Page 37

The sun begins its descent as we make our way toward the campsite—the vast, unusually green field dotted with cream-colored tents—and the scene is so breathtaking I can’t help but stop to appreciate the view. Fire streaks across the sky, golden light flooding the air and earth. It feels both beautiful and bleak, and I shiver as a gust of wind wraps around my body.

Ella takes my hand.

I look at her, surprised, and she smiles at me, the fading sun glinting in her eyes. I feel her fear, her hope, her love for me. But there’s something else, too—something like pride. It’s faint, but it’s there, and it makes me so happy to see her like this. She should be proud. I can speak for myself, at least, when I say that I’ve never been so proud of her. But then, I always knew she would go on to greatness. It doesn’t surprise me at all that, even after everything she’s been through—after all the horrors she’s had to face—she’s still managed to inspire the world. She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. My father might be back from the dead, and Sector 45 might be out of our hands, but Ella’s impact can’t be ignored. Nouria says that no one really believed that she was actually dead, but now that it’s official—now that word has spread that Ella is still alive—she’s become more notorious than ever. Nouria says that the rumbles underground are already getting stronger. People are more desperate to act, to get involved, and to stand up to The Reestablishment. Resistance groups are growing. The civilians are finding ways to get smarter—to get stronger, together. And Ella has given them a figure to rally around. Everyone is talking about her.

She’s become a symbol of hope for so many.

I squeeze Ella’s hand, returning her smile, and when her cheeks flush with color I have to fight back the urge to pull her into my arms.

She amazes me more every day.

My conversation with Kenji is still, despite everything, at the forefront of my mind. Things always feel so desperate these days that I feel a new, nagging insistence that this window of calm might be my only chance at happiness. We’re almost constantly at war, either fighting for our lives or on the run—and there’s no guarantee of a future. No guarantee that I’ll live to see another year. No promise to grow old. It makes me feel li—

I stop, suddenly, and Ella nearly stumbles.

“Are you okay?” she says, squeezing my hand.

I nod. I offer her a distracted smile and vague apology as we begin walking again, but—

I run the numbers once more.

Finally, I say, without looking up, “Does anyone happen to know what day it is?”

And someone responds, a voice from the group I can’t be bothered to identify, confirming what I already thought might be true. My father wasn’t lying.

Tomorrow is my birthday.

I’ll be twenty years old.

Tomorrow.

The revelation thunders through me. This birthday feels like more of a milestone than usual, because my life, exactly one year ago, was nearly unrecognizable. Almost everything in my life is different now. One year ago I was a different person. I was in an awful, self-destructive relationship with a different person. One year ago my anxiety was so crippling that five minutes alone with my own mind would leave me spiraling for days. I relied entirely upon my routines and schedules to keep me tethered to the endless horrors of my job and its demands. I was inflexible beyond reason. I was hanging on to humanity by a thread. I felt both wild and nearly out of my mind, all the time. My private thoughts and fears were so dark that I spent nearly all my free hours either exercising, in my shooting range, or in the bowels of Sector 45, running training simulations that, I’m not proud to admit, I designed specifically to experience killing myself, over and over again.

That was one year ago. Less than a year ago. Somehow, it feels like a lifetime ago. And when I think back on who I was and what that version of myself thought my life would be like today—

I’m left deeply and profoundly humbled.

Today is not forever. Happiness does not happen. Happiness must be uncovered, separated from the skin of pain. It must be claimed. Kept close.

Protected.

“Would you prefer a chance to shower and change before reuniting with the others?” Nouria is saying.

Her voice is sharp and clear and it shakes me from my reverie. “Yes,” I say quickly. “I’d really appreciate the time to rest.”

“No problem. We meet for dinner in the main tent in two hours. I’ll show you to your new residences.” She hesitates. “I hope you’ll forgive me for being presumptuous, but I assumed the two of you”—she looks at me and Ella—“would like to share a space. But of course if that’s not—”

“Yes, thank you,” Ella says quickly. Her cheeks are already pink. “We’re grateful for your thoughtfulness.”

Nouria nods. She seems pleased. And then she turns to Kenji and Nazeera and says, “If you’d like, I can arrange to join your separate rooms so that y—”

Kenji and Nazeera respond at the same time.

“What? No.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Nouria says quickly. “My apologies. I shouldn’t have assumed.”

For the first time ever, Nazeera looks flustered. She can hardly get out the words when she says, “Why would you think we’d want to share a room?”

Nouria shakes her head. She shares a quick, confused glance with Castle, but seems suddenly mortified. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. You seemed—”

“Separate rooms are perfect,” Kenji says sharply.

“Great,” Nouria says a little too brightly. “I’ll lead the way.”

And I watch, amused, as Castle tries and fails to hide a smile.

Our residence, as Nouria called it, is more than I could’ve hoped for. I thought we’d be camping; instead, inside of each tent is a miniature, self-contained home. There’s a bed, a small living area, a tiny kitchen, and a full bathroom. The furnishings are spare but bright, well made and clean.

And when Ella walks in, slips off her shoes, and throws herself backward onto the bed, I can almost imagine us together like this—maybe, someday—in our own home. The thought sends a wave of disorienting euphoria through my body.

And then—fear.

It seems like tempting fate to even hope for a happiness like that. But there’s another part of me, a small, but insistent part of me, that clings to that hope nonetheless. Ella and I overcame what I once thought impossible. I never dreamed she’d still love me once she knew everything about me. I never dreamed that the heartbreak and horrors of recent events would only bring us closer, or that my love for her could somehow increase tenfold in two weeks. I grew up thinking that the joys of this world were for other people to enjoy. I was certain that I was fated to a bleak, solitary life, forever barred from the contentment offered by human connection.

But now—

Ella yawns soundlessly, hugging a pillow to her chest as she curls up on her side. Her eyes close.

A smile tugs at my mouth as I watch her.

I’m still amazed at how just the sight of her could bring me so much peace. She shifts, again, burrowing more deeply into the pillows, and I realize she must be exhausted. And as much as I’d love to pull her into my arms, I decide to give her space. I back away quietly, and instead use the time to explore the rest of our new, temporary home.

I’m still surprised by how much I like it.

We have more privacy here, in these new headquarters, than we ever did before. More freedom. Here, I’m a visitor, welcome to take my time showering and resting before dinner. No one expects me to run their world. I have no correspondence to attend to. No awful tasks to attend to. No civilians to oversee. No innocents to torture. I feel so much freer now that someone else has taken the reins.

It’s both alien and wonderful.

It feels so good to have space with Ella—literal and figurative space—to be ourselves, to be together, to simply be and breathe. Ella and I shared my bedroom back on base, but it never felt like home there. Everything was cold, sterile. I hated that building. Hated that room. Hated every minute of my life. Those walls—my own personal rooms—were suffocating, infused with awful memories. But here, even though the room is small, the tight quarters manage to be cozy. This place feels fresh and new and serene. The future doesn’t seem improbable here. Hope doesn’t feel ridiculous.

It feels like a chance to begin again.

And it doesn’t feel dangerous to dream that one day, Ella might be mine in every way. My wife. My family. My future.

I’ve never, ever dared to think of it.

But my hope is snuffed out just as quickly as it appeared. Kenji’s warnings flash through my mind, and I feel suddenly agitated. Apparently proposing to Ella is more complicated than I’d originally thought it might be. Apparently I need some kind of plan. A ring. A moment on one knee. It all sounds ridiculous to me. I don’t even know why it sounds ridiculous, exactly, just that it doesn’t feel like me. I don’t know how to put on a performance. I don’t want to make a scene. I’d find it excruciating to be so vulnerable in front of other people or in an unfamiliar setting. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.

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