Joel drove me to the classy hotel he and Seb had checked into earlier to throw Letuch off the scent. Seb and Muri stayed with the smugglers at the warehouse. They had informed us that it was better if the people who came to pick up the prisoners didn’t know that we were involved quite yet. I didn’t like the sound of that, and I was sure Joel didn’t either, but we didn’t waste time arguing.
Joel was quiet as ever as we loaded up, still not recovered from whatever it was that was still bothering him. It was the first time the two of us had been alone since our confrontation with Letuch, and I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to say to him now that I knew what he’d done.
The two of us settled into the hotel room to wait for Seb and Muri to return; me in the chair by the tiny desk next to the door, and Joel on the bed closest to me. He was lying flat on his back, hands folded over his stomach as his chest slowly dipped up and down with breathing patterns I recognized from the yoga classes he sometimes dragged me to.
“Are you okay?” I asked him.
“Fine.” His tone made it clear that would be the end of the conversation, but I kept talking anyway.
“I forgive you, just so you know.”
“There’s nothing to forgive.”
I squinted at him, confused by the comment. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I did what I did because I thought I was doing what was best for us.”
“You were going to give up Seb to that douchebag,” I pointed out.
“So what do I care?” he asked. Joel sat up, but didn’t look at me, just continued staring down at his hands. “He’s not my problem.”
“I’m not your problem either, apparently,” I muttered, regretting saying it as soon as it came out.
Joel was quiet for a minute after that. “He gave you to me,” he said suddenly.
My heart plummeted into my stomach. Joel never, under any circumstances, mentioned our father. The only things I knew about him were scant details given to me reluctantly by Marisol, a few crumbs of information to satisfy the abandoned child’s curiosity about their absent parents. “What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, the question coming out meaner than I intended.
“He came home from the hospital after you were born, told me to sit down in a chair and put you in my lap to hold. And he told me to watch you till my mom came home. And then he told me to take care of you. And then he left.”
“So what? What does that have to do with anything?”
“You’re my responsibility,” he said. “You’ve always been my responsibility. And I’m realizing just what a shit job I’ve done lately.”
“It’s not your fault that this happened,” I said gently. “I’m an adult, Joel. I can take care of myself.”
“No, you can’t!” he snapped, hands curling into fists around the sheets. His face was red as he looked up at me finally. “No thanks to Mom, no thanks to me…. I should have just….”
“I don’t blame you for us being in debt,” I replied in a quiet voice, hoping he would follow suit, calm down just a little. I’d seen what Joel’s temper could do, and I didn’t want to deal with him right now in that state.
“You should! I just dug us an even deeper hole. With med school, with the—” His mouth snapped shut before he could even get the first syllable out. After more than five years, he still couldn’t talk about it. Not that I blamed him for that. “You should be finishing up college,” he said in a milder tone. “Getting ready to move out. Hanging out with your friends, going on dates. Not playing housewife for me and using your part-time job to cover my loan payments.”
“And now this?” he continued. “Those men could have killed you. How was I supposed to go back to my residency, my normal life in Portland, knowing that you could die out here and that I could have done something to stop it?”
“I got myself into this,” I explained. “This has nothing to do with you.”
He shook his head and let out a mirthless laugh. “I wish that were true.”
Frowning, I got up from the chair and moved over to the bed to kneel down in front of him, taking his hands in mine. “If you want us to go back home, then that’s what we’ll do,” I said firmly. “I’d go with you even if you wanted to leave right now. Hell, we could steal Seb’s car if you want. But I think it’s best to stay with Seb for now, until we get this situation with Letuch taken care of for good. Just think about it, okay? I know you’ll make the right choice. You always do.”
The door opened before Joel had a chance to reply, and I hurriedly jumped off the bed to go meet Seb and Muri. I wasn’t expecting the former to be leaning on the latter for support as they stumbled in, Seb sporting one eye swollen shut and a busted nose. There was blood all down the front of his shirt, and he looked miserable.
“What the hell happened?”
Muri rolled her eyes. “One of those assholes we caught managed to get out of the zip ties and clocked Seb while we were helping with transport. Here, can you take him? I’ll go get some ice.”
Seb switched from leaning on Muri and groaning pitifully to leaning gingerly on me while continuing to make pathetic whining sounds, and I carefully walked him over to other bed so he could sit down.
“I didn’t know a broken nose rendered your legs completely useless,” I said evenly, trying to keep a smile from breaking out on my face. Joel laughed though, and Seb gave him a dirty look. Or tried to; his eyes were focused somewhere on the wall approximately four feet from where Joel was actually sitting.
“I can’t see,” he ground out.
“Yeah, that’s fairly obvious. Here, I’ll get you something to clean up with.” I quickly ducked into the bathroom and grabbed a washcloth, wetting it before returning to hand it over to Seb. He dabbed gently at his nose, wincing every time the fabric so much as brushed against the skin. He’d handled the near-disembowelment a lot better.
“I need a new shirt,” he mumbled as he handed me the used washcloth. “And a dry one of those.”
I examined the state of his clothing, and was forced to agree. “Joel, can you go get him another shirt from the car?” I asked. “This isn’t going to work.”
There was a sigh from behind me, and the creak of bedsprings as Joel got off the bed and went to the door. “Whatever his majesty wants,” Joel said sarcastically before slamming the door shut behind him.
Seb arched an eyebrow.
“Don’t worry about him,” I said, handing him a fresh washcloth to dry his face. “He’s just in a bad mood.”
“I wonder why,” Seb muttered, and once again I was reminded of the fight I shouldn’t have overheard. I was tempted to ask him about it, since we were alone, but I had questions that ranked higher on my list of priorities.
“Back in the warehouse,” I said, watching his face carefully. “You almost seemed unhappy that the man you were looking for just surrendered. Why?”
“Because it doesn’t happen,” Seb replied with a harsh twist to his mouth, like he was holding back some unpleasant emotion brought on by my inquiry. “People don’t just hand themselves over to my organization without a fight. Especially not people in his line of work. Besides which, he shouldn’t have even been there. Even his henchmen seemed surprised to see him.”
“And all of this worries you.”
“When you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, you know that an anomaly is never a good sign.” He fell silent then, leaning into me before stopping with his face just a hair’s breadth from mine. I stared quizzically at him as he looked back at me with an unsure expression, and then suddenly straightened up, pulling himself away from me.
When Muri walked through the door less than ten seconds later, I wondered if he’d somehow heard her coming. Then I wondered if it was a coincidence that he’d managed to get both Joel and Muri out of the room, and wondered what he’d been contemplating saying—or doing—while we’d been alone together for those brief moments.
Muri chucked a bag of ice chips at Seb and he hissed, nearly dropping the whole thing on the bedspread. “Easy, Muriel,” he said. “Jesus. Always knew you would have slaughtered in inter-department softball.”
“I don’t like organized sports,” she replied primly, leaning against the far wall and watching with a smirk as Seb made an attempt to ice his face, letting out myriad curses every time the ice so much as touched his skin.
Joel walked inside less than a minute later, chucking a wadded up ball of fabric at Seb’s head. I was impressed when he caught it deftly with his left hand, not even looking at the shirt as it hurtled toward him. Joel, unlike Muri, loved organized sports, and had been an excellent pitcher in college.
“I thought you couldn’t see,” I said.
“You don’t need to see to be able to catch,” he replied, like that should have been obvious to me.
“Sure.” I rolled my eyes despite knowing the gesture would be missed.
“It’s raining by the way,” Joel informed us as he sank back down onto the mattress, the springs creaking under his weight. “Hard.”
“Well, I can’t drive without my glasses and in the rain,” Seb protested.
“Like hell you can’t,” Muri retorted. “You might be able to skive off work every other day of the week, but I have to be at the inquiry tomorrow at noon.”
“Execution, more like,” Seb muttered under his breath, so quietly that I was certain I was the only one who’d heard.
“I need to get back to my bike,” she continued. “It should still be at Zida’s place.”
“Oh, my phone might still be there too,” I blurted out in realization.
Joel gave me a disapproving look, but refrained from commenting on the fact that I’d lost yet another phone. "I'll drive, then," Joel volunteered.
“Shotgun,” Muri said without so much as a second’s hesitation, smiling slightly when Seb scowled at her.
“All right,” he grumbled, “just let me change and then we’ll go.”
“I’ll go pull the car around,” Joel added hastily. Muri said nothing but followed him, leaving me to stand there awkwardly trying not to look at Seb as he peeled off his shirt and put on the fresh one.
“Ready?” he asked, holding out a heavily tattooed hand for me to take. I did so without question and he used me to pull himself up off of the bed. Tucking his soiled t-shirt under his arm, Seb led the both of us out of the room and into, as Joel had promised, a downpour.
I could barely see through the thick sheets of rain assaulting our unprotected heads, but as soon as we left the room, I could see Seb’s expression quickly degrade into something pained, and I hurried past him, hoping to get to the car as quickly as possible.
“Peaches, wait,” Seb called out, making an aborted grab for my wrist.
I glanced over at the others, who were already halfway across the parking lot. “What’s wrong?”
He smiled weakly. “Still can’t see, remember?”
“Oh, right, sorry.” I waited until he was even with me once more and took his right arm, hoping Joel wasn’t looking. Even still his steps were hesitant, reluctant, like he would do anything to avoid getting in the car.
“Seb,” I said hesitantly, slowing down a little to look over at him without one or both of us tripping over our own feet, “are you actually okay? And I don’t mean your nose. You seem off.”
He stopped short. In the distance I could see Muri getting into the car and Joel standing next to it, clearly wondering what the hell was taking us so long.
“That obvious, huh?” Eyes squeezing shut for a brief moment, hands clenching till the skin became stark white, Seb sighed, letting the forced smile drop off his face. “I hate this case so much,” he confessed in a low voice. “I hate that I don’t know what’s happening. That I don’t know why this is happening. My gut feeling says this wasn’t an isolated incident, like everyone wants to assume, but I don’t have any way to prove that. Something’s wrong here and I don’t know how to stop it. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to stop. I hate to admit it, but I’m scared, Peaches.”
I didn’t know what I could say to comfort him. So I settled for an arm around his shoulders, my face buried in his neck, and hoped to god that things wouldn’t get any worse than this.
“Come on,” he said, pushing me off before it could even count as a real hug. “Your brother’s going to think something’s up if we don’t head over there.”
“He’s going to think something’s up regardless,” I replied. “Joel’s always suspicious.”
Even so, Joel said nothing when we finally made it over to the car, just gave us a disapproving look before ducking his head and climbing into the driver’s seat. The engine was already on, and I had barely enough time to pull on my seatbelt before Joel was zipping out of the parking lot, quite a bit faster than he normally would have. I wasn’t sure if he was doing so because of nerves, or residual anger, or out of the desire to impress someone. Muri was in the front seat with him after all.
“Muri can tell you how to get to Zida’s,” Seb told Joel, leaning forward to speak almost directly into his ear. “We’ve got a bit of a drive after that, so we should stop and get gas after she gets her bike and Peaches gets her phone.”
“Where are we headed?” I asked, and Seb’s expression quickly morphed into a grin.
His smile was infectious, and I found myself letting one of my own show on my face as I glanced out the window, watching car headlights pass as nothing more than bright orbs barely visible through the rain, occasionally punctuated by the green or red of a stoplight in the distance.
I’d never been to Vegas, and under different circumstances, I might have actually been excited. As it was, I quickly felt the smile on my face disintegrating, the atmosphere of unease too powerful to stave off for very long. I could only hope that Seb was wrong, that things would go back to normal—as normal as things could be knowing what I knew now—that we would be better off there than we had been here.
With one hand I still held Seb’s fingers loosely, letting him trace circles on the back of my hand; in the other I held Lila’s pendant, the rough metal-work digging into the flesh of my palm. With the cold metal biting into my skin, I looked around at Seb and Joel and Muri, seeing nothing but secrets behind perfectly composed expressions.
Even if we found normalcy at our next destination, how long could we really keep lying to each other?