“Try it for five months, then tell me how you feel. ”
“Is this … is this really how you spend your time?”
“You think I like skulking around? My father banned me, Aria. You think you were the only one he sold out after that night?” He made a snorting sound, like he regretted his last words. “Anyway … whatever. ” He sighed. “Check it out. Jupiter and Rune are, like, mega into each other. Saw that coming. Jup’s a good man. Decent pilot, too. We used to have fun racing D-Wings before … you know. Before. And Pixie, she and I were … I don’t know. I don’t know what we were. But Caleb, Aria. What do you see in him?”
She saw a thousand things. A thousand memories. Caleb used words like audacious and lethargic to describe colors. He loved sushi because it was beautiful. When he laughed, he covered his mouth. When he yawned, he didn’t. He was the first boy she’d ever kissed, and it’d been a disaster—nothing like the breathless thrill of kissing Perry. They’d been on a Ferris wheel in a carnival Realm. Caleb’s eyes had been open, which she hadn’t liked. She’d kissed his bottom lip, which he’d found odd. But the main problem, they’d decided, was that the kiss had lacked meaning. Or gravitas, as Caleb had called it.
Now when she looked at him, all she saw was meaning. All she felt was sadness. For him. For how they’d been. Things would never be the same.
Aria’s attention moved to his drawing, curious to see what absorbed him. The sketch was a side view of a skeletal figure in a tight crouch, knees and arms bent, head down. It reached to the very edge of the page, so the figure looked trapped in a box. The drawing was somber, menacing, and nothing like his usual loose sketches.
Suddenly, silence closed over the Realm. Aria looked up. The trees were still. No sounds drifted up from the river. The Realm was as motionless as the painting it’d been modeled after, except for the anxious, subtle shifting of the people. Caleb’s gaze lifted from his sketchbook. Pixie squinted at the sky and then at the river like she couldn’t believe her eyes. Rune and Jupiter drew apart and looked at each other with confusion.
“Soren—” Aria began.
“It usually comes right back. ”
He was right. A second later, the sound of birdsong returned, and a breeze stirred the leaves above her. Out on the lake, sailboats resumed their progress over the water.
The Realm had unlocked, but it hadn’t returned to normal. Caleb snapped his sketchbook shut, sticking his pencil over his ear. A man nearby cleared his throat and adjusted his tie, resuming his walk along the path. Slowly, conversations around them picked up again, but they seemed forced, a little too enthusiastic.
Aria had never dreamed until she’d been cast out of Reverie. Now she saw how similar the Realms were. A good dream was something you clung to until the last moment before waking. Caleb was clinging. They all were. Everything about this place was good, and they didn’t want to see any hint of it ending.
“Soren, can we get out of here? I don’t want to watch this any—”
They fractioned back to the opera hall before she’d finished speaking. Aria looked down, relieved to see herself.
Soren stood with her onstage. He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “What do you t
hink of your old life? Different, right?”
“That’s putting it lightly. The glitch just now—how often is that happening?”
“A few times a day. I looked into it. Power surges. One of the domes that houses a generator was compromised this winter, so things are … glitchy. ”
A wave of numbness rolled through her. It was the same thing that had happened to Bliss, the Pod where her mother had died. “Can’t they fix it?”
“They’re trying. It’s what they’ve always done. But with Aether storms getting worse, they can’t patch the damage fast enough. ”
“That’s why your father is pressuring me for the Still Blue. ”
“He’s desperate—and he should be. We have to get out of here. It’s just a matter of time. ” He smiled darkly. “That’s where you come in. You wanted to see them, and I told you what’s happening in Reverie. Now you have to help me when I come out there. ”
She studied him. “You’re really ready to leave everything?”
“What everything, Aria?” He glared at the audience seats. “You want to know what I’m leaving? A father who ignores me. Who doesn’t even trust me. Friends I can’t see, and a Pod that’s an Aether storm away from ruin. You think I’m going to miss any of that? I’m already on the outside. ” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, exhaling slowly. Calming himself. “Do we have a deal or not?”
He was a long way from the cocky, controlling Soren she remembered. That night in Ag 6 had transformed both of them. “Things aren’t any easier out here. ”
“Does that mean yes?”
She nodded. “But only if you look after someone until you come out here. ”
He froze. “Caleb? Done. Even though he’s a worthless piece of—”
“I wasn’t talking about Caleb. ”
Soren blinked at her. “You mean the Savage’s nephew? The Outsider who broke my jaw?”