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Kenji doesn’t appear to have heard her. “You think I’ve got a great face?”

She laughs and frowns at the same time. Waves two fingers and says, “Bye.”

And that’s it. She walks away.

Kenji says nothing. His eyes are fixed on Nazeera’s disappearing form in the distance.

I pat his arm, try to sound sympathetic. “It’ll be okay,” I say. “Rejection is har—”

“That was amazing.”

“Uh. What?”

He turns to look at me. “I mean, I’ve always known I had a great face. But now I know, like, for sure that I’ve got a great face. And it’s just so validating.”

“You know, I don’t think I like this side of you.”

“Don’t be like that, J.” Kenji taps me on the nose. “Don’t be jealous.”

“I’m not je—”

“I mean, I deserve to be happy, too, don’t I?” And he goes suddenly quiet. His smile slips, his laugh dies away, and Kenji looks, if only for a moment—sad. “Maybe one day.”

I feel my heart seize.

“Hey,” I say gently. “You deserve to be the happiest.”

Kenji runs a hand through his hair and sighs. “Yeah. Well.”

“Her loss,” I say.

He glances at me. “I guess that was pretty decent, as far as rejections go.”

“She just doesn’t know you,” I say. “You’re a total catch.”

“I know, right? I keep trying to tell people.”

“People are dumb.” I shrug. “I think you’re wonderful.”

“Wonderful, huh?”

“Yep,” I say, and link my arm in his. “You’re smart and funny and kind and—”

“Handsome,” he says. “Don’t forget handsome.”

“And very handsome,” I say, nodding.

“Yeah, I’m flattered, J, but I don’t like you like that.”

My mouth drops open.

“How many times do I have to ask you to stop falling in love with me?”

“Hey!” I say, shoving away from him. “You’re terrible.”

“I thought I was wonderful.”

“Depends on the hour.”

And he laughs, out loud. “All right, kid. You ready to head back?”

I sigh, look off into the distance. “I don’t know. I think I need a little more time alone. I’ve still got a lot on my mind. A lot I need to sort through.”

“I get it,” he says, shooting me a sympathetic look. “Do your thing.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you mind if I get going, though? All jokes aside, I really do have a lot to take care of today.”

“I’ll be fine. You go.”

“You sure? You’ll be okay out here on your own?”

“Yes, yes,” I say, and shove him forward. “I’ll be more than okay. I’m never really on my own, anyway.” I gesture with my head toward the soldiers. “These guys are always following me.”

Kenji nods, gives me a quick squeeze on the arm, and jogs off.

Within seconds, I’m alone. I sigh and turn toward the water, kicking at the sand as I do.

I’m so confused.

I’m caught between different worries, trapped by a fear of what seems my inevitable failure as a leader and my fears of Warner’s inscrutable past. And today’s conversation with Haider didn’t help with the latter. His unmasked shock that Warner hadn’t even bothered to mention the other families—and the children—he grew up with, really blew me away. It made me wonder how much more I don’t know. How much more there is to unearth.

I know exactly how I feel when I look into his eyes, but sometimes being with Warner gives me whiplash. He’s so unused to communicating basic things—to anyone—that every day with him comes with new discoveries. The discoveries aren’t all bad—in fact, most of the things I learn about him only make me love him more—but even the harmless revelations are occasionally confusing.

Last week I found him sitting in his office listening to old vinyl records. I’d seen his record collection before—he has a huge stack that was apportioned to him by The Reestablishment along with a selection of old books and artwork—he was supposed to be sorting through it all, deciding what to keep and what to destroy. But I’d never seen him just sit and listen to music.

He didn’t notice me when I’d walked in that day.

He was sitting very still, looking only at the wall, and listening to what I later discovered was a Bob Dylan record. I know this because I peeked in his office many hours later, after he’d left. I couldn’t shake my curiosity; Warner had only listened to one of the songs on the record—he’d reset the needle every time the song finished—and I wanted to know what it was. It turned out to be a song called “Like a Rolling Stone.”

I still haven’t told him what I saw that day; I wanted to see if he would share the story with me himself. But he never mentioned it, not even when I asked him what he did that afternoon. It wasn’t a lie, exactly, but the omission made me wonder why he’d keep it from me.

There’s a part of me that wants to rip his history open. I want to know the good and the bad and just get all the secrets out and be done with it. Because right now I feel certain that my imagination is much more dangerous than any of his truths.

But I’m not sure how to make that happen.

Besides, everything is moving so quickly now. We’re all so busy, all the time, and it’s hard enough to keep my own thoughts straight. I’m not even sure where our resistance is headed at the moment. Everything is worrying me. Castle’s worries are worrying me. Warner’s mysteries are worrying me. The children of the supreme commanders are worrying me.

I take in a deep breath and exhale, long and loud.

I’m staring out across the water, trying to clear my mind by focusing on the fluid motions of the ocean. It was just three weeks ago that I’d felt stronger than I ever had in my whole life. I’d finally learned how to make use of my powers; I’d learned how to moderate my strength, how to project—and, most important, how to turn my abilities on and off. And then I’d crushed Anderson’s legs in my bare hands. I stood still while soldiers emptied countless rounds of lead into my body. I was invincible.

But now?

This new job is more than I bargained for.

Politics, it turns out, is a science I don’t yet understand. Killing things, breaking things—destroying things? That, I understand. Getting angry and going to war, I understand. But patiently playing a confusing game of chess with a bunch of strangers from around the world?

God, I’d so much rather shoot someone.

I’m making my way back to base slowly, my shoes filling with sand as I go. I’m actively dreading whatever it is Castle wants to talk to me about, but I’ve been gone for too long already. There’s too much to do, and there’s no way out of this but through. I have to face it. Deal with it, whatever it is. I sigh as I flex and unflex my fists, feeling the power come in and out of my body. It’s still a strange thrill for me, to be able to disarm myself at will. It’s nice to be able to walk around most days with my powers turned off; it’s nice to be able to accidentally touch Kenji’s skin without worrying I’ll hurt him. I scoop up two handfuls of sand. Powers on: I close my fist and the sand is pulverized to dust. Powers off: the sand leaves a vague, pockmarked impression on my skin.

I drop the sand, dusting off the remaining grains from my palms, and squint into the morning sun. I’m searching for the soldiers who’ve been following me this whole time, because, suddenly, I can’t spot them. Which is strange, because I just saw them a minute ago.

And then I feel it—

Pain

It explodes in my back.

It’s a sharp, searing, violent pain and I’m blinded by it in an instant. I spin around in a fury that immediately dulls, my senses dimming even as I attempt to harness them. I pull up my Energy, thrumming suddenly with electricum, and wonder at my own stupidity for forgetting to turn my powers back on, especially out in the open like this. I was too distracted. Too frustrated. I can feel the bullet in my shoulder blade incapacitating me now, but I fight through the agony to try and spot my attacker.

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