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I turn around, tilt my head. “I’m sorry, when was I supposed to learn about fashion, Kenji? When I was growing up alone and tortured by my horrible parents? Or maybe when I was festering in an insane asylum?”

That shuts him up.

“So?” I say, nodding with my chin. “Which one?”

He picks up the two pieces I threw at him and frowns. “You’re making me choose between a short, shiny dress and a pair of pajama bottoms? I mean—I guess I choose the dress? But I don’t think it’ll go well with those ratty tennis shoes you’re always wearing.”

“Oh.” I glance down at my shoes. “Well, I don’t know. Warner picked this stuff out for me a long time ago—before he even met me. It’s all I have,” I say, looking up. “These clothes are left over from when I first got to Sector 45.”

“Why don’t you just wear your suit?” Kenji says, leaning against the wall. “The new one Alia and Winston made for you?”

I shake my head. “They haven’t finished fixing it yet. And it’s still got bloodstains from when I shot Warner’s dad. Besides,” I say, taking a deep breath, “that was a different me. I wore those head-to-toe suits when I thought I had to protect people from my skin. But I’m different now. I can turn my power off. I can be . . . normal.” I try to smile. “So I want to dress like a normal person.”

“But you’re not a normal person.”

“I know that.” A frustrating flush of heat warms my cheeks. “I just . . . I think I’d like to dress like one. Maybe for a little while? I’ve never been able to act my age and I just want to feel a little bit—”

“I get it,” Kenji says, cutting me off with one hand. He looks me up and down. Says, “Well, I mean, if that’s the look you’re going for, I think you look like a normal person right now. This’ll work.” He waves in the general direction of my body.

I’m wearing jeans and a pink sweater. My hair is pulled up into a high ponytail. I feel comfortable and normal—but I also feel like an unaccomplished seventeen-year-old playing pretend.

“But I’m supposed to be the supreme commander of North America,” I say. “Do you think it’s okay if I’m dressed like this? Warner is always wearing fancy suits, you know? Or just, like, really nice clothes. He always looks so poised—so intimidating—”

“Where is he, by the way?” Kenji cuts me off. “I mean, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I agree with Castle. Warner should be here for this meeting.”

I take a deep breath. Try to be calm. “I know that Warner knows everything, okay? I know he’s the best at basically everything, that he was born for this life. His father was grooming him to lead the world. In another life, another reality? This was supposed to be his role. I know that. I do.”

“But?”

“But it’s not Warner’s job, is it?” I say angrily. “It’s mine. And I’m trying not to rely on him all the time. I want to try to do some things on my own now. To take charge.”

Kenji doesn’t seem convinced. “I don’t know, J. I think maybe this is one of those times when you should still be relying on him. He knows this world way better than we do—and, bonus, he’d be able to tell you what you should be wearing.” Kenji shrugs. “Fashion really isn’t my area of expertise.”

I pick up the short, shiny dress and examine it.

Just over two weeks ago I single-handedly fought off hundreds of soldiers. I crushed a man’s throat in my fist. I put two bullets through Anderson’s forehead with no hesitation or regret. But here, staring at an armoire full of clothes, I’m intimidated.

“Maybe I should call Warner,” I say, peeking over my shoulder at Kenji.

“Yep.” He points at me. “Good idea.”

But then,

“No—never mind,” I say. “It’s okay. I’ll be okay, right? I mean what’s the big deal? He’s just a kid, right? Just the son of a supreme commander. Not an actual supreme commander. Right?”

“Uhhh—all of it is a big deal, J. The kids of the commanders are all, like, other Warners. They’re basically mercenaries. And they’ve all been prepped to take their parents’ places—”

“Yeah, no, I should definitely do this on my own.” I’m looking in a mirror now, pulling my ponytail tight. “Right?”

Kenji is shaking his head.

“Yes. Exactly.” I nod.

“Uh-uh. No. I think this is a bad idea.”

“I’m capable of doing some things on my own, Kenji,” I snap. “I’m not totally clueless.”

Kenji sighs. “Whatever you say, princess.”

WARNER

“Mr Warner—please, Mr Warner, slow down, son—”

I stop too suddenly, pivoting sharply on my heel. Castle is chasing me down the hall, waving a frantic hand in my direction. I meet his eyes with a mild expression.

“Can I help you?”

“Where have you been?” he says, obviously out of breath. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

I raise an eyebrow, fighting back the urge to tell him that my whereabouts are none of his business. “I had a few aerial rounds to make.”

Castle frowns. “Don’t you usually do that later in the afternoon?”

At this, I almost smile. “You’ve been watching me.”

“Let’s not play games. You’ve been watching me, too.”

Now I actually smile. “Have I?”

“You think so little of my intelligence.”

“I don’t know what to think of you, Castle.”

He laughs out loud. “Goodness, you’re an excellent liar.”

I look away. “What do you need?”

“He’s here. He’s here right now and she’s with him and I tried to stop her but she wouldn’t listen to me—”

I turn back, alarmed. “Who’s here?”

For the first time, I see actual anger flicker in Castle’s eyes. “Now is not the time to play dumb with me, son. Haider Ibrahim is here. Right now. And Juliette is meeting with him alone, completely unprepared.”

Shock renders me, for a moment, speechless.

“Did you hear what I said?” Castle is nearly shouting. “She’s meeting with him now.”

“How?” I say, coming back to myself. “How is he here already? Did he arrive alone?”

“Mr Warner, please listen to me. You have to talk to her. You have to explain and you have to do it now,” he says, grabbing my shoulders. “They’re coming back for h—”

Castle is thrown backward, hard.

He cries out as he catches himself, his arms and legs splayed out in front of him as if caught in a gust of wind. He remains in that impossible position, hovering several inches off the ground, and stares at me, chest heaving. Slowly, he steadies. His feet finally touch the floor.

“You would use my own powers against me?” he says, breathing hard. “I am your ally—”

“Never,” I say sharply, “ever put your hands on me, Castle. Or next time I might accidentally kill you.”

Castle blinks. And then I feel it—I can sense it, close my fingers around it: his pity. It’s everywhere. Awful. Suffocating.

“Don’t you dare feel sorry for me,” I say.

“My apologies,” he says quietly. “I didn’t mean to invade your personal space. But you must understand the urgency here. First, the RSVP—and now, Haider’s arrival? This is just the beginning,” he says, lowering his voice. “They are mobilizing.”

“You are overthinking this,” I say, my voice clipped. “Haider’s arrival today is about me. Sector 45’s inevitable infestation by a swarm of supreme commanders is about me. I’ve committed treason, remember?” I shake my head, begin walking away. “They’re just a little . . . angry.”

“Stop,” he says. “Listen to me—”

“You don’t need to concern yourself with this, Castle. I’ll handle it.”

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