Chapter no 30 – Warner

Defy Me (Shatter Me Book 5)

Nouria’s headquarters are both strange and beautiful. They have no need to hide underground, because she’s found a way to imbue objects with her power

—an evolution of our abilities even Castle hadn’t foreseen. The Sanctuary’s campsite is protected by a series of twenty-foot-tall pole lights that border the edges of the clearing. Fused with Nouria’s power, the lights work together as a barrier that makes it impossible to look in the direction of their campsite. She says her abilities not only have the power to blind, but that she can also use light to warp sounds. So they live here, out in the open, their words and actions protected in plain sight. Only those who know the location can find their way here.

Nouria says that the illusion has kept them safe for years.

The sun begins its descent as we make our way toward the campsite—the vast, unusually green field dotted with cream-colored tents—and the scene is so breathtaking I can’t help but stop to appreciate the view. Fire streaks across the sky, golden light flooding the air and earth. It feels both beautiful and bleak, and I shiver as a gust of wind wraps around my body.

Ella takes my hand.

I look at her, surprised, and she smiles at me, the fading sun glinting in her eyes. I feel her fear, her hope, her love for me. But there’s something else, too

—something like pride. It’s faint, but it’s there, and it makes me so happy to see her like this. She should be proud. I can speak for myself, at least, when I say that I’ve never been so proud of her. But then, I always knew she would go on to greatness. It doesn’t surprise me at all that, even after everything she’s been through—after all the horrors she’s had to face—she’s still managed to inspire the world. She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. My father might be back from the dead, and Sector 45 might be out of our hands, but Ella’s impact can’t be ignored. Nouria says that no one really believed that she was actually dead, but now that it’s official—now that word has spread that Ella is still alive—she’s become more notorious than ever. Nouria says that the rumbles underground are already getting stronger. People are more desperate to act, to get involved, and to stand up to The Reestablishment. Resistance groups are growing. The civilians are finding

ways to get smarter—to get stronger, together. And Ella has given them a figure to rally around. Everyone is talking about her.

She’s become a symbol of hope for so many.

I squeeze Ella’s hand, returning her smile, and when her cheeks flush with color I have to fight back the urge to pull her into my arms.

She amazes me more every day.

My conversation with Kenji is still, despite everything, at the forefront of my mind. Things always feel so desperate these days that I feel a new, nagging insistence that this window of calm might be my only chance at happiness. We’re almost constantly at war, either fighting for our lives or on the run—and there’s no guarantee of a future. No guarantee that I’ll live to see another year. No promise to grow old. It makes me feel li—

I stop, suddenly, and Ella nearly stumbles. “Are you okay?” she says, squeezing my hand.

I nod. I offer her a distracted smile and vague apology as we begin walking again, but—

I run the numbers once more.

Finally, I say, without looking up, “Does anyone happen to know what day it is?”

And someone responds, a voice from the group I can’t be bothered to identify, confirming what I already thought might be true. My father wasn’t lying.

Tomorrow is my birthday.

I’ll be twenty years old.


The revelation thunders through me. This birthday feels like more of a milestone than usual, because my life, exactly one year ago, was nearly unrecognizable. Almost everything in my life is different now. One year ago I was a different person. I was in an awful, self-destructive relationship with a different person. One year ago my anxiety was so crippling that five minutes alone with my own mind would leave me spiraling for days. I relied entirely upon my routines and schedules to keep me tethered to the endless horrors of my job and its demands. I was inflexible beyond reason. I was hanging on to humanity by a thread. I felt both wild and nearly out of my mind, all the time. My private thoughts and fears were so dark that I spent nearly all my free hours either exercising, in my shooting range, or in the bowels of Sector 45, running training simulations that, I’m not proud to admit, I designed specifically to experience killing myself, over and over again.

That was one year ago. Less than a year ago. Somehow, it feels like a lifetime ago. And when I think back on who I was and what that version of myself thought my life would be like today—

I’m left deeply and profoundly humbled.

Today is not forever. Happiness does not happen. Happiness must be uncovered, separated from the skin of pain. It must be claimed. Kept close.


“Would you prefer a chance to shower and change before reuniting with the others?” Nouria is saying.

Her voice is sharp and clear and it shakes me from my reverie. “Yes,” I say quickly. “I’d really appreciate the time to rest.”

“No problem. We meet for dinner in the main tent in two hours. I’ll show you to your new residences.” She hesitates. “I hope you’ll forgive me for being presumptuous, but I assumed the two of you”—she looks at me and Ella—“would like to share a space. But of course if that’s not—”

“Yes, thank you,” Ella says quickly. Her cheeks are already pink. “We’re grateful for your thoughtfulness.”

Nouria nods. She seems pleased. And then she turns to Kenji and Nazeera and says, “If you’d like, I can arrange to join your separate rooms so that y—”

Kenji and Nazeera respond at the same time. “What? No.”

“Absolutely not.”

Oh, I’m so sorry,” Nouria says quickly. “My apologies. I shouldn’t have assumed.”

For the first time ever, Nazeera looks flustered. She can hardly get out the words when she says, “Why would you think we’d want to share a room?”

Nouria shakes her head. She shares a quick, confused glance with Castle, but seems suddenly mortified. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. You seemed—”

“Separate rooms are perfect,” Kenji says sharply.

“Great,” Nouria says a little too brightly. “I’ll lead the way.” And I watch, amused, as Castle tries and fails to hide a smile.

Our residence, as Nouria called it, is more than I could’ve hoped for. I thought we’d be camping; instead, inside of each tent is a miniature, self-contained home. There’s a bed, a small living area, a tiny kitchen, and a full bathroom. The furnishings are spare but bright, well made and clean.

And when Ella walks in, slips off her shoes, and throws herself backward onto the bed, I can almost imagine us together like this—maybe, someday— in our own home. The thought sends a wave of disorienting euphoria through my body.

And then—fear.

It seems like tempting fate to even hope for a happiness like that. But there’s another part of me, a small, but insistent part of me, that clings to that hope nonetheless. Ella and I overcame what I once thought impossible. I never dreamed she’d still love me once she knew everything about me. I never dreamed that the heartbreak and horrors of recent events would only

bring us closer, or that my love for her could somehow increase tenfold in two weeks. I grew up thinking that the joys of this world were for other people to enjoy. I was certain that I was fated to a bleak, solitary life, forever barred from the contentment offered by human connection.

But now—

Ella yawns soundlessly, hugging a pillow to her chest as she curls up on her side. Her eyes close.

A smile tugs at my mouth as I watch her.

I’m still amazed at how just the sight of her could bring me so much peace. She shifts, again, burrowing more deeply into the pillows, and I realize she must be exhausted. And as much as I’d love to pull her into my arms, I decide to give her space. I back away quietly, and instead use the time to explore the rest of our new, temporary home.

I’m still surprised by how much I like it.

We have more privacy here, in these new headquarters, than we ever did before. More freedom. Here, I’m a visitor, welcome to take my time showering and resting before dinner. No one expects me to run their world. I have no correspondence to attend to. No awful tasks to attend to. No civilians to oversee. No innocents to torture. I feel so much freer now that someone else has taken the reins.

It’s both alien and wonderful.

It feels so good to have space with Ella—literal and figurative space—to be ourselves, to be together, to simply be and breathe. Ella and I shared my bedroom back on base, but it never felt like home there. Everything was cold, sterile. I hated that building. Hated that room. Hated every minute of my life. Those walls—my own personal rooms—were suffocating, infused with awful memories. But here, even though the room is small, the tight quarters manage to be cozy. This place feels fresh and new and serene. The future doesn’t seem improbable here. Hope doesn’t feel ridiculous.

It feels like a chance to begin again.

And it doesn’t feel dangerous to dream that one day, Ella might be mine in every way. My wife. My family. My future.

I’ve never, ever dared to think of it.

But my hope is snuffed out just as quickly as it appeared. Kenji’s warnings flash through my mind, and I feel suddenly agitated. Apparently proposing to Ella is more complicated than I’d originally thought it might be. Apparently I need some kind of plan. A ring. A moment on one knee. It all sounds ridiculous to me. I don’t even know why it sounds ridiculous, exactly, just that it doesn’t feel like me. I don’t know how to put on a performance. I don’t want to make a scene. I’d find it excruciating to be so vulnerable in front of other people or in an unfamiliar setting. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.

Still, these problems seem surmountable in the pursuit of forever with her. I would get on one knee if Ella wanted me to. I’d propose in a room filled with her closest friends if that was what she needed.

No, my fear is something much greater than that.

The thing Kenji said to me today that rattled me to my core was the possibility that Ella might say no. It’s unconscionable that it never occurred to me that she might say no.

Of course she might say no.

She could be uninterested for any number of reasons. She might not be ready, for example. Or she might not be interested in the institution of marriage as a whole. Or, I think, she simply might not want to tether herself to me in such a permanent way.

The thought sends a chill through my body.

I suppose I assumed she and I were on the same page, emotionally. But my assumptions in this department have landed me in trouble more times than I’d like to admit, and the stakes are too high now not to take Kenji’s concerns seriously. I’m not prepared to acknowledge the damage it would do to my heart if she rejected my proposal.

I take a deep, sharp breath.

Kenji said I need to get her a ring. So far he’s been right about most of the things I’ve done wrong in our relationship, so I’m inclined to believe he might have a point. But I have no idea where I’d be able to conjure up a ring in a place like this. Maybe if we were back home, where I was familiar with the area and its artisans—

But here?

It’s almost too much to think about right now.

There’s so much to think about, in fact, that I can’t quite believe I’m even considering something like this—at a time like this. I haven’t even had a moment to reconcile the apparent regeneration of my father, or literally any of the other new, outrageous revelations our families have thrown at us. We’re in the middle of a fight for our lives; we’re fighting for the future of the world.

I squeeze my eyes shut. Maybe I really am an idiot.

Five minutes ago, the end of the world seemed like the right reason to propose: to take everything I can in this transitory world—and grieve nothing. But suddenly, it feels like this really might be an impulsive decision. Maybe this isn’t the right time, after all.

Maybe Kenji was right. Maybe I’m not thinking clearly. Maybe losing Ella and regaining all these memories—

Maybe it’s made me irrational.

I push off the wall, trying to clear my head. I wander the rest of the small space, taking stock of everything in our tent, and peer into the bathroom. I’m relieved to discover that there’s real plumbing. In fact, the more I look

around, the more I realize that this isn’t a tent at all. There are actual floors and walls and a single vaulted ceiling in this room, as if each unit is actually a small, freestanding building. The tents seem to be draped over the entire structure—and I wonder if they serve a more practical purpose that’s not immediately obvious.

Several years, Nouria said.

Several years they’ve lived here and made this their home. They really found a way to make something out of nothing.

The bathroom is a nice size—spacious enough for two people to share, but not big enough for a bathtub. Still, when we first approached the clearing I wasn’t even sure they’d have proper facilities or running water, so this is more than I could’ve hoped for. And the more I stare at the shower, the more I’m suddenly desperate to rinse these weeks from my skin. I always took pains to stay clean, even in prison, but it’s been too long since I’ve had a hot shower with steady, running water, and I can hardly resist the temptation now. And I’ve already stripped off most of my clothes when I hear Ella call my name, her still-sleepy voice carrying over from what serves as our bedroom. Or bed space. It’s not really a room as much as it is an area designated for a bed.

“Yes?” I call back. “Where’d you go?” she says.

“I thought I might take a shower,” I try to say without shouting. I’ve just stepped out of my underwear and into the standing shower, but I turn the dials in the wrong direction and cold water sprays from the showerhead. I jump backward even as I hurry to undo my mistake, and nearly collide with Ella in the process.

Ella, who’s suddenly standing behind me.

I don’t know whether its habit, instinct, or self-preservation, but I grab a towel from a nearby shelf and quickly press it against my exposed body. I don’t even understand why I’m suddenly self-conscious. I never feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I like the way I look naked.

But this moment wasn’t one I’d anticipated, and I feel defenseless.

“Hi, love,” I say, taking a quick breath. I remember to smile. “I didn’t see you standing there.”

Ella crosses her arms, pretending to look mad, but I can see the effort she’s making to fight back a smile. “Aaron,” she says sternly. “You were going to take a shower without me?”

My eyebrows fly up, surprised.

For a moment, I don’t know what to say. And then, carefully, “Would you like to join me?”

She steps forward, wraps her arms around my waist, and stares up at me with a sweet, secret smile. The look in her eyes is enough to make me think

about dropping the towel.

I whisper her name, my heart heavy with emotion.

She pulls me closer, gently touching her lips to my chest, and I go uncomfortably still. Her kisses grow more intent, her lips leaving a trail of fire across my chest, down my torso, and feeling rushes through my veins, sets me on fire. Suddenly I forget why I was ever holding a towel.

I don’t even know when it falls to the floor.

I slip my arms around her, reel her in. She feels incredible, her body fitting against me perfectly, and I tilt her face up, my hand caught somewhere behind her neck and the base of her jaw and I kiss her, soft and slow, heat filling my blood with dangerous speed. I pull her tighter and she gasps, stumbles and takes an accidental step back and I catch her, pressing her against the wall behind her. I bunch up the hem of her dress and in one smooth motion yank it upward, my hand slipping under the material to skim the smooth skin of her waist, to grip her hip, hard. I part her legs with my thigh and she makes a soft, desperate sound deep in her throat and it does something to me, to feel her like this, to hear her like this—to be assaulted by endless waves of her pleasure and desire—

It drives me insane.

I bury my face in her neck, my hands moving up, under her dress to feel her skin, hot and soft and sensitive to my touch. I’ve missed her so much. I’ve missed her body under my hands, missed the scent of her skin and the soft, feather-light whisper of her hair against my body. I kiss her neck, trying to ignore the tension in my muscles or the hard, desperate pressure driving me toward her, toward madness. There’s an ache expanding inside of me and demanding more, demanding I flip her over and lose myself in her here, right now, and she whispers—

“How— How do you always feel so good?” She’s clinging to me, her eyes half-lidded but bright with desire. Her face is flushed. Her words are heavy with feeling when she says, “How do you always do this to me?”

I break away from her.

I take two steps backward and I’m breathing hard, trying to regain control of myself even as her eyes widen, her arms going suddenly still.

“Aaron?” she says. “What’s—” “Take off your dress,” I say quietly. Understanding awakens in her eyes.

She says nothing, she only looks at me, carefully, as I watch, imprisoned in place by an acute form of agony. Her hands are trembling but her eyes are willing and wanting and nervous. She shoves the material down, past her shoulders and lets it fall to the floor. I drink her in as she steps out of the dress, my mind racing.

Gorgeous, I think. So gorgeous.

My pulse is wild.

When I ask her to, she unhooks her bra. Moments later, her underwear joins her bra on the floor and I can’t look away from her, my mind unable to process the perfection of this happiness. She’s so stunning I can hardly breathe. I can hardly fathom that she’s mine, that she wants me, that she would ever love me. I can’t even hear myself think over the rush of blood in my ears, my heart beating so fast and hard it seems to thud against my skull. The sight of her standing in front of me, vulnerable and flushed with desire, is doing wild, desperate things to my mind. God, the fantasies I’ve had about her. The places my mind has gone.

I step forward and pick her up and she gasps, surprised, clinging desperately to my neck as I hitch her legs around my waist, my arms settling under her thighs. I love feeling the weight of her soft curves. I love having her this close to me. I love her arms around my neck and the squeeze of her legs around my hips. I love how ready she is, her thighs already parted, every inch of her pressed against me. But then she runs her hands up my naked back and I have to resist the urge to flinch. I don’t want to be self-conscious about the scars on my body. I don’t want any part of me to be off-limits to her. I want her to know me exactly as I am, and, as hard as it is, I allow myself to ease into her touch, closing my eyes as she trails her hands up, across my shoulders, down my arms.

“You’re so gorgeous,” she says softly. “I’m always surprised. It doesn’t matter how many times I see you without your clothes on, I’m always surprised. It doesn’t seem fair that anyone should be this gorgeous.”

She looks at me, stares at me as if expecting an answer, but I can’t speak. I fear I might unravel if I do. I want her with a desperate need I’ve never known before—a desperate, painful need so overwhelming it’s threatening to consume me. I need her. Need this. Now. I take a deep, unsteady breath, and carry her into the shower.

She screams.

Hot water hits us fast and hard and I press her against the shower wall, losing myself in her in a way I never have before. The kisses are deeper, more desperate. The heat, more explosive. Everything between us feels wild and raw and vulnerable.

I lose track of time.

I don’t know how long we’ve been here. I don’t know how long I’ve lost myself in her when she cries out, clutching my arms so tightly her fingernails dig into my skin, her screams muffled against my chest. I feel weak, unsteady as she collapses in my arms; I’m intoxicated by the pure, stunning power of her emotions: endless waves of love and desire, love and kindness, love and joy, love and tenderness. So much tenderness.

It’s almost too much.

I step backward, bracing myself against the wall as she presses her cheek against my chest and holds me, our bodies wet and heavy with feeling, our hearts pounding with something more powerful than I ever thought possible. I kiss the curve of her shoulder, the nape of her neck. I forget where we are and all we have left to do and I just hold on, hot water rushing down my arms, my limbs still slightly shaking, too terrified to let her go.

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