Page 45

“You’re beautiful,” he says, but he can hardly get the words out. And his voice breaks when he says, “Why did you do this, love? Were you trying to hurt yourself?”

I try to answer but feel suddenly nauseous. My head spins. I close my eyes to steady the feeling but it won’t abate.

“Shower’s ready,” I hear Kenji shout. And then, suddenly, his voice is closer. “You got this, bro? Or do you want me to take it from here?”

“No.” A pause. “No, you can go. I’ll make sure she’s safe. Please tell the others I’m not feeling well tonight. Send my apologies.”

“You got it. Anything else?”

“Coffee. Several bottles of water. Two aspirin.” “Consider it done.”

“Thank you.”

“Anytime, man.”

And then I’m moving, everything is moving, everything is sideways and I open my eyes and quickly close them as the world blurs before me. Warner is carrying me in his arms and I bury my face in the crook of his neck. He smells so familiar.

Safe.

I want to speak but I feel slow. Like it takes forever to tell my lips to move, like it’s slow motion when they do, like the words rush together as I say them, over and over again

“I miss you already,” I mumble against his skin. “I miss this, miss you, miss you” and then he puts me down, steadies me on my feet, and helps me walk into the standing shower.

I nearly scream when the water hits my body.

My eyes fly open, my mind half sobered in an instant, as the cold water rushes over me. I blink fast, breathing hard as I lean against the shower wall, staring wildly at Warner through the warped glass. Water snakes down my skin, collects in my eyelashes, my open mouth. My shoulders slow their tremble as my body acclimates to the temperature and minutes pass, the two of us staring at each other and saying nothing. My mind steadies but doesn’t clear, a fog still hanging over me even as I reach forward to turn the dial, heating the water by many degrees.

I can still see his face, beautiful even blurred by the glass between us, when he says, “Are you okay? Do you feel any better?”

I step forward, studying him silently, and say nothing as I unhook my bra and let it drop to the floor. There’s no response from him save the slight widening of his eyes, the slight movement in his chest and I slip out of my underwear, kicking it off behind me and he blinks several times and steps backward, looks away, looks back again.

I push open the shower door.

“Come inside,” I say.

But now he won’t look at me.

“Aaron—”

“You’re not feeling well,” he says.

“I feel fine.”

“Sweetheart, please, you just drank your weight in whisky—”

“I just want to touch you,” I say. “Come here.”

He finally turns to face me, his eyes moving slowly up my body and I see it, I see it happen when something inside of him seems to break. He looks pained and vulnerable and he swallows hard as he steps toward me, steam filling the room now, hot drops of water breaking on my bare hips and his lips part as he looks at me, as he reaches forward, and I think he might actually come inside when

instead

he closes the door between us and says

“I’ll be waiting for you in the living room, love.”

WARNER

Juliette is asleep.

She emerged from the shower, climbed into my lap and promptly fell asleep against my neck, all the while mumbling things I know for certain she’ll regret having said in the morning. It took every bit of my self-control to unhook her soft, warm figure from around me, but somehow I managed it. I tucked her into bed and left, the pain of peeling myself away from her not unlike what I imagine it’d be like to peel the skin off my own body. She begged me to stay and I pretended not to hear her. She told me she loved me and I couldn’t bring myself to respond.

She cried, even with her eyes closed.

But I can’t trust that she knows what she’s doing or saying in this compromised state; no, I know better. She has no experience with alcohol, but I can only imagine that when her good sense is returned to her in the daylight, she will not want to see my face. She won’t want to know that she made herself so vulnerable in front of me. I wonder whether she’ll even remember what happened.

As for me, I am beyond despair.

It’s past three in the morning and I feel as though I’ve not slept in days. I can hardly bear to close my eyes; I can’t be left alone with my mind or the many frailties of my person. I feel shattered, held together by nothing but necessity.

I have tried in vain to articulate the mess of emotion cluttering my mind—to Kenji, who wanted to know what happened after he left; to Castle, who cornered me not three hours ago, demanding to know what I’d said to her; even to Kent, who managed to look only a little pleased upon discovering that my brand-new relationship had already imploded.

I want to sink into the earth.

I can’t go back to our bedroom—my bedroom—where the proof of her is still fresh, too alive; and I can no longer escape to the simulation chambers, as the soldiers are still stationed there, relocated in all the aftermath of the new construction.

I’ve no reprieve from the consequences of my actions.

Nowhere to rest my head for longer than a moment before I’m discovered and duly chastened.

Lena, laughing loudly in my face as I walked past her in the hall.

Nazeera shaking her head as I bid good night to her brother.

Sonya and Sara shooting me mournful looks upon discovering me crouched in a corner of the unfinished medical wing. Brendan, Winston, Lily, Alia, and Ian popping their heads out of their brand-new bedrooms, stopping me as I tried to get away, asking so many questions—so loudly and forcefully—that even a groggy James came to find me, tugging at my sleeve and asking me over and over again whether or not Juliette was okay.

Where did this life come from?

Who are all these people to whom I’m suddenly beholden?

Everyone is so justifiably concerned about Juliette—about the well-being of our new supreme commander—that I, because I am complicit in her suffering, am safe nowhere from prying eyes, questioning looks, and pitying faces. It’s alarming, having so many people privy to my private life. When things were good between us I had to answer fewer questions; I was a subject of lesser interest. Juliette was the one who maintained these relationships; they were not for me. I never wanted any of this. I didn’t want this accountability. I don’t care for the responsibility of friendships. I only wanted Juliette. I wanted her love, her heart, her arms around me. And this was part of the price I paid for her affection: these people. Their questions. Their unvarnished scorn for my existence.

So. I’ve become a wraith.

I stalk these quiet halls. I stand in the shadows and hold myself still in the darkness and wait for something. For what, I don’t know.

Danger.

Oblivion.

Anything at all to inform my next steps.

I want renewed purpose, a focus, a job to do. And then all at once I’m reminded that I am the chief commander and regent of Sector 45, that I have an infinite number of things to oversee and negotiate—and somehow that’s no longer enough for me. My daily tasks are not enough to distract my mind; my deeply regimented routines have been dismantled; Delalieu is struggling under the weight of my emotional erosion and I cannot help but think of my father again and again—

How right he was about me.

He’s always been right.

I’ve been undone by emotion, over and over. It was emotion that prompted me to take any job—at any cost—to be nearer to my mother. It was emotion that led me to find Juliette, to seek her out in search of a cure for my mother. It was emotion that prompted me to fall in love, to get shot and lose my mind, to become a broken boy all over again—one who’d fall to his knees and beg his worthless, monstrous father to spare the girl he loved. It was emotion, my flimsy emotions that cost me everything.

I have no peace. No purpose.

How I wish I’d ripped this heart from my chest long ago.

Still, there is work to be done.

The symposium is now less than twelve hours away and I never had a chance to go over the details with Juliette. I didn’t think things would turn out like this. I never thought that business would go on as usual after the death of my father. I thought a greater war was imminent; I thought for certain the other supreme commanders would come for us before we’d had even a chance to pretend we had true control of Sector 45. It hadn’t occurred to me that they’d have more sinister plans in mind. It hadn’t occurred to me to spend more time prepping her for the tedious formalities—these monotonous routines—embedded in the structure of The Reestablishment. But I should have known better. I should have expected this. I could have prevented this.

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