“Right,” I say, but my mouth feels suddenly numb. My whole face feels numb. “You don’t even live here.”
And then, just as I’m trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces of my obliterated hopes and dreams, she climbs into my lap. Zero to sixty. My body malfunctions. Overheats.
She presses her face into my cheek and kisses me, softly, just underneath my jaw, and I feel myself melt into the wall, into the air.
I don’t understand what’s happening anymore. She likes me but she doesn’t want to be with me. She’s not going to be with me but she’s going to sit on my lap and kiss me into oblivion.
I let her touch me the way she wants to, let her put her hands on my body and kiss me wherever, however she wants. She touches me in a proprietary way, like I already belong to her, and I don’t mind. I kind of love it. And I let her take the lead for as long as I can bear it. She’s pulling up my shirt, running her hands across my bare skin and telling me how much she likes my body, and I really feel like—like I can’t breathe. I feel too hot. Delirious but sharp, aware of this moment in an almost primal way.
She helps me pull off my shirt and then she just looks at me, first at my face and then at my chest, and she runs her hands across my shoulders, down my arms. “Wow,” she says softly. “You’re so gorgeous.”
That’s it for me.
I pick her up off my lap and lay her down, on her back, and she gasps, stares at me like she’s surprised. And then, deep, her eyes go deep and dark, and she’s looking at my mouth but I decide to kiss her neck, the curve of her shoulder.
“Nazeera,” I whisper, hardly recognizing the sound of my own voice. “I want you so badly it might kill me.”
Suddenly, someone is banging on my door.
“Bro, where the hell did you go?” Ian shouts. “Castle brought dinner up like ten minutes ago.”
I sit up too fast. I nearly pull a muscle. Nazeera laughs out loud, and even though she claps a hand over her mouth to muffle the sound, she’s not quick enough.
“Uh— Hello?” Ian again. “Kenji?”
“I’ll be right there,” I shout back.
I hear him hesitate—his footsteps uncertain—and then he’s gone. I drop my head into my hands. Suddenly, everything comes rushing back to me. For a few minutes this moment with Nazeera felt like the whole world, a welcome reprieve from all the war and death and struggle. But now, with a little oxygen in my brain, I feel stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking.
Juliette might be dead.
I get to my feet. I pull my shirt on quickly, careful not to meet her eyes. For some reason, I can’t bring myself to look at Nazeera. I have no regrets about kissing her—it’s just that I also feel suddenly guilty, like I was doing something wrong. Something selfish and inappropriate.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know what got into me.”
Nazeera is tugging on her boots. She looks up, surprised. “What do you mean?”
“What we just”—I sigh, hard—“I don’t know. I forgot, for a moment, everything we have to do. The fact that Juliette might be out there, somewhere, being tortured to death. Warner might be dead. We’ll have to pack up and run, leave this place behind. God, there’s so much happening and I just— My head was in the wrong place. I’m sorry.”
Nazeera is standing up now. She looks upset. “Why do you keep apologizing to me? Stop apologizing to me.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” I wince. “I mean— You know what I mean. Anyway, we should go.”
“Listen, you said you didn’t want a relationship, right? You didn’t want to be my girlfriend? You don’t think that this”—I mimic what she did earlier, motioning between us—“could ever work? Well, then—” I take a breath. Run a hand through my hair. “This is what not being my girlfriend looks like. Okay? There are only a few people in my life who actually care about me, and right now my best friend is probably being murdered by a bunch of psychopaths, and I should be out there, doing something.”
“I didn’t realize you and Warner were so close,” she says quietly.
“What?” I frown. “No, I’m talking about Juliette,” I say. “Ella. Whatever.”
Nazeera’s eyebrows go high.
“Anyway, I’m sorry. We should probably just keep this professional, right? You’re not looking for anything serious, and I don’t know how to have casual relationships anyway. I always end up caring too much, to be honest, so this probably wasn’t a good idea.”
“Right?” I look at her, hoping, suddenly, that there was something I missed, something more than the cool distance in her eyes. “Didn’t you just tell me that we’re too different? That you don’t even live here?”
She turns away. “Yes.”
“And have you changed your mind in the last thirty seconds? About being my girlfriend?”
She’s still staring at the wall when she says, “No.”
Pain shoots up my spine, gathers in my chest. “Okay then,” I say, and nod. “Thanks for your honesty. I have to go.”
She cuts past me, walks out the door. “I’m coming, too.”
I’ve been sitting in the back of a police car for over an hour. I haven’t been able to cry, not yet. And I don’t know what I’m waiting for, but I know what I did, and I’m pretty sure I know what happens next.
I killed a little boy.
I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know why it happened. I just know that it was me, my hands, me. I did that. Me.
I wonder if my parents will show up.
Instead, three men in military uniforms march up to my window. One of them flings open the door and aims a machine gun at my chest.
“Get out,” he barks. “Out with your hands up.”
My heart is racing, terror propelling me out of the car so fast I stumble, slamming my knee into the ground. I don’t need to check to know that I’m bleeding; the pain of the fresh wound is already searing. I bite my lip to keep from crying out, force the tears back.
No one helps me up.
I want to tell them that I’m only fourteen, that I don’t know a lot about a lot of things, but that I know enough. I’ve watched TV shows about this sort of thing. I know they can’t charge me as an adult. I know that they shouldn’t be treating me like this.
But then I remember that the world is different now. We have a new government now, one that doesn’t care how we used to do things. Maybe none of that matters anymore.
My heart beats faster.
I’m shoved into the backseat of a black car, and before I know it, I’m deposited somewhere new: somewhere that looks like an ordinary office building. It’s tall. Steel gray. It seems old and decrepit—some of its windows are cracked—and the whole thing looks sad.
But when I walk inside I’m stunned to discover a blinding, gleaming interior. I look around, taking in the marble floors, the rich carpets and furnishings. The ceilings are high, the architecture modern but elegant. It’s all glass and marble and stainless steel.
I’ve never been anywhere so beautiful.
And I haven’t even had a moment to take it all in before I’m greeted by a thin, older man with even thinner brown hair.
The soldiers flanking me step back as he steps forward.
“Ms. Ferrars?” he says.
“You are to come with me.”
I hesitate. “Who are you?”
He studies me a moment and then seems to make a decision. “You may call me Delalieu.”
“Okay,” I say, the word disappearing into a whisper.
I follow Delalieu into a glass elevator and watch him use a key card to authorize the lift. Once we’re in motion, I find the courage to speak.
“Where am I?” I ask. “What’s happening?”
His answer comes automatically. “You are in Sector 45 headquarters. You’re here to have a meeting with the chief commander and regent of Sector 45.” He doesn’t look at me when he speaks, but there’s nothing in his tone that feels threatening. So I ask another question.
The elevator doors ping as they open. Delalieu finally turns to look at me. “You’ll find out in just a moment.”
I follow Delalieu down a hall and wait, quietly, outside a door while he knocks. He peeks his head inside when the door opens, announces his presence, and then motions for me to follow him in.
When I do, I’m surprised.
There’s a beautiful man in military uniform—I’m assuming he’s the commander—standing in front of a large, wooden desk, his arms crossed against his chest. He’s staring me straight in the eye, and I’m suddenly so overwhelmed I feel myself blush.
I’ve never seen anyone so handsome before.
I look down, embarrassed, and study the laces of my tennis shoes. I’m grateful for my long hair. It serves as a dark, heavy curtain, shielding my face from view.
“Look at me.”
The command is sharp and clear. I look up, nervously, to meet his eyes. He has thick, dark brown hair. Eyes like a storm. He looks at me for so long I feel goose bumps rise along my skin. He won’t look away, and I feel more terrified by the moment. This man’s eyes are full of anger. Darkness. There’s something genuinely frightening about him, and my heart begins to hammer.