The nightmares are back. I’m not sure if they ever really left. Although I suppose I can’t be too surprised when my entire life has been a novel of horrors punctuated by the briefest moments of quiet. Peace has never been a constant for me. Peace will never be a constant for me. Peace peace peace. Peace is more than the absence of war. It is so much more complex than that. If only it wasn’t.
It has been seven years since I killed Anderson. Seven years since our rebellion took Sector 45. Seven years since I appointed myself leader. I can still feel the cold wind whipping around me that day. Can still see the faces of the people, the hope they had for a better future, the faith they put in me to provide it. I can still see the bodies too. I did not know all their names and I wonder if it’s selfish to be grateful for that. There was so much death. Too much death. I can still feel the warmth of Aaron’s body, the brush of his lips against my ear as he whispered. “The whole world will be coming for us now.” I can feel how confident I was as I replied. “I can’t wait to watch them try.” I wish I still felt that confident. I wish I was still that indestructible.
The word of victory in our sector spread fast and soon there was news of uprisings occurring in every other sector. The Reestablishment has fallen. The Reestablishment has fallen and I have risen to take its place. There are nights when I lay awake wondering if I truly deserve this responsibility. I wonder if there is someone else out there who is better equipped to deal with the needs, wants, hopes, fears, expectations of an entire nation. I feel so small sometimes.
I get out of bed as carefully as possible, so acutely aware of Aaron asleep next to me. He’s an impossibly light sleeper and I don’t want to wake him. He sleeps even less than I do. I pad to the bathroom. The carpet absorbs every footfall; tonight I wish it would absorb me. I do not turn the bathroom light on. Instead I fiddle around for the tap and let the water run hot until it fogs up the mirror. I don’t want to see myself right now. I don’t know which version of myself will be reflected back at me. I’m too tired to deal with any of them. I flip the light switch only when I’m sure the mirror has been obscured. That first night after the battle I didn’t do any of this. I walked into the bathroom and saw bruised knuckles, bloodshot eyes, the weight of a fragile new world on my shoulders. I spent the next half hour hunched over the toilet and emptying my stomach as Aaron held my hair and rubbed my back. I’ve learned my lesson. I splash some water on my face and feel my muscles relax under the warmth. I massage my shoulders and feel the tension evaporate from there too. It seems I’m always tense these days. Always waiting for the sun to set and never rise again.
I stand under the shower until the hot water has melted the tension from my body, until the steam has chased away the fog in my mind. I step out of the shower knowing that the condensation on the mirror would have cleared by now. But it’s fine. I know which Juliette will be staring back at me and I’m ready to face her. I gaze into the eyes of a leader, a fighter, a winner. There is no trace of the scared little girl I once was. I hope I have washed her down the drain for good. I take in the rest of myself and think, not for the first time, that I wish my hair were shorter. And suddenly I’m flinging open the cabinet above the sink and grabbing the pair of scissors Aaron uses to trim his own hair. I hesitate for a minute, counting each of the sixty seconds. There are some habits I still cannot break. I’ve had long hair my entire life and I cannot help but wonder if I will even recognize myself without it. I take hold of the first lock, placing the scissors right above my shoulder. With a deep breath the hair falls to the floor. Inhale. Snip. Exhale. I continue like that until there’s a pool of brown waves licking at my feet. I grin at my reflection. I feel lighter. I’m ready to take on the day.
Aaron’s stirring as I exit the bathroom. The sun’s rising now. I must’ve spent longer in there than I thought. “Good morning, love.” His voice his sleep rough, face still pressed into the pillow his arms are wrapped around. He’s going to have the imprint of the cloth’s creases stamped onto his skin when he bothers to lift his head. The thought tugs a smile onto my lips. “Good morning,” I bend to press a soft kiss to his lips. “Did you sleep well?” The corner of his mouth quirks up. “I might have slept a hell of a lot better if you hadn’t decided to leave bed to give yourself a new haircut.” My face flushes and my fingers immediately reach up to touch the ends, suddenly self conscious. “Does it look ok?” Aaron spends five, six, seven seconds studying me before he smiles that sweet, soft smile that he reserves only for me. He takes my hand in his kisses each of my fingertips, then my palm; entwines our fingers together. “I think you are beautiful and that you will be beautiful regardless of what you look like. But yes, your hair looks wonderful.” Sincerity is woven into his every word and I will forever be grateful that such an amazing man would spend the rest of his life with me.
We get out of bed with just enough time for a quick joint shower before the council briefing. I haven’t even made it to my seat before there's a low whistle and “Damn J," Kenji's grinning at me from his seat at the conference table, "I know I’m gorgeous but you didn’t have to go copying my haircut. What if Warner ends up taking me to bed instead? He’s a good looking guy. I don’t know if I’d say no.” I regret my haircut for the first time that morning. “Shut up, Kenji,” I’m glaring at him but I know the effect is ruined by the smile tugging at the corner of my mouth. “You are insurmountably deluded, Kishimoto,” Aaron begins dryly, “if you think you are even remotely comparable to my wife.” He squeezes my hand under the table and the meeting begins.
Things are looking up, not only here, but all over the globe. Castle’s agricultural projects have been incredibly successful; the soils are less toxic, vegetation is lush, animals are healthy. The weather is still harsh but it’s becoming more predictable. It will be about a decade again before the weather patterns have returned to what they once were, but our people will no longer freeze during the coldest months. The housing has been restored to its previous comfort. Actual houses; people will no longer live in those constructions of The Reestablishment. They have interior temperature control and porches and flower gardens and brightly painted walls. Winston and Brendan really outdid themselves with the engineering and construction. They even managed to bring our schools, libraries, museums back to life. Our history and culture were never destroyed as claimed, just locked away. And now it’s all back where it belongs, in the hands of the people. Sara and Sonya took James under their wing and the three of them run a fully functioning hospital. Alia gave birth there a couple months ago. She and Adam are now the parents of the chubbiest little baby girl I have ever seen; Aaron is adorable with her. This hospital is different. It’s a place where people can actually get the help they need, nothing like the Asylum was.
It has taken years to remove the worst of The Reestablishment’s effects, but we’ve managed to do it. We’ve managed to soften the world. We’ve managed to give the people something to hold onto. We’ve given them something to believe in. We’ve given them a brighter future.
There are things I am not proud of doing, but there is nothing I regret. As I look at the faces of the friends who have become my family and I hear them talk about how well things are going, as I see how well things are going, how well everyone is doing, I cannot bring myself to feel anything but satisfied. I did what I had to. We all did. And we are all better for it. The world is better for it. I am better for it. All the pain, the suffering, the destruction and loss; it has all shaped me into the leader our people need. It has shaped me into the leader I need to be. It has shaped me into the woman I need to be. It has torn down my insecurities and fears. It has rebuilt me.