“Leave it to Daxton to figure out a way to terrorize me at my own birthday party,” I grumbled. “How long do you think we’ll have before Knox comes looking for us?”

“Not long enough,” he said, and I sighed. It was never long enough.

The doors slid open, and together Benjy and I headed into the fourth floor wing. My suite was down the hall from Knox’s, and I would have given anything to drag Benjy inside and disappear for the rest of the night. But the party wasn’t the only thing happening tonight, and I wouldn’t have missed another Blackcoat meeting for anything. I was already behind enough—immediately after Augusta had died, Knox and the Blackcoats had seized the opportunity and sent me around to several cities across the country to rally supporters while Daxton was still too busy recovering to pay close attention. Denver, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles—I’d traveled for over a week, and by the time I’d returned, everything within the Blackcoats had shifted. Lila and her mother—Daxton’s sister, Celia—had gone underground to hide, leaving Knox in control. Even now, weeks later, I was still catching up on the plans they’d come up with while I’d been away. I couldn’t miss anything else.

The lights in Knox’s suite turned on automatically as we stepped into the sitting room. Even though my knees had stopped shaking by now, I let Benjy help me to the couch, eager for as much contact as we could get before Knox returned. It had been days since I’d been able to steal as much as a simple hug from Benjy, who, as a legitimate VI, had earned his place as Knox’s assistant. But with Knox constantly hovering over us, raising an eyebrow each time I so much as dared to smile at Benjy, it was next to impossible to find any time to just be with him. And that, above all else, was what I missed about my old life.

“I’m sorry I didn’t find you earlier,” I said, tucking my legs underneath me on the sofa. The navy leather was cool against my skin, and after spending hours in the sweltering ballroom, I welcomed it.

“Don’t be. It isn’t your fault.” Benjy sat beside me and draped his arm over my shoulder, and I wasted no time curling up against him. “I nearly punched Minister Bradley for the way he was looking at you, though.”

I grinned. “That would have made the whole thing infinitely more interesting.”

“Until I was sent Elsewhere,” he said. “Then it wouldn’t have been as funny.”

My smile vanished. I touched his cheek, turning his head until he was facing me. “You know I won’t let that happen, right? No one’s going to hurt you, not while I have something to say about it.”

“I’m not the one you should be worried about.” His gaze met mine, and he leaned in slowly until his breath was warm against my skin. “Promise me you won’t take any more chances, Kitty. What happened tonight—”

“I couldn’t help it,” I said. “I didn’t even know what was happening until it was over.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” he said softly. “I overheard what you said to Knox. You’re doing this for the right reasons, all right? I know it’s hard sometimes—”

“You have no idea.” My face grew hot, and frustration boiled inside me, threatening to burst the last ounce of self-control I had left. “Having to be someone else all the time—never getting to be me anymore, having my every move watched... I’m losing myself, Benjy. Sometimes I look in the mirror and forget this isn’t my real face. And sometimes—sometimes I feel like Kitty Doe died, and even if Knox lets me walk away from this tomorrow, I’ll never find her again.”

Heavy silence settled over us, and Benjy’s gaze bore into mine as he traced my lower lip. Lila’s lower lip. “She didn’t die,” he whispered. “I see her every time I look at you. You are vivacious, and no one—not even Lila Hart—will ever drown you out. I don’t care what you look like. The real you will never fade.”

He had no idea how badly I needed to hear that right now—or maybe he did, and that was exactly why he’d said it. I slowly gravitated toward him, my entire body aching to be as close to him as possible. But before I could kiss him, he shifted and slipped his hand into his suit pocket.

“I almost forgot—I made you a birthday present,” he said, and I sat back, disappointment washing over me.

“It isn’t my birthday,” I said. “It’s Lila’s.”

“Then consider this a belated birthday present. Or an early one. Whichever you’d like.” From his pocket he pulled a white cloth napkin, the sort that had been folded into peacocks around the buffet. He’d refolded it into a simple square, and I raised an eyebrow.

“It’s...lovely,” I said. “Thanks?”

He laughed, a deep, throaty sound I would never get tired of hearing. “Open it.”

I unfolded the napkin, and my eyes widened. On the inside was a simple ink drawing of a house on a lake. Sitting in a field beside the lake were two stick figures—one with long hair, and one with Benjy’s freckles. They cuddled together as the sun shone down on them, and a lump formed in my throat.

“I can’t make this better right now,” said Benjy, “but I can promise that it will be one day. We’ll have our cottage in the woods, or our cabin on the beach—whatever you want. I’ll go anywhere as long as you promise you’ll be there with me. I’m going to spend my life with you, Kitty, and I don’t care if the entire country tries to stop us. You’re my future. It’s always been you for me, and it always will be.”

Tags: Aimee Carter The Blackcoat Rebellion Science Fiction
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