I smile, trying to stay calm, graciously nodding at our guests, thanking them for their presence here today. But Aspen knows.
“It’s okay, Mer.”
I look to him, and the encouragement in his expression helps.
I keep moving.
It’s not the most graceful parade down the aisle. It’s also not the fastest. With Aspen’s leg so injured, we have to hobble our way slowly to the front. But who else could I have asked? Who else would I have asked? Aspen had shifted to fill a desperate place in my life. Not my boyfriend, not my friend, but my family.
I had expected him to say no, afraid it was somehow an insult. But he’d said he was honored and embraced me when I’d asked.
Devoted and true, even to the very end. That’s my Aspen.
Finally I see a familiar face in the crowd. Lucy is there, sitting with her father. She beams with pride for me, though really she can hardly tear her eyes off Aspen. He stands a little taller as we pass her. I know that soon it will be her turn, and I’m looking forward to it. Aspen couldn’t have made a better choice.
Beside her, filling up the closest rows, are the other Selected girls. It was brave of them to come back for me, considering not everyone who should be here is. Still, they smile, even Kriss, though I can see the sadness in her eyes. I’m shocked by how much I wish Celeste was here. I can imagine her rolling her eyes and then winking, or something like that. Making some wisecrack that was almost snotty but not quite. I really, really miss her.
I miss Queen Amberly, too. I can only imagine how happy she would have been today, finally getting a daughter. I feel as if marrying Maxon makes it okay for me to love her that way, like a mother. I’m certain I always will.
And then there’s my mom and May holding on to each other so tightly they look as if they’re supporting each other. Around them are so many smiles. It’s almost overwhelming how loved I feel.
I’m so distracted by their faces that I forget how close I am to the end of the aisle. As I turn forward . . . he’s there.
And then it seems as if no one else is here at all.
No cameras filming, no bulbs flashing. It’s just us. It’s just Maxon and me.
He’s wearing his crown, and the suit with the blue sash and the medals. What did I say the first time he wore it? Something about hanging him up with the chandeliers, I think. I smile, remembering the long journey that got us here, standing at the altar.
Aspen’s last few steps are slow but steady. When we reach our destination, I turn to him. Aspen gives me one last smile, and I reach over to kiss his cheek, saying good-bye to so many things. We share a look for a moment, and he takes my hand and puts it in Maxon’s, giving me away.
They nod to each other, nothing but respect in their faces. I don’t think I could ever understand all that’s passed between them, but it feels peaceful in that moment. Aspen steps back, and I step forward, arriving at the one place I never thought I’d be.
Maxon and I move close to each other as the ceremony starts.
“Hello, my dear,” he whispers.
“Don’t start,” I warn in return, and we’re both left smiling.
He holds my hands as if they’re the only things pinning him to the earth, and I focus on that as I prepare myself for the words coming, the promises I’ll never break. It’s magical, really, the power this day has.
But even now I know this isn’t a fairy tale. I know that we’ll have hard times, confusing times. I know that things won’t always happen the way we want them to and that we’ll have to work to remember that we chose this. It won’t be perfect, not all the time.
This isn’t happily ever after.
It’s so much more than that.