His face has haunted my dreams ever since I woke up in this place. It’s a nice face, the jawline clearly defined in strong angles under more than a day’s growth of stubble. He has the fair skin of most people who spend their time below, those who aren’t dark like Ryanne and Gemma. I wonder at that. I know he’s spent time topside since that’s where I first encountered him, but the radiation leaking through the ash cloud doesn’t seem to have affected him.
As he enters the room, I jerk upright. The tray on my lap teeters precariously. Hudson grabs it. I start to set the pills on the tray as he pulls it away, but he gives me a sharp look. Rolling my eyes, I toss them into my mouth and wash them down quickly.
Mardy stands, knocking half her mosaic to the floor, ruining the picture. “Oh! Hi!” Her face is so bright it practically glows.
“Hi.” When he smiles, his eyes are reduced to slits inside the horde of lashes, hiding the intense blue of his pupils. “Sorry to interrupt. Can I come in?” He looks at me expectantly, and I nod.
Hudson coughs to cover an escaped laugh, and I wish I was strong enough to kick him. He ducks out of the room with my half-finished tray.
“I’m Jate,” the newcomer says. His voice is mellow, a soothing baritone. “I brought you here the other day.”
“I know.” It takes me two tries to get the words out. My voice doesn’t want to work.
“My sister’s name is Caelin.” Mardy gives me a look as though reprimanding me for my lack of manners.
“And you’re Mardy, right?”
She beams. “You found out my name!”
“Ryanne told me. What are you making?” Jate steps a little closer and examines Mardy’s mosaic.
She starts to put some of the pieces back into place with a finger. “It’s a face.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Well, maybe I can figure it out when you’re finished.” He holds out a round object to me on the palm of his hand. “I brought you something.” It appears to be some kind of fruit or vegetable. It’s a reddish color mixed with yellow, a little shriveled.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It’s an apple. I think it’s the first tree fruit they’ve been able to produce since the explosion. I want you to have it.”
I take it from him gingerly, turning it over in my good hand and examining it. I remember apples. This doesn’t resemble it much. “Is it safe to eat?”
He laughs, a throaty, robust sound. “With the buffers they keep over the fields, it should be. It’ll probably go bad and start to smell if you keep it too long.”
I don’t want to ask where he got the fruit. I still haven’t decided how I feel about the Duponts taking food from Coalition fields.
“So, how are you doing? Is Doc treating you well?”
I shift a little, sitting up straighter in my bed. “I’m doing okay.”
“Hudson has to threaten to get her to take the medicine,” Mardy supplies all too helpfully. I glare at her.
“Well, you obey Hudson and Doc, and you’ll be back home in no time.”
I frown. Unlike Lucio, Jate seems to expect that I’ll leave as soon as I’m well enough.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” I say.
“It was either that or watching you die on the street. I don’t enjoy watching people die.”
I pick at a loose string on the blanket, focusing hard on it until I can work up the courage to ask, “Why were you following me?”
Mardy looks at me, then back at Jate. “You were following her?”
Jate seems taken aback by the question. He shifts his feet, rubbing a hand on the side of his jeans. “I wasn’t following you exactly. You just ... you caught Lucio’s attention. He wanted me to keep an eye on you.”
“You were with Lucio, that PM at the apartment.” The revelation leaves me gaping at him. Jate must have been the shadow in the background. “Did you see everything that happened?”
He moves his hand to the back of his neck, disturbing the dark curls that fall almost to his shoulders. “Three scavs attacked you, but you didn’t just roll over and take it. You fought back. You didn’t give up.”
I see Mardy’s eyes bulging, her body tensing with fear for me. I hasten to tell her, “They just wanted my stash, then they ran off.”
“They left you alive because they thought you were dangerous enough to hurt them,” Jate says. “You weren’t worth the risk. Nobody can afford doctors anymore.”
Nobody but Lucio, apparently. “But you followed me again the next day,” I stubbornly accuse him.
“Lucio wanted me to bring you in, but you were with that shady character. I thought maybe you’d need some backup. I was right.”
Mardy’s expression has turned dark with anger. “Torres tricked us,” she snaps. “He and that other man just wanted Caelin to do all the work. Then they stabbed her.”
I swallow hard, picking at the thread again. “Thanks for keeping those scavs from finding me.”
“You ran off before I could help you. By the time I found you again, you’d walked halfway across the city.”
Hearing it all from his perspective makes me realize just how stupid I was to trust Torres. I’m a scav. I should’ve known better than to rely on a stranger like that, whether he rescued my jacket from the toilet or not.
“Don’t feel bad,” Jate says. He seems to guess my thoughts, and I wonder that my expression is so transparent. “He promised you something you needed, right? That’s usually the way it works.”
I can’t keep the bitterness from my voice. “Well, people don’t give things out for free. There’s always a price, always a catch one way or another.”
I watch him carefully to see how he’ll react to this. Will he be like Lucio, insisting that our stay here will cost us nothing? Or will he tell me the truth?
He studies me for several long moments until I squirm. I didn’t comb my hair today. I’m probably a mess.
His voice is quiet when he finally replies, “Everybody needs something. It’s to our mutual advantage to trade.” He turns toward the door, breaking the intensity of his gaze. “I’ll let you work on your art project. I need to make a report to Lucio.”
“You mean, you only just got back?” Mardy seems reluctant to let him go.
There’s a twinkle in his eye as he looks over his shoulder at me, and I notice a dimple in one cheek I hadn’t seen before. “I thought I’d better deliver that apple before it shrivels up and blows away.”
“Thank you,” I stammer. “For the apple, I mean.” I bite my lower lip. “And for bringing me here. For saving my life.”
He raises one slender dark eyebrow at me. “Don’t thank me quite yet, not until you know how it all pans out.”
His words send questions flying through my brain. With a quick wave, he leaves the room before I can voice any of them.
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