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So he meets my eyes. And I can’t help but marvel at how much I love his face, even now, even in his fear. He’s so classically handsome. So remarkably beautiful, even like this: his hair shorn, short and soft; his face unshaven, a silver-blond shadow contouring the already hard lines of his face. His eyes are an impossible shade of green. Bright. Blinking. And then—

Closed.

“I have to tell you something,” he says quietly. He’s looking down. He lifts a hand to touch me and his fingers trail down the side of my torso. Delicate. Terrified. “Something I should’ve told you earlier.”

“What do you mean?” I fall back. I ball up a section of the bedsheet and hold it tightly against my body, feeling suddenly vulnerable.

He hesitates for too long. Exhales. He drags his hand across his mouth, his chin, down the back of his neck—

“I have no idea where to start.”

Every instinct in my body is telling me to run. To shove cotton in my ears. To tell him to stop talking. But I can’t. I’m frozen.

And I’m scared.

“Start at the beginning,” I say, surprised I can even bring myself to speak. I’ve never seen him like this before. I can’t imagine what he has to say. He’s now clasping his hands together so tightly I worry he might break his own fingers by accident.

And then, finally. Slowly.

He speaks.

“The Reestablishment,” he says, “went public with their campaigns when you were seven years old. I was nine. But they’d been meeting and planning for many years before that.”

“Okay.”

“The founders of the The Reestablishment,” he says, “were once military men and women turned defense contractors. And they were responsible, in part, for the rise of the military industrial complex that built the foundation of the de facto military states composing what is now The Reestablishment. They’d had their plans in place for a long time before this regime went live,” he says. “Their jobs had made it possible for them to have had access to weapons and technology no one had even heard of. They had extensive surveillance, fully equipped facilities, acres of private property, unlimited access to information—all for years before you were even born.”

My heart is pounding in my chest.

“They’d discovered Unnaturals—a term The Reestablishment uses to describe those with supernatural abilities—a few years later. You were about five years old,” he says, “when they made their first discovery.” He looks at the wall. “That’s when they started collecting, testing, and using people with abilities to expedite their goals in dominating the world.”

“This is all really interesting,” I say, “but I’m kind of freaking out right now and I need you to skip ahead to the part where you tell me what any of this has to do with me.”

“Sweetheart,” he says, finally meeting my eyes. “All of this has to do with you.”

“How?”

“There was one thing I knew about your life that I never told you,” he says. He swallows. He’s looking into his hands when he says, “You were adopted.”

The revelation is like a thunderclap.

I stumble off the bed, clutch the sheet to my body and stand there, staring at him, stunned. I try to stay calm even as my mind catches fire.

“I was adopted.”

He nods.

“So you’re saying that the people who raised me—tortured me—are not my real parents?”

He shakes his head.

“Are my biological parents still alive?”

“Yes,” he whispers.

“And you never told me this?”

No, he says quickly

No, no I didn’t know they were still alive, he says

I didn’t know anything except that you were adopted, he says, I just found out, just yesterday, that your parents are still alive, because Castle, he says, Castle told me—

And every subsequent revelation is like a shock wave, a sudden, unforeseen detonation that implodes within me—

BOOM

Your life has been an experiment, he says

BOOM

You have a sister, he says, she’s still alive

BOOM

Your biological parents gave you and your sister to The Reestablishment for scientific research

and it’s like the world has been knocked off its axis, like I’ve been flung from the earth and I’m headed directly for the sun,

like I’m being burned alive and somehow, I can still hear him, even as my skin melts inward, as my mind turns inside-out and everything I’ve ever known, everything I ever thought to be true about who I am and where I come from

v a n i s h e s

I inch away from him, confused and horrified and unable to form words, unable to speak

And he says he didn’t know, and his voice breaks when he says it, when he says he didn’t know until recently that my biological parents were still alive, didn’t know until Castle told him, never knew how to tell me that I’d been adopted, didn’t know how I would take it, didn’t know if I needed that pain, but Castle told him that The Reestablishment is coming for me, that they’re coming to take me back

and your sister, he says

but I’m crying now, unable to see him through the tears and still I cannot speak and

your sister, he says, her name is Emmaline, she’s one year older than you, she’s very, very powerful, she’s been the property of The Reestablishment for twelve years

I can’t stop shaking my head

“Stop,” I say

“No,” I say

Please don’t do this to me—

But he won’t stop. He says I have to know. He says I have to know this now—that I have to know the truth—

STOP TELLING ME THIS, I scream

I didn’t know she was your sister, he’s saying,

I didn’t know you had a sister

I swear I didn’t know

“There were nearly twenty men and women who put together the beginnings of The Reestablishment,” he says, “but there were only six supreme commanders. When the man originally chosen for North America became terminally ill, my father was being considered to replace him. I was sixteen. We lived here, in Sector 45. My father was then CCR. And becoming supreme commander meant he would be moving away, and he wanted to take me with him. My mother,” he says, “was to be left behind.”

Please don’t say any more

Please don’t say anything else, I beg him

“It was the only way I could convince him to give me his job,” he says, desperate now. “To allow me to stay behind, to watch her closely. He was sworn in as supreme commander when I was eighteen. And he made me spend the two years in between—

“Aaron, please,” I say, feeling hysterical, “I don’t want to know—I didn’t ask you to tell me—I don’t want to know—”

“I perpetuated your sister’s torture,” he says, his voice raw, broken, “her confinement. I was ordered to oversee her continued imprisonment. I gave the orders that kept her there. Every day. I was never told why she was there or what was wrong with her. I was told to maintain her. That was it. She was allowed only four twenty-minute breaks from the water tank every twenty-four hours and she used to scream—she’d beg me to release her,” he says, his voice catching. “She begged for mercy and I never gave it to her.”

And I stop

Head spinning

I drop the sheet from my body as I run, run away

I’m shoving clothes on as fast as I can and when I return to the room, half wild, caught in a nightmare, I catch him half dressed, too, no shirt, just pants, and he doesn’t even speak as I stare at him, stunned, one hand covering my mouth as I shake my head, tears spilling fast down my face and I don’t know what to say, I don’t know that I can ever say anything to him, ever again—

“It’s too much,” I say, choking on the words. “It’s too much—it’s too much—”

“Juliette—”

And I shake my head, hands trembling as I reach for the door and

“Please,” he says, and tears are falling silently down his face, and he’s visibly shaking as he says, “You have to believe me. I was young. And stupid. I was desperate. I thought I had nothing to live for then—nothing mattered to me but saving my mother and I was willing to do anything that would keep me here, close to her—”

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