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Still, I’m too slow.

Another bullet hits my thigh, but this time I feel it leave only a flesh wound, bouncing off before it can make much of a mark. My Energy is weak—and weakening by the minute—I think because of the blood I’m losing—and I’m frustrated, so frustrated by how quickly I’ve been overtaken.

Stupid stupid stupid—

I trip as I try to hurry on the sand; I’m still an open target here. My assailant could be anyone—could be anywhere—and I’m not even sure where to look when suddenly three more bullets hit me: in my stomach, my wrist, my chest. The bullets break off my body and still manage to draw blood, but the bullet buried, buried in my back, is sending blinding flashes of pain through my veins and I gasp, my mouth frozen open and I can’t catch my breath and the torment is so intense I can’t help but wonder if this is a special gun, if these are special bullets—

oh

The small, breathless sound leaves my body as my knees hit the sand and I’m now pretty sure, fairly certain these bullets have been laced with poison, which would mean that even these, these flesh wounds would be dangero—

I fall, head spinning, backward onto the sand, too dizzy to see straight. My lips feel numb, my bones loose and my blood, my blood all sloshing together fast and weird and I start laughing, thinking I see a bird in the sky—not just one but many of them all at once flying flying flying

Suddenly I can’t breathe.

Someone has their arm around my neck; they’re dragging me backward and I’m choking, spitting up and losing lungs and I can’t feel my tongue and I’m kicking at the sand so hard I’ve lost my shoes and I think here it is, death again, so soon so soon I was too tired anyway and then

The pressure is gone

So swiftly

I’m gasping and coughing and there’s sand in my hair and in my teeth and I’m seeing colors and birds, so many birds, and I’m spinning and—

crack

Something breaks and it sounds like bone. My eyesight sharpens for an instant and I manage to see something in front of me. Someone. I squint, feeling like my mouth might swallow itself and I think it must be the poison but it’s not; it’s Nazeera, so pretty, so pretty standing in front of me, her hands around a man’s limp neck and then she drops him to the ground

Scoops me up

You’re so strong and so pretty I mumble, so strong and I want to be like you, I say to her

And she says shhh and tells me to be still, tells me I’ll be fine

and carries me away.

WARNER

Panic, terror, guilt—unbounded fears—

I can hardly feel my feet as they hit the ground, my heart beating so hard it physically hurts. I’m bolting toward our half-built medical wing on the fifteenth floor and trying not to drown in the darkness of my own thoughts. I have to fight an instinct to squeeze my eyes shut as I run, taking the emergency stairs two at a time because, of course, the nearest elevator is temporarily closed for repairs.

I’ve never been such a fool.

What was I thinking? What was I thinking? I simply walked away. I keep making mistakes. I keep making assumptions. And I’ve never been so desperate for Kishimoto’s inelegant vocabulary. God, the things I wish I could say. The things I’d like to shout. I’ve never been so angry with myself. I was so sure she’d be fine, I was so sure she knew to never move out in the open unprotected—

A sudden rush of dread overwhelms me.

I will it away.

I will it away, even as my chest heaves with exhaustion and outrage. It’s irrational, to be mad at agony—it’s futile, I know, to be angry with this pain—and yet, here I am. I feel powerless. I want to see her. I want to hold her. I want to ask her how she could’ve possibly let her guard down while walking alone, out in the open—

Something in my chest feels like it might rip apart as I reach the top floor, my lungs burning from the effort. My heart is pumping furiously. Even so, I tear down the hall. Desperation and terror fuel my need to find her.

I stop abruptly in place when the panic returns.

A wave of fear bends my back and I’m doubled over, hands on my knees, trying to breathe. It’s unbidden, this pain. Overwhelming. I feel a startling prick behind my eyes. I blink, hard, fight the rush of emotion.

How did this happen? I want to ask her.

Didn’t you realize that someone would try to kill you?

I’m nearly shaking when I reach the room they’re keeping her in. I almost can’t make sense of her limp, blood-smeared body laid out on the metal table. I rush forward half blind and ask Sonya and Sara to do again what they’ve done once before: help me heal her.

It’s only then that I realize the room is full.

I’m ripping off my blazer when I notice the others. Figures are pressed up against the walls—forms of people I probably know and can’t be bothered to name. Still, somehow, she stands out to me.

Nazeera.

I could close my hands around her throat.

“Get out of here,” I choke out in a voice that doesn’t sound like my own.

She looks genuinely shocked.

“I don’t know how you managed this,” I say, “but this is your fault—you, and your brother—you did this to her—”

“If you’d like to meet the man responsible,” she says, flat and cold, “you’re welcome to. He has no identification, but the tattoos on his arms indicate he might be from a neighboring sector. His dead body is in a holding cell underground.”

My heart stops, then starts. “What?”

“Aaron?” It’s Juliette, Juliette, my Juliette—

“Don’t worry, love,” I say quickly, “we’re going to fix this, okay? The girls are here and we’re going to do this again, just like last time—”

“Nazeera,” she says, eyes closed, lips half mumbling.

“Yes?” I freeze. “What about Nazeera?”

“Saved”—her mouth halts midmotion, then swallows—“my life.”

I look at Nazeera, then. Study her. She seems just about carved from stone, motionless in the middle of chaos. She’s staring at Juliette with a curious look on her face, and I can’t read her at all. But I don’t need a supernatural ability to tell me that something is off about this girl. Basic human instinct tells me there’s something she knows—something she’s not telling me—and it makes me distrust her.

So when she finally turns in my direction, her eyes deep and steady and frighteningly serious, I feel a bolt of panic pierce me through the chest.

Juliette is sleeping now.

I’m never more grateful for my inhuman ability to steal and manifest other people’s Energies than I am in these unfortunate moments. We’ve often hoped that now, in the wake of Juliette learning to turn on and off her lethal touch, that Sonya and Sara would be able to heal her—that they’d be able to place their hands on her body in case of emergency without concern for their own safety. But Castle has since pointed out that there’s still a chance that, once Juliette’s body has begun to heal, her half-healed trauma could instinctively trigger old defenses, even without Juliette’s permission. In that state of emergency, Juliette’s skin might, accidentally, become lethal once more. It is a risk—an experiment—we were hoping to never again have to face. But now?

What if I weren’t around? What if I didn’t have this strange gift?

I can’t bring myself to think on it.

So I sit here, head in my hands. I wait quietly outside her door as she sleeps off her injuries. The healing properties are still working their way through her body.

Until then, waves of emotion continue to assault me.

It’s immeasurable, this frustration. Frustration with Kenji for having left Juliette all alone. Frustration with the six soldiers who were so easily relieved of their guns and their faculties by this single, unidentified assailant. But most of all, God, most of all, I’ve never been so frustrated with myself.

I’ve been remiss.

I let this happen. My oversights. My stupid infatuation with my own father—the fallout with my own feelings after his death—the pathetic dramas of my past. I let myself get distracted; I was self-absorbed, consumed by my own concerns and daily dealings.

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