Raquel shrugged. “Gotta be there when I open the box, or else I’ll end up inhaling them all before you know it.”
“Exercise some self-control, would you?” I felt a rare smile creep across my face as we started back across the grounds. For the first time, I was able to walk past the gazebo without hoping that I’d see Lucas there waiting for me.
“Self-knowledge is better than self-control any day,” Raquel said firmly. “And I know myself well enough to know how I act around cookies.”
We got back to the great hall just as the first brown-wrapped packages and FedEx envelopes began making their way among the crowd. As she’d hinted, Raquel got a big box, and the two of us started up the stairs to her room to wolf the cookies down. But just as my foot hit the first step, a hand tugged at my elbow.
“Bianca?” Vic brushed his sandy bangs back from his face and smiled uncertainly. “Hey, can we talk for a sec?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
He shifted from foot to foot. “Um, like, alone?”
I hoped Vic wasn’t about to ask me out in some cracked attempt to get me on the rebound. “Well, okay.” With a shrug, I turned back to Raquel and said, “There had better be cookies left when I get there.”
“I’m not making any promises.” She jogged up the stairs without me, and I resolved to make this quick.
Vic guided me to the far end of the great hall, near the one window that wasn’t stained glass—the one broken by Lucas and also, so long ago, by a member of Black Cross. Instead of his ordinary casual slouch, Vic was tense and a little bit strange. I mean, stranger than usual. I asked him, “Hey, are you all right?”
“Me, I’m fine.” He looked around, decided we were definitely alone, and then grinned. “And you’re about to be a whole lot better, thanks to something I found in my care package.”
“What do you mean by…” My voice trailed off as Vic slipped something into the pocket of my blazer.
Mail call. Lucas would’ve known that they’d double-check any letters for me, but not letters to Vic. If Lucas wanted to reach me, this is how he’d do it.
I put one hand over that pocket, which now bulged with a thick, padded envelope. Vic nodded quickly. “So, right, that’s good, then. Glad we got that settled. See ya!”
As he loped away, I took a deep breath. My heart pounded inside my chest, but I walked calmly up the stairs until I reached my parents’ apartment. They weren’t home—probably Mom and Dad were downstairs grading papers and getting ready for finals. I went into my bedroom, shut the door, and, after a moment’s hesitation, pulled the shade down so that even the gargoyle wasn’t looking inside. Then, with trembling fingers, I unsealed the envelope.
Inside was a small white box. When I opened that, a cool dark shape tumbled into my waiting palm—my brooch. The black flowers gleamed in my hand again, as perfect and as beautiful as they had ever been.
He promised. Lucas promised he would get it back for me, and he did. He kept his word.
For a moment I couldn’t think about anything but the brooch. I wanted to pin it to my shirt that second, just where I’d always worn it before, but I couldn’t do that any longer. Too many people knew that I’d worn it as a gift from him, and if anybody realized that Lucas and I were still in contact, Mrs. Bethany and those loyal to her would use that to go after him. No, for Lucas’s own good, I had to hide it, keep it safe.
Maybe I would never have anything else of his, but I had this to remind me of the truth nobody else would ever understand. Lucas and I truly loved each other, and we always would.
Carefully I folded one of my winter scarves around the brooch and nestled it in the back of a dresser drawer. Then I very nearly tossed the envelope away to hide the evidence, but I realized that there was something else inside—a card. One of the expensive kinds that they sell in museums, on thick, shining white paper, with a work of art emblazoned on the front: Klimt’s Kiss. I glanced up to see the identical print hanging beside my bed—the same print he’d seen when we were in here, laughing and talking and making out, during those few brief months we had together.
Reverently I opened the card and read what was written.
Bianca, this has to be short. You need to destroy this card as soon as you’re done reading, because it would be dangerous for you if Mrs. Bethany discovered it. And I know you—if I write too much, you’ll hang on to this forever, no matter how dangerous it would be.
I had to smile. Lucas really did understand me.
I’m okay, and so are my mom and my friends, thanks to you. You were stronger than I could have been that day. I wouldn’t have had the courage to tell you good-bye.
And I’m not telling you good-bye now.
We’ll be together again, Bianca. I don’t know where or when or how, but I know it beyond any doubt. It couldn’t happen any other way.
I need you to believe that. Because I believe in you.
“I believe it, Lucas,” I whispered. We’d find each other once more, and all I had to do was endure until that day came. Someday Lucas and I would find a way to be together again.
I folded the card against my chest. I’d burn it in a few minutes—but not yet, not just yet.