Happy Sunday and Thanksgiving week, friends! I’m so grateful for all of you and so many friendships I have made here. Here is the next chapter for you, hopefully to add some cheer to the holiday week. I know you’ve waited long for it, and so have I. I hope you love it as much as I did. Also, this is *not* the last chapter. I will announce the last chapter which will come with an epilogue but it will be the next one or the one after if I decide to break them into two. So much love and joy to all of you and your loved ones. Theme: victory. Song: My love, by Sia. Favorite line: “What a beautiful gift to give.”
Amor Vincit Omnia
In the carpark, Benson is pacing by the Range Rover, stalking from the headlights to the boot and back again every few seconds, brows furrowed as he scans the grounds. As soon as he spots us, he freezes mid-stride, his brown eyes wild with anxiety. I feel instantly guilty for keeping him waiting even though I would not change the last hour for anything.
Aiden picks up our pace in response. “We’re okay, Benson,” he assures him quickly as soon as we reach the car. “I’m sorry we made you wait. We had a lot to cover.”
Benson does not relax out of his ramrod posture. “What does ‘okay’ mean? What did the grey lady say?”
I watch with a clenched heart as Aiden speaks our news out into the world for the first time, making it real for someone we love.
“It means it’s over, brother,” he answers slowly, as though trying to find the right words. “I am—we all are—safe.”
Safe. His holy grail, his dream, the word that has tortured and eluded him for twelve long years is finally his. I clutch his hand tighter so he knows it’s real.
Benson stares at him blankly. “Safe? As in . . . the thing is gone?”
“Yes.” Aiden hesitates only for the briefest fraction of a second. “The startle is done—in no small part thanks to you.”
I don’t miss the change in his voice, from awe to a defiant inflection of the dark word as though he no longer wants to give it that silent power.
Neither does Benson. “You’re fucking with me?” he breathes, eyes frozen wide.
“No.” Aiden shakes his head, pulling me closer to his side. “As Elisa keeps having to remind me . . . it’s real.” A smile flashes on his face at that last word. A natural, easy smile that makes Benson’s jaw drop, and I know why: because he has not seen it for a long time.
That smile does it. Benson’s massive shoulders sink in relief. All the tension blows out of his enormous frame with whatever questions or uncertainties, and he starts rumbling a deep, booming laugh.
“HAH! HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!”
Then their bodies collide into a manly hug, thumping each other on the back in a way that would pulverize my bones to dust. Benson does not ask why or what or how. None of the reasons seem to matter to him one bit. He only cares that Aiden is healed.
I reach stealthily inside my picnic basket and fish out my phone. Through the sparkly mist of tears, I take a photo of this moment between them. Aiden’s waterfall laughter is cascading over their clinch, washing away every riptide of violence that has ever torn through their iron arms. Leaving only their deep bond behind.
“Well, damn!” Benson chortles as he pulls away, wiping his brow. “Does this mean I’m out of a job now?” A new apprehension dawns over his face as though he hadn’t registered this worry about himself yet, and I want to hug him too for the risks he took for us. Perhaps so does Aiden because he does not release Benson’s boulderlike shoulder.
“You’re family, Benson. You’ll always be my right-hand man. Your job will just be less hazardous now—you know, boring security stuff. You might even get to take a vacation every once in a while.”
“Ugh, vacation!” Benson pretends to shudder, but I see his relieved joy as his face breaks into a beaming smile that, from his tremendous height, makes him seem like our very own sun.
I squeeze his huge fingers, too awkward to hug him in my current state without knickers.
“We love you, Benson,” I sniffle. “We wouldn’t be here if we had not had you by our side.”
“Thank you for breaking all my rules,” Aiden tells him, and I know he is not talking just about Benson secretly agreeing to the startle test for today. He is talking about Benson giving me his war letters when I left America, refusing to drive me away after Aiden’s attack, standing with us every step of the way, even when it meant facing Aiden’s wrath.
Benson’s forehead flushes, and he mumbles gruffly. “Yeah, well, thanks for not firing me in the first place. I suppose I won’t have much reason to break the rules from now on, will I?”
“I fervently hope not,” Aiden sighs, and we all laugh in relief that it’s over. That Benson’s shadow next to ours will not float by necessity, but by choice. And that his lethal strength is no longer a weapon against my love. It’s simply a part of who Benson is: a friend, a brother, a trusted advisor. A protector of Aiden, not from him.
“Well, in that case, I’ll drive you home.” Benson does not need to ask to know the only place we want to be. “And then, if you don’t mind, I’ll go sleep for the next week. I was lying this morning when I said I slept last night—I didn’t catch a wink.”
“I don’t mind at all. Just get us home as safely as you can. I think we’ve all earned at least a year without disasters.”
Benson laughs again and tries to get the door for us but Aiden is a step ahead, no doubt because I’m standing here en déshabillé under my dress. Healed he might be, but his mind is still the same. He waits until our Big Ben lopes to the driver’s seat with a spring in his step, and then helps me climb in the back, standing close behind for cover. His eyes blaze at me in a way that makes the muscles in the pit of my belly tighten as though our two big bangs in the oak tree never happened. Then he secures me to his side like always, and we’re off, racing down the boulevard toward the cottage.
Yet, for once, the car speed is too slow for me. I lean my head on Aiden’s shoulder—is it my imagination or is it already softer? —and start timing the clock to my sprinting heartbeat. The ticking seconds don’t throb anymore. They heal. Flowing easily like air in my lungs or notes in a melody.
Aiden chats with Benson about Doctor Helen’s trick, about calling the Marines and his parents to surprise them, chuckling at this, sighing at that, but his arm around me never relaxes. Except this is not the kind of tension that used to strain him in traffic. His hold right now is just an embrace as his fingertips on my hip count down the time.
We reach Elysium in exactly thirty minutes like Aiden predicted. The Rover skids to a stop by the potted roses outside the garage shed. Benson tries to come open our door, but Aiden stops him again.
“I got this, Benson. You go get some rest. We’ll still be here when you wake up and then we can discuss your issues with vacation. Maybe I need to bring Cora and Max for reinforcement.”
Benson half-chuckles, half-yawns, scanning Elysium as we climb out, ever our security guard despite his sleepy eyes. And then he drives off, honking the horn lightly to a familiar note: the Rover’s version of Für Elise.
As soon as we’re alone, Aiden takes both my hands. His eyes are blue fire. How can they burn and calm me at the same time?
“Are you really going to bring everyone over?” I ask.
“Yes, tonight.” He kisses my forehead. “But first, it’s time for your present. Come.”
I’m about to find some excuse to delay the goodbye gift and go straight to our happy bedroom, but abruptly he is shining. Exactly that—there are no other words for it. Eyes dazzling with that my-all look he first gave me yesterday after I woke up. His beauty amplifies in that way that stops everything, from my breath to my mind. I can barely remember my own name, let alone the excuses I was trying to devise.
He chuckles at my dumbfound expression, blowing over my lips. And then he tows me across Elysium, his arm around my waist almost sweeping me off my feet.
Our little field sparkles with the late August sun, still the same, yet it has never felt more precious. Each blade of grass looks gilded with every battle we fought on these wildflowers to be together. Over at the hedge, on the reel’s scar, the orchids and forget-me-nots have withered under the flame of Aiden’s fever. But they do not seem to mourn their last bloom. Their wilted petals flutter calmly in the rose breeze, facing the sunrays with their forged wisdom.
I feel a similar sense of peace, of continuity in the change of seasons. And suddenly, I know exactly what needs to take root in the flowers’ soil.
“What are you smiling about?” Aiden asks.
“I think I just found a new home for Hope, our hybrid.”
He looks at the spot that healed and burned him. “Fitting,” he agrees. “After all, we planted the American Beauty in Portland. It makes sense to plant its descendant here.”
Portland. Here. Despite his musical voice, the words ring like a bugle call in the distance. The start of another war, except now, no matter the choice, a piece of my heart is lost. But which one?
I shut down the question immediately. I will not think about that today—today belongs only to happiness.
“Let’s go,” I tell him, my feet speeding up. “We can come plant Hope in the morning. Roses like sunrises when they change homes. And music.”
The sound of his chuckle makes the bugle call disappear. “I’ll compile a playlist for the occasion. Is there anything else the roses would like? I think I owe them a gift too if I recall correctly.”
“No, they’re the happiest flora in the world now that you’re healed. Although you still have to grovel for saying ‘lavender’ the other night.”
“On my knees.” He laughs and pulls me quickly under the willow garlands.
The sunlight flickers through the leafy drapes, kissing his lips, touching his scar, drawing him closer inside their verdant heart. And their ethereal whisper begins to trill. From somehow, somehow, somehow to a new harmony.
“What are they singing now?” Aiden guesses as though the murmur is also changing for him.
“Happy, happy, happy. Yours?”
He smiles in a way that makes the willows start humming, he’s ours, he’s ours.
“Secret, secret, secret. Come, let’s not disobey the willows.”
He takes my hand with a soft kiss and tugs me through the garlands, eagerness almost touchable in his eyes. I follow him in a trance, mystified by this secret gift and the fluid grace of his movement as his mind continues to heal.
But as soon as we step into our rose garden, everything changes in a heart-splitting blink. Aiden sweeps me behind his back so fast, the air whooshes past me like a gust of wind. By the time my breath huffs out in a gasp, he is towering in front of me, tense and protective.
“Aiden, what—?” I choke in alarm, but just as quickly, he relaxes again. Instantly, his tension softens and a stunned breath whistles through his lips.
“What the fuck?” he whispers, staring in shock—not defense—at something in front of him.
I peek around his elbow, and then almost collapse in relief as I see the reason for the quick ease in his reaction. Because the sudden difference in our garden is not danger. It’s the safest, warmest, most loveable sight there is.
Javier, Reagan, Stella, Robert, James, Hendrix, and Jazzman are all right here, standing rigid among the roses as they stare back at us, frantic with worry, eyes frozen on Aiden’s stance. But only for a second. And then before we can catch our breath, they launch themselves toward us, Robert and Stella at the front, the Marines right behind, Reagan and Javier on each side.
“Oh, Aiden!” Stella cries, reaching us first, and then everyone else swarms around us.
“Mom, what—?” Aiden starts, but I can’t hear what else he says over her sobs. Or perhaps he can’t speak because they all begin hugging us in a frenzy. I can barely tell Stella’s pillowy embrace from James’ crushing grip or Jazzman’s scarred arms. But two hugs clutch me longer and harder than the others: one powdery with flaming ringlets and the other warm, smelling of paint and peppermint. Reagan and Javier have squeezed through the throng of Marines and are squishing me between them, as they all start blubbering and rushing to speak at the same time.
“Son, we had to come—” Robert begins.
“Of course, we did!” Stella sobs some more, stroking Aiden’s cheek from what I can see through the two bodies wrapped around me.
“How could we not?” James is rumbling from his immense height. His jungle of auburn hair and beard is even more feral than when I last saw him. “You’re in bad shape, Elisa was texting me questions about Marshall, Benson was avoiding our calls. We got on a plane last night, I called you from the airport this morning. What the fuck else were we supposed to do? Sorry, Mrs. Hale—”
“We won’t stand by like shit-flumps while you ruin your life—” Hendrix is booming from somewhere to my right.
“You almost died last time—” Jazz cuts in.
“Of all the moronic, asinine things all of us have ever done, this takes the fucking cup—so sorry, Mrs. Hale.”
“I agree, son, though not so colorfully as Callahan. We have to talk about this as a family—”
“Exactly, like a family, amorcita.” Javier is still holding me so tight, my arms are going numb. “We’re not okay with either of you hurting like this. It’s wrong. Even I can see that now—”
“You belong together.” Reagan is mopping her eyes in my hair. “There has to be a way—”
“Yeah, if Benson needs more help, you got us, we’ll rotate—”
“Everyone, please—” Aiden tries to get a word in, while Stella is trying to feel my forehead through Javier’s and Reagan’s arms.
“No, Storm, let us finish!” James interrupts.
“And I will, Cal, but first—”
“This selfless bullshit has to stop! You’ll be hurting Trouble and yourself even more!”
“Hendrix, will you just relax—”
“Me relax? You need to relax! So you have a big problem when you get startled—”
“Everyone has problems! Look at me, I have a fucking glass eye!”
“I know, Jazz, just listen for a minute—”
“No, Storm! You listen—”
“EVERYONE STOP!” Aiden thunders at last, looking like his brain is about to explode. They all fall quiet instantly and jump a step back, realizing only now how much they have crowded him. Their wide eyes are locked on his shoulders because they don’t know about our new life. Aiden takes a deep, steadying breath and pulls me close to his side. I wrap my arm around him too, seeing them all properly at last: Stella’s tear-streaked face, Robert’s lined forehead, Reagan’s flushed cheeks, Javier’s thick beard, Hendrix’s stubble, James’s tangles, Jazz’s scars, livid like him. All beloved, all here for us.
“Good. Now,” Aiden continues, his voice back to its piano tone. “First, thank you for coming. I know I didn’t give you much choice and I’m sorry for all of it. But I’m very glad you’re here.”
“Where else would we be?” Stella weeps but Aiden presses on.
“Second and more importantly—” He looks down at me, then back at their tense faces. “Elisa and I are notseparating. I’m not leaving her, and she’s not leaving me.”
“Well, of course, you’re not—oh!”
A battery of gasps and questions fires through the half-circle around us. “You’re not?” “What?” “Staying together?” “How?” “What?”
“You’re not breaking up?!” Reagan squeaks in shock while Stella crosses herself and mouths something that looks very much like oh, please, God.
Aiden smiles at both of them. “No, we’re not breaking up. Come inside, we have a lot to discuss. Elisa and I have some news of our own.”
“News? What news?” Stella’s voice trembles.
“Don’t worry, Mom, we’re alright.”
“Dude, are you pregnant?” James blurts out, strangely looking at Aiden’s stomach in horror, while everyone gasps except Stella who makes a cooing sound that sends an odd flutter thrumming in my own belly and a blush all way to my hairline.
Aiden gives James an exasperated glare. “No, Cal, I’m not, and neither is Elisa for that matter. Come on, get inside. You’ll give my mother a heart attack.” And before any of them can stammer another word, he starts herding them up the garden path, never releasing my waist. Can he feel the tingles still fluttering in my body at the idea of a sapphire-eyed baby? Maybe he can because his fingers tighten on my hip and, lightly, he kisses my hair.
Our family spreads out on the threshold, careful to give Aiden the space he no longer needs. He winks at me knowingly as I open the front door. It’s only then I remember that the cottage is still celebrating Christmas and it’s far from the polished guest perfection they have seen before. Yet despite the clutter waiting for them, suddenly this feels exactly right. Homier somehow. My own mess under the dress, however, is another matter. I start fretting about buying a few moments to clean up before facing our families au naturel, but Aiden saves me.
“Everyone, have a seat wherever you can,” he tells them as they start ducking inside. “Elisa and I need just a minute.”
They nod and file to the living room one by one, and then I hear a new flurry of gasps as they must see the winter wonderland.
“Go on, I’ll clean up down here,” Aiden whispers, kissing my forehead, and I’m sure he must need his own moment. He sighs with a wistful look toward the Christmas rose and the mysterious present underneath that looks like it will have to wait a little longer.
I sprint upstairs to the loo and freshen up as quickly as possible. But as I race to our happy bedroom for new knickers, the stripped bed glares back in its stark, desolate emptiness. Abruptly, everything else can wait. I don’t want Aiden to have to see it this way later. I whirl down the hall to the guest room for our pillows, quilt, vase of Elisas, chess set, and old record player. Then I grab a set of clean sheets from the cupboard and make our bed as fast as I can. I set the Elisas by Aiden’s nightstand with a Baci by their side like our first night. Then, leaving on the light, I dash back down the stairs toward the symphony of voices singing through the cottage one more time.
Aiden is waiting for me at the foot of the stairs in the foyer. He is still in his white shirt from our first embargo, but with fresh, dark jeans—intentionally similar to the ones he was wearing.
“Are you ready?” I ask him, for one of the most important memories he is about to form in his life.
He takes my hand. “Now I am.” He smiles and, together, we step into the Christmas wonderland.
The scene would be comical if it weren’t so emotional. The space is so tiny that, even without our Big Ben, everyone is standing crammed together, staring at the holiday decor with various expressions of worry and confusion. Aphrodite twinkles in the corner—someone must have turned on the lights even if they didn’t understand why. The stocking sways above the fireplace where a new fire is crackling. The Christmas village is sparkling on the windowsill, the white petals still blanket the hardwood floor. And on the coffee table are what seem to be the entire contents of our fridge. In the last several minutes, Stella must have managed to warm up the leftover roast chicken and potatoes, make a leafy salad, heat up the frozen chicken soup, brew coffee and tea, fill up a pitcher of rose lemonade, and stack our Christmas cookies on the silver tray, sprinkling them with powdered sugar and blueberries.
All of them joining Christmas in August without question or hesitation if this is what we need.
A tidal wave of love engulfs me for each of them, just as implacable and powerful as for my own parents. One look at Aiden next to me, and I know he feels the same. How many times has he dreamt of telling them this news, giving them this joy? Each time feeling more and more impossible until he stopped dreaming at all. And now here he is, at the brink, awe filling his expression like the golden halo of the protein.
As soon as they see us at the door, everyone turns to us immediately. Their eyes are still wide—Reagan’s and Stella’s watery, Robert’s and Javier’s tight with worry, the Marines’ haunted and deep.
“What’s with the early Christmas?” James breaks the silence.
“Was it because you were trying to say goodbye?” Reagan’s voice quivers as she wrings her hands by the rose tree.
“No, not at all,” Aiden recovers quickly before either she or I start wailing. “We were just celebrating a friend.”
“Are you both really alright?” Stella whimpers from the coffee table, Robert’s hands on her shoulders. “You’ve lost so much weight, Aiden.”
I don’t have to look at Aiden’s face, even healed, to know she is right. So must Aiden because he tells her the truth, even if gentled for her heart.
“It’s been a hard couple of weeks, Mom, but we’re better than alright now.”
“Then what’s the news, son? What do you need to tell us?”
He looks only at his parents, with a feeling that must surge from his early days, the days that the rest of us cannot remember. His fingers tighten on mine as if for reality, then he takes a step closer in their direction.
“We finally beat the startle, Mom.” His voice is very soft when he tells her. “It has changed. The danger is gone. Forever.”
A deafening silence falls over the room at his words. No one seems to be able to blink or breathe or move an inch. No one except Aiden’s parents. Their eyes turn liquid and deep, like Aiden’s when he is feeling too much. They don’t say anything. No questions like Benson, no doubts. Just a ragged gasp tearing through Stella’s lips. They stagger toward us unsteadily in the profound silence. Then, without a word, they take their son in their arms. Covering him in their hold despite his height. I try to glimpse Aiden’s face but his head bows between his parents, and he wraps them both in his long arms. A family torn apart coming together at last. A quiet sob hitches from within their embrace, as if deep from Stella’s heart.
I watch them through the filter of tears, standing right here where my own parents used to kiss. Except there is no sadness in me at all now. Because we are the luckiest people in the world to know this kind of love. As though all those coins we’ve thrown in fountains have finally bronzed into fortune. All our prayers and wishes coming true inside this hug.
I wipe away my tears, not wanting to miss a single blink of their reunion, but Aiden’s strong arm reaches down for me. And just like that, I am inside their hug too, wrapped in all three of them, right next to their hearts. I can feel the strength of Aiden’s hold as it tightens around us. And in the hearthy warmth, trembles a motherly whisper.
“We love you both so much.”
Then with a familiar kiss in my hair, our little hug opens up. Like a rose spreading its petals to the sun, but the roots standing close, deep and entwined.
I turn around for Reagan and Javier, but abruptly James sweeps me and Aiden’s parents out of the way and crashes into Aiden while Hendrix and Jazz lunge at him from the back, catching him by surprise. He staggers from the sudden ambush, trying to throw them off. I panic that he’ll get hurt but I know this is not an attack. He’s just fighting to stay upright while Hendrix piggybacks him, trying to startle him again.
“I’ve waited twelve years to jump your ass!” Hendrix hollers while James, the most lethal sniper in Marine Corps history, sobs and laughs at the same time. Jazz just throws himself at Aiden’s back again, wrestling him to the floor as James and Hendrix pile on top.
“Oh, he’s healed alright!” Jazz crows as the furniture rattles under their steely weight and all four of them begin to laugh.
Their raucous laughter rolls around like peals of thunder and catches inside all of us. Robert pulls Stella in his arms, and I nearly throttle Reagan and Javier, wrapping them up in my own hug. They tuck me in their midst, chanting between English and Spanish.
“Thank Dios, amorcita!”
“I knew it, Isa! I knew it would work out.”
“And now you can come back home, and we can all be together again for the real Christmas.”
Javier’s words—so gentle, so full of relief—pierce in my ears. As though the bugle call is trumpeting nearer and nearer. I silence it again with everyone’s laughter and hug them closer.
“I’ve missed you so much. Now it’s your turn for this kind of love.”
“No offense, but that sounds mega-stressful.” Javier laughs while I try to ask Reagan with my eyes if there has been any progress between them. But she shakes her head slightly and hides in another hug. Bloody hell! I make a mental note to mobilize Aiden and maybe even spill some oxytocin in Javier’s coffee.
When all the laughter and tears have calmed and the Marines are done jumping Aiden for now, he finally manages to stand upright, hair a mess, face flushed. He mouths a profanity at his brothers— “assholes!”— half-glaring, half-chuckling and comes to my side.
“Sorry about the animals.” He wraps his arm around my waist. “Did you get out of there okay?”
“Slightly better than okay. It’s you I was worried about. Did you hit your head?”
“No, just the wildlife.” He shakes said beautiful head and turns to Reagan and Javier. “Thank you for coming. And for supporting us like you have. I know it wasn’t easy.”
“We’d be here no matter what,” Javier answers. “But I’m very happy you beat this, man.”
“Oh, Dragon!” Reagan cries and gives Aiden the first full hug I have seen between them. “I told Isa to warn you that I’d hug you. Did she?”
“She did, although you’re early. I believe I was supposed to have until September to prepare.” He chuckles and hugs her back with his free arm, never releasing my waist. Then he pulls away and looks at all of them, gathered around us. “Why don’t you all take a seat? You’ve had a long fight, apparently while having me believe you were at work. Web of lies.” He chuckles, clearly happy with their surprise, while Stella revs up into mother mode immediately.
“Yes, Aiden, Elisa, you first, sit down. You both need to eat.” She rushes us to the sofa, ladling hot soup in our bowls. Then they all perch, curl, fold, and plop wherever they can around the table: James to Aiden’s right on the sofa, his parents on the fluffy armchairs, Hendrix on the piano seat, and Javier, Reagan, and Jazz on cushions on the floor. And the questions really start: how, what, when, why.
I start eating my soup, letting Aiden choose what he wants to share from his deepest, most private war.
“It was a lot of things that made a difference,” he explains simply, and I know some things, like the reel, the protein, and his fever and agony, will always stay between us. “From the scientists’ experiment to all of you helping us, and everything Elisa and I did together every day. But in the end, it all came down to her effect on me, and her faith. She never gave up even when I did.”
“How?” “What effect?” “In what way?” “What do you mean?” The questions blurt out everywhere and they lean toward us eagerly.
Aiden smiles at me in his most embarrassing this-is-Wonder-Woman way before answering.
“Well, as it turns out, much to the scientists’ surprise and our own, Elisa is able to change my traumatic memories, rewrite them if you will, in a way that replaces the violence with calm.”
Blinks of shock and confusion flit through all their wide eyes.
“What did you say?” Stella breathes, spilling some of her rosehip tea.
“She can change your memory?” Robert whispers in astonishment, as though the words are in a language entirely new to him. The others just stare incomprehensibly.
“Yes, I couldn’t believe it myself when I heard it, but it’s true. Look.” With an almost palpable joy, as though giving them every Christmas they missed together, Aiden reaches in his shirt pocket for the photo of his healed mind and hands it to his parents who know his memory better than any of us, except Aiden himself.
They gasp now as the Marines, Reagan, and Javier clamor around to look at the polaroid even though, like me, they probably don’t understand all the implications of the magnetic image.
“Astounding!” Robert murmurs, the photograph shaking in his hand.
“So calm . . .” Stella marvels. Her eyes flood with tears as her trembling finger caresses the contours of Aiden’s mind, the way she does with his drawn cheek.
“How was Isa able to do that?” Reagan asks intrigued, her psychology degree kicking in, while Javier squints at the image the way he does at a painting—seeing the meaning behind it.
Aiden’s arm wraps around me again, his gaze still awed as he tries to explain in the safest way possible, without disclosing any horror or secrets that would traumatize his parents, or Reagan and Javier for that matter.
“Well, without getting into the details, she guided me quite literally through my personal hell. She stood by me every dawn while I had to revisit our last mission in Iraq, adding her calm and love to every traumatic aspect until even the worst of my memories changed itself forever. Or rather my emotional response to that memory changed so that I was able to heal and see the truth of what really happened that day.”
Eight pairs of eyes blink at me in such unconcealed wonderment that I want to hide under Aiden’s arm. I’m not the hero of this war. He is. And the three soldiers sitting close by him.
“What I did doesn’t even compare to Aiden,” I mumble the understatement of the century. “He had the hardest job in all this . . .” My voice trails off, inadequate to capture the enormity of his sacrifice, struggle, and strength. How do you ever explain bravery like that? Courage so valiant even science could not match.
They nod slowly in stunned, wordless understanding, even Reagan and Javier who know the least. But while they look at the two of us in amazement, I watch only the Marines who know exactly what Aiden had to relive fifty-five times to heal.
Their eyes age with their own memories, traveling thousands of miles away, and for a moment, I’m sure they are back in that blood-soaked schoolyard, hearing the bombs and the screams. Their scars glint both visible and invisible on their suddenly ashen skin. But all I see are their youthful faces from the video, their valor, their bravery. I lean closer to Aiden as a need to shield them all overwhelms me even though they are a thousand times stronger than me.
I can tell from the protective way Aiden looks at James that he is wanting the same thing. That his victory will not be complete until his brothers are freed with him.
“What really happened that day?” Jazz repeats Aiden’s words slowly, his smoky voice dropping around the word that matters.
“Is this about the message you left me earlier?” James’s question is almost a raspy breath. Tension curves his height, and abruptly he seems so small, so breakable.
“It is, brother, and it’s a good thing.” Aiden reaches up and grasps James’s shoulder. The gratitude is almost tastable in the air from his lips as he tells James the words that freed him. “It’s solid evidence that what happened that day was not our fault.”
The Marines freeze, blinkless, even as a low gasp comes from Stella and Robert. Even as Reagan and Javier still, sensing the magnitude of the moment. The fire crackles, moments pass, but the brothers just stare at Aiden, statues burning in a distant, charred desert, pain whipping through their ghostly eyes.
“That’s not possible,” Jazz mouths almost silently at last. From the strained movement, the vicious burn scar on his cheek drags down his mouth. James seems unable to speak. He only shakes his head slowly against the idea, against his own innocence. His breath has stopped entirely.
“It is.” Aiden’s voice is gentle, yet sure, knowing exactly what they need. “I’ll tell you everything later and you can see it for yourselves too. Even the General agrees.” He pauses, shaking James’s shoulder slightly. “What happened that day was not our fault, Cal,” he repeats the words deliberately, with conviction. “Not mine and definitely not yours. I know it feels impossible to imagine, but it’s true. Trust me.”
Something changes in James’s breath then—the slightest drag, the way he gulped for air in the video, the way my lungs fought after drowning. But his breathing doesn’t restart at the three words that freed Aiden. It restarts with those last two: “trust me.” At their sound, the deadly sniper’s eyes blink, come alive above the tangled auburn beard. As if those two small words— “trust me”—were a defibrillator shocking him back to life. That’s when I fully grasp the depths of their bond. It’s not just a brotherhood, it’s a lifeline. The test of reality, the scaffold for the world. The truth against which all other truths are tested. The binds of unfathomable sacrifice and loss, as though the fire that scorched their veins is its own blood, its own DNA code.
I can see that in James’s eyes as they return to the present moment. I see it in Hendrix as his back softens. And I see it in Jazz as the scars fade, blending again with his wholesome, unmarred half. They accept the truth absolutely, without any more questions, argument, or evidence. They accept it solely on their trust in their brother and the commander that saved them.
And that’s all it takes. James nods at Aiden once, and his rugged hand comes up and grabs Aiden’s shoulder too. Do they feel the difference in each other’s bodies? Do their hands know the chains are gone?
They must because none of them says another word about it. No thank you’s or sorry’s or thank god’s. I’m sure they will talk later in their own language, but for now, this is enough.
“This is some day!” James rumbles, his voice back to its normal timbre, even if still a little rough. “I think we need a drink. Or a toast.” He picks up his coffee mug, raising it in the air toward us. “To Storm, for healing this wound at last.” Abruptly, he smiles in the jungle of ginger hair as though that one fact—Aiden healing—works like an anti-Fallujah protein for him. “And to Elisa, for putting up with his shit, having magical powers, and saving his sorry ass.”
“Hear, hear, and Merry Christmas!” says Jazz, and we all start to laugh. A true, reviving laugh that you never forget. It melts away all the pain, the past. Stella’s and Reagan’s like Christmas bells, Robert’s and Javier’s like guitar strings, the Marines’ like thunder rolling over the hills, and the most beautiful one of them all, falling like a waterfall next to me, straight from Aiden’s lips. All bouncing off the cottage walls, filling it with joy from the rose roots to the roof beams.
And a sense of completeness finds me here, laughing in this squashy sofa under Aiden’s arm. A wholeness that brings back a sensation of bliss from early childhood days when only love existed in this cottage. I search myself for any other feeling but I can’t find a single thorn of pain. Not one bud of fear. Not a single leaflet of grief or worry or anger. Only endless petals of love and roots of gratitude. I know that another separation is still looming bigger and closer, but for now all is well. And just like that, happiness shifts again. It doesn’t look like this cottage full of roses, or these shining faces, or even Aiden healed and free. In this one moment, happiness looks exactly like me.
We all start talking easily then, everyone claiming they knew it all along that Aiden could heal, raising more toasts, opening champagne, wanting to know more. I sink happily into Aiden’s side, listening to his voice as he tells them about the doctors’ trick and Benson’s help, how hard I had to try to make him believe it was real, the General, their care package, their beautiful gifts, the miracle of them being here, exactly where we want them to be. And this day turns to Christmas too. Stella starts cooking everyone’s favorite dish. Robert, Reagan, Javier, and I help and catch up. Aiden talks with the Marines about his discovery. Benson comes over when he wakes up. Just a big family—bigger than this cottage has ever had—making our very own holiday: Healing Day.
Through it all, Aiden’s eyes and touch never leave me for long. Like a silent conversation flowing between us. His lips in my hair, his arm on my waist, his fingertips brushing my knee, now an infinity loop, now an A, now an E, and then a tap like a clock’s tick.
Outside the cottage, the sun starts to set on this day that gave us everything. I am torn: I never want it to end, yet I can’t wait for Aiden and I to be alone. So many things I still don’t know about him, so many new molecules and neurons reforming as we speak. What is he thinking? What does he want to do next? What word is running through his mind this very minute? Why does he keep looking at my secret gift? Where will be our next date? To a crowded garden or museum where we can stand in long lines and be the only two lunatics who are happy about it? What does the future look like to him? Will he take more time off work to finally live? Does he miss Portland? I stop right there—not that one, not yet. I can’t.
Aiden looks down at me and, in that one gaze, I can tell he feels exactly the same. Ready to be just with me.
Stella, who never takes her eyes off us for long, must have noticed too because she stands abruptly.
“We should go. We’ve been here all day, and you two really need to rest after all that. Come on, everyone, we can catch up tomorrow morning.”
They must understand because they all scramble up quickly, ignoring my feeble protests while Aiden doesn’t pretend at all anymore.
“That’s a good idea. You’ve had a long day too. Are you sure you’re settled at the Inn?”
“Yep, we’re good,” James answers. “Don’t worry about anything. You just—you know . . . sleep.” He wiggles his eyebrows in a way that makes me flush, and I am grateful Stella and Robert are both hugging me so they cannot see either his lewd expression or Hendrix and Jazz making kissing pouts. Javier pretends to gag behind them and not so subtly tosses the skunk spray bottles and strobe lights in the bin. And Reagan kisses my cheek, promising me girl time tomorrow and a hat-shopping spree. Then they rush out quickly, their laughter chorusing with the willows in the rose breeze.
Family, family, family . . .
As soon as they melt out of sight, Aiden pulls me in his arms on the threshold, lifting my face to his. The sunset kisses his skin, half of him bronzed like the young, unharmed Aiden, half-golden like the healed one that conquered everything.
“Alone at last,” he murmurs, his eyes on fire, his breath a flame on my lips. And the whole world vanishes. There is only this moment with him. Nothing and no one can distract us now. He is free and beautiful and all mine.
“Yes,” I breathe, caressing his scar as the soft glow starts to shimmer with desire in my blood.
“And a lot to celebrate.”
He brings his mouth to mine, his lips like plumes of heat. “Come upstairs with me,” he whispers between each kiss. “To the happiest place in our world.” And before the “yes” has sighed out of my lips, he sweeps me in his arms and carries me upstairs, his mouth urgent, steps fast as if my speed could never be quick enough.
But as we reach the threshold of our bedroom, his kiss changes, deepens. His lips slow as though stopping time. But intense too, serious, growing. I pull him closer, my fingers in his hair, my skin aflame, my head a whirl with his wine-and-cinnamon taste. I am already dizzy by the time he sets me down at the foot of our bed. Even then, he does not release me. His hands cradle my face as he pulls back and blows over my lips. Aiden and the roses and me . . . I inhale deeply and open my eyes. And then promptly lose my breath again.
Because he is finally back in our bedroom, kneeling before me under the soft light of the chandelier, like he never left, yet more dreamlike than ever. That surreal beauty has fallen over him, but new now, without the veil of fear, restraint, or guilt. Only the glow of every blissful memory this little room lights up inside him. And his eyes . . . They have changed into that my-all gaze I know in every cell. Except it has grown while we kissed. The fire smolders, becomes a sort of sentient incandescence. It breathes through my lungs like oxygen and flows in my veins like my very blood. This is not just a look, it’s a language. It speaks with words I don’t know, yet they beat inside of me like a heartbeat, thud-thud-thud.
“What are you thinking about when you look at me that way?” I can finally ask.
“This,” he answers and reaches in his back jean pocket, bringing out the thin, rectangle present that I thought was still waiting for me under the rose tree. “Now you can open it at last.” His voice is almost molten, lilting with something like fulfillment and peace.
He hands the flat packet to me, still wrapped in newspaper, and all my reticence about this gift disappears. How can I possibly resist anything that makes him glow like this, even if he planned it as a goodbye? I take it from him eagerly now, curious, rather than afraid. It’s featherlight, the newspaper printed from the library downstairs.
“What paper is this?” I muse, trying to read the words for clues. But the page is strategically wrapped like a surprise over the surprise. I can only see something about a new hybrid of white roses, but it’s enough to make me gasp. Because although I don’t know what date this is, I immediately recognize the style. It’s not The Oregonian from Portland or The Oxford Student like his diamond A, or even The Burford Times or the Reed College Quest.
“It’s the Rose Petal Press!” I answer my own question, caressing the newspaper of the Portland Rose Garden. The garden we strolled on our first night together, the garden where I made my first wish for more time with him. Abruptly, I miss the rose-lined paths we roamed together, despite my one million roses outside. “How on earth did you get this?”
His lips pull up in my favorite, dimpled smile—except newer, more radiant now. “Do you remember Patty who helped us plant Lady Clare for your mother?”
“Yes.” I grin too, thinking of the sweet woman and her little son, Jack, trying to imitate Aiden’s straight posture.
“She was very kind and emailed me a copy of their archived print yesterday morning.”
“Archive? So which date did you pick?” I turn the present over, searching, but the date isn’t visible.
“The best day until today.” The emotion in his eyes is deepening. He rises to sit next to me on the bed, so close that our thighs touch. My heart thumps so loudly, he can probably hear it. “Open it.” His breath brushes my cheek.
I start unfolding the newspaper carefully but then my breath catches. Because as I lift one of the folds, I can finally see the date that means everything.
“May 14!” I sing, beaming up at him. “The day of our first embargo.”
“The day that brought us together, not just in a painting.”
Those perfect hours flash between us and I’m sure we are seeing the same reel of beauty now. His first kiss, seeing his home for the first time, every look, every touch, that first night, the stroll in the rose garden, all those ticking, ephemeral minutes that we fell in love even though we did not know it at the time.
“You’re right, it was the best day. I had never been happier even though everything was such a mess.”
I bring the newspaper to my lips and kiss it. “I think this is my favorite newspaper now. Do they have subscriptions?”
“Apparently, they do. I signed us up.” He chuckles but underneath the waterfall sound, there is a rare, nervous note reminding me of the real present inside. What on earth could deserve a date like this? I take a deep breath, bracing myself for whatever it might be. If this amount of thought went into the wrapping alone, I cannot imagine the real gift. I peel the paper off gently, peeking curiously underneath. A familiar, white envelope is waiting for me. Not in commissary paper like the ones in the safe from his war letters. This is our cottage stationary here, simple with a single rose embossed on it. There are no markings anywhere, no dates as is his style, but it is filled with something soft and downy inside.
I try to find my voice but I can’t as I blink up at him. The emotion has grown in his eyes—a new significance, a new level of intensity.
“You asked me the night we read my war letters together which of them was my favorite,” he explains. “I didn’t have one because I hadn’t written it yet. So here it is—the letter I love the most even if it feels late.”
Curiosity rages everywhere, and the envelope flutters in my hand. What could he have written to me if this was his goodbye present? What words could make him love it more than all the other letters combined? Is it as I asked him in my brave letter—to write to me? But why?
“You’re right on time,” I tell him as he tells and lift the unsealed flap eagerly, finding so many rose petals within. Both dried and fresh—some from the centifolia rose he gave me on our first morning together, some from the rare aeternum at his Alone Place, some from our Suite of Firsts at the Inn the first time we made love skin to skin, some from the Elisas and the American Beauty in our garden . . . All our best moments right here, replacing the old grains of dark sand.
Gently, I fish out the folded letter, trying not to spill a single petal. And then I’m lost in his words.
So you are real. I’m not writing to you from a distance, burning in a white desert for your nearness. No, at last, you’re here. Sleeping softly next to me, after changing the core of my existence.
So close that your hand on my chest is my flesh. The little wisps of air from your lips are my breath. The tic-tic-tic of your pulse is the blood flowing inside my veins. And your quiet sleepy mumbles are my dreams. You’ll miss me, you love me, ‘stay, Aiden, you’ll heal . . .’
All these millions of pieces of you, so much better than any mirage I could have ever envisioned. How could I possibly leave them?
How can I leave your lower lip as it trembles when it says my name? How can I breathe if I can never smell your scent again? The way it changes in your sleep, first sparkling like dewy petals, then warmer, deeper, like you hold my sun underneath your skin. And this little pucker between your brows as you dream—what is it? A formula? A secret? A wish?
How can I never ask you all these questions? How can I not spend the rest of my life trying to find out all your answers? Taking away your pain, making you laugh, learning your secrets. How can I not stay and make true all these hidden wishes?
Those are the wrong questions, I know. The right question is can you afford for me to stay. I’ve said no, you say yes. I’ve said I have to go, you tell me to stay. I have tried to leave a thousand ways. But I am never able to, I just can’t. Not when you want me to be the most selfish man in the world. Not when I would steal your choice again. Not when we both love in this mad, forever kind of way.
So what if I finally accept who I am? Not strong enough to leave you but maybe strong enough for everything else. I’m brave and afraid, right and wrong, flawed but not at fault. So many contradictions inside me, yet somehow I’m every single thing you want. All these millions of pieces of me that only you can see. All these things I am only because you love me. Hopeful, brave, maybe even good. Good enough to earn a woman like you?
Could we forget about right and wrong then? Could we start again? Could we still laugh, play the piano, dance?
What if our life was like this? I would hold you every night as you fall asleep, my nose in your hair, your cheek to my heartbeat. You’d mumble that you love me as you drift. I’d sleep next door to your song, and we might meet in dreams. Then I’d wake up before you and wait until you opened your eyes. You’d smile like always and everything would be alright. We would kiss, share a Baci, make love, have breakfast while watching the sunrise. I’d take you to work or school where you’d save more lives. And I’d run my companies and maybe write. I could tell my story, perhaps it might help someone. And fight. Fight every minute of every day to be safe, maybe to heal like you believe I can.
Then it would be time to come pick you up. Hear your voice sing about your day and ask about mine. And we would make love again in the car because home would seem too far. Then your stomach would growl and we would laugh. We’d drive back as fast as we could, solving your daily puzzle, listening to my playlist, planning the real Christmas, talking to our families. We could have dinner in the garden, watch the sunset, play chess, make love on the petals again and again. Then I’d carry you to bed and we would start over—every morning, every evening. Never stop trying, never stop believing.
And the years would pass, even with security measures and bodyguards. We would grow old, just you, me, and the roses. Perhaps even a couple of puppies. We’d name them Portland and Burford or Baci and Skittles. Maybe we’d open a shop called Snow Roses, count the seeds, and set up the flowers each morning. We would not fight about the years, we would remember. We’d know the minutes, the dates, everything we’ve been through together. You and I would only fight about the weather. You’d want it sunny, I’d want it more rain. You’d argue I’m grumpy and I’d tell you you’re nagging. You’d laugh and call me a barmy old fool. I’d tell you I’m still in love with you. You’d glow like you do in all my paintings. I’d chase you with my cane and eventually break a hip. Until one night in a hundred years, I’d just go to sleep. And I’d tell the world I was the happiest man who ever lived. You’d cry a little but you’d know it was true, except you’d think no one had been happier than you. And it would be a life well-lived. A life of love that conquered everything, even me.
Would you want that still? Never full, but always complete?
So here we are. Just the real you and the real me. All the millions of pieces of us that fit together into one whole, one simplicity. Will you be with me? Not in fantasies, paintings, memories, or dreams. But every hour of every day for as long as we both shall live? If I try every second to be safe, will you keep me exactly as I am and exactly as I will be?
I don’t know how many times I have read every word. I don’t know if I am in our present, our past, or every minute of the dreamlike future spelled in his assertive script. I don’t even realize I’m crying until a teardrop splashes on his name like a kiss.
“Oh, Aiden …” I breathe, blinking up at him. But the instant our eyes meet, he slides down on one knee in front of me.
“Oh!” I cry again, as he takes my left hand and looks at me with that my-all gaze that I finally understand. It’s the look of choosing our love above all else; the look of taking a chance on himself.
“Elisa Snow?” He says my name lovingly, with a sort of reverence. “I loved you before I met you, I have loved you every minute we have had together, and I will love you every minute of my forever. Will you marry me?”
I try to breathe, I try to find all the right words, or simply stay upright but I can’t. I just fall on my knees next to him and start sobbing.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
My answer blazes across his face like a sunrise. He is glowing, his turquoise eyes radiant with triumph and joy. His beauty is so dazzling, it knocks me breathless with its force. Before I can find oxygen, he kisses me, his mouth exultant and urgent on mine. Our bodies tangle on the rug where we dance, lips folding together, tongues tangoing in their own sway, weaving their own poetry, until I am gasping for air. Even then, his lips never leave my skin. They brush down my throat to my racing pulse, pressing there gently.
“Thank you,” he murmurs against my lifeblood, then he pulls up to look at me, more victorious than I’ve ever seen him, his bliss shining like a bright light underneath his skin. So glorious, I still can’t think or speak or breathe.
As if he knows, he blows on my lips lightly, once, twice, three times, watching me like I am his whole life. And somewhere in the mush of my brain, an old fear flickers on.
“Is this real?” I mumble in a trembling whisper.
A brilliant smile flashes over his face—exactly as an angel’s would. “Yes, it is.” He chuckles. “I’m not sure about anything else but I know this. I’ve waited twelve years, one hundred twenty thousand miles, and the last twenty-seven hours to ask you, Elisa.”
He kisses my lips once more—lightly so I don’t faint—and waits for me to process the impossible words. The words he must have really said because he is still glowing and I’m still sure this is a dream. He must see that because he kisses me again and again and again.
“It’s real, love.” His voice, his air slip inside me between kisses, like mine did for him.
“B-but—” My breath shakes and I have to inhale his scent to be able to speak. “But you wrote the letter yesterday, before you knew you were healed . . .” How could that be? It can’t be real, I must have fallen asleep in the sofa next to him. “You were really going to stay with me?”
“Yes, I was,” he answers simply.
I caress his scar, touch his face, feel his body against mine. He’s real, he’s real. “But how? What made you change your mind?”
His smile softens but the brilliant joy and victory in his eyes do not dim. Then his words start flowing fast like he can no longer hold them inside.
“I told you—my mind changed me. I was already losing the selflessness battle by the hour. I was fighting to make it through a single minute. Then after that reel, I came back home again, held you in my arms, read your brave letter, and I couldn’t tell right from wrong anymore. With all my memories so jumbled and inaccessible, I could only see the present. Truly see it, without the filter of my mind or the bias of the past. And all I could see was how happy I can make you, how you would never give me up or move on, even if I were gone.” He smiles, brushes my cheek, kisses away the tears that have spilled. “That’s when I really started falling apart. The only thing I still knew was that you deserved better than a killer. But then I discovered the truth about Fallujah and listened to you talk in your sleep: ‘stay, Aiden, you’ll heal, trust me.’” He pauses at those words, glowing, and I realize why he chose them for his brothers earlier: because they too freed him. He caresses my face, my lips, brushing off more tears. “And I thought, maybe she is right about this too. What if there is a small part of me that deserves her? If I missed something that big, what else was I missing? Maybe there was a way to stay with you that I was not seeing? That’s all it took. Just allowing myself to visualize a life with you, and whatever strength I had left disappeared. All the rules, all the selfless notions. The only thing left was the love. The sheer force of it. I could barely breathe. For hours while you slept, I was just drowning in it.” His smile brightens again as though this kind of drowning is a beautiful thing, and his arms tighten around me. “When I managed to resurface, I was not the same man I had known or tried to be. I was the real me. And I knew then I was not strong enough to leave.”
He stops talking, breathless like me, his eyes almost liquid with the depth of his love. For an endless moment, I just let myself drown in it too, feeling it flood every space of my body, drenched in the simplicity that, finally, he is mine and I am his, like we wanted to be. And my own world—spinning and splintering for so long—finally settles in its rightful axis.
How beautifully the universe heals. What was dark becomes light. What was shuddering becomes still. Cosmic dust fuses back into bold, brilliant stars, torn atoms into their own endless galaxies. Or perhaps it was always like this. Maybe fear is just a force and pain only energy. Time is just a dimension, but the direction is our choice. And everything else that shoots across our skies—accidents, deaths, monsters, wars—is not a big bang. It’s just a meteor. Dimming momentarily every other light, but never once extinguishing the stars. We go on. Humming our faith like a celestial tune, thrumming in the throes of bravery, bound by the only gravity we know: love.
He manages to breathe first with a stunning, mind-melting smile. “Still with me?”
He laughs, head thrown back, so buoyant and free. “Well, hopefully ‘always’ will be a lot easier now. Nothing can be harder than waiting to actually tell you. It was worse than all the reels combined. I almost asked you to marry me the moment you woke up and a hundred times after that—at Christmas, after the call with the General, in the garden, in the car—but even I knew I had to do this right.”
He laughs again and, through all the haze of wonder, my brain remembers something as if from another life. All those moments when he looked like he was going to say something vital. That indescribable my-all look in his eyes.
“But why did you wait to tell me?” I whisper, still awed, hearing back his words that it was for a very good reason.
“Well, for one, I didn’t want this moment to be associated with Marshall, the video, or the doctors. I wanted it to be just ours. But I didn’t want you to keep hurting so I gave you my gift as soon as you woke up. So you would know there was something better waiting on the other side.”
I don’t tell him I worried it was his goodbye gift, because that was my lack of faith, not his. I just replay the last few hours through the filter of the truth. The way he promised we would have more time and he would be selfish the right way, his diamond A, all his words, his strength to restrain himself only so he could give me this perfect moment for the rest of my life, untainted by any other memory or pain. And above all, I remember the way I felt when he looked at me that way. Alive, safe, hopeful beyond the end. As though my molecules understood meaning of that look, quite outside of my consciousness or reasoning.
“You were right,” I tell him. “I think a deep part of me knew something better was waiting. I just couldn’t fathom it would be this.”
“And that’s the other reason why I gave you the gift early, much like you did with the protein for me. Because I wanted you to have faith in my decision to stay. I wanted you to know that I chose us not because of duty, guilt, or the doctors’ advice, which I expected would be for us to stay together. I chose us because I love you and you love me. And that’s all that mattered in the end.”
My heart takes off like its own life form, beating triumphantly quite outside of our finite bodies. Rising above our minds and all the rules we tried to place on it. I cannot feel my own weight in Aiden’s arms, almost empyrean myself against these earthly limits, as I understand the full meaning of his gift.
“Amor vincit omnia.” I smile through tears. “What a beautiful gift to give.”
I try to bring him back to my mouth but he sits up, reaches somewhere above my head, and brings out something extraordinary in his hand, something I must have missed in my utter astonishment. A golden rosebud, every petal carved in such exquisite detail that for a heartbeat I think it’s real. Tiny, white diamonds sparkle all over it like dew. And a soft glow comes from within its heart, catching the radiance of Aiden’s smile.
“More beautiful than this?” he asks.
I just gape at the rosebud, incapable of blinking or speaking, as Aiden presses something at the rose’s hip and oh!The petals open slowly, like a rose in timelapse, revealing inside the most wondrous ring. It glows in the soft light, seeming almost alive. The oval blue diamond gleams like the most precious blues I have known in Aiden’s eyes. Some facets sparkling sapphire, some turquoise, with a deep, indigo flame at the heart. Smaller, white diamonds glitter around it like a halo. And the platinum band weaves around the flawless stones in a subtle filigree. I have never seen anything like it.
I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I inch up in a trance, fingers and breath trembling toward the ring. As I move, the gems cast a dim light on my skin. Gently, I caress the center diamond, as rare on earth as Aiden is. The fiery heart flickers with the shadow of my touch.
“Do you like it?” Aiden asks casually but, underneath, I can hear the depth of his emotion. Only that sound can make me blink away from the impossible ring. And his face dazzles me more than the diamonds.
I can only shake my head.
“No?” He smiles in amusement, but at that question, my tongue manages to unravel enough to speak.
“I love it,” I whisper, still breathless, wishing I could find words strong enough for what I feel.
He laughs again with my favorite sound. “And the roses? Do they love this gift too?”
“Almost as much as they love you.”
Another beautiful chuckle. “I suppose I should have asked you what you liked first. I still can—”
“But I would have never known to tell you I want exactly this.” I look back at the blue diamond inside the gold petals, stroking the blue flame at the heart. “I didn’t even know something like this could exist. Wherever did you find it?”
“From an ethical mine in Botswana. Only about ten hours away from where your roses grow in Kenya, actually.” He turns the golden rose in his fingers—the diamonds thrill—and my mouth falls open. He chuckles at my awed expression, bringing the golden rose to my cheek, brushing my lips with the smooth petal. “It was worth all the search just to see your face in this moment.”
“W-when did you start searching for it?” I tremble at the touch.
“The first day I came to England when you agreed to fight with me, just in case we would win. I ordered it the day my parents arrived, when I was in London, and it came through Benson last week.”
I don’t ask if we had not won, how much this ring cost, or anything else—none of it matters. All that matters is the hope he held for us, shimmering exactly like this diamond.
“Then I love it even more,” I tell him through a fresh blossom of tears.
He smiles more brilliantly than all the diamonds and reaches inside the rose’s golden petals for the ring. His eyes smolder on mine, absorbing every pixel inside his mind for the rest of our lives. He takes my left hand and slips the ring on my third finger. It slides home with a perfect fit. Belonging there so absolutely that it seems my hand was made for it.
“I love you,” he says and kisses my hand, my fingertips, and the ring that makes me his.
Happiness expands so violently, so absolutely, I don’t think I can survive it.
“Always” I whisper, pulling him to my lips.
And then we begin.©2022 Ani Keating