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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 illness 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 hoping,” 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, looking 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 something, 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 disgusted 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 expecting 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 uncontrollable 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 entertainment 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 wanting 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 everything I hoped it would be.” He smiles. “You looked truly alive for the very first time.”

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