For a moment, he seems unable to speak.
“Sir,” he gasps. “Please forgive me.”
Delalieu follows me to my door.
“Gather the troops in the Quadrant tomorrow at ten hundred hours,” I say to him by way of good-bye. “I’ll have to make an announcement about these recent events as well as what’s to come.”
“Yes, sir,” Delalieu says. He doesn’t look up. He hasn’t looked at me since we left the warehouse.
I have other matters to worry about.
Not counting Delalieu’s stupidity, there are an infinite number of things I must take care of right now. I can’t afford any more difficulties, and I cannot be distracted. Not by her. Not by Delalieu. Not by anyone. I have to focus.
This is a terrible time to be wounded.
News of our situation has already hit a national level. Civilians and neighboring sectors are now aware of our minor uprising, and we have to tamp down the rumors as much as possible. I have to somehow defuse the alerts Delalieu has already sent out, and simultaneously suppress any hope of rebellion among the citizens. They’re already too eager to resist, and any spark of controversy will reignite their fervor. Too many have died already, and they still don’t seem to understand that standing against The Reestablishment is asking for more destruction. The civilians must be pacified.
I do not want war in my sector.
Now more than ever, I need to be in control of myself and my responsibilities. But my mind is scattered, my body fatigued and wounded. All day I’ve been inches from collapsing, and I don’t know what to do. I have no idea how to fix it. This weakness is foreign to my being.
In just two days, one girl has managed to cripple me.
I’ve taken even more of these disgusting pills, but I feel weaker than I did this morning. I thought I could ignore the pain and inconvenience of a wounded shoulder, but the complication refuses to diminish. I am now wholly dependent on whatever will carry me through these next weeks of frustration. Medicine, medics, hours in bed.
All this for a kiss.
It’s almost unbearable.
“I’ll be in my office for the rest of the day,” I tell Delalieu. “Have my meals sent to my room, and do not disturb me unless there are any new developments.”
“That’ll be all, Lieutenant.”
I don’t even realize how ill I feel until I close the bedroom door behind me. I stagger to the bed and grip the frame to keep from falling over. I’m sweating again and decide to strip the extra coat I wore on our outside excursion. I yank off the blazer I’d carelessly tossed over my injured shoulder this morning and fall backward onto my bed. I’m suddenly freezing. My good hand shakes as I reach for the medic call button.
I need to get the dressing on my shoulder changed. I need to eat something substantial. And more than anything else, I desperately need to take a real shower, which seems altogether impossible.
Someone is standing over me.
I blink several times but can only make out the general outline of their figure. A face keeps coming in and out of focus until I finally give up. My eyes fall closed. My head is pounding. Pain is searing through my bones and up my neck; reds and yellows and blues blur together behind my eyelids. I catch only clips of the conversation around me.
—seems to have developed a fever—
—probably sedate him—
—how many did he take?—
They’re going to kill me, I realize. This is the perfect opportunity. I’m weak and unable to fight back, and someone has finally come to kill me. This is it. My moment. It has arrived. And somehow I can’t seem to accept it.
I take a swipe at the voices; an inhuman sound escapes my throat. Something hard hits my fist and crashes to the floor. Hands clamp down on my right arm and pin it in place. Something is being tightened around my ankles, my wrist. I’m thrashing against these new restraints and kicking desperately at the air. The blackness seems to be pressing against my eyes, my ears, my throat. I can’t breathe, can’t hear or see clearly, and the suffocation of the moment is so terrifying that I’m almost certain I’ve lost my mind.
Something cold and sharp pinches my arm.
I have only a moment to reflect on the pain before it engulfs me.
“Juliette,” I whisper. “What are you doing here?”
I’m half-dressed, getting ready for my day, and it’s too early for visitors. These hours just before the sun rises are my only moments of peace, and no one should be in here. It seems impossible she gained access to my private quarters.
Someone should’ve stopped her.
Instead, she’s standing in my doorway, staring at me. I’ve seen her so many times, but this is different—it’s causing me physical pain to look at her. But somehow I still find myself drawn to her, wanting to be near her.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, and she’s wringing her hands, looking away from me. “I’m so, so sorry.”
I notice what she’s wearing.
It’s a dark-green dress with fitted sleeves; a simple cut made of stretch cotton that clings to the soft curves of her figure. It complements the flecks of green in her eyes in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. It’s one of the many dresses I chose for her. I thought she might enjoy having something nice after being caged as an animal for so long. And I can’t quite explain it, but it gives me a strange sense of pride to see her wearing something I picked out myself.
“I’m sorry,” she says for the third time.
I’m again struck by how impossible it is that she’s here. In my bedroom. Staring at me without my shirt on. Her hair is so long it falls to the middle of her back; I have to clench my fists against this unbidden need to run my hands through it. She’s so beautiful.
I don’t understand why she keeps apologizing.
She shuts the door behind her. She’s walking over to me. My heart is beating quickly now, and it doesn’t feel natural. I do not react this way. I do not lose control. I see her every day and manage to maintain some semblance of dignity, but something is off; this isn’t right.
She’s touching my arm.
She’s running her fingers along the curve of my shoulder, and the brush of her skin against mine is making me want to scream. The pain is excruciating, but I can’t speak; I’m frozen in place.
I want to tell her to stop, to leave, but parts of me are at war. I’m happy to have her close even if it hurts, even if it doesn’t make any sense. But I can’t seem to reach for her; I can’t hold her like I’ve always wanted to.
She looks at me.
She searches me with those odd, blue-green eyes and I feel guilty so suddenly, without understanding why. But there’s something about the way she looks at me that always makes me feel insignificant, as if she’s the only one who’s realized I’m entirely hollow inside. She’s found the cracks in this cast I’m forced to wear every day, and it petrifies me.
That this girl would know exactly how to shatter me.
She rests her hand against my collarbone.
And then she grips my shoulder, digs her fingers into my skin like she’s trying to tear off my arm. The agony is so blinding that this time I actually scream. I fall to my knees before her and she wrenches my arm, twisting it backward until I’m heaving from the effort to stay calm, fighting not to lose myself to the pain.
“Juliette,” I gasp, “please—”
She runs her free hand through my hair, tugs my head back so I’m forced to meet her eyes. And then she leans into my ear, her lips almost touching my cheek. “Do you love me?” she whispers.
“What?” I breathe. “What are you doing—”
“Do you still love me?” she asks again, her fingers now tracing the shape of my face, the line of my jaw.
“Yes,” I tell her. “Yes I still do—”
It’s such a sweet, innocent smile that I’m actually shocked when her grip tightens around my arm. She twists my shoulder back until I’m sure it’s being ripped from the socket. I’m seeing spots when she says, “It’s almost over now.”
“What is?” I ask, frantic, trying to look around. “What’s almost over—”
“Just a little longer and I’ll leave.”
“No—no, don’t go—where are you going—”
“You’ll be all right,” she says. “I promise.”
“No,” I’m gasping, “no—”
All at once she yanks me forward, and I’m awake so quickly I can’t breathe.
I blink several times only to realize I’ve woken up in the middle of the night. Absolute blackness greets me from the corners of my room. My chest is heaving; my arm is bound and pounding, and I realize my pain medication has worn off. There’s a small remote wedged under my hand; I press the button to replenish the dosage.
It takes a few moments for my breathing to stabilize. My thoughts slowly retreat from panic.
I can’t control a nightmare, but in my waking moments her name is the only reminder I will permit myself.
The accompanying humiliation will not allow me much more than that.
“Well, isn’t this embarrassing. My son, tied down like an animal.”
I’m half-convinced I’m having another nightmare. I blink my eyes open slowly; I stare up at the ceiling. I make no sudden movements, but I can feel the very real weight of restraints around my left wrist and both ankles. My injured arm is still bound and slung across my chest. And though the pain in my shoulder is present, it’s dulled to a light hum. I feel stronger. Even my head feels clearer, sharper somehow. But then I taste the tang of something sour and metal in my mouth and wonder how long I’ve been in bed.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t find out?” he asks, amused.
He moves closer to my bed, his footsteps reverberating right through me. “You have Delalieu whimpering apologies for disturbing me, begging my men to blame him for the inconvenience of this unexpected visit. No doubt you terrified the old man for doing his job, when the truth is, I would’ve found out even without his alerts. This,” he says, “is not the kind of mess you can conceal. You’re an idiot for thinking otherwise.”
I feel a light tugging on my legs and realize he’s undoing my restraints. The brush of his skin against mine is abrupt and unexpected, and it triggers something deep and dark within me, enough to make me physically ill. I taste vomit at the back of my throat. It takes all my self-control not to jerk away from him.
“Sit up, son. You should be well enough to function now. You were too stupid to rest when you were supposed to, and now you’ve overcorrected. Three days you’ve been unconscious, and I arrived twenty-seven hours ago. Now get up. This is ridiculous.”
I’m still staring at the ceiling. Hardly breathing.
He changes tactics.
“You know,” he says carefully, “I’ve actually heard an interesting story about you.” He sits down on the edge of my bed; the mattress creaks and groans under his weight. “Would you like to hear it?”