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“Like, I don’t know—I know all that stuff about his mom.”

Kenji laughs. “You don’t know shit about his mom.”

“Sure I do.”

“Whatever, J. You don’t even know that lady’s name.”

At this, I falter. I search my mind for the information, certain he must’ve mentioned it—

and come up short.

I glance at Kenji, feeling small.

“Her name was Leila,” he says. “Leila Warner. And I only know this because Castle does his research. We had files on all persons of interest back at Omega Point. Never knew she had powers that made her sick, though,” he says, looking thoughtful. “Anderson did a good job keeping that quiet.”

“Oh,” is all I manage to say.

“So that’s why you thought Castle was being weird?” Kenji says to me. “Because he very correctly pointed out that you know nothing about your boyfriend’s life?”

“Don’t be mean,” I say quietly. “I know some things.”

But the truth is, I don’t know much.

What Castle said to me this morning hit a nerve. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wonder, all the time, what Warner’s life was like before I met him. In fact, I think often of that day—that awful, awful day—in the pretty blue house on Sycamore, the house where Anderson shot me in the chest.

We were all alone, me and Anderson.

I never told Warner what his father said to me that day, but I’ve never forgotten. Instead, I’ve tried to ignore it, to convince myself that Anderson was playing games with my mind to confuse and immobilize me. But no matter how many times I’ve played back the conversation in my head—trying desperately to break it down and dismiss it—I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that, maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t all for show. Maybe Anderson was telling me the truth.

I can still see the smile on his face as he said it. I can still hear the musical lilt in his voice. He was enjoying himself. Tormenting me.

Did he tell you how many other soldiers wanted to be in charge of Sector 45? How many fine candidates we had to choose from? He was only eighteen years old!

Did he ever tell you what he had to do to prove he was worthy?

My heart pounds in my chest as I remember, and I close my eyes, my lungs knotting together—

Did he ever tell you what I made him do to earn it?

No.

I suspect he didn’t want to mention that part, did he? I bet he didn’t want to include that part of his past, did he?

No.

He never did. And I’ve never asked.

I think I never want to know.

“Don’t worry,” Anderson said to me then. “I won’t spoil it for you. Best to let him share those details with you himself.”

And now, this morning—I get the same line from Castle:

“No, Ms Ferrars,” Castle had said, refusing to look me in the eye. “No, no, it’s not my place to tell. Mr Warner needs to be the one to tell you the stories about his life. Not I.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, frustrated. “How is this even relevant? Why do you suddenly care about Warner’s past? And what does any of that have to do with Oceania’s RSVP?”

“Warner knows these other commanders,” Castle said. “He knows the other supreme families. He knows how The Reestablishment operates from within. And there’s still a great deal he needs to tell you.” He shook his head. “Oceania’s response is deeply unusual, Ms Ferrars, for the simple reason that it is the only response you’ve received. I feel very certain that the moves made by these commanders are not only coordinated but also intentional, and I’m beginning to feel more worried by the moment that there is an entirely other message here—one that I’m still trying to translate.”

I could feel it then, could feel my temperature rising, my jaw tensing as anger surged through me. “But you’re the one who told me to reach out to all the supreme commanders! This was your idea! And now you’re terrified that someone actually reached out? What do y—”

And then, all at once, I understood.

My words were soft and stunned when I said, “Oh my God, you didn’t think I’d get any responses, did you?”

Castle swallowed hard. Said nothing.

“You didn’t think anyone would respond?” I said, my voice rising in pitch.

“Ms Ferrars, you must understand—”

“Why are you playing games with me, Castle?” My fists clenched. “What are you doing?”

“I’m not playing games with you,” he said, the words coming out in a rush. “I just—I thought—” he said, gesticulating wildly. “It was an exercise. An experiment—”

I felt flashes of heat spark behind my eyes. Anger welled in my throat, vibrated along my spine. I could feel the rage building inside me and it took everything I had to clamp it down. “I am no longer anyone’s experiment,” I said. “And I need to know what the hell is going on.”

“You must speak with Mr Warner,” he said. “He will explain everything. There’s still so much you need to know about this world—and The Reestablishment—and time is of the essence,” he said. He met my eyes. “You must be prepared for whatever comes next. You need to know more, and you need to know now. Before things escalate.”

I looked away, my hands shaking from the surge of unspent energy. I wanted to—needed to—break something. Anything. Instead, I said, “This is bullshit, Castle. Complete bullshit.”

And he looked like the saddest man in the world when he said—

“I know.”

I’ve been walking around with a splitting headache ever since.

So it doesn’t make me feel any better when Kenji pokes me in the shoulder, startling me back to life, and says,

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You guys have a weird relationship.”

“No, we don’t,” I say, and the words are reflexive, petulant.

“Yes,” Kenji says. “You do.” And he saunters off, leaving me alone in the abandoned streets, tipping an imaginary hat as he walks away.

I throw my shoe at him.

The effort, however, is fruitless; Kenji catches my shoe midair. He’s now waiting for me, ten steps ahead, holding my tennis shoe in his hand as I hop awkwardly in his direction. I don’t have to turn around to see the smirks on the soldiers’ faces some distance behind us. I’m pretty sure everyone thinks I’m a joke of a supreme commander. And why wouldn’t they?

It’s been over two weeks and I still feel lost.

Half paralyzed.

I’m not proud of my inability to get it together, not proud of the revelation that, as it turns out, I’m not smart enough, fast enough, or shrewd enough to rule the world. I’m not proud that, at my lowest moments, I look around at all that I have to do in a single day and wonder, in awe, at how organized Anderson was. How accomplished. How very, very talented.

I’m not proud that I’ve thought that.

Or that, in the quietest, loneliest hours of the morning I lie awake next to the son Anderson tortured nearly to death and wish that Anderson would return from the dead and take back the burden I stole from his shoulders.

And then there’s this thought, all the time, all the time:

That maybe I made a mistake.

“Uh, hello? Earth to princess?”

I look up, confused. Lost in my mind today. “Did you say something?”

Kenji shakes his head as he hands me my shoe. I’m struggling to put it on when he says, “So you forced me to take a stroll through this nasty, frozen shitland just to ignore me?”

I raise a single eyebrow at him.

He raises both, waiting, expectant. “What’s the deal, J? This,” he says, gesturing at my face, “is more than whatever weirdness you got from Castle this morning.” He tilts his head at me, and I read genuine concern in his eyes when he says, “So what’s going on?”

I sigh; the exhalation withers my body.

You must speak with Mr Warner. He will explain everything.

But Warner isn’t known for his communication skills. He doesn’t make small talk. He doesn’t share details about himself. He doesn’t do personal. I know he loves me—I can feel, in our every interaction, how deeply he cares for me—but even so, he’s only ever offered me the vaguest information about his life. He is a vault to which I’m only occasionally granted access, and I often wonder how much I have left to learn about him. Sometimes it scares me.

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