The Thousandth Floor (The Thousandth Floor #1)(13)


by Katharine McGee

AVERY

“ZAY’S TALKING TO Daniela Leon.” Leda’s eyes narrowed at the other girl, who stood below them wearing some kind of black flouncy dress. Daniela tipped her head back and rested a hand lightly on Zay’s forearm, laughing uproariously at whatever he’d just said.

Avery followed Leda’s gaze, though she didn’t particularly care who Zay talked to. “It’s fine.”

“What’s she supposed to be, anyway, in that weird dress? A matador?” Leda snapped, turning to Avery.

“I think it’s a French maid costume?” Avery volunteered, trying to keep from laughing as she reached for her drink, which floated on a hovercoaster near her elbow.

But Leda wasn’t listening. She’d turned her attention inward and was muttering to herself, probably planning revenge on Daniela. That was typical Leda, though; when she thought Avery had been slighted, her reaction was swift and uncompromising. It was just her brand of friendship, and Avery accepted it, because she knew what love and fierce loyalty were behind it. I hope I never piss you off, she always joked, and Leda would just laugh and roll her eyes as if the very idea was ludicrous.

The two friends were standing on Cord’s second-floor landing, right at the top of the stairs. Avery’s eyes scanned the crowded room below. It had been overwhelming down there earlier, with guy after guy telling her how amazing she looked tonight. She leaned forward on the railing and the halo above her head followed, its tiny microhovers programmed to track her movements.

Everyone was here. There was Kemball Brown, wearing intricate Viking armor that looked fantastic against his dark, muscled shoulders. Laura Saunders, the light catching all the sequins of her low-cut pirate bodice. And in a liftie uniform was Leda’s older brother, Jamie, covered in a tangle of facial hair.

“What’s up with Jamie’s beard?” Avery asked Leda, amused.

“I know,” Leda agreed as her eyes returned to regular focus. “When I first saw it the other day, I was grossed out too.”

“The other day?” Avery repeated, confused. “Wasn’t Jamie with you all summer?”

Leda wavered for a moment, so quick that Avery might have imagined it. “He was, of course. I meant when I saw the whole thing together, with the uniform. You know it’s a real one—he bought it off an actual liftie.”

Leda’s words were normal enough. Avery had to be imagining the weirdness in her voice, right? “I need a refill,” she decided, sending her drink back toward the bar. “Want one?”

“I’m okay,” Leda protested. Her glass was still mostly full. Come to think of it, Avery realized, Leda hadn’t been drinking much at all tonight. “Looks like you need to catch up,” she teased.

There was that hesitation again. The sounds drifting up from below seemed suddenly amplified. “Guess I’m not back in party shape yet,” Leda answered, but her laughter was hollow.

Avery watched her best friend, the way she shifted back and forth, studying the tiny bows on her black heels. She was lying about something.

The realization made Avery’s chest hurt a little. She’d thought she and Leda told each other everything. “You can talk to me, you know.”

“I know,” Leda said quickly, though she didn’t sound like she believed it.

“Where were you this summer, really?” Avery pressed.

“Just let it go, okay?”

“I promise I won’t—”

Leda’s mouth formed a hard line, and her next words came out cold and formal. “Seriously. I said let it go.”

Avery recoiled, a little stung. “I just don’t understand why you won’t talk to me.”

“Yeah, well, sometimes it’s not about you, Avery.”

Avery started to reply just as a commotion sounded from downstairs, voices rising up in greeting. She glanced down in curiosity—and saw the figure at the center of all the turmoil.

Everything came to a halt, the room suddenly devoid of air. Avery struggled to think. Next to her she felt Leda stiffen in surprise, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away long enough to look at her friend.

He was back.

“Atlas,” she whispered, though of course he couldn’t hear.

She ran blindly down the stairs, the crowds parting to let her pass, hundreds of eyes on her, probably taking snaps and loading them straight to the feeds. None of it mattered. Atlas was home.

The next thing she knew, Avery was in his arms, burrowing her face in his shoulder, inhaling his familiar scent for a single precious moment before the rules of normal behavior forced her away.

“You’re back,” she said stupidly, her eyes drinking in every inch of him. He was wearing rumpled khakis and a navy sweater. He looked a little stronger than she remembered, and his light brown hair was longer, curling around his ears like it used to when he was little. But everything else was the same: his chocolate eyes framed by thick lashes, almost too thick to be masculine; the sprinkling of freckles across his nose; the way one of his bottom teeth was slightly turned, a reminder that he wasn’t perfect. That was one of the things she’d loved about Atlas when her parents brought him home twelve years ago—the fact that he had actual, visible flaws.

“I’m back,” he repeated. There was a shadow of rough stubble along his jaw. Avery’s hands itched to reach out and touch it. “How’s it going?”

“Where were you?” She winced at the sound of her own voice and lowered her tone. No one but Leda knew that Atlas hadn’t told his family where he was this whole time.

“All over the place.”

“Oh,” was all she could think to say. It was hard to form coherent thoughts with Atlas so close. She wanted to run back into his arms and hold him so tight he could never leave again; to run her hands over his shoulders and assure herself he was really here, really real. She’d made so much progress this summer, and yet here she was, fighting the familiar need to reach out and touch him.

“Well, I’m glad you’re home,” she managed.

“You’d better be.” His face broke out into a broad, easy smile, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to show up at a party unannounced after being gone for ten months.

“Atlas …” She hesitated, unsure what she wanted to say. She’d been so worried. For his safety, sure, but even worse had been the worry at the back of her mind—the terrible, persistent fear that he might never come back.