Nazeera laughs, softly.
She carries the stack of pillows and blankets over to the row of airplane seats and begins reclining the backs. I watch her as she works. There’s something so smooth and refined about her movements—something intelligent in her eyes at all times. It makes me wonder what she’s thinking, what she’s planning. Why she’s here at all.
Suddenly, she sighs. She’s not looking at me when she says, “Do you remember me yet?”
I raise my eyebrows, surprised. “Of course,” I say quietly.
She nods. She says, “I’ve been waiting awhile for you to catch up,” and sits down, inviting me to join her by patting the seat next to her.
Wordlessly, she hands me a couple of blankets and pillows. And then, when we’re both settled in and I’m staring, suspiciously, at the vacuum-sealed package of “food” she threw at me, I say—
“So you remember me, too?”
Nazeera tears open her vacuum-sealed package. Peers inside to study the contents. “Emmaline guided me to you,” she says quietly. “The memories. The messages. It was her.”
“I know,” I say. “She’s trying to unify us. She wants us to band together.”
Nazeera shakes out the contents of the bag into her hand, picks through the bits of freeze-dried fruit. She glances at me. “You were five when you disappeared,” she says. “Emmaline was six. I’m six months older than you, and six months younger than Emmaline.”
I nod. “The three of us used to be best friends.”
Nazeera looks away, looks sad. “I really loved Emmaline,” she says. “We were inseparable. We did everything together.” She shrugs, even as a flash of pain crosses her face. “That was all we got. Whatever we might’ve been was stolen from us.”
She picks out two pieces of fruit and pops them into her mouth. I watch as she chews, thoughtfully, and wait for more.
But the seconds pass and she says nothing, and I figure I should fill the silence. “So,” I say. “We’re not actually getting any sleep, are we?”
That gets her to smile. Still, she doesn’t look at me.
Finally, she says, “I know you and Warner got the absolute worst of it, I do. But if it makes you feel any better, they wiped all of our memories, in the beginning.”
“I know. Emmaline told me.”
“They didn’t want us to remember you,” she says. “They didn’t want us to remember a lot of things. Did Emmaline tell you she’s reached out to all of us? You, me, Warner, my brother—all the kids.”
“She told me a little bit, yeah. Have you talked to any of the others about it?”
Nazeera nods. Pops another piece of fruit in her mouth.
She tilts her head. “We’ll see.”
My eyes widen. “What does that mean?”
“I’ll know more when we land, that’s all.”
“So— How did you even know?” I say, frowning a little. “If you’d only ever had memories of me and Emmaline as children—how did you tie it all back to the present? How did you know that I was the Ella from our childhood?”
“You know— I wasn’t a hundred percent positive I was right about everything until I saw you at dinner that first night on base.”
“You recognized me?” I say. “From when I was five?”
“No,” she says, and nods at my right hand. “From the scar on the back of your wrist.”
“This?” I say, lifting my hand. And then I frown, remembering that Evie repaired my skin. I used to have faded scars all over my body; the ones on my hands were the worst. My adoptive mom put my hands in the fire, once. And I hurt myself a lot while I was locked up; lots of burns, lots of poorly healed wounds. I shake my head at Nazeera when I say, “I used to have scars on my hand from my time in the asylum. Evie got rid of them.”
Nazeera takes my hand, flips it over so my palm is up, open. Carefully, she traces a line from my wrist to my forearm. “Do you remember the one that was here?”
“Yes.” I raise my eyebrows.
“My dad has a really extensive sword collection,” she says, dropping my hand. “Really gorgeous blades—gilded, handmade, ancient, ornate stuff. Anyway,” she says, tapping the invisible scar on my wrist. “I did that to you. I broke into my dad’s sword room and thought it’d be fun for us to practice a little hand-to-hand combat. But I sliced you up pretty bad, and my mom just about beat the crap out of me.” She laughs. “I will never forget that.”
I frown at her, at where my scar used to be. “Didn’t you say that we were friends when we were five?”
“We were five and we thought it would be fun to play with real swords?”
She laughs. Looks confused. “I never said we had a normal childhood. Our lives were so messed up,” she says, and laughs again. “I never trusted my parents. I always knew they were knee-deep in some dark shit; I always tried to learn more. I’d been trying, for years, to hack into Baba’s electronic files,” she says. “And for a long time, I only ever accessed basic information. I learned about the asylums. The Unnaturals.”
“That’s why you hid your abilities from them,” I say, finally understanding.
She nods. “But I wanted to know more. I knew I was only scratching the surface of something big. But the levels of security built into my dad’s account are unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was able to get through the first few levels of security, which is how I learned of yours and Emmaline’s existence, a few years back. Baba had tons of records, reports on your daily habits and activities, a log with the time and date of every memory they stole from you—and they were all from recent years and months.”
Nazeera shoots me a sympathetic look. “There were brief mentions of a sister in your files,” she says, “but nothing substantial; mostly just a note that you were both powerful, and had been donated to the cause by your parents. But I couldn’t find anything on the unknown sister, which made me think that her files were more protected. I spent the last couple of years trying to break into the deeper levels of Baba’s account and never had any success. So I let it go for a while.”
She pops another piece of dried fruit in her mouth.
“It wasn’t until my dad started losing his mind after you almost killed Anderson that I started getting suspicious. That was when I began to wonder if the Juliette Ferrars he kept screaming about wasn’t someone important.” She studies me out of the corner of her eye. “I knew you couldn’t have been some random Unnatural. I just knew it. Baba went ballistic. So I started hacking again.”
“Wow,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says, nodding. “Right? Anyway, all I’m trying to say is that I’ve been trying to sniff out the bullshit in this situation for a few years, and now, with Emmaline in my head, I’m finally getting close to figuring it all out.”
I glance up at her.
“The only thing I still don’t know is why Emmaline is locked up. I don’t know what they’re doing with her. And I don’t understand why it’s such a secret.”
“I do,” I say.
Her head snaps up. She looks at me, wide-eyed. “Way to bury the lede, Ella.”
I laugh, but the sound is sad.
As soon as we take our seats, Kenji turns on me. “You want to tell me what the hell is going on?” he says.
Kenji rolls his eyes. He rips open his little snack bag and doesn’t even inspect the contents before he tips the bag directly into his mouth. He closes his eyes as he chews. Makes little satisfied noises.
I manage to fight the impulse to cringe, but I can’t stop myself from saying—
“You eat like a caveman.”
“No, I don’t,” he says angrily. And then, a moment later: “Do I?”
I hesitate, feeling his sudden wave of embarrassment. Of all the emotions I hate experiencing, secondhand embarrassment might be the worst. It hits me right in the gut. Makes me want to turn my skin inside out.
And it’s by far the easiest way to make me capitulate.
“No,” I say heavily. “You don’t eat like a caveman. That was unfair.”
Kenji glances at me. There’s too much hope in his eyes.
“I’ve just never seen anyone eat food with as much enthusiasm as you do.”
Kenji raises an eyebrow. “I’m not enthusiastic. I’m hungry.”
Carefully, I tear open my own package. Shake out a few bits of the fruit into my open hand.
They look like desiccated worms.
I return the fruit to the bag, dust off my hands, and offer my portion to Kenji.
“You sure?” he says, even as he takes it from me.
He thanks me.
We both say nothing for a while.
“So,” Kenji says finally, still chewing. “You were going to propose to her. Wow.”
I exhale a long, heavy breath. “How you could have even known something like that?”
“Because I’m not deaf.”
I raise my eyebrows.