God. I run a tired hand across my face. She asked me to forgive her. I almost don’t know what to do with myself. I feel joy and terror. My heart is heavy with something I don’t even know how to describe.
The ache in my chest has grown stronger, more painful. Being near her is somehow both a relief and a new kind of agony. There’s so much ahead of us, so much we still need to face, together, but right now I don’t want to think about any of it. Right now I just want to enjoy her proximity. I want to watch the gentle motions of her breathing. I want to inhale the soft scent of her hair and lean into the steadying warmth of her body.
Carefully, I touch my fingers to her cheek.
Her face is smooth, free from pain and tension. She looks peaceful. She looks beautiful.
My beautiful love.
Her eyes flutter open and I worry, for a moment, that I might’ve spoken out loud. But then she looks up at me, her eyes still soft with sleep, and I bring my hand to her face, this time trailing my fingers lightly along her jaw. She closes her eyes again. Smiles.
“I love you,” she whispers.
A shock of feeling swells inside of me, makes it hard for me to breathe. I can only look at her, studying her face, the lines and angles I’ve somehow always known.
Slowly, she sits up.
She leans back, stretching out her sore, stiff muscles. When she catches me watching her, she offers me a shy smile.
She leans in, takes my face in her hands.
“Hi,” she says, her words soft, her hands gentle as she tilts my chin down, toward her mouth. She kisses me, once, her lips full and sweet. It’s a tender kiss, but feeling strikes through me with a sharp, desperate need. “I missed you so much,” she says. “I still can’t believe you’re here.” She kisses me again, this time deeper, hungrier, and my heart beats so fast it roars in my ears. I can hardly hear anything else. I can’t bring myself to speak.
I feel stunned.
When we break apart, her eyes are worried. “Aaron,” she says. “Is everything okay?”
And I realize then, in a moment that terrifies me, that I want this, forever. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I want to build a future with her. I want to grow old with her.
I want to marry her.
“Aaron?” I say again, this time softly. “Are you all right?”
He blinks, startled. “Yes,” he says, drawing in a sharp breath. “Yes. Yes, I’m perfect.”
I manage a small smile. “I’m glad you finally agree with me.”
He frowns, confused, and then, as realization hits—
And for the first time in weeks, a full, genuine grin spreads across my face. It feels good. Human.
But Aaron shakes his head, clearly mortified. He can’t meet my eyes. His voice is careful, quiet when he says, “That’s not at all what I meant.”
“Hey,” I say, my smile fading. I take his hands in mine, squeeze. “Look at me.”
And I forget what I was going to say.
He has that kind of face. The kind of face that makes you forget where you are, who you are, what you might’ve been about to do or say. I’ve missed him so much. Missed his eyes. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but it feels like forever since the last time I saw him, a lifetime full of horrible revelations that threatened to break us both. I can’t believe he’s here, that we found each other and made things right.
It’s no small thing.
Even with everything else—with all the other horrors we’ve yet to contend with—being here with him feels like a huge victory. Everything feels new. My mind feels new, my memories, new. Even Aaron’s face is new, in its own way. He looks a little different to me now.
Like he’s always been here. Always lived in my heart.
His hair, thick and golden and beautiful, is how I remember it best—Evie must’ve done something to his hair, too, somehow. And even though he looks more exhausted than I’d like, his face is still striking. Beautiful, sharp lines. Piercing green eyes so light and bright they’re almost painful to look at. Everything about him is finely crafted. His nose. His chin. His ears and eyebrows. He has a beautiful mouth.
I linger too long there, my eyes betraying my mind, and Aaron smiles. Aaron. Calling him Warner doesn’t feel right anymore.
“What are you doing, love?”
“Just enjoying the view,” I say, still staring at his mouth. I reach up, touch two fingers to his bottom lip. Memories flood through me in a sudden, breathless rush. Long nights. Early mornings. His mouth, on me. Everywhere. Over and over again.
I hear him exhale, suddenly, and I glance up at him.
His eyes are darker, heavy with feeling. “What are you thinking?”
I shake my head, feeling suddenly shy. It’s strange, considering how close we’ve been, that I’d feel shy around him now. But he feels at once old and new to me—like we’re still learning about each other. Still discovering what our relationship means and what we mean to each other. Things feel deeper, desperate.
I take his hands again. “How are you?” I whisper.
He’s staring at our hands, entwined, when he says: “My father is still alive.”
“I heard. I’m so sorry.”
He nods. Looks away.
“Did you see him?”
Another nod. “I tried to kill him.”
I go still.
I know how hard it’s been for Aaron to face his father. Anderson has always been his most formidable opponent; Aaron has never been able to fight him head on. He’s never been able to bring himself to actually follow through with his threats to kill his father.
It’s astonishing he even came close.
And then Aaron tells me how his father has semi-functional healing powers, how Evie tried to re-create the twins’ DNA for him.
“So your dad is basically invincible?”
Aaron laughs quietly. Shakes his head. “I don’t think so. It makes him harder to kill, but I definitely think there’s a chink to be found in his armor.” He sighs. “Believe it or not, the strangest part of the whole thing was that, afterward, my father was proud of me. Proud of me for trying to kill him.” Aaron looks up, looks me in the eye. “Can you imagine?”
“Yes,” I whisper. “I can.”
Aaron’s eyes go deep with emotion. He pulls me close. “I’m so sorry, love. I’m so sorry for everything they did to you. For everything they’ve put you through. It kills me to know that you were suffering. That I couldn’t be there for you.”
“I don’t want to think about it right now.” I shake my head. “Right now all I want is this. I just want to be here. With you. Whatever comes next, we’ll face it together.”
“Ella,” he says softly.
A wave of feeling washes over me. Hearing him say my name—my real name—makes everything feel real. Makes us feel real.
I meet his eyes.
He smiles. “You know— I feel everything when you touch me, love. I can feel your excitement. Your nervousness. Your pleasure. And I love it,” he says quietly. “I love the way you respond to me. I love the way you want me. I feel it, when you lose yourself, the way you trust me when we’re together. And I feel your love for me,” he whispers. “I feel it in my bones.”
He turns away.
“I have loved you my entire life.” He looks up, looks at me with so much feeling it nearly breaks my heart. “And after everything we’ve been through—after all the lies and the secrets and the misunderstandings—I feel like we’ve been given a chance to start fresh. I want to start over,” he says. “I never want to lie to you again. I want us to trust each other and be true partners in everything. No more misunderstandings,” he says. “No more secrets. I want us to begin again, here, in this moment.”
I nod, pulling back so I can see his face more clearly. Emotions well in my throat, threaten to overcome me. “I want that, too. I want that so much.”
“Ella,” he says, his voice rough with feeling. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
My heart stops.
I stare at him, uncertain, thoughts pinwheeling in my head. I touch his cheek and he looks away, takes a sudden, shaky breath.
“What are you saying?” I whisper.
“I love you, Ella. I love you more th—”
“Wow. You two seriously couldn’t wait until we got back to base, huh? You couldn’t spare my eyes?”
The sound of Kenji’s voice pulls me suddenly, abruptly out of my head. I turn too quickly, awkwardly disengaging from Aaron’s body.
Aaron, on the other hand, goes suddenly white.
Kenji throws a thin airplane pillow at him. “You’re welcome,” he says.
Aaron chucks the pillow back without a word, his eyes burning in Kenji’s direction. He seems both shocked and angry, and he leans forward in his seat, his elbows balanced on his knees, the heels of his hands pressed against his eyes.
“You are a plague upon my life, Kishimoto.”
“I said you’re welcome.”
Aaron sighs, heavily. “What I would give to snap your neck right now, you have no idea.”