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Chapter no 14 – Warner

Defy Me (Shatter Me Book 5)

I’m sitting in my office listening to an old record when I get the call. I worry, at first, that it might be Lena, begging me to come back to her, but my feeling of revulsion quickly transforms to hate when I hear the voice on the line. My father. He wants me downstairs.

The mere sound of his voice fills me with a feeling so violent it takes me a minute to control myself.

Two years away.

Two years becoming the monster my father always wanted me to be. I glance in the mirror, loathing myself with a new, profound intensity I’d never before experienced. Every morning I wake up hoping only to die. To be done with this life, with these days.

He knew, when he made that deal, what he was asking me to do. I didn’t. I was sixteen, still young enough to believe in hope, and he took advantage of my naiveté. He knew what it would do to me. He knew it would break me. And it was all he’d ever wanted.

My soul.

I sold my soul for a few years with my mother, and now, after everything, I don’t even know if it’ll be worth it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to save her. I’ve been away too long. I’ve missed too much. My mother is doing so much worse now, and no doctor has been able to help her. Nothing has helped. My efforts have been worse than futile.

I gave up everything—for nothing.

I wish I’d known how those two years would change me. I wish I’d known how hard it would be to live with myself, to look in the mirror. No one warned me about the nightmares, the panic attacks, or the dark, destructive thoughts that would follow. No one explained to me how darkness works, how it feasts on itself or how it festers. I hardly recognize myself these days. Becoming an instrument of torture destroyed what was left of my mind.

And now, this: I feel empty, all the time. Hollowed out. Beyond redemption.

I didn’t want to come back here. I wanted to walk directly into the ocean. I wanted to fade into the horizon. I wanted to disappear.

Of course, he’d never let that happen.

He dragged me back here and gave me a title. I was rewarded for being an animal. Celebrated for my efforts as a monster. Never mind the fact that I wake up in the middle of every night strangled by irrational fears and a sudden, violent urge to upend the contents of my stomach.

Never mind that I can’t get these images out of my head.

I glance at the expensive bottle of bourbon my father left for me in my room and feel suddenly disgusted. I don’t want to be like him. I don’t want his opiate, his preferred form of oblivion.

At least, soon, my father will be gone. Any day now, he’ll be gone, and this sector will become my domain. I’ll finally be on my own.

Or something close to it.

Reluctantly, I pull on my blazer and take the elevator down.

When I finally arrive in his quarters as he requested, he spares me only the briefest look.

“Good,” he says. “You’ve come.” I say nothing.

He smiles. “Where are your manners? You’re not going to greet our guest?”

Confused, I follow his line of sight. There’s a young woman sitting on a chair in the far corner of the room, and, at first, I don’t recognize her.

When I do, the blood drains from my face.

My father laughs. “You kids remember each other, right?”

She was sitting so quietly, so still and small that I almost hadn’t noticed her at all. My dead heart jumps at the sight of her slight frame, a spark of life trying, desperately, to ignite.

“Juliette,” I whisper.

My last memory of her was from two years ago, just before I left home for my father’s sick, sadistic assignment. He ripped her away from me. Literally ripped her out of my arms. I’d never seen that kind of rage in his eyes, not like that, not over something so innocent.

But he was wild. Out of his mind.

She and I hadn’t done anything more than talk to each other. I’d started stealing down to her room whenever I could get away, and I’d trick the cameras’ feeds to give us privacy. We’d talk, sometimes for hours. She’d become my friend.

I never touched her.

She said that after what happened with the little boy, she was afraid to touch anyone. She said she didn’t understand what was happening to her and didn’t trust herself anymore. I asked her if she wanted to touch me, to test it

out and see if anything would happen, and she looked scared and I told her not to worry. I promised it’d be okay. And when I took her hand, tentatively, waiting for disaster—

Nothing happened.

Nothing happened except that she burst into tears. She threw herself into my arms and wept and told me she’d been terrified that there was something wrong with her, that she’d turned into a monster—

We only had a month, altogether.

But there was something about her that felt right to me, from the very beginning. I trusted her. She felt familiar, like I’d always known her. But I also knew it seemed a dramatic sort of thought, so I kept it to myself.

She told me about her life. Her horrible parents. She’d shared her fears with me, so I shared mine. I told her about my mom, how I didn’t know what was happening to her, how worried I was that she was going to die.

Juliette cared about me. Listened to me the way no one else did.

It was the most innocent relationship I’d ever had, but it meant more to me than anything. For the first time in years, I felt less alone.

The day I found out she was finally being transferred, I pulled her close. I pressed my face into her hair and breathed her in and she cried. She told me she was scared and I promised I’d try to do something—I promised to talk to my dad even though I knew he wouldn’t care—

And then, suddenly, he was there.

He ripped her out of my arms, and I noticed then that he was wearing gloves. “What the hell are you doing?” he cried. “Have you lost your mind? Have you lost yourself entirely?”

“Dad,” I said, panicking. “Nothing happened. I was just saying good-bye to her.”

His eyes widened, round with shock. And when he spoke, his words were whispers. “You were just— You were saying good-bye to her?”

“She’s leaving,” I said stupidly. “You think I don’t know that?” I swallowed, hard.

“Jesus,” he said, running a hand across his mouth. “How long have you been doing this? How long have you been coming down here?”

My heart was racing. Fear pulsed through me. I was shaking my head, unable to speak.

“What did you do?” my dad demanded, his eyes flashing. “Did you touch her?”

“No.” Anger surged through me, giving me back my voice even as my face flushed with embarrassment. “No, of course not.”

“Are you sure?”

“Dad, why are you”—I shook my head, confused—“I don’t understand

why you’re so upset. You’ve been pushing me and Lena together for months, even though I’ve told you a hundred times that I don’t like her, but now, when I actually—” I hesitated, looking at Juliette, her face half hidden behind my dad. “I was just getting to know her. That’s all.”

“You were just getting to know her?” He stared at me, disgusted. “Of all the girls in the world, you fall for this one? The child-murderer bound for prison? The likely insane test tube experiment? What is wrong with you?”

“Dad, please— Nothing happened. We’re just friends. We just talk sometimes.”

“Just friends,” he said, and laughed. The sound was demented. “You know what? I’ll let you take this with you. I’ll let you keep this one while you’re gone. Let it sit with you. Let it teach you a lesson.”

“What? Take what with me?”

“A warning.” He leveled me with a lethal look. “Try something like this again,” he said, “and I’ll kill her. And I’ll make sure you get to watch.”

I stared at him, my heart beating out of my chest. This was insane. We hadn’t even done anything. I’d known that my dad would probably be angry, but I never thought he’d threaten to kill her. If I’d known, I never would’ve risked it. And now—

My head was spinning. I didn’t understand. He was dragging her down the hall and I didn’t understand.

Suddenly, she screamed.

She screamed and I stood there, helpless as he dragged her away. She called my name—cried out for me—and he shook her, told her to shut up, and I felt something inside of me die. I felt it as it happened. Felt something break apart inside of me as I watched her go.

I’d never hated myself so much. I’d never been more of a coward.

And now, here we are.

That day feels like a lifetime ago. I never thought I’d see her again.

Juliette looks up at me now, and she looks different. Her eyes are glassy with tears. Her skin has lost its pallor; her hair has lost its sheen. She looks thinner. She reminds me of myself.

Hollow.

“Hi,” I whisper.

Tears spill, silently, down her cheeks.

I have to force myself to remain calm. I have to force myself not to lose my head. My mother warned me, years ago, to hide my heart from my father, and every time I slipped—every time I let myself hope he might not be a monster— he punished me, mercilessly.

I wasn’t going to let him do that to me again. I didn’t want him to know how much it hurt to see her like this. How painful it was to sit beside her and

say nothing. Do nothing.

“What is she doing here?” I ask, hardly recognizing my own voice. “She’s here,” he says, “because I had her collected for us.” “Collected for what? You said—”

“I know what I said.” He shrugs. “But I wanted to see this moment. Your reunion. I’m always interested in your reunions. I find the dynamics of your relationship fascinating.”

I look at him, feel my chest explode with rage and somehow, fight it back. “You brought her back here just to torture me?”

“You flatter yourself, son.” “Then what?”

“I have your first task for you,” he says, pushing a stack of files across his desk. “Your first real mission as chief commander and regent of this sector.”

My lips part, surprised. “What does that have to do with her?” My father’s eyes light up. “Everything.”

I say nothing.

“I have a plan,” he says. “One that will require your assistance. In these files”—he nods at the stack in front of me—“is everything you need to know about her illness. Every medical report, every paper trail. I want you to reform the girl. Rehabilitate her. And then I want you to weaponize her abilities for our own use.”

I meet his eyes, failing to conceal my horror at the suggestion. “Why? Why would you come to me with this? Why would you ask me to do something like this, when you know our history?”

“You are uniquely suited to the job. It seems silly to waste my time explaining this to you now, as you won’t remember most of this conversation tomorrow—”

“What?” I frown. “Why wouldn’t I—”

“—but the two of you seem to have some kind of immutable connection, one that might, I hope, inspire her abilities to develop more fully. More quickly.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

He ignores me. Glances at Juliette. Her eyes are closed, her head resting against the wall behind her. She seems almost asleep, except for the tears still streaking softly down her face.

It kills me just to look at her.

“As you can see,” my father says, “she’s a bit out of her mind right now. Heavily sedated. She’s been through a great deal these last two years. We had no choice but to turn her into a sort of guinea pig. I’m sure you can imagine how that goes.”

He stares at me with a slight smile on his face. I know he’s waiting for something. A reaction. My anger.

I refuse to give it to him. His smile widens.

“Anyhow,” he says happily, “I’m going to put her back in isolation for the next six months—maybe a year, depending on how things develop. You can use that opportunity to prepare. To observe her.”

But I’m still fighting back my anger. I can’t bring myself to speak. “Is there a problem?” he says.

“No.”

“You remember, of course, the warning I gave you the last time she was here.”

“Of course,” I say, my voice flat. Dead.

And then, as if out of nowhere: “How is Lena, by the way? I hope she’s well.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

It’s barely there, but I catch the sudden shift in his voice. The anger when he says, “And why is that?”

“I broke things off with her last week.” “And you didn’t think to tell me?”

Finally, I meet his eyes. “I never understood why you wanted us to be together. She’s not right for me. She never was.”

“You don’t love her, you mean.”

“I can’t imagine how anyone would.”

“That,” he says, “is exactly why she’s perfect for you.”

I blink at him, caught off guard. For a moment, it almost sounded like my father cared about me. Like he was trying to protect me in some perverse, idiotic way.

Eventually, he sighs.

He picks up a pen and a pad of paper and begins writing something down. “I’ll see what I can do about repairing the damage you’ve done. Lena’s mother must be hysterical. Until then, get to work.” He nods at the stack of files he’s set before me.

Reluctantly, I pick a folder off the top.

I glance through the documents, scanning the general outline of the mission, and then I look up at him, stunned. “Why does the paperwork make it sound like this was my idea?”

He hesitates. Puts down his pen. “Because you don’t trust me.” I stare at him, struggling to understand.

He tilts his head. “If you knew this was my idea, you’d never trust it, would you? You’d look too closely for holes. Conspiracies. You’d never follow through the way I’d want you to. Besides,” he says, picking up his pen again. “Two birds. One stone. It’s time to finally break the cycle.”

I replace the folder on the pile. I’m careful to temper the tone of my voice

when I say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about your new experiment,” he says coolly. “Your little tragedy. This,” he says, gesturing between me and Juliette. “This needs to end. And she is unlikely to return your affections when she wakes up to discover you are not her friend but her oppressor. Isn’t she?”

And I can no longer keep the fury or the hysteria out of my voice when I say, “Why are you doing this to me? Why are you purposely torturing me?”

“Is it so crazy to imagine that I might be trying to do you a favor?” My father smiles. “Look more closely at those files, son. If you’ve ever wanted a chance at saving your mother—this might be it.”

I’ve become obsessed with time.

Still, I can only guess at how long I’ve been here, staring at these walls without reprieve. No voices, only the occasional warped sounds of faraway speech. No faces, not a single person to tell me where I am or what awaits me. I’ve watched the shadows chase the light in and out of my cell for weeks, their motions through the small window my only hope for marking the days.

A slim, rectangular slot in my door opens with sudden, startling force, the aperture shot through with what appears to be artificial light on the other side.

I make a mental note.

A single, steaming bun—no tray, no foil, no utensils—is shoved through the slot and my reflexes are still fast enough to catch the bread before it touches the filthy floor. I have enough sense to understand that the little food I’m given every day is poisoned. Not enough to kill me. Just enough to slow me down. Slight tremors rock my body, but I force my eyes to stay open as I turn the soft bun around in my hand, searching its flaky skin for information. It’s unmarked. Unextraordinary. It could mean nothing.

There’s no way to be sure.

This ritual happens exactly twice a day. I am fed an insignificant, tasteless portion of food twice a day. For hours at a time my thoughts slur; my mind swims and hallucinates. I am slow. Sluggish.

Most days, I fast.

To clear my head, to cleanse my body of the poison, and to collect information. I have to find my way out of here before it’s too late.

Some nights, when I’m at my weakest, my imagination runs wild; my mind is plagued by horrible visions of what might’ve happened to her. It’s torture not knowing what they’ve done with her. Not knowing where she is, not knowing how she is, not knowing if someone is hurting her.

But the nightmares are perhaps the most disconcerting.

At least, I think they’re nightmares. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction, dreams from reality; I spend too much time with poison running through my veins. But Nazeera’s words to me before the symposium—her warning that

Juliette was someone else, that Max and Evie are her true, biological parents . . .

I didn’t want to believe it then.

It seemed a possibility too perverse to be real. Even my father had lines he wouldn’t cross, I told myself. Even The Reestablishment had some sense of invented morality, I told myself.

But I saw them as I was carried away—I saw the familiar faces of Evie and Maximillian Sommers—the supreme commander of Oceania and her husband. And I’ve been thinking of them ever since.

They were the key scientists of our group, the quiet brains of The Reestablishment. They were military, yes, but they were medical. The pair often kept to themselves. I had few memories of them until very recently.

Until Ella appeared in my mind.

But I don’t know how to be sure that what I’m seeing is real. I have no way of knowing that this isn’t simply another part of the torture. It’s impossible to know. It’s agony, boring a hole through me. I feel like I’m being assaulted on both sides—mental and physical—and I don’t know where or how to begin fighting back. I’ve begun clenching my teeth so hard it’s causing me migraines. Exhaustion feasts, slowly, on my mind. I’m fairly certain I’ve got at least two fractured ribs, and my only hours of rest are achieved standing up, the single position that eases the pain in my torso. It’d be easy to give up. Give in. But I can’t lose myself to these mind games.

I won’t.

So I compile data.

I spent my whole life preparing for moments like these by people like this and they will take full advantage of that knowledge. I know they’ll expect me to prove that I deserve to survive, and—unexpectedly—knowing this brings me a much-needed sense of calm. I feel none of my usual anxiety here, being carefully poisoned to death.

Instead, I feel at home. Familiar. Fortified by adrenaline.

Under any other circumstances I’d assume my meals were offered once in the morning and once at night—but I know better than to assume anything anymore. I’ve been charting the shadows long enough to know that I’m never fed at regular hours, and that the erratic schedule is intentional. There must be a message here: a sequence of numbers, a pattern of information, something I’m not grasping—because I know that this, like everything else, is a test.

I am in the custody of a supreme commander. There can be no accidents.

I force myself to eat the warm, flavorless bun, hating the way the gummy, overly processed bread sticks to the roof of my mouth. It makes me wish for a toothbrush. They’ve given me my own sink and toilet, but I have little else to

keep my standards of hygiene intact, which is possibly the greatest indignity here. I fight a wave of nausea as I swallow the last bite of bread and a sudden, prickling heat floods my body. Beads of sweat roll down my back and I clench my fists to keep from succumbing too quickly to the drugs.

I need a little more time.

There’s a message here, somewhere, but I haven’t yet decided where. Maybe it’s in the movements of the shadows. Or in the number of times the slot opens and closes. It might be in the names of the foods I’m forced to eat, or in the exact number of footsteps I hear every day—or perhaps it’s in the occasional, jarring knock at my door that accompanies silence.

There’s something here, something they’re trying to tell me, something I’m supposed to decipher—I gasp, reach out blindly as a shock of pain shoots through my gut—

I can figure this out, I think, even as the drug drags me down. I fall backward, onto my elbows. My eyes flutter open and closed and my mind drowns even as I count the sounds outside my door—

one hard step

two dragging steps one hard step

—and there’s something there, something deliberate in the movement that speaks to me. I know this. I know this language, I know its name, it’s right there at the tip of my tongue but I can’t seem to grasp it.

I’ve already forgotten what I was trying to do.

My arms give out. My head hits the floor with a dull thud. My thoughts melt into darkness.

The nightmares take me by the throat.

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