Happy Monday, friends! What can I say about this chapter? If I had the words, I would have given them to Elisa, but I don’t. Every. Single. Thing in the story has led to this. Theme: “at last.” Song: just a heartbeat. Favorite line: “At the end of all things, how do you find a beginning?” I hope you enjoy it. Love, Ani.
I try with every blink to stay awake but as soon as we get home and cuddle on the sofa together to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, a deep feeling of safety overpowers me, and I pass out despite sleeping all day. When I next open my eyes, dawn is filling the living room with a soft periwinkle light. But time is the only thing that has changed. I am still exactly where I was: curled up under the fluffy blanket, in Aiden’s arms, his lips in my hair as though he has been holding me all night.
I look up at him immediately, a different kind of glow sparking inside, but he too has fallen asleep to the low sound of Für Elise. The auroral light casts his face with a forget-me-not tint. A glimmering thread of sun weaves through his black hair, longer now with the passage of summer. And his lips are parted, a dream flitting quickly under the golden eyelids.
So vulnerable, the air trembles in my throat at the sight. Because underneath the beauty is the staggering cost of the war he fought for us. More visible now that he is adrift in the currents of subconscience. His sculpted cheeks have hollowed, drawn in as though from a prolonged illness. Deep purple shadows circle his eyes. And for the first time, I notice a strand of silver at his temple. Like a brushstroke from the Old Aiden of my happily-ever-after visions. Visions that will only ever remain a fantasy.
I shut down the thought at first flash, closing my hands in fists against the urge to caress his face, to wake him with a kiss. Because today is our meeting with Doctor Helen. How do you wake up from peace for a war you have already lost? How do you open your eyes into the daylight that makes it real? At the end of all things, how do you find a beginning?
I press my lips lightly on his T-shirt and inch out of his arms very slowly so he stays in dreams until he has to face that reality. And until I prepare everything I can to make it easier for him.
The magic of our embargo still twinkles everywhere around us, with a different beauty in the daylight. Like a pale, gossamer moon in blue, sunny skies. My unopened tomorrow present shimmers underneath Aphrodite’s branches. Except it’s today. Abruptly, my stomach twists at the idea of opening it. Because that would be the end of the magic, wouldn’t it? Not to mention this razor fear that this is his goodbye gift.
“Not yet. It’s still embargo,” I mutter to myself so I can breathe. Then I pick up my phone and pad silently up the stairs to get ready, including my present for him. From the corner of my eye, I glimpse the time on the screen unwillingly. Six thirty on Saturday, August 22—only two hours until the meeting. It’s just a check-up after the fever, I assure myself repeatedly. Nothing new, nothing we don’t know. But the fire in my chest isn’t listening. Because I remember the finality in Doctor Helen’s voice on the phone two days ago, her silence, so similar to my parents’ funeral. This is not just a check-up; it’s when science officially gives up. I trip on the landing and rush to the loo, prayer humming in my mind as though it has been drumming uninterrupted all night. Someway for us, please, somehow.
But there are no codes or formulas for this, only indefinable instincts and the frantic beat of my own heart. I jump in the shower, trying to focus at least on the things I understand. How to lather, how to rinse, how to help Aiden today, my gift for him. Another secret he needs to know. And the last plan the protein laid for me.
I dry off roughly, brush my teeth, and shuffle down the hall to our happy bedroom. It waits like always—roses in the air, the white curtain blowing from the open window, the empty bed missing its pillows and sheets that are now in the guestroom, the defeated poppies of our weapons. I dive headfirst inside the closet to shut out the image. Intuitively my hands grasp the same navy dress I wore on our first date—the day of the painting, the day when we chose each other over reason. I throw it on with my PEAC diamond bracelet, the locket, and Aiden’s dog tags underneath. And then I do the same for him. His briefs and jeans from our first kiss, and the white button-down shirt he was wearing before our first sleep. A mosaic of us, of moments when we chose our hearts. Then I dig up the small cardboard box I hid deep behind mum’s journals with some other treasures, and slither downstairs to the library.
The precious room is healed as though Edison never wrecked it—the window replaced, the rug of planets clean, the chess game finished in the corner, its flower glass case sparkling freely on the shelf. Only dad’s microscope is still absent, in evidence against the monster. I start printing, stuffing, and wrapping the box with shaking fingers, each wisp of tissue a kiss, a touch, a tear. How will Aiden feel when he opens this? Shocked, yes—as deep a shock as his discovery about Fallujah. Maybe even angry with me. But I know like I know his every heartbeat that it will be good for him. He has the truth; now he needs the faith in himself. Yet even as I try to prepare him for our end, my mind plays the same constant refrain: somehow for us, please, someway.
“Elisa?” Aiden’s alarmed voice comes from the foyer as soon as I paste the last strip of tape on the gift.
“Yes, love, I’m right here!” I call back, tucking the present in my purse and tossing the wrapping materials in the bin before he can see them. He strides through the library door in seconds, hair tousled, the entire sky lightning in his eyes when he sees me. And instantly, the burning pain in my chest heals. “Morning!” I smile, launching myself at him, greedy as usual for his touch.
“Good morning.” He sighs with relief and wraps me in his arms, pressing his lips hungrily in my damp hair. I can tell from the way his tension softens around me that this is the first breath he has taken since opening his eyes.
“How are you feeling?” I ask, kissing his heart through his T-shirt.
He tips up my face so he can look at me. “Better now that I see you.”
“Me too, but I mean . . . about this meeting.”
He forces a smile for my benefit, but deep in the turquoise depths, I see the pain he is trying to hide. “I already know what they’ll tell me, Elisa. The reel served its purpose—it’s done. There’s nothing more they can do to change what’s left.”
The startle—the only thing we could not overcome. I tighten my hold around his waist. “You know what else they can’t change?”
“It was not your fault. You are home. And you are loved. And there’s nothing more important than that. Do you understand?”
A true smile curves the corner of his mouth—no dimple, but it’s that quiet smile of this other side. “I’m starting to,” he answers and pulls me back in his chest.
He holds me like this for a while, swaying as we do with Für Elise, just us on the rug of planets, our feet on Venus, our bodies wrapped in the first rays of run. On the wall, the atomic clock is ticking, but I focus only on his heartbeat. Thunderous and fast. Because of our touch or what’s coming?
“Were you able to rest at all, crammed up in the sofa like that?” I ask, looking up at him.
He strokes my hair, sending an electric current over my skin. “Elisa, I was able to sleep with you in my head through Baghdad’s raids. Of course I did in a comfortable couch with the real you next to me. How about you? Have you been up for a while?”
“Not long. Just enough to bring my hair under submission before I can be seen in public.” I point to my head as an exhibit.
“You look beautiful,” he murmurs, and for the first time this morning, his eyes leave my face. Descending over my body, catching fire when he notices my outfit. Just like that first night, except stronger, fueled with the force of time. “Ah, this dress . . .” His fingers trace the hem, brushing my thigh. The flame is in his touch too; it sweeps under my skin, heating my blood. The bedroom glow suffuses my vision with the candlelight filter that will always bind us in secret.
“I thought we could use the memory today,” I breathe, my voice evaporating in my mouth.
“And what memory is that?”
“A memory of us . . .” I barely hear my voice through the pulse hammering in my ears. “When we were a little selfish.”
His arm winds around my waist, arching me to him. His body heat seems to melt through the fabric of my dress. “Mmm . . .” he whispers, lowering his face until he kisses the hollow spot at my collarbone. “Very selfish.”
“Not . . .” I start but his lips trail up my throat to the corner of my jaw, and I lose my train of thought. All I can feel is the four seasons thrumming inside my body. A spring of tingles blossoming on my skin. Summer heat smoldering in the bottom of my belly. Winds of autumn blowing through my lips. And a quiver of winter in my spine, each molecule melting like snow under his touch.
“Yes?” he prompts, his lips brushing my earlobe.
It takes all my faculties to remember my answer. “N-not selfish enough.”
His lips flutter along my jawline. “More?”
“Hmm . . .” he murmurs, stopping at the corner of my mouth. His breath is coming hard and fast against my lips. Mine has stopped entirely. Will he break his rules just this once? If he is still being selfish?
“D-did you change your mind?” The question trembles out of my lips.
He pulls back with a pained sigh, eyes on fire, hands in fists at my waist. I can feel the strength of his acute restraint in his grip. “No, my mind changed me,” he answers, his voice rough with his own need.
I try to make sense of this words but I can’t think past the heated gaze. “What do you mean?”
He draws a deep breath, shaking his head. “Let’s get this meeting with Helen out of the way first. Then you can open your today gift and we need to talk.”
T-a-l-k. The four seasons freeze into a deep winter chill. The lovely glow extinguishes from my vision. “Talk about what?” I whisper.
The library tilts at an odd angle with panic, but his eyes take on that my-all look that immediately heals me. The one I have been waiting for subconsciously even while asleep. It steadies me without knowing how or why. As though nothing can touch me while this look is on me, not even time.
“Okay, but no hard talks, please?” I answer, clutching his arms for balance. “It’s still embargo after all. And you too have a little surprise for later.”
He brushes my cheek, a smile winking at the corner of his lips. “Of course you have a surprise for me, but I think I might win this one.”
As much as I want him to win everything, there is zero chance of that in this case. “You wish.”
He chuckles, but his eyes stir with truth. “Yes, I do.” The words are simple but there is something fervent, almost desperate about them. Before I can understand the deep emotion smoldering beneath the surface, he strokes my face again. “Let me just take a shower and get ready. Benson will be here in half an hour.”
Oh, right! Time starts again, and I remember what we still need to live through. “Here, I picked your clothes too. Better than the ones you wear for the reel, I think.” I reach for the folded stack on the desk—his arm stays around me—and hand it to him.
His expression softens as he recognizes the mementos immediately. “You chose good memories for me too.”
“Yes, I wanted you to feel only love on your skin today. And I put my love letter right here in your jean pocket.” I fish out the origami rose of the note I wrote to him during the protein. “I thought it would be good for you,” I explain, my voice lower with the potency of the brave love still surging utterly unchanged through my body.
He strokes the paper rosette as he would one of the Elisas. Then he leans closer and kisses my forehead. “You are good for me.”
The words trill against my skin, as though a different pulse beats there that responds only to him. “And you for me.”
I expect him to argue despite the embargo, but he just smirks knowingly. “Eat something before we have to go. I won’t be long.”
L-o-n-g. I hold the word inside my lungs, breathing it in. He strides out of the library with something in his eyes, like an unfinished thought. What was it? Is he still reaching for hope, allowing himself another selfish day? Or is the talk he is planning just reality returning because every magic has to end? Abruptly, the chime of the wall clock seems to pierce my eardrums, so I run straight to the kitchen to make breakfast. On each step, the same frantic refrain throbs in my head. Somehow, please, someway.
Sunshine is filling the little kitchen with a profuse light, brightening the creamy cabinets, dulling the glint of the breadknife. All corners seem more rounded under the molten haze, as though this dawn is softening the sharpness out of the world. I start Aiden’s coffee and my tea, and prepare some dippy eggs with soldiers, wishing futilely I had more time for everything: to cook his favorite pancakes, to find a way, to convince him that a half-life together is fuller than any long life apart. But as always, the more I will the clock to slow, the faster it races ahead. Tic toc, tic toc toward eight thirty, toward the white flag.
I tuck the eggs in their cups, butter the toast, and set everything on the table. Then I arrange some blueberries to spell A&E on our plates and turn to another present. Hard in its own way. Because there is a goodbye today: Doctor Helen. She will still be here, I know that—we’ll have tea, we’ll go for strolls at University Park, she will even get her last scan on September eighteen—but our fight is over. After twenty-eight years of trying to save Aiden, science has surrendered.
The idea sets the flames raging in my chest so I cut up some of the best Clares from the windowsill, still sparkling with dew. I consider briefly warning her that Aiden knows about the video, but that feels wrong now, disloyal. He handled his anger so well last night. I just hope he can do the same when he actually sees her face.
“More selfish reminders for breakfast?” Aiden asks, walking into the kitchen. I wheel around, and there he is, in his white shirt and jeans, wet curls on his forehead, a ray of smile on his lips as he looks at our fruit initials like they are Javier’s unfinished masterpiece of me.
“Always,” I answer. “Even if you don’t need reminders.”
“It’s nice to get them just the same.” He strides to me and pulls me in his arms, as though every second apart was burning him as much as it was scalding me. His freshly showered scent stuns everything, even the Clares. “What are you doing with all those roses?” He nods toward the arranged long stems.
Uh oh. I stroke his neck for added calm . . . or distraction. “They’re just a little thank you for Doctor Helen with a note from us. I know you’re still angry with her about the video, but I think we should let it go.”
His eyes widen in disbelief like I just told him to sell Hale Holdings. “Elisa, if you expect me to say nothing to her about that, I’ll first have her scan your brain, not mine.”
A dozen arguments flicker through my head, but abruptly I don’t want to win this on logic. I don’t want to argue at all. I just want us to listen to our hearts. Because I can’t shake off this instinct that this is the only way for us, even if I don’t know how.
“Please, Aiden?” I trail my fingers down his chest to feel the thud-thud-thud there. “I don’t want this chapter of your life to close in anger. I want it to be with kindness and love because that’s who you are. Let’s just think only of the good things and how hard she fought for us.”
At that big little pronoun or perhaps the plea in my voice, the conflict dissolves in his eyes. He draws a deep breath, blowing his delicious cinnamon scent over my lips. “Alright,” he sighs. “I can’t argue with that feeling. Come on, we’ll write her note together while you eat.”
“Thank you,” I say, kissing his heartbeat. A light shudder runs through him.
“No, thank you for always guiding me to the right thing.” He kisses my hair again and carries me to the table.
We sit together, side by side, arms touching, thighs brushing, our breaths mingling through our lips. I give him mum’s stationery and rest my head on his shoulder, watching his pen glide across the parchment like it did in his tent, scribing words that only Aiden knows how to write. Except these words are from us.
Dear Doctor Helen,
This is not the card we had hoped to write. And we know it’s not the card you wish you could have received. But it is the truth of what we have and what you helped us achieve.
We came to you with love, and you gave us hope.
We came with dreams, but you gave us reality.
We came with fear, and you led us to bravery.
And for me, I came to you as a child, wanting to forget, and I am leaving as a man, grateful I can remember.
You say you don’t believe in fate. There was a time when neither did I. But apparently even I am capable of change. So despite all the pain, I have to thank gods and stars for a path that started with you and ended with the greatest love of my life.
For every time you fought alongside us, thank you.
He sets his pen down, turning the page toward me. “Is this what you had in mind?”
I shake my head from my spot on his shoulder, swallowing back tears at the difference I see behind each word. “No, I could never have found words like this. Are you really grateful you can’t forget?”
“Now that I know you, yes.” He looks at me again with his life-giving look. It shoots like adrenaline through my system with his words, and I throw my arms around him. Because here is our win even in the war we lost. His self-acceptance, his freedom from guilt, his selfish deeds . . .
“I love you,” I whisper, kissing the pulse at his neck. The bands of muscle relax under my lips despite the suddenness of my attack.
He chuckles and brings me on his lap. “As I love you. Did you want to add something to the letter?”
“No. What you wrote is perfect. I’ll just sign my name.”
I pull back just enough inches to pick up his pen and scrawl my name quickly next to his. Then I turn to him again, but he is looking at our joined names with a curious expression in his eyes.
“What is it?” I ask, checking to make sure I didn’t forget how to spell.
He blinks back at me, shaking his head. “I’m regretting agreeing to this meeting at all. There are a lot more important things to do with this time.”
How can I disagree with any of that when I feel the same? Abruptly, I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here on this rickety chair with him, inhaling his clean scent, feeling his lips at my temple, and kissing his neck again. Then maybe he will be selfish enough and kiss closer to my mouth. And I will be brave enough to touch his lips. I’m about to tell him to break his promise, but the doorbell jingles and the moment is over.
Aiden sighs. “That will be Benson. Why don’t you wrap up here while I let him in?”
“You didn’t eat at all,” I grumble as he slides me off his lap reluctantly.
He swipes a few blueberries from the E and tosses them in his mouth. “I’m partial to these.” He brushes my cheek and goes to open the door. I can hear him talking with Benson while I tuck everything I need in my basket and grab my purse with the precious box still hidden inside.
When I come out, our Big Ben is towering on the threshold in beige slacks and an off-white shirt, not his usual dark palette. The sandy colors trigger a flashback of the video so I try to find his smile, but he is looking tensely at Aiden, no doubt worried about him.
“Morning, Benson. How was your night?” I greet him.
“Just fine. How about here?”
“Don’t worry, Benson. We actually got some sleep.” Aiden settles the score quickly as he locks the front door.
“Glad to hear it,” Benson answers, but his anxious eyes don’t relax.
“Thank you for taking the red roses to the hilltop,” I add, patting his colossal arm for distraction. “They were beautiful.”
“I can’t take credit. The Plemmonses gave me their best once they heard where I was taking them.”
“Of course you can take credit. Here—a little something for you from across the pond. We love you.” I hand him a bag of treasured cookies from our care package, decorated with frosted roses. Merry Christmas forever, I add in my head. The idea of saying goodbye to Benson—our protector and closest friend—sets my throat on fire so I shut down the thought immediately. Not yet, not today.
Aiden pulls me closer as though he felt the scorching flames.
“Ah, well, thanks,” Benson grunts, still tense, and swallows a cookie whole. I think he wants to ask me if the secret invention helped, if my mysterious plan worked, but he must decide against it with Aiden here. I give him a smile to calm him. He doesn’t smile back but leads the way as we set off down the garden path.
At the hedge, Aiden reaches behind the farthest shrub, and suddenly I realize something that should have occurred to me already. At last, the reel is leaving us. Doctor Helen already conceded that. And even though this surrender is torching us both, I know not a single cell of ours will miss the evil monitor. For the first time since I saw it, I breathe with relief when Aiden brings it out even though it’s hidden back inside its original box and out of my sight.
“We might as well return this.” He tucks the box under his other arm, away from me. “No reason to keep it here another minute.”
“Not one,” I agree, grabbing his free arm and picking up our pace in Benson’s quiet wake so the box leaves his fingertips as soon as possible.
There is a crispness in the air, a stillness. As though the world is holding its breath. No breeze, the lark hiding somewhere in the beech leaves. Even the willow song sounds more muted than usual, but I can still hear its quiet aria like Stella did. Somehow, somehow, somehow. It follows us across Elysium like a hymn. I clutch Aiden’s arm as our shadows glide over the purple orchids and the forget-me-nots. Neither of us looks at the scar of the reel on the meadow, where the wildflowers have wilted from the blaze of Aiden’s fever. I will revive them tonight—replace them if I need to—so none of its images will ever touch his retinas again.
At the edge of Elysium, Benson’s black Rover gleams against the country road. As soon as we reach it, I climb in the back seat quickly, curling next to Aiden who stashes the box on the front seat. But he has barely closed his door, when his phone beeps in the notes of Für Elise. He takes it out, frowning at the text banner on the screen—from James.
Callahan: “Sorry I missed your calls, brother. Are you home?”
“Finally,” Aiden mutters and thumbs back a quick reply: “No, on our way to see Helen. All fine but need to talk to you. Will you still be up in about two hours?”
James doesn’t hesitate. “Yea, you sure everything’s fine? Your message said something about hell day.”
“Yes, but it’s good for once. I’ll call when we’re done.”
He finishes texting with James and pulls me on his lap, exactly where I want to be. “Sorry about that. I’ve been trying to reach him to tell him what you helped me discover.”
I caress his scar, worry gnawing at my nerves that he will have to re-live it again. “Eventually you’ll believe me that you discovered it on your own, but I’m glad James is about to find some peace too.”
“Yes, he will,” he answers quietly, still adjusting to this reformed universe where he knows he didn’t cause his brother’s death. He is just a man with wounds, finding his way back to himself. And there is one thing left to help him with that. One thing the protein helped me see above all else. He will know it very soon. Then maybe our end will be survivable for him. And maybe, just maybe, he might stay with me once he sees who he truly is? I try to smother the silent question before it kills me, but it keeps singing in my ears like a siren. Maybe this is our somehow, someway.
“Ready, sir?” Benson checks in the back mirror, still tense behind his aviators.
Aiden looks at me for a moment with a sort of determination, then his arms lock around me like a safety belt. “Yes, Benson, we are.”
And then we are off in the lilac dawn.
It’s a quiet drive, me trying to stay present, Aiden staring out at the emerald hills, his fingers tracing my face over and over. Every few moments, he kisses my hair, my temple, my forehead, the inside of my wrists. I do the same with him—I can’t stop myself even though I know it will hurt me later. I kiss his bicep, his shoulder, his fingertips. It’s as though our lips have transmuted into their own heavens. Rotating around each other’s mouth, helpless against its gravity as we shine our last rays, pulling inexorably toward that final kiss, knowing it will turn us into stardust yet unable to resist it.
But as we enter Oxford’s boundary, reality crushes in with its inevitability. The iron tension grips Aiden’s shoulders, and agony begins to sear my insides. The flimsy fragments of fantasy vanish. And the air becomes heavier in my lungs.
Outside the window, Oxford’s heartline shimmers closer and closer. The domes and spires are gleaming pink-gold with the sunrise. Just petals glowing in the horizon. Rosy clouds wreathe the clock tower, and it’s impossible not to imagine mum’s arms reaching down from the lilac sky to protect the seven-year-old boy who grew up.
“I think Mum is putting on a show for you,” I tell Aiden to distract us both.
He looks at the clouds deeply as he did at her marble name last night on the hilltop. “Or maybe it’s for us.”
Us, us, us . . . someway, Mum, somehow. “I think you’re right. She would have loved us.”
He presses his lips in my hair, his breath catching as if to say something. But the Rover turns into WIN’s alley, and the weight of the last twenty-eight years silences us. Benson doesn’t ask a single question this time. He simply parks under the deep shade of an elm tree and steps outside, busying with his phone to give us the moment.
“Here we are.” Aiden gazes up at the stony building. Memories start darkening his eyes like clouds. At the sight, my words tumble out in a whisper.
“We don’t have to go in, love. Doctor Helen would understand.”
But he shakes his head, as I knew he would. “Unfortunately, I gave her my word when I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
W-o-r-d. How do you give your word to pain? How do you negotiate with lost dreams? I reach inside my purse for that last hope, curling my hand around the precious box like a talisman. It warms me the way breath heats our fingertips on a December morning.
“Then here.” I offer it to him with trembling everything—voice, hands, heartbeat. The most important gift I have ever given him. “This is your surprise to open after this meeting.”
I know he hears and sees my emotion because in a blink, I feel singular—like nothing else exists for him but me. He takes the small box, wrapped in a map from dad’s nature atlas. From my Cotswolds to his Portland. The way Earth should be—no visas or wars. One sky, one core, distance a mere matter of heart and will.
“A map?” he asks, searching my face as minutely as the cartography.
“The world,” I correct.
He brushes my cheek. “I have the whole world right here.”
My fingers quiver up to his heart. “Me too.”
He still doesn’t release my face. “Is there something different about this surprise?” he guesses as though he can sense the wind of change inside the small box.
I nod, trying to swallow past my tight throat. “It’s both something you already have and something you don’t.”
Childhood flickers in his deep eyes like always at the clue, and he smiles. “I think that might be your best clue yet.”
“It is,” I allow. “So think about that instead of this meeting.”
“Is that why you’re giving it to me now?”
“It’s part of a very good reason,” I paraphrase his words about my own present that is waiting under Aphrodite’s branches.
The smile lingers a little longer even as he grasps instinctively the importance of the tiny box. “Come. Let’s get this over with, and we can both open these mysterious surprises.” A light flickers in his eyes at the prospect, and he kisses my temple again.
I expect my mind’s reaction by now—the subtle golden glow emitting from his skin. But expecting it doesn’t inure me to the beauty. It only stuns me more. I still haven’t recovered my breath when he tucks the box in his shirt pocket and opens the door. The fresh, grass-scented air steals in my lungs. He helps me out, holding me to his side, the reel on his other hand.
“Get some coffee, Benson,” he says to our Big Ben who is standing as rigid as the clock tower. “This should only take about an hour.”
Benson nods but doesn’t move as we climb the limestone steps.
Doctor Helen is waiting for us in the polished white lobby, her impeccable silver crown and white coat already in place despite it being Saturday morning. The gravitas of her regal expression seems weightier, more imposing compared to the last time I saw her when I was invincibly brave.
“Aiden, Elisa. Thank you for coming.” She sounds relieved beneath the commanding voice, as though she guessed we almost turned around. Then she strokes my hair in a way that reminds me of mum. “Were you able to get some sleep last night?”
“Yes, we both slept and without any fever this time.”
“That’s good. And you, Aiden?” She turns to him, studying his face with her shrewd eyes. “How are you feeling now that you’ve had some time to adjust to the truth?”
“Better, thank you, although eager to be finished. No offense intended, we just need to spend time together.” His voice is composed, showing none of his disappointment or anger, or maybe they softened at her evident concern for me.
“Of course, that’s understandable,” she answers. “We’re ready when you are.”
“Just one thing first, slightly more urgent.” He hands her the closed monitor box without ceremony. “I think it’s finally time we return this. Even you will agree there’s no more reason to continue it.”
“I do agree,” she concedes, taking the box from him.
As soon as the reel changes hands, a weight I didn’t know I was carrying leaves my body. Like the monitor had been pressing invisibly on my back since that first day the way the world crushed Atlas’s shoulders. I lean into Aiden, sensing a similar lightness in his subtle deep breath.
Doctor Helen is still searching his expression, but if she is looking for any answers, she doesn’t press him. She simply reaches up to squeeze his shoulder. “I’m glad this is behind you. Now come.”
I think about giving her the roses and Aiden’s note now, but it’s clear they are both impatient to be done. And it will be better after, so there is something else to say other than it’s over. I hook my arm in his, and we follow her billowing coat into the lift.
As soon as the doors close, the sensation of déjà vu hijacks me. My mind thrashes with the terrifying images of the last time we were here—the morning after Edison struck. The end, the terror for Aiden, the agony for us. Yet, in retrospect, they still seem more hopeful compared to the finality of now.
It seems to take a lifetime for the lift to ascend to a full stop, punctuated by a chime that clangs through my skull. But when we step out into the top floor, I blink around in surprise. Apparently, I was expecting Doctor Helen’s bear assistant, Richard, or Old Morse at least. But the clinical white space is empty again, gleaming endlessly like mirrors on all sides.
Next to me, Aiden scans the hallways with a similar question in his eyes.
“I asked my team to wait in the control room,” Doctor Helen explains quickly, seeing our confusion. “I didn’t think you would want a fuss.”
“You were right.” Aiden nods once.
“Let’s start with a scan to confirm the fever did no harm, although it’s unlikely, then we can discuss your next steps with Doctor Corbin on the line.” She pauses at the double doors of the massive lab, but all I hear is the separation already starting in her tone. “Elisa, I’m sure you want to go in, but we know your effect on Aiden’s neural activity and unfortunately, we need a stable reading.” She sounds apologetic, and I have a sense it’s for many reasons. That we have to part, that the reel didn’t work, that it caused so much agony, that we didn’t win.
I nod too even though I’d rather watch the video again than leave him for a second. “Don’t worry about me,” I tell him. “I’ll be right here with Doctor Helen.”
Except that doesn’t seem to calm him at all—in fact the opposite. He glares at us both with almost palpable intensity. “Nothing unsafe or painful, do you understand me?”
“I promise,” I answer, but to my astonishment, Doctor Helen smiles almost invisibly as though she just found the answer she was searching for.
“Ah, I see. You already know about the video. Of course you do. Well, you can shout at me later and you have every right. But for now, let’s finish up. Go on, I will take care of Elisa. The safe way this time.”
There is a brief moment of silence—me stunned and anxious, Aiden staring at her in his incontrovertible way as he tethers back all his fury under his iron control. “There will be no shouting today, Doctor Helen, though you owe that to Elisa, not me.” He speaks slowly, precisely, each word on a tight leash. “But she is right. My anger aside, we’re grateful for what you’ve done for us.”
I want to kiss him. Right here, in front of the great neuroscientist who is watching him in unconcealed amazement. Can she see the big, small victories I see? Does she consider the brutal experiment a success because of them?
He turns to me and plucks a petal from one of the Clares in my basket, tucking it in my hand like always. Then he gives me back my gift. “Keep this safe so it doesn’t enter that room with me. I’ll open it on the other side, and we can be just us.” And with a kiss on my forehead, he strides down the polished hallway.
As soon as the changing room door closes behind him, I look up at Doctor Helen who is staring at the space where he stood, eyes narrowed in concentration.
“I’m so sorry, Doctor Helen,” I apologize. “I didn’t mean—well—it’s probably better that I explain.”
She blinks at me as though returning from another world. “It’s quite alright, child. I told you his faith in you was more important than his peace with me, and I meant it.”
“I know but I still want to explain. Because as it turned out, I think it was for the best.” And I tell her everything as fast as I can: from my slip to every minute of Aiden watching the video and afterwards, leaving out only his anger and the reason why the slip happened to me in the first place. Not today—she and I will have years for that.
When I’m done explaining, barely breathing through the deluge of information, she gawks at me in a way I didn’t think was possible for her brain. “Dear God! He watched all of it with you in his arms?”
I nod, still breathless. “He did amazing, Doctor Helen. I know we could not beat the startle, but I think we laid Marshall to rest at last. You said that would help, right?”
“Hmm,” she muses as her eyes squint in some internal analysis.
“What is it? Do you disagree?” The question shudders from my lips.
She focuses on me, as if remembering I’m still here. “Hmm? No, of course it helps. Now, let’s get started. Aiden is waiting.”
She ushers me along swiftly, and I stumble behind her, feeling abruptly panicked. Because I have this sudden intuition that she is keeping something from me. What is it? Is she worried it will still not be enough for Aiden to survive our end? Or something else?
Inside the cold command center, my unease only grows at the dizzying screens and the nine neuroscientists laser-focused on the mass of numbers and symbols of Aiden’s mind. I thought it was going to be only Richard, but it’s all of them. Their absolute concentration is like a dense fog in the air, making it hard to breathe. Shiver after shiver lashes down my arms. How different this room feels from that first time, full of hope and fight. Now, the digital racket seems to rattle inside my very spine. Except the familiar sight on one of the wall screens. Doctor Corbin is smiling at me, in his sage shirt and yellow notepad, sitting next to his dark office window in Portland, still on Friday night.
“Evening, Elisa, or morning your time. It’s good to see you.”
“Hi, Doctor Corbin.” I wave, almost running into his screen as though it could teleport Aiden and me back to the City of Roses for a while, with our families, far away from these arctic hallways. “Thank you for dialing in.”
“Of course. I know this one is hard but we can discuss . . . afterwards.” He seems to stumble on that last word and smiles again, but there is a tightness in his eyes like Benson.
“Yes, yes, alright,” Doctor Helen interrupts briskly, taking her throne before the three central monitors, her Van Gogh binder ever on her side. “We can catch up later. Elisa, you’re next to me. On my mark . . . three, two, one.”
Everyone, from Corbin to her bear assistant, tenses at her command, eyes like snipers on their screens. Their intensity only terrifies more so I scramble to the chair next to hers and, in seconds, the scan begins.
But I don’t give the computers a second glance. None of these numbers, pixels, or algorithms can ever know Aiden’s heart. The universe of him. They cannot chart the stars of his beauty, nor traverse the vast space of his mind. They cannot hold the gravity of his strength. They cannot capture the symphony of his soul or contain the force of his love. All his molecules that sing their own secret tune, each atom that casts its own primordial light, the millions of his cells that dance like planets to the melody of my name across his skies. The surreal, celestial sum of his being, more splendid than all these parts. He is not an answer or a question mark. He is a wonder known only to gods.
Instead, I take out my phone and stationery and start to write. Emails to Reagan and Javi—they’ll be here in only three weeks, and I can’t deny I will need them like air to breathe. Thank-you notes to Maria and Aiden’s parents. And letters to the girls, tucking petals inside. So many people who love us, so many other goodbyes. My hand shakes so much through the words, contorting mum’s calligraphy like a frantic EKG, that her quill slips through my fingers. It’s not until I’m able to hear its quiet, feathery swoosh that I notice how silent the room has become. Deep and cold, like a crypt. Everyone is still, except the occasional blink or click. And not just still, but rigid, their ramrod backs emanating waves of apprehension. I scan their screens in terror for explanation, but the innocuous images still mean nothing—just codes and numbers alternating with photos of Marshall and me.
I want to ask what’s wrong, but my throat is clenched closed because that’s not the right question. The correct one is what can be worse than it already is.
“Has something happened?” I choke instead, but I can’t hear my voice. Perhaps the scientists can’t hear me either because no one blinks away from the screens. “Is Aiden okay?” I repeat, trying to put more volume in my tone.
Doctor Helen’s hand pats mine, her eyes never glancing away from her monitors. “He’s fine, Elisa. Now, please, we need quiet.”
F-i-n-e. Why don’t I believe her? Panic starts stabbing my body like knifepoints, one in my chest, one at my temple, another in my gut, one more on my forehead, dead center where Aiden’s lips turn the world golden. I try to breathe but the room is spinning, walls closing in and out at strange, obtuse angles. Quickly, I grab a rose for air but it doesn’t help. Icy numbness starts prickling my toes. I should have worn Aiden’s sweatshirt or his cologne. But as soon as the idea forms, my mind pulls up his fragrance on its own, as vivid as it was during bravery on the riverbank, nothing changed. It floods my senses as if I am curling in his chest again. But the terror is still mushrooming everywhere, numbing my legs, arms, the base of my skull, my face.
Breathe, I try to reason with myself. Nothing can be worse than it already is. We have already lost everything. There is no more life or love or meaning. What more can they take? But not a single atom thaws out of the frozen dread. Because I know exactly what I’m seeing. I grew up with these scientist eyes. It’s the stare when science cannot explain or understand. The unflinching gaze of finality, of truth.
Something has to be wrong, even more wrong than we knew.
I watch the screens now too, without any understanding. The display speed picks up, numbers, symbols, images racing by, almost blurry for our normal minds while Aiden’s brain leaves us all behind. Then suddenly, they stop. The monitors go dark. The clicks end, the fingers on the keyboards freeze. No one speaks, moves, or breathes. Something is o-v-e-r, but I don’t know what it is. I try to hold onto Aiden’s scent in my mind, and his my-all look that gives me life. Somehow, please, somehow.
At last, Doctor Helen taps some kind of pager and speaks into her microphone, but her voice is no longer brisk or commanding. It’s gentle, quieter when she addresses Aiden.
“Aiden, that was your last slide. As expected, the fever caused no harm. For the record, I can also confirm the data shows no measurable change in subject’s cognition depth, perception accuracy, or speed of recall and retention. If you wish, we can consider this your final scan. I’ll give you time to get dressed. Please meet us at the lab when you’re ready. I have Elisa with me. She is safe.”
S-a-f-e? Is that what I am as I hear our life reduced to clinical conclusions? My love as a “subject,” the wonder of Aiden as “data”? All our hopes and dreams as “no measurable change”? Our greatest loss as a blank computer screen? What is safety if you no longer feel alive?
I try to look away from the black monitors now but I can’t. Like blood-soaked battlefields at night, when the gunfire finally falls silent. The only artillery left is our heart-bombs, thudding faintly into the quiet. I don’t know how I am sitting or breathing. Maybe there is a back-up system that kickstarts like a resuscitation protein. A spare phantom heart that beats only when the real one stops. A reserve of lifeblood that flows when the old arteries dry. Because that’s how it feels now. Phantom heartbeats, phantom lungs, phantom eyes. Existence, not life.
But if this is the end, why am I still terrified? Why the sense that something else is looming? Maybe because through the fires of my personal hell, I become aware of the silence around me, the lack of change. No one else is moving either or looking away from the dark screens. Even Corbin in Portland is frowning intensely at his computer.
“What is it? Aren’t we meeting Aiden?” I shudder, surprised I can make a sound.
Corbin peers at Doctor Helen to my right. “Doctor?” he asks.
“Silence, please,” comes her commanding reply. I don’t know how she moved her lips—she seems entirely carved in stone—but the denial came definitely in her voice.
I follow her piercing eyes to her central monitors, but I see nothing that would make her look so severe. Yet that sense of foreboding crashes over me. The icy terror spreads to my eyelids, exactly like it did after the protein. Abruptly, I can’t sit here anymore. I can’t handle the tangible sorrow or disappointment or whatever it is. I try to wobble up to go wait for Aiden when a single buzz vibrates from Doctor Helen’s pager. In the same second, static crackles in the thick silence and the screens flicker back on. And the images cut me at my knees. Not because they are gruesome like the reel. But because they’re live, right here, right now.
A camera feed of Aiden in the MRI chamber, alone with the pale blue sheet around his waist, his bare shoulders rounded, face chiseled with both strength and pain. Slowly, he rises to his feet. I bolt up too, ready to run to him, but Doctor Helen’s voice rings out again.
“Wait a moment, Elisa, please.”
I’m about to snap that we don’t have a moment but the camera starts following Aiden. He leaves the MRI chamber and strides down the narrow corridor that connects it to the changing room. His steps are slow, heavy, and I know he is remembering every time he has walked that path since he was seven years old. Always hoping for a change, and now that hope is gone. Tears spring in my eyes, and all I want to do is hold him in my arms.
“I have to meet him,” I whisper, but to my surprise, Doctor Helen’s hand closes on my wrist, firmer than I would have expected—a lot stronger than it felt during the protein.
“Elisa, you need to stay here.”
Abruptly, fury blisters on my tongue. “No, I need to see Aiden,” I hiss through my teeth and rip my hand from her grasp. I spin around for the door but she stands to stop me, as Richard the bear slips out and another researcher shifts to block my passage.
“Please, Elisa, trust me.” Her voice becomes imploring despite the edge of authority. The urgent plea derails me with its rarity more than the barricade she is obviously erecting around me.
“Why?” I demand.
Her creased face folds with an ancient ache, and she sighs. “Because if you go now, you will only hurt Aiden.”
Something about the regret in her eyes frightens me. An odd shiver trickles down my spine like ice water.
“What do you mean?” I breathe, but from the corner of my eye, I glimpse the changed screens. On one, Aiden has reached the changing room and steps through the back door to get dressed. On another, two figures slink down the white hallway outside the room’s closed front door.
It only takes a moment. My body reacts faster than my mind laboring to make sense of the scene. A gasp tears from my lips, and the ceiling start to fall. A wave of dizziness crashes over me. I struggle to bring myself to some sort of control, but a part of my brain seems to be reaching for unconscious relief. Anything but the images in front of me. Because I finally understand why Doctor Helen is not letting me go, why the scientists look so grave, why no one can breathe.
The two figures prowling down the hall are none other than Benson and Richard. They spread apart, Richard facing the closed door, waiting for Aiden to come out, Benson rounds the abutting corner, out of sight. And everything falls into place. Why Benson was so tense this morning, the sandy color of his clothes nearly invisible in the white hall, Corbin’s unease, Doctor Helen’s scrutiny of Aiden’s every move and word, why she asked for this check-in, why she pretended to agree not to do the final test of the startle in the first place, what she has been plotting all along.
Her plan is as simple as it is practical: Richard will distract Aiden in the same breath that Benson will trigger his startle reflex from behind. It will be sudden and immediate—Aiden has no way of suspecting this now—but it will be enough.
“NO!” I cry in horror, ducking around her despite the dizziness so I can stop this. But she grips my arm again, shaking it with urgency.
“Elisa, think! You need to be safe for Aiden. I will not allow any risks.”
“Don’t do this!” I scream, ripping back my arm. “You promised him! You promised!”
“I had to, child! He would have suspected something if I hadn’t.”
“It’s his choice!”
“Elisa, please—” Corbin tries to intervene.
“WHY are you doing this?” I snarl at both of them, whirling around with desperate impatience to grab my phone and warn Aiden. But I’m too late. The screens change again. I freeze in horror as Aiden opens the door, still fastening a button on his shirt, hurrying to see me. He blinks up, spotting Richard, clearly unaware of Benson.
“Richard?” He frowns but in the same breath, Benson strikes. His huge body whips from the corner and lurches forward, flinging his fist at Aiden’s back. And that’s all it takes.
“Aiden!” I gasp, but it’s over. It’s done. The moment bursts violently apart.
For a fraction of a second, dread ripples across Aiden’s face, then his body pivots toward his assailant. In the same spin, one of his hands seizes Benson’s arm, the other flies to the boulderlike shoulder, as Benson shifts and crouches into a self-defense stance.
“Benson, abort!” Doctor Helen fires into the pager I thought was just an innocent device. “Step back, now.”
Benson must hear her command on some earpiece because he tries. His feet slide back but Aiden shadows his footwork in a lithe step, his body angling in formation with the sheer muscle mass that can crush him to death.
“Richard, stand by!” Doctor Helen orders again, then she turns to someone behind me. “Go in—Plan B.”
I want to see who it is or what she means but I cannot blink away from the screen. Because Benson raises his knee as if to smash it into Aiden’s ribs. But Aiden shifts another step to the right—a memory flashes through my mind—another right, then left—
“Strobe lights in three, two—” Doctor Helen commands again, as Aiden takes another step to the left.
“STOP!” I shriek, throwing myself at her and tearing the pager from her grip. “BENSON, STOP! HIS FEET! LOOK AT AIDEN’S FEET!”
I know he hears me because he jerks at the volume of my scream, but he drops his knee quickly, frowning in confusion at Aiden’s shoes.
“Elisa, unaccept—” Doctor Helen rebukes in outrage but I cut her off, pointing urgently at the screen.
“LISTEN TO ME! IT’S DIFFERENT! IT’S CHANGED!”
A blur of white coats swarms around the monitors, while Corbin directs frantically, “Let her speak!”
“Stand by!” Doctor Helen instructs her own team, and they all freeze. “Elisa?” she demands, her sharp eyes roaming the camera feed. “What is it? What do you see?”
“Aiden’s steps,” I explain, my voice suddenly dropping into a whisper of wonder as I watch the image before me. And the whole room falls silent in my ears—no breathing, no voices, no beeps. Just a familiar tune trilling in my memory. Because if I know anything like I know my own name is this: our steps to Für Elise. “It’s our dance,” I murmur, my eyes flooding with tears. My hands grasp the monitor as if it were Aiden’s shoulders. “It’s not the startle. I’m sure of it.”
A collective gasp blows through the room, yet despite all the eyes and cameras, abruptly, I feel alone with Aiden. My finger trembles on the monitor, caressing the contours of his body, tracing his next step as Fallujah’s curse breaks before my incredulous eyes.
What we thought was an attack is actually an embrace. The pivot was not to kick, it was only a turn. Aiden’s arms around Benson were not to punch, just to hold. His feet didn’t move in combat; they stepped into a dance. And the startle did not trigger violence, but rest.
I watch in awe as his unfathomable mind—against all odds—overwrites itself. Instead of war, it’s retrieving peace. In the place of terror, it found calm. And rather than hatred, it’s remembering love.
“Extraordinary,” Corbin breathes as he did the day Aiden attacked me, but his whisper is already behind me. I shoot through a space opened between the frozen, scattered scientists and launch myself at the door. If anyone shouts, I can’t hear from the roar of my heartbeat. And if hands try to stop me, I can’t feel past the current blowing on my skin. I am just wind, blasting through the white blur of coats across the hall, and there it is.
The real, true wonder—live, without pixels or screens.
Only seconds have passed. Aiden is still bound with Benson in their clinch, his back to me. Their eyes are locked on each other, Benson’s wide with stunned disbelief as, slowly, they must register the impossible phenomenon unfolding through their grip. Another breathless second or maybe an endless minute. Then at last understanding seems to dawn through the barriers of shock and self-preservation on their minds. Carefully, hesitantly, their arms drop at the same time and Benson steps out of his defensive stance. Falling back to give space to the marvel breaking away from the past.
Aiden’s body straightens, rising fluidly into his full height, the curved shoulders unfurling out of their tension like wings. The powerful bands of muscle soften under his shirt, his fists bloom open into his piano hands, the slightest tremble in his fingers as though he is running them through the ivory keys to Für Elise. The sinister strain that has bound him for the last thirteen years doesn’t just ease; it melts. The invisible chains fall off his back. Leaving behind the most surreal grace. It flows sinuously within him like a spell, elongating his body, broadening his shoulders, changing him in subtle rewind back to the glorious, unbroken Aiden in the tent.
Free at last.
Transfixed in his transformation, Aiden raises his left arm, then the right, as if he were holding me during our dance, gazing at the motion mesmerized. The movement is so hypnotic, I can only gape. Then he murmurs a single word on his first breath.
“Elisa . . .”
At that low, awed music, I remember myself. My quivering body, the tears flooding my face, my heart booming in my chest. And the world vanishes again. I don’t see Benson where he must be still standing, I don’t see Richard and the other scientists, I don’t see the hallway. There is just a blank slate only for Aiden and me.
Entranced, unafraid, I take a small step toward Aiden’s unchained, exposed back.
“I’m here, love.”
He turns around and—oh! His eyes . . . incandescent with shock, filled with the purest of light, their depths stirring glow after glow, through a spectrum of life. The azure of childhood, the cerulean of youth, the sapphire of man, the turquoise of us. At that look, I forget everything—the past, the rules, the pain, all my doubts and uncertainties. Gone. My body takes off on its own and I leap straight into his arms.
He catches me like always, sweeping me up, one arm around my waist, the other hand in my hair, gasping and stunned.
“I love you,” I tell him, and then I kiss him hard. For a heartbeat, I’m afraid he will pull away, but he responds so fiercely that we stagger against some wall, mouth to mouth, a low moan in his throat.
How many times have we kissed? Hundreds, thousands by now? Yet, this kiss feels like the very first one. As though every other kiss—no matter how soft, gentle, sweet, or hard—has been only a prelude to this one, reverberating forward in time. To give us a taste, to keep us fighting for the real us. Because that is how it feels as his lips meld with mine. Like we are entering a brand-new world that has been waiting only for us.
And what a world it is. Shimmering with the purest light like a perpetual sunrise behind my closed eyes. Tasting of fiery spice, salt rose, and a chocolatey effervescence that erases the bitter venom of distance. All forged in the vivid, urgent possession of his mouth. I can feel his body against every curve of mine, fire and steel, molding me to the shape of him. My fingers fly frantically in his hair, over his shoulders rippling only with our tangled weight. No tension, no resistance, no flashbacks. His hands memorize me too, all anew, gripping my waist, caressing my face. And his lips . . . They move dominantly, claiming back every touch we have missed in the last twelve days, inhaling every breath, capturing every sigh. But giving back too: healing the pain, erasing the distance, stopping time. I taste him back in a frenzy—cinnamon, Aiden, and salty tears. His, mine, ours. Flowing with our kiss like lifeblood, bringing us to who we truly are, to who we fought to be, without war, distance, or deadlines. Just two arteries entwined inside the same heart, teeming with life.
My breath gives out before our lips, coming out jagged and fast until my head starts to spin. His mouth slows then, gentles on mine to let me breathe. In the few gasps when his lips are free, he whispers my name. I murmur his too, over and over, not like a prayer or a wish. I say it the way we say sacred things. With faith, with a sort of reverence.
“Aiden, Aiden, Aiden . . .”
He leans back just an inch to look at me. And I can finally see his face—really see it now. If I live a million years and cross a million skies, I will never find words for it. Not for the golden light flickering on his skin or the long lashes, sparkling like diamonds. Nor for the prismatic blue irises glittering with life. He is even more surreal than he was during the protein. More exquisite than the young Aiden in the tent, more beautiful than any other time in my life. Because this kind of beauty is beaming from within, healing at last.
He searches my face with this whole new world in his eyes. “Is it real?” he murmurs, almost fearfully, holding me tight.
“It is real, love,” I answer without a doubt despite the warm glow still filling my sight. “We’re wide awake. It’s not a dream.”
His fingers trace my lips as though testing that reality. “How?” he breathes.
I stroke his face too, his glistening cheek, his bitten lips, his scar. I am sure somewhere in this modern lab, in the clinical data, in the irrefutable evidence of science, there will be answers. But I know the real answers are in the stars.
“Somehow,” I whisper and bring his mouth back to mine.
©2022 Ani Keating
5 thoughts on “NINETY DAYS CHAPTER 41: REAL”
Free at last!!! Oh what a journey in minutes!!
Hallelujah! I am catching my breath from the inability to breathe thru this chapter. Absolutely the most brilliant writing I am in awe. Thank you❤️
Yes, Yes, Yes!
Oh.wow, I’m in tears. Another amazing beautiful chapter Ani.
Three words, the best three words i have ever read, make this chapter for me – Aidan saying, with this whole new world in his eyes, “Is it real”?. After Aidan walking back to the changing room with all hope gone was heart breaking, but for him to have that result and to ask is it real just had the tears flowing. Amazing, beautiful writing as always Ani, thank you, thank you,thank you.