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 vulnerability 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 yourself 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 dismantle 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 flutter 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.
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 enflame. 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 explanation. 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 murderer,” 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 making 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.
“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.”