Anderson turns back around. “Don’t sound so excited. I said I don’t know yet. First, I have to figure out how to deal with the problem.”
Quietly, I say, “What’s the problem?”
Anderson laughs; his eyes crinkle and he looks, for a moment, human. “Suffice it to say that your girlfriend is ruining my goddamn day. As usual.”
“My what?” I frown. “Dad, Lena isn’t my girlfriend. I don’t care what she’s telling any—”
“Different girlfriend,” Anderson says, and sighs. He won’t meet my eyes now. He snatches a file folder from his desk, flips it open, and scans the contents.
I don’t have a chance to ask another question.
There’s a sudden, sharp knock at the door. At my dad’s signal, Delalieu steps inside. He seems more than a little surprised to see me, and, for a moment, says nothing.
“Well?” My dad seems impatient. “Is she here?”
“Y-yes, sir.” Delalieu clears his throat. His eyes flit to me again. “Should I bring her up, or would you prefer to meet elsewhere?”
“Bring her up.”
Delalieu hesitates. “Are you quite certain, sir?”
I look from my dad to Delalieu. Something is wrong.
My father meets my eyes when he says, “I said, bring her up.”
Delalieu nods, and disappears.
My head is a stone, heavy and useless, my eyes cemented to my skull. I maintain consciousness for only seconds at a time. I smell metal, taste metal. An ancient, roaring noise grows loud, then soft, then loud again.
Boots, heavy, near my head.
Voices, but the sounds are muffled, light-years away. I can’t move. I feel as though I’ve been buried, left to rot. A weak orange light flickers behind my eyes and for just a second—just a second—
Days seem to pass. Centuries. I’m only aware enough to know I’ve been heavily sedated. Constantly sedated. I’m parched, dehydrated to the point of pain. I’d kill for water. Kill for it.
When they move me I feel heavy, foreign to myself. I land hard on a cold floor, the pain ricocheting up my body as if from a distance. I know that, too soon, this pain will catch up to me. Too soon, the sedative will wear off and I’ll be alone with my bones and this dust in my mouth.
A swift, hard kick to the gut and my eyes fly open, blackness devouring my open, gasping mouth, seeping into the sockets of my eyes. I feel blind and suffocated at once, and when the shock finally subsides, my limbs give out. Limp.
The spark dies.
“Do you want to tell me what the hell is going on?”
I stop, frozen in place, at the sound of Nazeera’s voice. I was heading back to my room to close my eyes for a minute. To try to do something about the massive headache ringing through my skull.
We finally, finally, took a break.
A brief recess after hours of exhausting, stressful conversations about next steps and blueprints and something about stealing a plane. It’s too much. Even Nazeera, with all her intel, couldn’t give me any real assurance that Juliette—sorry, Ella—and Warner were still alive, and just the chance that someone out there might be torturing them to death is, like, more than my mind can handle right now. Today has been a shitstorm of shit. A tornado of shit. I can’t take it anymore. I don’t know whether to sit down and cry or set something on fire.
Castle said he’d brave his way down to the kitchens to see about scrounging up some food for us, and that was the best news I’d heard all day. He also said he’d do his best to placate the soldiers for just a little longer—just long enough for us to figure out exactly what we’re going to do next—but I’m not sure how much he can do. It was bad enough when J got shot. The hours she spent in the medical wing were stressful for the rest of us, too. I really thought the soldiers would revolt right then. They kept stopping me in the halls, yelling about how they thought she was supposed to be invincible, that this wasn’t the plan, that they didn’t decide to risk their lives for a regular teenage girl who couldn’t take a bullet and goddammit she was supposed to be some supernatural phenomenon, something more than human—
It took forever to calm them down.
I can only imagine how they’ll react when they hear what happened at the symposium. It’ll be mutiny, most likely.
I sigh, hard.
“So you’re just going to ignore me?”
Nazeera is standing inches away from me. I can feel her, hovering. Waiting. I still haven’t said anything. Still haven’t turned around. It’s not that I don’t want to talk— I think I might, sort of, want to talk. Maybe some other day. But right now I’m out of gas. I’m out of James’s jokes. I’m fresh out of fake smiles. Right now I’m nothing but pain and exhaustion and raw emotion, and I don’t have the bandwidth for another serious conversation. I really don’t want to do this right now.
I’d nearly made my escape, too. I’m right here, right in front of my door. My hand is on the handle.
I could just walk away, I think.
I could be that kind of guy, a Warner kind of guy. A jackass kind of guy. Just walk away without a word. Too tired, no thank you, don’t want to talk.
Leave me alone.
Instead, I slump forward, rest my hands and forehead against the closed bedroom door. “I’m tired, Nazeera.”
“I can’t believe you’re upset with me.”
My eyes close. My nose bumps against the wood. “I’m not upset with you. I’m half asleep.”
“You were mad. You were mad at me for having the same ability as you. Weren’t you?”
“Weren’t you?” she says again, this time angrily.
I say nothing.
“Unbelievable. That is the most petty, ridiculous, immature—”
“Do you know how hard it was for me to tell you that? Do you have any idea—” I hear her sharp, angry huff. “Will you at least look at me when I’m talking to you?”
“What?” She sounds startled. “What do you mean you can’t?”
“Can’t look at you.”
She hesitates. “Why not?”
She laughs, but angrily, like she might punch me in the face. “Kenji, I’m trying to be serious with you. This is important to me. This is the first time in my whole life I’ve ever shown other people what I can do. It’s the first time I’ve ever interacted with other people like me. Besides,” she says, “I thought we decided we were going to be friends. Maybe that’s not a big deal to you, but it’s a big deal to me, because I don’t make friends easily. And right now you’re making me doubt my own judgment.”
I sigh so hard I nearly hurt myself.
I push off the door, stare at the wall. “Listen,” I say, swallowing hard. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. I just— There was a minute back there, before you really started talking, when I thought you’d just, like, lied about things. I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought maybe you’d set us up. A bunch of stuff seemed too crazy to be a coincidence. But we’ve been talking for hours now, and I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m not mad anymore. I’m sorry. Can I go now?”
“Of course,” she says. “I just . . .” She trails off, like she’s confused, and then she touches my arm. No, she doesn’t just touch my arm. She takes my arm. She wraps her hand around my bare forearm and tugs, gently.
The contact is hot and immediate. Her skin is soft. My brain feels dim. Dizzy.
“Stop,” I say.
She drops her hand.
“Why won’t you look at me?” she says.
“I already told you why I won’t look at you, and you laughed at me.”
She’s quiet for so long I wonder if she’s walked away. Finally, she says, “I thought you were joking.”
“Well, I wasn’t.”
Then: “Do you always say exactly what you’re thinking?”
“Most of the time, yeah.” Gently, I bang my head against the door. I don’t understand why this girl won’t let me wallow in peace.
“What are you thinking right now?” she asks.
I look up, at the ceiling, hoping for a wormhole or a bolt of lightning or maybe even an alien abduction—anything to get me out of here, this moment, this relentless, exhausting conversation.
In the absence of miracles, my frustration spikes.
“I’m thinking I want to go to sleep,” I say angrily. “I’m thinking I want to be left alone. I’m thinking I’ve already told you this, a thousand times, and you won’t let me go even though I apologized for hurting your feelings. So I guess what I’m really thinking is I don’t understand what you’re doing here. Why do you care so much about what I think?”
“What?” she says, startled. “I don’t—”
Finally, I turn around. I feel a little unhinged, like my brain is flooded. There’s too much happening. Too much to feel. Grief, fear, exhaustion. Desire.
Nazeera takes a step back when she sees my face.