“Aria,” he breathes my name with agony. “I will never be your enemy.”
“Then understand that I will not leave him.” I question telling him the whole truth as he stares into my gaze. I don’t want to know what he thinks of it, but I need him to know. “I love him, Nikolai.”
“You’re sick,” he tells me with nothing but sadness in his broken gaze. “I won’t let you go like this.” His voice begs me to understand, but I know there’s no reasoning with him. Just as there’s no reasoning with me.
“Maybe I am sick,” I play along with him and somewhere deep in my soul, I even agree. “But wasn’t I sick all along? Hiding away in my room and afraid of everything.” The defensiveness in my voice is nothing compared to the anger I feel at remembering how pathetic my life used to be. Life might be too kind a word to describe what I had before Carter took me.
“That’s why I tried to save you,” Nik tells me and reaches for my hand, but I pull away. His fingers brushing against mine feel like a fire that burns deep into the bone.
The cords in his throat tighten as he watches the space between us grow and he confesses, “I wanted you to be free. You deserve to live a better life than this.”
His words ring in my ears and echo over and over. It fills the hollowness in the crevices of my chest. He tried to save me?
“You what?” I breathe the question.
Everything slows to a crawl as he answers, a look of shame showing on his face. “This,” he motions with his hands, “this is all my fault.” He struggles to look me in the eye when he tells me, “I knew you’d think it was Mika. I wanted you out, so you could run, but Cross lied to me.”
My heartbeat ticks in slow motion. So slowly, the world tilts on its axis and I feel lightheaded. I have to grip the table to stay upright.
“He said he would get you out. He promised me he’d save you. He fucking lied to me, and I fell for it!” He contains his resentment when I don’t respond, and leans forward begging me to understand, “All I ever wanted was for you to be free from this. I won’t let this ruin you. You deserve so much better than this.”
I can’t speak. I can’t move. I can’t even breathe as I hold onto the table to keep me upright.
“Aria?” Eli calls out my name, but I don’t look at him. I don’t look at Nikolai when he begs me to forgive him. All I can do is stare at a scratch on the steel card table and try to hold on to my sanity.
“You were my friend,” I whisper as tears prick my eyes. This all happened because of him. Because of the one person I had in life. The one person I thought I could fully trust.
“I love you, Aria, and you need to run.” The word run makes my lips twitch. Run. That’s how little he thinks of me. To him, I’m merely a scared girl who needs saving. A girl who should run, not one worthy of staying and fighting.
Letting my gaze find his, I peer into his soft blue eyes and whisper, “You don’t know who I am anymore.”
“You’re innocent in this. You’re too innocent for this life.”
“Nothing about me is innocent, Nikolai. It’s only what you all think of me.”
“You know that it’s not–” Nik tries to backpedal but I cut him off. I’m tired of being the scared little girl. I refuse to be seen as such.
“I never knew I had a choice until it was taken from me. I won’t let anyone take it back.”
“I can make this right, Aria,” Nik reaches for my hand again, leaving his palm up on the table. And I take it willingly because I still love him, even if he’s made all the wrong choices and doesn’t see it. I still love him. He may not know how I’ve changed, but the boy inside of him is the same. My friend is staring back at me. I know that much.
I rub soothing strokes on the back of his hand as I look him in the eyes, letting my anger go and knowing he will never agree with me. My voice is hoarse as I whisper, “I’m fine, Nikolai.”
“You’re not. I can see you clearly, Aria. I always have.” His voice begs me to listen, and I am, I just don’t agree.
“I wish I was a better man, so I could save you. I tried,” he tells me even though he looks past me with disappointment and regret equal in his expression. “I tried.”
My heart pains for his. He’ll never understand, and I don’t know what this means for us, but I know this meeting was useless for this war.