The One - The Maid

            “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?” I whispered to Aspen, my words barely audible over the hum of the airplane. Suddenly he’d become this unattainable thing again. I could list the ages and quirks of all his siblings, tell the story behind the long scar on his arm, and explain in detail how badly he missed his father. But now that I knew the truth, all of that felt false. Despite three weeks of marathon conversations and hidden kisses, it was almost as if I didn’t know him at all.
            I fiddled with a patch of my uniform. After the pretty dresses I’d worn in the Singers’ home—even my lady’s old clothes—it felt too rough now. Always pressed, always starched, no room to play or dance or barely even hug. Just one more cage.
            “I was afraid of putting you in an awkward position.” I could tell there was more he wanted to say. He was usually so confident. It was one of the many things that drew me to him—and one of our most striking differences. In most ways, I thought we were similar. Devoted almost to a fault; the type who others might underestimate because we took our time forming our thoughts; the type who kept parts of themselves tucked in the dark. But he was self-assured. Gutsy. A risk-taker. I wanted to be as brave as he was.
            As brave as Lady America.
            His first love?
            I risked a peek at his face and could read the disappointment. “Falling for you was the last thing I expected to happen,” he said. “And I’ve already lost someone special to me once.”
            I looked down the aisle. I could see only a piece of my lady’s hair and her finger worrying it into a figure eight over and over.
            Special to me.
            I turned back to him as he continued.
            “I didn’t think you’d want to be with me if you knew the last girl I cared about was the same one you dressed every morning.”
            Tears bit at my eyes, but I fought them. I’d beaten them so many times lately. I had Aspen to thank for that.
            “I told you everything,” I breathed, still pushing at the ache. “It was terrifying to let you know how close I’d been to happiness before, how broken I’ve been in the palace, how wanting you has ruined my relationships with Anne and Mary.”
            “They have nothing to do with you and me,” he countered quickly.
            “They have everything to do with us. And so does she,” I added, nodding toward Lady America. “So does your family and the prince and my father. Because we live our lives with them, Aspen. You can’t have a relationship in a bubble. It won’t survive.”
            Aspen blinked a few times, like this hit him somewhere in the farthest corners of himself. He shook his head.
            “You’re right. And that’s why you have to know: no matter how badly I wanted it to work at the time, that relationship wouldn’t have lasted. It never saw the light of day.”
            “Neither has ours.” I sighed, refusing to look away. He and I needed to own up to what we were and everything we had built—and how quickly it was crumbling.
            “I thought that was for the best. At first, anyway. But I don’t want it to stay that way.”
            I was so tired of excuses. They seemed to fall on me from everywhere. You can’t be in love because of your caste. You can’t keep your mother because she is sick. You can’t feel safe because even the palace isn’t enough to protect you. Foolish reason after foolish reason building a wall between me and a life with any sort of joy.
            “What can I do, Lucy?” he quietly begged. “Tell me what you want.”
            I turned to him. “The truth.”
            Aspen sat up, bracing himself. I didn’t know if there was a particular question he was afraid to hear, but I began with the one I was most scared to ask. “Do you still love her?”
            He started shaking his head almost instantly, but I stopped him.
            “Don’t tell me what you think I need to hear. Don’t try to protect me. Tell me everything—”
            A guard poked his head up from his seat a few rows back, and I quieted myself again, looking at Aspen and waiting.
            He swallowed. “I think a part of me always will. I can’t shake the urge to fight for her, to rescue her. I don’t know if it’s romantic love, but I know it’s there. And I know that when the prince marries her, which I’m sure he will now, I won’t take it well. Because it’s hard to watch something you wanted disappear.”
            I dropped my head. Of course.
            “But I also know,” he continued, “that if she wanted to be with me again, I’d spend every day looking back at this moment and wondering ‘what if?’ about you. It took years for her to have that effect on me. It took weeks for you.”
            I felt my cheeks turning pink. I wanted so badly to believe that I’d bound myself as tightly to him as he had to me.
            “Would she try to? Would she ask you back?” At her home, Lady America had yelled that her relationship with Aspen was in the past. But if that was true, why did they both seem so on edge about it?
            He considered. “No. She’s going to marry the prince.”
            I leaned over. “That’s His Majesty’s choice, not hers. You’re assuming Prince Maxon is going to ask. What if he doesn’t? Would she want you then? Does she have a reason to believe you’ll be waiting?”
            I could tell by the look in his eyes he didn’t want to answer me. Finally, he nodded.
            I pulled back, pressing myself into the seat. Anne was right. I aimed too high.
            “Lucy,” he pleaded. “Lucy, look at me.”
            His voice was tender, full of our secrets. It implored me not to let go. And I felt all of it. The way he made me laugh and the sensation of his fingers tickling my cheeks. The honey and gravel sound of his voice in my ear and the quick winks he snuck me in the hallways.
            I summoned every last fragment of strength I had and looked at him. “Please don’t speak with me so intimately, sir. I have no wish to be involved with a taken man.”
            Pulling in several uneven breaths, I fought to keep myself in one piece. I faced the window, watching as we chased the daylight home. I didn’t want to think about the complications of our lives together in the palace, so I focused on this moment, here and now. If I just held on to each minute, I could conquer them.
            “Lucy,” he pleaded. “I promise you, I’ll fix this. I’ll fix it now.”
            I heard him stand, and I stared wide eyed as he walked back to my lady. Now? What in the world could he say to her now? Was he going to tell her about us? Would she hate me?
            No, she couldn’t. I’d been by her side for months. I’d nursed her through embarrassments and the loss of her closest friend. I’d sacrificed for her, and she’d done the same for me. Not another one of the Elite would have considered dragging her maids to the safe room reserved for the royal family. Lady America didn’t think twice. I’d placed my head on her shoulder the night she did her presentation. She dressed me in her clothes like a sister. She defended me.
            My heart fluttered with the impossible hope—my lady might rejoice for me.
            For one beautiful moment, I was consumed with a glowing anticipation. Maybe I’d been miserable for nothing!
            I heard a huff as someone sat down. It was Aspen, a row behind me and across the aisle. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t do anything.
            So he wasn’t free. And neither was I.

            Inside the palace, I stood behind my lady, thankful that someone else came for her coat. I was afraid of what she might read in my eyes if I got too close.
            Aspen stepped aside to talk to a senior officer, and Lady America was escorted to a homecoming reception.
            No one noticed as I slipped into the Great Room. From there, I could exit into the hall through a side door and go back to being invisible.
            I tried not to let myself be too disappointed. At least I had a home. My father was still around. I’d tasted love twice in my life. It didn’t last, but it was more than Mary or Anne had ever had.
            I should be grateful.
            But I was so tired of being grateful for a half-lived life.
            I made my way downstairs, noticing when I reached the bottom that the common room was empty. Finally, I was alone. I slumped into one of the ancient chairs, rickety and threadbare, and let the tears come. I buried my face in my hands, trying to block and release everything at the same time. God, it hurt. It hurt to think of his lips on mine, of all the possibilities he’d whispered to me in darkened rooms. He felt so real, so possible.
            But I’d been kidding myself. It had been so easy to grasp onto him after years of sadness, like the flicker of the North Star in the night.
            It just wasn’t meant to be. Not for someone like me.
            No matter.
            It was time to shake off the hope I’d been holding onto and embrace what was ahead of me. I’d work as a maid until I was no longer considered pretty enough or fit enough to be one of the faces of the palace. When that happened, I’d join the laundry staff. I’d take care of Papa until he passed, and I’d dedicate my life to the service of the crown. This was all I had.
            I whipped my head from my hands. Aspen had snuck up on me. Wiping away the tears, I stood up and started walking in the direction of the maids’ quarters.
            “Please leave me alone. It will only make things worse.”
            “I tried to talk to her, but she’s scared of confronting Maxon. She wasn’t ready to listen. In the morning, I will make sure she knows I’ve moved on.”
            “If you care at all, don’t do this to me. You know I’ve already been through enough. I don’t need another lie.”
            I got halfway across the room before Aspen grabbed my arm, forcing me to face him.
            “This isn’t a lie, Lucy.”
            I wanted to believe it, to accept the look in his eyes as truth. But if he’d held this secret back—and if he had promised to fix it once and failed—how could I?
            “I’ll hate you forever for breaking my heart,” I promised. “But you know what’s worse?”
            Aspen shook his head.
            “That I’ll love you forever, too. You saved my life. I was caving in on myself, and you stopped that. That’s the worst part.”
            He stared, awestruck. “How? How did I save you?”
            I shrugged. “Just by being. We’ve both lost parents and have had to make do with next to nothing. We’ve seen the rebels up close. We’ve been forced to keep so many secrets. But you haven’t let that crush you. I thought if you could stay strong, then so could I.”
            I peeked up, hating myself for wanting to see his face so badly. I was shocked to find his eyes brimming with tears.
            “My mom was born a Four,” he confessed. “She gave up everything to be with my dad. Sometimes they would talk about how they started off their marriage—homeless, with smiles on their faces.” He shook his head, his lips almost lifting into a grin.
            “He gave up so much for her. He wore shoes with soles worn through, but then would turn around and buy her an orange. She loves oranges. When she was supposed to go to work and she was sick, he’d do her jobs and his, even if it meant he went days without sleep.
            “And Mom? Her family abandoned her. She left a clean, safe life for an apartment bursting at the seams with children. Then he died and she kept on sacrificing.”
            He stopped, maybe sad for her or for his father. Maybe just for himself.
            Watching the slight tremble in his lip was too much for me, and I couldn’t stop myself from crying again.
            “So that’s the only kind of love I’ve ever understood. When you love someone, you sacrifice. And I refused to let anyone do it for me,” he insisted, jabbing a finger into his chest. “I wanted to be the hero. America and I would argue all the time about it. She was ready to go down a caste for me, but I couldn’t let her. I wanted to do all the giving, all the providing, all the protecting.
            “To find that I’ve somehow done that by doing nothing at all.” He raised his arms and let them fall. Like he was so tired.
            “And you probably have no idea,” he murmured, “you’ve done the same thing for me.”
            He was blurry through my tears. “What do you mean?”
            He laced his fingers with mine. “Every day you say something or do something that challenges me, changes me.
            “You think you walk, Lucy? I think you fly. You see yourself in a uniform? I see you in a cape. You’re a hero, of the quietest but most genuine nature.”
            I gazed at the ground. No one talked about me like that. I was just a maid. I was just a Six. I didn’t matter.
            I felt his fingers leave my hand and cup my chin, asking me—not forcing me—to look at him. I did. “That’s why you can’t give up. Heroes don’t give up.”
            I tried to hide my smile, biting at the inside of my cheeks.
            “You’ve made me better. And I want to be better for you. I want to be better with you.”
            I went up on my tiptoes, pressing my forehead to his. “But you’re already enough, Aspen. Just as you are.”
            His breathing hitched. “Does that mean I’m forgiven?”
            I waffled. “I want to be yours. You know that. From the start you knew.”
            He grinned, and there was something mischievous in his smile. “True. I’ll never forget.”
            “Me either.”
            Within hours of Lady America announcing that she would be staying in the palace and that she was going to fight, I decided to fight, too. When I found Aspen on his rounds that evening, I threw out a jumbled-up invitation to eat with me. He looked so shocked that I nearly turned and ran . . . but then he said yes. And I’d been up-front about everything since then. My anxieties, my hopes, my feelings.
            Aspen, on the other hand . . .
            I pulled back and looked deep into his eyes. “I love you, Aspen. I know it more solidly than I know anything else about myself. But I can’t be with you if you’re still connected to Lady America.”
            He nodded. “I know I said I’d always be drawn to her, and I meant that. We’ve been too close for me not to. But everything I am is yours. And I promise you: tomorrow morning, come hell or high water, I will make this right.”
            I didn’t doubt him. I could forgive his mistakes, and he would forgive my anger, and tomorrow we would start fresh. Because, really, there was so much time.
            “Please don’t let me down,” I breathed.
            “Never,” he vowed, lowering his mouth too mine.
            I wanted to stay there all night, holding him, feeling that promise settle into place. Aspen held me to him, and the whole world felt beautiful and safe.
            A low whistle caught our attention.
            “Oh, hello, Officer Avery,” I stammered, pulling away and smoothing my dress. “Officer Leger and I, uh, we were . . . uh . . .”
            I peeked at Aspen, but he was just smiling.
            “Look, I saw this coming weeks ago, so you don’t have to explain anything to me,” Officer Avery said, grinning, as he walked across the common room.
            “On your way to bed?” Aspen asked him.
            He waved his arm around the empty space. “Can’t you tell? We’re all on call. I forgot my belt, so I’m getting that and heading straight to my post. The announcement’s happening in the morning, so everyone’s working.”
            I covered my mouth, shocked and excited and terrified at once. We would have a new princess tomorrow!
            “I know you just got back, but you’re on duty tonight guarding Lady America.” Avery gave Aspen a sympathetic pat on the shoulder before heading off to his room and out of earshot.
            Aspen looked at me. “I guess that means I’ll be taking care of this bright and early.”
            I laughed, feeling like nothing could hold me in, not the walls of the palace or the stitching in my dress.
            “I love you, Lucy. You take care of me, I take care of you?”
            It wasn’t a promise, but an invitation. And I nodded my head, accepting it, and stepping into a future bigger than either of us could have hoped for.