“For you,” she says, “I’d do it with pleasure.”
Now, Haider smiles. Laughs, out loud. And for the first time since he’s arrived, he actually looks sincere. His eyes crinkle with delight. “Would you mind,” he says to her, “if I borrowed your Warner for a bit? I promise I won’t put my hands on him. I’d just like to speak with him.”
She looks at me then, a question in her eyes.
But I can only smile at her. I want to scoop her up and carry her away. Take her somewhere quiet and lose myself in her. I love that the girl who blushes so easily in my arms is the same one who would kill a man for hurting me.
“I won’t be long,” I say.
And she returns my smile, her face transformed once again. It lasts only a couple of seconds, but somehow time slows down long enough for me to gather the many details of this moment and place it among my favorite memories. I’m grateful, suddenly, for this unusual, supernatural gift I have for sensing emotions. It’s still my secret, known only by a few—a secret I’d managed to keep from my father, and from the other commanders and their children. I like how it makes me feel separate—different—from the people I’ve always known. But best of all, it makes it possible for me to know how deeply Juliette loves me. I can always feel the rush of emotion in her words, in her eyes. The certainty that she would fight for me. Protect me. And knowing this makes my heart feel so full that, sometimes, when we’re together, I can hardly breathe.
I wonder if she knows that I would do anything for her.
“Oh, look! A fish!” I run toward the water and Kenji catches me around the waist, hauls me back.
“That water is disgusting, J. You shouldn’t get near it.”
“What? Why?” I say, still pointing. “Can’t you see the fish? I haven’t seen a fish in the water in a really long time.”
“Yeah, well, it’s probably dead.”
“What?” I look again, squinting. “No—I don’t think—”
“Oh, yeah, it’s definitely dead.”
We both look up.
It’s the first thing Nazeera has said all morning. She’s been very quiet, watching and listening to everything with an eerie stillness. Actually, I’ve noticed she spends most of her time watching her brother. She doesn’t seem interested in me the way Haider seems to be, and I find it confusing. I don’t understand yet exactly why they’re here. I know they’re curious about who I am—which, honestly, I get—but there’s got to be more to it than just that. And it’s this unknowable part—the tension between brother and sister, even—that I can’t comprehend.
So I wait for her to say more.
She’s still watching her brother, who’s off in the distance with Warner now, the two of them discussing something we can no longer hear.
It’s an interesting scene, the two of them.
Warner is wearing a dark, blood-red suit today. No tie, and no overcoat—even though it’s freezing outside—just a black shirt underneath the blazer, and a pair of black boots. He’s clutching the handle of a briefcase and a pair of gloves in the same hand, and his cheeks are pink from the cold. Beside him, Haider’s hair is a wild, untamed shock of blackness in the gray morning light. He’s wearing slim black slacks and yesterday’s chain-link shirt underneath a long blue velvet coat, and doesn’t seem at all bothered by the wind blowing the jacket open to reveal his heavily built, very bronzed upper body. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s intentional. The two of them walking tall and alone on the deserted beach—heavy boots leaving prints in the sand—makes for a striking image, but they’re definitely overdressed for the occasion.
If I were being honest, I’d be forced to admit that Haider is just as beautiful as his sister, despite his aversion to wearing shirts. But Haider seems deeply aware of how handsome he is, which somehow works against him. In any case, none of that matters. I’m only interested in the boy walking beside him. So it’s Warner I’m staring at when Kenji says something that pulls me suddenly back to the present.
“I think we better get back to base, J.” He checks the time on the watch he’s only recently started wearing. “Castle said he needs to talk to you ASAP.”
Kenji nods. “Yeah, and I have to talk to the girls about their progress with James, remember? Castle wants a report. By the way, I think Winston and Alia are finally done fixing your suit, and they actually have a new design for you to look at when you have a chance. I know you still have to get through the rest of your mail from today, but whenever you’re done maybe we could—”
“Hey,” Nazeera says, waving at us as she walks up. “If you guys are heading back to base, could you do me a favor and grant me clearance to walk around the sector on my own today?” She smiles at me. “I haven’t been back here in over a year, and I’d like to look around a little. See what’s changed.”
“Sure,” I say, and smile back. “The soldiers at the front desk can take care of that. Just give them your name, and I’ll have Kenji send them my pre-authorizati—”
“Oh—yeah, actually, you know what? Why don’t I just show you around myself?” Kenji beams at her. “This place changed a lot in the last year. I’d be happy to be your tour guide.”
Nazeera hesitates. “I thought I just heard you say you had a bunch of things to do.”
“What? No.” He laughs. “Zero things to do. I’m all yours. For whatever. You know.”
He flicks me in the back and I flinch, scowling at him.
“Um, okay,” Nazeera says. “Well, maybe later, if you have time—”
“I’ve got time now,” he says, and he’s grinning at her like an idiot. Like, an actual idiot. I don’t know how to save him from himself. “Should we get going?” he says. “We can start here—I can show you around the compounds first, if you like. Or, I mean, we can start in unregulated territory, too.” He shrugs. “Whatever you prefer. Just let me know.”
Nazeera looks suddenly fascinated. She’s staring at Kenji like she might chop him up and put him in a stew. “Aren’t you a member of the Supreme Guard?” she says. “Shouldn’t you stay with your commander until she’s safely back to base?”
“Oh, uh, yeah—no, she’ll be fine,” he says in a rush. “Plus we’ve got these dudes”—he waves at the six soldiers shadowing us—“watching her all the time, so, she’ll be safe.”
I pinch him, hard, in the side of his stomach.
Kenji gasps, spins around. “We’re only like five minutes from base,” he says. “You’ll be okay getting back by yourself, won’t you?”
I glare at him. “Of course I can get back by myself,” I shout-whisper. “That’s not why I’m mad. I’m mad because you have a million things to do and you’re acting like an idiot in front of a girl who is obviously not interested in you.”
Kenji steps back, looking injured. “Why are you trying to hurt me, J? Where’s your vote of confidence? Where’s the love and support I require at this difficult hour? I need you to be my wingwoman.”
“You do know that I can hear you, right?” Nazeera tilts her head to one side, her arms crossed loosely against her chest. “I’m standing right here.”
She looks somehow even more stunning today, her hair wrapped up in silks that look like liquid gold in the light. She’s wearing an intricately braided red sweater, a pair of black, textured leather leggings, and black boots with steel platforms. And she’s still got those heavy gold knuckles on both her fists.
I wish I could ask her where she gets her clothes.
I only realize Kenji and I have both been staring at her for too long when she finally clears her throat. She drops her arms and steps cautiously forward, smiling—not unkindly—at Kenji, who seems suddenly unable to breathe. “Listen,” she says softly. “You’re cute. Really cute. You’ve got a great face. But this,” she says, gesturing between them, “is not happening.”
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