I feel free.
Still, I need to focus on where I am, on what’s happening. I need to be forming a plan of attack, a plan of escape, a plan to rescue Ella. But my mind is being pulled in what feels like a hundred different directions.
The memories are growing more intense by the minute.
I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I don’t know how long this barrage will last or how much more will be uncovered, but the emotional revelations are beginning to take their toll on me.
A few months ago, I knew I loved Ella. I knew I felt for her what I’d never felt before for anyone. It felt new and precious and tender.
But every day—every minute—of the last couple of weeks I’ve been bombarded by memories of her I never even knew I had. Moments with her from years ago. The sound of her laughter, the smell of her hair, the look in her eyes when she smiled at me for the first time. The way it felt to hold her hand when everything was new and unknown—
Three years ago.
How could it be possible that I touched her like that three years ago? How could we have known then, without actually knowing why, that we could be together? That she could touch me without hurting me? How could any of these moments have been ripped from my mind?
I had no idea I’d lost so much of her. But then, I had no idea there’d been so much to lose.
A profound, painful ache has rooted inside of me, carrying with it the weight of years. Being apart from Juliette—Ella—has always been hard, but now it seems unsurvivable.
I’m being slowly decimated by emotion.
I need to see her. To hold her. To bind her to me, somehow. I won’t believe a word my father said until I see her and speak with her in person.
I can’t give up. Not yet.
To hell with what happened between us back on base. Those events feel like they happened lifetimes ago. Like they happened to different people. Once I find her and get her to safety I will find a way to make things right between us. It feels like something long dead inside of me is being slowly returned to life—like my hopes and dreams are being resuscitated, like the holes in my heart are being slowly, carefully mended. I will find her. And when I do, I will find a way to move forward with her, by my side, forever.
I take a deep breath.
And then I get to my feet.
I brace myself, expecting the familiar sting of my broken ribs, but the pain in my side is gone. Gingerly, I touch my torso; the bruising has disappeared. I touch my face and I’m surprised to discover that my skin is smooth, clean-shaven. I touch my hair and find it’s been returned to its original length—exactly as it was before I had to cut it all off.
Still, I feel more like myself than I have in a long time, and I’m quietly grateful. The only thing bothering me is that I’m wearing nothing but a dressing grown, under which I’m completely naked.
I’m sick of being naked.
I want my clothes. I want a proper pair of pants. I want—
And then, as if someone has read my mind, I notice a fresh set of clothes on a nearby table. Clothes that look exactly my size.
I pick up the sweater. Examine it.
These are my actual clothes. I know these pieces. Recognize them. And if that wasn’t enough, my initials—AWA—are monogrammed on the cuff of the sweater. This was no accident. Someone brought my clothes here. From my own closet.
They were expecting me.
I dress quickly, grateful for the clean outfit regardless of the circumstances, and I’m nearly done with the straps on my boots when someone walks in.
“Max,” I say, without lifting my head. Carefully, I step on the needle I’d tossed earlier to the floor. “How are you?”
He laughs out loud. “How did you know it was me?”
“I recognized the rhythm of your footfalls.”
He goes quiet.
“Don’t bother trying to deny it,” I say, hiding the syringe in my hand as I sit up. I meet his eyes and smile. “I’ve been listening to your heavy, uneven gait for the last two weeks.”
Max’s eyes widen. “I’m impressed.”
“And I appreciate the clean shave,” I say, touching my face.
He laughs again, more softly this time. “You were pretty close to dead when I brought you in here. Imagine my surprise to find you nearly naked, severely dehydrated, half-starved, vitamin-deficient. You had three broken ribs. Your father’s blood all over your hands.”
“Three broken ribs? I thought it was two.”
“Three broken ribs,” Max says, and nods. “And still, you managed to sever Paris’s carotid artery. Nicely done.”
I meet his eyes. Max thinks this is funny.
And then I understand.
“He’s still alive, isn’t he?” I say.
Max smiles wider. “Quite alive, yes. Despite your best efforts to murder him.”
“That seems impossible.”
“You sound irritated,” Max says.
“I am irritated. That he survived is an insult to my skill set.”
Max fights back another laugh. “I don’t remember you being so funny.”
“I’m not trying to be funny.”
But Max can’t wipe the smile off his face.
“So you’re not going to tell me how he survived?” I say. “You’re just going to bait me?”
“I’m waiting for my wife,” he says.
“I understand. Does she help you sound out the big words?”
Max’s eyebrows jump up his forehead. “Watch yourself, Aaron.”
“Apologies. Please step out of my way.”
“As I said, I’m waiting for my wife. She has something she wants to say to you.”
I study him, looking closely at his face in a way I can’t remember ever having done. He has dark brown hair, light brown skin, and bright blue-green eyes. He’s aged well. On a different day, I might’ve even described his face as warm, friendly. But knowing now that he’s Ella’s father—I almost can’t believe I didn’t notice sooner. She has his eyes.
I hear a second set of footsteps drawing nearer to the door. I expect to see Evie, Supreme Sommers, and instead—
“Max, how long do you think it’ll take bef—”
My father. His voice.
I can hardly believe it.
He stops, just inside the doorway, when he sees my face. He’s holding a bloodied towel to his throat. “You idiot,” he says to me.
I don’t have a chance to respond.
A sharp alarm sounds, and Max goes suddenly rigid. He glances at a monitor on the wall before looking back at my father.
“Go,” Anderson says. “I can handle him.”
Max glances at me just once before he disappears.
“So,” I say, nodding at my father’s face, his healing wound. “Are you going to explain?”
He merely stares at me.
I watch, quietly, as he uses his free hand to pull a handkerchief from his pocket. He wipes the remaining blood from his lips, refolds the handkerchief, and tucks it back inside his pocket.
Something between us has changed.
I can feel it. Can feel the shift in his attitude toward me. It takes a minute to piece together the various emotional cues long enough to understand, but when it finally hits me, it hits me hard.
For the first time in my life, my father is staring at me with something like respect. I tried to kill him, and instead of being angry with me, he seems pleased. Maybe even impressed.
“You did good work back there,” he says quietly. “It was a strong throw. Solid.”
It feels strange to accept his compliment, so I don’t.
My father sighs.
“Part of the reason I wanted custody of those healer twins,” he says finally, “was because I wanted Evie to study them. I wanted her to replicate their DNA and braid it into my own. Healing powers, I realized, were extremely useful.”
A sharp chill goes up my spine.
“But I didn’t have them under my control for as long as I wanted,” he says. “I was only able to extract a few blood samples. Evie did the best she could with the time we had.”
I blink. Try to control the expression on my face. “So you have healing powers now?”
“We’re still working on it,” he says, his jaw tight. “It’s not yet perfect. But it was enough that I was able to survive the wounds to the head just long enough to be shipped to safety.” He smiles a bitter smile. “My feet, on the other hand, didn’t make it.”
“How unfortunate,” I lie.
I test the weight of the syringe in my hand. I wonder how much damage it could do. It’s not substantial enough to do much more than stun, but a carefully angled attack could result in temporary nerve pain that would buy me a sizable amount of time. But then, so might a single, precise stab in the eye.
“Operation Synthesis,” my father says sharply.
I look up. Surprised.
“You’re ready, Aaron.” His gaze is steady. “You’re ready for a real challenge. You’ve got the necessary fire. The drive. I’m seeing it in your eyes for the first time.”
I’m too afraid to speak.
Finally, after all these years, my father is giving me praise. He’s telling me I’m capable. As a child, it was everything I’d ever wanted.