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Her cheeks, suddenly pink with embarrassment, tell one story; her lips tell another. “I didn’t think I needed to tell you everything, all the time. I can handle some things on my own.”

Her sharp tone is so surprising it forces my mind to focus. I meet her eyes to find she’s staring straight through me now, bright with both hurt and anger.

“That’s not at all what I meant,” I say. “You know I think you can do anything, love. But I could’ve been a help to you. I know these people.”

Her face is now pinker, somehow. She can’t meet my eyes.

“I know,” she says quietly. “I know. I’ve just been feeling a little overwhelmed lately. And I had a talk with Castle this morning that kind of messed with my head.” She sighs. “I’m in a weird place today.”

My heart starts beating too fast. “You had a talk with Castle?”

She nods.

I forget to breathe.

“He said I need to talk to you about something?” She looks up at me. “Like, there’s more about The Reestablishment that you haven’t told me?”

“More about The Reestablishment?”

“Yeah, like, there’s something you need to tell me?”

“Something I need to tell you.”

“Um, are you just going to keep repeating what I’m saying to you?” she says, and laughs.

I feel my chest unclench. A little.

“No, no, of course not,” I say. “I just—I’m sorry, love. I confess I’m also a bit distracted today.” I nod at the boxes laid out across the room. “It seems there’s a lot left to discover about my father.”

She shakes her head, her eyes big and sad. “I’m so sorry. It must be awful to have to go through all his stuff like this.”

I exhale, and say, mostly to myself, “You have no idea,” before looking away. I’m still staring at the floor, my head heavy with the day and its demands, when she reaches out, tentatively, with a single word.

“Aaron?”

And I can feel it then, can feel the change, the fear, the pain in her voice. My heart still beats too hard, but now it’s for an entirely different reason.

“What’s wrong?” I say, looking up at once. I take a seat next to her on the bed, study her eyes. “What’s happened?”

She shakes her head. Stares into her open hands. Whispers the words when she says, “I think I made a mistake.”

My eyes widen as I watch her. Her face pulls together. Her feelings pinwheel out of control, assaulting me with their wildness. She’s afraid. She’s angry. She’s angry with herself for being afraid.

“You and I are so different,” she says. “Meeting Haider today, I just”—she sighs—“I remembered how different we are. How differently we grew up.”

I’m frozen. Confused. I can feel her fear and apprehension, but I don’t know where she’s going with this. What she’s trying to say.

“So you think you’ve made a mistake?” I say. “About—us?”

Panic, suddenly, as she understands. “No, oh my God, no, not about us,” she says quickly. “No, I just—”

Relief floods through me.

“—I still have so much to learn,” she says. “I don’t know anything about ruling . . . anything.” She makes an impatient, angry sound. She can hardly get the words out. “I had no idea what I was signing up for. And every day I feel so incompetent,” she says. “Sometimes I’m just not sure I can keep up with you. With any of this.” She hesitates. And then, quietly, “This job should’ve been yours, you know. Not mine.”

“No.”

“Yes,” she says, nodding. She can no longer look at me. “Everyone’s thinking it, even if they don’t say it. Castle. Kenji. I bet even the soldiers think so.”

“Everyone can go to hell.”

She smiles, only a little. “I think they might be right.”

“People are idiots, love. Their opinions are worthless.”

“Aaron,” she says, frowning. “I appreciate you being angry on my behalf, I really do, but not all people are idio—”

“If they think you incapable it is because they are idiots. Idiots who’ve already forgotten that you were able to accomplish in a matter of months what they had been trying to do for decades. They are forgetting where you started, what you’ve overcome, how quickly you found the courage to fight when they could hardly stand.”

She looks up, looks defeated. “But I don’t know anything about politics.”

“You are inexperienced,” I say to her, “that is true. But you can learn these things. There’s still time. And I will help you.” I take her hand. “Sweetheart, you inspired the people of this sector to follow you into battle. They put their lives on the line—they sacrificed their loved ones—because they believed in you. In your strength. And you didn’t let them down. You can never forget the enormity of what you’ve done,” I say. “Don’t allow anyone to take that away from you.”

She stares at me, her eyes wide, shining. She blinks as she looks away, wiping quickly at a tear escaping down the side of her face.

“The world tried to crush you,” I say, gently now, “and you refused to be shattered. You’ve recovered from every setback a stronger person, rising from the ashes only to astonish everyone around you. And you will continue to surprise and confuse those who underestimate you. It is an inevitability,” I say. “A foregone conclusion.

“But you should know now that being a leader is a thankless occupation. Few will ever be grateful for what you do or for the changes you implement. Their memories will be short, convenient. Your every success will be scrutinized. Your accomplishments will be brushed aside, breeding only greater expectations from those around you. Your power will push you further away from your friends.” I look away, shake my head. “You will be made to feel lonely. Lost. You will long for validation from those you once admired, agonizing between pleasing old friends and doing what is right.” I look up. I feel my heart swell with pride as I stare at her. “But you must never, ever let the idiots into your head. They will only lead you astray.”

Her eyes are bright with unshed tears. “But how?” she says, her voice breaking on the word. “How do I get them out of my head?”

“Set them on fire.”

Her eyes go wide.

“In your mind,” I say, attempting a smile. “Let them fuel the fire that keeps you striving.” I reach out, touch my fingers to her cheek. “Idiots are highly flammable, love. Let them all burn in hell.”

She closes her eyes. Turns her face into my hand.

And I pull her in, press my forehead to hers. “Those who do not understand you,” I say softly, “will always doubt you.”

She leans back, just an inch. Looks up.

“And I,” I say, “I have never doubted you.”

“Never?”

I shake my head. “Not once.”

She looks away. Wipes her eyes. I press a kiss against her cheek, taste the salt of her tears.

She turns toward me.

I can feel it, as she looks at me; I can feel her fears disappearing, can feel her emotions becoming something else. Her cheeks flush. Her skin is suddenly hot, electric, under my hands. My heart beats faster, harder, and she doesn’t have to say a word. I can feel the temperature change between us.

“Hey,” she says. But she’s staring at my mouth.

“Hi.”

She touches her nose to mine and something inside me jolts to life. I hear my breath catch. My eyes close, unbidden.

“I love you,” she says.

The words do something to me every time I hear them. They change me. Build something new inside of me. I swallow, hard. Fire consumes my mind.

“You know,” I whisper, “I never get tired of hearing you say that.”

She smiles. Her nose brushes the line of my jaw as she turns, presses her lips against my throat. I’m holding my breath, terrified to move, to leave this moment.

“I love you,” she says again.

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