Maxon stepped around the corner, holding Kriss by the hand. His eyes locked on to me, body pressed into Aspen with the intensity of my defense. I backed away, but not quickly enough. Aspen turned to face Maxon, prepared to give an excuse but still too stunned to speak.
Kriss’s mouth dropped open, and she quickly covered it with a hand. Looking into Maxon’s shocked eyes, I shook my head, trying to explain without words that this was all a misunderstanding.
It was only a second before Maxon regained his cool demeanor. “I found Kriss in the hall and was coming to explain my choice to you both before the cameras showed up, but it seems we have other things to discuss.”
I looked at Kriss and was at least consoled by the fact that there was no triumph in her eyes. On the contrary, she looked sad for me.
“Kriss, would you please return to your room? Quietly?” Maxon instructed.
She curtsied and disappeared down the hall, eager to get away from the situation. Maxon took a deep breath before looking at us again.
“I knew it,” he said. “I told myself I was crazy, because surely you would have told me if I was right. You were supposed to be honest with me.” He rolled his eyes. “I cannot believe I didn’t trust myself. From that first meeting, I knew it. The way you looked at him, how distracted you were. That damn bracelet you wore, the note on the wall, all those times when I thought I had you and then suddenly lost you again . . . it was you,” he said, turning to Aspen.
“Your Majesty, this is my fault,” Aspen lied. “I pursued her. She made it perfectly clear that she had no intentions of being in a relationship with anyone but you, but I went after her anyway.”
Without responding to Aspen’s excuses, he walked right up to him, looking him in the eye. “What’s your name? Your first name?”
He swallowed. “Aspen.”
“Aspen Leger,” he said, testing the words. “Get out of my sight before I send you to New Asia to die.”
Aspen’s breath caught. “Your Majesty, I—”
Aspen looked at me once, then turned and walked away.
I stood there, silent and still, afraid to risk a peek into Maxon’s eyes. When I finally did, he nudged his chin toward my room, and I went in, with him following me. I turned to see him close the door and run his hand through his hair one time. He moved to face me, and I saw his eyes catch on the unmade bed. He laughed humorlessly to himself.
“How long?” he asked quietly, still in control.
“Do you remember that fight—” I started.
Maxon erupted. “We’ve been fighting since the day we met, America! You’ll have to be more specific!”
I shook where I stood. “After Kriss’s party.”
His eyes widened. “So basically since he got here,” he said, something like sarcasm in his voice.
“Maxon, I’m so sorry. At first I was protecting him, and then I was protecting myself. And after Marlee was caned, I was afraid to tell you the truth. I couldn’t lose you,” I pleaded.
“Lose me? Lose me?” he asked, astonished. “You’re going home with a small fortune, a new caste, and a man who is still pursuing you! I’m the one losing here today, America!”
The words took my breath away. “I’m going home?”
He looked at me as if I was an idiot for asking. “How many times am I supposed to let you break my heart, America? Do you think I’d honestly marry you, make you my princess, when you’ve been lying to me for most of our relationship? I refuse to torture myself for the rest of my life. You might have noticed, I get plenty of that already.”
I erupted into sobs. “Maxon, please. I’m sorry; it’s not what it looked like. I s-swear. I love you!”
He sauntered up to me, his eyes dead. “Of all the lies you’ve told me, that’s the one I resent the most.”
“It’s not—” The look in his eyes silenced me.
“Have your maids do their best. You should go out in style.”
He walked past me, out the doorway and out of the future I’d held in my hands only a few minutes before. I turned back to the room, holding my stomach as if the core of my body was about to crack from the pain. I went over to the bed, rolling onto my side, no longer able to stand.
I cried, hoping to get the ache out of my body before the ceremony. How was I supposed to face that? I looked to the clock to see how much time I had . . . and saw the thick envelope Maxon had given me last night.
I decided this was the last piece of him I would ever have, so I opened the seal, desperate.
December 25, 4:30 p.m.
It’s been seven hours since you left. Twice now I’ve started to go to your room to ask how you liked your presents and then remembered you weren’t here. I’ve gotten so used to you, it’s strange that you aren’t around, drifting down the halls. I’ve nearly called a few times, but I don’t want to seem possessive. I don’t want you to feel like I’m a cage to you. I remember how you said the palace was just that the first night you came here. I think, over time, you’ve felt freer, and I’d hate to ruin that freedom. I’m going to have to distract myself until you come back.
I decided to sit and write to you, hoping maybe it would feel like I was talking to you. It sort of does. I can imagine you sitting here, smiling at my idea, maybe shaking your head at me as if to say I’m being silly. You do that sometimes, did you know? I like that expression on you. You’re the only person who wears it in a way that doesn’t come across like you think I’m completely hopeless. You smile at my idiosyncrasies, accept that they exist, and continue to be my friend. And, in seven short hours, I’ve started to miss that.
I wonder what you’ve done in that time. I’m betting by now you’ve flown across the country, made it to your home, and are safe. I hope you are safe. I can’t imagine what a comfort you must be to your family right now. The lovely daughter has finally returned!
I keep trying to picture your home. I remember you telling me it was small, that you had a tree house, and that your garage was where your father and sister did all their work. Beyond that I’ve had to resort to my imagination. I imagine you curled up in a hug with your sister or kicking around a ball with your little brother. I remember that, you know? That you said he liked to play ball.
I tried to imagine walking into your house with you. I would have liked that, to see you where you grew up. I would love to see your brother run around or be embraced by your mother. I think it would be comforting to sense the presence of people near you, floorboards creaking and doors shutting. I would have liked to sit in one part of the house and still probably be able to smell the kitchen. I’ve always imagined that real homes are full of the aromas of whatever’s being cooked. I wouldn’t do a scrap of work. Nothing having to do with armies or budgets or negotiations. I’d sit with you, maybe try to work on my photography while you played the piano. We’d be Fives together, like you said. I could join your family for dinner, talking over one another in a collection of conversations instead of whispering and waiting our turns. And maybe I’d sleep in a spare bed or on the couch. I’d sleep on the floor beside you if you’d let me.
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