickly toward her. “You're going to swallow the entire thing, and you're going to bleed.” He seemed to be the leader. He had no shirt on, and his body was covered in white-power tattoos. A big silver swastika earring was dangling from his left ear. His black eyes were stretched twice as wide as they should have been, darting from side to side with the manic speed of an insect. He was practically foaming at the mouth.

They all had that look. The same wide vibrating eyes. The veins bulging out from their necks like they were about to burst. What was this? What the hell was wrong with them?

Gaia and Jake both began to crouch into a fighting stance.

“Do you have any idea how long I've beenwaitingfor this?” the leader said as his boys moved closer and closer from all sides like starving wolves. The words were pouring out of his mouth like vomit, one after the other, faster and faster. “Do you know howlongwe've all been hiding like freakinggirlsfrom the big bad Gaiabitch?”

Gaia could practically see his heart pounding, trying to rip its way right out of his chest. His head was shaking harder and harder with every word. What the hell was he on?

“What's wrong with you?” Gaia uttered. “What's wrong with all of—?”

“We were goddamn cowards!” he shouted. “We were all cowards! We didn't have thepower.”

They all hollered their agreement as their mouths spread into wide, manic grins.

“The power ofGod!” one of them shouted.

“Hell, yes! That is the power ofGod,bitch. The power to reach down your throat, tear your freaking heart out, andeatit. And tonight's the night. Tonight is dead Gaia night! This is for my cousin.”

And then he lunged. He lunged hard and fast. Faster than she'd expected. Faster than either one of them had expected.

“Jake!” Gaia hollered, dropping and rolling to her right.

Jake whipped his body back against the tree, just barely dodging the full-force swipe of the blade.

“Bye-bye!” The leader had started to giggle as he took another full swing at Jake with wide-eyed abandon. “Bye-bye! Bye-bye! Bye-bye!” Jake leapt for the bushesand rolled to safety, but he was met with a stiff black combat boot to the head.

And then they were all shouting it—choruses of gleeful “bye-byes” as they mercilessly stormed Gaia and Jake.

Gaia shut out every sound. Her eyes took over as her body locked into a purely unconscious focus. Knife by knife, face by face, she began picking her targets and her order of moves. And then she sprang into action. Literally.

Her body floated over the grass as her leg snapped out at the first knife, ripping it from one of the psycho's hands. She landed directly in front of him, cramming her knee into his groin as he doubled over and then shooting her foot forward straight at his chin, sending his entire torso back like a rag doll.

Jake leapt off the ground and grabbed one of their wrists, twisting the skinhead's entire arm back and then tossing him overhead. His chain-covered body careened forward headfirst into the tree with a loud, jangling thud.

“Gaia, behind you!” Jake warned.

Before she'd even turned her head, she snapped her elbow behind her, cracking the nose of whoever it was standing there. Then she reached back, felt for his center, and flipped him directly onto his pathetic bony ass. He let out a loud sound as he writhed on the ground.

But it wasn't the sound of pain. . . .

It was the sound of laughter. His writhing body had given in to fits of laughter. And then, quite suddenly, he pounced back up off the ground and came at Gaia again. Even harder and faster this time.


Page 7

She had to move double time to deal with his insanely adrenalized speed. And she had to hit harder to take him out. She leapt up for a huge sweeping roundhouse kick to the face. His face snapped to the right as blood gushed from his mouth, but then he came at heragain.She needed a second roundhouse kick at double the strength to send his entire body three feet back and finally knock him out.

This wasn't right. This was all wrong. Skinheads were easy. Skinheads were the bottom of the barrel as far as fighting was concerned. The trained martial artists were supposed to be the problem, and the Navy SEALs and those SWAT-like sons of bitches in black. These kids were street trash. Gaia had dumped the likes of them into trash cans without breaking a sweat. But these sons of bitches had changed. They were the same assholes she'd seen around the park a hundred times before, but theyweren'tthe same. It wasn't that they were skilled in any way. They just . . . wouldn't stop.

“You idiot!” the leader howled at Jake. “You idiot!” He laughed. “Youcan'tfreaking scare me! Idon'tbleedanymore. Nothinghurts.I don't bleed.Youbleed.” He drove his knife at Jake's chest—straight for the center of his chest with every intention of gutting him. And for just one moment Gaia could see it in Jake's eyes: actual terror. Real live child like terror.

“Jake!”

The knife ripped through Jake's T-shirt and pierced his skin.

But Gaia reached out in time. She swung her hand around the leader's neck and ripped him backward right off his feet as they went tumbling to the ground. His six-foot frame nearly crushed her to the ground as he lay on top of her on his back.

“Drop it!” Gaia shouted, pulling tighter and tighter around his neck as his breaths became fewer and farther between. He was bucking and kicking his entire body, trying to break free from Gaia's choke hold. His hand grasped his knife even tighter as he tried to lunge behind him for any part of Gaia's body over and over again. He was lunging so wildly that he actually sliced open his own arm.

But it made no difference. Blood was pouring from his left arm and he hadn't made a sound. Not even the least indication of pain. He only swung back harder and harder. “I don't bleed,” he choked out between strangled giggles. “I'm invincible,bitch.You can't touch me. . . . ”

Jake had obviously been enraged by his near-death experience. He went off on the bastards in a frenzy, disarming their cackling attacks with a kick and then snapping some bones when he had to. Whatever it took to take these mindless psycho-skinheads out.

But Gaia had to stay focused on this one lunatic—the boy who seemed totally unaware that not onlydidhe bleed, but that hewasin fact bleeding profusely from his own self-inflicted wound. “I . . . said . . .drop it,” Gaia uttered.

She finally applied enough pressure to his windpipe that he passed out. His body went completely limp on top of hers, and she hurled him off of her, leaping back onto her feet in one smooth motion. She snatched up his knife and ran for the last psycho still standing.

She waved the knife right in his face. “It's over!” she warned him. “Unless you want to end up in pieces, I suggest you get the hell out of here!”

But he only laughed harder, like he'd just shared the most hysterical joke with himself. “Go ahead,” he chortled. “Cut me! Try to cut me!” He jumped up and down in place like a hyperactive child. “I want you to. Idareyou to. It's not going to hurt. It's not.” And then his laughs began to give way to a terrible coughing fit. “Oh Jesus,” he spat out between coughs. “Oh God, I love it. Thank you, God . . . I love it.” And then he dropped down to his knees and clasped his hands overhis eyes. “Oh God.” He coughed again. “My head. My freaking head.”

Slowly Gaia let the knife drop to the ground as she watched this pathetic sight. The boy gripped his head tighter and tighter, and then finally he collapsed, falling back into the grass with a light thud.

Gaia stared down at his body with utter puzzlement. She knelt down next to him and checked for a pulse. He was still breathing. He was just gone for the night.

She felt a hand come down on her shoulder. But she instantly knew that it was Jake's. This particular nightmare was finally over.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I'm fine,” she said, trying to catch her breath. “It's them I want to know about. What the hell happened to them?” She scanned the unconscious bodies strewn about her and tried to make sense of the strangest attack she'd ever experienced.

“Can you stand up?”

“Of course,” Gaia said. She made a move to stand up, and then all of Washington Square Park began to spin in huge swooping circles. “Or actually, Jake, will you help get me back uptown?”

“Of course,” Jake said, kneeling down next to her and checking the bruises on her face.

“Good. Because I think I'm going to . . . ”

The last thing she felt was Jake's arms catching her before she hit the ground.

Kaia

GOD, WHAT IS THIS, “LOVERS' NIGHT”or something?

Ed's annoyance level was spiking as he scanned the line of bowling lanes at Bowlmor. Couple after couple after couple. All of them slapping fives and swigging from their beers and then, of course, kissing. A kiss for every strike, every spare, every gutter ball; it didn't seem to matter. Madonna's “Like a Virgin” was blaring through the speakers, and somehow Bowlmor had been transformed into some sort of fifties-style make-out palace. And it just kept inducing the same damn flashback over and over again in Ed's head.

Jake and Gaia. Jake and Gaia smiling. Jake and Gaia gleaming with the light ofteenage love in the afternoon.

Jake and Gaia kissing. Over and over.

It was only in the last few minutes that Ed had begun to understand why this nagging image refused to leave his head—why it was making him so excessively annoyed. The reason wasn't jealousy. The reason was this:

If there was such a thing as an alternate universe—some reality that existed somewhere else in time and space—and if Ed and Gaia justhappenedto be existing in that alternate universe somewhere . . . then it should have beenthemkissing across that table in Starbucks. Not that Ed wanted that now, but backthen . . . back when they'd been together, back in that alternate universe, a simple moment like that was all he had wanted.

A moment of normalcy. That's what he'd wanted so badly for them. A series of moments, actually. Just the day-to-day aspects of love. Renting some movies, having some burgers, a daily kiss in the coffee shop . . .

But that was never Gaia's life. Everything had always been drama. Everything had always been life or death. Everything had always been jam-packed with confusion and doubt and betrayal. That was why Ed had finally given up—because she could never justbethere with him like that. There was always something else or someoneelse making things a hundred times more complicated.

But if Ed had believed that Gaia was capable of that kind of normal life, if he had believed back then that she was capable of having moments like that perfectly normal kiss with Jake, then he never would have given up on her in the first place.

It was the irony. The stupid, pointless irony. That was what was pissing him off. That was what kept images of Gaia Moore running through his head long after he'd gotten over her.

Kai suddenly plopped down in Ed's lap and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Did you score it?”

“What?” Ed asked absentmindedly.

“My sweet, sweet spare,” Kai boasted joyfully. “Did you see it?”

“Oh, yeah. I mean, no. I was just about to—”

“Ed, were you watching me at all?” Kai poked her finger into his head.

“Was I . . . ? Ofcourse.” He smiled. “Of course I was watching you.”

“Okay, what pins did I hit?”

Oh God, not a test. Come on.“You hit . . . the pins to pick up the spare.”

“Ugggh.”Kai clenched her fists and shook them with mock frustration. But Ed could tell it wasn't exactly mock frustration.

“What?” Ed laughed, trying desperately to keep things light.

“You're driving mecrazytoday.”

“Why?”

Kai looked deeper into Ed's eyes as if to say,Are you kidding me?

“What?”

Kai removed her arms from around Ed's neck and crossed them over her chest. The expression on her face was turning far too serious. It made Ed nervous. “Ed . . . do you want to talk about our little ‘moment' at Starbucks today?”

Ed felt his chest begin to tighten. “What moment?”

Kai blew out a small, uncomfortable sigh. Sheturned away from him for a moment and then turned back. “Okay. Let me rephrase. Do you want to talk about Gaia?” Ed was beginning to feel a little sick. “Because sometimes that helps,” Kai went on. “Sometimes it helps to get someone out of your system if you just talk a little about—”

“No,” Ed interrupted. “What are youtalkingabout? Out of my system? Don't be ridiculous. Gaia Moore is so utterly and completely out of my system.”

“Well, you just seem so preoccupied with—”

“God, I don't know what you're talking about.” He laughed. “Preoccupied? You don't get it. Oh, man, you've got it completely wrong. You want to know why I was just so preoccupied? You want to know why I missed your spare?”

“Why?”

“Because I was feeling jealous.”

This didn't make Kai happier. “I know that,” she said quietly. “I know you were jealous at Starbucks—”

“No, not jealous ofJake.Jealous ofthem.”Ed pointed out to the rest of the bowling couples. “I was watching them. They've all been kissing this entire time, and I was jealous. Because that should beus.We should be kissing after every strike and every spare and every gutter ball. That's what we should be doing.”

The smile suddenly crept back across Kai's face. “Oh,” she uttered quietly.

Ed ran his hand up along Kai's cheek and thencradled her chin, pulling her face closer to his until their lips connected. Gently at first, and then firmer and firmer—probing each other's lips with force and with passion.

Now it ought to be crystal clear who Ed was thinking about tonight. He wasn't thinking about Gaia, he was thinking about Kaia.

Kai.He was thinking aboutKai.

home sweet home

Another false home—another room with another bed, for a short while, until things changed again.

Headaches and Homelessness

THE TAXICAB WAS FAIRLY NEW. THATwas good, because Gaia felt sick. Nothing too major—just a headache—but she was grateful for the clean vinyl smell and the fresh New York air blowing into the cab. The driver wasn't making things any more pleasant—he was madly speeding up and slowing down—but Gaia could take it.

“How are you feeling?” Jake asked.

Gaia didn't feel like answering. She was tired, and her head hurt. She had her eyes closed, with her head resting on the smooth flaps of the cardboard box in her lap. She said, “Mmm,” and hoped he would understand: not great, but fine.

Jake's hand squeezed her shoulder for a second and then pulled away. He understood. She didn't want to talk. He also understood that she'd hurt her arm; Gaia could tell by the gentle way he touched her. She was beginning to like that about Jake: he caught on to things. He didn't make a big deal about it, but he kept his eyes open.

Just a few boxes,Gaia thought.That's all my life comes down to, really.

It was true. She had her clothes—really just acollection of worn-out T-shirts, sweatshirts, and jeans—and what passed for her “toiletries” and a few pairs of shoes, all in a garbage bag on her lap. Jake, next to her, held another, heavier box, with her school-books and a few other things. He had insisted on taking the heavy box, and Gaia hadn't stopped him. He had a point: after that crazy, inexplicable fight she still felt weak. In the cab's trunk were two more boxes. And that was it. That was all it took to relocate Gaia Moore from East Seventy-second Street to her new home.

“Still got that headache?”

“Yeah.”

“That was one hell of a fight.” Jake was keeping his voice low—but he sounded almost excited. He wanted to talk about that freak show. “How could theymovelike that? The guy who tried to stab me was sofast.”

He sure was,Gaia thought.Any faster and you'd be dead.

“We creamed them, though,” Jake went on. “Two against—what was it,seven? I mean, I'd give us a pretty high score, given the odds.”

“Eight,” Gaia said. She wanted him to stop talking, but she couldn't say that. “It was eight. And we barely made it, Jake. What the hell were they on? What was theirdeal?”

“So how would you score us?”

“Iwouldn't,” Gaia said, sitting up straight and looking at him. “I don't keep score. This isn't agame!”It'smy life,she thought bitterly.Assassins and headaches and homelessness and welcome to it.“You almost gotkilled,Jake. This wasn't some sparring exercise.”


Page 8

“All right.” Jake had his hand back on her shoulder. His head was backlit by the streetlights; she could see his chiseled profile as he glanced at her. “All right, sorry.”

“I didn't mean to snap at you,” Gaia said. “But that freaked me out, Jake. Those kids were so messed up. Did you see their eyes? And the stuff they were yelling about ‘God'?”

“That was crazy,” Jake said. He was leaning forward, looking at the buildings they were passing. Gaia realized she'd hurt his feelings. He was adrenalized and injured, and he wanted to have a bonding conversation about their side-by-side fighting skills, like they were some kind of dynamic duo. It wasn't his fault. It was all new to him.

And there's fear,she reminded herself.He got scared. This is how he deals with it—acting like it was a PlayStation game and not a real knife cutting his shirt open.

She always forgot to take fear into account. She forgot to translate into everyone else's language.

“Jake,” Gaia said. She reached out and touched his sleeve. “I'm glad you weren't hurt. I'm glad you were there, fighting with me.”

Jake smiled. He seemed embarrassed—and then hesuddenly leaned forward. “Up here, driver,” he yelled. “That big brownstone.”

They were on Bank Street already, Gaia saw. The taxicab cruised to a stop. She got the door open and climbed out, holding her box of clothes, while Jake paid the driver. She looked over at the brownstone.

It wasn't bad, Gaia thought. She had to admit it; her new home—the Collingwood Residency Hall (a fancy way of saying “boardinghouse,” she knew)—looked nice. It was an old-fashioned six-story brownstone with ornate columns, bright windows, and a wide set of stone steps that led up to a dark mahogany front door.

But she didn't want to be here. Another false home—another room with another bed, for a short while, until things changed again. Gaia thought about other high school students, who complained about going home to their parents' houses, about rules they had to follow, about their annoying younger brothers and sisters. All they did was complain.

But it didn't sound so bad. To Gaia, it sounded like a dream come true.

“Come on, Gaia!”

Jake had the boxes from the trunk—he was already bounding up the steps, the boxes stacked up in his arms. Trying to look strong, Gaia thought. Like he wasn't hurt—like he didn't have a gash in his shirt and a big bruise on his bicep and dried blood all over his knuckles from the fight.

The doorbell rang loudly, deep in the brownstone. Gaia heard footsteps clattering around and saw shadows moving on the curtains. She could hear voices approaching.

Please don't let this suck,she thought.Please let this be a halfway decent place.

The door swung open.

A tall, slender Japanese woman stood in the bright hallway. It was one of the cleanest, neatest spaces Gaia had ever seen. There was a dark hardwood floor and lemon yellow wallpaper. Gaia could hear footsteps pounding on the ceiling above; someone else was home.

The woman wore a beige business suit over a white shirt with a tightly fastened collar. She was smiling ferociously.

“Gaia!” the woman said warmly. She had a very mild accent. “So good to meet you finally. I am Suko—Suko Wattanabe. Please, come in. So many boxes,” she added.

“Thanks,” Gaia said, forcing herself to smile. “I'm Gaia. This is Jake.”

“Hey.” Jake's face was blocked by the boxes. He stepped forward.

“No, no,” Suko said quickly. She had raised a hand, as if warding off traffic. “I'm sorry; the rule here is that boys are not allowed.”

Here we go,Gaia thought. Her heart was sinking.Here's where it starts sucking. And I'm not even in the front door.

“He's got to help me with the boxes,” Gaia said. “He can come in the front door, can't he?”

Suko smiled, but the smile didn't affect her eyes—they stared back at Gaia, reflecting the orangy streetlights. “I'm sorry; the rule's pretty strict,” she said—apologetically, as if it were all out of her hands. “Jason, just put the boxes down; one of the other girls will help.”

Jake was putting the boxes down. Suko noticed the slit in his shirt and the dried blood then—she seemed startled. But she recovered fast, turning her smile back to Gaia. She put out her hand, very primly, to shake.

Come on, Gaia,she told herself.Make this work.

“Hello, Ms. Wattanabe,” Gaia said. “It's nice to meet you.”

Suko beamed. “It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Gaia. I'm sure your stay with us will be a pleasant one. We'll have plenty of time to—ah!”

Suko turned expectantly. Someone was clumping loudly down the stairs. Gaia and Jake looked over.

A girl descended into view. Gaia saw her shoes first—expensive, gleaming Robert Clergerie shoes. Then she saw a plaid skirt, like a girls' school uniform.

Itwasa girls' school uniform, Gaia realized, although it was artfully disheveled and sloppy. The girl galloping down the stairs was tall and skinny, with long blond hair. She wore a tartan skirt with a pin holding it shut, but the top of the uniform was replaced by an oversized Eminem T-shirt. Gaia saw a small gold stud on the side of her nose.

As she came down into view, the new girl looked over curiously at Gaia and Jake. Mostly at Jake.

“Zan, this is Gaia Moore,” Suko said warmly. Her gestures were very formal, and she never seemed to stop smiling. “She'll be joining us.”

“Great.” Zan looked right at Gaia. Her face suggested that it was anything but. Her gaze went from Gaia's head to her feet and back up. Blatantly sizing her up.

Gaia stared right back.

“Please,” Suko said, “would you help Gaia with her boxes?”

Zan took a second. She kept looking at Gaia with the same regal look, like she was Scarlett O'Hara coming down the staircase in a southern mansion for a great ball. Then she turned and smiled tightly at Suko. The smile didn't look very genuine.

“Sure,” Zan said.

This is a girl who doesn't like to take orders,Gaia realized.And I don't think she likes lifting boxes, either.

But she was obeying.

“I can manage,” Gaia said quickly. “It's really no trouble.”

Zan took the top box from the floor in front of Jake. She got very close to him to do it. “You notice she didn't introduce you,” Zan said. She flipped her hair back from her face as she smiled at him. “So I don't know your name.”

“Um—” Jake had nothing to say. Suko was watching carefully—she seemed determined that Jake not move a single inch into the building.

“No boys allowed,” Zan told Gaia. It was friendly enough, but Gaia suspected that she was making a show for Jake's benefit. “You heard that, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Zan, please show Gaia into the front room with the window,” Suko said. “Jason, we can manage the boxes.”

“I'm Jake,” he told her. “Gaia, um—”

“I'm sorry,” Gaia told him. Her headache was still there, throbbing dully behind her forehead. She stepped over and kissed him quickly and then hugged him. Zan was carrying one of Gaia's boxes up the stairs.

“I'm sorry, Jake,” she repeated. Suddenly she felt very alone and very, very tired. “I'm sorry you can't come in.”

“Not your fault,” Jake said. He put his hands on her shoulders, looking down at her face, concerned. “You sure you're all right? You want me to buy you a cup of coffee or something?”

“I just want to sleep,” Gaia said. She knew what he was really saying. He wanted to talk. But there was no way. She was barely ready for that conversation, even if she'd been wide awake.

“All right,” Jake said. “So, take it easy. I'll see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” She squeezed his hand. “Thanks, Jake. Thanks for—”

Fighting next to me? Nearly getting killed? Patiently waiting while I put off our “big conversation”? Carrying my boxes? Obeying the stupid rules of this place? Saving my life? Again? Understanding that I can't talk yet?

“—everything. Thanks for everything.”

Jake smiled. “Sure.”

Then he nodded at Suko and turned around and walked down the wide stone stairs into the night. Gaia watched his dark silhouette move down Bank Street and out of view.

He'd do anything for me,Gaia realized.Anything.

So why can't I talk to him? Why can't I give him what he's asking for?

Gaia didn't know.

“Well!” Suko was swinging the wide mahogany door shut. She seemed visibly relieved now that the threat of a male intruder had passed. “I'm sure you want to settle in, Gaia. Zan will help you. Dinner is at seven sharp,” she added. Suko turned the door's locks, and the harsh sound echoed through the gleaming room.

“Thanks,” Gaia said.

She felt like crying suddenly. She had no idea why—it came out of nowhere. Gaia squinted for a moment and concentrated and it passed, and she felt fine again. An old habit. But she was trying toforce things to beright,to be bearable . . . and it wasn't working.

Come on, Gaia,she told herself.Time to be new Gaia. There's nothing wrong with this place. There's nothing wrong with Jake. There's no reason to be angry.She turned and followed Zan up the stairs.

A Bare, Clean Mattress

“HERE YOU GO,” ZAN SAID. “HOMEsweet home and all that.”

Gaia looked through the door. She could see a very small bedroom. It was so narrow that the bed took up nearly the entire room. Gaia could tell, looking at the walls, that it had once been part of a much larger room—it had been partitioned off. There was a tiny wooden desk with a bright shaded lamp, and, at the other end of the narrow bed, a big window showing nothing but black night.

There were no posters. There were no pictures or any decoration at all. The bed was unmade—a bare, clean mattress with sheets and blankets piled at one end. The floor was gleaming bare floorboards. Astreetlight outside shone yellow on the bare ceiling.

“Great,” Gaia said. She tried not to project any sarcasm, but it didn't work. “Thank you, Zan.”

“No worries.” Zan was putting down the box she'd carried upstairs. She grunted with the effort. “What the hell is in here—rocks?”

“Some books.”

“Anyway, that's me.” Zan was pointing at the next doorway. “If you need anything.”

Gaia caught a glimpse of another, larger bedroom. The streetlight shone in the window, illuminating a Massive Attack poster. “Okay.”

Zan followed Gaia into her tiny bedroom. Gaia went over to the window, peering out into the darkness. She could see the bright streetlamp and the shadows of the trees on the street. “So was that your boyfriend downstairs?” Zan asked. “He's a little bit cute.”

“He's—” Zan had asked a very good question, Gaia realized. WhatwasJake, anyway? “He's my friend. I'm not sure.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Too bad he couldn't come in.”

Zan frowned, squinting. “There are ways.”

Gaia sat down on the bed. It was very firm. She could hear the springs creaking.

“So, you like to party?” Zan asked.

“Um—sometimes, I guess.” It was a lame answer, but Gaia had no idea what to say. There was just noway to explain her life to this girl. And what Gaia really wanted to do wassleep—at least at that moment. Her headache was just beginning to fade.

Looking at Zan, Gaia realized she'd given the wrong answer. Zan was already bored with her.

“If Suko tells you to do something, just do it,” Zan said.

“So you can't break any of her rules?”

Zan smirked. “Like I said, there are ways,” she said.

Then she left the room, and Gaia started unpacking.

Claustrophobic

“TONIGHT WE ARE HAVING TERIYAKI,”Suko said. “I have made it for this special occasion—a new guest has joined our little family.”

This isn't my family,Gaia thought.That's not what the word means.

The dining room was big and bright, lit by soft white lamps behind Japanese screens against the walls. The floor was covered by a straw-colored mat.

Gaia moved toward her chair, and then they all sat down. The big oak table was surrounded by empty chairs. There was nobody there but Suko and Zan andanother girl at the other end of the table. She wore thick glasses and a pink shirt. Nobody had introduced her.

The whole scene was strange—and, Gaia thought glumly, she had to get used to it, because as long as her father was away, this was home. There was nothing to be gained by getting these people angry with her. She had to make it work. It was just a boardinghouse, after all—it wasn't like anyone was torturing her. They were serving her dinner, weren't they? The smells from the kitchen weren't half bad.

“Thanks,” Gaia said.

Suko somehow managed to frown at her while still smiling. Gaia didn't know very many people who could do that.

Zan laughed.

Gaia looked over at her, startled. The laugh had been very loud. Zan seemed beside herself—she was covering her mouth, trying not to laugh more.

What's so funny?Gaia wondered.

The white kitchen door opened. An elderly Japanese man came in, wearing a blue apron with Japanese writing on it and holding a tray of covered platters. When he saw Gaia, he smiled, nodding slightly. Gaia nodded back.

“Gaia, here at Collingwood we have many activities for our guests,” Suko was saying. “I personally give lectures on the martial arts, if you are interested. I am a black belt, trained by . . . Well, you know.”


Page 9

Suko seemed reluctant to mention the Agency, as ifshe didn't want to break the illusion that this was just another girls' boardinghouse. As she spoke, the old man was carefully laying out the platters and taking the covers off. “When he is not cooking, Philip also gives talks about the history of the romantic period in literature. Zan, please.”

“Sorry,” Zan said. She had still been laughing; her face was red.

Gaia smiled politely.

“I'm sorry, too,” Zan went on. “Gaia and me—we're both sorry.”

There was something strange about Zan—about the way she was acting. Something strange about the way her face looked. Gaia couldn't put her finger on what it was, but it was quite different from the way she'd been upstairs.

“Are there other girls living here?” Gaia asked Suko.

Suko nodded enthusiastically. “Zan you have met. Her father also is busy, working for the federal government, as your father is. Alexa, at the end of the table, is the daughter of a—”

“Shooting people,” Zan said loudly. “Dad's in the Middle East, shooting people in secret. That's his gig. That's—”

“Zan!” Suko was sitting bolt upright, glaring at Zan. “Please!”

“Why he can't be home for Christmas or Thanksgiving or my birthday. What?”

The doorbell rang. Gaia recognized the sound from earlier, when Jake had rung it. It was a loud electric buzzer.

“You're being impolite,” Suko told her. The clanking of silverware went on as Philip continued to move around the table, serving each of them. “We've discussed this. Alexa, would you get the door, please? And explain that we're eating.”

“May I be excused?” Zan said.

She's high,Gaia realized suddenly.She's high on something.

Now that Gaia had figured it out, she was sure that was what was making Zan's pretty face look so strange. Her pupils were expanded, like black basketballs. Her face was flushed. Her movements were exaggerated.

Alexa, the quiet girl in the pink shirt, had stood up; she was folding her napkin, heading out of the room to answer the door.

“No, Zan—you must eat with us. There aren't special rules for you,” Suko said patiently. “Gaia, I'll explain the rules to you in detail later. There's a curfew each night that you have to obey—that's one thing. We like to have everyone accounted for by 10P.M. on weeknights, 11P.M. on weekends.”

“But—” Gaia was beginning to feel physically claustrophobic, like she was locked in a closet. Philip had ambled around the table and was dolingout fragrant beef teriyaki for her. “I'm sorry, but I can't understand why—”

“Seeher! I need to see Gaia Moore right now!”

The loud male voice came from the front door. Now they all could hear it.

And Gaia realized that she recognized the voice. She knew it very well.

hidden in shadow

The bright light shone on Oliver's face, and for a moment Gaia was shocked at how much he looked like Loki.

Family Emergency

OLIVER COULDN'T MAKE HEADS ORtails of it. He was convinced that those men had no more been CIA than they were space aliens. But they'd wanted to know about the serum—and they'd wanted to know about Gaia. And that meant they'd be looking for her and trying to ask her the same questions they'd asked him.

Gaia was tough—Oliver knew that better than almost anyone on earth. But she could be caught unawares. She could be surprised. She could befooled—that was the approach that had worked best for him when he'd been Loki. It was easier to fool a young girl than it was a mature adult. Play to her emotions, threaten her loved ones . . . it was simple. And she could be overcome by force if you had enough men willing to endure broken bones. She wasn't invincible.

But you couldn't scare her.

Which was too bad, Oliver thought. Sometimes it wasgoodto be scared. It gave you a sense of what was dangerous and what to avoid. And it kept you from doing anything stupid, like trying to fight a huge organization single-handed. A girl born without the fear gene was still vulnerable—even more so.

“I'm sorry, sir,” the girl in the pink shirt was saying.The streetlight reflected on her thick glasses. “I can't let you until the governess—”

“I'm heruncle,” Oliver snapped. “Her father is out of town on business—that's why she's here. I need to speak to her. It's—it's a family emergency.”

“Sir—”

“I need toseeher!” Oliver hadn't meant to raise his voice, but he was losing his patience. “I need to see Gaia Moore right now! Damn it, it'simportant!”

“Oliver.”

He stopped talking and stared past the girl in the pink shirt. He knew that voice very well.

It was Gaia. She was standing in the vestibule next to a wide white staircase. A Japanese woman in a business suit stood behind her, and—in a doorway, back in the distance—Oliver could just see another blond girl, leaning into the vestibule, staring at him in frank curiosity.

“Oliver, what's going on?”

She wasn't hurt. Oliver was so relieved, he nearly sank to the ground.

“Gaia,” Oliver said, stepping past the girl into the building. “Gaia, I'm so sorry to bother you here, but there's been a—”

“Stop, please,” the Japanese woman said. She had held up her hand like a crossing guard. “Sir, no guests are allowed without authorization—and certainly no male guests.”

“I'm her uncle,” Oliver said doggedly. “I have to speak with my niecenow.”

“Can't you just give us a moment?” Gaia asked the woman. “Please, Suko.”

“The rules are—”

As Oliver watched, Gaia leaned to whisper in the Japanese woman's ear. Oliver strained to hear, but he couldn't. The Japanese woman listened, looking avidly at Oliver. And she started to nod.

Safe

“SUKO, COULD YOU PLEASE ALLOWan exception to the rule?” Gaia whispered. “He's my uncle, and he wouldn't be here if it wasn't important. It's my first night here. Please?” Gaia didn't feel comfortable pleading. But she really wanted to hear what Oliver had to say. It was so strange—his showing up out of the blue and insisting on talking—that she was determined to listen to him. Sometimes begging was the only option.

Suko nodded slowly, staring at Oliver. It seemed to be working.

“Just let me talk to him for a couple of minutes,” Gaia went on. She was sure Oliver couldn't hear her—he was too far away. “Then I'll get rid of him—I'll talk him into leaving.”

“All right,” Suko said dubiously. She nodded at Oliver, smiling. “Gaia will step outside and speak with you on the front steps. But just for a few minutes.”

“Hey, no fair,” Zan pointed out sullenly from behind them.

“Thanks, Suko.”

“Yes—thank you,” Oliver said gratefully.

Gaia stepped out onto the boardinghouse's front landing. The night air was cool. She pulled Collingwood's thick door shut behind her. Now they were standing in darkness. Oliver's face was hidden in shadow; she saw just a halo of orange streetlamp light shining around his head.

“Oliver, what's—”

“Thank God you're safe,” Oliver said. “Tom never told me where he was sending you. I've spent the entire day just trying to track you down.” He reached out as if to hug her, but he seemed embarrassed. He took her hand, squeezing it awkwardly before letting it go.

“What do you mean, ‘safe'? What happened?”

“I was writing you a letter,” Oliver began, and then started over. “Two men. Two men came to my house this morning, claiming to be CIA agents. They tried to interrogate me.”

Gaia was confused. “Didn't the CIA already debrief you about—?”

“Yes,” Oliver said sharply. He had seized her arm. “But this was different. That's my point, Gaia. Theyweren'treal CIA. Theycouldn'thave been. They were giving me an act, but I saw right through it.”

“Oliver, are you sure they weren't CIA?” Gaia asked carefully. “I mean, they could have had some follow-up questions.”

“OfcourseI'm sure,” Oliver said harshly. “Do you think I'm a fool? They wanted to know about you, about the awful things I'd done to you in the past. They wanted lab records and doctors' logs. They wanted to know about that serum. You remember the serum?”

Gaia remembered. Looking up at the dark shadow of Oliver's face, looming over her, she remembered vividly. She remembered the straps that had held her down, and she remembered this man—her uncle—carefully, brilliantly lying to her.

But that was all in the past.

“These two cut-rate gunmen came to my house with an absurd story and tried to get me to talk about you, Gaia. I refused, but they wouldn't listen, and I had to attack them before they would leave.”

“Youattackedthem?” Gaia's heart was sinking. “Oliver, that's exactly the kind of thing that can get you in trouble with the Agency. You're supposed to be on your best behavior. Don't you understand that they're watching you like hawks?”

Behind Gaia the front door was creaking open. The bright light shone on Oliver's face, and for a moment Gaia was shockedat how much he looked like Loki. It was a baleful stare of frustration that she remembered well.

Suko was standing there, smiling. “Excuse me,” she said. “But it is time now for Gaia to return inside.”

“Gaia,” Oliver said—and now he looked like a tired, confused man and not like a criminal mastermind at all—“I know they're watching me. I know I have to be on my best behavior. But I'm no fool. And I think you're in trouble again. Big trouble. We all are.”

Please,Gaia thought weakly.Please don't do this. Please don't pull me back into that world, Oliver. Into that life.

“Gaia, please come in now,” Suko whispered behind her.

It was time to go back into the boardinghouse.

And the thing was, it suddenly didn't seem so bad. Even with the druggie prep-school girl and the curfews, it wasn't so bad at all. She just had to get used to it.

“I think you should come with me tonight. I can protect you better than this—” He gestured at the building behind them.

“No.” Gaia didn't even have to think about it. There wasn't the slightest chance she would do that. “I'm sorry, Oliver. But I can't. I'm trying to getawayfrom all that, don't you understand? After the Yuri thing I'm even more determined than ever to getaway from all of it—to start living a normal life.”

“We all want that,” Oliver said. “It's a nice fairy tale, but it's impossible. Come with me, Gaia,” he repeated. He was openly pleading now. “Please.”

I have a choice.It was amazing how clear her head was suddenly.

“No,” Gaia said. “I'm sorry, Oliver, but I can't. I have to stay here.”

“They weren't real CIA,”Oliver insisted. “Gaia, you've got to believe me.”

Behind Gaia, Suko was waiting. She seemed to recoil from Oliver's harsh tone.

“I'll be safe here,” Gaia promised. “Don't worry, Oliver. The Agency set this place up. It's a safe house. Suko's a black belt.”

“That is true,” Suko said primly.

“Please go, Oliver,” Gaia said gently. She reached up to touch his arm. “I'm really grateful for your concern. But it's . . . it's curfew. Right, Suko?”

Oliver looked down at her, and his expression was difficult to read. A blending of scorn and concern and love. And regret.

Then he turned away into the night. Gaia watched his stooped, beaten figure walking away. And then, with Suko smiling at her, she turned and went inside.

She didn't even scan the street to see if anyone was watching—she was sure that she was safe.

A Cold Voice

NIGHT HAD FALLEN.

Heather knew because the speaking clock in the lounge told her what time it was. She had no other way to tell.

For Heather Gannis, it was always pretty much night. The darkness was endless. For ages—for days, weeks, months—Heather had been completely blind, and a clock with a mechanical voice told her whether it was night or day.

So the darkness couldn't really increase her fear. But this night she was already so frightened that it didn't matter.

She didn't even want to think about the day she'd just had. She remembered it all—the voices, the questions, the fear. . . . She was so scared, she was still shivering, even though the room was warm. She couldn't help it.

The visitors had come early that afternoon. Right after lunch, in fact. Heather had taken her tray up to the counter—they all knew how to do that at the school without running into each other—and had navigated back to her room, following the edges of the walls as she always did.

And someone had been there.

It was obvious from the way the air felt. Heather came through her doorway, all ready to fall onto her bed and take a catnap, and she realized she wasn't alone.

“Hello?” Heather called out. “Hello?”

“Heather,” Mrs. Delgado said, “don't worry. Everything's fine.”

Mrs. Delgado was the superintendent of the school. Immediately Heather was nervous. What was the superintendent doing in her room? Furthermore, why was she insisting that everything was fine? People only said stuff like that when it wasn't true.

And, Heather realized, there were other people in the room. And a smell of aftershave or cologne that she didn't recognize. After all the months of blindness, Heather didn't make mistakes about things like that. Sheknewthere were strangers in the room.


Page 10

“Heather, these men need to talk to you,” Mrs. Delgado went on. “I have no idea what it's about, but it would be a good idea to just answer their questions as best you can.”

Mrs. Delgado sounded scared. Heather was sure of it. Being blind gave you a built-in lie detector. And an emotion detector, too. And Delgado was terrified—there was no question about it.

“You can leave now,” a male voice said.

It was a cold voice, and Heather didn't recognize it. She felt the air move as Mrs. Delgado got up; she heard footsteps on floorboards and carpet as the superintendent hurried past Heather, squeezing her shoulder reassuringly and then moving toward the door and pulling it shut.

Click.That was the door latch. Heather was alone, with the strangers.

“Hello?” she said again. “Who's there?”

“Heather,” the strange male voice said again, “My name is James Rowan. The other person you're hearing is Peter Morrow.”

“Okay,” Heather said dubiously.

“You're a very pretty young lady,” Rowan said. It sounded strange to Heather. Because she never thought about how people looked anymore. It was utterly irrelevant.

“Why don't you have a seat,” the other man said. “We just have a few questions and we'll be out of your hair.”

“Who are you?” Heather said. Her heart was beating so fast, she could hear it clicking in her ears. She was absolutely terrified, she realized.

“You don't need to worry about that,” Rowan said. He was closer to the window, and the breeze was blowing his cologne across Heather's face. Old Spice, she realized. Who the hell wore Old Spice, anyway? “You might say we're investigators.”

“You mean police?” Heather remembered how frightened Mrs. Delgado had sounded and realized that these men must have shown her a badge of some kind. Or a gun.

“Don't be afraid,” Morrow said. It was like he'd read her mind. “We're not cops. We're employees of agovernment agency. We're really just bureaucrats. We're certainly not dangerous.”

He's lying,Heather realized.They're dangerous as hell.

“We'd like to talk to you about your affliction. Your blindness,” Rowan explained needlessly.

“I know what ‘affliction' means.”

“Now, there's no need to be difficult,” Morrow said. Heather could tell from his voice that he was smiling. “Are you going to have an attitude? It will just make this take longer and be more unpleasant for you.”

“N-No.”

“You were made blind by an injected drug?” Rowan asked.

What?Heather was confused.Why are they asking about that? How do they even know about that?

“I don't really know what it was,” Heather said truthfully. “I'd rather not talk about it.”

“Did you go blind all at once, or did it happen in stages?”

“It was the last stage,” Heather said.

“Was the first stage fearlessness?” Rowan asked. He seemed particularly eager to hear her answer. “Were you fearless? No fear at all?”

“Yes.”

Heather remembered it vividly. That strange, exhilarating sensation—that unreal, dreamlike disconnection of having no fear. And then later . . . theburning pain, the fever . . . the fear of not understanding.

And then blackness.

“Heather,” Morrow went on, “did you undergo any kind of examination or blood test during that first stage?”

“No.”

“You answered awfully quickly,” Rowan said. “It's been a long time since the events we're discussing. Are yousure?Absolutelysurethere was no blood test? Even by a paramedic or an emergency-room nurse?”

“Nothing like that,” Heather insisted. “It just happened soquickly.There was no time for that.”

Rowan sighed in frustration. Heather heard it clearly.

“And Gaia Moore?” Morrow asked suddenly. “Did she receive the same injection?”

“I don't understand,” Heather said. She heard the fear in her voice and tried to suppress it. “Youcaughthim, didn't you? The man who did this to me? Oliver Moore? You caught him. Why don't you askhimall these questions?”

“Because we're asking you,” Morrow said.

“Answer the question, Heather,” Rowan went on. “And you'd better be sure you're answering truthfully.”

Heather was so frightened that she could barely speak. But at the same time, she was irritated. She'd been following the conversation very closely. It wasamazing how well you could pay attention to things when you weren't distracted by appearances, facial expressions, colors.

And these men weren't being truthful. Heather had no idea what the lie was, but there was a lie in there somehow. Their voices gave it away.

“I don't know,” Heather insisted. “I don't know what they did to her. He'd been making her life hell for months.”

Rowan was standing up. The sound filled Heather with relief.The interview is over,she thought.Thank God—they're leaving.

But she was wrong.

Rowan came right over to stand in front of her. The smell of Old Spice was overpowering. Heather could hear him breathing.

And then she felt the man's hand on her shoulder.

“Please stop,” Heather whispered. “Please leave me alone.”

“We'll go,” Rowan said, “if you swear to us that you've told us the truth. And that there'snothingyou've left out. About the injection, Ms. Moore, any of it.”

“I swear,” Heather whispered. She was crying—she couldn't help it. “I swear. Please leave me alone. Please.”

“One more thing,” Rowan said. He pushed his hand downward on her shoulder. “Don't tellanybodyabout us. That superintendent, your teachers, anyone. If you do, we'll find out. And we'll come back. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Good girl.”

And then suddenly they were gone. She felt the hand lift from her shoulder. Then she heard the door opening and closing and the footsteps, and she was alone in her room with the cloying smell of Old Spice lingering in the air.

And now, three hours later, Heather sat in the lounge, trembling. She hadn't said a word to anyone. She'd taken a shower, and put on clean pajamas, and eaten dinner, and now she was sitting quietly in the lounge.

I've got to tell someone,Heather thought.

It was exactly what they had told her not to do.

But she had to. She had to at least ask someone for advice. Maybe not help, but advice. It wasn't like they were going to spy on her. And she had to figure out what to do next.

Not somebody at the school. That was a bad idea. She needed to talk to someone she really knew—someone she could trust.

And more importantly, she had to warn Gaia.

I've got to tell someone. I've got to ask someone what to do. But who?

And suddenly Heather made up her mind. She knew exactly who to call.

FIELD REPORT: INTERVIEW WITH SUBJECT A-3-B

Rowan, J., and Morrow, P, reporting

Interview was conducted at 6:20P.M. EST. The subject, Heather Gannis (see attached file 31), appeared to be cooperating and answering questions truthfully. The subject's blindness called for innovative interrogation/intimidation techniques.

As with Oliver Moore (see Field Report A-2-A), the interview proved somewhat inconclusive. However, certain clear conclusions may be drawn. The test subject appeared to have a detailed memory of the events in question regarding BLUEBELL, our code name for the genetic serum administered in the sequence of events under scrutiny.

The lack of alkaloid agents has been tentatively confirmed, as has the absence of sensory side effects concurrent with injection.

School Superintendent Marisa Delgado was easily persuaded to hand over all of Heather Gannis's medical records, which revealed the drug's effects quite clearly. The blindness is a side effect of the antigen-reagent properties of the serum. No further information may be garnered from Heather Gannis.

The investigation must proceed to its main subject, who, it has been revealed, is in the process of being contacted. Rowan and Morrow shall proceed as ordered; a subsequent field report will be submitted thereafter through the usual channels.

END

the beautiful people

Old Gaia would have checked out this scene and turned right back around in a heartbeat.

Like Bullets

“JAKE! JAKE!”

It was a girl's voice calling out to him, but Jake couldn't see her face in the crowd. He saw Gaia first as he stepped out of the school lobby. She saw him, too, and smiled—but she wasn't the one calling to him. It was the girl next to her—the girl in the long white leather coat. She called his name again, waving. Jake finally realized that it was that girl he'd seen on his way out of Starbucks. Liz.

The last buzzer was still echoing through the lobby behind Jake. School was over, and now he was surrounded by a stream of dozens of students with book bags, yelling back and forth to each other and hollering on their cell phones as they flooded out of the school building.

“Jake!” Liz yelled again. Her flawless white teeth gleamed as she smiled at him. The afternoon sunlight lit up the gold strands of her hair.

Jake moved through the flood of kids and made his way over to Gaia and Liz. He gave Gaia a kiss and tipped his chin at Liz.

“Are you coming to my party?” Liz asked immediately.

“Party?” Jake asked. “What party? When is it?”

“It's right now.” Liz grinned.

“Liz and Chris booked a suite over at the Mercer Hotel,” Gaia explained.

Jake knew where that was—a fancy building a few blocks west—but he'd never been inside the place.

“I think they pretty much invited . . . everybody,” Gaia went on. “How many, Liz?”

Gaia sounded like she was trying to seem disinterested. But Jake knew better. It was obvious—Gaia was intrigued despite herself. He had to hand it to Gaia's friend Liz. She just made it look so easy. She was one of those people who you just liked in a matter of seconds, and you instantly stopped caring about the fact that her wristwatch cost more than most cars.

“Dozens,” Liz said, shrugging. “Okay, yes, everyone,” she admitted sheepishly. “It's already started—Chris is over there now. I stayed behind to gather the stragglers. LikeyouJake.”

Liz poked Jake in the chest as she said his name. It was completely innocent and friendly, and he didn't mind at all.

Neither did Gaia. It was obvious, looking at her. Gaia seemed to trust Liz completely after only a day. Which made Jake even more impressed with the immaculately dressed newcomer. If she could win Gaia over that fast, then Liz had to be “good people.” Gaia didn't waste her time with people she didn't like. It was one of the things Jake liked about her.

“Ready to go, Jake?” Gaia asked.

“Sure,” Jake said honestly. “A party at three in the afternoon: Why not? Let's go.”

“Come on, you two,” Liz said impatiently. She grabbed the couple's hands and pulled them forcibly down the street away from the school. “Let's get over there. I just have to buy some beer on the way.”

It was a quarter to four when the three of them got to the Mercer Hotel. The tall, graceful building loomed over them, shining in the afternoon sun.

Jake had to admit that the hotel idea was brilliant. He would never have mustered the audacity to try that kind of thing himself. He didn't have the money, either. He wasn't familiar with the Mercer Hotel, but one look at the brass signs and the row of car service limousines lined up in front told him that the place wasn't cheap.

Liz and Jake were both carrying bags from the Korean deli around the corner. Each bag had two six-packs of Stella Artois beer—Liz had insisted on the best the deli had, even if it was something like four dollars a bottle. Jake had tried to pay, but Liz was much quicker, slapping down a fifty-dollar bill before he'd even gotten his hand near his wallet.

“I'm not drinking,” Jake told Gaia as they moved through the hotel's revolving doors. The lobby was big and dark and air-conditioned. “I've got a sparring session at the gym in about an hour.”

“Okay,” Gaia said.

“Just so you know,” Jake went on. Liz was leading them toward the banks of elevators; they had to sprintto keep up. “In case you wanted to get me drunk and take advantage of me.”

“I stand warned,” Gaia replied, cracking a slight smile.

“Come on, lovebirds,” Liz called out over her shoulder, as her perfectly manicured index finger stabbed at the elevator button. “I do believe it's party time.”

The Princely Aura

COMING THROUGH THE DOOR INTOthe hotel suite, Gaia could tell the party was already going full blast. She could hear techno and hip-hop music coming from different directions and an endless cacophony of loud voices. The crowd was right in front of them, packed into the suite's living room, with kids filling the couches and chairs, and opened cans of beer littering the glass coffee table, where a half-circle of kids were loudly playing quarters. Gaia could see doors into other rooms, with more kids moving through them. The suite was huge.

Old Gaia would have checked out this scene and turned right back around in a heartbeat. But this was new Gaia. And so she took a deep breath and tried to immerse herself in the crowd.

But the first face she saw was not making this new commitment to social behavior any easier.

Tannie Deegan. Of course.

“You'retotallyright!” Tannie was squealing. “Oh my God, Chris. You're, like, totallyexactlyright. . . . ”


Page 11

Gaia turned to Liz. “You invited the Friends of Heather?”

“Friends of . . . ” Liz squinted in confusion. “Who's Heather?”

“Those girls,” Gaia explained. Liz was leading them toward the bedroom, where, sure enough, Gaia could hear the squeals of more FOHs. “From Starbucks yesterday? The vultures.”

“Oh God, you're right. It'sthem.” Liz looked pained. “I guess Chris must have.”

Jake led them through the big white door into the suite's master bedroom. It was a big, bright room with a gigantic king-size bed. A smaller crowd had gathered in the room. A boom box was playing slightly mellower music. A bar to one side held a big bottle of vodka and some mixers and an ice bucket. The air-conditioning was blasting; the room was nice and cool. Out the huge picture window Gaia could see the bright sky and the tops of the buildings near the hotel and, if she craned her neck, a little bit of the river between the buildings in the distance.

Chris Rodke was, without question, the room's center of attention. Gaia recognized him immediately—theprincely aura from the previous day was intact. He was reclining on the wide bed with his shoes off, leaning comfortably on the headboard with a tall glass in one hand. The lamplight shone from his golden yellow hair. Gaia could see the wet frost beading the sides of his glass and the lime and ice.He's drinking vodka with soda,Gaia realized. She wasn't sure she'd ever seen anyone under thirty have a vodka and soda.

“That's sofunny,” Megan gasped. “That's just so funny.”

Megan, Tina, and Laura were perched on the soft carpet near Chris. They all had drinks. All of them were laughing as if Chris had made the single most humorous remark in the entire history of human civilization. Gaia thought that Megan was going to pass out, she was laughing so hard.

“Elizabeth Rodke!” Chris yelled out. “'Bout time you made it.” When he saw Gaia, he threw his arms around her, then gave her an air kiss on each cheek. “Ga-yah bay-bee,” he sang, elongating each syllable.

“Hi, Gaia!” Megan said, far too brightly. “I'm so glad you're here!”

“Right on,” Laura squealed.

Gaia blinked two long blinks.So . . . the attitudes are reversible, just like the Burberry raincoats.

“Gaia, how the hell are ya?” Chris asked.

“I have no idea,” Gaia replied. Too honest, perhaps. She was still working on this stuff. But somehow she'd made Chris smile.

“Oh, Christ, neither do I.” Chris laughed. He turned to his sister. “This one's a keeper.”

Gaia suddenly realized that the FOHs were watching her like hawks.

“Gaia, come sit with us,” Megan suddenly suggested as she tapped a spot on the carpet next to her. Gaia didn't even respond. She could only muster a raised eyebrow of confusion.

“Here,” Jake said quietly. He was up close to her, handing over a glass of ice water he'd brought from the bar. He'd gotten himself one, too. “You want to sit down?”

“Sure,” she said, moving as far as possible from the disturbing smiles of the FOHs.

“Liz, let's do this every day!” Chris called out. “New party, new hotel.” He was finishing his drink—the ice clattered loudly in his glass.

“Oh,greatidea,” Tina squeaked. “Yeah!”

Gaia sat down in an expensive-looking leather chair halfway across the room. Jake dropped onto the carpet beside her.

“So, you live on Fifth?” Megan asked, staring up worshipfully at the Rodkes. She was pivoting on the floor, looking back and forth between the two of them. It must have been hard to decide which one's ass to kiss first. “Do you love it?”

Liz made a face, nodding while she cracked open a beer and sat down. “It's cool. I mean, it's fine. We justgot there. Dad's like that—suddenly it's, ‘New York,right now,' and we have to jump. But the place is nice.”

“Right on,” Laura said. That seemed to be the sum total of her vocabulary for the day.

Jake slouched on the floor, leaning his head against Gaia's next to her knee.

“Ilove the house,” Chris said. “I think it's got great potential.”

“Do you have a balcony?” Megan asked. “Overlooking the park?”

“We do,” Chris replied.

“Huh. Your place sounds really nice,” Megan said. It was fairly obvious that she was fishing for an invite.

“I'm still unpacking boxes,” Liz said. It was the perfect answer: a polite refusal to invite anyone anywhere.

Jake pivoted his head, looking up at Gaia. “How are you?” he asked. His hair brushed her knee, making her feel a mild tingle. He was quiet enough that the others didn't seem to hear.

“Fine.” Gaia smiled at him. “I'm fine.”

He sat up and turned to face her, moving closer.

“I mean . . . do you feel like finishing that conversation?”

Here we go,Gaia thought. She could feel her calm, peaceful mood immediately start to drift away.He still wants to talk.After last night's fiasco, she was feeling that much less inclined to have that talk just yet. Last night's sadomasochistic freak show had been the perfect reminder of just exactly why theyshouldn'thave that talk.

“There are so many people here,” Gaia said. She tried not to sound too evasive, like she was looking for an excuse not to talk to him. The fact that it was true didn't help.

“Big deal,” Jake said easily. He was gulping his ice water. “Nobody's listening. We can have a private conversation in the corner and all they'll do is point and giggle.”

“True enough,” Gaia said. She had a sinking feeling because she couldn't think of a way out this time. Not without actually admitting that she didn't want to talk.

Why not? Let's do it. Let's see what happens when we talk. Let's see if I ruin everything.

Gaia realized she was holding her breath. “Okay,” she said, exhaling loudly. “Okay. Let's have that conversation. You're right; this is a perfect time.”

“Gaia! Jake!” Chris called out. “Join the party!”

“I've got to work out,” Jake said apologetically. “I can't have any—”

“Don't drink,talk,” Chris went on grandly. “We're new kids; we need to make friends. Gaia, where do you live? Who are you?”

She hated being put on the spot. But something about Chris's way made it a little easier. “I don't really know that, either,” she replied honestly. “I'm kind of in transition.”

“Who isn't?” Chris joked. “From what to what?”

“Oh,” Gaia uttered, thinking it through. “I don't know . . . old to new?”

“Perfect.”Chris laughed. “Old to new. Well, here's to the new you, Gaia Moore.” He raised his glass. “Not that you need to change anything.”

“Yeah, well . . . no one ever really changes, right?”

“Oh,wrong,” Chris bellowed excitedly. He suddenly shot up off the bed as his eyes widened.

“Oh,no,Gaia,” Liz moaned. “You've just hit on one of my brother's favorite topics. Please, Chris, no speech. Control yourself.”

“Liz, come on,” Chris snorted. “They don't even know me yet. They haven't heard some of my best stuff.”

Liz turned to Gaia. “Oh God, Gaia, I warned you about my family and speeches. Don't say I never warned you.”

“Stop it,” Chris complained. “It's not a big deal. Your friend Gaia just happened to say that no one ever changes, and I just wanted to let her know that she was dead wrong, that's all.” Chris turned to Gaia like they were sharing a secret. “You're dead wrong.”

This Gaia certainly wanted to hear. “Wrong how?”

“No—” Liz giggled, pouncing on her brother to get a hand over his overly verbose mouth.

Chris pushed his sister away in the exact same manner that he probably had since toddlerhood. “Well, as long as youasked,” he bellowed triumphantly, “I say we're not stuck with anything. Not anything. Not charactertraits, not physical traits, nothing. I say that we are in complete control. If ‘Right On' Laura over here wanted blue eyes, then she could go get color contacts. If Megan were depressed, she'd take Prozac or some other drug. It's all in our hands now. It's all just chemistry.”

“Stop, stop,” Liz moaned painfully. “Don't you all see where he's going to go with this? Two more seconds and he's going to fall right smack down on his favorite topic: the highly controversial gay gene.”

“There'sno such thing,” Chris insisted, pointing at Liz. “No such thing at all. That's a myth. The human chromosome has no gene for gayness.”

“Okay,”Liz moaned again. “I'm not arguing.”

“And even if therewas,” Chris went on, “Istillwouldn't believe in it. I'm gay because I'm gay. It's who Iam—it'smy choice.It's the twenty-first century; my genes aren't in charge: I am.”

Gaia didn't realize that she was staring at Chris until Jake knocked his hand against her thigh, trying to get her attention. She nodded impatiently at him and turned back to Chris. What he was saying was absolutely fascinating.

My genes aren't in charge: I am.

But Gaia knew that wasn't true. If her life had one unalterable fact, it was this: her genes were in charge of everything. They defined every aspect of her miserable life. What Chris was saying was nonsense.

“Chris, how canyoube in charge?” Gaia argued. “Your genes make you who you are. I took biology; I know how it works.”

“How itusuallyworks,” Chris corrected politely. “The more we learn about heredity, the more in charge we are. Look, you should talk to my dad. He really understands this stuff. The incredible stuff they're doing in some of those labs—it would blow you away.”

“I thought your dad made toothpaste,” Gaia said.

Chris's eyes widened. “Are you kidding? That's the boring part. They makeeverything.Toothpaste, med supplies, high-end drugs, research—billions of dollars in research. Are you interested in genetics?”

“Well—yeah.”

That was one way of putting it. Gaia's entire life had been determined by her own unique genetic code. The funny thing was, Gaia had never really tried to understand it from a scientific standpoint. It had always seemed over her head. But maybe it wasn't.

“Gaia,” Jake said, standing up, “I'm leaving.”

Gaia looked up at Jake. And suddenly realized she'd been completely ignoring him. Right at the moment that she'd agreed to have the “big conversation.” Suddenly she felt awful. Selfish and evasive and awful.

“Jake, I'm so sorry,” she said quickly, standing up and taking his hands. “I'm a jerk—I keep stopping you from—”

“Shhh! Relax. It's not you,” Jake said smoothly. “It's just that it's getting late. I've got to get to the gym for my sparring session. And I need time to warm up.”

“Oh.” Gaia looked at Jake's eyes to double-check. “So you're not mad?”

“Mad? No! Of course not. We can talk some other time.”

But there was something strange in those eyes—something she'd never seen before.

He's lying,she thought suddenly.He's lying—he's angry with me. He says he's not, but he is.

“Are you sure you have to go?” she asked. “You sure you're not mad?”

“Yeah.” Jake smiled and lifted his book bag. “Yeah, everything's cool. But I've got to take off.”

And then Jake turned around and walked out of the room, his book bag slung from his shoulder. He didn't look back.

That was bad,Gaia thought.That was really bad. I should go after him—talk to him. So what if they think we're having a fight? So what? I have to fix this.

She started moving toward the hotel bedroom door. She was about to call out after Jake.

“Hey, Gaia,” Chris said, lunging up off the bed. “Why don't you come have dinner?”

“What?”

Gaia turned around and looked at Chris. The FOHs were lined up along the carpet, enviously listening.They probably would do anything to be invited to the Rodkes' Fifth Avenue apartment.

“Come to dinner,” Chris repeated. “Liz was probably going to invite you anyway, right, Liz?”

“You read my mind,” Liz said. She smiled at Gaia warmly. “Do come, Gaia! It'll be fun. We'll stay here until the party ends and then get a car uptown.”

“Well, I'm not sure—” Gaia glanced over at the door and thought about Jake. Jake, who was probably still within reach, still waiting for the elevator a few feet away.

“You should meet Dad,” Chris insisted. “If you're really interested in genetic medicine, you definitely need to talk to him. He can explain this stuffmuchbetter than I can.”

Gaia thought about it. But she didn't have to think very long. She already knew what she wanted to do.

“Sure,” she told Chris. “Thanks, I'd love to come.”

“Great!” Chris clapped briskly. “We'll have a blast. Andyouall”—he looked down at the Friends of Heather—“can come next time.” He flashed them a condescending wink.

“Oh—thanks,” Megan said uncertainly. The FOHs were still giving Gaia that wide-eyed look, like she'd been invited to Disneyland and they hadn't.

But Gaia couldn't stop thinking about Jake.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I'll be right back.”

She pushed open the door, coming back out intothe hotel suite's living room, which was still full of music and crowds of shouting kids. Another quarters game had started, and a few people were dancing in the corner. Gaia shoved through the crowds to the suite door and out into the quiet hotel corridor.

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