Read the first 15 chapters of IGNITE ME, the final book in the New York Times bestselling Shatter Me series.
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I am an hourglass.
My seventeen years have collapsed and buried me from the inside out. My legs feel full of sand and stapled together, my mind overf lowing with grains of indecision, choices unmade and impatient as time runs out of my body. The small hand of a clock taps me at one and two, three and four, whispering hello, get up, stand up, it’s time to
“Wake up,” he whispers.
A sharp intake of breath and I’m awake but not up, surprised but not scared, somehow staring into the very des- perately green eyes that seem to know too much, too well. Aaron Warner Anderson is bent over me, his worried eyes inspecting me, his hand caught in the air like he might’ve been about to touch me.
He jerks back.
He stares, unblinking, chest rising and falling.
“Good morning,” I assume. I’m unsure of my voice, of the hour and this day, of these words leaving my lips and this body that contains me.
I notice he’s wearing a white button-down, half untucked into his curiously unrumpled black slacks. His shirtsleeves are folded, pushed up past his elbows.
His smile looks like it hurts.
I pull myself into a seated position and Warner shifts to accommodate me. I have to close my eyes to steady the sudden dizziness, but I force myself to remain still until the feeling passes.
I’m tired and weak from hunger, but other than a few general aches, I seem to be fine. I’m alive. I’m breathing and blinking and feeling human and I know exactly why.
I meet his eyes. “You saved my life.” I was shot in the chest.
Warner’s father put a bullet in my body and I can still feel the echoes of it. If I focus, I can relive the exact moment it happened; the pain: so intense, so excruciating; I’ll never be able to forget it.
I suck in a startled breath.
I’m finally aware of the familiar foreignness of this room and I’m quickly seized by a panic that screams I did not wake up where I fell asleep. My heart is racing and I’m inching away from him, hitting my back against the head- board, clutching at these sheets, trying not to stare at the chandelier I remember all too well—
“It’s okay—” Warner is saying. “It’s all right—”
“What am I doing here?” Panic, panic; terror clouds my consciousness. “Why did you bring me here again—?”
“Juliette, please, I’m not going to hurt you—”
“Then why did you bring me here?” My voice is starting to break and I’m struggling to keep it steady. “Why bring me back to this hellhole—”
“I had to hide you.” He exhales, looks up at the wall. “What? Why?”
“No one knows you’re alive.” He turns to look at me. “I had to get back to base. I needed to pretend everything was back to normal and I was running out of time.”
I force myself to lock away the fear.
I study his face and analyze his patient, earnest tone. I remember him last night—it must’ve been last night—I remember his face, remember him lying next to me in the dark. He was tender and kind and gentle and he saved me, saved my life. Probably carried me into bed. Tucked me in beside him. It must’ve been him.
But when I glance down at my body I realize I’m wearing clean clothes, no blood or holes or anything anywhere and I wonder who washed me, wonder who changed me, and worry that might’ve been Warner, too.
“Did you . . .” I hesitate, touching the hem of the shirt
I’m wearing. “Did—I mean—my clothes—”
He smiles. He stares until I’m blushing and I decide I hate him a little and then he shakes his head. Looks into his palms. “No,” he says. “The girls took care of that. I just carried you to bed.”
“The girls,” I whisper, dazed.
Sonya and Sara. They were there too, the healer twins, they helped Warner. They helped him save me because he’s the only one who can touch me now, the only person in the world who’d have been able to transfer their healing power safely into my body.
My thoughts are on fire.
Where are the girls what happened to the girls and where is Anderson and the war and oh God what’s happened to Adam and Kenji and Castle and I have to get up I have to get up I have to get up and get out of bed and get going but I try to move and Warner catches me. I’m off-balance, unsteady; I still feel as though my legs are anchored to this bed and I’m suddenly unable to breathe, seeing spots and feeling faint. Need up. Need out.
“Warner.” My eyes are frantic on his face. “What hap- pened? What’s happening with the battle—?”
“Please,” he says, gripping my shoulders. “You need to start slowly; you should eat something—”
“Don’t you want to eat first? Or shower?” “No,” I hear myself say. “I have to know now.” One moment. Two and three.
Warner takes a deep breath. A million more. Right hand over left, spinning the jade ring on his pinkie finger over and over and over and over “It’s over,” he says.
I say the word but my lips make no sound. I’m numb, somehow. Blinking and seeing nothing.
“It’s over,” he says again. “No.”
I exhale the word, exhale the impossibility. He nods. He’s disagreeing with me.
“No,” I say. “No. No. Don’t be stupid,” I say to him. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I say to him. “Don’t lie to me goddamn you,” but now my voice is high and broken and shaking and “No,” I gasp, “no, no, no—”
I actually stand up this time. My eyes are filling fast with tears and I blink and blink but the world is a mess and I want to laugh because all I can think is how horrible and beautiful it is, that our eyes blur the truth when we can’t bear to see it.
The ground is hard.
I know this to be an actual fact because it’s suddenly pressed against my face and Warner is trying to touch me but I think I scream and slap his hands away because I already know the answer. I must already know the answer because I can feel the revulsion bubbling up and unsettling my insides but I ask anyway. I’m horizontal and somehow still tipping over and the holes in my head are tearing open and I’m staring at a spot on the carpet not ten feet away and I’m not sure I’m even alive but I have to hear him say it.
“Why?” I ask.
It’s just a word, stupid and simple.
“Why is the battle over?” I ask. I’m not breathing anymore, not really speaking at all; just expelling letters through my lips.
Warner is not looking at me.
He’s looking at the wall and at the f loor and at the bed- sheets and at the way his knuckles look when he clenches his fists but no not at me he won’t look at me and his next words are so, so soft.
“Because they’re dead, love. They’re all dead.”
My body locks.
My bones, my blood, my brain freeze in place, seizing in some kind of sudden, uncontrollable paralysis that spreads through me so quickly I can’t seem to breathe. I’m wheez- ing in deep, strained inhalations, and the walls won’t stop swaying in front of me.
Warner pulls me into his arms.
“Let go of me,” I scream, but, oh, only in my imagination because my lips are finished working and my heart has just expired and my mind has gone to hell for the day and my eyes my eyes I think they’re bleeding. Warner is whisper- ing words of comfort I can’t hear and his arms are wrapped entirely around me, trying to keep me together through sheer physical force but it’s no use.
I feel nothing.
Warner is shushing me, rocking me back and forth, and it’s only then that I realize I’m making the most excruciat- ing, earsplitting sound, agony ripping through me. I want to speak, to protest, to accuse Warner, to blame him, to call him a liar, but I can say nothing, can form nothing but sounds so pitiful I’m almost ashamed of myself. I break free of his arms, gasping and doubling over, clutching my stomach.
“Adam.” I choke on his name. “Juliette, please—”
“Kenji.” I’m hyperventilating into the carpet now. “Please, love, let me help you—”
“What about James?” I hear myself say. “He was left at
Omega Point—he wasn’t a-allowed to c-come—”
“It’s all been destroyed,” Warner says slowly, quietly. “Everything. They tortured some of your members into giving away the exact location of Omega Point. Then they bombed the entire thing.”
“Oh, God.” I cover my mouth with one hand and stare, unblinking, at the ceiling.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. “You have no idea how sorry I am.”
“Liar,” I whisper, venom in my voice. I’m angry and mean and I can’t be bothered to care. “You’re not sorry at all.”
I glance at Warner just long enough to see the hurt f lash in and out of his eyes. He clears his throat.
“I am sorry,” he says again, quiet but firm. He picks up his jacket from where it was hanging on a nearby rack; shrugs it on without a word.
“Where are you going?” I ask, guilty in an instant.
“You need time to process this and you clearly have no use for my company. I will attend to a few tasks until you’re ready to talk.”
“Please tell me you’re wrong.” My voice breaks. My breath catches. “Tell me there’s a chance you could be wrong—”
Warner stares at me for what feels like a long time. “If there were even the slightest chance I could spare you this pain,” he finally says, “I would’ve taken it. You must know I wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t absolutely true.”
And it’s this—his sincerity—that finally snaps me in half. Because the truth is so unbearable I wish he’d spare me a lie.
I don’t remember when Warner left.
I don’t remember how he left or what he said. All I know is that I’ve been lying here curled up on the floor long enough. Long enough for the tears to turn to salt, long enough for my throat to dry up and my lips to chap and my head to pound as hard as my heart.
I sit up slowly, feel my brain twist somewhere in my skull. I manage to climb onto the bed and sit there, still numb but less so, and pull my knees to my chest.
Life without Adam.
Life without Kenji, without James and Castle and Sonya and Sara and Brendan and Winston and all of Omega Point. My friends, all destroyed with the f lick of a switch.
Life without Adam.
I hold on tight, pray the pain will pass.
Adam is gone.
My first love. My first friend. My only friend when I had none and now he’s gone and I don’t know how I feel. Strange, mostly. Delirious, too. I feel empty and broken and cheated and guilty and angry and desperately, desperately sad.
We’d been growing apart since escaping to Omega Point, but that was my fault. He wanted more from me, but I wanted him to live a long life. I wanted to protect him from the pain I would cause him. I tried to forget him, to move on without him, to prepare myself for a future separate and apart from him.
I thought staying away would keep him alive.
The tears are fresh and falling fast now, traveling qui- etly down my cheeks and into my open, gasping mouth. My shoulders won’t stop shaking and my fists keep clench- ing and my body is cramping and my knees are knocking and old habits are crawling out of my skin and I’m count- ing cracks and colors and sounds and shudders and rocking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and I have to let him go I have to let him go I have to I have to
I close my eyes
Harsh, hard, rasping breaths.
I’ve been here before, I tell myself. I’ve been lonelier than this, more hopeless than this, more desperate than this. I’ve been here before and I survived. I can get through this.
But never have I been so thoroughly robbed. Love and possibility, friendships and futures: gone. I have to start over now; face the world alone again. I have to make one final choice: give up or go on.
So I get to my feet.
My head is spinning, thoughts knocking into one another, but I swallow back the tears. I clench my fists and try not to scream and I tuck my friends in my heart and
has never looked so sweet.
One day I might break
One day I might
b r e a k
Warner can’t hide his surprise when he walks back into the room.
I look up, close the notebook in my hands. “I’m taking this back,” I say to him.
He blinks at me. “You’re feeling better.”
I nod over my shoulder. “My notebook was just sitting here, on the bedside table.”
“Yes,” he says slowly. Carefully. “I’m taking it back.”
“I understand.” He’s still standing by the door, still frozen in place, still staring. “Are you”—he shakes his head—“I’m sorry, are you going somewhere?”
It’s only then that I realize I’m already halfway to the door. “I need to get out of here.”
Warner says nothing. He takes a few careful steps into the room, slips off his jacket, drapes it over a chair. He pulls three guns out of the holster strapped to his back and takes his time placing them on the table where my notebook used to be. When he finally looks up he has a slight smile on his face.
Hands in his pockets. His smile a little bigger. “Where are you going, love?”
“I have some things I need to take care of.”
“Is that right?” He leans one shoulder against the wall, crosses his arms against his chest. He can’t stop smiling.
“Yes.” I’m getting irritated now.
Warner waits. Stares. Nods once, as if to say, Go on.
“Your father—” “Is not here.” “Oh.”
I try to hide my shock, but now I don’t know why I was so certain Anderson would still be here. This complicates things.
“You really thought you could just walk out of this room,” Warner says to me, “knock on my father’s door, and do away with him?”
“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” Warner says softly. I glare at him.
“My father is gone,” Warner says. “He’s gone back to the capital, and he’s taken Sonya and Sara with him.”
I gasp, horrified. “No.”
Warner isn’t smiling anymore. “Are they . . . alive?” I ask.
“I don’t know.” A simple shrug. “I imagine they must be, as they’re of no use to my father in any other condition.” “They’re alive?” My heart picks up so quickly I might be having a heart attack. “I have to get them back—I have to find them, I—”
“You what?” Warner is looking at me closely. “How will you get to my father? How will you fight him?”
“I don’t know!” I’m pacing across the room now. “But I have to find them. They might be my only friends left in this world and—”
I spin around suddenly, heart in my throat.
“What if there are others?” I whisper, too afraid to hope. I meet Warner across the room.
“What if there are other survivors?” I ask, louder now. “What if they’re hiding somewhere?”
“That seems unlikely.”
“But there’s a chance, isn’t there?” I’m desperate. “If there’s even the slightest chance—”
Warner sighs. Runs a hand through the hair at the back of his head. “If you’d seen the devastation the way that I did, you wouldn’t be saying such things. Hope will break your heart all over again.”
My knees have begun to buckle.
I cling to the bed frame, breathing fast, hands shaking. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t actually know what’s happened to Omega Point. I don’t know where the capital is or how I’d get there. I don’t know if I’d even be able to get to Sonya and Sara in time. But I can’t shake this sudden, stupid hope that more of my friends have somehow survived.
Because they’re stronger than this—smarter.
“They’ve been planning for war for such a long time,” I hear myself say. “They must have had some kind of a backup plan. A place to hide—”
“Dammit, Warner! I have to try. You have to let me look.” “This is unhealthy.” He won’t meet my eyes. “It’s dan- gerous for you to think there’s a chance anyone might still be alive.”
I stare at his strong, steady profile.
He studies his hands.
“Please,” I whisper.
“I have to head to the compounds in the next day or so, just to better oversee the process of rebuilding the area.” He tenses as he speaks. “We lost many civilians,” he says. “Too many. The remaining citizens are understandably trauma- tized and subdued, as was my father’s intention. They’ve been stripped of any last hope they might’ve had for rebel- lion.”
A tight breath.
“And now everything must be quickly put back in order,” he says. “The bodies are being cleared out and incinerated. The damaged housing units are being replaced. Civilians are being forced to go back to work, orphans are being moved, and the remaining children are required to attend their sec- tor schools.
“The Reestablishment,” he says, “does not allow time for people to grieve.”
There’s a heavy silence between us.
“While I’m overseeing the compounds,” Warner says, “I can find a way to take you back to Omega Point. I can show you what’s happened. And then, once you have proof, you will have to make your choice.”
“You have to decide your next move. You can stay with me,” he says, hesitating, “or, if you prefer, I can arrange for you to live undetected, somewhere on unregulated grounds. But it will be a solitary existence,” he says quietly. “You can never be discovered.”
“Yes,” he says. Another pause.
“Or,” I say to him, “I leave, find your father, kill him, and deal with the consequences on my own.”
Warner fights a smile and fails.
He glances down and laughs just a little before looking me right in the eye. He shakes his head.
“What’s so funny?” “My dear girl.” “What?”
“I have been waiting for this moment for a long time now.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re finally ready,” he says. “You’re finally ready to fight.”
Shock courses through me. “Of course I am.”
In an instant I’m bombarded by memories of the battle- field, the terror of being shot to death. I have not forgotten my friends or my renewed conviction, my determination to do things differently. To make a difference. To really fight this time, with no hesitation. No matter what happens— and no matter what I discover—there’s no turning back for me anymore. There are no other alternatives.
I have not forgotten. “I forge forward or die.” Warner laughs out loud. He looks like he might cry.
“I am going to kill your father,” I say to him, “and I’m going to destroy The Reestablishment.”
He’s still smiling. “I will.”
“I know,” he says.
“Then why are you laughing at me?”
“I’m not,” he says softly. “I’m only wondering,” he says, “if you would like my help.”
“What?” I blink fast, disbelieving.
“I’ve always told you,” Warner says to me, “that we would make an excellent team. I’ve always said that I’ve been waiting for you to be ready—for you to recognize your anger, your own strength. I’ve been waiting since the day I met you.”
“But you wanted to use me for The Reestablishment—you wanted me to torture innocent people—” “Not true.”
“What? What are you talking about? You told me yourself—”
“I lied.” He shrugs.
My mouth has fallen open.
“There are three things you should know about me, love.” He steps forward. “The first,” he says, “is that I hate my father more than you might ever be capable of under- standing.” He clears his throat. “Second, is that I am an unapologetically selfish person, who, in almost every situ- ation, makes decisions based entirely on self-interest. And third.” A pause as he looks down. Laughs a little. “I never had any intention of using you as a weapon.”
Words have failed me. I sit down.
“That was an elaborate scheme I designed entirely for my father’s benefit,” Warner says. “I had to convince him it would be a good idea to invest in someone like you, that we might utilize you for military gain. And to be quite, quite honest, I’m still not sure how I managed it. The idea is ludicrous. To spend all that time, money, and energy on reforming a supposedly psychotic girl just for the sake of torture?” He shakes his head. “I knew from the beginning it would be a fruitless endeavor; a complete waste of time. There are far more effective methods of extracting informa- tion from the unwilling.”
“Then why—why did you want me?”
His eyes are jarring in their sincerity. “I wanted to study you.”
“What?” I gasp.
He turns his back to me. “Did you know,” he says, so quietly I have to strain to hear him, “that my mother lives in that house?” He looks to the closed door. “The one my father brought you to? The one where he shot you? She was in her room. Just down the hall from where he was keeping you.”
When I don’t respond, Warner turns to face me.
“Yes,” I whisper. “Your father mentioned something about her.”
“Oh?” Alarm f lits in and out of his features. He quickly masks the emotion. “And what,” he says, making an effort to sound calm, “did he say about her?”
“That she’s sick,” I tell him, hating myself for the tremor that goes through his body. “That he stores her there because she doesn’t do well in the compounds.”
Warner leans back against the wall, looking as if he requires the support. He takes a hard breath. “Yes,” he finally says. “It’s true. She’s sick. She became ill very sud- denly.” His eyes are focused on a distant point in another world. “When I was a child, she seemed perfectly fine,” he says, turning and turning the jade ring around his finger. “But then one day she just . . . fell apart. For years I fought my father to seek treatment, to find a cure, but he never cared. I was on my own to find help for her, and no matter who I contacted, no doctor was able to treat her. No one,” he says, hardly breathing now, “knew what was wrong with her. She exists in a constant state of agony,” he says, “and I’ve always been too selfish to let her die.”
He looks up.
“And then I heard about you. I’d heard stories about you, rumors,” he says. “And it gave me hope for the very first time. I wanted access to you; I wanted to study you. I wanted to know and understand you firsthand. Because in all my research, you were the only person I’d ever heard of who might be able to offer me answers about my mother’s condition. I was desperate,” he says. “I was willing to try anything.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “How could someone like me be able to help you with your mother?”
His eyes find mine again, bright with anguish. “Because, love. You cannot touch anyone. And she,” he says, “she can- not be touched.”
I’ve lost the ability to speak.
“I finally understand her pain,” Warner says. “I finally understand what it must be like for her. Because of you. Because I saw what it did to you—what it does to you—to carry that kind of burden, to exist with that much power and to live among those who do not understand.”
He tilts his head back against the wall, presses the heels of his hands to his eyes.
“She, much like you,” he says, “must feel as though there is a monster inside of her. But unlike you, her only victim is herself. She cannot live in her own skin. She cannot be touched by anyone; not even by her own hands. Not to brush a hair from her forehead or to clench her fists. She’s afraid to speak, to move her legs, to stretch her arms, even to shift to a more comfortable position, simply because the sensation of her skin brushing against itself causes her an excruciating amount of pain.”
He drops his hands.
“It seems,” he says, fighting to keep his voice steady, “that something in the heat of human contact triggers this terrible, destructive power within her, and because she is both the originator and the recipient of the pain, she’s somehow incapable of killing herself. Instead, she exists as a prisoner in her own bones, unable to escape this self- inf licted torture.”
My eyes are stinging hard. I blink fast.
For so many years I thought my life was difficult; I thought I understood what it meant to suffer. But this. This is something I can’t even begin to comprehend. I never stopped to consider that someone else might have it worse than I do.
It makes me feel ashamed for ever having felt sorry for myself.
“For a long time,” Warner continues, “I thought she was just . . . sick. I thought she’d developed some kind of ill- ness that was attacking her immune system, something that made her skin sensitive and painful. I assumed that, with the proper treatment, she would eventually heal. I kept hop- ing,” he says, “until I finally realized that years had gone by and nothing had changed. The constant agony began to destroy her mental stability; she eventually gave up on life. She let the pain take over. She refused to get out of bed or to eat regularly; she stopped caring about basic hygiene. And my father’s solution was to drug her.
“He keeps her locked in that house with no one but a nurse to keep her company. She’s now addicted to morphine and has completely lost her mind. She doesn’t even know me anymore. Doesn’t recognize me. And the few times I’ve ever tried to get her off the drugs,” he says, speaking quietly now, “she’s tried to kill me.” He’s silent for a second, look- ing as if he’s forgotten I’m still in the room. “My childhood was almost bearable sometimes,” he says, “if only because of her. And instead of caring for her, my father turned her into something unrecognizable.”
He looks up, laughing.
“I always thought I could fix it,” he says. “I thought if I could only find the root of it—I thought I could do some- thing, I thought I could—” He stops. Drags a hand across his face. “I don’t know,” he whispers. Turns away. “But I never had any intention of using you against your will. The idea has never appealed to me. I only had to maintain the pretense. My father, you see, does not approve of my interest in my mother’s well-being.”
He smiles a strange, twisted sort of smile. Looks toward the door. Laughs.
“He never wanted to help her. She is a burden he is dis- gusted by. He thinks that by keeping her alive he’s doing her a great kindness for which I should be grateful. He thinks this should be enough for me, to be able to watch my mother turn into a feral creature so utterly consumed by her own agony she’s completely vacated her mind.” He runs a shaky hand through his hair, grips the back of his neck.
“But it wasn’t,” he says quietly. “It wasn’t enough. I became obsessed with trying to help her. To bring her back to life. And I wanted to feel it,” he says to me, looking directly into my eyes. “I wanted to know what it would be like to endure a pain like that. I wanted to know what she must experience every day.
“I was never afraid of your touch,” he says. “In fact, I welcomed it. I was so sure you would eventually strike out at me, that you would try to defend yourself against me; and I was looking forward to that moment. But you never did.” He shakes his head. “Everything I’d read in your files told me you were an unrestrained, vicious creature. I was expect- ing you to be an animal, someone who would try to kill me and my men at every opportunity—someone who needed to be closely watched. But you disappointed me by being too human, too lovely. So unbearably naive. You wouldn’t fight back.”
His eyes are unfocused, remembering.
“You didn’t react against my threats. You wouldn’t respond to the things that mattered. You acted like an insolent child,” he says. “You didn’t like your clothes. You wouldn’t eat your fancy food.” He laughs out loud and rolls his eyes and I’ve suddenly forgotten my sympathy.
I’m tempted to throw something at him.
“You were so hurt,” he says, “that I’d asked you to wear a dress.” He looks at me then, eyes sparkling with amusement. “Here I was, prepared to defend my life against an uncon- trollable monster who could kill,” he says, “kill a man with her bare hands—” He bites back another laugh. “And you threw tantrums over clean clothes and hot meals. Oh,” he says, shaking his head at the ceiling, “you were ridiculous. You were completely ridiculous and it was the most enter- tainment I’d ever had. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. I loved making you mad,” he says to me, his eyes wicked. “I love making you mad.”
I’m gripping one of his pillows so tightly I’m afraid I might tear it. I glare at him.
He laughs at me.
“I was so distracted,” he says, smiling. “Always want- ing to spend time with you. Pretending to plan things for your supposed future with The Reestablishment. You were harmless and beautiful and you always yelled at me,” he says, grinning widely now. “God, you would yell at me over the most inconsequential things,” he says, remembering. “But you never laid a hand on me. Not once, not even to save your own life.”
His smile fades.
“It worried me. It scared me to think you were so ready to sacrifice yourself before using your abilities to defend yourself.” A breath. “So I changed tactics. I tried to bully you into touching me.”
I flinch, remembering that day in the blue room too well. When he taunted me and manipulated me and I came so close to hurting him. He’d finally managed to find exactly the right things to say to hurt me enough to want to hurt him back.
I nearly did.
He cocks his head. Exhales a deep, defeated breath. “But that didn’t work either. And I quickly began to lose sight of my original purpose. I became so invested in you that I’d forgotten why I’d brought you on base to begin with. I was frustrated that you wouldn’t give in, that you refused to lash out even when I knew you wanted to. But every time I was ready to give up, you would have these moments,” he says, shaking his head. “You had these incredible moments when you’d finally show glimpses of raw, unbridled strength. It was incredible.” He stops. Leans back against the wall. “But then you’d always retreat. Like you were ashamed. Like you didn’t want to recognize those feelings in yourself.
“So I changed tactics again. I tried something else. Something that I knew—with certainty—would push you past your breaking point. And I must say, it really was every- thing I hoped it would be.” He smiles. “You looked truly alive for the very first time.”
My hands are suddenly ice cold.
“The torture room,” I gasp.
“I suppose you could call it that.” Warner shrugs. “We call it a simulation chamber.”
“You made me torture that child,” I say to him, the anger and the rage of that day rising up inside of me. How could I forget what he did? What he made me do? The horrible memories he forced me to relive all for the sake of his enter- tainment. “I will never forgive you for that,” I snap, acid in my voice. “I will never forgive you for what you did to that little boy. For what you made me do to him!”
Warner frowns. “I’m sorry—what?”
“You would sacrifice a child!” My voice is shaking now. “For your stupid games! How could you do something so despicable?” I throw my pillow at him. “You sick, heartless, monster!”
Warner catches the pillow as it hits his chest, staring at me like he’s never seen me before. But then a kind of under- standing settles into place for him, and the pillow slips from his hands. Falls to the f loor. “Oh,” he says, so slowly. He’s squeezing his eyes shut, trying to suppress his amusement. “Oh, you’re going to kill me,” he says, laughing openly now. “I don’t think I can handle this—”
“What are you talking about? What’s wrong with you?”
He’s still smiling as he says, “Tell me, love. Tell me exactly what happened that day.”
I clench my fists, offended by his f lippancy and shaking with renewed anger. “You gave me stupid, skimpy clothes to wear! And then you took me down to the lower levels of Sector 45 and locked me in a dirty room. I remember it per- fectly,” I tell him, fighting to remain calm. “It had disgusting yellow walls. Old green carpet. A huge two-way mirror.”
Warner raises his eyebrows. Gestures for me to continue. “Then . . . you hit some kind of a switch,” I say, forcing myself to keep talking. I don’t know why I’m beginning to doubt myself. “And these huge, metal spikes started coming out of the ground. And then”—I hesitate, steeling myself— “a toddler walked in. He was blindfolded. And you said he was your replacement. You said that if I didn’t save him, you wouldn’t either.”
Warner is looking at me closely now. Studying my eyes. “Are you sure I said that?”
“Yes?” He cocks his head. “Yes, you saw me say that with your own eyes?”
“N-no,” I say quickly, feeling defensive, “but there were loudspeakers—I could hear your voice—”
He takes a deep breath. “Right; of course.” “I did,” I tell him.
“So after you heard me say that, what happened?”
I swallow hard. “I had to save the boy. He was going to die. He couldn’t see where he was going and he was going to be impaled by those spikes. I had to pull him into my arms and try to find a way to hold on to him without killing him.” A beat of silence.
“And did you succeed?” Warner asks me.
“Yes,” I whisper, unable to understand why he’s ask- ing me this when he saw it all happen for himself. “But the boy went limp,” I say. “He was temporarily paralyzed in my arms. And then you hit another switch and the spikes disap- peared, and I let him down and he—he started crying again and bumped into my bare legs. And he started screaming. And I . . . I got so mad at you . . .”
“That you broke through concrete,” Warner says, a faint smile touching his lips. “You broke through a concrete wall just to try and choke me to death.”
“You deserved it,” I hear myself say. “You deserved worse.”
“Well,” he sighs. “If I did, in fact, do what you say I did, it certainly sounds like I deserved it.”
“What do you mean, if you did? I know you did—” “Is that right?”
“Of course it’s right!”
“Then tell me, love, what happened to the boy?” “What?” I freeze; icicles creep up my arms.
“What happened,” he says, “to that little boy? You say that you set him on the ground. But then you proceeded to break through a concrete wall fitted with a thick, six-foot- wide mirror, with no apparent regard for the toddler you claim was wandering around the room. Don’t you think the poor child would’ve been injured in such a wild, reckless display? My soldiers certainly were. You broke down a wall of concrete, love. You crushed an enormous piece of glass. You did not stop to ascertain where the blocks or the shat- tered bits had fallen or who they might’ve injured in the process.” He stops. Stares. “Did you?”
“No,” I gasp, blood draining from my body.
“So what happened after you walked away?” he asks. “Or do you not remember that part? You turned around and left, just after destroying the room, injuring my men, and tossing me to the f loor. You turned around,” he says, “and walked right out.”
I’m numb now, remembering. It’s true. I did. I didn’t think. I just knew I needed to get out of there as fast as pos- sible. I needed to get away, to clear my head.
“So what happened to the boy?” Warner insists. “Where was he when you were leaving? Did you see him?” A lift of his eyebrows. “And what about the spikes?” he says. “Did you bother to look closely at the ground to see where they might’ve come from? Or how they might’ve punctured a carpeted f loor without causing any damage? Did you feel the surface under your feet to be shredded or uneven?”
I’m breathing hard now, struggling to stay calm. I can’t tear myself away from his gaze.
“Juliette, love,” he says softly. “There were no speakers in that room. That room is entirely soundproof, equipped with nothing but sensors and cameras. It is a simulation chamber.”
“No,” I breathe, refusing to believe. Not wanting to accept that I was wrong, that Warner isn’t the monster I thought he was. He can’t change things now. Can’t confuse me like this. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. “That’s not possible—”
“I am guilty,” he says, “of forcing you to undergo such a cruel simulation. I accept the fault for that, and I’ve already apologized for my actions. I only meant to push you into finally reacting, and I knew that sort of re-creation would quickly trigger something inside of you. But good God, love”—he shakes his head—“you must have an absurdly low opinion of me if you think I would steal someone’s child just to watch you torture it.”
“It wasn’t real?” I don’t recognize my own raspy, pan- icked voice. “It wasn’t real?”
He offers me a sympathetic smile. “I designed the basic elements of the simulation, but the beauty of the program is that it will evolve and adapt as it processes a soldier’s most visceral responses. We use it to train soldiers who must overcome specific fears or prepare for a particularly sensi- tive mission. We can re-create almost any environment,” he says. “Even soldiers who know what they’re getting into will forget that they’re performing in a simulation.” He averts his eyes. “I knew it would be terrifying for you, and I did it any- way. And for hurting you, I feel true regret. But no,” he says quietly, meeting my eyes again. “None of it was real. You imagined my voice in that room. You imagined the pain, the sounds, the smells. All of it was in your mind.”
“I don’t want to believe you,” I say to him, my voice scarcely a whisper.
He tries to smile. “Why do you think I gave you those
clothes?” he asks. “The material of that outfit was lined with a chemical designed to react to the sensors in that room. And the less you’re wearing, the more easily the cameras can track the heat in your body, your movements.” He shakes his head. “I never had a chance to explain what you’d experienced. I wanted to follow you immediately, but I thought I should give you time to collect yourself. It was a stupid decision, on my end.” His jaw tenses. “I waited, and I shouldn’t have. Because when I found you, it was too late. You were ready to jump out a window just to get away from me.”
“For good reason,” I snap.
He holds up his hands in surrender.
“You are a terrible person!” I explode, throwing the rest of the pillows at his face, angry and horrified and humili- ated all at once. “Why would you put me through something like that when you know what I’ve been through, you stupid, arrogant—”
“Juliette, please,” he says, stepping forward, dodging a pillow to reach for my arms. “I am sorry for hurting you, but I really think it was worth—”
“Don’t touch me!” I jerk away, glaring, clutching the foot of his bed like it might be a weapon. “I should shoot you all over again for doing that to me! I should—I should—”
“What?” He laughs. “You’re going to throw another pillow at me?”
I shove him, hard, and when he doesn’t budge, I start throwing punches. I’m hitting his chest, his arms, his stomach, and his legs, anywhere I can reach, wishing more than ever that he weren’t able to absorb my power, that I could actually crush all the bones in his body and make him writhe in pain beneath my hands. “You . . . selfish . . . monster!” I keep throwing poorly aimed fists in his direction, not real- izing how much the effort exhausts me, not realizing how quickly the anger dissolves into pain. Suddenly all I want to do is cry. My body is shaking in both relief and terror, finally unshackled from the fear that I’d caused another innocent child some kind of irreparable damage, and simultaneously horrified that Warner would ever force such a terrible thing on me. To help me.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, stepping closer. “I really, truly am. I didn’t know you then. Not like I do now. I’d never do that to you now.”
“You don’t know me,” I mumble, wiping away tears. “You think you know me just because you’ve read my journal— you stupid, prying, privacy-stealing asshole—”
“Oh, right—about that—” He smiles, one quick hand plucking the journal out of my pocket as he moves toward the door. “I’m afraid I wasn’t finished reading this.”
“Hey!” I protest, swiping at him as he walks away. “You said you’d give that back to me!”
“I said no such thing,” he says, subdued, dropping the journal into his own pants pocket. “Now please wait here a moment. I’m going to get you something to eat.”
I’m still shouting as he closes the door behind him.
I fall backward onto the bed and make an angry noise deep inside my throat. Chuck a pillow at the wall.
I need to do something. I need to start moving. I need to finish forming a plan.
I’ve been on the defense and on the run for so long now that my mind has often been occupied by elaborate and hope- less daydreams about overthrowing The Reestablishment. I spent most of my 264 days in that cell fantasizing about exactly this kind of impossible moment: the day I’d be able to spit in the face of those who’d oppressed me and everyone else just beyond my window. And though I dreamed up a million different scenarios in which I would stand up and defend myself, I never actually thought I’d have a chance to make it happen. I never thought I’d have the power, the opportunity, or the courage.
Everyone is gone.
I might be the only one left.
At Omega Point I was happy to let Castle lead. I didn’t know much about anything, and I was still too scared to act. Castle was already in charge and already had a plan, so I trusted that he knew best; that they knew better.
I’ve always known, deep down, who should be leading this resistance. I’ve felt it quietly for some time now, always too scared to bring the words to my lips. Someone who’s got nothing left to lose and everything to gain. Someone no longer afraid of anyone.
Not Castle. Not Kenji. Not Adam. Not even Warner.
It should be me.
I look closely at my outfit for the first time and realize I must be wearing more of Warner’s old clothes. I’m drown- ing in a faded orange T-shirt and a pair of gray sweatpants that almost falls off my hips every time I stand up straight. I take a moment to regain my equilibrium, testing my full weight on the thick, plush carpet under my bare feet. I roll the waistband of the pants a few times, just until they sit snugly at my hip bone, and then I ball up the extra material of the T-shirt and knot it at the back. I’m vaguely aware that I must look ridiculous, but fitting the clothes to my frame gives me some modicum of control and I cling to it. It makes me feel a little more awake, a little more in command of my situation. All I need now is a rubber band. My hair is too heavy; it’s begun to feel like it’s suffocating me, and I’m des- perate to get it off my neck. I’m desperate to take a shower, actually.
I spin around at the sound of the door.
I’m caught in the middle of a thought, holding my hair up with both hands in a makeshift ponytail, and suddenly acutely aware of the fact that I’m not wearing any under- wear.
Warner is holding a tray.
He’s staring at me, unblinking. His gaze sweeps across my face, down my neck, my arms. Stops at my waist. I follow his eyes only to realize that my movements have lifted my shirt and exposed my stomach. And I suddenly understand why he’s staring.
The memory of his kisses along my torso; his hands exploring my back, my bare legs, the backs of my thighs, his fingers hooking around the elastic band of my underwear—
I drop my hands and my hair at the same time, the brown waves falling hard and fast around my shoulders, my back, hitting my waist. My face is on fire.
Warner is suddenly transfixed by a spot directly above my head.
“I should probably cut my hair,” I say to no one in par- ticular, not understanding why I’ve even said it. I don’t want to cut my hair. I want to lock myself in the toilet.
He doesn’t respond. He carries the tray closer to the bed and it’s not until I spot the glasses of water and the plates of food that I realize exactly how hungry I am. I can’t remember the last time I ate anything; I’ve been surviving off the energy recharge I received when my wound was healed.
“Have a seat,” he says, not meeting my eyes. He nods to the f loor before folding himself onto the carpet. I sit down across from him. He pushes the tray in front of me.
“Thank you,” I say, my eyes focused on the meal. “This looks delicious.”
There’s tossed salad and fragrant, colorful rice. Diced, seasoned potatoes and a small helping of steamed vegeta- bles. A little cup of chocolate pudding. A bowl of fresh-cut fruit. Two glasses of water.
It’s a meal I would’ve scoffed at when I first arrived.
If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve taken advantage of every opportunity Warner had given me. I would’ve eaten the food and taken the clothes. I would’ve built up my strength and paid closer attention when he showed me around base. I would’ve been looking for escape routes and excuses to tour the compounds. And then I would’ve bolted. I would’ve found a way to survive on my own. And I never would’ve dragged Adam down with me. I never would’ve gotten myself and so many others into this mess.
If only I had eaten the stupid food.
I was a scared, broken girl, fighting back the only way I knew how. It’s no wonder I failed. I wasn’t in my right mind. I was weak and terrified and blind to the idea of possibility. I had no experience with stealth or manipulation. I hardly knew how to interact with people—could barely understand the words in my own head.
It shocks me to think how much I’ve changed in these past months. I feel like a completely different person. Sharper, somehow. Hardened, absolutely. And for the first time in my life, willing to admit that I’m angry.
I look up suddenly, feeling the weight of Warner’s gaze. He’s staring at me like he’s intrigued, fascinated. “What are you thinking about?” he asks.
I stab a piece of potato with my fork. “I’m thinking I was an idiot for ever turning down a plate of hot food.”
He raises an eyebrow at me. “I can’t say I disagree.” I shoot him a dirty look.
“You were so broken when you got here,” he says, taking a deep breath. “I was so confused. I kept waiting for you to go insane, to jump on the table at dinner and start taking swipes at my soldiers. I was sure you were going to try and kill everyone, and instead, you were stubborn and pouty, refusing to change out of your filthy clothes and complain- ing about eating your vegetables.”
I go pink.
“At first,” he says, laughing, “I thought you were plotting something. I thought you were pretending to be complacent just to distract me from some greater goal. I thought your anger over such petty things was a ruse,” he says, his eyes mocking me. “I figured it had to be.”
I cross my arms. “The extravagance was disgusting. So much money is wasted on the army while other people are starving to death.”
Warner waves a hand, shaking his head. “That’s not the point. The point,” he says, “is that I hadn’t provided you with any of those things for some calculated, under- handed reason. It wasn’t some kind of a test.” He laughs. “I wasn’t trying to challenge you and your scruples. I thought I was doing you a favor. You’d come from this disgusting, miserable hole in the ground. I wanted you to have a real mattress. To be able to shower in peace. To have beautiful, fresh clothes. And you needed to eat,” he says. “You’d been starved half to death.”
I stiffen, slightly mollified. “Maybe,” I say. “But you were crazy. You were a controlling maniac. You wouldn’t even let me talk to the other soldiers.”
“Because they are animals,” he snaps, his voice unexpectedly sharp.
I look up, startled, to meet his angry, f lashing green eyes. “You, who have spent the majority of your life locked away,” he says, “have not had the opportunity to understand just how beautiful you are, or what kind of effect that can have on a person. I was worried for your safety,” he says. “You were timid and weak and living on a military base full of lonely, fully armed, thickheaded soldiers three times your size. I didn’t want them harassing you. I made a spectacle out of your display with Jenkins because I wanted them to have proof of your abilities. I needed them to see that you were a formidable opponent—one they’d do well to stay away from. I was trying to protect you.”
I can’t look away from the intensity in his eyes.
“How little you must think of me.” He shakes his head in shock. “I had no idea you hated me so much. That every- thing I tried to do to help you had come under such harsh scrutiny.”
“How can you be surprised? What choice did I have but to expect the worst from you? You were arrogant and crass and you treated me like a piece of property—”
“Because I had to!” He cuts me off, unrepentant. “My every move—every word—is monitored when I am not confined to my own quarters. My entire life depends on maintaining a certain type of personality.”
“What about that soldier you shot in the forehead? Sea- mus Fletcher?” I challenge him, angry again. Now that I’ve let it enter my life, I’m realizing anger comes a little too naturally to me. “Was that all a part of your plan, too? No wait, don’t tell me”—I hold up a hand—“that was just a sim- ulation, right?”
Warner goes rigid.
He sits back; his jaw twitches. He looks at me with a mixture of sadness and rage in his eyes. “No,” he finally says, deathly soft. “That was not a simulation.”
“So you have no problem with that?” I ask him. “You have no regrets over killing a man for stealing a little extra food? For trying to survive, just like you?”
Warner bites down on his bottom lip for half a second. Clasps his hands in his lap. “Wow,” he says. “How quickly you jump to his defense.”
“He was an innocent man,” I tell him. “He didn’t deserve to die. Not for that. Not like that.”
“Seamus Fletcher,” Warner says calmly, staring into his open palms, “was a drunken bastard who was beating his wife and children. He hadn’t fed them in two weeks. He’d punched his nine-year-old daughter in the mouth, break- ing her two front teeth and fracturing her jaw. He beat his pregnant wife so hard she lost the child. He had two other children, too,” he says. “A seven-year-old boy and a five- year-old girl.” A pause. “He broke both their arms.”
My food is forgotten.
“I monitor the lives of our citizens very carefully,” Warner says. “I like to know who they are and how they’re thriving. I probably shouldn’t care,” he says, “but I do.”
I’m thinking I’m never going to open my mouth ever again.
“I have never claimed to live by any set of principles,” Warner says to me. “I’ve never claimed to be right, or good, or even justified in my actions. The simple truth is that I do not care. I have been forced to do terrible things in my life, love, and I am seeking neither your forgiveness nor your approval. Because I do not have the luxury of philosophizing over scruples when I’m forced to act on basic instinct every day.”
He meets my eyes.
“Judge me,” he says, “all you like. But I have no tolerance,” he says sharply, “for a man who beats his wife. No tolerance,” he says, “for a man who beats his children.” He’s breathing hard now. “Seamus Fletcher was murdering his family,” he says to me. “And you can call it whatever the hell you want to call it, but I will never regret killing a man who would bash his wife’s face into a wall. I will never regret killing a man who would punch his nine-year-old daughter in the mouth. I am not sorry,” he says. “And I will not apolo- gize. Because a child is better off with no father, and a wife is better off with no husband, than one like that.” I watch the hard movement in his throat. “I would know.”
“I’m sorry—Warner, I—”
He holds up a hand to stop me. He steadies himself, his eyes focused on the plates of untouched food. “I’ve said it before, love, and I’m sorry I have to say it again, but you do not understand the choices I have to make. You don’t know what I’ve seen and what I’m forced to witness every single day.” He hesitates. “And I wouldn’t want you to. But do not presume to understand my actions,” he says, finally meeting my eyes. “Because if you do, I can assure you you’ll only be met with disappointment. And if you insist on continuing to make assumptions about my character, I’ll advise you only this: assume you will always be wrong.”
He hauls himself up with a casual elegance that startles me. Smooths out his slacks. Pushes his sleeves up again. “I’ve had your armoire moved into my closet,” he says. “There are things for you to change into, if you’d like that. The bed and bathroom are yours. I have work to do,” he says. “I’ll be sleeping in my office tonight.”
And with that, he opens the adjoining door to his office, and locks himself inside.
My food is cold.
I poke at the potatoes and force myself to finish the meal even though I’ve lost my appetite. I can’t help but wonder if I’ve finally pushed Warner too far.
I thought the revelations had come to a close for today, but I was wrong again. It makes me wonder just how much is left, and how much more I’ll learn about Warner in the coming days. Months.
And I’m scared.
Because the more I discover about him, the fewer excuses I have to push him away. He’s unraveling before me, becom- ing something entirely different; terrifying me in a way I never could’ve expected.
And all I can think is not now.
Not here. Not when so much is uncertain. If only my emotions would understand the importance of excellent timing.
I never realized Warner was unaware of how deeply I’d detested him. I suppose now I can better understand how he saw himself, how he’d never viewed his actions as guilty or criminal. Maybe he thought I would’ve given him the ben- efit of the doubt. That I would’ve been able to read him as
easily as he’s been able to read me.
But I couldn’t. I didn’t. And now I can’t help but wonder if I’ve managed to disappoint him, somehow.
Why I even care.
I clamber to my feet with a sigh, hating my own uncer- tainty. Because while I might not be able to deny my physical attraction to him, I still can’t shake my initial impressions of his character. It’s not easy for me to switch so suddenly, to recognize him as anything but some kind of manipulative monster.
I need time to adjust to the idea of Warner as a normal person.
But I’m tired of thinking. And right now, all I want to do is shower.
I drag myself toward the open door of the bathroom before I remember what Warner said about my clothes. That he’d moved my armoire into his closet. I look around, searching for another door and finding none but the locked entry to his office. I’m half tempted to knock and ask him directly but decide against it. Instead, I study the walls more closely, wondering why Warner wouldn’t have given me instructions if his closet was hard to find. But then I see it.
It’s more of a button, actually, but it sits f lush with the wall. It would be almost impossible to spot if you weren’t actively searching for it.
I press the button.
A panel in the wall slides out of place. And as I step across the threshold, the room illuminates on its own.
This closet is bigger than his entire bedroom.
The walls and ceiling are tiled with slabs of white stone that gleam under the f luorescent recessed lighting; the f loors are covered with thick Oriental rugs. There’s a small suede couch the color of light-green jade stationed in the very center of the room, but it’s an odd sort of couch: it doesn’t have a back. It looks like an oversized ottoman. And strangest of all: there’s not a single mirror in here. I spin around, my eyes searching, certain I must’ve overlooked such an obvious staple, and I’m so caught up in the details of the space that I almost miss the clothes.
They’re everywhere, on display as if they were works of art. Glossy, dark wood units are built into the walls, shelves lined with rows and rows of shoes. All the other closet space is dedicated to hanging racks, each wall housing different categories of clothing.
Everything is color coordinated.
He owns more coats, more shoes, more pants and shirts than I’ve ever seen in my life. Ties and bow ties, belts, scarves, gloves, and cuff links. Beautiful, rich fabrics: silk blends and starched cotton, soft wool and cashmere. Dress shoes and buttery leather boots buffed and polished to per- fection. A peacoat in a dark, burnt shade of orange; a trench coat in a deep navy blue. A winter toggle coat in a stunning shade of plum. I dare to run my fingers along the different materials, wondering how many of these pieces he’s actually worn.
It’s always been apparent that Warner takes pride in his appearance; his outfits are impeccable; his clothes fit him like they were cut for his body. But now I finally understand why he took such care with my wardrobe.
He wasn’t trying to patronize me. He was enjoying himself.
Aaron Warner Anderson, chief commander and regent of Sector 45, son of the supreme commander of The Reestablishment.
He has a soft spot for fashion.
After my initial shock wears off, I’m able to easily locate my old armoire. It’s been placed unceremoniously in a corner of the room, and I’m almost sorry for it. It stands out awk- wardly against the rest of the space.
I quickly shuff le through the drawers, grateful for the first time to have clean things to change into. Warner antici- pated all of my needs before I arrived on base. The armoire is full of dresses and shirts and pants, but it’s also been stocked with socks, bras, and underwear. And even though I know this should make me feel awkward, somehow it doesn’t. The underwear is simple and understated. Cotton basics that are exactly average and perfectly functional. He bought these things before he knew me, and knowing that they weren’t purchased with any level of intimacy makes me feel less self-conscious about it all.
I grab a small T-shirt, a pair of cotton pajama bottoms, and all of my brand-new underthings, and slip out of the room. The lights immediately switch off as soon as I’m back in the bedroom, and I hit the button to close the panel.
I look around his bedroom with new eyes, reacclimating to this smaller, standard sort of space. Warner’s bedroom looks almost identical to the one I occupied while on base, and I always wondered why. There are no personal effects anywhere; no pictures, no odd knickknacks.
But suddenly it all makes sense.
His bedroom doesn’t mean anything to him. It’s little more than a place to sleep. But his closet—that was his style, his design. It’s probably the only space he cares about in this room.
It makes me wonder what the inside of his office looks like, and my eyes dart to his door before I remember how he’s locked himself inside.
I stifle a sigh and head toward the bathroom, planning to shower, change, and fall asleep immediately. This day felt more like a few years, and I’m ready to be done with it. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll be able to head back to Omega Point and finally make some progress.
But no matter what happens next, and no matter what we discover, I’m determined to find my way to Anderson, even if I have to go alone.
I can’t scream.
My lungs won’t expand. My breaths keep coming in short gasps. My chest feels too tight and my throat is closing up and I’m trying to shout and I can’t, I can’t stop wheezing, thrashing my arms and trying desperately to breathe but the effort is futile. No one can hear me. No one will ever know that I’m dying, that there’s a hole in my chest filling with blood and pain and such unbearable agony and there’s so much of it, so much blood, hot and pooling around me and I can’t, I can’t, I can’t breathe—
“Juliette—Juliette, love, wake up—wake up—”
I jerk up so quickly I double over. I’m heaving in deep, harsh, gasping breaths, so overcome, so relieved to be able to get oxygen into my lungs that I can’t speak, can’t do any- thing but try to inhale as much as possible. My whole body is shaking, my skin is clammy, going from hot to cold too quickly. I can’t steady myself, can’t stop the silent tears, can’t shake the nightmare, can’t shake the memory.
I can’t stop gasping for air.
Warner’s hands cup my face. The warmth of his skin helps calm me somehow, and I finally feel my heart rate begin to slow. “Look at me,” he says.
I force myself to meet his eyes, shaking as I catch my breath.
“It’s okay,” he whispers, still holding my cheeks. “It was just a bad dream. Try closing your mouth,” he says, “and breathing through your nose.” He nods. “There you go. Easy. You’re okay.” His voice is so soft, so melodic, so inex- plicably tender.
I can’t look away from his eyes. I’m afraid to blink, afraid to be pulled back into my nightmare.
“I won’t let go until you’re ready,” he tells me. “Don’t worry. Take your time.”
I close my eyes. I feel my heart slow to a normal beat. My muscles begin to unclench, my hands steady their tremble. And even though I’m not actively crying, I can’t stop the tears from streaming down my face. But then something in my body breaks, crumples from the inside, and I’m suddenly so exhausted I can no longer hold myself up.
Somehow, Warner seems to understand.
He helps me sit back on the bed, pulls the blankets up around my shoulders. I’m shivering, wiping away the last of my tears. Warner runs a hand over my hair. “It’s okay,” he says softly. “You’re okay.”
“Aren’t y-you going to sleep, too?” I stammer, wondering what time it is. I notice he’s still fully dressed.
“I . . . yes,” he says. Even in this dim light I can see the surprise in his eyes. “Eventually. I don’t often go to bed this early.”
“Oh.” I blink, breathing a little easier now. “What time is it?”
“Two o’clock in the morning.”
It’s my turn to be surprised. “Don’t we have to be up in a few hours?”
“Yes.” The ghost of a smile touches his lips. “But I’m almost never able to fall asleep when I should. I can’t seem to turn my mind off,” he says, grinning at me for only a moment longer before he turns to leave.
The word escapes my lips even before I’ve had a chance to think it through. I’m not sure why I’ve said it. Maybe because it’s late and I’m still shaking, and maybe having him close might scare my nightmares away. Or maybe it’s because I’m weak and grieving and need a friend right now. I’m not sure. But there’s something about the darkness, the stillness of this hour, I think, that creates a language of its own. There’s a strange kind of freedom in the dark; a terrifying vulnerabil- ity we allow ourselves at exactly the wrong moment, tricked by the darkness into thinking it will keep our secrets. We forget that the blackness is not a blanket; we forget that the sun will soon rise. But in the moment, at least, we feel brave enough to say things we’d never say in the light.
Except for Warner, who doesn’t say a word.
For a split second he actually looks alarmed. He’s staring at me in silent terror, too stunned to speak, and I’m about to take it all back and hide under the covers when he catches my arm.
He tugs me forward until I’m nestled against his chest. His arms fall around me carefully, as if he’s telling me I can pull away, that he’ll understand, that it’s my choice. But I feel so safe, so warm, so devastatingly content that I can’t seem to come up with a single reason why I shouldn’t enjoy this moment. I press closer, hiding my face in the soft folds of his shirt, and his arms wrap more tightly around me, his chest rising and falling. My hands come up to rest against his stomach, the hard muscles tensed under my touch. My left hand slips around his ribs, up his back, and Warner freezes, his heart racing under my ear. My eyes fall closed just as I feel him try to inhale.
“Oh God,” he gasps. He jerks back, breaks away. “I can’t do this. I won’t survive it.”
He’s already on his feet and I can only make out enough of his silhouette to see that he’s shaking. “I can’t keep doing this—”
“I thought I could walk away the last time,” he says. “I thought I could let you go and hate you for it but I can’t. Because you make it so damn difficult,” he says. “Because you don’t play fair. You go and do something like get your- self shot,” he says, “and you ruin me in the process.”
I try to remain perfectly still. I try not to make a sound.
But my mind won’t stop racing and my heart won’t stop pounding and with just a few words he’s managed to dis- mantle my most concentrated efforts to forget what I did to him.
I don’t know what to do.
My eyes finally adjust to the darkness and I blink, only to find him looking into my eyes like he can see into my soul.
I’m not ready for this. Not yet. Not yet. Not like this. But a rush of feelings, images of his hands, his arms, his lips are charging through my mind and I try but can’t push the thoughts away, can’t ignore the scent of his skin and the insane familiarity of his body. I can almost hear his heart thrumming in his chest, can see the tense movement in his jaw, can feel the power quietly contained within him.
And suddenly his face changes. Worries. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “Are you scared?”
I startle, breathing faster, grateful he can only sense the general direction of my feelings and not more than that. For a moment I actually want to say no. No, I’m not scared.
Because being this close to you is doing things to me. Strange things and irrational things and things that f lut- ter against my chest and braid my bones together. I want a pocketful of punctuation marks to end the thoughts he’s forced into my head.
But I don’t say any of those things.
Instead, I ask a question I already know the answer to. “Why would I be scared?”
“You’re shaking,” he says. “Oh.”
The two letters and their small, startled sound run right out of my mouth to seek refuge in a place far from here. I keep wishing I had the strength to look away from him in moments like this. I keep wishing my cheeks wouldn’t so easily enf lame. I keep wasting my wishes on stupid things, I think.
“No, I’m not scared,” I finally say. But I really need him to step away from me. I really need him to do me that favor. “I’m just surprised.”
He’s silent, then, his eyes imploring me for an explana- tion. He’s become both familiar and foreign to me in such a short period of time; exactly and nothing like I thought he’d be.
“You allow the world to think you’re a heartless mur- derer,” I tell him. “And you’re not.”
He laughs, once; his eyebrows lift in surprise. “No,” he says. “I’m afraid I’m just the regular kind of murderer.”
“But why—why would you pretend to be so ruthless?” I ask. “Why do you allow people to treat you that way?”
He sighs. Pushes his rolled-up shirtsleeves above his elbows again. I can’t help but follow the movement, my eyes lingering along his forearms. And I realize, for the first time, that he doesn’t sport any military tattoos like everyone else. I wonder why.
“What difference does it make?” he says. “People can think whatever they like. I don’t desire their validation.”
“So you don’t mind,” I ask him, “that people judge you so harshly?”
“I have no one to impress,” he says. “No one who cares about what happens to me. I’m not in the business of mak- ing friends, love. My job is to lead an army, and it’s the only thing I’m good at. No one,” he says, “would be proud of the things I’ve accomplished. My mother doesn’t even know me anymore. My father thinks I’m weak and pathetic. My soldiers want me dead. The world is going to hell. And the conversations I have with you are the longest I’ve ever had.”
“What—really?” I ask, eyes wide. “Really.”
“And you trust me with all this information?” I say. “Why share your secrets with me?”
His eyes darken, deaden, all of a sudden. He looks toward the wall. “Don’t do that,” he says. “Don’t ask me questions you already know the answers to. Twice I’ve laid myself bare for you and all it’s gotten me was a bullet wound and a broken heart. Don’t torture me,” he says, meeting my eyes again. “It’s a cruel thing to do, even to someone like me.”
“I don’t understand!” He breaks, finally losing his com- posure, his voice rising in pitch. “What could Kent,” he says, spitting the name, “possibly do for you?”
I’m so shocked, so unprepared to answer such a ques- tion that I’m rendered momentarily speechless. I don’t even
know what’s happened to Adam, where he might be or what our future holds. Right now all I’m clinging to is a hope that he made it out alive. That he’s out there somewhere, surviving against the odds. Right now, that certainty would be enough for me.
So I take a deep breath and try to find the right words, the right way to explain that there are so many bigger, heavier issues to deal with, but when I look up I find War- ner is still staring at me, waiting for an answer to a question I now realize he’s been trying hard to suppress. Something that must be eating away at him.
And I suppose he deserves an answer. Especially after what I did to him.
So I take a deep breath.
“It’s not something I know how to explain,” I say. “He’s . . . I don’t know.” I stare into my hands. “He was my first friend. The first person to treat me with respect—to love me.” I’m quiet a moment. “He’s always been so kind to me.”
Warner f linches. His eyes widen in shock. “He’s always been so kind to you?”
“Yes,” I whisper.
Warner laughs a harsh, hollow sort of laugh.
“This is incredible,” he says, staring at the door, one hand caught in his hair. “I’ve been consumed by this question for the past three days, trying desperately to understand why you would give yourself to me so willingly, just to rip my heart out at the very last moment for some—some bland, utterly replaceable automaton. I kept thinking there had to be some great reason, something I’d overlooked, something
I wasn’t able to fathom.”
“And I was ready to accept it,” he says. “I’d forced myself to accept it because I figured your reasons were deep and beyond my grasp. I was willing to let you go if you’d found something extraordinary. Someone who could know you in ways I’d never be able to comprehend. Because you deserve that,” he says. “I told myself you deserved more than me, more than my miserable offerings.” He shakes his head. “But this?” he says, appalled. “These words? This explana- tion? You chose him because he’s kind to you? Because he’s offered you basic charity?”
I’m suddenly angry.
I’m suddenly mortified.
I’m outraged by the permission Warner’s granted him- self to judge my life—that he thought he’d been generous by stepping aside. I narrow my eyes, clench my fists. “It’s not charity,” I snap. “He cares about me—and I care about him!” Warner nods, unimpressed. “You should get a dog, love.
I hear they share much the same qualities.”
“You are unbelievable!” I shove myself upward, scram- bling to my feet and regretting it. I have to cling to the bed frame to steady myself. “My relationship with Adam is none of your business!”
“Your relationship?” Warner laughs, loud. He moves quickly to face me from the other side of the bed, leaving several feet between us. “What relationship? Does he even
know anything about you? Does he understand you? Does he know your wants, your fears, the truth you conceal in your heart?”
“Oh, and what? You do?”
“You know damn well that I do!” he shouts, pointing an accusatory finger at me. “And I’m willing to bet my life that he has no idea what you’re really like. You tiptoe around his feelings, pretending to be a nice little girl for him, don’t you? You’re afraid of scaring him off. You’re afraid of telling him too much—”
“You don’t know anything!”
“Oh I know,” he says, rushing forward. “I understand perfectly. He’s fallen for your quiet, timid shell. For who you used to be. He has no idea what you’re capable of. What you might do if you’re pushed too far.” His hand slips behind my neck; he leans in until our lips are only inches apart.
What is happening to my lungs.
“You’re a coward,” he whispers. “You want to be with me and it terrifies you. And you’re ashamed,” he says. “Ashamed you could ever want someone like me. Aren’t you?” He drops his gaze and his nose grazes mine and I can almost count the millimeters between our lips. I’m strug- gling to focus, trying to remember that I’m mad at him, mad about something, but his mouth is right in front of mine and my mind can’t stop trying to figure out how to shove aside the space between us.
“You want me,” he says softly, his hands moving up my back, “and it’s killing you.”
I jerk backward, breaking away, hating my body for reacting to him, for falling apart like this. My joints feel f limsy, my legs have lost their bones. I need oxygen, need a brain, need to find my lungs—
“You deserve so much more than charity,” he says, his chest heaving. “You deserve to live. You deserve to be alive.” He’s staring at me, unblinking.
“Come back to life, love. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
I wake up on my stomach.
My face is buried in the pillows, my arms hugging their soft contours. I blink steadily, my bleary eyes taking in my surroundings, trying to remember where I am. I squint into the brightness of the day. My hair falls into my face as I lift my head to look around.
I startle for no good reason, sitting up too quickly and clutching a pillow to my chest for an equally inexplicable reason. Warner is standing at the foot of the bed, fully dressed. He’s wearing black pants and a slate-green sweater that clings to the shape of his body, the sleeves pushed up his forearms. His hair is perfect. His eyes are alert, awake, impossibly brightened by the green of his shirt. And he’s holding a steaming mug in his hand. Smiling at me.
I offer him a limp wave.
“Coffee?” he asks, offering me the mug.
I stare at it, doubtful. “I’ve never had coffee before.”
“It isn’t terrible,” he says with a shrug. “Delalieu is obsessed with it. Isn’t that right, Delalieu?”
I jerk backward on the bed, my head nearly hitting the wall behind me.
An older, kindly-looking gentleman smiles at me from the corner of the room. His thin brown hair and twitchy mustache look vaguely familiar to me, as if I’ve seen him on base before. I notice he’s standing next to a breakfast cart. “It’s a pleasure to officially meet you, Miss Ferrars,” he says. His voice is a little shaky, but not at all intimidating. His eyes are unexpectedly sincere. “The coffee really is quite good,” he says. “I have it every day. Though I always have m-mine with—”
“Cream and sugar,” Warner says with a wry smile, his eyes laughing as if at some private joke. “Yes. Though I’m afraid the sugar is a bit too much for me. I find I prefer the bitterness.” He glances at me again. “The choice is yours.”
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Breakfast,” Warner says, his eyes revealing nothing. “I
thought you might be hungry.”
“It’s okay that he’s here?” I whisper, knowing full well that Delalieu can hear me. “That he knows I’m here?”
Warner nods. Offers me no other explanation. “Okay,” I tell him. “I’ll try the coffee.”
I crawl across the bed to reach for the mug, and Warner’s eyes follow my movements, traveling from my face to the shape of my body to the rumpled pillows and sheets beneath my hands and knees. When he finally meets my eyes he looks away too quickly, handing me the mug only to put an entire room between us.
“So how much does Delalieu know?” I ask, glancing at the older gentleman.
“What do you mean?” Warner raises an eyebrow.
“Well, does he know that I’m leaving?” I raise an eye- brow, too. Warner stares. “You promised you’d get me off base,” I say to him, “and I’m hoping Delalieu is here to help you with that. Though if it’s too much trouble, I’m always happy to take the window.” I cock my head. “It worked out well the last time.”
Warner narrows his eyes at me, his lips a thin line. He’s still glaring when he nods at the breakfast cart beside him. “This is how we’re getting you out of here today.”
I choke on my first sip of coffee. “What?”
“It’s the easiest, most efficient solution,” Warner says. “You’re small and lightweight, you can easily fold yourself into a tight space, and the cloth panels will keep you hidden from sight. I’m often working in my room,” he says. “Dela- lieu brings me my breakfast trays from time to time. No one will suspect anything unusual.”
I look at Delalieu for some kind of confirmation. He nods eagerly.
“How did you get me here in the first place?” I ask. “Why can’t we just do the same thing?”
Warner studies one of the breakfast plates. “I’m afraid that option is no longer available to us.”
“What do you mean?” My body seizes with a sudden anxiety. “How did you get me in here?”
“You weren’t exactly conscious,” he says. “We had to be a little more . . . creative.”
The old man looks up at the sound of my voice, clearly surprised to be addressed so directly. “Yes, miss?” “How did you get me into the building?”
Delalieu glances at Warner, whose gaze is now firmly fixed on the wall. Delalieu looks at me, offers me an apolo- getic smile. “We—well, we carted you in,” he says.
“Sir,” Delalieu says suddenly, his eyes imploring Warner for direction.
“We brought you in,” Warner says, stif ling a sigh, “in a body bag.”
My limbs go stiff with fear. “You what?”
“You were unconscious, love. We didn’t have many options. I couldn’t very well carry you onto base in my arms.” He shoots me a look. “There were many casualties from the battle,” he says. “On both sides. A body bag was easily overlooked.”
I’m gaping at him.
“Don’t worry.” He smiles. “I cut some holes in it for you.” “You’re so thoughtful,” I snap.
“It was thoughtful,” I hear Delalieu say. I look at him to find he’s watching me in shock, appalled by my behavior. “Our commander was saving your life.”
I stare into my coffee cup, heat coloring my cheeks. My conversations with Warner have never had an audience before. I wonder what our interactions must look like to an outside observer.
“It’s all right, Lieutenant,” Warner says. “She tends to get angry when she’s terrified. It’s little more than a defense mechanism. The idea of being folded into such a small space has likely triggered her claustrophobic tendencies.”
I look up suddenly.
Warner is staring directly at me, his eyes deep with an unspoken understanding.
I keep forgetting that Warner is able to sense emotions, that he can always tell what I’m really feeling. And he knows me well enough to be able to put everything into context.
I’m utterly transparent to him.
And somehow—right now, at least—I’m grateful for it. “Of course, sir,” Delalieu says. “My apologies.”
“Feel free to shower and change,” Warner says to me. “I left some clothes for you in the bathroom—no dresses,” he says, fighting a smile. “We’ll wait here. Delalieu and I have a few things to discuss.”
I nod, untangling myself from the bedsheets and stumbling to my feet. I tug on the hem of my T-shirt, self- conscious all of a sudden, feeling rumpled and disheveled in front of these two military men.
I stare at them for a moment.
Warner gestures to the bathroom door.
I take the coffee with me as I go, wondering all the while who Delalieu is and why Warner seems to trust him. I thought he said all of his soldiers wanted him dead.
I wish I could listen in on their conversation, but they’re both careful to say nothing until the bathroom door shuts behind me.
I take a quick shower, careful not to let the water touch my hair. I already washed it last night, and the temperature feels brisk this morning; if we’re headed out, I don’t want to risk catching a cold. It’s difficult, though, to avoid the temptation of a long shower—and hot water—in Warner’s bathroom.
I dress quickly, grabbing the folded clothes Warner left on a shelf for me. Dark jeans and a soft, navy-blue sweater. Fresh socks and underwear. A brand-new pair of tennis shoes.
The sizes are perfect. Of course they are.
I haven’t worn jeans in so many years that at first the material feels strange to me. The fit is so tight, so tapered; I have to bend my knees to stretch the denim a little. But by the time I tug the sweater over my head, I’m finally feeling comfortable. And even though I miss my suit, there’s some- thing nice about wearing real clothes. No fancy dresses, no cargo pants, no spandex. Just jeans and a sweater, like a normal person. It’s an odd reality.
I take a quick look in the mirror, blinking at my reflection. I wish I had something to tie my hair back with; I got
so used to being able to pull it out of my face while I was at Omega Point. I look away with a resigned sigh, hoping to get a start on this day as soon as possible. But the minute I crack open the bathroom door, I hear voices.
I freeze in place. Listening. “—sure it’s safe, sir?” Delalieu is talking.
“Forgive me,” the older man says quickly. “I don’t mean to seem impertinent, but I can’t help but be concerned—”
“It’ll be fine. Just make sure our troops aren’t patrolling that area. We should only be gone a few hours at the most.”
“Yes, sir.” Silence. Then
“Juliette,” Warner says, and I nearly fall into the toilet. “Come out here, love. It’s rude to eavesdrop.”
I step out of the bathroom slowly, face f lushed with heat from the shower and the shame of being caught in such a juvenile act. I suddenly have no idea what to do with my hands.
Warner is enjoying my embarrassment. “Ready to go?” No.
No, I’m not.
Suddenly hope and fear are strangling me and I have to remind myself to breathe. I’m not ready to face the death and destruction of all my friends. Of course I’m not.
But “Yes, of course” is what I say out loud.
I’m steeling myself for the truth, in whatever form it arrives.
Warner was right.
Being carted through Sector 45 was a lot easier than I expected. No one noticed us, and the empty space under- neath the cart was actually spacious enough for me to sit comfortably.
It’s only when Delalieu f lips open one of the cloth panels that I realize where we are. I glance around quickly, my eyes taking inventory of the military tanks parked in this vast space.
“Quickly,” Delalieu whispers. He motions toward the tank parked closest to us. I watch as the door is pushed open from the inside. “Hurry, miss. You cannot be seen.”
I jump out from underneath the cart and into the open door of the tank, clambering up and into the seat. The door shuts behind me, and I turn back to see Delalieu looking on, his watery eyes pinched together with worry. The tank starts moving.
I nearly fall forward.
“Stay low and buckle up, love. These tanks weren’t built for comfort.”
Warner is smiling as he stares straight ahead, his hands sheathed in black leather gloves, his body draped in a steel- gray overcoat. I duck down in my seat and fumble for the straps, buckling myself in as best I can.
“So you know how to get there?” I ask him. “Of course.”
“But your father said you couldn’t remember anything about Omega Point.”
Warner glances over, his eyes laughing. “How conve- nient for us that I’ve regained my memory.”
“Hey—how did you even get out of there?” I ask him. “How did you get past the guards?”
He shrugs. “I told them I had permission to be out of my room.”
I gape at him. “You’re not serious.” “Very.”
“But how did you find your way out?” I ask. “You got past the guards, fine. But that place is like a labyrinth— I couldn’t find my way around even after I’d been living there for a month.”
Warner checks a display on the dashboard. Hits a few buttons for functions I don’t understand. “I wasn’t com- pletely unconscious when I was carried in,” he says. “I forced myself to pay attention to the entrance,” he says. “I did my best to memorize any obvious landmarks. I also kept track of the amount of time it took to carry me from the entrance to the medical wing, and then from the medical wing to my room. And whenever Castle took me on my rounds to the bathroom,” he says, “I studied my surroundings, trying to gauge how far I was from the exit.”
“So—” I frown. “You could’ve defended yourself against the guards and tried to escape much sooner. Why didn’t you?”
“I already told you,” he says. “It was oddly luxurious, being confined like that. I was able to catch up on weeks of sleep. I didn’t have to work or deal with any military issues. But the most obvious answer,” he says, exhaling, “is that I stayed because I was able to see you every day.”
Warner laughs, his eyes pressed shut for a second. “You really never wanted to be there, did you?”
“What do you mean?”
He shakes his head. “If you’re going to survive,” he says to me, “you can never be indifferent to your surroundings. You can’t depend on others to take care of you. You cannot presume that someone else will do things right.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t care,” he says. “You were there, underground for over a month, grouped together with these supernatu- rally inclined rebels spouting big, lofty ideals about saving the world, and you say you couldn’t even find your way around. It’s because you didn’t care,” he says. “You didn’t want to participate. If you did, you would’ve taken the ini- tiative to learn as much as possible about your new home. You would’ve been beside yourself with excitement. Instead, you were apathetic. Indifferent.”
I open my mouth to protest but I don’t have a chance.
“I don’t blame you,” he says. “Their goals were unreal- istic. I don’t care how f lexible your limbs are or how many objects you can move with your mind. If you do not under- stand your opponent—or worse, if you underestimate your opponent—you are going to lose.” His jaw tightens. “I kept trying to tell you,” he says, “that Castle was going to lead your group into a massacre. He was too optimistic to be a proper leader, too hopeful to logically consider the odds stacked against him, and too ignorant of The Reestablish- ment to truly understand how they deal with voices of opposition.
“The Reestablishment,” Warner says, “is not interested in maintaining a facade of kindness. The civilians are noth- ing more than peons to them. They want power,” he says to me, “and they want to be entertained. They are not inter- ested in fixing our problems. They only want to make sure that they are as comfortable as possible as we dig our own graves.”
“Yes,” he says. “It is exactly that simple. Everything else is just a joke to them. The texts, the artifacts, the languages. They just want to scare people, to keep them submissive, and to strip them of their individuality—to herd them into a singular mentality that serves no purpose but their own. This is why they can and will destroy all rebel movements. And this is a fact that your friends did not fully understand. And now,” he says, “they have suf- fered for their ignorance.”
He stops the tank. Turns off the engine. Unlocks my door.
And I’m still not ready to face this.
Anyone would be able to find Omega Point now. Any citi- zen, any civilian, anyone with working vision would be able to tell you where the large crater in Sector 45 is located.
Warner was right.
I unbuckle myself slowly, reaching blindly for the door handle. I feel like I’m moving through fog, like my legs have been formed from fresh clay. I fail to account for the height of the tank above the ground and stumble into the open air.
This is it.
The empty, barren stretch of land I’d come to recognize as the area just around Omega Point; the land Castle told us was once lush with greenery and vegetation. He said it’d been the ideal hiding place for Omega Point. But this was before things started changing. Before the weather warped and the plants struggled to f lourish. Now it’s a graveyard. Skeletal trees and howling winds, a thin layer of snow pow- dered over the cold, packed earth.
Omega Point is gone.
It’s nothing but a huge, gaping hole in the ground about a mile across and 50 feet deep. It’s a bowlful of innards, of death and destruction, silent in the wake of tragedy. Years of effort, so much time and energy spent toward a specific goal, one purpose: a plan to save humanity.
A gust of wind climbs into my clothes then, wraps itself around my bones. Icy fingers tiptoe up my pant legs, clench their fists around my knees and pull; suddenly I’m not sure how I’m still standing. My blood feels frozen, brittle. My hands are covering my mouth and I don’t know who put them there.
Something heavy falls onto my shoulders. A coat.
I look back to find that Warner is watching me. He holds out a pair of gloves.
I take the gloves and tug them on over my frozen fingers and wonder why I’m not waking up yet, why no one has reached out to tell me it’s okay, it’s just a bad dream, that everything is going to be fine.
I feel as though I’ve been scooped out from the inside, like someone has spooned out all the organs I need to func- tion and I’m left with nothing, just emptiness, just complete and utter disbelief. Because this is impossible.
Omega Point. Gone.
Completely destroyed. “JULIETTE, GET DOWN—”
Warner tackles me to the ground just as the sound of gun- shots fills the air.
His arms are under me, cradling me to his chest, his body shielding mine from whatever imminent danger we’ve just gotten ourselves into. My heart is beating so loudly I can hardly hear Warner’s voice as he speaks into my ear. “Are you all right?” he whispers, pulling me tighter against him.
I try to nod.
“Stay down,” he says. “Don’t move.”
I wasn’t planning on it, I don’t say to him.
“STEP AWAY FROM HER, YOU WORTHLESS SACK OF SHIT—”
My body goes stiff.
That voice. I know that voice.
I hear footsteps coming closer, crunching on the snow and ice and dirt. Warner loosens his hold around me, and I realize he’s reaching for his gun.
“Kenji—no—,” I try to shout, my voice muff led by the snow.
“GET UP!” Kenji bellows, still moving closer. “Stand up, coward!”
I’ve officially begun to panic.
Warner’s lips brush against my ear. “I’ll be right back.” Just as I turn to protest, Warner’s weight is lifted. His body gone. He’s completely disappeared.
I scramble to my feet, spinning around. My eyes land on Kenji.
He’s stopped in place, confused and scanning the area, and I’m so happy to see him that I can’t be bothered to care about Warner right now. I’m almost ready to cry. I squeak out Kenji’s name.
His eyes lock on to mine.
He charges forward, closing the gap between us and tackling me in a hug so fierce he practically cuts off my cir- culation. “Holy shit it’s good to see you,” he says, breathless, squeezing me tighter.
I cling to him, so relieved, so stunned. I press my eyes shut, unable to stop the tears.
Kenji pulls back to look me in the eye, his face bright with pain and joy. “What the hell are you doing out here? I thought you were dead—”
“I thought you were dead!”
He stops then. The smile vanishes from his face. “Where the hell did Warner go?” he says, eyes taking in our sur- roundings. “You were with him, right? I’m not losing my mind, am I?”
“Yes—listen—Warner brought me here,” I tell him, trying to speak calmly, hoping to cool the anger in his eyes. “But he’s not trying to f ight. When he told me about what happened to Omega Point, I didn’t believe him, so I asked him to show me proof—”
“Is that right?” Kenji says, eyes f lashing with a kind of hatred I’ve never seen in him before. “He came to show off what they did? To show you how many people he MUR- DERED!” Kenji breaks away from me, shaking with fury. “Did he tell you how many children were in there? Did he tell you how many of our men and women were slaughtered because of him?” He stops, heaving. “Did he tell you that?” he asks again, screaming into the air. “COME BACK OUT HERE, YOU SICK BASTARD!”
But Kenji’s already gone, darting away so quickly he’s just a speck in the distance now. I know he’s searching the vast space for glimpses of Warner and I need to do something, I need to stop him but I don’t know how—
Warner’s whispers are at my ear, his hands planted firmly on my shoulders. I try to spin around and he holds me in place. “I said don’t move.”
“What are you d—”
“Shhhh,” he says. “No one can see me.”
“What?” I crane my neck to try and glance behind me, but my head knocks against Warner’s chin. His invisible chin. “No,” I hear myself gasp. “But you’re not touching him—”
“Look straight ahead,” he whispers. “It won’t do us any good for you to be caught talking to invisible people.”
I turn my face forward. Kenji is no longer in sight.
“How?” I ask Warner. “How did you—”
Warner shrugs behind me. “I’ve felt different since we did that experiment with your power. Now that I know exactly what it’s like to take hold of another ability, I’m more easily able to recognize it. Like right now,” he says. “I feel as though I could quite literally reach forward and take hold of your energy. It was just as simple with Kenji,” he says. “He was standing right there. My survival instincts took over.”
And even though this is a terrible moment to dwell on these things, I can’t help but allow myself to panic. That Warner can so easily project his powers. With no training. No practice.
He can tap into my abilities and use them as he pleases. This can’t possibly be good.
Warner’s hands squeeze my shoulders. “What are you doing?” I whisper.
“I’m trying to see if I can pass the power on to you—if I can retransfer it and make us both invisible—but it seems I’m unable. Once I’ve taken the energy from someone else, I can use it, but I can’t seem to share it. After I release the energy, it can only be returned to the owner.”
“How do you know so much already?” I ask, astonished. “You just learned about this a few days ago.”
“I’ve been practicing,” he says.
“But how? With who?” I pause. “Oh.”
“Yes,” he says. “It’s been rather incredible having you stay with me. For so many reasons.” His hands fall from my shoulders. “I was worried I might be able to hurt you with your own power. I wasn’t sure I could absorb it without accidentally using it against you. But we seem to cancel each other out,” he says. “Once I take it from you, I can only ever give it back.”
I’m not breathing.
“Let’s go,” Warner says. “Kenji is moving out of range and I won’t be able to hold on to his energy for much longer. We have to get out of here.”
“I can’t leave,” I tell him. “I can’t just abandon Kenji, not like this—”
“He’s going to try and kill me, love. And while I know I’ve proved otherwise in your case, I can assure you I’m generally incapable of standing by as someone makes an attempt on my life. So unless you want to watch me shoot him first, I suggest we get out of here as soon as possible. I can feel him circling back.”
“No. You can go. You should go. But I’m going to stay here.”
Warner stills behind me. “What?”
“Go,” I tell him. “You have to go to the compounds—you have things to take care of. You should go. But I need to be here. I have to know what’s happened to everyone else, and I have to move forward from there.”
“You’re asking me to leave you here,” he says, not both- ering to hide his shock. “Indefinitely.”
“Yes,” I say to him. “I’m not leaving until I get some answers. And you’re right. Kenji will definitely shoot first and ask questions later, so it’s best that you leave. I’ll talk to him, try to tell him what’s happened. Maybe we could all work together—”
“It doesn’t just have to be me and you,” I tell him. “You said you wanted to help me kill your father and take down The Reestablishment, right?”
Warner nods slowly against the back of my head. “Okay. So.” I take a deep breath. “I accept your offer.” Warner goes rigid. “You accept my offer.”
“Do you understand what you’re saying?”
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do this without you.”
I feel the breath rush out of him, his heart beating hard against my back.
“But I need to know who else is still alive,” I insist. “And the group of us can work together. We’ll be stronger that way, and we’ll all be fighting toward the same goal—”
“It’s the only way—”
“I have to go,” he says, spinning me around. “Kenji is almost here.” He shoves a hard plastic object into my hand. “Activate this pager,” he says, “whenever you’re ready. Keep it with you and I’ll know where to find you.”
“You have four hours,” he says. “If I don’t hear from you before then, I’ll assume you are in some kind of danger, and I will come find you myself.” He’s still holding my hand, the pager still pressed against my palm. It’s the craziest feeling, to be touched by someone you can’t see. “Do you under- stand?”
I nod, once. I have no idea where to look.
And then I freeze, every inch of me hot and cold all at once because he presses his lips to the back of my fingers in one soft, tender moment and when he pulls away I’m reel- ing, heady, unsteady.
Just as I’m regaining my footing, I hear the familiar sound of an electric thrum, and realize Warner has already begun to drive away.
And I’m left to wonder what on earth I’ve just agreed to.
Kenji is stomping toward me, his eyes blazing.
“Where the hell did he go? Did you see where he went?”
I shake my head as I reach forward, grabbing his arms in an attempt to focus his eyes. “Talk to me, Kenji. Tell me what happened—where is everyone—?”
“There is no everyone!” he snaps, breaking away. “Omega Point is gone—everything gone—everything—” He drops to his knees, heaving as he falls forward, his forehead digging into the snow. “I thought you were dead, too—I thought—” “No,” I gasp. “No, Kenji—they can’t all have died—not everyone—” Not Adam. Not Adam.
Please please please not Adam
I’d been too optimistic about today. I’d been lying to myself.
I didn’t really believe Warner. I didn’t believe it could be this bad. But now, to see the truth, and to hear Kenji’s agony—the reality of all that happened is hitting me so hard I feel like I’m falling backward into my own grave.
My knees have hit the ground.
“Please,” I’m saying, “please tell me there are others— Adam has to be alive—”
“I grew up here,” Kenji is saying. He’s not listening to me and I don’t recognize his raw, aching voice. I want the old Kenji, the one who knew how to take charge, to take control. And this isn’t him.
This Kenji is terrifying me.
“This was my whole life,” he says, looking toward the crater that used to be Omega Point. “The only place—all those people—” He chokes. “They were my family. My only family—”
“Kenji, please . . .” I try to shake him. I need him to snap out of his grief before I succumb to it, too. We need to move out of plain sight and I’m only now beginning to realize that Kenji doesn’t care. He wants to put himself in danger. He wants to fight. He wants to die.
I can’t let that happen.
Someone needs to take control of this situation right now and right now I might be the only one capable.
“Get up,” I snap, my voice harsher than I intended. “You need to get up, and you need to stop acting reckless. You know we’re not safe out here, and we have to move. Where are you staying?” I grab his arm and pull, but he won’t budge. “Get up!” I shout again. “Get—”
And then, just like that, I remember I’m a whole hell of a lot stronger than Kenji will ever be. It almost makes me smile.
I close my eyes and focus, trying to remember everything
Kenji taught me, everything I’ve learned about how to con- trol my strength, how to tap into it when I need to. I spent so many years bottling everything up and locking it away that it still takes some time to remember it’s there, waiting for me to harness it. But the moment I welcome it, I feel it rush into me. It’s a raw power so potent it makes me feel invincible.
And then, just like that, I yank Kenji up off the ground and toss him over my shoulder.
I do that.
Kenji, of course, unleashes a string of the foulest exple- tives I’ve ever heard. He’s kicking at me but I can hardly feel it; my arms are wrapped loosely around him, my strength carefully reined in so as not to crush him. He’s angry, but at least he’s swearing again. This is something I recognize.
I cut him off midexpletive. “Tell me where you’re stay- ing,” I say to him, “and pull yourself together. You can’t fall apart on me now.”
Kenji is silent a moment.
“Hey, um, I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a friend of mine,” he says. “Have you seen her? She’s a tiny little thing, cries a lot, spends too much time with her feelings—”
“Shut up, Kenji.”
“Oh wait!” he says. “It is you.” “Where are we going?”
“When are you going to put me down?” he counters, no longer amused. “I mean, I’ve got an excellent view of your ass from here, but if you don’t mind me staring—”
I drop him without thinking. “Goddammit, Juliette—what the hell—”
“How’s the view from down there?” I stand over his splayed body, arms crossed over my chest.
“I hate you.” “Get up, please.”
“When did you learn to do that?” he grumbles, stum- bling to his feet and rubbing his back.
I roll my eyes. Squint into the distance. Nothing and no one in sight, so far. “I didn’t.”
“Oh, right,” he says. “Because that makes sense. Because tossing a grown-ass man over your shoulders is just so freak- ing easy. That shit just comes naturally to you.”
Kenji lets out a low whistle. “Cocky as hell, too.”
“Yeah.” I shade my eyes against the cold sunlight. “I think spending all that time with you really screwed me up.” “Ohhh-ho,” he says, clapping his hands together, un- amused. “Stand up, princess. You’re a comedian.” “I’m already standing up.”
“It’s called a joke, smart-ass.”
“Where are we going?” I ask him again. I start walk- ing in no particular direction. “I really need to know where we’re headed.”
“Unregulated turf.” He falls into step with me, taking my hand to lead the way. We go invisible immediately. “It was the only place we could think of.”
“Yeah. It’s Adam’s old place, remember? It’s where first—”
I stop walking, chest heaving. I’m crushing Kenji’s hand in mine and he yanks it free, unleashing expletives as he does, making us visible again. “Adam is still alive?” I ask, searching his eyes.
“Of course he’s still alive.” Kenji shoots me a dirty look as he rubs at his hand. “Have you heard nothing I’ve been saying to you?”
“But you said everyone was dead,” I gasp. “You said—” “Everyone is dead,” Kenji says, his features darkening again. “There were over a hundred of us at Omega Point. There are only nine of us left.”