275,504
26.12.2018

“Where are you?” I squinted, trying to find his form. Then the shadow of the heavy drape by the window shifted in the moonlight, and Aspen appeared from behind it.

“You startled me,” I complained jokingly.

“Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last.” I heard the smile in his voice.

I walked over to him, knocking into every obstacle along the way it seemed.

“Shhh!” he complained. “The entire palace is going to know we’re in here if you keep pushing things over.” But I could tell he was playing.

“Sorry,” I said, laughing quietly. “Can’t we turn on a light?”

“No. If someone sees it shining under the door, we might get caught. This corridor isn’t checked a lot, but I want to be smart.”

“How did you even know about this room?” I reached out, making contact with Aspen’s arms at last. He pulled me in for a hug and then started walking me toward the back corner.

“I’m a guard,” he said simply. “And I’m very good at what I do. I know the entire grounds of the palace, inside and out. Every last pathway, all the hiding spots, and even most of the secret rooms. I also happen to know the rotations of the guards, which areas are usually the least checked, and the points in the day when the guards are at their fewest. If you ever want to sneak around the palace, I’m the guy to do it with.”

“Unbelievable,” I mumbled. We sat behind the broad back of a couch, the floor blanketed in a patch of moonlight. Finally I could make out Aspen’s face.

I questioned him seriously. “Are you sure this is safe?” If he hesitated at all, I was planning to bolt that very second. For both our sakes.

“Trust me, Mer. An extraordinary number of things would have to happen for someone to find us here. We’re safe.”

I was still worried, but I needed to be comforted so badly, I went along.

He wrapped an arm around me and pulled me in close. “How are you doing?”

I sighed. “Okay, I guess. I’ve been sad a lot, and angry. Mostly I wish I could undo the last two days and get Marlee back. Carter, too, and I didn’t even know him.”

“I did.” He sighed. “He’s a great guy. I heard he was telling Marlee he loved her the whole time and trying to help her get through it.”

“He was,” I confirmed. “At least in the beginning anyway. I got hauled off before it was over.”

Aspen kissed my head. “Yeah, I heard about that, too. I’m proud you went out with a fight. That’s my girl.”

“My dad was proud, too. The queen said I shouldn’t act that way, but she was glad I did. It’s been confusing. Like it was almost a good idea but not really, and then it didn’t fix anything anyway.”

Aspen held me closer. “It was good. It meant a lot to me.”

“To you?”

“Yeah,” he whispered, seeming reluctant to share. “Every once in a while I wonder if the Selection has changed you. You’ve been so taken care of, and everything is so fancy. I keep wondering if you’re the same America. That let me know that you are, that they haven’t gotten to you.”

“Oh, they’re getting to me all right, but not like that. Mostly this place reminds me that I wasn’t born to do this.”

I ducked my head into Aspen’s chest, the safe place where I’d always hidden when things were bad.

“Listen, Mer, the thing about Maxon is that he’s an actor. He’s always putting on this perfect face, like he’s so above everything. But he’s just a person, and he’s as messed up as anyone is. I know you care about him or you wouldn’t have stayed here. But you have to know now that it’s not real.”

I nodded. Maxon with his talk about putting on a calm face. Was that what he was always doing? Was he acting when he was with me? How was I supposed to be able to tell?

Aspen continued. “It’s better you know now. What if you got married and then found out it was like this?”

“I know. I’ve been thinking about that myself.” Maxon’s words on the dance floor played themselves on repeat in my head. He seemed so sure of our future, prepared to give me so much. I sincerely thought the only thing he wanted was for me to be happy. Couldn’t he see how unhappy I was now?

“You’ve got a big heart, Mer. I know you can’t just get over things, but it’s okay to want to. That’s all.”

“I feel so stupid,” I whispered, wanting to cry.

“You’re not stupid.”

“I am, too.”

“Mer, do you think I’m smart?”

“Of course.”

“That’s because I am. And I’m way too smart to be in love with a stupid girl. So you can drop that right now.”

I gave a tiny laugh and let Aspen hold on to me.

“I feel like I’ve hurt you so much. I don’t understand how you can still possibly be in love with me,” I confessed.

He shrugged. “It’s just the way it is. The sky is blue, the sun is bright, and Aspen endlessly loves America. It’s how the world was designed to be. Seriously, Mer, you’re the only girl I ever wanted. I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. I’ve been trying to prepare myself for that, just in case, and … I can’t.”

We sat there, holding each other for a moment. Every little tickle of Aspen’s fingers, the warmth of his breath in my hair felt like medicine for my heart.

“We shouldn’t stay much longer,” he said. “I’m pretty confident in my abilities, but I don’t want to push it.”

I sighed. It felt like we’d only just gotten here, but he was probably right. I moved to stand, and Aspen jumped up to help me. He pulled me in for one last hug.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m really sorry Maxon turned out to be such a bad guy. I wanted you back, but I didn’t want you to get hurt. Especially not like that.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean it.”

“I know you do.” Aspen had his faults, but he didn’t have it in him to be a liar. “It’s not over though. Not if I’m still here.”

“Yeah, but I know you. You’ll ride it out so your family gets money and you can see me, but he’d have to reverse time to fix this.”

I let out a long breath. It felt like he might be right. Maxon’s hold on me was slipping away, shrugging off my skin like a coat.