I turn off the water and stand there, still sopping wet. And then, because I hate myself, I take a deep breath and turn on the cold water for ten, painful seconds.
It does the trick. Clears my head. Cools my heart.
I trip getting out of the shower.
I drag myself across the hall, forcing my legs to bend, but I’m still moving like I’m injured. I glance at the clock on the wall and swear under my breath. I’m late. Warner is going to kill me. I really need to spend an hour stretching—my muscles are still way too tight, even after a hot shower—but I have no time. And then, with a grimace, I realize that Warner was right. A couple extra hours to myself this morning would’ve done me a lot of good.
I sigh, heavily, and move toward my room.
I’m wearing my sweatpants, but I have only a towel draped around my neck because I’m in too much pain to pull a shirt over my head. I figure maybe I can steal one of Winston’s button-downs—something I can slip on and off more easily than one of my own sweaters—when I hear someone’s voice. I glance back, distracted, and in those two seconds I lose sight of where I’m going and slam into someone.
Words fly out of my head. Just like that.
I’m an idiot.
“You’re wet,” Nazeera says, wrinkling her nose as she jumps backward. “Why are you—”
And then I watch her, watch as she looks down. Looks up. Scans my body, slowly. I watch her look away and clear her throat, and suddenly she can’t meet my eyes.
Hope blooms in my chest. Unlocks my tongue.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey.” She nods. Crosses her arms. “Good morning.”
“You need something?”
I fight back a smile. It’s strange to see her flustered. “Then what are you doing here?”
She’s squinting at something behind me. “Do you—um, do you always walk around without a shirt on?”
I raise my eyebrows. “Up here? Yeah. Pretty much all the time.”
She nods again. “I’ll remember that.” When I say nothing, she finally meets my eyes. “I was looking for Castle,” she says quietly.
“His office is down that way”—I gesture with my head—“but he’s probably made his way downstairs by now.”
“Oh,” she says. “Thanks.”
She’s still looking at me. She’s still looking at me and it’s causing my chest to constrict. I take a step forward almost without realizing it. Wondering, just wondering. I don’t know what she’s thinking. I don’t know if I managed to screw everything up last night. But for some reason, right now—
She’s staring at my mouth.
Her eyes move up, meet mine, and then she’s staring at my mouth again. I wonder if she knows she’s doing it. I wonder if she has any idea what she’s doing to me. My lungs feel too small. My heart feels both fast and absurdly heavy.
When Nazeera meets my eyes again she takes a sudden, sharp breath. We’re so close I can feel her exhalation against my bare chest and I’m overwhelmed by a disorienting need to kiss her. I want to pull her into my arms and kiss her, and for a moment I actually think she might let me. Just the thought of it sends a thrill up my spine, a dizzying feeling that inspires my mind to jump too far, too fast. I can picture it with terrifying clarity—the fantasy of having her in my arms, her eyes dark and heavy with desire. I can imagine her under me, her fingers digging into my shoulder blades as she screams—
I force myself to turn away. I almost slap myself in the face.
I’m not this guy. I’m not some fifteen-year-old boy who can’t keep his pants on. I’m not.
“I, uh, I have to get dressed,” I say, and even I can hear the unsteadiness in my voice. “I’ll see you downstairs.”
But then Nazeera’s hand is on my arm again, and my body stiffens, like I’m trying to contain something beyond myself. It’s wild. Desire like I’ve never known it before. I try to remind myself that that’s all this is, that it’s like what J said—I don’t even know this girl. I’m just going through something. I don’t know what, or why, but I’m just, like, clearly infatuated. I don’t even know her.
This isn’t real.
“Hey,” she says.
I hold still.
“Yeah?” I’m hardly breathing. I have to force myself to turn back an inch, meet her eyes.
“I wanted to tell you something. Last night. But I didn’t have the chance.”
“Oh.” I frown. “Okay.” There’s something in her voice that sounds almost like fear—and it clears my head in an instant. “Tell me.”
“Not here,” she says. “Not now.”
And I’m suddenly worried. “Is something wrong? Are you okay?”
“Oh—no— I mean, yeah— I’m fine. It’s just—” She hesitates. Offers me a half smile and a shrug. “I just wanted to tell you something. It’s nothing important.” She looks away, bites her lip. She bites that bottom lip a lot, I notice. “Well, it’s important to me, I guess.”
“Nazeera,” I say, enjoying the sound of her name in my mouth.
She looks up.
“You’re freaking me out a little. Are you sure you can’t tell me right now?”
She nods. Shoots me a tight smile. “No need to freak out, I promise. It’s really not a big deal. Maybe we can talk later tonight?”
My heart constricts again. “Sure.”
She nods once more. We say goodbye.
But when I glance back, not a second after I’ve started walking away, she’s already gone.
Warner is definitely pissed.
I’m super late, and Warner is waiting for me, perched carefully on a stiff chair in a conference room downstairs, staring at a wall.
I managed to snag a muffin on my way down, and I wipe quickly at my face, hoping I haven’t left evidence around my mouth. I don’t know how Warner feels about muffins, but I’m guessing he’s not a fan.
“Hey,” I say, and I sound out of breath. “What’d I miss?”
“This is my fault,” he says, waving a hand around the room. He doesn’t even look at me.
“I mean, I already know it’s your fault,” I say quickly, “but, like, just to be clear—what are we talking about?”
“This,” he says. Finally, he looks at me. “This situation.”
“It’s my fault,” he says, pausing dramatically, “for thinking I could depend on you.”
I make an effort not to roll my eyes. “All right, all right, calm down. I’m here now.”
“You’re thirty minutes late.”
Warner looks suddenly tired. “The children of the supreme commanders of Africa and South America are here. They’re waiting in the adjacent room.”
“Yeah?” I raise an eyebrow. “So what’s the deal? What do you need from me?”
“I need you to be present,” he says sharply. “I’m not sure I know exactly why they’re here, but all rational thought points to impending war. It’s my suspicion that they’re here to spy on us and send word back to their parents. They’ve sent their children to affect an air of camaraderie. A feeling of nostalgia. Maybe they think they can appeal to our new, young commander with other young faces. In any case, I think it’s important for us to show a strong, united front.”
“So no J, then, huh?”
Warner looks up. He seems stunned, and for a second I see something like pain in his eyes. I blink and he’s a statue again. “No,” he says. “I still haven’t seen her. And it’s more important than ever that they don’t know that.” He takes a breath. “Where’s Castle? He needs to be here, too.”
I shrug. “I thought he was already down here.”
“I saw him a moment ago. I’ll collect him.”
I drop down into a chair. “Cool.”
Warner walks to the door and then hesitates. Slowly, he turns to face me. “You’re having trouble again.”
I look up, surprised. “What?”
“In love. You’re having trouble in your love life. Is that why you were late?”
I feel the blood drain from my face. “How the hell would you know something like that?”
“You reek of it.” He nods at me, my body. “You’re practically emanating lovelorn agony.”
I stare at him, stunned. I don’t even know if it’s worth denying.
“It’s Nazeera, isn’t it?” Warner says. His eyes are clear, free of judgment.
I force myself to nod.
“Does she return your affections?”
I shoot him a belligerent look. “How the hell am I supposed to know?”
Warner smiles. It’s the first real emotion he’s shown all morning. “I suspected she might eviscerate you,” he says. “But I admit I thought she would use a knife.”
I force out a humorless: “Ha.”
“Be careful, Kishimoto. I find it necessary to remind you that she was raised to be lethal. I wouldn’t cross her.”