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Still, these problems seem surmountable in the pursuit of forever with her. I would get on one knee if Ella wanted me to. I’d propose in a room filled with her closest friends if that was what she needed.

No, my fear is something much greater than that.

The thing Kenji said to me today that rattled me to my core was the possibility that Ella might say no. It’s unconscionable that it never occurred to me that she might say no.

Of course she might say no.

She could be uninterested for any number of reasons. She might not be ready, for example. Or she might not be interested in the institution of marriage as a whole. Or, I think, she simply might not want to tether herself to me in such a permanent way.

The thought sends a chill through my body.

I suppose I assumed she and I were on the same page, emotionally. But my assumptions in this department have landed me in trouble more times than I’d like to admit, and the stakes are too high now not to take Kenji’s concerns seriously. I’m not prepared to acknowledge the damage it would do to my heart if she rejected my proposal.

I take a deep, sharp breath.

Kenji said I need to get her a ring. So far he’s been right about most of the things I’ve done wrong in our relationship, so I’m inclined to believe he might have a point. But I have no idea where I’d be able to conjure up a ring in a place like this. Maybe if we were back home, where I was familiar with the area and its artisans—

But here?

It’s almost too much to think about right now.

There’s so much to think about, in fact, that I can’t quite believe I’m even considering something like this—at a time like this. I haven’t even had a moment to reconcile the apparent regeneration of my father, or literally any of the other new, outrageous revelations our families have thrown at us. We’re in the middle of a fight for our lives; we’re fighting for the future of the world.

I squeeze my eyes shut. Maybe I really am an idiot.

Five minutes ago, the end of the world seemed like the right reason to propose: to take everything I can in this transitory world—and grieve nothing. But suddenly, it feels like this really might be an impulsive decision. Maybe this isn’t the right time, after all.

Maybe Kenji was right. Maybe I’m not thinking clearly. Maybe losing Ella and regaining all these memories—

Maybe it’s made me irrational.

I push off the wall, trying to clear my head. I wander the rest of the small space, taking stock of everything in our tent, and peer into the bathroom. I’m relieved to discover that there’s real plumbing. In fact, the more I look around, the more I realize that this isn’t a tent at all. There are actual floors and walls and a single vaulted ceiling in this room, as if each unit is actually a small, freestanding building. The tents seem to be draped over the entire structure—and I wonder if they serve a more practical purpose that’s not immediately obvious.

Several years, Nouria said.

Several years they’ve lived here and made this their home. They really found a way to make something out of nothing.

The bathroom is a nice size—spacious enough for two people to share, but not big enough for a bathtub. Still, when we first approached the clearing I wasn’t even sure they’d have proper facilities or running water, so this is more than I could’ve hoped for. And the more I stare at the shower, the more I’m suddenly desperate to rinse these weeks from my skin. I always took pains to stay clean, even in prison, but it’s been too long since I’ve had a hot shower with steady, running water, and I can hardly resist the temptation now. And I’ve already stripped off most of my clothes when I hear Ella call my name, her still-sleepy voice carrying over from what serves as our bedroom. Or bed space. It’s not really a room as much as it is an area designated for a bed.

“Yes?” I call back.

“Where’d you go?” she says.

“I thought I might take a shower,” I try to say without shouting. I’ve just stepped out of my underwear and into the standing shower, but I turn the dials in the wrong direction and cold water sprays from the showerhead. I jump backward even as I hurry to undo my mistake, and nearly collide with Ella in the process.

Ella, who’s suddenly standing behind me.

I don’t know whether its habit, instinct, or self-preservation, but I grab a towel from a nearby shelf and quickly press it against my exposed body. I don’t even understand why I’m suddenly self-conscious. I never feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I like the way I look naked.

But this moment wasn’t one I’d anticipated, and I feel defenseless.

“Hi, love,” I say, taking a quick breath. I remember to smile. “I didn’t see you standing there.”

Ella crosses her arms, pretending to look mad, but I can see the effort she’s making to fight back a smile. “Aaron,” she says sternly. “You were going to take a shower without me?”

My eyebrows fly up, surprised.

For a moment, I don’t know what to say. And then, carefully, “Would you like to join me?”

She steps forward, wraps her arms around my waist, and stares up at me with a sweet, secret smile. The look in her eyes is enough to make me think about dropping the towel.

I whisper her name, my heart heavy with emotion.

She pulls me closer, gently touching her lips to my chest, and I go uncomfortably still. Her kisses grow more intent, her lips leaving a trail of fire across my chest, down my torso, and feeling rushes through my veins, sets me on fire. Suddenly I forget why I was ever holding a towel.

I don’t even know when it falls to the floor.

I slip my arms around her, reel her in. She feels incredible, her body fitting against me perfectly, and I tilt her face up, my hand caught somewhere behind her neck and the base of her jaw and I kiss her, soft and slow, heat filling my blood with dangerous speed. I pull her tighter and she gasps, stumbles and takes an accidental step back and I catch her, pressing her against the wall behind her. I bunch up the hem of her dress and in one smooth motion yank it upward, my hand slipping under the material to skim the smooth skin of her waist, to grip her hip, hard. I part her legs with my thigh and she makes a soft, desperate sound deep in her throat and it does something to me, to feel her like this, to hear her like this—to be assaulted by endless waves of her pleasure and desire—

It drives me insane.

I bury my face in her neck, my hands moving up, under her dress to feel her skin, hot and soft and sensitive to my touch. I’ve missed her so much. I’ve missed her body under my hands, missed the scent of her skin and the soft, feather-light whisper of her hair against my body. I kiss her neck, trying to ignore the tension in my muscles or the hard, desperate pressure driving me toward her, toward madness. There’s an ache expanding inside of me and demanding more, demanding I flip her over and lose myself in her here, right now, and she whispers—

“How— How do you always feel so good?” She’s clinging to me, her eyes half-lidded but bright with desire. Her face is flushed. Her words are heavy with feeling when she says, “How do you always do this to me?”

I break away from her.

I take two steps backward and I’m breathing hard, trying to regain control of myself even as her eyes widen, her arms going suddenly still.

“Aaron?” she says. “What’s—”

“Take off your dress,” I say quietly.

Understanding awakens in her eyes.

She says nothing, she only looks at me, carefully, as I watch, imprisoned in place by an acute form of agony. Her hands are trembling but her eyes are willing and wanting and nervous. She shoves the material down, past her shoulders and lets it fall to the floor. I drink her in as she steps out of the dress, my mind racing.

Gorgeous, I think. So gorgeous.

My pulse is wild.

When I ask her to, she unhooks her bra. Moments later, her underwear joins her bra on the floor and I can’t look away from her, my mind unable to process the perfection of this happiness. She’s so stunning I can hardly breathe. I can hardly fathom that she’s mine, that she wants me, that she would ever love me. I can’t even hear myself think over the rush of blood in my ears, my heart beating so fast and hard it seems to thud against my skull. The sight of her standing in front of me, vulnerable and flushed with desire, is doing wild, desperate things to my mind. God, the fantasies I’ve had about her. The places my mind has gone.

I step forward and pick her up and she gasps, surprised, clinging desperately to my neck as I hitch her legs around my waist, my arms settling under her thighs. I love feeling the weight of her soft curves. I love having her this close to me. I love her arms around my neck and the squeeze of her legs around my hips. I love how ready she is, her thighs already parted, every inch of her pressed against me. But then she runs her hands up my naked back and I have to resist the urge to flinch. I don’t want to be self-conscious about the scars on my body. I don’t want any part of me to be off-limits to her. I want her to know me exactly as I am, and, as hard as it is, I allow myself to ease into her touch, closing my eyes as she trails her hands up, across my shoulders, down my arms.

“You’re so gorgeous,” she says softly. “I’m always surprised. It doesn’t matter how many times I see you without your clothes on, I’m always surprised. It doesn’t seem fair that anyone should be this gorgeous.”

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