The night Kate Harker decided to burn down the school chapel, she wasn't angry or drunk. She was desperate.
Burning down the church was really a last resort; she'd already broken a girl's nose, smoked in the dormitories, cheated on her first exam, and verbally harassed three of the nuns. But no matter what she did, St. Agnes Academy kept forgiving her. That was the problem with Catholic schools. They saw her as someone to be saved.
But Kate didn't need salvation; she simply needed out.
It was almost midnight when her shoes hit the grass below the dorm window. The witching hour, people used to call it, that dark time when restless spirits reached for freedom. Restless spirits, and teenage girls trapped in boarding schools too far from home.
She made her way down the manicured stone path that ran from the dormitories to the Chapel of the Cross, a bag slung over her shoulder, bottles inside clinking together like spurs in rhythm with her steps. The bottles had all fit, save for one, a vintage wine from Sister Merilee's private store that hung from her fingertips.
Bells began to chime the hour, soft and low, but they were coming from the larger Chapel of the Saints on the other side of campus. That one was never fully unattended—Mother Alice, the school's head-mistress-nunwhatever, slept in a room off the chapel, and even if Kate had wanted to burn down that particular building, she wasn't stupid enough to add murder to arson. Not when the price for violence was so steep.
The doors to the smaller chapel were kept locked at night, but Kate had pocketed a key earlier that day while enduring one of Sister Merilee's lectures on finding grace. She let herself in and set the bag down just inside the door. The chapel was darker than she'd ever seen it, the blue stained glass registering black in the moonlight. A dozen pews separated her from the altar, and for a moment she almost felt bad about setting fire to the quaint little place. But it wasn't the school's only chapel—it wasn't even the nicest—and if the nuns at St. Agnes had preached about anything, it was the importance of sacrifice.
Kate had burned through two boarding schools (metaphorically speaking) in her first year of exile, another one in her second, hoping that would be it. But her father was determined (she had to get it from someone) and kept digging up more options. The fourth, a reform school for troubled teens, had stuck it out for almost a year before giving up the ghost. The fifth, an all-boys academy willing to make an exception in exchange for a healthy endowment, lasted only a few short months, but her father must have had this hellish convent of a prep school on speed dial, a place already reserved, because she'd been packed off without so much as a detour back to V-City.
Six schools in five years.
But this was it. It had to be.
Kate crouched on the wooden floor, unzipped the bag, and got to work.
The night was too quiet in the wake of the bells, the chapel eerily still, and she started humming a hymn as she unpacked the duffel: two bottles of jack and almost a full fifth of vodka, both salvaged from a box of confiscated goods, along with three bottles of house red, a decades-old whiskey from Mother Alice's cabinet, and Sister Merilee's vintage. She lined the contents up on the back pew before crossing to the prayer candles. Beside the three tiers of shallow glass bowls sat a dish of matches, the old-fashioned kind with long wooden stems.
Still humming, Kate returned to the liquor cabinet on the pew and unscrewed and uncorked the various bottles, anointing the seats, row after row, trying to make the contents last. She saved Mother Alice's whiskey for the wooden podium at the front. A Bible sat open on top, and in a moment of superstition, Kate spared the book, lobbing it out the open front door and onto the grass. When she stepped back inside, the damp, sweet smell of alcohol assaulted her senses. She coughed and spit the acrid taste from her mouth.
At the far end of the chapel, a massive crucifix hung above the altar, and even in the darkened hall, she could feel the statue's gaze on her as she lifted the match.
Forgive me father for I have sinned, she thought, striking it against the doorframe.
"Nothing personal," she added aloud as the match flared to life, sudden and bright. For a long moment Kate watched it burn, fire creeping toward her fingers. And then, just before it got too close, she dropped the match onto the seat of the nearest pew. It caught instantly and spread with an audible whoosh, the fire consuming only the alcohol at first, then taking hold of the wood beneath. In moments, the pews were going up, and then the floor, and at last the altar. The fire grew, and grew, and grew, from a flame the size of her nail to a blaze with a life of its own, and Kate stood, mesmerized, watching it dance and climb and consume inch after inch until the heat and the smoke finally forced her out into the cool night.
Run, said a voice in her head—soft, urgent, instinctual—as the chapel burned.
She resisted the urge and instead sank onto a bench a safe distance from the fire, trailing her shoes back and forth through the late summer grass.
If she squinted, she could see the light of the nearest subcity on the horizon: Des Moines. An old-fashioned name, a relic from the time before the reconstruction. There were half a dozen of them, scattered around Verity's periphery—but none had more than a million people, their populations locked in, locked down, and none of them held a candle to the capital. That was the idea. No one wanted to attract the monsters. Or Callum Harker.
She drew out her lighter—a beautiful silver thing Mother Alice had confiscated the first week—and turned it over and over in her hands to keep them steady. When that failed, she drew a cigarette from her shirt pocket— another bounty from the confiscation box—and lit it, watching the small blue flame dance before the massive orange blaze.
She took a drag and closed her eyes.
Where are you, Kate? she asked herself.
It was a game she sometimes played, ever since she learned about the theory of infinite parallels, the idea that a person's path through life wasn't really a line, but a tree, every decision a divergent branch, resulting in a divergent you. She liked the idea that there were a hundred different Kates, living a hundred different lives.
Maybe in one of them, there were no monsters.
Maybe her family was still whole.
Maybe she and her mother had never left home.
Maybe they'd never come back.
Maybe, maybe, maybe—and if there were a hundred lives, a hundred Kates, then she was only one of them, and that one was exactly who she was supposed to be. And in the end, it was easier to do what she had to if she could believe that somewhere else, another version of her got to make another choice. Got to live a better—or at least simpler—life. Maybe she was even sparing them. Allowing another Kate to stay sane and safe.
Where are you? she wondered.
Lying in a field. Staring up at stars.
The night is warm. The air is clean.
The grass is cool beneath my back.
There are no monsters in the dark.
How nice, thought Kate as, in front of her, the chapel caved in, sending up a wave of embers.
Sirens wailed in the distance, and she straightened up on the bench.
Here we go.
Within minutes girls came pouring out of the dormitories, and Mother Alice appeared in a robe, pale face painted red by the light of the still-burning church. Kate had the pleasure of hearing the prestigious old nun let out a string of colorful words before the fire trucks pulled up and the sirens drowned out everything.
Even Catholic schools had their limits.
An hour later, Kate was sitting in the rear seat of a local patrol car, courtesy of Des Moines, hands cuffed in her lap. The vehicle barreled through the night, across the dark expanse of land that formed the northeast corner of Verity, away from the safety of the periphery, and toward the capital.
Kate shifted in the seat, trying to get more comfortable as the cruiser sped on. Verity was three days across by car, and she figured they were still a good four hours outside the capital, an hour from the edge of the Waste—but there was no way this local officer was taking a vehicle like this through a place like that. The car didn't have much in the way of reinforcement, only its iron trim and the UVR—ultraviolet-reinforced—high beams tearing crisp lines through the darkness.
The man's knuckles were white on the wheel.
She thought of telling him not to worry, not yet— they were far enough out; the edges of Verity were still relatively safe, because none of the things that went bump in the capital wanted to cross the Waste to get to them, not when there were still plenty of people to eat closer to V-City. But then he shot her a nasty look and she decided to let him stew.
She rolled her head, good ear against the leather seat as she stared out into the dark.
The road ahead looked empty, the night thick, and she studied her reflection in the window. It was strange, how only the obvious parts showed up against the darkened glass—light hair, sharp jaw, dark eyes—not the scar like a drying tear in the corner of her eye, or the one that traced her hairline from temple to jaw.
Back at St. Agnes, the Chapel of the Cross was probably a charred husk by now.
The growing crowd of girls in their pajamas had crossed themselves at the sight of it (Nicole Teak, whose nose Kate had recently broken, flashed a smug grin, as if Kate was getting what she deserved, as if she hadn't wanted to get caught), and Mother Alice had said a prayer for her soul as she was escorted off the premises.
Good riddance, St. Agnes.
The cop said something, but the words broke down before they reached her, leaving nothing but muffled sounds.
"What?" she asked, feigning disinterest as she turned her head.
"Almost there," he muttered, still obviously bitter that someone had forced him to drive her this far instead of dropping her in a cell for the night.
They passed a sign—235 miles to V-City. They were getting closer to the Waste, the buffer that ran between the capital and the rest of Verity. A moat, thought Kate, one with its own monsters. There was no clear border, but you could feel the shift, like a shoreline, the ground sloping away, even though it stayed flat. The last towns gave way to barren fields, and the world went from quiet to empty.
A few more painfully silent miles—the cop refused to turn on the radio—and then a side road broke the monotony of the main stretch, and the patrol car veered onto it, wheels slipping from asphalt to gravel before grumbling to a stop.
Anticipation flickered dully in Kate's chest as the cop switched on his surrounds, UVR brights that cast an arc of light around the car. They weren't alone; a black transport vehicle idled on the side of the narrow road, the only signs of life its UVR undercarriage, the red of its brake lights, and the low rumble of its engine. The cop's circle of light glanced off the transport's tinted windows and landed on the metal tracery capable of running one hundred thousand volts into anything that got too close. This was a vehicle designed to cross the Waste—and whatever waited in it.
Kate smiled, the same smile Nicole had flashed her outside the church—smug, no teeth. Not a happy smile, but a victorious one. The cop got out, opened her door, and hauled her up off the backseat by her elbow. He unlocked the cuffs, grumbling to himself about politics and privilege while Kate rubbed her wrists.
"Free to go?"
He crossed his arms. She took that as a yes, and started toward the transport, then turned back, and held out her hand. "You have something of mine," she said.
He didn't move.
Kate's eyes narrowed. She snapped her fingers and the man shot a look at the rumbling tank of a car behind her before digging the silver lighter from his pocket.
Her fingers curled around the smooth metal and she turned away, but not before she caught the word bitch in her good ear. She didn't bother looking back. She climbed into the transport, sank against the leather seat, and listened to the sound of the cop car retreating. Her driver was on the phone. He met her eyes in the rearview mirror.
"Yeah, I've got her. Yeah, okay. Here." He passed the cell back through the partition, and Kate's pulse quickened as she took it and brought it to her left ear.
"Katherine. Olivia. Harker."
The voice on the line was low thunder, rumbling earth. Not loud, but forceful, the kind of voice that demanded respect, if not outright fear, the kind of voice Kate had been practicing for years, but it still sent an involuntary shiver through her.
"Hello, Father," she said, careful to keep her own voice steady.
"Are you proud of yourself, Katherine?"
She studied her nails. "Quite."
"St. Agnes makes six."
"Hmm?" she murmured, feigning distraction.
"Six schools. In five years."
"Well, the nuns said I could do anything if I put my mind to it. Or was that the teachers back at Wild Prior? I'm starting to lose track—"
"Enough." The word was like a punch to the chest. "You can't keep doing this."
"I know," she said, fighting to be the right Kate, the one she wanted to be around him, the one who deserved to be around him. Not the girl lying in the field or the one crying in a car right before it crashed. The one who wasn't afraid of anything. Anyone. Not even him. She couldn't manage that smug smile, but she pictured it, held the image in her head. "I know," she said again. "And I have to imagine these kinds of stunts are getting hard to cover up. And expensive."
"You know why, Dad," she said, cutting him off. "You know what I want." She listened to him exhale on the other side of the line, and tipped her head back against the leather. The transport's sky roof was open, and she could see the stars dotting the heavy dark.
"I want to come home."
It began with a bang.
August read the words for the fifth time without taking them in. He was sitting at the kitchen counter, rolling an apple in circles with one hand and pinning open a book about the universe with the other. Night had swept in beyond the steel-shuttered windows of the compound, and he could feel the city pulling at him through the walls. He checked his watch, the cuff of his shirt inching up to reveal the lowest of the black tally marks. His sister's voice drifted in from the other room, though the words weren't meant for him, and from the nineteen floors below he could hear the layered noise of voices, the rhythm of boots, the metallic snap of a gun being loaded, and the thousand other fragmented sounds that formed the music of the Flynn compound. He dragged his attention back to the book.
It began with a bang.
The words reminded him of a T. S. Eliot poem, "The Hollow Men." Not with a bang but a whimper. Of course, one was talking about the beginning of life and the other about the end, but it still got August thinking: about the universe, about time, about himself. The thoughts fell like dominoes inside his head, one knocking into the next into the next into the—
August's head flicked up an instant before the steel kitchen door slid open, and Henry came in. Henry Flynn, tall and slim, with a surgeon's hands. He was dressed in the task force's standard dark camo, a silver star pinned to his shirt, a star that had been his brother's once and before that his father's and before that his great-uncle's, and on, rolling back fifty years, before the collapse and the reconstruction and the founding of Verity, and probably even before, because a Flynn had always been at the beating heart of this city.
"Hi, Dad," said August, trying not to sound like he'd been waiting all night for this.
"August," said Henry, setting an HUV—high-density UV beacon—on the counter. "How's it going?"
August stopped rolling the apple, closed the book, forced himself to sit still, even though a still body was a busy mind—something to do with the potential and kinetic energy, if he had to guess; all he knew was that he was a body in search of motion.
"You okay?" asked Henry when he didn't answer.
August swallowed. He couldn't lie, so why was it so hard to tell the truth?
"I can't keep doing this," he said.
Henry eyed the book. "Astronomy?" he said asked with false lightness. "So take a break."
August looked his father in the eyes. Henry Flynn had kind eyes and a sad mouth, or sad eyes and a kind mouth; he could never keep them straight. Faces had so many features, infinitely divisible, and yet they all added up to single, identifiable expressions like pride, disgust, frustration, fatigue—he was losing his train of thought again. He fought to catch it before it rolled out of reach. "I'm not talking about the book."
"August . . . ," started Henry, because he already knew where this was going. "We're not having this discussion."
"But if you'd just—"
"The task force is off the table."
The steel door slid open again and Emily Flynn walked in with a box of supplies and set them on the counter. She was a fraction taller than her husband, her shoulders broader, with dark skin, a halo of short hair, and a holster on her hip. Emily had a soldier's gait, but she shared Henry's tired eyes and set jaw. "Not this again," she said.
"I'm surrounded by the FTF all the time," protested August. "Whenever I go anywhere, I dress like them. Is it such a step for me to be one of them?"
"Yes," said Henry.
"It isn't safe," added Emily as she started unpacking the food. "Is Ilsa in her room? I thought we could—"
But August wouldn't let it go. "Nowhere is safe," he cut in. "That's the whole point. Your people are out there risking their lives every day against those things, and I'm in here reading about stars, pretending like everything is fine."
Emily shook her head and drew a knife from a slot on the counter. She started chopping vegetables, creating order of chaos, one slice at a time. "The compound is safe, August. At least safer than the streets right now."
"Which is why I should be out there helping in the red."
"You do your part," said Henry. "That's—"
"What are you so afraid of?" snapped August.
Emily set the knife down with a click. "Do you even have to ask?"
"You think I'll get hurt?" And then, before she could answer, August was on his feet. In a single, fluid move he took up the knife and drove it down into his hand. Henry flinched, and Emily sucked in a breath, but the blade glanced off August's skin as if it were stone, the tip burying in the chopping block beneath. The kitchen went very quiet.
"You act as though I'm made of glass," he said, letting go of the knife. "But I'm not." He took her hands, the way he'd seen Henry do so many times. "Em," he said, softly. "Mom. I'm not fragile. I'm the opposite of fragile."
"You're not invincible, either," she said. "Not—"
"I'm not putting you out there," Henry cut in. "If Harker's men catch you—"
"You let Leo lead the entire task force," countered August. "His face is plastered everywhere, and he is still alive."
"That's different," said Henry and Emily at the same time.
"How?" he challenged.
Emily brought her hands to August's face, the way she did when he was a child—but that wasn't the right word. He'd never been a child, not really, children didn't come together fully formed in the middle of a crime scene. "We just want to protect you. Leo's been part of the campaign from day one. But that makes him a constant target. And the more ground we gain in this city, the more Harker's men will try to exploit our weaknesses and steal our strengths."
"And which am I?" asked August, pulling away. "Your weakness, or your strength?"
Emily's warm brown eyes went wide and flat as the word spilled out. "Both."
It was unfair to ask, but the truth still stung.
"Where is this coming from?" asked Henry, rubbing his eyes. "You don't really want to fight."
He was right, August didn't want to fight—not on the streets in the dead of night, and not here with his family—but there was this horrible vibration in his bones, something struggling to get out, a melody getting louder and louder in his head. "No," he said. "But I want to help."
"You already do," insisted Henry. "The task force can only treat the symptoms. You and Ilsa and Leo, you treat the disease. That's how it works."
But it's not working! August wanted to shout. The V-City truce had held for only six years—Harker on one side, and Flynn on the other—and it was already fraying. Everyone knew it wouldn't hold. Every night, more death crept across the Seam. There were too many monsters, and not enough good men.
"Please," he said. "I can do more if you let me."
"August . . . ," started Henry.
He held up his hand. "Just promise me you'll think about it." And with that he backed out of the kitchen before his parents were forced to tell him the truth.
August's room was an exercise in entropy and order, a kind of contained chaos. It was small and windowless, close in a way that would have been claustrophobic if it weren't so familiar. Books had long outgrown their shelves and were now stacked in precarious piles on and around his bed, several more open and splayed, pages down, across the sheets. Some people favored a genre or subject; August had little preference, so long as it wasn't fiction—he wanted to learn everything about the world as it was, had been, could be. As someone who had come quite suddenly into being, like the end of a magic trick, he feared the tenuous nature of his existence, feared that at any moment he might simply cease to be again.
The books were stacked by subject: astronomy, religion, history, philosophy.
He was homeschooled, which really meant he was self-schooled—sometimes Ilsa tried to help, when her mind worked in columns instead of knots, but his brother, Leo, had no patience for books, and Henry and Emily were too busy, so most of the time August was on his own. And most of the time it was okay. Or rather, it used to be okay. He wasn't sure when exactly the insulation had started to feel like isolation, just that it had.
The only other thing in his room besides furniture and books was a violin. It sat in an open case balanced across two stacks of books, and August drifted instinctively toward it, but resisted the urge to take it up and play. Instead he nudged a copy of Plato off his pillow and slumped down onto the tangled sheets.
The room was stuffy, and he pushed up the sleeves of his shirt, revealing the hundreds of black tallies that started at his left wrist and worked their way up, over elbow and shoulder, around collarbone and rib.
Tonight there were four hundred and twelve.
August pushed the dark hair out of his eyes and listened to Henry and Emily Flynn, still in the kitchen, as they talked on in their soft-spoken way, about him, and the city, and the truce.
What would happen if it actually broke? When. Leo always said when.
August hadn't been alive to see the territory wars that broke out in the wake of the Phenomenon, had only heard tales of the bloodshed. But he could see the fear in Flynn's eyes whenever the topic came up—which was more and more often. Leo didn't seem worried— he claimed that Henry had won the territory war, that whatever happened to cause the truce was their doing, that they could do it again.
"When it comes," Leo would say, "we will be ready."
"No," Flynn would answer, his expression bleak, "no one is ready for that."
Eventually, the voices in the other room faded, and August was left alone with his thoughts. He closed his eyes, seeking peace, but as soon as the silence settled it was broken, the distant stutter of gunfire echoing against his skull as it always did—the sound invading every quiet moment.
It began with a bang.
He rolled over and dug the music player out from under his pillow, pressing the buds into his ears and hitting play. Classical music flared, loud and bright and wonderful, and he sank back into the melody as numbers wandered through his head.
Twelve. Six. Four.
Twelve years since the Phenomenon, when violence started taking shape, and V-City fell apart.
Six years since the truce that put it back together, not as one city, but two.
And four since the day he woke up in a middle-school cafeteria as it was being cordoned off with crime-scene tape.
"Oh God," someone had said, taking him by the elbow. "Where did you come from?" And then, shouting to someone else, "I've found a boy!" She'd knelt down so she was looking into his face, and he could tell that she was trying to block his view of something. Something terrible. "What's your name, hon?"
August had looked up at her blankly.
"Must be in shock," said a man.
"Get him out of here," said another.
The woman took his hands. "Honey, I want you to close your eyes." That was when he saw past her. To the black sheets, lined up like tallies on the floor.
The first symphony ended in August's ears, and a moment later, the second started up. He could pick out every chord, every note; yet if he focused hard enough, he could still hear his father's murmur, his mother's pacing. Which is why he had no trouble hearing the triple beep of Henry's cell. No trouble hearing him answer it or catching the words when his voice dipped lower, threading with concern.
"When? You're sure? When was she enrolled? No, no, I'm glad you told me. Okay. Yes, I know. I'll handle it."
The call ended, and Henry went silent before speaking again, this time with Leo. August had heard everything but his brother's return. They were talking about him.
He sat up, yanking the buds from his ears.
"Give him what he wants," Leo was saying in his low, even way. "You treat him more like a pet than a son, when he's neither. We are soldiers, Flynn. We are holy fire. . . ." August rolled his eyes. He appreciated his brother's vote of confidence, but could do without the righteousness. "And you're smothering him."
That much he agreed with.
Emily joined in. "We're trying to—"
"To protect him?" chided Leo. "When the truce falls apart, this compound will not keep him safe."
"We're not sending him behind enemy lines."
"You've been given an opportunity. I simply suggest you use it. . . ."
"Is not that great, as long as he's careful. And the advantage—"
August was sick of being talked about as if he weren't there, as if he couldn't hear, so he shoved to his feet, upsetting a tower of books on his way past. He was too late—the conversation was over by the time he opened his door. Leo was gone, and his father was reaching out, as if about to knock.
"What's going on?" he asked.
Henry didn't try to hold back the truth. "You were right," he said. "You deserve the chance to help. And I think I've found a way."
August broke into a smile.
"Whatever it is," he said, "I'm in."
This was not what August had in mind.
The schoolbag sagged open on the bed, spilling supplies—and the uniform was way too tight. Emily claimed that was the style, but August felt like the clothes were trying to strangle him. The Flynn Task Force outfits were flexible, designed for combat, but the Colton Academy uniform was stiff, suffocating. His shirtsleeves came to rest just above his wrist bones, and the lowest of the black tallies on his forearm—now four hundred and eighteen—showed every time he crooked his elbow. August growled and tugged the fabric down again. He ran a comb through his hair, which didn't really stop the black curls from falling into his pale eyes, but at least he tried.
He straightened and found his gaze in the mirror, but his expression stared back with a vacancy that made him shudder. On Leo, the expressionless planes of his face registered as confidence. On Ilsa, the evenness read as serenity. But August just looked lost. He'd studied Henry and Emily and everyone else he came across, from the FTF cadets to the sinners, tried to memorize the way their features lit up with excitement, twisted with anger or guilt. He spent hours in front of the mirror, trying to master the nuances and re-create those faces, while Leo looked on with his flat black stare.
"You're wasting your time," his brother would say.
But Leo was wrong; those hours were going to pay off. August blinked—another natural act that felt unnatural, affected—managed a tiny, thoughtful crease between his brows, and recited the words he'd practiced.
"My name is—Freddie Gallagher." There was a slight hitch before the F, as the words scratched his throat. It wasn't a lie, not really—it was a borrowed name, just like August. He didn't have one of his own. Henry had chosen the name August and now August chose the name Freddie, and they both belonged to him, just as neither did. That's what he told himself, over and over and over until he believed it, because truth wasn't the same thing as fact. It was personal. He swallowed, tried the second line, the one meant only for him. "I am not a . . ."
But his throat closed up. The words got stuck.
I am not a monster, that's what he wanted to say, but he couldn't. He hadn't found a way to make it true.
"Don't you look handsome," came a voice from the door.
August's gaze traveled up a fraction in the mirror to see his sister, Ilsa, leaning in the doorway, wearing the barest hint of a smile. She was older than August, but she looked like a doll, her long, strawberry-blond hair pulled up in its usual messy nest, and her large blue eyes feverish, as if she hadn't slept (she rarely did).
"Handsome," she said, pushing off the door, "but not happy." Ilsa padded forward into the room, her bare feet moving effortlessly around the books, though she never looked down. "You should be happy, little brother. Isn't this what you wanted?"
Was it? August had always imagined himself in FTF fatigues, guarding the Seam and protecting South City. Like Leo. He heard the troops talk about his brother as if he were a god, keeping the darkness at bay with nothing but the piece of music in his head. Feared. Worshiped. August straightened his collar, which made his sleeves ride up again. He tugged them down as Ilsa snaked her arms around his shoulders. He stilled. Leo refused such contact, and August didn't know what to make of it— too often touching was a part of taking—but Ilsa had always been like this, tactile, and he reached up and touched her arm.
Where his skin was marked with short black lines, hers was covered in stars. A whole sky's worth, or so he thought. August had never seen more than a handful of real stars on nights when the grid went down. But he'd heard about places where the city lights didn't reach, where there were so many stars you could see by them, even on a moonless night.
"You're dreaming," said Ilsa in her singsong way. She rested her chin on top of his shoulder, and squinted. "What is that in your eyes?"
"That speck. Right there. Is it fear?"
He found her gaze in the mirror. "Maybe," he admitted. He hadn't set foot in a school, not since the day of his catalyst, and nerves rang like bells behind his ribs. But there was something else, too, a strange excitement at the idea of playing normal, and every time he tried to untangle how he felt, he just ended up in knots.
"They're setting you free," said Ilsa. She spun him around and leaned in until her face was barely an inch from his. Mint. She always smelled like mint. "Be happy, little brother." But then the joy fell out of her voice, and her blue eyes darkened, sliding from noon blue to twilight without a blink between. "And be careful."
August managed a ghost of a smile for her. "I'm always careful, Ilsa."
But she didn't seem to hear. She was shaking her head now, a slow, side-to-side motion that didn't stop when it should. Ilsa got tangled up so easily, sometimes for a few moments, sometimes a few days.
"It's okay," he said gently, trying to draw her back.
"The city is such a big place," she said, her voice tight as strings. "It's full of holes. Don't fall in."
Ilsa hadn't left the Flynn compound in six years. Not since the day of the truce. August didn't know the details, not all of them, but he knew his sister stayed inside, no matter what.
"I'll watch my step," he said.
Her fingers tightened on his arms. And then her eyes lightened and she was there again. "Of course you will," she said, all sunshine.
She kissed the top of his head, and he ducked out of her arms and went to his bed, where his violin case sat open, the beautiful instrument waiting inside. August wanted to play—the desire a hollow weight in his chest, like hunger—but he only let himself run his fingers over the wood before snapping the case shut.
He checked his watch as he moved through the dark apartment. 6:15. Even here, twenty stories up, at the top of the Flynn compound, the first morning light was still buried behind the sprawl of buildings to the east.
In the kitchen he found a black lunch bag with a note pinned to the front:
Have a great first day.
I hope you don't mind, I took a bite.
When August opened the bag, he saw that everything inside, from the sandwich to the candy bar, was already half-eaten. It was a sweet gesture, really. Emily hadn't just packed him a lunch. She'd packed an excuse. If anyone bothered to ask, he could say he'd already eaten.
Only a green apple sat, untouched, in the bottom of the bag.
The kitchen lights came on as he was shoving the lunch sack in his bag, and Henry wandered in, nursing a cup of coffee. He still looked tired. He always looked tired.
"August," he said with a yawn.
"Dad. You're up early."
Henry was practically nocturnal. He had a saying—the monsters hunt at night, and so must we—but lately his nights had gotten even longer. August tried to imagine what he must have been like, back before the Phenomenon—before violence gave way to the Corsai and the Malchai and the Sunai, before the anarchy, the closed borders, the infighting, the chaos. Before Henry lost his parents, his brothers, his first wife. Before he became the Flynn the city turned to, the only Flynn it had. The creator of the FTF, and the only man willing to stand up to a glorified criminal and fight.
August had seen photos, but the man in them had bright eyes and an easy smile. He looked like he belonged in a different world. A different life.
"Big day." Henry yawned again. "I wanted to see you off."
It was the truth, but not the whole truth. "You're worried," observed August.
"Of course I am." Henry clutched his coffee cup. "Do we need to go over the rules again?"
"No," answered August, but Henry kept talking anyway.
"You go straight to Colton. You come straight home. If the route falls through, you call. If security's too tight, you call. If there's any trouble—anything at all—even a bad feeling, August—"
Henry's brow creased, and August straightened. "It's going to be fine." They'd gone through the plan a hundred times in the last week, making sure everything was in order. He checked his watch. Again the tallies showed. Again he covered them. He didn't know why he bothered. "I better get going."
Henry nodded. "I know this isn't what you wanted, and I hope it proves unnecessary, but—"
August frowned. "Do you really think the truce will break?" He tried to picture V-City as it must have been, two halves at war along a bloody center. In North City, Harker. In South City, Flynn. Those wanting to pay for their safety against those willing to fight for it. Die for it.
Henry rubbed his eyes. "I hope it holds," he said, "for all our sakes." It was a deflection, but August let it go.
"Get some rest, Dad."
Henry smiled grimly and shook his head. "No rest for the wicked," he said, and August knew he wasn't referring to himself.
He headed for the elevators, but someone was already there, his shape silhouetted by the light of the open doors.
The voice was low and smooth, almost hypnotizing, and a second later the shadow shifted and stepped forward, resolving into a man with broad shoulders and a wiry form, all lean muscle and long bone. The FTF fatigues fit him perfectly, and beneath his rolled sleeves, small black crosses circled both forearms. Above a chiseled jaw, fair hair swept down into eyes as black as pitch. The only imperfection was a small scar running through his left eyebrow—a relic from his first years— but despite the mark, Leo Flynn looked more god than monster.
August felt himself standing taller, trying to mirror his brother's posture before he remembered that it was too rigid for a student. He slouched again, only this time too far, and then couldn't remember what normal looked like. All the while, Leo's black eyes hovered on him, unblinking. Even when he was flesh and blood, he didn't quite pass for human.
"The young Sunai, off to school." There was no uptick in his voice, no question.
"Let me guess," said August, managing a crooked grin, "you wanted to see me off as well? Tell me to have fun?"
Leo cocked his head. He'd never been very good at sarcasm—none of them were, really, but August had picked up scraps from the guys in the FTF.
"Your enjoyment is hardly my concern," said Leo. "But your focus is. Not even out the door, August, and you've already forgotten something."
He lobbed an object through the air and August caught it, cringing at the contact. It was a North City medallion, embossed with a V on one side and a series of numbers on the other. Made of iron, the medal prickled unpleasantly against his palm. Pure metal repelled monsters: Corsai and Malchai couldn't touch the stuff; Sunai simply didn't like to (all the FTF uniforms were traced with it, but his and Leo's had been woven with an alloy).
"Do I really have to wear this?" he asked. The prolonged contact was already making him nauseous.
"If you want to pass for one of them," said Leo simply. "If you want to get caught and slaughtered, then by all means, leave it off." August swallowed, and slid the pendant over his head. "It's a solid forgery," continued his brother. "It'll pass a cursory inspection by any human eye, but don't be caught north of the Seam after dark. I wouldn't test it against anything that actually comes to heel at Harker's side."
Of course, it wasn't the metal alone that kept the monsters at bay. It was Harker's sigil. His law.
August settled the medallion against his shirt, zipping up the FTF-issued jacket over it. But as he moved to step into the elevator, Leo barred his path. "Have you eaten recently?"
He swallowed, but the words were already rising in his throat. There was a difference between the inability to lie and the need to speak the truth, but silent omission was a luxury he didn't have when it came to his brother. When a Sunai asked a question, he commanded an answer. "I'm not hungry."
"August," chided Leo. "You're always hungry."
He flinched. "I'll eat later."
Leo didn't respond, only watched him, black eyes narrowed, and before he could say anything else—or make August say anything else—August pushed past him. Or at least, he tried to. He was halfway to the elevator when Leo's hand snapped out and closed over his. The one holding his violin case.
"Then you don't need this."
August went stiff. In four years, he'd never left the compound without the instrument. The thought made him dizzy.
"What if something happens?" he asked, panic climbing.
A ghost of amusement rippled through Leo's features. "Then you'll just have to get your hands dirty." With that, he pulled the case from August's grip and nudged him into the elevator. August stumbled, then turned back, his hands prickling with the sudden absence of the violin.
"Good-bye, brother," said Leo, punching the button for the lobby.
"Have fun at school," he added as the doors slid shut.
August shoved his hands into his pockets as the elevator plunged twenty floors. The compound was part skyscraper, part base of operations, all fortress. A concrete beast, steel, barbed wire, and Plexiglas, most of it dedicated to barracks housing members of the task force. The vast majority of the FTF's sixty thousand officers were housed in other barracks across the city, but the nearly a thousand stationed at the compound served as camouflage as much as anything. The fewer people coming in and out of the building, the more each one stood out. And if you were Harker, trying to ferret out Flynn's three Sunai, his secret weapons, you were keeping track of every face. It wasn't so much a problem for Leo, since he was the face of the FTF, or Ilsa, since she never left the compound, but Henry was determined to keep August's identity a secret.
On the ground floor, people were already streaming in and out of the building (with the night curfew as it was, days started early), and August moved with them, as if he were one of them, across the concrete lobby and through the guarded doors and onto the street. The morning washed over him, warm and bright and tarnished only by the disk of metal scratching against his skin and the absence of his violin.
Sunlight seeped between the buildings, and August took a deep breath and looked up at the Flynn compound looming overhead. Four years of hardly ever going out, and even then, almost always at night. Now here he was. Outside. Alone. Twenty-four million people in this supercity at last count, and he was only one of them, just another face in the morning commute. For one, dazzling, infinite moment, August felt like he was standing on a precipice, the end of one world and the beginning of another, a whisper and a bang.
And then his watch beeped, dragging him back from the edge, and he set off.