My seventeen years have collapsed and buried me from the inside out. My legs feel full of sand and stapled together, my mind overflowing with grains of indecision, choices unmade and impatient as time runs out of my body. The small hand of a clock taps me at one and two, three and four, whispering hello, get up, stand up, it’s time to
A sharp intake of breath and I’m awake but not up, surprised but not scared, somehow staring into the very desperately green eyes that seem to know too much, too well. Aaron Warner Anderson is bent over me, his worried eyes inspecting me, his hand caught in the air like he might’ve been about to touch me.
“Good morning,” I assume. I’m unsure of my voice, of the hour and this day, of these words leaving my lips and this body that contains me.
I notice he’s wearing a white button-down, half untucked into his curiously unrumpled black slacks. His shirtsleeves are folded, pushed up past his elbows.
His smile looks like it hurts.
I pull myself into a seated position and Warner shifts to accommodate me. I have to close my eyes to steady the sudden dizziness, but I force myself to remain still until the feeling passes.
I’m tired and weak from hunger, but other than a few general aches, I seem to be fine. I’m alive. I’m breathing and blinking and feeling human and I know exactly why.
I was shot in the chest.
Warner’s father put a bullet in my body and I can still feel the echoes of it. If I focus, I can relive the exact moment it happened; the pain: so intense, so excruciating; I’ll never be able to forget it.
I’m finally aware of the familiar foreignness of this room and I’m quickly seized by a panic that screams I did not wake up where I fell asleep. My heart is racing and I’m inching away from him, hitting my back against the headboard, clutching at these sheets, trying not to stare at the chandelier I remember all too well—
“It’s okay—” Warner is saying. “It’s all right—”
“What am I doing here?” Panic, panic; terror clouds my consciousness. “Why did you bring me here again—?”
“Juliette, please, I’m not going to hurt you—”
“Then why did you bring me here?” My voice is starting to break and I’m struggling to keep it steady. “Why bring me back to this hellhole—”
“I had to hide you.” He exhales, looks up at the wall.
“No one knows you’re alive.” He turns to look at me. “I had to get back to base. I needed to pretend everything was back to normal and I was running out of time.”
I force myself to lock away the fear.
I study his face and analyze his patient, earnest tone. I remember him last night—it must’ve been last night—I remember his face, remember him lying next to me in the dark. He was tender and kind and gentle and he saved me, saved my life. Probably carried me into bed. Tucked me in beside him. It must’ve been him.
But when I glance down at my body I realize I’m wearing clean clothes, no blood or holes or anything anywhere and I wonder who washed me, wonder who changed me, and worry that might’ve been Warner, too.
“Did you . . .” I hesitate, touching the hem of the shirt I’m wearing. “Did—I mean—my clothes—”
He smiles. He stares until I’m blushing and I decide I hate him a little and then he shakes his head. Looks into his palms. “No,” he says. “The girls took care of that. I just carried you to bed.”
Sonya and Sara. They were there too, the healer twins, they helped Warner. They helped him save me because he’s the only one who can touch me now, the only person in the world who’d have been able to transfer their healing power safely into my body.
My thoughts are on fire.
Where are the girls what happened to the girls and where is Anderson and the war and oh God what’s happened to Adam and Kenji and Castle and I have to get up I have to get up I have to get up and get out of bed and get going
I try to move and Warner catches me. I’m off-balance, unsteady; I still feel as though my legs are anchored to this bed and I’m suddenly unable to breathe, seeing spots and feeling faint. Need up. Need out.
“Warner.” My eyes are frantic on his face. “What happened? What’s happening with the battle—?”
“Please,” he says, gripping my shoulders. “You need to start slowly; you should eat something—”
“Don’t you want to eat first? Or shower?”
“No,” I hear myself say. “I have to know now.”
One moment. Two and three.
Warner takes a deep breath. A million more. Right hand over left, spinning the jade ring on his pinkie finger over and over and over and over “It’s over,” he says.
I say the word but my lips make no sound. I’m numb, somehow. Blinking and seeing nothing.
“It’s over,” he says again.
He nods. He’s disagreeing with me.
“No,” I say. “No. No. Don’t be stupid,” I say to him. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I say to him. “Don’t lie to me goddamn you,” but now my voice is high and broken and shaking and “No,” I gasp, “no, no, no—”
I actually stand up this time. My eyes are filling fast with tears and I blink and blink but the world is a mess and I want to laugh because all I can think is how horrible and beautiful it is, that our eyes blur the truth when we can’t bear to see it.
I know this to be an actual fact because it’s suddenly pressed against my face and Warner is trying to touch me but I think I scream and slap his hands away because I already know the answer. I must already know the answer because I can feel the revulsion bubbling up and unsettling my insides but I ask anyway. I’m horizontal and somehow still tipping over and the holes in my head are tearing open and I’m staring at a spot on the carpet not ten feet away and I’m not sure I’m even alive but I have to hear him say it.