“I’m looking at the others, and I’m being fair. It makes me nervous to feel some of the things I do. But I want you to know, I’m still looking at you, too. I think you know by now I can’t help it.” He shrugged, seeming so boyish at that moment.
I wanted to say the right thing, to let him know that I still wanted him to look at me. But nothing felt right, so I slid my hand into his. We sat there quietly, looking at our hands. He toyed with my two bracelets, seeming very concerned with them, and spent a little while rubbing the back of my hand with his thumb. It was nice to have a still moment, just the two of us.
“Why don’t we spend the day together tomorrow?” he asked.
I smiled. “I’d like that.”
“SO, LONG STORY SHORT: MORE GUARDS?”
“Yeah, Dad. Lots more.” I laughed into the phone, though the situation was hardly a funny one. But Dad had a way of making the toughest things light. “We’re all staying. For now anyway. And even though they say they’re starting with Twos, don’t let anyone be careless. Warn the Turners and the Canvasses to stay safe.”
“Aw, kitten, everyone knows to be careful. After what you said on the Report, I think people will be braver than you’d guess.”
“I hope so.” I looked down at my shoes and had a funny flashback. Right now my feet were covered with jeweled heels. Five months ago they were wearing dingy flats.
“You made me proud, America. Sometimes I’m surprised at the things you say, but I don’t know why. You were always stronger than you knew.”
Something about his voice then was so genuine that I was humbled. No one’s opinion of me mattered as much as his.
“I’m serious, now. Not every princess would say something like that.”
I rolled my eyes. “Uh, Dad, I’m not a princess.”
“Matter of time,” he shot back playfully. “Speaking of which, how is Maxon?”
“Good,” I said, fidgeting with my dress. The silence grew. “I really like him, Dad.”
I thought for a minute. “I’m not really sure. But part of it is that he makes me feel like me, I think.”
“Did you ever feel like not you?” Dad joked.
“No, it’s like . . . I’ve always been aware of my number. Even when I came to the palace, I obsessed about it for a while. Was I a Five or a Three? Did I want to be a One? But now I’m not conscious of it at all. And I think it’s because of him.
“He screws up a lot, don’t get me wrong.” Dad chuckled. “But when I’m with him I feel like I’m America. I’m not a caste or a project. I don’t even think of him as elevated, really. He’s just him, and I’m just me.”
Dad was quiet for a moment. “That sounds really nice, kitten.”
Boy talk with my dad was a little awkward, but he was the only one back home who I thought saw Maxon more like a person than a celebrity; no one else would get it like he would.
“Yeah. It’s not perfect though,” I added as Silvia poked her head in the doorway. “I feel like there’s always something going wrong.”
She gave me a pointed look and mouthed Breakfast. I nodded.
“Well, that’s okay, too. Mistakes mean it’s real.”
“I’ll try to remember that. Listen, Dad, I’ve got to go. I’m late.”
“Can’t have that. Take care, kitten, and write your sister soon.”
“I will. Love you, Daddy.”
As the girls exited after breakfast, Maxon and I lingered in the dining room. The queen passed, winking in my direction, and I felt my cheeks redden. But the king came along soon after, and the look in his eyes took away any lingering blush.
Once we were alone, Maxon walked over to me and laced his fingers through mine. “I’d ask what you want to do today, but our options are pretty limited. No archery, no hunting, no riding, no anything outside.”
I sighed. “Not even if we took a slew of guards?”
“I’m sorry, America.” He gave me a sad smile. “But what about a movie? We can watch something with spectacular scenery.”
“It’s not the same.” I pulled on his arm. “Come on. Let’s go make the best of it.”
“That’s the spirit,” he said. Something about that actually made me feel better, like we were in this together. It had been a while since it really felt that way.
We went into the hallway and were headed toward the stairway to the theater when I heard the musical clinks on the window.
I turned my head to the sound and gasped in wonder. “It’s raining.”
I let go of Maxon’s arm and pressed my hand against the glass. In the months I’d been at the palace, it had yet to rain, and I’d wondered if it ever would. Now that I could see it, I realized I missed it. I missed the ebb and flow of seasons, the way things changed.
“It’s so beautiful,” I whispered.
Maxon stood behind me, wrapping an arm around my waist. “Leave it to you to find beauty in something others would say ruins a day.”
“I wish I could touch it.”
He sighed. “I know you do, but it’s just not—”
I turned to Maxon, trying to see why he cut himself off. He looked up and down the hall, and I did the same. Besides a couple of guards, we were alone.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing my hand. “Let’s hope we’re not seen.”
I smiled, ready for whatever adventure he had in mind. I loved when Maxon was like this. We wound our way up the stairs, heading for the fourth floor. For a moment, I got nervous, worried he’d show me something similar to the hidden library. That hadn’t turned out so well for me.
We walked down to the middle of the floor, passing one guard on his rounds but no one else. Maxon pulled me into a large parlor and steered me to the wall next to a wide, dormant fireplace. He reached inside the lip of the fireplace and, sure enough, found a hidden latch. He pushed open a panel in the wall, and it led to yet another secret stairwell.
“Hold my hand,” he said, stretching his out to me. I did so, following him up the dimly lit steps until we came to a door. Maxon undid the simple lock, pulled open the door . . . and there was a wall of rain.
“The roof?” I asked over the sound.
He nodded. There were walls surrounding the entrance, leaving an open space about as large as my bedroom to walk on. It didn’t matter that all I could see were walls and sky. At least I was outside.
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