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Chapter no 20 – Warner

Defy Me (Shatter Me Book 5)

“I’m a little early,” he says. “I know your birthday is tomorrow, but I just couldn’t wait any longer.”

I stare at my father as though he might be a ghost. Worse, a poltergeist. I can’t bring myself to speak, and for some reason he doesn’t seem to mind my silence.

Then— He smiles.

It’s a true smile, one that softens his features and brightens his eyes. We’re in something that looks like a sitting room, a bright, open space with plush couches, chairs, a round table, and a small writing desk in the corner. There’s a thick carpet underfoot. The walls are a pleasant, pale yellow, sun pouring in through large windows. My father’s figure is backlit. He looks ethereal. Glowing, like he might be an angel.

This world has a sick sense of humor.

He tossed me a robe when he walked into my cell, but hasn’t offered me anything else. I haven’t been given a chance to change. I haven’t been offered food or water. I feel underdressed—vulnerable—sitting across from him in nothing but cold underwear and a thin robe. I don’t even have socks. Slippers. Something.

And I can only imagine what I must look like right now, considering it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve had a shave or a haircut. I managed to keep myself clean in prison, but my hair is a bit longer now. Not like it used to be, but it’s getting there. And my face—

I touch my face almost without thinking.

Touching my face has become a bit of a habit these last couple of weeks. I have a beard. It’s not much of a beard, but it’s enough to surprise me, every time. I have no idea how I must look right now.

Untamed, perhaps.

Finally, I say, “You’re supposed to be dead.” “Surprise,” he says, and smiles.

I only stare at him.

My father leans against the table and stuffs his hands into his pants’

pockets in a way that makes him look boyish. Charming.

It makes me feel ill.

I look away, scanning the room for help. Details. Something to root me, something to explain him, something to arm me against what might be coming.

I come up short.

He laughs. “You know, you could stand to show a bit more emotion. I actually thought you might be happy to see me.”

That gets my attention. “You thought wrong,” I say. “I was happy to hear you were dead.”

“Are you sure?” He tilts his head. “You’re sure you didn’t shed a single tear for me? Didn’t miss me even the tiniest bit?”

All it takes is a moment of hesitation. The half-second delay during which I remember the weeks I spent caught in a prison of half grief, hating myself for mourning him, and hating that I ever cared at all.

I open my mouth to speak and he cuts me off, his smile triumphant. “I know this must be a bit unsettling. And I know you’re going to pretend you don’t care. But we both know that your bleeding heart has always been the source of all our problems, and there’s no point trying to deny that now. So I’ll be generous and offer to overlook your treasonous behavior.”

My spine stiffens.

“You didn’t think I’d just forget, did you?” My father is no longer smiling. “You try to overthrow me—my government, my continent—and then you stand aside like a perfect, pathetic piece of garbage as your girlfriend attempts to murder me—and you thought I’d never mention it?”

I can’t look at him anymore. I can’t stand the sight of his face, so like my own. His skin is still perfect, unscarred. As if he’d never been injured. Never taken a bullet to the forehead.

I don’t understand it.

“No? You still won’t be inspired to respond?” he says. “In that case, you might be smarter than I gave you credit for.”

There. That feels more like him.

“But the fact remains that we’re at an important crossroads right now. I had to call in a number of favors to have you transported here unharmed. The council was going to vote to have you executed for treason, and I was able to convince them otherwise.”

“Why would you even bother?”

His eyes narrow as he appraises me. “I save your life,” he says, “and this is your reaction? Insolence? Ingratitude?”

“This,” I say sharply, “is your idea of saving my life? Throwing me in prison and having me poisoned to death?”

“That should’ve been a picnic.” His gaze grows cold. “You really would

be better off dead if those circumstances were enough to break you.” I say nothing.

“Besides, we had to punish you somehow. Your actions couldn’t go unchecked.” My father looks away. “We’ve had a lot of messes to clean up,” he says finally. “Where do you think I’ve been all this time?”

“As I said, I thought you were dead.”

“Close, but not quite. Actually,” he says, taking a breath, “I spent a great deal of time convalescing. Here. I was airlifted back here, where the Sommerses have been reviving me.” He pulls up the hem of his pants and I glimpse the silver gleam of metal where his ankle should be. “I’ve got new feet,” he says, and laughs. “Can you believe it?”

I can’t. I can’t believe it. I’m stunned.

He smiles, obviously satisfied with my reaction. “We let you and your friends think you’d had a victory just long enough to give me time to recover. We sent the rest of the kids down to distract you, to make it seem like The Reestablishment might actually accept its new, self-appointed commander.” He shakes his head. “A seventeen-year-old child declaring herself the ruler of North America,” he says, almost to himself. And then, looking up: “That girl really was a piece of work, wasn’t she?”

Panic gathers in my chest. “What did you do to her? Where is she?” “No.” My father’s smile disappears. “Absolutely not.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means absolutely not. That girl is done. She’s gone. No more afternoon specials with your buddies from Omega Point. No more running around naked with your little girlfriend. No more sex in the afternoon when you should be working.”

I feel both ill and enraged. “Don’t you dare— Don’t ever talk about her like that. You have no right—”

He sighs, long and loud. Mutters something foul. “When are you going stop this? When will you grow out of this?”

It takes everything I’ve got to bite back my anger. To sit here, calmly, and say nothing. Somehow, my silence makes things worse.

“Dammit, Aaron,” he says, getting to his feet. “I keep waiting for you to move on. To get over her. To evolve,” he says, practically shouting at me now. “It’s been over a decade of the same bullshit.”

Over a decade.

A slip.

What do you mean,” I say, studying him carefully. “‘Over a decade’?” “I’m exaggerating,” he says, biting off the words. “Exaggerating to make

a point.”

Liar.

For the first time, something uncertain flashes through my father’s eyes. “Will you admit it?” I say quietly. “Will you admit to me what I already

know?”

He sets his jaw. Says nothing.

Admit it,” I say. “Juliette was an alias. Juliette Ferrars is actually Ella Sommers, the daughter of Evie and Maximillian Som—”

“How—” My father catches himself. He looks away and then, too soon, he looks back. He seems to be deciding something.

Finally, slowly, he nods.

“You know what? It’s better this way. Better for you to know,” he says quietly. “Better for you to understand exactly why you’re never going to see her again.”

“That’s not up to you.”

“Not up to me?” Rage flashes in and out of his eyes, his cool mask quickly crumbling. “That girl has been the bane of my existence for twelve years,” he says. “She’s caused me more problems than you can even begin to understand, not the least of which has been to distract my idiot son for the better part of the last decade. Despite my every effort to break you apart—to remove this cancer from our lives—you’ve insisted, over and over again, on falling in love with her.” He looks me in the eye, his own eyes wild with fury. “She was never meant for you. She was never meant for any of this. That girl was sentenced to death,” he says viciously, “the moment I named her Juliette.”

My heart is beating so hard it feels as though I’m dreaming. This must be a nightmare. I have to force myself to speak. To say:

“What are you talking about?”

My father’s mouth twists into an imitation of a smile.

“Ella,” he says, “was designed to become a tool for war. She and her sister both, right from the beginning. Decades before we took over, sicknesses were beginning to ravage the population. The government was trying to bury the information, but we knew. I saw the classified files. I tracked down one of the secret bunkers. People were malfunctioning, metamorphosing—so much so that it felt almost like the next phase of evolution. Only Evie had the presence of mind to see the sickness as a tool. She was the one who first began studying the Unnaturals. She was the reason we created the asylums—she wanted access to more varieties of the illness—and she was the one who learned how to isolate and reproduce the alien DNA. It was her idea to use the findings to help our cause. Ella and Emmaline,” he says angrily, “were only ever meant to be Evie’s science experiments. Ella was never meant for you. Never meant for anyone,” he shouts. “Get her out of your head.”

I feel frozen as the words settle around me. Within me. The revelation isn’t entirely new and yet—the pain is fresh. Time seems to slow down, speed

up, spin backward. My eyes fall closed. My memories collect and expand, exploding with renewed meaning as they assault me, all at once—

Ella through the ages.

My childhood friend.

Ella, ripped away from me when I was seven years old. Ella and Emmaline, who they’d said had drowned in the lake. They told me to forget, to forget the girls ever existed and, finally, tired of answering my questions, they told me they’d make things easier for me. I followed my father into a room where he promised he’d explain everything.

And then—

I’m strapped to a chair, my head held in place with heavy metal clamps.

Bright lights flash and buzz above me.

I hear the monitors chirping, the muffled sounds of voices around me. The room feels large and cavernous, gleaming. I hear the loud, disconcerting sounds of my own breathing and the hard, heavy beats of my heart. I jump, a little, at the unwelcome feel of my father’s hand on my arm, telling me I’ll feel better soon.

I look up at him as if emerging from a dream. “What is it?” he says. “What just happened?”

I part my lips to speak, wonder if it’s safe to tell him the truth. I decide I’m tired of the lies.

“I’ve been remembering her,” I say.

My father’s face goes unexpectedly blank, and it’s the only reaction I need to understand the final, missing piece.

“You’ve been stealing my memories,” I say to him, my voice unnaturally calm. “All these years. You’ve been tampering with my mind. It was you.”

He says nothing, but I see the tension in his jaw, the sudden jump of a vein under skin. “What are you remembering?”

I shake my head, stunned as I stare at him. “I should’ve known. After everything you’ve done to me—” I stop, my vision shifts, unfocused for a moment. “Of course you wouldn’t let me be master of my own mind.”

“What, exactly, are you remembering?” he says, hardly able to control the anger in his voice now. “What else do you know?”

At first, I feel nothing.

I’ve trained myself too well. Years of practice have taught me to bury my emotions as a reflex—especially in his presence—and it takes a few seconds for the feelings to emerge. They form slowly, infinite hands reaching up from infinite graves to fan the flames of an ancient rage I’ve never really allowed myself to touch.

“You stole my memories of her,” I say quietly. “Why?”

“Always so focused on the girl.” He glares at me. “She’s not the center of everything, Aaron. I stole your memories of lots of things.”

I’m shaking my head. I get to my feet slowly, at once out of my mind and perfectly calm, and I worry, for a moment, that I might actually expire from the full force of everything I feel for him. Hatred so deep it might boil me alive.

“Why would you do something like this except to torture me? You knew how I felt about her. You did it on purpose. Pushing us together and pulling us apart—” I stop suddenly. Realization dawns, bright and piercing and I look at him, unable to fathom the depth of his cruelty.

“You put Kent under my command on purpose,” I say.

My father meets my eyes with a vacant expression. He says nothing.

“I find it hard to believe you didn’t know the whereabouts of your illegitimate children,” I say to him. “I don’t believe for a second that you weren’t having Kent’s every move monitored. You must’ve known what he was doing with his life. You must’ve been notified the moment he enlisted.

“You could’ve sent him anywhere,” I say. “You had the power to do that. Instead, you let him remain in Sector 45—under my jurisdiction—on purpose. Didn’t you? And when you had Delalieu show me those files—when he came to me, convinced me that Kent would be the perfect cellmate for Juliette because here was proof that he’d known her, that they’d gone to school together—”

Suddenly, my father smiles.

“I’ve always tried to tell you,” he says softly. “I’ve tried to tell you to stop letting your emotions rule your mind. Over and over, I tried to teach you, and you never listened. You never learned.” He shakes his head. “If you suffer now, it’s because you brought it upon yourself. You made yourself an easy target.”

I’m stunned.

Somehow, even after everything, he manages to shock me. “I don’t understand how you can stand there, defending your actions, after you spent twenty years torturing me.”

“I’ve only ever been trying to teach you a lesson, Aaron. I didn’t want you to end up like your mother. She was weak, just like you.”

I need to kill him.

I picture it: what it would be like to pin him to the ground, to stab him repeatedly through the heart, to watch the light go out of his eyes, to feel his body go cold under my hands.

I wait for fear. Revulsion.

Regret.

They don’t come.

I have no idea how he survived the last attempt on his life, but I no longer care to know the answer. I want him dead. I want to watch his blood pool in my hands. I want to rip his throat out.

I spy a letter opener on the writing desk nearby, and in the single second I take to swipe it, my father laughs.

Laughs.

Out loud. Doubled over, one hand holding his side. When he looks up, there are actual tears in his eyes.

“Have you lost your mind?” he says. “Aaron, don’t be ridiculous.”

I step forward, the letter opener clutched loosely in my fist, and I watch, carefully, for the moment he understands that I’m going to kill him. I want him to know that it’s going to be me. I want him to know that he finally got what he wanted.

That he finally broke me.

“You made a mistake sparing my life,” I say quietly. “You made a mistake showing your face. You made a mistake thinking you could ask me to come back, after all you’ve done—”

“You misunderstand me.” He’s standing straight again, the laughter gone from his face. “I’m not asking you to come back. You don’t have a choice.”

“Good. That makes this easier.”

“Aaron.” He shakes his head. “I’m not unarmed. I’m entirely willing to kill you if you step out of line. And though I can’t claim that murdering my son is my favorite way to spend a morning, that doesn’t mean I won’t do it. So you need to stop and think, for just a moment, before you step forward and commit suicide.”

I study him. My fingers flex around the weapon in my hand. “Tell me where she is,” I say, “and I’ll consider sparing your life.”

“You fool. Have you not been listening to me? She’s gone.”

I stiffen. Whatever he means by that, he’s not lying. “Gone where?” “Gone,” he says angrily. “Disappeared. The girl you knew no longer

exists.”

He pulls a remote out of his jacket pocket and points it at the wall. An image appears instantly, projected from elsewhere, and the sound that fills the room is so sudden—so jarring and unexpected—it nearly brings me to my knees.

It’s Ella.

She’s screaming.

Blood drips down her open, screaming mouth, the agonizing sounds punctured only by the heaving sobs that pull ragged, aching breaths from her body. Her eyes are half open, delirious, and I watch as she’s unstrapped from a chair and dragged onto a stretcher. Her body spasms, her arms and legs jerking uncontrollably. She’s in a white hospital gown, the insubstantial ties

coming undone, the thin fabric damp with her own blood.

My hands shake uncontrollably as I watch, her head whipping back and forth, her body straining against her restraints. She screams again and a bolt of pain shoots through me, so excruciating it nearly bends me in half. And then, quickly, as if out of nowhere, someone steps forward and stabs a needle in her neck.

Ella goes still.

Her body is frozen, her face captured in a single moment of agony before the drug kicks in, collapsing her. Her screams dissolve into smaller, steadier whimpers. She cries, even as her eyes close.

I feel violently ill.

My hands are shaking so hard I can no longer form a fist, and I watch, as if from afar, as the letter opener falls to the floor. I hold still, forcing back the urge to vomit, but the action provokes a shudder so disorienting I almost lose my balance. Slowly, I turn to face my father, whose eyes are inscrutable.

It takes two tries before I’m able to form a single, whispered word: “What?”

He shakes his head, the picture of false sympathy. “I’m trying to get you to understand. This,” he says, nodding at the screen, “this is what she’s destined for. Forever. Stop imagining your life with her. Stop thinking of her as a person—”

“This can’t be real,” I say, cutting him off. I feel wild. Unhinged. “This— Tell me this isn’t real. What are you doing to me? Is this—”

“Of course it’s real,” he says. “Juliette is gone. Ella is gone. She’s as good as dead. She had her mind wiped weeks ago. But you,” he says, “you still have a life to live. Are you listening to me? You have to pull yourself together.”

But I can’t hear him over the sound of Ella sobbing.

She’s still weeping—the sounds softer, sadder, more desperate. She looks terrified. Small and helpless as foreign hands bandage the open wounds on her arms, the backs of her legs. I watch as glowing metal cuffs are shackled to her wrists and ankles. She whimpers once more.

And I feel insane.

I must be. Listening to her scream—watching her fight for her life, watching her choke on her own blood while I stand here, powerless to help her—

I’ll never be able to forget the sound.

No matter what happens, no matter where I run, these screams—her screams—will haunt me forever.

“You wanted me to watch this?” I’m whispering now; I can hardly speak. “Why would you want me to watch this?”

He says something to me. Shouts something at me. But I feel suddenly

deaf.

The sounds of the world seem warped, faraway, like my head has been submerged underwater. The fire in my brain has been snuffed out, replaced by a sudden, absolute calm. A sense of certainty. I know what I need to do now. And I know that there’s nothing—nothing I won’t do to get to her.

I feel it, feel my thin morals dissolving. I feel my flimsy, moth-eaten skin of humanity begin to come apart, and with it, the veil keeping me from complete darkness. There are no lines I won’t cross. No illusions of mercy.

I wanted to be better for her. For her happiness. For her future. But if she’s gone, what good is goodness?

I take a deep, steadying breath. I feel oddly liberated, no longer shackled by an obligation to decency. And in one simple move, I pick up the letter opener I dropped on the floor.

“Aaron,” he says, a warning in his voice.

“I don’t want to hear you speak,” I say. “I don’t want you to talk to me ever again.”

I throw the knife even before the words have left my mouth. It flies hard and fast, and I enjoy the second it soars through the air. I enjoy the way the second expands, exploding in the strangeness of time. It all feels like slow motion. My father’s eyes widen in a rare display of unmasked shock, and I smile at the sound of his gasp when the weapon finds its mark. I was aiming for his jugular, and it looks like my aim was true. He chokes, his eyes bulging as his hands move, shakily, to yank the letter opener from its home in his neck.

He coughs, suddenly, blood spattering everywhere, and with some effort, he’s able to pull the thing free. Fresh blood gushes down his shirt, seeps from his mouth. He can’t speak; the blade has penetrated his larynx. Instead, he gasps, still choking, his mouth opening and closing like a dying fish.

He falls to his knees.

His hands grasp at air, his veins jumping under his skin, and I step toward him. I watch him as he begs, silently, for something, and then I pat him down, pocketing the two guns I find concealed on his person.

“Enjoy hell,” I whisper, before walking away. Nothing matters anymore.

I have to find her.

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