Forty-one

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As soon as the bedside clock flickers to seven, I take a deep breath and head down to the bar, my eyes immediately finding Reece sitting on a bar stool looking handsome in his suit.

Slowly, as if he can feel my presence, he turns on his stool and meets my gaze, his eyes softening as they take in my dress–not scrutinizing, or hungry, like the kind of gaze I am used to meeting, but an expression that fills me with excitement.

He stands when I approach him, slowly walking toward me before clearing his throat. "Hey," he says, his voice deeper than usual. "You look–" he stops, the corner of his mouth twitching in a manner that lets me know this is hard for him. "You look beautiful."

"Thank you," I smile.

He flashes one back, taking my arm in his before leading me through to the restaurant. A waiter proceeds to guide us toward to a table by the window, one that looks out onto the now lit-up pool area. He pours us a drink I have never seen before, a dark red liquid that reminds me of Muriel Two's blood as it sloshes into my glass.

"What is all of this?" I ask once the waiter has gone, cradling my glass before taking a sip. The liquid is bitter and burns my throat on the way down, but I take another gulp anyway, eager to taste and experience as many new things as possible.

Reece takes a sip of his own glass before answering, his eyebrows drawn together in a way that makes him look conflicted. "Once we start heading back toward Marine World, things are going to get chaotic again. I figured you should get to have a few normal moments before it does." He stops to give me a boyish grin. "If anyone asks, though, you're twenty-one."

I simply stare at him for a moment, surprised by his thoughtfulness, but also afraid by it. This–the dress, the meal–it's because he's afraid for tomorrow. Afraid things might go wrong and this will be the last chance I get to experience freedom.

The very thought scares me to death. Am I ready to give up everything I've attained since my escape? The ability to choose when and what I can eat, or to blend into the background? Small things I didn't even know I'd been missing back in Marine World, but now I can't ever imagine living without them.

"Where do you think your dad is now?" I ask, slowly looking up from my glass. Reece hasn't mentioned him since we left him at the parking lot, but I know it must still be weighing on his mind.

"I don't know," he says after a while. "Just before we left him, I told him he should run."

"Do you think he did?" I ask.

Reece looks down at his napkin and smiles. "No, I don't. My dad used to be a soldier. The word 'running' isn't in his vocabulary."

"He's on their side," I say in attempt to reassure him. "I doubt they'll do anything to hurt him."

It must have been the wrong thing to say, because something heavy clouds Reece's features. "Maybe." He looks up now, his blue eyes missing their usual spark. "I know it won't seem like it to you, but he's not a bad guy."

I'm reminded of the fear I'd seen in Jason's eyes, of the way he'd been so desperate to protect his son from the very people he is loyal to. Maybe I'm not quite human enough to know what drives us, or why we behave the way we do, but I know from what I've seen so far that nothing is as straightforward as it seems.

"Maybe there are no bad guys," I say at last. "Just bad choices."

Reece tilts his head to the side, studying me in that same way I've caught him doing so many times before. It makes me feel anxious, yet confident, like as long as Reece is looking me like this, I can achieve anything–everything–I want.

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