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Shatter Me 4 - Restore Me

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Juliette Ferrars thought she’d won. She took over Sector 45, was named the new Supreme Commander of North America, and now has Warner by her side. But when tragedy strikes, she must confront the darkness that dwells both around and inside her. Who will she become in the face of adversity? Will she be able to control the power she wields, and use it for good?
Volume:
4
Year:
2018
Edition:
Reprint
Publisher:
Tahereh Mafi
Language:
english
Pages:
435
ISBN 13:
9780062676382
Series:
Shatter Me
File:
EPUB, 910 KB
Download (epub, 910 KB)

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3 comments
 
BarbaraD
This book was much slower than the others and I feel like the majority of the book was nothing happening. This book genuinely made me angry because of what they did to Juliette and Warner's relationship, but if you're reading this series for the first time don't worry the next book is epic.
30 July 2020 (06:42) 
Mo
This book left me shook, before u read it start with the first book of the series, Ignite me was my favorite but after this book I was shook 5/5
26 March 2021 (20:30) 
Iana
WTH just happened in the end.. I didn't expect it coming, such a cliffhanger.. I'll prolly read the next one :))
02 June 2021 (09:31) 

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Restoring Grace (UK)

Year:
2012
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 709 KB
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Restore Me

Year:
2018
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 850 KB
4.0 / 0
Dedication


For Jodi Reamer, who always believed





Contents


Cover

Title Page

Dedication



Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

Warner

Juliette

About the Author

Books by Tahereh Mafi

Back Ad

Copyright

About the Publisher





Juliette


I don’t wake up screaming anymore. I do not feel ill at the sight of blood. I do not flinch before firing a gun.

I will never again apologize for surviving.

And yet—

I’m startled at once by the sound of a door slamming open. I silence a gasp, spin around, and, by force of habit, rest my hand on the hilt of a semiautomatic hung from a holster at my side.

“J, we’ve got a serious problem.”

Kenji is staring at me—eyes narrowed—his hands on his hips, T-shirt taut across his chest. This is angry Kenji. Worried Kenji. It’s been sixteen days since we took over Sector 45—since I crowned myself the supreme commander of The Reestablishment—and it’s been quiet. Unnervingly so. Every day I wake up, filled with half terror, half exhilaration, anxiously awaiting the inevitable missives from enemy nations who would challenge my authority and wage war against us—and now, finally, it seems that moment has arrived. So I take a deep breath, crack my neck, and look Kenji in the eye.

“Tell me.”

He presses his lips together. Looks up at the ceiling. “So, okay—the first thing you need to know is that this isn’t my fault, okay? I was just trying to help.”

I falter. Frown. “What?”

“I mean, I knew his punkass was a major drama queen, but this is just beyond ridiculous—”

“I’m sorry—what?” I take my hand off my gun; feel my body unclench. “Kenji, what are you talking about? This isn’t about the war?”

“The war? What? J, are you not paying attention? Your boyfriend is having a freaking con; niption right now and you need to go handle his ass before I do.”

I exhale, irritated. “Are you serious? Again with this nonsense? Jesus, Kenji.” I unlatch the holster from my back and toss it on the bed behind me. “What did you do this time?”

“See?” Kenji points at me. “See—why are you so quick to judge, huh, princess? Why assume that I was the one who did something wrong? Why me?” He crosses his arms against his chest, lowers his voice. “And you know, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this for a while, actually, because I really feel that, as supreme commander, you can’t be showing preferential treatment like this, but clearly—”

Kenji goes suddenly still.

At the creak of the door Kenji’s eyebrows shoot up; a soft click and his eyes widen; a muted rustle of movement and suddenly the barrel of a gun is pressed against the back of his head. Kenji stares at me, his lips making no sound as he mouths the word psychopath over and over again.

The psychopath in question winks at me from where he’s standing, smiling like he couldn’t possibly be holding a gun to the head of our mutual friend. I manage to suppress a laugh.

“Go on,” Warner says, still smiling. “Please tell me exactly how she’s failed you as a leader.”

“Hey—” Kenji’s arms fly up in mock surrender. “I never said she failed at anything, okay? And you are clearly overreact—”

Warner knocks Kenji on the side of the head with the weapon. “Idiot.”

Kenji spins around. Yanks the gun out of Warner’s hand. “What the hell is wrong with you, man? I thought we were cool.”

“We were,” Warner says icily. “Until you touched my hair.”

“You asked me to give you a haircut—”

“I said nothing of the sort! I asked you to trim the edges!”

“And that’s what I did.”

“This,” Warner says, spinning around so I might inspect the damage, “is not trimming the edges, you incompetent moron—”

I gasp. The back of Warner’s head is a jagged mess of uneven hair; entire chunks have been buzzed off.

Kenji cringes as he looks over his handiwork. Clears his throat. “Well,” he says, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I mean—whatever, man, beauty is subjective—”

Warner aims another gun at him.

“Hey!” Kenji shouts. “I am not here for this abusive relationship, okay?” He points at Warner. “I did not sign up for this shit!”

Warner glares at him and Kenji retreats, backing out of the room before Warner has another chance to react; and then, just as I let out a sigh of relief, Kenji pops his head back into the doorway and says

“I think the cut looks cute, actually”

and Warner slams the door in his face.

Welcome to my brand-new life as supreme commander of The Reestablishment.

Warner is still facing the closed door as he exhales, his shoulders losing their tension as he does, and I’m able to see even more clearly the mess Kenji has made. Warner’s thick, gorgeous, golden hair—a defining feature of his beauty—chopped up by careless hands.

A disaster.

“Aaron,” I say softly.

He hangs his head.

“Come here.”

He turns around, looking at me out of the corner of his eye like he’s done something to be ashamed of. I clear the guns off the bed and make room for him beside me. He sinks into the mattress with a sad sigh.

“I look hideous,” he says quietly.

I shake my head, smiling, and touch his cheek. “Why did you let him cut your hair?”

Warner looks up at me then; his eyes round and green and perplexed. “You told me to spend time with him.”

I laugh out loud. “So you let Kenji cut your hair?”

“I didn’t let him cut my hair,” he says, scowling. “It was”—he hesitates—“it was a gesture of camaraderie. It was an act of trust I’d seen practiced among my soldiers. In any case,” he says, turning away, “it’s not as though I have any experience building friendships.”

“Well,” I say. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”

At this, he smiles.

“And?” I nudge him. “That’s been good, hasn’t it? You’re learning to be nicer to people.”

“Yes, well, I don’t want to be nicer to people. It doesn’t suit me.”

“I think it suits you beautifully,” I say, beaming. “I love it when you’re nice.”

“You would say that.” He almost laughs. “But being kind does not come naturally to me, love. You’ll have to be patient with my progress.”

I take his hand in mine. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re perfectly kind to me.”

Warner shakes his head. “I know I promised I would make an effort to be nicer to your friends—and I will continue to make that effort—but I hope I’ve not led you to believe I’m capable of an impossibility.”

“What do you mean?”

“Only that I hope I won’t disappoint you. I might, if pressed, be able to generate some degree of warmth, but you must know that I have no interest in treating anyone the way I treat you. This,” he says, touching the air between us, “is an exception to a very hard rule.” His eyes are on my lips now; his hand has moved to my neck. “This,” he says softly, “is very, very unusual.”

I stop

stop breathing, talking, thinking—

He’s hardly touched me and my heart is racing; memories crash over me, scalding me in waves: the weight of his body against mine; the taste of his skin; the heat of his touch and his sharp gasps for air and the things he’s said to me only in the dark.

Butterflies invade my veins, and I force them out.

This is still so new, his touch, his skin, the scent of him, so new, so new and so incredible—

He smiles, tilts his head; I mimic the movement and with one soft intake of air his lips part and I hold still, my lungs flung to the floor, fingers feeling for his shirt and for what comes next when he says

“I’ll have to shave my head, you know”

and pulls away.

I blink and he’s still not kissing me.

“And it is my very sincere hope,” he says, “that you will still love me when I return.”

And then he’s up up and away and I’m counting on one hand the number of men I’ve killed and marveling at how little it’s done to help me hold it together in Warner’s presence.

I nod once as he waves good-bye, collect my good sense from where I left it, and fall backward onto the bed, head spinning, the complications of war and peace heavy on my mind.

I did not think it would be easy to be a leader, exactly, but I do think I thought it would be easier than this:

I am racked with doubt in every moment about the decisions I have made. I am infuriatingly surprised every time a soldier follows my lead. And I am growing more terrified that we—that I—will have to kill many, many more before this world is settled. Though I think it’s the silence, more than anything else, that’s left me shaken.

It’s been sixteen days.

I’ve given speeches about what’s to come, about our plans for the future; we’ve held memorials for the lives lost in battle and we’re making good on promises to implement change. Castle, true to his word, is already hard at work, trying to address issues with farming, irrigation, and, most urgent, how best to transition the civilians out of the compounds. But this will be work done in stages; it will be a slow and careful build—a fight for the earth that may take a century. I think we all understand that. And if it were only the civilians I had to worry about, I would not worry so much. But I worry because I know too well that nothing can be done to fix this world if we spend the next several decades at war within it.

Even so, I’m prepared to fight.

It’s not what I want, but I’ll gladly go to war if it’s what we need to do to make a change. I just wish it were that simple. Right now, my biggest problem is also the most confusing:

Wars require enemies, and I can’t seem to find any.

In the sixteen days since I shot Anderson in the forehead I have faced zero opposition. No one has tried to arrest me. No other supreme commanders have challenged me. Of the 554 remaining sectors on this continent alone, not a single one has defected, declared war, or spoken ill of me. No one has protested; the people have not rioted. For some reason, The Reestablishment is playing along.

Playing pretend.

And it deeply, deeply unnerves me.

We’re in a strange stalemate, stuck in neutral when I desperately want to be doing more. More for the people of Sector 45, for North America, and for the world as a whole. But this strange quiet has thrown all of us off-balance. We were so sure that, with Anderson dead, the other supreme commanders would rise up—that they’d command their armies to destroy us—to destroy me. Instead, the leaders of the world have made our insignificance clear: they’re ignoring us as they would an annoying fly, trapping us under glass where we’re free to buzz around, banging broken wings against the walls for only as long as the oxygen lasts. Sector 45 has been left to do as it pleases; we’ve been allowed autonomy and the authority to revise the infrastructure of our sector with no interference. Everywhere else—and everyone else—is pretending as though nothing in the world has changed. Our revolution occurred in a vacuum. Our subsequent victory has been reduced to something so small it might not even exist.

Mind games.

Castle is always visiting, advising. It was his suggestion that I be proactive—that I take the upper hand. Instead of waiting around, anxious and defensive, I should reach out, he said. I should make my presence known. Stake a claim, he said. Take a seat at the table. And attempt to form alliances before launching assaults. Connect with the five other supreme commanders around the world.

Because I may speak for North America—but what of the rest of the world? What of South America? Europe? Asia? Africa? Oceania?

Host an international conference of leaders, he said.

Talk.

Aim for peace first, he said.

“They must be dying of curiosity,” Castle said to me. “A seventeen-year-old girl taking over North America? A teenage girl killing Anderson and declaring herself ruler of this continent? Ms. Ferrars—you must know that you have great leverage at the moment! Use it to your advantage!”

“Me?” I said, stunned. “How do I have leverage?”

Castle sighed. “You certainly are brave for your age, Ms. Ferrars, but I’m sorry to see your youth so inextricably tied to inexperience. I will try to put it plainly: you have superhuman strength, nearly invincible skin, a lethal touch, only seventeen years to your name, and you have single-handedly felled the despot of this nation. And yet you doubt that you might be capable of intimidating the world?”

I cringed.

“Old habits, Castle,” I said quietly. “Bad habits. You’re right, of course. Of course you’re right.”

He leveled me with a straight stare. “You must understand that unanimous, collective silence from your enemies is no act of coincidence. They’ve certainly been in touch with one another—they’ve certainly agreed to this approach—because they’re waiting to see what you do next.” He shook his head. “They are awaiting your next move, Ms. Ferrars. I implore you to make it a good one.”

So I’m learning.

I did as he suggested and three days ago I sent word through Delalieu and contacted the five other supreme commanders of The Reestablishment. I invited them to join me here, in Sector 45, for a conference of international leaders next month.

Just fifteen minutes before Kenji barged into my room, I’d received my first RSVP.

Oceania said yes.

And I’m not sure what that means.





Warner




I’ve not been myself lately.

The truth is I’ve not been myself for what feels like a long time, so much so that I’ve begun to wonder whether I ever really knew. I stare, unblinking, into the mirror, the din of buzzing hair clippers echoing through the room. My face is only dimly reflected in my direction, but it’s enough for me to see that I’ve lost weight. My cheeks are hollow; my eyes, wider; my cheekbones more pronounced. My movements are both mournful and mechanical as I shear off my own hair, the remnants of my vanity falling at my feet.

My father is dead.

I close my eyes, steeling myself against the unwelcome strain in my chest, the clippers still humming in my clenched fist.

My father is dead.

It’s been just over two weeks since he was killed, shot twice in the forehead by someone I love. She was doing me a kindness by killing him. She was braver than I’d ever been, pulling the trigger when I never could. He was a monster. He deserved worse.

And still—

This pain.

I take in a tight breath and blink open my eyes, grateful for the time to be alone; grateful, somehow, for the opportunity to tear asunder something, anything from my flesh. There’s a strange catharsis in this.

My mother is dead, I think, as I drag the electric blade across my skull. My father is dead, I think, as the hair falls to the floor. Everything I was, everything I did, everything I am, was forged from the twins of their action and inaction.

Who am I, I wonder, in their absence?

Shorn head, blade switched off, I rest my palms against the edge of the vanity and lean in, still trying to catch a glimpse of the man I’ve become. I feel old and unsettled, my heart and mind at war. The last words I ever spoke to my father—

“Hey.”

My heart speeds up as I spin around; I’m affecting nonchalance in an instant. “Hi,” I say, forcing my limbs to slow, to be steady as I dust errant strands of hair from my shoulders.

She’s looking at me with big eyes, beautiful and worried.

I remember to smile. “How do I look? Not too horrible, I hope.”

“Aaron,” she says quietly. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I say, and glance again in the mirror. I run a hand over the soft/spiky half inch of hair I have left and wonder at how the cut manages to makes me look harsher—and colder—than before. “Though I confess I don’t really recognize myself,” I add aloud, attempting a laugh. I’m standing in the middle of the bathroom wearing nothing but boxer briefs. My body has never been leaner, the sharp lines of muscle never more defined; and the rawness of my body is now paired with the rough cut of my hair in a way that feels almost uncivilized—and so unlike me that I have to look away.

Juliette is now right in front of me.

Her hands settle on my hips and pull me forward; I trip a little as I follow her lead. “What are you doing?” I begin to say, but when I meet her eyes I find tenderness and concern. Something thaws inside of me. My shoulders relax and I reel her in, drawing in a deep breath as I do.

“When will we talk about it?” she says against my chest. “All of it? Everything that’s happened—”

I flinch.

“Aaron.”

“I’m okay,” I lie to her. “It’s just hair.”

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about.”

I look away. Stare at nothing. We’re both quiet a moment.

It’s Juliette who finally breaks the silence.

“Are you upset with me?” she whispers. “For shooting him?”

My body stills.

Her eyes widen.

“No—no.” I say the words too quickly, but I mean them. “No, of course not. It’s not that.”

Juliette sighs.

“I’m not sure you’re aware of this,” she says finally, “but it’s okay to mourn the loss of your father, even if he was a terrible person. You know?” She peers up at me. “You’re not a robot.”

I swallow back the lump growing in my throat and gently extricate myself from her arms. I kiss her on the cheek and linger there, against her skin, for only a second. “I need to take a shower.”

She looks heartbroken and confused, but I don’t know what else to do. It’s not that I don’t love her company, it’s just that right now I’m desperate for solitude and I don’t know how else to find it.

So I shower. I take baths. I go for long walks.

I tend to do this a lot.

When I finally come to bed she’s already asleep.

I want to reach for her, to pull her soft, warm body against my own, but I feel paralyzed. This horrible half-grief has made me feel complicit in darkness. I worry that my sadness will be interpreted as an endorsement of his choices—of his very existence—and in this matter I don’t want to be misunderstood, so I cannot admit that I grieve him, that I care at all for the loss of this monstrous man who raised me. And in the absence of healthy action I remain frozen, a sentient stone in the wake of my father’s death.

Are you upset with me? For shooting him?

I hated him.

I hated him with a violent intensity I’ve never since experienced. But the fire of true hatred, I realize, cannot exist without the oxygen of affection. I would not hurt so much, or hate so much, if I did not care.

And it is this, my unrequited affection for my father, that has always been my greatest weakness. So I lie here, marinating in a sorrow I can never speak of, while regret consumes my heart.

I am an orphan.

“Aaron?” she whispers, and I’m pulled back to the present.

“Yes, love?”

She moves in a sleepy, sideways motion, and nudges my arm with her head. I can’t help but smile as I open up to make room for her against me. She fills the void quickly, pressing her face into my neck as she wraps an arm around my waist. My eyes close as if in prayer. My heart restarts.

“I miss you,” she says. It’s a whisper I almost don’t catch.

“I’m right here,” I say, gently touching her cheek. “I’m right here, love.”

But she shakes her head. Even as I pull her closer, even as she falls back asleep, she shakes her head.

And I wonder if she’s not wrong.





Juliette




I’m having breakfast by myself this morning—alone, but not lonely.

The breakfast room is full of familiar faces, all of us catching up on something: sleep; work; half-finished conversations. Energy levels in here are always dependent on the amount of caffeine we’ve had, and right now, things are still pretty quiet.

Brendan, who’s been nursing the same cup of coffee all morning, catches my eye and waves. I wave back. He’s the only one among us who doesn’t actually need caffeine; his gift for creating electricity also works as a backup generator for his whole body. He’s exuberance, personified. In fact, his stark-white hair and ice-blue eyes seem to emanate their own kind of energy, even from across the room. I’m starting to think Brendan keeps up appearances with the coffee cup mostly out of solidarity with Winston, who can’t seem to survive without it. The two of them are inseparable these days—even if Winston occasionally resents Brendan’s natural buoyancy.

They’ve been through a lot together. We all have.

Brendan and Winston are sitting with Alia, who’s got her sketchbook open beside her, no doubt designing something new and amazing to help us in battle. I’m too tired to move, otherwise I’d get up to join their group; instead, I drop my chin in one hand and study the faces of my friends, feeling grateful. But the scars on Brendan’s and Winston’s faces take me back to a time I’d rather not remember—back to a time when we thought we’d lost them. When we’d lost two others. And suddenly my thoughts are too heavy for breakfast. So I look away. Drum my fingers against the table.

I’m supposed to be meeting Kenji for breakfast—it’s how we begin our workdays—which is the only reason I haven’t grabbed my own plate of food. Unfortunately, his lateness is beginning to make my stomach grumble. Everyone in the room is cutting into fresh stacks of fluffy pancakes, and they look delicious. All of it is tempting: the mini pitchers of maple syrup; the steaming heaps of breakfast potatoes; the little bowls of freshly cut fruit. If nothing else, killing Anderson and taking over Sector 45 got us much better breakfast options. But I think we might be the only ones who appreciate the upgrades.

Warner never has breakfast with the rest of us. He pretty much never stops working, not even to eat. Breakfast is another meeting for him, and he takes it with Delalieu, just the two of them, and even then I’m not sure he actually eats anything. Warner never appears to take pleasure in food. For him, food is fuel—necessary and, most of the time, annoying—in that his body requires it to function. Once, while he was deeply immersed in some important paperwork at dinner, I put a cookie on a plate in front of him just to see what would happen. He glanced up at me, glanced back at his work, whispered a quiet thank you, and ate the cookie with a knife and fork. He didn’t even seem to enjoy it. This, needless to say, makes him the polar opposite of Kenji, who loves to eat everything, all the time, and who later told me that watching Warner eat a cookie made him want to cry.

Speaking of Kenji, him flaking on me this morning is more than a little weird, and I’m beginning to worry. I’m just about to glance at the clock for the third time when, suddenly, Adam is standing next to my table, looking uncomfortable.

“Hi,” I say, just a little too loudly. “What’s, uh, what’s up?”

Adam and I have interacted a couple of times in the last two weeks, but it’s always been by accident. Suffice it to say that it’s unusual for Adam to be standing in front of me on purpose, and I’m so surprised that for a moment I almost miss the obvious:

He looks bad.

Rough. Ragged. More than a little exhausted. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I would’ve sworn Adam had been crying. Not over our failed relationship, I hope.

Still, old instinct gnaws at me, tugs at ancient heartstrings.

We speak at the same time:

“You okay . . . ?” I ask.

“Castle wants to talk to you,” he says.

“Castle sent you to come get me?” I say, feelings forgotten.

Adam shrugs. “I was walking past his room at the right time, I guess.”

“Um. Okay.” I try to smile. Castle is always trying to make nice between me and Adam; he doesn’t like the tension. “Did he say he wants to see me right now?”

“Yep.” Adam shoves his hands in his pockets. “Right away.”

“All right,” I say, and the whole thing feels awkward. Adam just stands there as I gather my things, and I want to tell him to go away, to stop staring at me, that this is weird, that we broke up forever ago and it was weird, you made it so weird, but then I realize he isn’t staring at me. He’s looking at the floor like he’s stuck, lost in his head somewhere.

“Hey—are you okay?” I say again, this time gently.

Adam looks up, startled. “What?” he says. “What, oh—yeah, I’m fine. Hey do you know, uh”—he clears his throat, looks around—“do you, uh—”

“Do I what?”

Adam rocks on his heels, eyes darting around the room. “Warner is never here for breakfast, huh?”

My eyebrows shoot up my forehead. “You’re looking for Warner?”

“What? No. I’m just, uh, wondering. He’s never here. You know? It’s weird.”

I stare at him.

He says nothing.

“It’s not that weird,” I say slowly, studying Adam’s face. “Warner doesn’t have time for breakfast with us. He’s always working.”

“Oh,” Adam says, and the word seems to deflate him. “That’s too bad.”

“Is it?” I frown.

But Adam doesn’t seem to hear me. He calls for James, who’s putting away his breakfast tray, and the two of them meet in the middle of the room and then disappear.

I have no idea what they do all day. I’ve never asked.

The mystery of Kenji’s absence at breakfast is solved the moment I walk up to Castle’s door: the two of them are here, heads together.

I knock on the open door as a courtesy. “Hey,” I say. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes, yes, Ms. Ferrars,” Castle says eagerly. He gets to his feet and waves me inside. “Please, have a seat. And if you would”—he gestures behind me—“close the door.”

I’m nervous in an instant.

I take a tentative step into Castle’s makeshift office and glance at Kenji, whose blank face does nothing to allay my fears. “What’s going on?” I say. And then, only to Kenji: “Why weren’t you at breakfast?”

Castle motions for me to take a seat.

I do.

“Ms. Ferrars,” he says urgently. “You have news of Oceania?”

“Excuse me?”

“The RSVP. You received your first RSVP, did you not?”

“Yeah, I did,” I say slowly. “But no one is supposed to know about that yet—I was going to tell Kenji about it over breakfast this morning—”

“Nonsense.” Castle cuts me off. “Everyone knows. Mr. Warner knows, certainly. And Lieutenant Delalieu knows.”

“What?” I glance at Kenji, who shrugs. “How is that possible?”

“Don’t be so easily shocked, Ms. Ferrars. Obviously all of your correspondence is monitored.”

My eyes widen. “What?”

Castle makes a frustrated motion with his hand. “Time is of the essence, so if you would, I’d really—”

“Time is of what essence?” I say, irritated. “How am I supposed to help you when I don’t even know what you’re talking about?”

Castle pinches the bridge of his nose. “Kenji,” he says suddenly. “Will you leave us, please?”

“Yep.” Kenji jumps to his feet with a mock salute. He heads toward the door.

“Wait,” I say, grabbing his arm. “What’s going on?”

“I have no idea, kid.” Kenji laughs, shakes his arm free. “This conversation doesn’t concern me. Castle called me in here earlier to talk about cows.”

“Cows?”

“Yeah, you know.” He arches an eyebrow. “Livestock. He’s been having me do reconnaissance on several hundreds of acres of farmland that The Reestablishment has been keeping off the radar. Lots and lots of cows.”

“Exciting.”

“It is, actually.” His eyes light up. “The methane makes it all pretty easy to track. Makes you wonder why they wouldn’t do something to preve—”

“Methane?” I say, confused. “Isn’t that a kind of gas?”

“I take it you don’t know much about cow shit.”

I ignore that. Instead, I say, “So that’s why you weren’t at breakfast this morning? Because you were looking at cow poop?”

“Basically.”

“Well,” I say. “At least that explains the smell.”

It takes Kenji a second to catch on, but when he does, he narrows his eyes. Taps me on the forehead with one finger. “You’re going straight to hell, you know that?”

I smile, big. “See you later? I still want to go on our morning walk.”

He makes a noncommittal grunt.

“C’mon,” I say, “it’ll be fun this time, I promise.”

“Oh yeah, big fun.” Kenji rolls his eyes as he turns away, and shoots Castle another two-finger salute. “See you later, sir.”

Castle nods his good-bye, a bright smile on his face.

It takes a minute for Kenji to finally walk out the door and shut it behind him, but in that minute Castle’s face transforms. His easy smile, his eager eyes: gone. Now that he and I are fully alone, Castle looks a little shaken, a little more serious. Maybe even . . . scared?

And he gets right down to business.

“When the RSVP came through, what did it say? Was there anything memorable about the note?”

“No.” I frown. “I don’t know. If all my correspondence is being monitored, wouldn’t you already know the answer to this question?”

“Of course not. I’m not the one monitoring your mail.”

“So who’s monitoring my mail? Warner?”

Castle only looks at me. “Ms. Ferrars, there is something deeply unusual about this response.” He hesitates. “Especially as it’s your first, and thus far, only RSVP.”

“Okay,” I say, confused. “What’s unusual about it?”

Castle looks into his hands. At the wall. “How much do you know about Oceania?”

“Very little.”

“How little?”

I shrug. “I can point it out on a map.”

“And you’ve never been there?”

“Are you serious?” I shoot him an incredulous look. “Of course not. I’ve never been anywhere, remember? My parents pulled me out of school. Passed me through the system. Eventually threw me in an insane asylum.”

Castle takes a deep breath. Closes his eyes as he says, very carefully, “Was there anything at all memorable about the note you received from the supreme commander of Oceania?”

“No,” I say. “Not really.”

“Not really?”

“I guess it was little informal? But I don’t thi—”

“Informal, how?”

I look away, remembering. “The message was really brief,” I explain. “It said Can’t wait to see you, with no sign-off or anything.”

“‘Can’t wait to see you’?” Castle looks suddenly puzzled.

I nod.

“Not can’t wait to meet you,” he says, “but can’t wait to see you.”

I nod again. “Like I said, a little informal. But it was polite, at least. Which I think is a pretty positive sign, all things considered.”

Castle sighs heavily as he turns in his chair. He’s facing the wall now, his fingers steepled under his chin. I’m studying the sharp angles of his profile as he says quietly,

“Ms. Ferrars, how much has Mr. Warner told you about The Reestablishment?”





Warner




I’m sitting alone in the conference room, running an absent hand over my new haircut, when Delalieu arrives. He’s pulling a small coffee cart in behind him, wearing the tepid, shaky smile I’ve come to rely upon. Our workdays have been busier than ever lately; thankfully, we’ve never made time to discuss the uncomfortable details of recent events, and I doubt we ever will.

For this I am forever grateful.

It’s a safe space for me here, with Delalieu, where I can pretend that things in my life have changed very little.

I am still chief commander and regent to the soldiers of Sector 45; it’s still my duty to organize and lead those who will help us stand against the rest of The Reestablishment. And with that role comes responsibility. We’ve had a lot of restructuring to do while we coordinate our next moves, and Delalieu has been critical to these efforts.

“Good morning, sir.”

I nod a greeting as he pours us both a cup of coffee. A lieutenant such as himself need not pour his own coffee in the morning, but we’ve come to prefer the privacy.

I take a sip of the black liquid—I’ve recently learned to enjoy its bitter tang—and lean back in my chair. “Updates?”

Delalieu clears his throat.

“Yes, sir,” he says, hastily returning his coffee cup to its saucer, spilling a little as he does. “Quite a few this morning, sir.”

I tilt my head at him.

“Construction of the new command station is going well. We’re expecting to be done with all the details in the next two weeks, but the private rooms will be move-in ready by tomorrow.”

“Good.” Our new team, under Juliette’s supervision, comprises many people now, with many departments to manage and, with the exception of Castle, who’s carved out a small office for himself upstairs, thus far they’ve all been using my personal training facilities as their central headquarters. And though this had seemed like a practical idea at its inception, my training facilities are accessible only through my personal quarters; and now that the group of them are living freely on base, they’re often barging in and out of my rooms, unannounced.

Needless to say, it’s driving me insane.

“What else?”

Delalieu checks his list and says, “We’ve finally managed to secure your father’s files, sir. It’s taken all this time to locate and retrieve the bulk of it, but I’ve left the boxes in your room, sir, for you to open at your leisure. I thought”—he clears his throat—“I thought you might like to look through his remaining personal effects before they are inherited by our new supreme commander.”

A heavy, cold dread fills my body.

“There’s quite a lot of it, I’m afraid,” Delalieu is still saying. “All his daily logs. Every report he’d ever filed. We even managed to locate a few of his personal journals.” Delalieu hesitates. And then, in a tone only I know how to decipher: “I do hope his notes will be useful to you, somehow.”

I look up, meet Delalieu’s eyes. There’s concern there. Worry.

“Thank you,” I say quietly. “I’d nearly forgotten.”

An uncomfortable silence settles between us and, for a moment, neither of us knows exactly what to say. We still haven’t discussed this, the death of my father. The death of Delalieu’s son-in-law. The horrible husband of his late daughter, my mother. We never talk about the fact that Delalieu is my grandfather. That he is the only kind of father I have left in the world.

It’s not what we do.

So it’s with a halting, unnatural voice that Delalieu attempts to pick up the thread of conversation.

“Oceania, as, as I’m sure you’ve heard, sir, has said that, that they would attend a meeting organized by our new madam, madam supreme—”

I nod.

“But the others,” he says, the words rushing out of him now, “will not respond until they’ve spoken with you, sir.”

At this, my eyes widen perceptibly.

“They’re”—Delalieu clears his throat again—“well, sir, as you know, they’re all old friends of the family, and they—well, they—”

“Yes,” I whisper. “Of course.”

I look away, at the wall. My jaw feels suddenly wired shut with frustration. Secretly, I’d been expecting this. But after two weeks of silence I’d actually begun to hope that maybe they’d continue to play dumb. There’s been no communication from these old friends of my father, no offers of condolences, no white roses, no sympathy cards. No correspondence, as was our daily ritual, from the families I’d known as a child, the families responsible for the hellscape we live in now. I thought I’d been happily, mercifully, cut off.

Apparently not.

Apparently treason is not enough of a crime to be left alone. Apparently my father’s many daily missives expounding my “grotesque obsession with an experiment” were not reason enough to oust me from the group. He loved complaining aloud, my father, loved sharing his many disgusts and disapprovals with his old friends, the only people alive who knew him face-to-face. And every day he humiliated me in front of the people we knew. He made my world, my thoughts, and my feelings seem small. Pathetic. And every day I’d count the letters piling up in my in-box, screeds from his old friends begging me to see reason, as they called it. To remember myself. To stop embarrassing my family. To listen to my father. To grow up, be a man, and stop crying over my sick mother.

No, these ties run too deep.

I squeeze my eyes shut to quell the rush of faces, memories of my childhood, as I say, “Tell them I’ll be in touch.”

“That won’t be necessary, sir,” says Delalieu.

“Excuse me?”

“Ibrahim’s children are already en route.”

It happens swiftly: a sudden, brief paralysis of my limbs.

“What do you mean?” I say, only barely managing to stay calm. “En route where? Here?”

Delalieu nods.

A wave of heat floods my body so quickly I don’t even realize I’m on my feet until I have to grab the table for support. “How dare they,” I say, somehow still clinging to the edge of composure. “Their complete disregard— To be so unbearably entitled—”

“Yes, sir, I understand, sir,” Delalieu says, looking newly terrified, “it’s just—as you know—it’s the way of the supreme families, sir. A time-honored tradition. A refusal on my part would’ve been interpreted as an open act of hostility—and Madam Supreme has instructed me to be diplomatic for as long as possible so I thought, I—I thought— Oh, I’m very sorry, sir—”

“She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with,” I say sharply. “There is no diplomacy with these people. Our new supreme commander might have no way of knowing this, but you,” I say, more upset than angry now, “you should’ve known better. War would’ve been worth avoiding this.”

I don’t look up to see his face when he says, his voice trembling, “I’m deeply, deeply sorry, sir.”

A time-honored tradition, indeed.

The right to come and go was a practice long ago agreed upon. The supreme families were always welcome in each other’s lands at any time, no invitations necessary. While the movement was young and the children were young, our families held fast. And now those families—and their children—rule the world.

This was my life for a very long time. On Tuesday, a playdate in Europe; on Friday, a dinner party in South America. Our parents insane, all of them.

The only friends I ever knew had families even crazier than mine. I have no wish to see any of them ever again.

And yet—

Good God, I have to warn Juliette.

“As to the, as to the matter of the, of the civilians”—Delalieu is prattling on—“I’ve been communicating with Castle, per, per your request, sir, on how best to proceed with their transition out of the, out of the compounds—”

But the rest of our morning meeting passes by in a blur.

When I finally manage to loose myself from Delalieu’s shadow, I head straight back to my own quarters. Juliette is usually here this time of day, and I’m hoping to catch her, to warn her before it’s too late.

Too soon, I’m intercepted.

“Oh, um, hey—”

I look up, distracted, and quickly stop in place. My eyes widen, just a little.

“Kent,” I say quietly.

One swift appraisal is all I need to know that he’s not okay. In fact, he looks terrible. Thinner than ever; dark circles under his eyes. Thoroughly worn-out.

I wonder whether I look just the same to him.

“I was wondering,” he says, and looks away, his face pinched. He clears his throat. “I was, uh”—he clears his throat again—“I was wondering if we could talk.”

I feel my chest tighten. I stare at him a moment, cataloging his tense shoulders, his unkempt hair, his deeply bitten fingernails. He sees me staring and quickly shoves his hands into his pockets. He can hardly meet my eyes.

“Talk,” I manage to say.

He nods.

I exhale quietly, slowly. We haven’t spoken a word to each other since I first found out we were brothers, nearly three weeks ago. I thought the emotional implosion of the evening had ended as well anyone could’ve hoped, but so much has happened since that night. We haven’t had a chance to rip open that wound again. “Talk,” I say again. “Of course.”

He swallows hard. Stares at the ground. “Cool.”

And I’m suddenly compelled to ask a question that unsettles both of us: “Are you all right?”

He looks up, stunned. His blue eyes are round and red-rimmed, bloodshot. His Adam’s apple bobs in his throat. “I don’t know who else to talk to about this,” he whispers. “I don’t know anyone else who would even understand—”

And I do. All at once.

I understand.

When his eyes go abruptly glassy with emotion; when his shoulders tremble even as he tries to hold himself still—

I feel my own bones rattle.

“Of course,” I say, surprising myself. “Come with me.”





Juliette




It’s another cold day today, all silver ruins and snow-covered decay. I wake up every morning hoping for even a slant of sunlight, but the bite in the air remains unforgiving as it sinks hungry teeth into our flesh. We’ve finally left the worst of winter behind, but even these early weeks of March feel inhumanly frosty. I pull my coat up around my neck and huddle into it.

Kenji and I are on what has become our daily walk around the forgotten stretches of Sector 45. It’s been both strange and liberating to be able to walk so freely in the fresh air. Strange, because I can’t leave the base without a small troop for protection, and liberating because it’s the first time I’ve been able to acquaint myself with the land. I’d never had a chance to walk calmly through these compounds; I had no way of seeing, firsthand, exactly what’d happened to this world. And now, to be able to roam freely, unquestioned—

Well, sort of.

I glance over my shoulder at the six soldiers shadowing our every move, machine guns held tightly against their chests as they march. No one really knows what to do about me yet; Anderson had a very different system in place as supreme commander—he never showed his face to anyone except those he was about to kill, and never traveled anywhere without his Supreme Guard. But I don’t have rules about either and, until I decide exactly how I want to rule, this is my new situation:

I’m to be babysat from the moment I step outside.

I tried to explain that I don’t need protection—I tried to remind everyone of my very literal, lethal touch; my superhuman strength; my functional invincibility—

“But it would be very helpful to the soldiers,” Warner had explained, “if you would at least go through the motions. We rely on rules, regulation, and constant discipline in the military, and soldiers need a system upon which they might depend, at all times. Do this for them,” he said. “Maintain the pretense. We can’t change everything all at once, love. It’d be too disorienting.”

So here I am.

Being followed.

Warner has been my constant guide these last couple of weeks. He’s been teaching me every day about all the many things his dad did and all the things he, himself, is responsible for. There are an infinite number of things Warner needs to do every day just to run this sector—never mind the bizarre (and seemingly endless) list of things I need to do to lead an entire continent.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that, sometimes, it all feels impossible.

I had one day, just one day to exhale and enjoy the relief of overthrowing Anderson and reclaiming Sector 45. One day to sleep, one day to smile, one day to indulge in the luxury of imagining a better world.

It was at the end of Day 2 that I discovered a nervous-looking Delalieu standing behind my door.

He seemed frantic.

“Madam Supreme,” he’d said, a crazy smile half hung on his face. “I imagine you must be very overwhelmed lately. So much to do.” He looked down. Wrung his hands. “But I fear—that is— I think—”

“What is it?” I’d said to him. “Is something wrong?”

“Well, madam—I haven’t wanted to bother you—you’ve been through so much and you’ve needed time to adjust—”

He looked at the wall.

I waited.

“Forgive me,” he said. “It’s just that it’s been nearly thirty-six hours since you’ve taken control of the continent and you haven’t been to visit your quarters once,” he said in a rush. “And you’ve already received so much mail that I don’t know where to put it anymo—”

“What?”

He froze. Finally met my eyes.

“What do you mean, my quarters? I have quarters?”

Delalieu blinked, dumbfounded. “Of course you do, madam. The supreme commander has his or her own quarters in every sector on the continent. We have an entire wing here dedicated to your offices. It’s where the late supreme commander Anderson used to stay whenever he visited us on base. And as everyone around the world knows that you’ve made Sector 45 your permanent residence, this is where they’ve sent all your mail, both physical and digital. It’s where your intelligence briefings will be delivered every morning. It’s where other sector leaders have been sending their daily reports—”

“You’re not serious,” I said, stunned.

“Very serious, madam.” He looked desperate. “And I worry about the message you might be sending by ignoring all correspondence at this early stage.” He looked away. “Forgive me. I don’t mean to overstep. I just—I know you’d like to make an effort to strengthen your international relationships—but I worry about the consequences you might face for breaking your many continental accords—”

“No, no, of course. Thank you, Delalieu,” I said, head spinning. “Thank you for letting me know. I’m—I’m very grateful to you for intervening. I had no idea”—I clapped a hand to my forehead—“but maybe tomorrow morning?” I said. “Tomorrow morning you could meet me after my morning walk? Show me where these quarters are located?”

“Of course,” he said with a slight bow. “It would be my pleasure, Madam Supreme.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.”

“Certainly, madam.” He looked so relieved. “Have a pleasant evening.”

I stumbled then as I said good-bye to him, tripping over my feet in a daze.

Not much has changed.

My shoes scuff on the concrete, my feet knocking into each other as I startle myself back into the present. I take a more certain step forward, this time bracing myself against another sudden, biting gust. Kenji shoots me a look of concern. I look, but don’t really see him. I’m looking beyond him now, eyes narrowed at nothing in particular. My mind continues on its course, whirring in time with the wind.

“You okay, kid?”

I look up, squinting sideways at Kenji. “I’m okay, yeah.”

“Convincing.”

I manage to smile and frown at the same time.

“So,” Kenji says, exhaling the word. “What’d Castle want to talk to you about?”

I turn away, irritated in an instant. “I don’t know. Castle is being weird.”

That gets Kenji’s attention. Castle is like a father to him—and I’m pretty sure if he had to choose, Kenji would choose Castle over me—so it’s clear where his loyalties lie when he says, “What do you mean? How is Castle being weird? He seemed fine this morning.”

I shrug. “He just seems really paranoid all of a sudden. And he said some things about Warner that just—” I cut myself off. Shake my head. “I don’t know.”

Kenji stops walking. “Wait, what things did he say about Warner?”

I shrug again, still irritated. “He thinks Warner is hiding stuff from me. Like, not hiding stuff from me, exactly—but that there’s a lot I don’t know about him? So I was like, ‘If you know so much about Warner, why don’t you tell me what I need to know about him?’ and Castle was like, ‘No, blah blah, Mr. Warner should tell you himself, blah blah.’” I roll my eyes. “Basically he was telling me it’s weird that I don’t know that much about Warner’s past. But that’s not even true,” I say, looking at Kenji now. “I know a bunch about Warner’s past.”

“Like?”

“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.

“I’m just—I don’t know,” I finally say. “I’m really tired. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“Rough night?”

I peer up at Kenji, shading my eyes against the cold sunlight. “You know, I don’t really sleep anymore,” I say to him. “I’m up at four in the morning every day, and I still haven’t gotten through last week’s mail. Isn’t that crazy?”

Kenji shoots me a sideways glance, surprised.

“And I have to, like, approve a million things every day? Approve this, approve that. Not even, like, big things,” I say to him. “It’s stupid stuff, like, like”—I pull a crumpled sheet of paper out of my pocket and shake it at the sky—“like this nonsense: Sector 418 wants to extend their soldiers’ lunch hour by an additional three minutes, and they need my approval. Three minutes? Who cares?”

Kenji fights back a smile; shoves his hands in his pockets.

“Every day. All day. I can’t get anything real done. I thought I’d be doing something big, you know? I thought I’d be able to, like, unify the sectors and broker peace or something, and instead I spend all day trying to avoid Delalieu, who’s in my face every five minutes because he needs me to sign something. And that’s just the mail.”

I can’t seem to stop talking now, finally confessing to Kenji all the things I feel I can never say to Warner, for fear of disappointing him. It’s liberating, but then, suddenly, it also feels dangerous. Like maybe I shouldn’t be telling anyone that I feel this way, not even Kenji.

So I hesitate, wait for a sign.

Kenji isn’t looking at me anymore, but he still appears to be listening. His head is cocked to the side, his mouth playing at a smile when he says, after a moment, “Is that all?”

And I shake my head, hard, relieved and grateful to keep complaining. “I have to log everything, all the time. I have to fill out reports, read reports, file reports. There are five hundred and fifty-four other sectors in North America, Kenji. Five hundred and fifty-four.” I stare at him. “That means I have to read five hundred and fifty-four reports, every single day.”

Kenji stares back, unmoved.

“Five hundred and fifty-four!”

He crosses his arms.

“The reports are ten pages long!”

“Uh-huh.”

“Can I tell you a secret?” I say.

“Hit me.”

“This job blows.”

Now Kenji laughs, out loud. Still, he says nothing.

“What?” I say. “What are you thinking?”

He musses my hair and says, “Aww, J.”

I jerk my head away from his hand. “That’s all I get? Just an ‘Aww, J,’ and that’s it?”

Kenji shrugs.

“What?” I demand.

“I mean, I don’t know,” he says, cringing a little as he says it. “Did you think this was going to be . . . easy?”

“No,” I say quietly. “I just thought it would be better than this.”

“Better, how?”

“I guess, I mean, I thought it would be . . . cooler?”

“Like, you thought you’d be killing a bunch of bad dudes by now? High-kicking your way through politics? Like you could just kill Anderson and all of a sudden, bam, world peace?”

And now I can’t bring myself to look at him, because I’m lying, lying through my teeth when I say,

“No, of course not. I didn’t think it would be like that.”

Kenji sighs. “This is why Castle was always so apprehensive, you know? With Omega Point it was always about being slow and steady. Waiting for the right moment. Knowing our strengths—and our weaknesses. We had a lot going for us, but we always knew—Castle always said—that we could never take out Anderson until we were ready to lead. It’s why I didn’t kill him when I had the chance. Not even when he was half dead already and standing right in front of me.” A pause. “It just wasn’t the right moment.”

“So—you think I made a mistake?”

Kenji frowns, almost. Looks away. Looks back, smiles a little, but only with one side of his mouth. “I mean, I think you’re great.”

“But you think I made a mistake.”

He shrugs in a slow, exaggerated way. “Nah, I didn’t say that. I just think you need a little more training, you know? I’m guessing the insane asylum didn’t prep you for this gig.”

I narrow my eyes at him.

He laughs.

“Listen, you’re good with the people. You talk pretty. But this job comes with a lot of paperwork, and it comes with a lot of bullshit, too. Lots of playing nice. Lots of ass-kissing. I mean, what are we trying to do right now? We’re trying to be cool. Right? We’re trying to, like, take over but, like, not cause absolute anarchy. We’re trying not to go to war right now, right?”

I don’t respond quickly enough and he pokes me in the shoulder.

“Right?” he says. “Isn’t that the goal? Maintain the peace for now? Attempt diplomacy before we start blowing shit up?”

“Yes, right,” I say quickly. “Yeah. Prevent war. Avoid casualties. Play nice.”

“Okay then,” he says, and looks away. “So you have to keep it together, kid. Because if you start losing it now? The Reestablishment is going to eat you alive. It’s what they want. In fact, it’s probably what they’re expecting—they’re waiting for you to self-destruct all this shit for them. So you can’t let them see this. You can’t let these cracks show.”

I stare at him, feeling suddenly scared.

He wraps one arm around my shoulder. “You can’t be getting stressed out like this. Over some paperwork?” He shakes his head. “Everyone is watching you now. Everyone is waiting to see what happens next. We either go to war with the other sectors—hell, with the rest of the world—or we manage to be cool and negotiate. And you have to be chill, J. Just be chill.”

And I don’t know what to say.

Because the truth is, he’s right. I’m so far in over my head I don’t even know where to start. I didn’t even graduate from high school. And now I’m supposed to have a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about international relations?

Warner was designed for this life. Everything he does, is, breathes—

He was built to lead.

But me?

What on earth, I think, have I gotten myself into?

Why did I think I’d be capable of running an entire continent? How did I allow myself to imagine that a supernatural ability to kill things with my skin would suddenly grant me a comprehensive understanding of political science?

I clench my fists too hard and—

pain, fresh pain

—as my fingernails pierce the flesh.

How did I think people ruled the world? Did I really imagine it would be so simple? That I might control the fabric of society from the comfort of my boyfriend’s bedroom?

I’m only now beginning to understand the breadth of this delicate, intricately developed spiderweb of people, positions, and power already in place. I said I was up for the task. Me, a seventeen-year-old nobody with very little life experience; I volunteered for this position. And now—basically overnight—I have to keep up. And I have no idea what I’m doing.

But if I don’t learn how to manage these many relationships? If I don’t at least pretend to have even the slightest idea of how I’m going to rule?

The rest of the world could so easily destroy me.

And sometimes I’m not sure I’ll make it out of this alive.





Warner




“How’s James?”

I’m the first to break the silence. It’s a strange feeling. New for me.

Kent nods his head in response, his eyes focused on the hands he’s clasped in front of him. We’re on the roof, surrounded by cold and concrete, sitting next to each other in a quiet corner to which I sometimes retreat. I can see the whole sector from here. The ocean far off in the distance. The sun making its sluggish, midday approach. Civilians like toy soldiers marching to and fro.

“He’s good,” Kent finally says. His voice is tight. He’s wearing nothing but a T-shirt and doesn’t seem to be bothered by the blistering cold. He takes in a deep breath. “I mean—he’s great, you know? He’s so great. Doing great.”

I nod.

Kent looks up, laughs a short, nervous sort of laugh and looks away. “Is this crazy?” he says. “Are we crazy?”

We’re both silent a minute, the wind whistling harder than before.

“I don’t know,” I finally say.

Kent pounds a fist against his leg. Exhales through his nose. “You know, I never said this to you. Before.” He looks up, but doesn’t look at me. “That night. I never said it, but I wanted you to know that it meant a lot to me. What you said.”

I squint into the distance.

It’s an impossible thing to do, really, to apologize for attempting to kill someone. Even so, I tried. I told him I understood him then. His pain. His anger. His actions. I told him that he’d survived the upbringing of our father to become a much better person than I’d ever be.

“I meant it,” I say to him.

Kent now taps his closed fist against his mouth. Clears his throat. “I’m sorry, too, you know.” His voice is hoarse. “Things got so screwed up. Everything. It’s such a mess.”

“Yes,” I say. “It is.”

“So what do we do now?” He finally turns to look at me, but I’m still not ready to meet his eyes. “How—how do we fix this? Can we even fix this? Is it too far gone?”

I run a hand over my newly shorn hair. “I don’t know,” I say, too quietly. “But I’d like to fix it.”

“Yeah?”

I nod.

Kent nods several times beside me. “I’m not ready to tell James yet.”

I falter, surprised. “Oh.”

“Not because of you,” he says quickly. “It’s not you I’m worried about. I just—explaining you means explaining something so much bigger. And I don’t know how to tell him his dad was a monster. Not yet. I really thought he’d never have to know.”

At this, I look up. “James doesn’t know? Anything?”

Kent shakes his head. “He was so little when our mom died, and I always managed to keep him out of sight when our dad came around. He thinks our parents died in a plane crash.”

“Impressive,” I hear myself say. “That was very generous of you.”

I hear Kent’s voice crack when he next speaks. “God, why am I so messed up over him? Why do I care?”

“I don’t know,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m having the same problem.”

“Yeah?”

I nod.

Kent drops his head in his hands. “He really screwed us up, man.”

“Yes. He did.”

I hear Kent sniff twice, two sharp attempts at keeping his emotions in check, and even so, I envy him his ability to be this open with his feelings. I pull a handkerchief from the inside pocket of my jacket and hand it to him.

“Thanks,” he says tightly.

Another nod.

“So, um—what’s up with your hair?”

I’m so caught off guard by the question I almost flinch. I actually consider telling Kent the whole story, but I’m worried he’ll ask me why I’d ever let Kenji touch my hair, and then I’d have to explain Juliette’s many, many requests that I befriend the idiot. And I don’t think she’s a safe topic for us yet. So instead I say, “A little mishap.”

Kent raises his eyebrows. Laughs. “Uh-huh.”

I glance in his direction, surprised.

He says, “It’s okay, you know.”

“What is?”

Kent is sitting up straighter now, staring into the sunlight. I’m beginning to see shades of my father in his face. Shades of myself. “You and Juliette,” he says.

I freeze.

He glances at me. “Really. It’s okay.”

I can’t help it when I say, stunned, “I’m not sure it would’ve been okay with me, had our roles been reversed.”

Kent smiles, but it looks sad. “I was a real dick to her at the end,” he says. “So I guess I got what I deserved. But it wasn’t actually about her, you know? All of that. It wasn’t about her.” He looks up at me out of the corner of his eye. “I’d been drowning for a while, actually. I was just really unhappy, and really stressed, and then”—he shrugs, turns away—“honestly, finding out you were my brother nearly killed me.”

I blink. Surprised once more.

“Yeah.” He laughs, shaking his head. “I know it seems weird now, but at the time I just—I don’t know, man, I thought you were a sociopath. I was so worried you’d figure out we were related and then, I mean—I don’t know, I thought you’d try to murder me or something.”

He hesitates. Looks at me.

Waits.

It’s only then that I realize—surprised, yet again—that he wants me to deny this. To say it wasn’t so.

But I can understand his concern. So I say, “Well. I did try to kill you once, didn’t I?”

Kent’s eyes go wide. “It’s too soon for that, man. That shit is still not funny.”

I look away as I say, “I wasn’t making a joke.”

I can feel Kent looking at me, studying me, trying, I assume, to make some sense of me or my words. Perhaps both. But it’s hard to know what he’s thinking. It’s frustrating to have a supernatural ability that allows me to know everyone’s emotions, except for his. It makes me feel off-kilter around him. Like I’ve lost my eyesight.

Finally, Kent sighs.

I seem to have passed a test.

“Anyway,” he says, but he sounds a bit uncertain now, “I was pretty sure you would come after me. And all I could think was that if I died, James would die. I’m his whole world, you know? You kill me, you kill him.” He looks into his hands. “I stopped sleeping at night. Stopped eating. I was losing my mind. I couldn’t handle it, any of it—and you were, like, living with us? And then everything with Juliette—I just—I don’t know.” He sighs, long and loud. Shaky. “I was an asshole. I took everything out on her. Blamed her for everything. For walking away from what I thought was one of the few sure things in my life. It’s my own fault, really. My own baggage. I’ve still got a lot of shit to work out,” he says finally. “I’ve got issues with people leaving me behind.”

For a moment, I’m rendered speechless.

I’d never thought of Kent as capable of complex thought. My ability to sense emotions and his ability to extinguish preternatural gifts has made for a strange pairing—I’d always been forced to conclude that he was devoid of all thought and feeling. It turns out he’s quite a bit more emotionally adept than I’d expected. Vocal, too.

But it’s strange to see someone with my shared DNA speak so freely. To admit aloud his fears and shortcomings. It’s too raw, like looking directly at the sun. I have to look away.

Ultimately, I say only, “I understand.”

Kent clears his throat.

“So. Yeah,” he says. “I guess I just wanted to say that Juliette was right. In the end, she and I grew apart. All of this”—he makes a gesture between us—“made me realize a lot of things. And she was right. I’ve always been so desperate for something, some kind of love, or affection, or something. I don’t know,” he says, shaking his head. “I guess I wanted to believe she and I had something we didn’t. I was in a different place then. Hell, I was a different person. But I know my priorities now.”

I look at him then, a question in my eyes.

“My family,” he says, meeting my gaze. “That’s all I care about now.”





Juliette




We’re making our way slowly back to base.

I’m in no hurry to find Warner only to have what will probably be a difficult, stressful conversation, so I take my time. I pick my way through the detritus of war, winding through the gray wreckage of the compounds as we leave behind unregulated territory and the smudged remnants of what used to be. I’m always sorry when our walk is nearly at an end; I feel great nostalgia for the cookie-cutter homes, the picket fences, the small, boarded-up shops and old, abandoned banks and buildings that make up the streets of unregulated turf. I’d like to find a way to bring it all back again.

I take a deep breath and enjoy the rush of crisp, icy air as it burns through my lungs. Wind wraps around me, pulling and pushing and dancing, whipping my hair into a frenzy, and I lean into it, get lost in it, open my mouth to inhale it. I’m about to smile when Kenji shoots me a dark look and I cringe, apologizing with my eyes.

My halfhearted apology does little to placate him.

I forced Kenji to take another detour down to the ocean, which is often my favorite part of our walk. Kenji, on the other hand, really hates it—and so do his boots, one of which got stuck in the muck that now clings to what used to be clean sand.

“I still can’t believe you like staring at that nasty, piss-infested—”

“It’s not infested, exactly,” I point out. “Castle says it’s definitely more water than pee.”

Kenji only glares at me.

He’s still muttering under his breath, complaining about his shoes being soaked in “piss water,” as he likes to call it, as we make our way up the main road. I’m happy to ignore him, determined to enjoy the last of this peaceful hour, as it’s one of the only hours I have for myself these days. I linger and look back at the cracked sidewalks and caving roofs of our old world, trying—and occasionally succeeding—to remember a time when things weren’t so bleak.

“Do you ever miss it?” I ask Kenji. “The way things used to be?”

Kenji is standing on one foot, shaking some kind of sludge from one leather boot, when he looks up and frowns. “I don’t know what you think you remember, J, but the way things used to be wasn’t much better than the way they are now.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, leaning against the pole of an old street sign.

“What do you mean?” he counters. “How can you miss anything about your old life? I thought you hated your life with your parents. I thought you said they were horrible and abusive.”

“They were,” I say, turning away. “And we didn’t have much. But there were some things I like to remember—some nice moments—back before The Reestablishment was in power. I guess I just miss the small things that used to make me happy.” I look back at him and smile. “You know?”

He raises an eyebrow.

“Like—the sound of the ice cream truck in the afternoons,” I say to him. “Or the mailman making his rounds. I used to sit by the window and watch people come home from work in the evenings.” I look away, remembering. “It was nice.”

“Hm.”

“You don’t think so?”

Kenji’s lips quirk up into an unhappy smile as he inspects his boot, now free of sludge. “I don’t know, kid. Those ice cream trucks never came into my neighborhood. The world I remember was tired and racist and volatile as hell, ripe for a hostile takeover by a shit regime. We were already divided. The conquering was easy.” He takes a deep breath. Blows it out as he says, “Anyway, I ran away from an orphanage when I was eight, so I don’t remember much of that cutesy shit, regardless.”

I freeze, stunned. It takes me a second to find my voice. “You lived in an orphanage?”

Kenji nods before offering me a short, humorless laugh. “Yep. I’d been living on the streets for a year, hitchhiking my way across the state—you know, before we had sectors—until Castle found me.”

“What?” My body goes rigid. “Why have you never told me this story? All this time—and you never said—”

He shrugs.

“Did you ever know your parents?”

He nods but doesn’t look at me.

I feel my blood run cold. “What happened to them?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters,” I say, and touch his elbow. “Kenji—”

“It’s not important,” he says, breaking away. “We’ve all got problems. We’ve all got baggage. No need to dwell on it.”

“This isn’t about dwelling on the past,” I say. “I just want to know. Your life—your past—it matters to me.” And for a moment I’m reminded again of Castle—his eyes, his urgency—and his insistence that there’s more I need to know about Warner’s past, too.

There’s so much left to learn about the people I care about.

Kenji finally smiles, but it makes him look tired. Eventually, he sighs. He jogs up a few cracked steps leading to the entrance of an old library and sits down on the cold concrete. Our armed guards are waiting for us, just out of sight.

Kenji pats the place next to him.

I scramble up the steps to join him.

We’re staring out at an ancient intersection, old stoplights and electric lines smashed and tangled on the pavement, when he says,

“So, you know I’m Japanese, right?”

I nod.

“Well. Where I grew up, people weren’t used to seeing faces like mine. My parents weren’t born here; they spoke Japanese and broken English. Some people didn’t like that. Anyway, we lived in a rough area,” he explains, “with a lot of ignorant people. And just before The Reestablishment started campaigning, promising to solve all our people problems by obliterating cultures and languages and religions and whatever, race relations were at their worst. There was a lot of violence, all across the continent. Communities clashing. Killing each other. If you were the wrong color at the wrong time”—he makes a finger gun, shoots it into the air—“people would make you disappear. We avoided it, mostly. The Asian communities never had it as bad as the black communities, for example. The black communities had it the worst—Castle can tell you all about that,” he says. “Castle’s got the craziest stories. But the worst that ever happened to my family, usually, was people would talk shit when we were out together. I remember my mom never wanted to leave the house.”

I feel my body tense.

“Anyhow.” He shrugs. “My dad just—you know—he couldn’t just stand there and let people say stupid, foul shit about his family, right? So he’d get mad. It wasn’t like this was always happening or whatever—but when it did happen, sometimes the altercation would end in an argument, and sometimes nothing. It didn’t seem like the end of the world. But my mom was always begging my dad to let it go, and he couldn’t.” His face darkens. “And I don’t blame him.

“One day,” Kenji says, “it ended really badly. Everyone had guns in those days, remember? Civilians had guns. Crazy to imagine now, under The Reestablishment, but back then, everyone was armed, out for themselves.” A short pause. “My dad bought a gun, too. He said we needed it, just in case. For our own protection.” Kenji isn’t looking at me when he says, “And the next time some stupid shit went down, my dad got a little too brave. They used his own gun against him. Dad got shot. Mom got shot trying to make it stop. I was seven.”

“You were there?” I gasp.

He nods. “Saw the whole thing go down.”

I cover my mouth with both hands. My eyes sting with unshed tears.

“I’ve never told anyone that story,” he says, his forehead creasing. “Not even Castle.”

“What?” I drop my hands. My eyes widen. “Why not?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says quietly, and stares off into the distance. “When I met Castle everything was still so fresh, you know? Still too real. When he wanted to know my story, I told him I didn’t want to talk about it. Ever.” Kenji glances over at me. “Eventually, he just stopped asking.”

I can only stare at him, stunned. Speechless.

Kenji looks away. He’s almost talking to himself when he says, “It feels so weird to have said all of that out loud.” He takes a sudden, sharp breath, jumps to his feet, and turns his head so I can’t see his face. I hear him sniff hard, twice. And then he stuffs his hands in his pockets and says, “You know, I think I might be the only one of us who doesn’t have daddy issues. I loved the shit out of my dad.”

I’m still thinking about Kenji’s story—and how much more there is to know about him, about Warner, about everyone I’ve come to call a friend—when Winston’s voice startles me back to the present.

“We’re still figuring out exactly how to divvy up the rooms,” he’s saying, “but it’s coming together nicely. In fact, we’re a little ahead of schedule on the bedrooms,” he says. “Warner fast-tracked the work on the east wing, so we can actually start moving in tomorrow.”

There’s a brief round of applause. Someone cheers.

We’re taking a brief tour of our new headquarters.

The majority of the space is still under construction, so, for the most part, what we’re staring at is a loud, dusty mess, but I’m excited to see the progress. Our group has desperately needed more bedrooms, more bathrooms, desks and studios. And we need to set up a real command center from which we can get work done. This will, hopefully, be the beginning of that new world. The world wherein I’m the supreme commander.

Crazy.

For now, the details of what I do and control are still unfolding. We won’t be challenging other sectors or their leaders until we have a better idea of who our allies might be, and that means we’ll need a little more time. “The destruction of the world didn’t happen overnight, and neither will saving it,” Castle likes to say, and I think he’s right. We need to make thoughtful decisions as we move forward—and making an effort to be diplomatic might be the difference between life and death. It would be far easier to make global progress, for example, if we weren’t the only ones with the vision for change.

We need to forge alliances.

But Castle’s conversation with me this morning has left me a little rattled. I’m not sure how to feel anymore—or what to hope for. I only know that, despite the brave face I put on for the civilians, I don’t want to jump from one war to another; I don’t want to have to slaughter everyone who stands in my way. The people of Sector 45 are trusting me with their loved ones—with their children and spouses who’ve become my soldiers—and I don’t want to risk any more of their lives unless absolutely necessary. I’m hoping to ease into this. I’m hoping that there’s a chance—even the smallest chance—that the semicooperation of my fellow sectors and the five other supreme commanders could mean good things for the future. I’m wondering if we might be able to come together without more bloodshed.

“That’s ridiculous. And naive,” Kenji says.

I look up at the sound of his voice, look around. He’s talking to Ian. Ian Sanchez—tall, lanky guy with a bit of an attitude but a good heart. The only one of us with no superpowers, though. Not that it matters.

Ian is standing tall, arms crossed against his chest, head turned to the side, eyes up at the ceiling. “I don’t care what you think—”

“Well, I do.” I hear Castle cut in. “I care what Kenji thinks,” he’s saying.

“But—”

“I care what you think, too, Ian,” Castle says, “But you have to see that Kenji is right in this instance. We have to approach everything with a great deal of caution. We can’t know for certain what will happen next.”

Ian sighs, exasperated. “That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is I don’t understand why we need all this space. It’s unnecessary.”

“Wait—what’s the issue here?” I ask, looking around. And then, to Ian: “Why don’t you like the new space?”

Lily puts an arm around Ian’s shoulders. “Ian is just sad,” she says, smiling. “He doesn’t want to break up the slumber party.”

“What?” I frown.

Kenji laughs.

Ian scowls. “I just think we’re fine where we are,” he says. “I don’t know why we need to move up into all this,” he says, his arms wide as he scans the cavernous space. “It feels like tempting fate. Doesn’t anyone remember what happened the last time we built a huge hideout?”

I watch Castle flinch.

I think we all do.

Omega Point, destroyed. Bombed into nothingness. Decades of hard work obliterated in a moment.

“That’s not going to happen again,” I say firmly. “Besides, we’re more protected here than we ever were before. We have an entire army behind us now. We’re safer in this building than we would be anywhere else.”

My words are met with an immediate chorus of support, but still I bristle, because I know that what I’ve said is only partly true.

I have no way of knowing what’s going to happen to us or how long we’ll last here. What I do know is that we need the new space—and we need to set up shop while we still have the funds. No one has tried to cut us off or shut us down yet; no sanctions have been imposed by fellow continents or commanders. Not yet, anyway. Which means we need to rebuild while we still have the means to do so.

But this—

This enormous space dedicated only to our efforts?

This was all Warner’s doing.

He was able to empty out an entire floor for us—the top floor, the fifteenth story—of Sector 45 headquarters. It took an enormous amount of effort to transfer and distribute a whole floor’s worth of people, work, and furnishings to other departments, but somehow, he managed it. Now the level is being refitted specifically for our needs.

Once it’s all done we’ll have state-of-the-art technology that will allow us not only the access to the research and surveillance we’ll need, but the necessary tools for Winston and Alia to continue building any devices, gadgets, and uniforms we might require. And even though Sector 45 already has its own medical wing, we’ll need a secure area for Sonya and Sara to work, from where they’ll be able to continue developing antidotes and serums that might one day save our lives.

I’m just about to point this out when Delalieu walks into the room.

“Supreme,” he says, with a nod in my direction.

At the sound of his voice, we all spin around.

“Yes, Lieutenant?”

There’s a slight quiver in his words when he says, “You have a visitor, madam. He’s requesting ten minutes of your time.”

“A visitor?” I turn instinctively, finding Kenji with my eyes. He looks just as confused as I am.

“Yes, madam,” says Delalieu. “He’s waiting downstairs in the main reception room.”

“But who is this person?” I ask, concerned. “Where did he come from?”

“His name is Haider Ibrahim. He’s the son of the supreme commander of Asia.”

I feel my body lock in sudden apprehension. I’m not sure I’m any good at hiding the panic that jolts through me as I say, “The son of the supreme commander of Asia? Did he say why he was here?”

Delalieu shakes his head. “I’m sorry to say that he refused to answer any of my more detailed questions, madam.”

I’m breathing hard, head spinning. Suddenly all I can think about is Castle’s concern over Oceania this morning. The fear in his eyes. The many questions he refused to answer.

“What shall I tell him, madam?” Delalieu again.

I feel my heart pick up. I close my eyes. You are a supreme commander, I say to myself. Act like it.

“Madam?”

“Yes, of course, tell him I’ll be right th—”

“Ms. Ferrars.” Castle’s sharp voice pierces the fog of my mind.

I look in his direction.

“Ms. Ferrars,” he says again, a warning in his eyes. “Perhaps you should wait.”

“Wait?” I say. “Wait for what?”

“Wait to meet with him until Mr. Warner can be there, too.”

My confusion bleeds into anger. “I appreciate your concern, Castle, but I can do this on my own, thank you.”

“Ms. Ferrars, I would beg you to reconsider. Please,” he says, more urgently now, “you must understand—this is no small thing. The son of a supreme commander—it could mean so much—”

“As I said, thank you for your concern.” I cut him off, my cheeks inflamed. Lately, I’ve been feeling like Castle has no faith in me—like he isn’t rooting for me at all—and it makes me think back to this morning’s conversation. It makes me wonder if I can trust anything he says. What kind of ally would stand here and point out my ineptitude in front of everyone? It’s all I can do not to shout at him when I say, “I can assure you, I’ll be fine.”

And then, to Delalieu:

“Lieutenant, please tell our visitor that I’ll be down in a moment.”

“Yes, madam.” Another nod, and Delalieu’s gone.

Unfortunately, my bravado walks out the door with him.

I ignore Castle as I search the room for Kenji’s face; for all my big talk, I don’t actually want to do this alone. And Kenji knows me well.

“Hey—I’m right here.” He’s crossed the room in just a few strides, by my side in seconds.

“You’re coming with me, right?” I whisper, tugging at his sleeve like a child.

Kenji laughs. “I’ll be wherever you need me to be, kid.”





Warner




I have a great fear of drowning in the ocean of my own silence.

In the steady thrum that accompanies quiet, my mind is unkind to me. I think too much. I feel, perhaps, far more than I should. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that my goal in life is to outrun my mind, my memories.

So I have to keep moving.

I used to retreat belowground when I wanted a distraction. I used to find comfort in our simulation chambers, in the programs designed to prepare soldiers for combat. But as we’ve recently moved a team of soldiers underground in all the chaos of the new construction, I’m without reprieve. I’ve no choice now but to go up.

I enter the hangar at a brisk pace, my footsteps echoing in the vast space as I move, almost instinctively, toward the army choppers parked in the far right wing. Soldiers see me and jump quickly out of my way, their eyes betraying their confusion even as they salute me. I nod only once in their direction, offering no explanation as I climb up and into the aircraft. I place the headphones over my head and speak quietly into the radio, alerting our air-traffic controllers of my intent to take flight, and strap myself into the front seat. The retinal scanner takes my identification automatically. Preflight checks are clear. I turn on the engine and the roar is deafening, even through the noise-canceling headphones. I feel my body begin to unclench.

Soon, I’m in the air.

My father taught me to shoot a gun when I was nine years old. When I was ten he sliced open the back of my leg and showed me how to suture my own wounds. At eleven he broke my arm and abandoned me in the wild for two weeks. At age twelve I was taught to build and defuse my own bombs. He began teaching me how to fly planes when I was thirteen.

He never did teach me how to ride a bike. I figured that out on my own.

From thousands of feet above the ground, Sector 45 looks like a half-assembled board game. Distance makes the world feel small and surmountable, a pill easily swallowed. But I know the deceit too well, and it is here, above the clouds, that I finally understand Icarus. I, too, am tempted to fly too close to the sun. It is only my inability to be impractical that keeps me tethered to the earth. So I take a steadying breath, and get back to work.

I’m making my aerial rounds a bit earlier than usual, so the sights below are different from the ones I’ve begun to expect every day. On an average day I’m up here in the late afternoon, checking in on civilians as they leave work to exchange their REST dollars at local Supply Centers. They usually scurry back to their compounds shortly thereafter, weighted down with newly purchased necessities and the disheartening realization that they’ll have to do it all again the following day. Right now, everyone is still at work, leaving the land empty of its worker ants. The landscape is bizarre and beautiful from afar, the ocean vast, blue, and breathtaking. But I know only too well our world’s pockmarked surface.

This strange, sad reality my father helped create.

I squeeze my eyes shut, my hand clutching the throttle. There’s simply too much to contend with today.

First, the disarming realization that I have a brother whose heart is as complicated and flawed as my own.

Second, and perhaps most offensive: the impending, anxiety-inducing arrival of my past.

I still haven’t talked to Juliette about the imminent arrival of our guests, and, if I’m being honest, I’m no longer sure I want to. I’ve never discussed much of my life with her. I’ve never told her stories of my childhood friends, their parents, the history of The Reestablishment and my role within it. There’s never been time. Never the right moment. If Juliette has been supreme commander for seventeen days now, she and I have only been in a relationship for two days longer than that.

We’ve both been busy.

And we’ve only just overcome so much—all the complications between us, all the distance and confusion, the misunderstandings. She’s mistrusted me for so long. I know I have only myself to blame for what’s transpired between us, but I worry that the past ugliness has inspired in her an instinct to doubt me; it’s likely a well-developed muscle now. And I feel certain that telling her more about my ignoble life will only make things worse at the onset of a relationship I want desperately to preserve. To protect.

So how do I begin? Where do I start?

The year I turned sixteen, our parents, the supreme commanders, decided we should all take turns shooting each other. Not to kill, merely to disable. They wanted us to know what a bullet wound felt like. They wanted us to be able to understand the recovery process. Most of all, they wanted us to know that even our friends might one day turn on us.

I feel my mouth twist into an unhappy smile.

I suppose it was a worthwhile lesson. After all, my father is now six feet under the ground and his old friends don’t seem to care. But the problem that day was that I’d been taught by my father, a master marksman. Worse, I’d already been practicing every day for five years—two years earlier than the others—and, as a result, I was faster, sharper, and crueler than my peers. I didn’t hesitate. I’d shot all my friends before they’d even picked up their weapons.

That was the first day I felt, with certainty, that my father was proud of me. I’d spent so long desperately seeking his approval and that day, I finally had it. He looked at me the way I’d always hoped he would: like he cared for me. Like a father who saw a bit of himself in his son. The realization sent me into the forest, where I promptly threw up in the bushes.

I’ve only been struck by a bullet once.

The memory still mortifies me, but I don’t regret it. I deserved it. For misunderstanding her, for mistreating her, for being lost and confused. But I’ve been trying so hard to be a different man; to be, if not kinder, then at the very least, better. I don’t want to lose the love I’ve come to cherish.

And I don’t want Juliette to know my past.

I don’t want to share stories from my life that only disgust and revolt me, stories that would color her impression of me. I don’t want her to know how I spent my time as a child. She doesn’t need to know how many times my father forced me to watch him skin dead animals, how I can still feel the vibrations of his screams in my ear as he kicked me, over and over again, when I dared to look away. I’d rather not remember the hours I spent shackled in a dark room, compelled to listen to the manufactured sounds of women and children screaming for help. It was all supposed to make me strong, he’d said. It was supposed to help me survive.

Instead, life with my father only made me wish for death.

I don’t want to tell Juliette how I’d always known my father was unfaithful, that he’d abandoned my mother long, long ago, that I’d always wanted to murder him, that I’d dreamt of it, planned for it, hoped to one day break his neck using the very skills he’d given me.

How I failed. Every time.

Because I am weak.

I don’t miss him. I don’t miss his life. I don’t want his friends or his footprint on my soul. But for some reason, his old comrades won’t let me go.

They’re coming to collect their pound of flesh, and I fear that this time—as I have every time—I will end up paying with my heart.





Juliette




Kenji and I are in Warner’s room—what’s become my room—and we’re standing in the middle of the closet while I fling clothes at him, trying to figure out what to wear.

“What about this?” I say to him, throwing something glittery in his direction. “Or this?” I toss another ball of fabric at him.

“You don’t know shit about clothes, do you?”

I turn around, tilt my head. “I’m sorry, when was I supposed to learn about fashion, Kenji? When I was growing up alone and tortured by my horrible parents? Or maybe when I was festering in an insane asylum?”

That shuts him up.

“So?” I say, nodding with my chin. “Which one?”

He picks up the two pieces I threw at him and frowns. “You’re making me choose between a short, shiny dress and a pair of pajama bottoms? I mean—I guess I choose the dress? But I don’t think it’ll go well with those ratty tennis shoes you’re always wearing.”

“Oh.” I glance down at my shoes. “Well, I don’t know. Warner picked this stuff out for me a long time ago—before he even met me. It’s all I have,” I say, looking up. “These clothes are left over from when I first got to Sector 45.”

“Why don’t you just wear your suit?” Kenji says, leaning against the wall. “The new one Alia and Winston made for you?”

I shake my head. “They haven’t finished fixing it yet. And it’s still got bloodstains from when I shot Warner’s dad. Besides,” I say, taking a deep breath, “that was a different me. I wore those head-to-toe suits when I thought I had to protect people from my skin. But I’m different now. I can turn my power off. I can be . . . normal.” I try to smile. “So I want to dress like a normal person.”

“But you’re not a normal person.”

“I know that.” A frustrating flush of heat warms my cheeks. “I just . . . I think I’d like to dress like one. Maybe for a little while? I’ve never been able to act my age and I just want to feel a little bit—”

“I get it,” Kenji says, cutting me off with one hand. He looks me up and down. Says, “Well, I mean, if that’s the look you’re going for, I think you look like a normal person right now. This’ll work.” He waves in the general direction of my body.

I’m wearing jeans and a pink sweater. My hair is pulled up into a high ponytail. I feel comfortable and normal—but I also feel like an unaccomplished seventeen-year-old playing pretend.

“But I’m supposed to be the supreme commander of North America,” I say. “Do you think it’s okay if I’m dressed like this? Warner is always wearing fancy suits, you know? Or just, like, really nice clothes. He always looks so poised—so intimidating—”

“Where is he, by the way?” Kenji cuts me off. “I mean, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I agree with Castle. Warner should be here for this meeting.”

I take a deep breath. Try to be calm. “I know that Warner knows everything, okay? I know he’s the best at basically everything, that he was born for this life. His father was grooming him to lead the world. In another life, another reality? This was supposed to be his role. I know that. I do.”

“But?”

“But it’s not Warner’s job, is it?” I say angrily. “It’s mine. And I’m trying not to rely on him all the time. I want to try to do some things on my own now. To take charge.”

Kenji doesn’t seem convinced. “I don’t know, J. I think maybe this is one of those times when you should still be relying on him. He knows this world way better than we do—and, bonus, he’d be able to tell you what you should be wearing.” Kenji shrugs. “Fashion really isn’t my area of expertise.”

I pick up the short, shiny dress and examine it.

Just over two weeks ago I single-handedly fought off hundreds of soldiers. I crushed a man’s throat in my fist. I put two bullets through Anderson’s forehead with no hesitation or regret. But here, staring at an armoire full of clothes, I’m intimidated.

“Maybe I should call Warner,” I say, peeking over my shoulder at Kenji.

“Yep.” He points at me. “Good idea.”

But then,

“No—never mind,” I say. “It’s okay. I’ll be okay, right? I mean what’s the big deal? He’s just a kid, right? Just the son of a supreme commander. Not an actual supreme commander. Right?”

“Uhhh—all of it is a big deal, J. The kids of the commanders are all, like, other Warners. They’re basically mercenaries. And they’ve all been prepped to take their parents’ places—”

“Yeah, no, I should definitely do this on my own.” I’m looking in a mirror now, pulling my ponytail tight. “Right?”

Kenji is shaking his head.

“Yes. Exactly.” I nod.

“Uh-uh. No. I think this is a bad idea.”

“I’m capable of doing some things on my own, Kenji,” I snap. “I’m not totally clueless.”

Kenji sighs. “Whatever you say, princess.”





Warner




“Mr. Warner—please, Mr. Warner, slow down, son—”

I stop too suddenly, pivoting sharply on my heel. Castle is chasing me down the hall, waving a frantic hand in my direction. I meet his eyes with a mild expression.

“Can I help you?”

“Where have you been?” he says, obviously out of breath. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

I raise an eyebrow, fighting back the urge to tell him that my whereabouts are none of his business. “I had a few aerial rounds to make.”

Castle frowns. “Don’t you usually do that later in the afternoon?”

At this, I almost smile. “You’ve been watching me.”

“Let’s not play games. You’ve been watching me, too.”

Now I actually smile. “Have I?”

“You think so little of my intelligence.”

“I don’t know what to think of you, Castle.”

He laughs out loud. “Goodness, you’re an excellent liar.”

I look away. “What do you need?”

“He’s here. He’s here right now and she’s with him and I tried to stop her but she wouldn’t listen to me—”

I turn back, alarmed. “Who’s here?”

For the first time, I see actual anger flicker in Castle’s eyes. “Now is not the time to play dumb with me, son. Haider Ibrahim is here. Right now. And Juliette is meeting with him alone, completely unprepared.”

Shock renders me, for a moment, speechless.

“Did you hear what I said?” Castle is nearly shouting. “She’s meeting with him now.”

“How?” I say, coming back to myself. “How is he here already? Did he arrive alone?”

“Mr. Warner, please listen to me. You have to talk to her. You have to explain and you have to do it now,” he says, grabbing my shoulders. “They’re coming back for h—”

Castle is thrown backward, hard.

He cries out as he catches himself, his arms and legs splayed out in front of him as if caught in a gust of wind. He remains in that impossible position, hovering several inches off the ground, and stares at me, chest heaving. Slowly, he steadies. His feet finally touch the floor.

“You would use my own powers against me?” he says, breathing hard. “I am your ally—”

“Never,” I say sharply, “ever put your hands on me, Castle. Or next time I might accidentally kill you.”

Castle blinks. And then I feel it—I can sense it, close my fingers around it: his pity. It’s everywhere. Awful. Suffocating.

“Don’t you dare feel sorry for me,” I say.

“My apologies,” he says quietly. “I didn’t mean to invade your personal space. But you must understand the urgency here. First, the RSVP—and now, Haider’s arrival? This is just the beginning,” he says, lowering his voice. “They are mobilizing.”

“You are overthinking this,” I say, my voice clipped. “Haider’s arrival today is about me. Sector 45’s inevitable infestation by a swarm of supreme commanders is about me. I’ve committed treason, remember?” I shake my head, begin walking away. “They’re just a little . . . angry.”

“Stop,” he says. “Listen to me—”

“You don’t need to concern yourself with this, Castle. I’ll handle it.”

“Why aren’t you listening to me?” He’s chasing after me now. “They’re coming to take her back, son! We can’t let that happen!”

I freeze.

I turn to face him. My movements are slow, deliberate. “What are you talking about? Take her back where?”

Castle doesn’t respond. Instead, his face goes slack. He stares, confused, in my direction.

“I have a thousand things to do,” I say, impatient now, “so if you would please make this quick and tell me what on earth you’re talking about—”

“He never told you, did he?”

“Who? Told me what?”

“Your father,” he says. “He never told you.” Castle runs a hand down the length of his face. He looks abruptly ancient, about to expire. “My God. He never told you.”

“What do you mean? What did he never tell me?”

“The truth,” he says. “About Ms. Ferrars.”

I stare at him, my chest constricting in fear.

Castle shakes his head as he says, “He never told you where she really came from, did he? He never told you the truth about her parents.”





Juliette




“Stop squirming, J.”

We’re in the glass elevator, making our way down to one of the main reception areas, and I can’t stop fidgeting.

My eyes are squeezed shut. I keep saying, “Oh my God, I am totally clueless, aren’t I? What am I doing? I don’t look professional at all—”

“You know what? Who cares what you’re wearing?” Kenji says. “It’s all in the attitude, anyway. It’s about how you carry yourself.”

I look up at him, feeling the height difference between us more acutely than ever. “But I’m so