Kenji narrows his eyes at me, and then pushes past me into the room. And I’m so stunned by his gall that it takes me a moment to realize I’m going to have to murder him.
“J—?” he says, looking around as he walks in. “You in here?”
Ella is holding the bedsheet up to her neck. “Uh, hi,” she says. She smiles nervously. “What are you doing here?”
“Hey, is it cool if I still call you J?” he says. “I know your name is Ella and everything, but I got so used to calling you J that it just feels right, you know?”
“You can still call me J,” she says. And then she frowns. “Kenji, what’s wrong?”
“Get out,” I snap at him. “I don’t know why you’re here, and I don’t care. We don’t wish to be disturbed. Ever.”
Ella shoots me a sharp look. She ignores me when she says, to Kenji, “It’s okay. I care. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Nothing is wrong,” Kenji says. “But I know your boyfriend won’t listen to me, so I wanted to let you know that it’s almost midnight and we really need you guys to get down to the dining tent ASAP, okay?” He shoots Ella a loaded look, and her eyes widen. She nods. I feel a sudden rush of excitement move through her, and it leaves me confused.
“What’s going on?” I say.
But Kenji is already walking away.
“Bro, you really need to, like, eat a pizza or something,” he says, slapping me on the shoulder as he leaves. “You have too many abs.”
“What?” My eyebrows pull together. “That’s not—”
“I’m joking,” Kenji says, pausing in the doorway just before he leaves. “Joking,” he says again. “It was a joke. Jesus.”
And then he slams the door behind him. I turn around.
“What’s going on?” I say again.
But she only smiles. “We should get dressed.”
“I promise I’ll explain as soon as we get there.”
I shake my head. “Did something happen?”
“No— I’m just— I’m really excited to see everyone from Omega Point again, and they’re all waiting for us in the dining tent.” She gets out of bed still holding the bedsheet to her body, and I have to clench my fists to keep from pulling it away from her. From pinning her against the wall.
And before I even have a chance to respond, she disappears into the bathroom, the sheet dragging on the floor as she goes.
I follow her.
She’s looking for her clothes, oblivious to my presence, but her dress is on the floor in a corner she hasn’t glimpsed yet, and I doubt she’d want to put that bloodied dress back on anyway. I should tell her that I found a drawer full of simple, standard clothes we’re probably allowed to borrow.
For now, I step behind her, slip my hands around her waist. She startles and the sheet falls to the floor. “Ella,” I say softly, tugging her body against mine. “Sweetheart, you have to tell me what’s going on.”
I turn her around, slowly. She looks down at herself, surprised—always surprised—by the sight of her naked body. “I don’t have any clothes on,” she whispers.
“I know,” I say, smiling as I run my hands down her back, appreciating her softness, her perfect curves. I wish I could store these moments. I wish I could revisit them. Relive them. She shivers in my arms and I pull her closer.
“It’s not fair,” she says, wrapping her arms around me. “It’s not fair that you can sense emotions. That it’s impossible to keep secrets from you.”
“What’s not fair,” I say, “is that you’re about to put your clothes on and force me to leave this bedroom and I don’t know why.”
She stares at me, her eyes wide and nervous even as she smiles. I can sense that she’s torn, her heart in two places at once. “Aaron,” she says softly. “Don’t you like surprises?”
“I hate surprises.”
She laughs. Shakes her head. “I guess I should’ve known that.”
I stare at her, my eyebrows raised, still waiting for an explanation.
“They’re going to kill me for telling you,” she says. And then at the look in my eyes, “Not— I mean, not literally. But just—” Finally, she sighs. And she won’t look at me when she says—
“We’re throwing you a birthday party.”
I’m certain I’ve heard her wrong.
It took more work than I imagined to get him to believe me. He wanted to know how anyone even knew that tomorrow was his birthday and how we could’ve possibly planned a party when we had no idea we were going to crash the plane here and why would anyone throw him a party and he wasn’t even sure he liked parties and on and on and on
And it wasn’t until we literally walked through the doors of the dining tent and everyone screamed happy birthday at him that he finally believed me. It wasn’t much, of course. We hadn’t really had time to prepare. I knew his birthday was coming up because I’d been keeping track of it ever since the day he told me what his father used to do to him, every year, on his birthday. I swore to myself I would do whatever I could to replace those memories with better ones. That forever and ever I would try to drown out the darkness that had inhaled his entire young life.
I told Kenji, when he found me, that tomorrow was Aaron’s birthday, and I made him promise me that, no matter what happened, when we found him we would find a way to celebrate, in some small way.
This was more than I could’ve hoped for. I thought maybe, given our time constraints, we’d just get a group to sing him “Happy Birthday,” or maybe eat dessert in his honor, but this—
There’s an actual cake.
A cake with candles in it, waiting to be lit.
Everyone from Omega Point is here—the whole crew of familiar faces: Brendan and Winston, Sonya and Sara, Alia and Lily, and Ian and Castle. Only Adam and James are missing, but we have new friends, too—
Haider is here. So is Stephan. Nazeera.
And then there’s the new resistance. The members of the Sanctuary that we’ve yet to meet, all come forward, gathered around a single, modest sheet cake. It reads—
HAPPY BIRTHDAY WARNER
in red icing.
The piping is a little sloppy. The icing is imperfect. But when someone dims the lamps and lights the candles, Aaron goes suddenly still beside me. I squeeze his hand as he looks at me, his eyes round with a new emotion.
There’s tragedy and beauty in his eyes: something stoic that refuses to be moved, and something childlike that can’t help but feel joy. He looks, in short, like he’s in pain.
“Aaron,” I whisper. “Is this okay?”
He takes a few seconds to respond, but when he finally does, he nods. Just once—but it’s enough.
“Yes,” he says softly. “This is okay.”
And I feel myself relax.
Tomorrow, there will be pain and devastation to contend with. Tomorrow we’ll dive into a whole new chapter of hardship. There’s a world war brewing. A battle for our lives—for the whole world. Right now, little is certain. But tonight, I’m choosing to celebrate. We’re going to celebrate the small and large joys. Birthdays and engagements. We’re going to find time for happiness. Because how can we stand against tyranny if we ourselves are filled with hate? Or worse—
I want to remember to celebrate more. I want to remember to experience more joy. I want to allow myself to be happy more frequently. I want to remember, forever, this look on Aaron’s face, as he’s bullied into blowing out his birthday candles for the very first time.
This is, after all, what we’re fighting for, isn’t it?
A second chance at joy.
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