“I don’t want to think about it right now.” I shake my head. “Right now all I want is this. I just want to be here. With you. Whatever comes next, we’ll face it together.”
“Ella,” he says softly.
A wave of feeling washes over me. Hearing him say my name—my real name—makes everything feel real. Makes us feel real.
I meet his eyes.
He smiles. “You know— I feel everything when you touch me, love. I can feel your excitement. Your nervousness. Your pleasure. And I love it,” he says quietly. “I love the way you respond to me. I love the way you want me. I feel it, when you lose yourself, the way you trust me when we’re together. And I feel your love for me,” he whispers. “I feel it in my bones.”
He turns away.
“I have loved you my entire life.” He looks up, looks at me with so much feeling it nearly breaks my heart. “And after everything we’ve been through—after all the lies and the secrets and the misunderstandings—I feel like we’ve been given a chance to start fresh. I want to start over,” he says. “I never want to lie to you again. I want us to trust each other and be true partners in everything. No more misunderstandings,” he says. “No more secrets. I want us to begin again, here, in this moment.”
I nod, pulling back so I can see his face more clearly. Emotions well in my throat, threaten to overcome me. “I want that, too. I want that so much.”
“Ella,” he says, his voice rough with feeling. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
My heart stops.
I stare at him, uncertain, thoughts pinwheeling in my head. I touch his cheek and he looks away, takes a sudden, shaky breath.
“What are you saying?” I whisper.
“I love you, Ella. I love you more th—”
“Wow. You two seriously couldn’t wait until we got back to base, huh? You couldn’t spare my eyes?”
The sound of Kenji’s voice pulls me suddenly, abruptly out of my head. I turn too quickly, awkwardly disengaging from Aaron’s body.
Aaron, on the other hand, goes suddenly white.
Kenji throws a thin airplane pillow at him. “You’re welcome,” he says.
Aaron chucks the pillow back without a word, his eyes burning in Kenji’s direction. He seems both shocked and angry, and he leans forward in his seat, his elbows balanced on his knees, the heels of his hands pressed against his eyes.
“You are a plague upon my life, Kishimoto.”
“I said you’re welcome.”
Aaron sighs, heavily. “What I would give to snap your neck right now, you have no idea.”
“Hey—you have no idea what I just did for you,” Kenji says. “So I’m going to repeat myself one more time: You are welcome.”
“I never asked for your help.”
Kenji crosses his arms. When he speaks, he overenunciates each word, like he might be talking to an idiot. “I don’t think you’re thinking clearly.”
“I’m thinking clearer than I ever have.”
“You really thought that would be a good idea?” Kenji says, shaking his head. “Here? Now?”
Aaron’s jaw clenches. He looks mutinous.
“Bro, this is not the moment.”
“And when, exactly, did you become an expert on this sort of thing?”
I look between the two of them. “What is going on?” I say. “What are you guys talking about?”
“Nothing,” they say at the same time.
“Um, okay.” I stare at them, still confused, and I’m about to ask another question when Kenji says, suddenly:
“Who wants lunch?”
My eyebrows shoot up my forehead. “We have lunch?”
“It’s pretty awful,” Kenji says, “but Nazeera and I have a picnic basket we brought with us, yeah.”
“I guess I’m up for trying the contents of the mystery basket.” I smile at Aaron. “Are you hungry?”
But Aaron says nothing. He’s still staring at the floor. I touch his hand and, finally, he sighs. “I’m not hungry,” he says.
“Not an option,” Kenji says sharply. “I’m pretty sure you haven’t eaten a damn thing since you got out of fake prison.”
Aaron frowns. And when he looks up, he says, “It wasn’t fake prison. It was a very real prison. They poisoned me for weeks.”
“What?” My eyes widen. “You never t—”
Kenji cuts me off with the wave of his hand. “They gave you food, water, and let you keep the clothes on your back, didn’t they?”
He shrugs. “Sounds like you had a little vacation.”
Aaron sighs. He looks both annoyed and exhausted as he runs a hand down the length of his face.
I don’t like it.
“Hey— Why are you giving him such a hard time?” I say, frowning at Kenji. “Just before he and Nazeera showed up you were going on and on about how wonderful he is, and n—”
Kenji swears, suddenly, under his breath. “Jesus, J.” He shoots me a dark look. “What did I say to you about repeating that conversation out loud?”
Aaron sits up, the frustration in his eyes slowly giving way to surprise. “You think I’m wonderful?” he says, one hand pressed against his chest in mock affection. “That’s so sweet.”
“I never said you were wonderful.”
Aaron tilts his head. “Then what, exactly, did you say?”
Kenji turns away. Says nothing.
I’m grinning at Kenji’s back when I say, “He said you looked good in everything and that you were good at everything.”
Aaron’s smile deepens.
Aaron almost never smiles widely enough for me to see his dimples, but when he does, they transform his face. His eyes light up. His cheeks go pink with feeling. He looks suddenly sweet. Adorable.
It takes my breath away.
But he’s not looking at me, he’s looking at Kenji, his eyes full of laughter when he says, “Please tell me she’s not serious.”
Kenji flips us both off.
Aaron laughs. And then, leaning in—
“You really think I look good in everything?”
“Shut up, asshole.”
Aaron laughs again.
“Stop having fun without me,” Nazeera shouts from the cockpit. “No more making jokes until I put this thing on cruise control.”
I stiffen. “Do planes have cruise control?”
“Um”—Kenji scratches his head—“I don’t actually know?”
But then Nazeera saunters over to us, tall and beautiful and unbothered. She’s not covering her hair today, which I suppose makes sense, considering it’s generally illegal, but I feel a faint panic spread through my body when I realize she’s in no hurry to return to the cockpit.
“Wait— No one is flying the plane,” I say. “Shouldn’t someone be flying the plane?”
She waves me down. “It’s fine. These things are practically automatic now, anyway. I don’t have to do more than input coordinates and make sure everything is operating smoothly.”