NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 34 – ASH

Hey peeps,

Did this last week go on forever or what? Just in time to end the weekend and kickstart Monday, here is another chapter.  Thank you to all of you who read the last one and commented. As her mom, it was emotional for me to watch Elisa finally accomplish what she did. And of course, it wasn’t going to be the magical fix she had hoped, was it? Well, this next chapter was even more emotional for me to write. It’s one of the very first scenes that came to me with the story, and I knew it would take a while before the readers could see it because of where it had to be revealed. I also knew it would be painful to write. Hope I did it justice.  Thanks as always for reading. See you on the other side, as Elisa would say.  xo, Ani

34

Ash

“Okay, Elisa,” Doctor Helen says, still holding my hand. “What is your worst fear without the protein?”

“Aiden hurting,” I answer without hesitation.

She nods as though she expected as much. “What about your second deepest fear?”

“Aiden losing himself, although I wouldn’t call it a second. It’s tied with the first.”

I catch her by surprise with that—her silver brows arch. “I would have thought it would be you losing Aiden.”

“No.” As if any loss of mine could compare to the loss of the most beautiful, precious wonder there is.

“What about the next greatest fear?”

“Surviving the end enough for Aiden to truly live.”

Her intelligent eyes narrow in analysis, and I can tell from her pressed mouth she doesn’t like my answers. Who would? She seems to plunge deep in thought, staring beyond me. For a moment I think she is looking at one of Aiden’s brain images on the giant screens, but her eyes are far away like his travel sometimes. “Challenging. Very challenging,” she murmurs as if to herself. She is still for so long that I start watching the clock on the wall without fear for the first time since May seventh. There is a hypnotic quality to it now that I’m not terrified. The rhythmic tic toc is lulling like my measured heartbeats.

At last, Doctor Helen resurfaces back in the lab, looking unsettled. “Please wait here,” she says. “I will return shortly.”

Not a single nerve flutters for me as she strides out of the lab despite the onslaught of the super-emotions and questions. My mind is already hours, days, weeks, years ahead. How vast the capacity to think is when unhindered by fear! I’m still sorting through all the knowns and unknowns when Doctor Helen returns fifteen minutes later.

Fifteen minutes that have aged her. Her face is pale, her commanding footsteps slower as she carries a white filing box. My body’s response to her is automatic. My muscles flex and coil, jolting me to my feet. A sense of danger fires up my spine as the instinct to defend bolts through me. “Doctor Helen, what is it?” I ask, stepping to her side as far as the electrodes will let me. “Are you feeling alright?

She glances at the box she is carrying, and a shudder rocks her great frame. “I wouldn’t say so, no.” Her authoritative voice sounds hesitant. “Not when I’m about to cross the same professional and moral duties I have sworn to uphold.”

“What duties? How are you crossing them?”

“With what I’m about to show you.”

Even though my curiosity flares, there is only one correct answer to that. “Then don’t show me. There’s no reason to place yourself in conflict.”

“Yes, there is. Because nothing else will test the protein for you more realistically in a lab.”

“Then test me in the real word. Make me speak publicly to the entire Oxford faculty or in Trafalgar Square. Or take me car racing. Or anything else, I don’t care.” But as I reel off the options—as my mind struggles to conceive any terrifying test—I know all of them would be futile. As effortless as blinking. Nothing that would truly challenge the protein.

She nods knowingly, already having anticipated this problem. “Your worst fears are not typical, child. You’re not afraid of your own pain, loss, or embarrassment. You fear something impossible to test artificially: harm to the person you love the most. Public speaking or the risk of a car accident wouldn’t affect you at all now.”

I can’t argue with any of that, not to mention that I promised Aiden I would be safe. How inconvenient that promise has become now that I can’t be afraid. “But there must be some other way?”

“Not without risking your safety or Aiden’s, and I will never do that.”

Risking me? The idea is laughable, almost a thrill. But risking Aiden? That’s out of the question.

She must see my resolve without any answer from me. “I still want you to consider carefully,” she warns. “What I’m about to show you is going to hurt deeply. You can choose to accept uncertainty for Aiden or proceed without the protein. Indeed, I’m certain he would never permit this if he knew about it.”

There’s no doubt about that. Aiden would set whatever is in the box on fire before he allowed me to hurt in any way. Which is why this is my only chance. “I choose pain. And he will never know. I swear it.”

She shakes her head. “There may come a time where you will need to tell him. Don’t keep secrets from him on my account. His trust in you is infinitely more valuable than his peace with me.” But my confidence must resolve her conflict because she takes a deep breath, straightening up to her full height, and gestures toward my chair. “I think it will be best if you’re sitting for this.”

The instinct to defend turns inward, yet I can’t find any trepidation. Only raging curiosity. I sit back down, waiting as she takes the seat in front of me and sets the white box at her feet.

“I acquired this for the sole purpose of studying it,” she explains. “I never imagined I would ever need to use it this way.” Her grey eyes burn on mine. “There is still time to change your mind.”

Except my mind recoils from that option. “No, I want to be absolutely certain for Aiden.”

“With a mind like Aiden’s, we can never be certain until he tries it,” she amends. “But if this doesn’t terrify you, I think there is a very good chance, the protein will shield him from terror, too.”

If only there was a way to also shield him from pain . . . I nod, scarce for words again.

Her fingers hover a final moment above the box, then she lifts the lid. And for the second time since I ingested the protein, a super-charged storm of agony tears through me.

I can see now why I needed all her warnings. Why Doctor Helen looks ill. Why bile geysers in my throat. Why other emotions throb in my tissues: loathing, revulsion, anger. But I can’t argue with her flawless logic. What other test could ever match the protein except the one that rips Aiden to pieces?

“You’re showing me Aiden’s reel,” I whisper, glaring at the icy white monitor in the box exactly like the one in our garden shed. My hands ball up in fists ready to crush it, but her answer derails me.

“No, this is not his montage. But everything you’re about to see is real.”

My eyes fly up to her in astonishment. “Real?”

She nods gravely. “Real. I haven’t shown it to anyone, not even Aiden. But I won’t tell you more. I think its effect will be stronger if you don’t know what it is.” She picks up the monitor. My eyes don’t miss the quiver in her fingers as she touches it, but why if it’s not the reel? “You can stop any time,” she assures me for some reason that I no longer can comprehend. “I’ll be right here monitoring your every response. I have total wireless control and can pause it in a millisecond. All you have to do is tell me. Agreed?”

“Agreed.”

She gives me the fiercest gaze I have ever seen on anyone who isn’t Aiden. “Your word, Elisa.”

“My word,” I vow, my mind and body revving up for anything. Yet there isn’t a single frisson of fear. The dominant emotion is profound relief. At least I won’t have to see Aiden hurting. What else can possibly touch me?

“Then let’s begin,” she answers and secures the monitor around my eyes as I do with Aiden. His piano voice whispers just a petal in my memory, and abruptly something scorches the corner of my eye. Startled, I realize it’s a single tear. How different tears feel without dread. More painful and solid somehow, like a piece of flesh is chipping away.

From the monitor, my heartbeat tolls slowly. I blink away the moisture but can’t see anything. The screen is pitch black.

“You will need audio, too,” Doctor Helen adds, and I feel her hands snap a set of padded headphones over my ears. Instantly, they cancel out every sound. I hear and see absolutely nothing. Then a faint static purrs from the monitor like the fizz of a radio transmission flickering on. I squint hard but there is only darkness. For a moment I start thinking the monitor is broken or Doctor Helen has made a mistake, but then the clear sound of breathing fills my ears. Brisk and even, so vivid I almost feel the air at the back of my neck. Yet the screen remains midnight. One more invisible breath, two, then footsteps starts thudding, quick and heavy, as if walking on a soft surface. But the black never lifts. A sense of unease starts prickling over me. Not fear, but a hunch that something is looming. The self-defense instinct blazes in my muscles. I search the screen for any clues, but then a third sound changes everything. A low, male voice I’ve never heard before starts humming a familiar tune. Ray Charles’s I’ve Got a Woman.

A chill bolts down my spine as the blackness transforms before my stunned eyes. Because I realize now exactly who I’m hearing, what I’m watching. A body camera on Marshall, still alive, humming his good luck song for his love, Jasmine.

In a lightning flash, all the puzzle pieces fall into place. Why Doctor Helen shuddered, why she is breaking her rules, why this is the only terror that can test the protein. Because this must be the black dawn of May first, 2003—the day of that Fallujah torture. The real-time footage of the horror incredulously playing before my eyes. My body reverberates with the ghost of dread I cannot feel. Its absence mangles in my chest and contorts into agony. The wound that festers there implodes like an IED.  Every nerve ending blisters, and for a moment, I’m bewildered. Precisely that. Even with my new mind, I can’t make sense of this level of anguish. So potent, so immediate at the slightest trigger. I want to beg Doctor Helen to stop already.

Except I haven’t forgotten that there is an important reason for this. A lot more important than any pain I will feel.Aiden. The second his name resounds in my head, the pain retreats an inch. Just enough to boost my reinforced brain, that sense of invincibility that I can and will live through it for him.

Barely ten seconds have passed while my sharpened neurons process all this. Marshall is still striding into the impenetrable dawn. But those ten seconds changed the entire scene. I’m no longer captive, I’m a volunteer. Perhaps it will help to see this without fear. Perhaps with my new abilities, I can finally grasp a fraction of Aiden’s torment. Maybe watching this will bind us together in a way that no time or distance can ever break.

Without another thought, I follow Marshall into the black space.

There is no moon or stars on this dawn, but as he charges ahead—toward the end of his life though he doesn’t know it—dense, indistinct shapes morph out of the darkness, glowing subtly. With a start, I realize they’re tents lit from within, and I know where Marshall is going with a song under his breath.

No, I want to tell him through the years. Stop, don’t go, stay behind. But Marshall doesn’t. He strides onward into the black maze, his boots pounding on the sand that fills the envelopes of Aiden’s war letters. Then as quickly as he started, he stops. In a flash, a tent’s flap-door rips open, and I’m blinded by the sudden light. It takes a few furious blinks to see again. Only to realize until now I had been blind. Because in front of my sharp eyes, more beautiful than any sight in life, dreams, or art, is twenty-three-year-old Aiden. Lying in his cot, his black hair shorn into a buzz cut, bare chest gleaming under his steel dog tags, long legs in cammies, writing what can only be one of my letters.

He stuns all my new senses. I’m sure even my heart beeps have stopped. Every angle of him is carved in sun-forged bronze like some indestructible god of war. As his hand glides over the commissary paper, his arms throw golden shadows from the tent lantern. And his face . . . Youthful, untouched by tragedy, with an uncatchable Peter Pan smile at the corner of his lips. But more surreal than all these are his eyes. They haven’t yet seen the torture waiting. They’re turquoise flames, setting the night on fire as he gazes at the words he is writing. And I realize now that all those moments when his beauty dazzles in that indescribable way are echoes of this young, whole Aiden.

He looks up at his best brother, at me through the camera that must be clipped on Marshall’s chest. A shiver whispers over my skin. Not fear, but everything else in the extreme. And I know the words that are coming. I remember them from the Portland Rose Garden as if Aiden is quoting them to me.

“Drop your dick, Storm,” Marshall drawls in an American Southern accent. He has an upbeat voice, lighter than the other four brothers. “We’re going to Fallujah. Palomino’s got Q fever and Morton’s on his period or something. We’re switching patrol. Do some recon on the city pipes that lead to the hajji market.”

Aiden chuckles. “Isn’t this Morton’s fifth period in the last month?” Even with the flat distortion of the recording, his voice rings like storybook music.

“I’m getting him a box of tampons at the Baharia mart. Fucking pussy.”

“Ah, now that’s where you’re wrong, Marshall. See, pussies are astoundingly strong, fearless, resilient things. Not to mention absolutely perfect in every minute way. I refuse to have Morton’s face associated in my memory with something so divine.”

Marshall lets out a raucous laugh that rattles the camera. “Motherfucker, just once in my life I want to see you be wrong.”

“You’ll have to live a long time.”

“That’s the plan. Come on, let’s go smell the shit tunnels. By the way, I’m cam guy today.”

No, say no! Fall ill, make Morton go, stay in the tent, writing to me. I don’t care if you don’t follow orders. Just don’t go, please!

But Aiden smirks at Marshall. “I see that. Give me ten seconds.” And his eyes return to the letter. He scrawls a few more words quickly—I’d give up bravery now to know which ones—and the dimple forms in his clean-shaven cheek.

“So who the fuck do you keep writing to with that boozy-ass grin?” Marshall asks, and the camera gets closer to Aiden, leveling with his mirage face as Marshall must sit somewhere next to him. “Can’t be a woman. There’s only dicks as far as the eye can see.”

Aiden smiles again, and my heart beeps must stammer. “Oh, the eye can see pretty far.”

“Is that gibberish supposed to be some genius level shit?”

Another starry dimple. “I promise you in this area you know a lot more than me.”

“What the fuck? So it is a woman? Is she human?”

“Nope. As I said, divine.” He jots down another word—probably Yours, Aiden—and folds the letter, slips it in the envelope, and runs his tongue over the flap, sealing it. For twelve long years until the moment I opened it. He tucks it inside his rucksack and rises to his feet. The motion is fluid like water, without any tension straining his shimmering shoulders. So graceful I can’t breathe despite my powerful lungs. It seems awe is not affected by the protein either. It’s only intensified. Or perhaps it’s not the protein; perhaps it’s the impossibility of him.

“Then why the fuck do you never mail them?” Marshall continues, sounding half-puzzled, half-amused.

Another chuckle is Aiden’s only answer as he turns around to a large cooler. His golden back glows at ease with the lithe movement. I can barely blink from him to take in his surroundings even with my expanded brain. The spartan tent is tall enough for the soldiers to stand, another empty cot across, presumably Marshall’s. Between them two crates like nightstands, each with a lantern. On Marshall’s is a photograph of a stunning African-American woman with startling blue eyes who has to be Jasmine. On Aiden’s a folded map, his chess set, and Byron’s Poems. The rest is crammed with weapons and battle rattle as Aiden calls it.

He opens the cooler and takes out what I know are two Bologna sandwiches. “Pringles of Ruffles?” he asks Marshall.

“Motherfucker, knock that shit off. Tell me what’s the deal with the goddamn letters.”

Aiden doesn’t turn but his relaxed shoulders shrug. “Think of them as good luck. To keep me alive, like that infernal song you keep singing.”

“Hah, it’s not the song, it’s the woman, brother.”

“Exactly.” Aiden tosses a water bottle in the rucksack. “Ruffles or Pringles?”

“My dick.”

“It’s still attached? I could have sworn it fell off with all the combat jack.”

They laugh together with a sound that soothes the edges of my raw chest. “Gotta keep my balls in shape for Jasmine, man. Maybe this FUBAR war will end and I’ll see her for Christmas.”

“For all our sakes, I hope it’s sooner. There’s no Jergens left at the BX. Ruffles or Pringles?”

“Ruffles. So you’re not going to tell me who the letter woman is?”

Aiden throws on his shirt, and despite the horror he is getting dressed for, I still can’t miss the ripple of his chest or the Adonis V muscles flowing below his waist. “As soon as she comes along, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Well, fuck me, I’ll be dead by then. You have to go after a woman for her to come along, Storm. That’s mother nature. Like a lion with the gazelle.”

Aiden laughs my favorite waterfall laughter, pulling on his bulletproof vest. “Agreed. Jasmine is definitely a lion. Come on, gazelle, throw this on—” He tosses a groin protector at Marshall. “Keep those dainty balls of yours safe for Christmas.”

I would laugh if I wasn’t drowning in grief, if pain wasn’t scalding my throat. They arm up—protectors, ammunition, helmets, boots, rifles, knives—laughing together in this tent for the last time. Razzing each other with words that soon will pierce hearts more than any bullet.

Aiden hoists his enormous rucksack over his back, shoulders relaxed despite the weight, and ducks out first. That too is a last. No one has ever walked right behind him again after this dawn, except Benson. The pain ratchets up another level, and I wonder vaguely how much stronger it can get before it kills me. Not that it matters. There is no way I could leave him now. I will crawl to the deepest, fieriest end with him and for him.

The brothers’ boots crunch on the sand in practiced tandem, but they don’t go far. In seconds, they step inside another tent. There is only one dim lantern here, just enough light for me to recognize young James, Hendrix, and Jazz. How different they look from the life-worn warriors I have met! James is beardless, his wild auburn curls gone in the same buzz cut. Hendrix is unlined, more muscular than he is now. And Jazz . . . he is whole and unscarred. A youthful Paul Newman with alabaster skin. They’re all asleep in their cots, James’s immense height diagonal across the tent to fit. But as soon as Aiden and Marshall duck in, his sniper eyes fling open.

“What the fuck?” he rumbles. The other two wake instantly, leaving their last peaceful sleep behind.

“Sorry gents,” Aiden answers. “Recon is ours today. Morton went Semper-I.”

A huge yawn overcomes Hendrix. “That whiny little bitch bailed again?”

“PMS,” Marshall informs everyone.

Jazzman groans. “His asshole has a date with my M-007 tonight.”

They all rise with a chorus of profanities that would make me laugh if they were in the cottage. But I can’t even remember laughter now as I watch Aiden study the pipes map while the others get ready. I’m so absorbed with his relaxed stillness in a crowded space that the sound suddenly blaring in the tent confuses me, even though I should have expected it. Marshall breaking into his good luck song.

“WELL, I’VE GOT A WOMAN—” he belts out at the top of his lungs, making all four of his brothers jump.

“God fucking damn it!” James roars, hurling his rucksack over his shoulders and shaking the tent’s rooftop with it. “Stop that shit! It’s too fucking early.”

“WAY OVER TOWN,” Marshall keeps going. “THAT’S GOOD TO ME. OH YEAH…”

“Let him get it out, Cal,” Aiden sighs indulgently. “Or we’ll have to listen to it all year.”

“SHE GIVES ME MONEY WHEN I’M IN NEED! YEAH SHE’S A KIND OF FRIEND INDEED!”

All four of them glare as Marshall trills between lines, “Sing it, dicks, you know you want to.” The camera sways slowly, and I realize Marshall must be dancing. Hendrix shakes his head in disgust. Jazz flips him off. But a piano voice that almost dissolves my bones croons next to Marshall.

“She saves her lovin’, early in the mornin’, just for me,” Aiden hums for his best friend. His rare song swells in my ears and becomes acid tears in my eyes.

“OH YEAH!” Marshall riots, and then the other three join as a battery of fuck-you’s starts firing from other tents outside. I wish they would keep singing. I wish they would stay and wake up the entire world. But their swan song is over in less than a minute, and the five brothers head out in the starless dawn together for the last time.

Instantly, they plunge into silence. Not a single word or laugh passes through their lips now as they melt in the darkness, slipping here and there into other tents until the squad is complete. Eleven Marines I think, Aiden at the head, Marshall on his right shoulder, James to his left. Then everything starts zipping fast forward, as Doctor Helen must have modified the fragment for speed. No, I want to yell at her this time. Let them stay here. Because here they’re still themselves, still hopeful, still alive. But the blackness races ahead, dawn lightening to navy, just in time for a tunnel entrance to zoom up like a gaping black hole. My body coils with tension. The sewage morass. The last passage to that schoolyard of terror, the descent to hell. And the footage slows to normal speed again. I search swiftly for any orienting detail, but there is only the yawning darkness spanning the camera.

“Moonbeams out, single file,” Aiden orders, and the squad revs up. Rifle locks and clicks snap everywhere like teeth. And with a deep collective breath, they dive in, Aiden first—the spear point because of his memory. My screen glints black for a second, then flashlights slice the darkness. But even with their radiance and the protein, I can only see endless walls wreathing around like snakes. A relentless drip-drip punctuates the squelch of boots as the Marines slosh through the marsh below. Their methodic breathing echoes off the pipes and magnifies in my ears, replacing the absent thud-thud-thud of terror. The tight space presses down on my senses with an invisible weight that would have suffocated me without the protein. But bravery only hones them further under the sense of danger. So sharp, so vivid, I can almost smell the putrid air that’s making them gasp as Aiden leads his men deeper and deeper into the bowels of war. Left, right, right, left, left. Oddly, I think of his steps when we would dance Für Elise before bed, and agony nearly incapacitates me again. I pin my eyes only on the contours of Aiden’s back, more at ease under one hundred pounds of iron than I have ever seen it in life. So close, a breath away, yet forever gone.

“Storm,” Marshall huffs, and my throat seizes up. Because I know the words he is about to chortle—so similar to mine when I triggered this memory for Aiden at the Portland Rose Garden. “Your brain’s the best fucking thing that’s happened to this platoon.”

“No, that would be clean oxygen,” Aiden responds through clenched teeth.

“Hear, hear,” Cal croaks somewhere in the back. “Seriously though, how the fuck do you remember this shit? I can’t tell up from down.”

“Down will be Morton’s ass when I’m done with it,” Jazz grunts, and a chuckle rumbles through the squad. Speaking must become impossible then as they gag and wheeze in silence.

The camera races forward again, condensing hours of crawling into soul-wrenching minutes—the last moments before the schoolyard. And I know like the sterile air I’m breathing that I would have ripped off this monitor without the protein right now. I would have begged Doctor Helen to stop. I would have traded knowledge for ignorance in a jackhammer heartbeat, only so I wouldn’t have to see what happens next. But bravery has wiped out all those fears and hysterics. Instead, the deeper the Marines sink into the earth through the drains, the more the protein spreads like wildfire in my veins. Quite literally. My skin warms and a massive energy starts thrumming in my muscles. The blistering agony licks up my throat like flames. Yet the more it burns, the more my mind hones. Clearer now with the instinct of preservation but shielding Aiden instead of myself. Processing every facet and nuance around him with razor perception. I fling all my senses in the vast labyrinth before him, bracing my mind and muscles for the torment ahead.

It comes out of nowhere. One second everything is tar black, the next a burst of brilliant light blazes over the screen like the strobe light in dad’s library. I blink furiously for sight, regaining it before Aiden and Marshall despite the fact that I’m watching from a screen. They catch up in a second, choking triumphantly: “Thank fuck!”

Then Aiden falls back, letting Marshall and the others pass, clapping them on the shoulder while they don sunglasses. My gaze brushes his scarless brow as Marshall climbs out into the dazzling glare of the desert. I have to crunch my eyes as my pupils adapt to this strange light spectrum. And almost plug my ears. Because frantic gasps and coughs sputter everywhere as the Marines soar out. I search through them instantly until I find Aiden again, coming out last. His Crossbow sunglasses hide his eyes but he gazes up at the sky as though trying to inhale all of it and rinse out his lungs. I cinch him in the center of my focus—the end is getting closer now—and peer around the screen, dissecting the scene. Where did evil come from? Was it here lurking already? But the protein doesn’t see only danger. It locates the familiar, the safe even in the foreign, deadly horror.

The schoolyard, blazing with white desert sun. Sand glimmering like ice. The school with yellow brick walls. Mosques and minarets in the horizon, eerily similar to Oxford’s spires and domes. A market down the street flashing in brilliant colors: tomatoes, lemons, leeks, eggplant, all shot through with inkblots of hijabs scurrying through the aisles. The ancient Euphrates River sparkling like molten silver. A tan Toyota truck playing an oldie tune I can’t pinpoint. And right before us, six little boys, playing football with a Marine helmet, just as Aiden described it to me. I hear their Arabic and innocent laughter and more agony singes my chest fiercer than fear.

“All seems normal,” James says from somewhere behind Marshall where I can’t see him.

But a strange needly sensation prickles my skin. Before I can explain it—BOOM!

The explosion reverberates in my skull, rattling my ribcage violently. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! I never knew sound could rend the world like this. So deafening it would perforate normal eardrums, but these fearless ones somehow withstand it. Clouds of fire mushroom in my vision. Thick smoke billows everywhere, swallowing Aiden and Marshall down its black throat.

And that’s all I see. A fierce snarl I’ve never heard before tears from my lips, but it’s drowned by the instant human implosion. Piercing screams, wailing, a suckling gurgle nearby that makes me shiver. The screen becomes a dark blur of sand as Marshall must dive for cover, while I scan every grain for any sign of Aiden. There is none. No English, no familiar piano voice, no deep clearing of his throat. I listen in torture instead of terror, but another IED detonates, and the earth shatters against the monitor.

Aiden, Aiden, Aiden! Where are you? Keep your eyes closed, love! Roll away from the street, the protein commands for some reason I can’t access.

But I can’t hear him. Not a single rasp of breath that I know better than my own. Only screams and that same chilling spongy sound. Another salvo of violent energy surges in my body. I have to labor to adjust its intensity. But the less terror I feel, the more agony batters me. For entire minutes that with my new time perception feel both like milliseconds and hours.

I devour the screen in a frenzy, but the charred ground presses over my eyes, hard as a tomb.

Then at last something changes in the pitch void. A slight movement, a lightening in the grimy screen, new sounds that are not screams. Yet they tear through me with a new shockwave of torment. Coughing, retching, suffocating, a thunder of rubble, and a voice spluttering.

“Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Marshall croaks and stumbles, but the camera is coated with a smoky film. I can’t see anything as the violence of adrenaline wrings my own muscles, but then a familiar roar floods me with dizzying relief.

“MARSHALL, thank Christ!” And a powerful force wrenches Marshall upright, like it ripped Edison off me. I can’t see Aiden’s face through the sooty screen but I sense everything else about him, even the strength of his grip on his friend. He’s still whole, still himself. “You in one piece?” he shouts hoarsely.

“Yea, except my ears,” Marshall craws back. “Where the fuck did that come from?”

“The road, I think.”

And then I hear it. A third voice that starts the countdown to horror. “BACK TO VOLTURNO,” Hendrix bellows from somewhere close. “WE GOTTA GO NOW!”

“They’re fucking kids,” Marshall protests in broken breaths. “Fucking kids, man.”

“IN FIFTEEN MINUTES, WE’LL HAVE HAJJIS ON OUR ASS, STORM. THEY’LL SKIN US ALIVE AND SELL OUR BALLS FOR FALAFEL . . . WE GOTTA GET OUTTA HERE NOW!”

“Can’t leave them, Storm! They’ve got fucking mothers. Maybe one of them survived?” Marshall must be brushing himself off because a slender, brown hand swipes over the camera, and streaks of grime peel off, finally letting me squint between them. Only to see more billows of smoke, crags of rubble, and a shadow of Aiden’s face. Gone is the bronzed skin. He’s covered in white ash, staring in horror at something before him, his throat convulsing. And they’re still so close to the street.

“Marshall’s right.” Another gravelly voice spews next to Aiden—James. “Look at that shit.”

“I know!” Aiden hisses through his teeth. I can hear the torment in his voice, the battle of the decision that has haunted him ever since. Stay or go?

My own stomach heaves with ache as I see the tortured ghost of his face. What would I have chosen without the protein? I don’t know for myself, but I know for him I would choose fear, selfishness. I would choose for him to leave. But Aiden has never been selfish, no matter how much I want him to be.

“FIVE MINUTES!” he roars to the squad, making the choice that brutalizes him every day. The choice to listen to his heart, to his best friend. The call he has never forgiven himself for even though he wasn’t alone. “KIDS ONLY, THEN BACK TO CAMP!”

No one questions him again. They spill out in the yard, digging through the wreckage after the wails. That’s when I see them in the streaky screen—the small bodies smattered on rubble. The torn ribcage with shredded lungs at Aiden’s feet; the sound I was hearing is the gurgle of the little boy’s throat. A tiny hand here, a crushed leg there, a tangle of shrapnel-ridden intestines, that helmet full of human brains I saw during the reel—gruesome jigsaws that would have pulverized me without the protein. I could have never breathed through this even from a safe screen. My mind would have reached for unconsciousness before processing any glimpse of it.

But Aiden has always been braver, stronger. He starts heaving out huge chunks of pavement, and I think wildly of him rebuilding the riverbank for me. More agony incinerates my insides. I have never seen him work faster, more desperately than he is now, as his mind matches the flung-out body parts and puts them back together, frantic for any sign of life. I can’t see his face as Marshall digs too, but I know the torment tensing his frame as he blows through the debris, leaving macabre order behind instead of chaos.

He’s holding a little arm with a scrap of bloodied cloth when they come. At first, I can only hear that oldie song between screams, then a thunder of gunfire blasts through the thinning smoke from the street. Bullets shriek past Marshall, missing him and Aiden by inches, but piercing down two other Marines. Their bodies drop on the same children they were trying to save.

Somehow, I don’t fall. There is no time. Because another IED explodes, or maybe a bomb, shaking Marshall’s body and the camera on his chest. It resounds down to my bones, almost dislodging them at the joints. The world erupts on fire again, but this time the flames rage higher. There’s no more sky—only orange tongues lashing the clouds. Smoke churns through the yard like a hurricane. I can’t even make out Marshall’s machine gun even though I can hear its grisly snarl as he manages to aim. Crammed between its roars, a familiar voice rings in my ears, close but out of sight.

“GET IN AND RADIO BAHARIA!” Aiden shouts. “I’VE GOT THE STREET.”

“NO WAY!” Marshall hollers back. “I’M WITH YOU.”

“YOU FIRST. UN-ASS NOW! THAT’S AN ORDER!”

“Fuck!” Marshall swears, but I know from his tone, he has to obey. He has no choice; Aiden is his commanding officer. I watch the fire whirl by as Marshall bolts toward the school. Smoke and flames rush over my eyes like a blindfold, dense and impenetrable. My body tears in conflict—senses jailed to the screen, heart hooked at my spine as Aiden is left behind. I always thought they ran in together.

Marshall lunges inside and, abruptly, there is a crack in the suffocating darkness. I can see a narrow staircase and his dusty boots as he bounds up, yelling into a radio.

“Bravo-alpha-hotel—this is Unit 89—grid Whiskey-Hotel-Fife-Niner—blown up, TIC, direct fire. Need dust-off and artillery NOW! Repeat, dust-off and artillery now. Over.”

A staticky voice caws back but my mind mutes it because right then Marshall flies into the classroom of horror. My eyes rove furiously across it, scanning the threadbare walls. The protein vacuums up every detail, shuffling them in whatever priority keeps my insides in my body. Some Arabic lines scrawled in faded red. An empty bookcase in the corner. A flower drawn in white chalk on the blackboard like a rose. Cracked, loose tiles tremble on the floor. Desks rattle on rickety legs. And that’s it—nothing else. If my heart wasn’t already ash, it would break.

Marshall streaks to the first window where the glass has shattered, skidding to a stop on his knees. I squint through the spikes, but there is only a black sea of smoke boiling below. The less I see, the more my body revolts. Instead of the flight response, it strains for action. My limbs are vibrating with the compulsion to plummet into the flames, tear through rubble, and find Aiden where he must be choking for air. My body thinks I can do it. My mind recognizes the chance was never mine. My heart refuses to accept it. Three forces tearing me apart.

All around, the barrage of artillery is relentless. For a wild second, I wonder why my eardrums haven’t ruptured, then I realize the protein must be adjusting my perception just a decibel below harm.

“STORM!” Marshall bellows into the abyss, and my chest throbs with another wave of agony. What happened? Where is Aiden? How many seconds has it been? But then suddenly his homey voice booms behind me.

“AT YOUR SIX!” And he materializes beside his brother at the window, his beauty unrecognizable with black soot and white ash powdering every inch of his skin. I rip in half: one anguish, the other relief. Relief because he is here breathing. Anguish because we’re only minutes from the deepest terror of his life. Minutes where neither of us know what happened.

“Thank fuck!” Marshall cries, and his fist shoots out, grasping Aiden’s shoulder.

“Did Jazz make it in?” Aiden aims through the jagged glass, searching the inferno.

“Can’t see anyone, and I’m almost black on ammo.”

Dark fury rolls over Aiden’s face like the smoke clouds. Then he signs quickly. Go low. Cal and Hendrix are upstairs.

“Fuck!” Marshall hisses, crouching beneath the window frame, reeling off again into the radio. But I can’t peel my eyes from Aiden. The undiluted terror on his face almost stumps the protein and becomes my own. It drowns every ashen pore like the curdling smoke below. And even though I can’t see his eyes, I know the terror is not for himself. It’s for his brothers. I can see it in his sandy lips quivering in silence. I know their movement better than any language, and for the first time I see Aiden praying. Please God, he’s mouthing, please save them. Take me, not them, I’m ready. Send them home to their women, keep me to yourself.

In my own head, a different prayer is drumming even though I know how this ends: take all my bravery and give it to him. Take all his pain and give it me. Send me to my parents but keep him to himself.

Between each prayer, he tries to aim through the inferno. How many bullets does he have left? How many seconds before the deepest hell? Past the shattered panes—so similar to dad’s library—the smoke starts thinning. Enough for my eyes to glimpse the orange sky, a throng of sandy cars, Marshall’s fingers crossed as he keeps radioing. And for Aiden to see something that stops his praying lips. Dread implodes over his face like a grenade of its own.

“He’s burning!” he chokes, and I know he has found Jazz.

That’s when I register something I recognize—no, more than one, but the most crucial— Aiden’s posture from the reel. The way he leans forward, rolling on the balls of his feet. The signal that the torture is about to begin. Something must combust in my blood at the sight because the protein triggers a gust of heat around my heart as if to cloak it. In the same breath, agony soars higher, scalding my eyes.

“Yes!” Aiden rejoices and fires his last shot. I watch with an IED in my throat his hand closing into the telltale fist as he saves his brother. The last image, his final act. Then my unbreakable heart stops as several terrors strike at once.

Two black, masked shadows streak into the screen behind Aiden. A rifle flashes in the air and crashes into the back of his skull right at the helmet’s edge. His guttural groan rips through his teeth at the same time as Marshall’s cry, and Aiden drops unconscious on the tiled floor. Then five more shadows swarm above the brothers—one screaming, the other silent. The screen is a mosh pit of black. My last mad thought is of dementors sucking out their souls, then a tsunami wave of agony drowns me.

My parents’ wrecked Beetle—that was just a grain of sand in the eye compared to this.

The doors to the morgue—they were only clenched jaws.

Their frozen, bluish bodies—only a broken bone beneath bruised skin.

Their coffins in the grave together—barely a bathtub of acid swallowing me.

Losing Aiden—that was my flesh peeled away by a thousand scalpels.

Watching Edison hurt him—that was just death.

I accept them all now, accept them humbly because, alone or together, they pale to this. Normal human minds were not made for this pain. Unfortified hearts would crush from this. And the torture hasn’t even started.

Abruptly, selfishly, I wish I hadn’t taken the protein. Let me fear, let me fear, let me fear. Dull this agony now before it ends me.

It’s too late for that, but bravery does give me one thing: acuity. Even as I beg for terror now, I don’t forget for a second why I am doing this. The one reason that is worth every moment of this unfathomable pain. Aiden, Aiden, Aiden. His name rings like a talisman in my head, fortifying me as much as the protein. I will endure this horror once for every time he lives through it without a single complaint. I will search for hope even in this hopeless place. I will be here on the other side for him.

The screen is still a viper nest of limbs, tearing and ripping. A knife glints as it slashes through the melee. Then a piercing scream stabs me and keeps echoing in Marshall’s voice. The black fist of bodies opens, and I can finally see. Just in time to wish I was blind or at least with my old, fear-struck eyes that missed so much. But these new eyes consume everything. Everything I never wanted to exist.

It’s worse than anything I ever imagined. A stream of blood has smeared on the broken tiles to the front desk where Marshall must have been dragged, gasping and thrashing. Under the window, Aiden’s body is still contorted on the floor, a crimson pool flowing out of his skull, his helmet, shirt, and weapons gone. Deep red is seeping beneath his skin over his shoulders and ribs. And closer to the camera, for the first time, I see the entire lower half of Marshall’s body as he must be propped up. He was shorter than the others, slenderer. His legs are twitching, the cammies stained with blood, and his dusty boots are no longer dusty. They are caked with coarse, red mud, the way sand must turn when congealed with blood. Somehow the protein keeps my heart inside my chest. These feet that pounded the desert with a song, that danced for the woman he loves, that have walked next to Aiden every step of the way, dreaming of the road home, will never walk again.

A harsh chorus of voices in Arabic draws my eyes from the red boots to the black ones. I don’t understand anything the monsters are grunting, except I know these are the moments Aiden doesn’t remember. The ten minutes hidden from his memory. The last moments before the torture begins.

Aiden’s body is still lifeless on the floor, his skull still overflowing. So vivid, so red, so much. A ghostly pallor is spreading over his face. It feels as though my own skull is crushing, my own blood draining out of me. Let me live, let me live, let me live for him, please.

But a new rush of torment clamors in my ears. Strangling, snapping, more grunts, one gunshot, then another. Pink droplets mist the screen. Another shriek rends the air, then a high-pitched reedy laugh as Marshall writhes in agony, the camera with him. Jarring voices are arguing, squawking phrases I can’t comprehend. Scientists say language makes us human, but science is wrong. Because although these voices speak human, human they are not.

The bloody mist dissipates now, and I can see Marshall’s boots again. Two bullet holes have torn through them, leaving behind ragged gashes where there used to be toes. His legs jerk violently as his tortured cries claw at my eardrums. The classroom pulses with his heaving chest, and I pulse with it. It’s an impossible fragment of existence—this feeling of terrorless pain without the need to scream, vomit, or expel any agony. Because your mind is strong enough to handle it all.

Even Aiden’s pain that’s just about to begin?

Steel cables whip in the air like lightning, and three monsters start advancing toward him.

“Don’t touch him!” A woman snarls, stunning me, then I realize it’s me.

“Leave him alone.” Another weaker voice gurgles in English—Marshall—but a black boot stomps on his gut, choking him off. The camera shudders with him as four arms yank Aiden’s body off the floor.

The instant they touch him, everything changes for me. Rage explodes like a car bomb, scorching through my muscles like lava and hardening into a ferocious sense of strength. It crackles on my skin like current and sinks down into my bones. Images of violence flash before my eyes like my own reel: skinning this evil alive with the knives of glass; carving out their eyes; pulling out each nail, each tooth, each finger, and wearing them around my neck like scalps; ripping open their chests and tearing out their hearts, still beating until I bleed them dry. And even that doesn’t seem enough because I can’t turn back time. But somehow knowing I could have avenged this changes the pain. Rage blisters forward with its own heat. A scarlet haze flames bright in my vision around Aiden’s and Marshall’s bodies as if to shield them. It doesn’t lessen the agony, but it balances it. Makes it just barely possible to endure, to witness with infallible senses what happened to my love and his brother. To hold it in my memory because both these warriors deserve nothing less.

Yes, just barely enough to give me purpose but excruciating still. I watch through the filter of fury as stained fingers tie Aiden in thick chains—two around his purple shoulders, three binding his arms behind his back. The same laughing monster digs his claw into Aiden’s bloodied scalp and tugs his head. The mouth I have kissed a thousand times falls open. With another reedy laugh, a second monster smears a blood-drenched thumb over Aiden’s lips. For a sickening moment, I think it’s a caress, and violence fires out of me in waves. But then the evil hisses, pointing at Marshall with more laughter, and I understand. Just in time to wish I hadn’t. Because it’s Marshall’s blood that Aiden will be tasting when he awakes.

A volcano of rage erupts in my throat, chewing its way into a silent scream, but deep beneath the hellfire, I’m grateful. Because Aiden doesn’t remember this. What would it have done to him if he had? Or am I wrong about that? Did his powerful memory know the taste of his own blood and could tell the difference?

I will never ask him those questions. I don’t want him to recall one more second of this horror. And there are too many seconds left.

More guttural voices are shouting over his body and, suddenly, the corner of a rifle slams above his eye. Exactly where today he has his scar. A fountain of blood gushes from the beloved face as his head lolls back. Then a foot crashes into his chest, cracking the ribs where I rest my head. Grimy hands touch his body—gripping his arms, spreading them apart as if to rip them off their sockets.

Another burst of fury blasts in my gut. A phantom vise twists my own limbs as though they, too, are tearing apart.

“No!” Marshall gasps, and the camera starts to shake as he tries to fight but another blow to his gut silences him again. Burgundy is flowing from Aiden’s wounds, coating his cheek, painting his inert shoulders. A third monster locks his arm around his throat, strangling him from behind. Then another crushing kick to his side, and his body sinks in the monster’s chokehold.

Stop! I roar in my head, but I know it’s useless. The protein cannot turn back time.

“Wake—up—Storm,” Marshall murmurs so weakly I can only hear him because his mouth is so close. “Wake—up—so—your—woman—can—come—along. Wake—up.”

But Aiden’s doesn’t move. The monster behind him throttles him again, as the other two start bombarding his shoulders with their fists like a game. And the fortress of Aiden’s body begins to break. Sharp cracks snap in my ears, as my heart keeps tempo with the blows. The camera shakes on Marshall’s chest, and I shake with it. From the motion, another lava stream washes in every crevice of my mind. But bravery commandeers my senses toward any detail that can soften the pain or at least differ from it. The rose on the blackboard, a tile cracked like the letter A, the blood forming shapes with its rivulets . . . a harvest moon, a setting sun, an American Beauty rosebud.

It’s just a petal, love, I think toward him fiercely. Just a petal, I’m right here on the other side.

But Aiden doesn’t hear us—he can’t—no matter how much I hurl my mind through the years as the seconds grind in my head to a near-halt. Has it been ten minutes? Or fifteen? Will the protein be enough to endure the worse torture about to begin or will it kill me?

A sharp inhale sucks the air from the screen, from my very lungs. I watch without breathing as Aiden’s chest shudders, and he comes awake.

He returns as he lives, with strength, with dignity even in hell. He tries to straighten up despite the chains, dripping in blood, blinking his one eye open. I can’t see the color of his iris in the crimson sheen varnishing his face. Yet his beauty doesn’t release him even now, and I know why—because his beauty comes from within. Not from any part that evil can touch. It’s obvious even to the monsters who have frozen still, watching him come to life.

It takes only one blink for his mind to revive. He snarls and thrashes against the steel cables, searching frantically for his brother among the black specters. Utterly unafraid until his fierce gaze alights by the desk that has been my pyre, straight to the camera, finding Marshall at last.

Every life has two stories: the one we can tell and the one we cannot. Perhaps we can’t tell it because of fear or pain. Perhaps we don’t know. But there are some unspoken stories that stay silent because we simply don’t have the words. This is one of those stories. I will never find the language to describe the terror on Aiden’s face as he sees his best friend, or the agony there that suddenly makes my own seem like an old bruise. There is no code, no formula, no dialect in human I can speak this in. But I will always know this part of his story even when I am ash. I will know it because this is when a part of his soul dies. I almost hear its last breath as it blows out of Aiden’s lungs.

“Marshall,” he whispers, his face wringing in torture, bubbles of his own blood and Marshall’s forming on his lips. “Let me take this. Breathe for Jasmine.”

The camera is trembling on Marshall’s chest. Through his low gasps, I think I hear, “I will.”

Then Aiden turns his eye on the monsters, transforming to blood-soaked steel. He fires something at them in fluent Arabic, except his cadence is different now, low and pleading. But the monsters laugh, their words stabbing him like knives. Another desperate, urgent plea from him, pointing with his chin at his chest, and I know he is bartering for Marshall’s life with his own. Another cackle, then the world ends. The monsters converge on the two brothers like black smoke. The screen plunges to chaos. Gunfire punches my eardrums, more bullets shatter Marshall’s feet, a silver blade slices the air before the camera, right Marshall’s bloodied hand quivers up.

“Not your fault, my brother,” he chokes so low I can barely hear him. Before I can tense against the torture that’s about to start, the screen goes blank. I wait for it to flicker back on or any sound or static. But there is nothing. My ears ring with the deafening clang of silence.

“No!” I gasp, rattling the monitor against my face. “No! Come back!”

But two gentle hands cover mine, startling me, and a woman’s maternal voice calls nearby. “Elisa, you are fine, you are all right.”

Doctor Helen. I had forgotten her existence, the test, everything that’s not that classroom where the true horror has now begun.

“No, bring it back! Let me see, let me hurt with him.”

“Hush, child, you’re safe.”

“But they’re not!” I clutch the monitor harder, searching furiously for the power button with my fingers. “Bring—it—back!”

I feel a pull at my wrists as she must be trying to loosen my grip on the monitor. Her clasp seems so feeble compared to mine. I could break it easily, but she combs a hand through my hair.

“It’s over, Elisa. It’s done.”

“No, it isn’t. They’re hurting. Let me back in!” I press the power button in the center repeatedly, but the screen stays black.

“There’s no more, child. That was it. Marshall ripped the camera off. There’s nothing left to see.”

Her hands fold around mine again as I process her words. My heart rejects them in every way, yet my mind recognizes the truth, replaying that last image under this new light. Marshall’s hand flying up, but not to defend himself. My fingers stop pushing the button in vain as I stare at the empty screen. “He . . . he was trying to protect everyone else from having to see their torture,” I realize, hearing Marshall’s last words so clearly still. Not your fault, my brother.

“I think that’s a reasonable conclusion, but we will never know. That was the only footage ever recovered.” She strokes my hair again, and I let my arms fall to my sides. Agony is still scorching every crevice of my mind.

Doctor Helen notices the lack of resistance. She unbuckles the monitor and pulls it off as carefully as I do with Aiden. I squint into the sudden light from smoky, blood-red classroom to glimmering snow-white lab. How am I sitting in this same chair? How did I not claw through the earth to that school? How is my body so still despite the violent energy short-circuiting in me? How did I not go blind or deaf from all of it? My senses are still impossibly clear and unobstructed. As is my mind. I can feel it humming in the background, its conclusions inaccessible, just the rhythm. I let it run, focusing now on the silver neuroscientist. She is kneeling before me like she did with Aiden, still a thousand years old, but her grey eyes are full of the same wonder they hold when she looks at him.

“Well-done, Elisa. You brave, brave girl.”

As if I could accept any accolades. There are only two men who deserve them and their soul is buried in that classroom.

“How did you get that video?” I ask even though it’s not the most vital of questions. But its images are still entwining with reality, as if tattooed permanently in my retinas.

She places the monitor back in the box quickly. “Only recently,” she answers. “After Edison’s attack, Corbin reached out to Aiden’s parents and the Marines to prepare them for the end of your relationship and the support they might need to give afterwards. Without telling Aiden of course. We thought if he knew, it would only make his pain and guilt worse.”

I nod, convinced of that axiomatic truth.

“I was also hoping to learn anything that might help, any detail we might have overlooked,” she continues, still on her knees. “But their memories of that horrific time lack Aiden’s accuracy. And, of course, none of them were in that classroom especially for the unconscious part. That’s when Jazzman mentioned the camera offhandedly. Apparently, each recognizance mission involved one. I was surprised but it made perfect sense that Aiden never mentioned it. When has he ever needed videos or photographs that don’t involve you?”

I nod again, thinking of his smile when he takes pictures of me—Peter Pan-ish, like in his tent, as if he’s looking at something he might never reach even though it’s already his.

“Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about it but, understandably, none of them have ever watched it after it was recovered from Marshall’s body.” Her lined face crumples further. “I understand that collecting it from the . . . the remains . . . was very difficult. None of them has ever been able to touch it, let alone see it.”

Of course they can’t. If that’s how half of Marshall’s body looked before the torture really started, I cannot fathom the end. Agony rages in my chest, utterly unabated. “Then how were you able to get it?”

“Has Aiden told you about General Sartain?”

My mind instantly retrieves everything I know about the name. “He’s the man who discovered Aiden, his mentor at the CIA. He helped Javier.”

She nods with a strained smile. “The Marines thought if anyone might still have the footage, it would be him. Apparently, he is very fond of Aiden. Jazzman put us in contact, and the General called me personally three days ago.”

Her answer surprises me, and I thought nothing else could reach me now. “He did?”

“Quite eagerly. Obviously, I didn’t share any details other than we’re trying to assist. But he understood the urgency. He emailed Corbin and me the video only after we signed an agreement not to share it—an agreement I breached today. The General, Corbin, I, and now you are the only four people in the world who have watched it in full. And all of us, except you, needed multiple breaks.”

Her eyes sparkle with awe again, but I can’t accept it. “Not even Marshall’s family or Jasmine? He loved her so much . . .” My voice that hasn’t shaken once since the protein, trembles now. At the mention of love, something airy and cool starts trickling through me like spring water, soothing the burn of agony.

“According to the General, he offered it to Jasmine and Marshall’s family, but none of them were able to watch past the pipes.”

In an odd way, this relieves me. At least they only saw Marshall as he was: alive, whole, in love.

“But you did, Elisa.” Admiration bends Doctor Helen’s commanding voice. “You watched every minute. You lived through your worst fear of Aiden getting hurt.”

“Did I?” I whisper even though the evidence of my life signs is everywhere around me. In the steady monitor beeps. In my heart and brain waves swelling and rising deeply with pain.

Her eyes flit to them, and she takes my hand.  “Absolutely. Now take a moment to recover and we can talk about the results.”

My mind doesn’t need a moment, but my heart must. Everywhere I feel, it hurts, but it’s a bodiless pain. Physically, mentally, I’m still brimming with power. I could pulverize that school, that entire desert with my bare hands. But emotionally . . .

“Would you like some water?” Doctor Helen offers, her forehead creased with worry.

“No, I’m all right.”

She surprises me again with a true half-smile this time. “Yes, you are. You were braver beyond any degree I could have dared to hypothesize. The protein works, Elisa.”

I know this, of course. I don’t need the data to tell me the protein does what it promises. All the other times in my life I thought I was being courageous were pale imitations to the bravery I felt during the video. But I still need to be certain for Aiden.

“Are you sure?” I ask, staring at the vast screens with images of his memory.

“There’s no question about it. Your heart rate didn’t rise even to the level of nerves, let alone fear or anxiety. It was remarkable.”

“And it will work the same for Aiden, too?”

Doctor Helen’s grey eyes are clear of any doubt. “Yes. With his singular mind, we will not know for certain how much and for how long until he takes it. But it’s safe to conclude that whatever courage you felt, his will be even stronger given his heightened perception and memory.”

And there it is. The true question. The implications of the protein my mind is still unravelling. “But there was also a lot of pain,” I say, looking at the monitor where the beeps are quiet, and the waves are oscillating deeply.

Doctor Helen is staring at them too. “Yes, and there still is. There were moments during it—especially at the end—where I debated stopping the video. But your processing remained astonishingly clear. The only sharper perception I have witnessed is Aiden’s himself.”

Aiden himself . . . The meaning behind the words echoes like the aftershocks of the IEDs.

Something on my face must clue Doctor Helen to my thoughts because she clutches my hand. “You already understand what this means, don’t you?”

I nod, wishing I didn’t. “That the pain will be stronger for him, too. And not just stronger, but extreme given how expansive his mind already is.” For the first time since the protein, my voice hesitates. Because this is only half of the truth.

Doctor Helen utters the other. “Yes, and the startle reflex, as well. Because that’s not based only on fear. It began with terror, but over the years, it has become an automatic response that is triggered by surprise: an entirely distinct emotion. Based on your data, I don’t believe the protein can heal it.”

My teeth clench against that half of the truth, agony still growing. Isn’t there a way to do both? To give Aiden this sense of power, of unshakable confidence I felt even during the video, but without the excruciating pain? “Did you see anything in the video that might help?” I ask, my mind racing in every time dimension for answers.

Her face grows somber as she shakes her head. “Unfortunately no. Aiden’s memory is as precise as I had feared. What about you? Your perception was certainly sharper than mine.”

I try to replay everything but sense a wall of resistance, as if my mind is blocking it. I decide to trust my brain—or rather the protein—to guide me. Perhaps bravery too has its limits. “I’m still trying to think through it all,” I admit. “But I know it’s not possible to change the formula to ease the pain. I’m convinced that’s another reason why dad kept it a secret.”

Another grave nod. “I think you’re right,” she says in her way that doesn’t soften any truth. “But remember, all emotions except fear are strengthened by the protein. The good ones as well. Love, joy, hope . . . perhaps that will be enough in the end to lay Marshall at rest.”

Perhaps. It’s not an answer the protein can give us today. But at that big, little word—love—agony stutters again. My mind grips the four letters, concentrating only on Aiden’s brilliant light still pulsating in the center of my entire being. And that one single emotion—love—blasts forward with a force that nullifies everything else. Impossibly, it has grown during my own reel. Soaring to summits I never knew I had inside me, even more staggering than the agony. Then washing down from its Everestian peaks like glacial water, flooding every cell, every space between every neuron, until it douses the searing pain. Not like it’s gone—as long as the protein is in my system, I will continue to feel everything but fear—but like I’m out of its grip. Free in that expanse of infinite possibility still spanning endlessly before me. In the faith that I will save Aiden, that no one and nothing can get through me.

“I have to go,” I say, ripping off the electrode at my temple.

She does not seem surprised by my sudden change—after all the waves on the computer have changed again. They are fluttering gently now like the calmest summer sea, the beeps chiming to their musical beat. She starts taking off the electrodes immediately in silence as if she knows I need the moment. When all the wires are gone, and I’m back in my blouse and locket, she hands me the vial with the remaining two doses and throws mum’s parka over my shoulders.

“Trust your instincts,” she tells me. “They have not led you astray with Aiden yet. And now you also have your experience and knowledge.”

I nod, tucking the vial in the inside pocket of the parka. Its warmth seeps through the layers next to my heart. “I hope they will be enough.”

“As do I, child. Go while the protein is still working. The reel may be a lot different with him fearless, and you might need your strength.”

“What do you expect?”

She stares beyond me again, at the images of Aiden’s memory on the blue screens. “As we just learned with you, the mind has a lot more room to perceive without fear. I think it will be excruciating and it will take Aiden longer to return from the reel.”

I suspected the latter already—my time perception during the video was warped, feeling like years and seconds. “How much longer do you think?”

She blinks from the glow of his memory back to me. “For as long as it takes him to process. We have no precedent for this. Give him the time but stand by him. Use whatever it takes to bring him back.”

A ripple of determination tears through me. “I will.”

“Call me if you need me. And keep track when your bravery ends. Let’s meet again in a couple of days to take stock and see how Aiden is feeling.”

In the storm of super-emotions, gratitude flares for this woman. A general on her own, a moonbeam in the underground tunnels of our psyches, who broke her rules to help us, however doomed we might be. Gently, I wrap my arms around her waist. Something I would have never dared without bravery. Her frame is harder than I would have imagined, yet it seems so breakable to me.

“Thank you,” I tell her. “For showing me the video.”

A frisson of tension runs through her. “Was I right to do so?” Her voice is hesitant again.

“More than you can ever know,” I answer, and I mean it. That sense of conviction, of rightness blazes in my chest right next to the warm vial. Is it the protein? Or is it me daring to trust myself? “I would take that pain every hour for the chance to save him.”

She hugs me back once, and then I release my new body. Pushing my legs into long strides toward the only hope we have left.©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 33 – POWER

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all had a joyful holiday season even if the world is still testing all of us right now. I wish all the good health, peace, and joy for you for 2022! These wishes used to sound cliche but the more we seem to lack them, the more r-e-a-l they feel. And to help with the hope part, here is another chapter. I’m sorry I’m taking forever. I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but my health has taken a lot from me and my family so there are some days I can’t write at all. I am very thankful for those of you reading and understanding, even though there is so little left to go in the story. Thank you for all your support, kindness, messages, and of course, your love for this story. It makes me smile even in the darkest of days to have created something that has brought you joy.  Here is Chapter 33 — Power– to charge us up for the new year.  Lots of good wishes and love, Ani

33

Power

Days pass. Even in hell. Even if every hour is no longer a reel of brilliancy, but of pain. One agonizing moment to another, all dragging together into a battle for survival. Each night is more silent than a grave—Aiden no longer sleeps in the cottage or the garden. He stays out in Elysium where he used to watch the reel, the only place in Burford that holds traumatic memories for him. Each day is more distant than America—his touch has vanished with his gaze. He barely eats or speaks. And each dawn is darker than Fallujah even though a light is always on in the cottage. Darker because we don’t wake up together. Darker because his eyes don’t brighten in bliss anymore. And darker because I don’t want to wake up at all.

But I am wide awake, sitting up in my childhood bed, trying to breathe through another dawn. Day sixty-five is here. Ten days since the end. Only thirty left until the last goodbye. Happiness has shifted—it has become the past.

The serrated wound in my chest flares painfully. It grows stronger by the hour, but I don’t grow stronger against it. I simply have found the only thing that keeps me breathing for Aiden. I bury my face in his favorite sweatshirt that I now wear every night. He hasn’t worn it in ten days, but his scent still lingers, lacing with my own. Slowly, my airways start to open and I can inhale. In and out, in and out until my old bedroom stops spinning.

I climb out of bed one stiff leg at a time, shoving aside the stacks of paper with useless protein formulas, and peer out of the open window. The garden is still funeral black except the column of light pouring from our happy bedroom across the hall. “The light is always on above our door,” Aiden wrote in his homecoming war letter. “The curtain is always moving.” But night after night, he doesn’t knock, the cottage doesn’t tremble with his arrival.

I breathe into his sweatshirt again, swaying on the spot. A waft of rose breeze steals inside as if it knows I can’t find air on my own. I squint harder into the darkness even though I can’t see his unmistakable form. But perhaps our lines of sight will meet, the way our eyes used to at this hour. Because I know he is awake like me. Neither of us seems able to sleep without the other around. I watch the golden light glowing from our blissful window, seeing only turquoise until the black sky changes to indigo and I can pretend to wake up. Then I shamble down the stairs to start again even if it’s making no difference. I don’t know how my body moves forward, but I have to keep going. If I stop, Aiden will miss even a moment of calm. If I stop, I have to accept that it’s over. And I can’t do that.

His absence follows me around the cottage like a shadow. In the closed door of our happy bedroom. In the silence of Für Elise. In the skylark that hasn’t sung from the beech tree since the music stopped playing. In the foyer where Aiden’s boots are missing. In the lack of his morning coffee in the air. I start a pot of his favorite Italian roast, my mind wailing the same constant refrain: How can I save him? Why isn’t the protein working? How can I convince him to restart the reel?

Outside, the garden shed that houses the evil seems to call with an icy whisper. My hands shake, but not just from the torture leashed within. I shudder because we have stopped fighting it. How did that monitor transform from my worst dread to my best hope? It took only two words from Doctor Helen: “only chance.” The only chance to bury Marshall so Aiden can survive losing me. Unless I succeed with the protein. But no matter how many hours I spend calculating and testing, no matter the endless combinations I have tried, bravery remains as elusive as the dream of us.

The cast iron pan drops from my hands with a loud clang. I pick it up methodically and start Aiden’s favorite breakfast—dippy eggs with bacon and crispy potatoes. Not that it matters what it is. All I can taste is the acrid bitterness of my mouth without his kiss. But I will force it down for him, and he will swallow it for me. Still, I pour his coffee in my thermos, set a Baci on the side, garnish with an Elisa petal—any detail that triggers my calming effect on him, triggers and holds it through the hours apart. Serotonin and oxytocin formulas drum like a second tic toc in my head, replacing dad’s broken one on my wrist. Fifth time. Not December. Add love.

Over the horizon, the sky starts to lighten. I pack everything in my basket and slip out of the door. The air is sultry outside, lacking the usual early bite. Summer is burning off its final heat with us. Hope the Hybrid is fluttering its single leaf on the threshold. A twilight filter turns the roses blue like the color I am missing. They are still sleeping in their garden beds that Aiden just mulched and enriched. Because like I am trying to fortify him for the end, he is doing the same for me, from the moment he pretends to wake up to the moment he pretends to fall asleep. Clean the gutters, repair the roof, fix the shutters, chop wood, establish a grant to Oxford’s Chemistry Department to secure my research, set up my trust fund, retain lawyers against Edison—everything and anything so I lack for nothing after he leaves. Nothing except my very life.

I sniff his sweatshirt again and stumble down the path to find him, whatever he is taking care of today.

I don’t have to go far. I spot him on the riverbank by the willows, standing out in his white T-shirt and ripped jeans, back to me. He is carrying something massive in his arms I can’t identify from here. I teeter closer, bracing for the nameless agony I know I will see on his face. Even ten days later, I still cannot breathe through it, sweatshirt or no sweatshirt. It’s not something any living thing can get used to.

If he hears me coming, he doesn’t turn around. He heaves the huge mass—a burly stump—to the edge of the bank and picks up an enormous slab of riverbed rock. As I step through the willows both terrified and curious, I realize he is hefting around a mountain of hulking things— boulders, dead tree trunks, logs—hauling them to the river. The powerful bands of muscle in his arms and back ripple with the movement. He doesn’t groan or huff from the effort; he is entirely silent. The garden spade, fork, and wheelbarrow rest some feet away. My chest throbs as I realize he must have been up all night doing this . . . whatever it is.

“Morning,” I croak.

He freezes, boulder in hands, and I guess he is rearranging his features for me. It takes twelve chemical elements before he drops the rock—the ground quakes under my feet—and turns around. Even with the flush of exercise, his beautiful face is hollowed and pale. Or at least what can be seen of it above the thick, dark beard. Every flicker of emotion is suspended in his scorched expression, but despite his iron restraint, the pain is palpable in the air. I can feel it on my fingertips, taste it on my tongue. It has snaked through each pore of him, binding to his DNA until it has transformed him inside out. If he wasn’t embedded in my own cells, if his face wasn’t perfectly carved in my neural pathways, I wouldn’t recognize him.

His eyes meet mine with divided allegiance: half resisting my calm, half giving in for me as he promised.

“Good morning,” he answers. His voice has lost its music like the cottage has lost Für Elise. I have to grip the trunk of a willow not to run to him and take him in my arms.

“Umm, what are you doing?”

He breaks eye contact and picks up another huge slate of limestone. “Reinforcing the riverbank before the rains really start. I don’t want you to have to deal with any flooding come winter.”

“Ah . . .” I don’t tell him that I’d rather drown than live through any storms after he is gone. It would only hurt him more. “Thank you. Of course you’d think of this.”

He stacks the rock on top of the other and attacks a muscular log he must have collected downstream.

“Aiden, love, that looks really heavy. I don’t want you to get hurt. At least wait for Benson and you can do it together.”

“I’ll be fine.” He hoists the log over his shoulder and wedges it between the slabs of concrete. He moves with determination, as though something vital depends on him finishing this.

“Where did you learn how to do that?” I ask, suddenly unable to carry my wicker basket.

“The Corps.”

The place that started it all for him and is ending it all for us. “Why don’t you take a break for a bit? I brought some breakfast. Will you eat with me?”

He wrestles a boulder of granite, rolling it down to the bank. I don’t wait for his answer—I can’t. I drop on the dewy grass before my knees give out and start taking out the food. Perhaps he will actually eat out here, where we first listened to the willows together. That perfect memory of hope shimmers in my vision, filling me with longing. He rips off his work gloves with a sigh and tosses them by his tools. I see him stride toward me from the corner of my eye, but I don’t look up to give him the moment. I focus on spreading out our picnic blanket, setting out the plates, hoping he allows himself some calm as he watches.

“Here.” I pat the blanket when I finish. “Come on, sit with me.”

“Thank you,” he answers, but he doesn’t sit close. He folds on the other side of the blanket, seeming as far as across the ocean. Grief crackles in the space between us like static. The compulsion to touch him becomes acute to the point of pain. And even though I have waited all night to see him, abruptly I feel as though one gaze from him would shatter me. But he is staring at the breakfast spread like it’s going to devour him, not he it. I wrap my arms around my torso so they don’t move on their own. His hands are closed into tight fists on his knees.

“Eat something,” I coax. “It’s not as good as when your mum makes it, but it has happy memories.”

“It’s beautiful, but I’ll eat when you do.”

It takes river-harnessing strength to unravel my fingers and pick up a forkful of crispy potatoes. He mirrors my movements, swallowing hard as if the bacon turns to glass in his throat. We eat slowly, bite after bite in silence, except the willows’ lament. It swells around us like a siren song.

“Do you still hear them?” I whisper, listening to their chorus.

He nods, taking a sip of coffee from my thermos, his lips wrapping where mine do. I’m too afraid to ask him what he hears, and I don’t want him to ask me back. How can I answer ashes, ashes, ashes?

“Did you get any sleep at all last night?” I ask instead. Another question with a difficult answer, but one worth fighting about.

“About as much as you.”

How can I lie about that? How can I tell him the truth and make him feel worse? “But you need sleep a lot more than I do right now. Did you listen to Für Elise?”

“I have things to take care of, Elisa. There isn’t a lot—”

He stops abruptly, but he doesn’t need to finish. I know. There isn’t a lot of time left to secure my entire life before he leaves. My fingers break through my flimsy control and grip his free hand. Warmth shoots up my spine even though his skin is wintry from the night. I know I should drop it—even this slight contact makes him shudder—but the feel of it, so homey and strong, seeps into my bones, nestling there like marrow. “Aiden, I really wish you would come inside at night.”

He pulls back his hand, his eyes burning like the absence of his touch. “Elisa, not this again.”

“Please, just listen. We don’t have to sleep in the same bed or even bedroom—I know you won’t do that—but you can sleep in the guestroom or the sofa where it’s warm and comfortable.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ve told you, the ground feels more natural to me in times like this.”

He did—the first time I saw his Alone Place. Of course he will revert to the habits that kept him alive then. “Just because it feels natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you. We have to do the opposite now. You should be in the cottage where you have happy and calm memories, not on the spot that has tortured you every morning.”

“We had to do the opposite when we thought it would work. It didn’t. But I’ll use Für Elise, if it will help yousleep.”

“But that song is only one thing, love. Corbin, Doctor Helen, even you have said that being around me adds hours of rest for you, and a deeper sleep. Even if we’re not in the same bed, the effect of all the other calming and happy associations in the cottage will help, so that you can heal enough for what’s ahead.”

He sets down the thermos, not responding or looking my way. Perhaps he has nothing more to say. Or perhaps like me, he doesn’t think anything can prepare him.

“Please, Aiden,” I press. “I hate knowing you’re out here at night, thinking God-knows-what when we should be together for the time we have left.”

Something changes in his face then, almost a shadow of his former anger. His eyes flash to mine. “And then what?” he asks in a low, hoarse voice. “We wake up together on September eighteen and I load up on a plane? Won’t it be hard enough without this? You want to add one more thing we’re going to miss? I stay out here so you can start getting used to what it would be like, Elisa. I stay out here because I don’t know how to breathe through sharing your home but not your touch.”

All my arguments die in my throat. Because he is right: it is hard enough, excruciating. Even breathing—this most elemental function we can do from the moment we’re born—feels impossible, and he is still here. How much more unbearable will it be after he is gone? I’m not brave enough to find out yet. But he has already started enduring it, and it’s destroying him by the hour.

“You’re right,” I finally manage some words. “I will miss sleeping next to you most of all. I just don’t think we should start missing it now.”

“When will it ever be the right time to miss it, Elisa?” He sounds abruptly tired. He rips away his gaze, staring downstream toward the boulder that almost killed me. All light douses in his eyes. Between us, his plate of food lays unfinished, the Baci untouched.

Never, I want to answer, but that will not help him. Only one thing can help him now.

“On September eighteen, love. And there is something that may make it livable then for you, but we need to restart it now.”

He understands immediately. He shakes his head, never looking away from the lethal boulder. “I’m not restarting the reel—we talked about this. I will not expose you to it again. I have not forgotten what it does to you.”

And I have not forgotten what it does to him. I fight back a shiver. “Aiden, there’s no one in this world, except you, who hates the reel more than I do. But I agree with Doctor Helen. We have to prepare you. We have to lay Marshall at rest so you’re freer for . . .” I can’t say the end out loud, but I know he hears it. He stares unseeingly into the grey depths of the river.

“It’s like those slabs of rock, sweetheart,” I continue, unable to stop. “You can’t carry them all at once. You have to lift them one by one.”

“That’s my problem, and I’m not about to unload that burden on you.”

“I’m stronger than you think. And this is as important to me as my protection is to you.”

His jaw flexes in that fury-at-himself way. “I have no doubt about your strength, but the fact that you are strong doesn’t give me permission to put you through hell.”

“You’re not putting me through anything. This is my choice.”

“Exactly. And it is my choice not to expose you to more horror. It was one thing when you stood to gain something from it. It’s quite another now when you would be terrorized simply for my benefit.” His fists tighten against the idea.

“It’s not just for your benefit. It’s for everyone who loves you, too.” Not that I could ever endure the reel for anyone else. I’d rather live through my parents’ funeral a thousand times over than see him watch one more minute of that torment.

“Same answer. You will not be the sacrificial lamb for everyone who has to bear the burden of loving me.”

What a catch-twenty-two we have snared for ourselves. Never brave enough to hurt each other, but brave enough to die in the other’s stead. How can I ever break this tie? There is no argument or logic he will accept. And the only thing that can give us courage is still an unsolved mess. Abruptly, even with all the things left unsaid and the hours racing toward the end, I want to sprint to Bia.

“Loving you is never a burden,” I say, starting to pack up the basket. “Only Fallujah is, and I will not let you carry it alone.” My hands shake at the thought, and my plate slips through my fingers. But his hand flashes out and saves it before it drops on the grass. For a second, our arms brush, his breath whispers on my cheek. Just one second, yet my body responds with vengeance. It turns to him on its own, leaning into his chest like a bolt sliding home. He catches me reflexively, and our eyes meet—then hold. The small space between us closes and changes. Electricity starts to charge in the warm air blowing through our lips. He gazes into my eyes as his blue depths start to lighten, first with calm, then with heat. There is no question of me blinking away. Even my heart seems to stop. My breath comes out fast and ragged, my skin thrumming with his nearness. His own body tenses in response, and his hands grip my waist. For a second, I think he will rip off his favorite sweatshirt, but he doesn’t. He clenches his jaw and shuts his eyes, breaking the spell. Slowly, I feel his fingers loosen, and his arms release me.

“Be safe at Bia.” His voice is rough; his eyes still closed as if he cannot bear to watch. And I know he needs me to leave. I know he chose the healthier option for us both even if it feels like death to me. But for a few moments, I can’t move despite the urgency for the protein. All I can do is watch his face—beautiful beyond limit even if strained with desire and ache.

“Please, Elisa,” he murmurs without opening his eyes.

I gather every wisp of strength from every crevice of my mind and force myself into motion. Except the only thing my limbs can muster is to caress his scar. His breathing hitches with mine, and he shudders under my fingertips. But the L-shaped ridge above his eye reconnects my body to my brain, and I’m able to remember all the reasons why I should run to the lab right now. With more effort than it took to lift coffins, immigration denials, or reels, I pick up my basket and take out the small, ancient stereo, pressing the play button. Für Elise starts weaving with the willow song. Aiden’s eyes fling open. “Use my calm and love, please,” I tell him. “At least until I make you something stronger.”

“There’s nothing stronger,” he answers, his voice still coarse.

I pull myself to my feet, summoning serotonin formulas for strength to leave him here. To find what he needs more than anything. I sense his eyes on me as I dart through the willow garlands. Help me, Dad. Give Aiden peace until I get back, Mum. This is our last chance.

Back inside the cottage, I storm like a tornado through my new getting-ready routine. Wearing Aiden’s socks, spraying his cologne on my neck and wrists, tucking the locket against my chest as if to fill the burning hole gaping there, layering only clothes that trigger happy memories—all like armor to help me breathe. Then I start doing the same for him: sprinkle my Aeternum perfume on his clothes now in the linen cupboard in the foyer, set Für Elise on repeat throughout the cottage in case he comes in. I’m propping a photo of me in the fridge when the door knocks, but I know it’s not Aiden. Benson is towering on the threshold like every morning at this hour to drive me, even though the danger is long gone and Edison is behind bars. But we both know it’s easier on Aiden if I’m not alone.

“Morning, Benson,” I say, grabbing mum’s parka for strength, not warm. “How did you sleep?”

“Fine. How was the night here?”

“The same . . . so worse I should say.”

He frowns, pointing behind his shoulder with his thumb. “I see he’s taken on the river today.”

“The river, the forests, his own self.”

“Don’t worry,” he says as I break into a run down the garden path. “I’ll check on him during the day.”

“Thank you. I don’t know what we would do without you.”

He smiles but it doesn’t wipe the creases on his forehead. “You won’t have to find out.”

The ride to Bia is short as Benson speeds through the sapphire dawn. It’s as though he knows without speaking that I can’t waste a single second. I will miss him terribly when he is gone. This gentle, quiet presence protecting us at every turn. And not just him, but the whole new constellation Aiden has chartered for me. As if hearing the very thought, my phone buzzes in my pocket. I yank it out with greed, knowing exactly who is up with us at this hour across the globe.

Stella: Darling, I pray you got some sleep. We love you both. We’re with you. I overnighted another care package with happy things. It should get there tomorrow afternoon your time. Please call when you can. Oh, how I wish I were there!

Robert: Elisa, we were talking: what if we came and stayed in London or somewhere closer in case you need us? Would Doctor Helen and Corbin approve of that?

Javier: Amorcita, how did the night go? Let me know when you can chat. Love you. You’re not alone. I can come right back.

Reagan: Isa, I’m packed and ready. Say the word and I’ll be there. Don’t let Aiden go, no matter what anyone says. Xo.

James Callahan: Hey pest, you up yet? How’s he? Helen and Corbin are on my shitlist. Why the fuck can’t we come?

Ryan Hendrix: Hey Trouble! What Cal said. Fuck the docs. We want to be there.

Jazzman: We can’t be there if the docs think it would hurt him, Cal. That’s the whole fucking point. They obvs have a plan. It’s not Elisa’s choice.

James Callahan: What the fuck do they know? We’ve always stuck together before.

Jazzman: But this time Elisa can help him more with her calming effect than we can with our triggers. Are you a fucking neuroscientist now? Elisa, ignore him. What else can we do to help?

James Callahan: Fuck this. I’m getting on a plane.

I almost drop the phone, heart in shreds. Because they have every right to want to be here. If only it wouldn’t make it worse for Aiden. But how much worse than this can it get? I shiver just thinking the question. Every time I ask it, a new wave of horror finds a way to drown us. I thumb back a reply, needing auto-correct multiple times from my trembling fingers.

Hey all, thank you for everything. Sorry for the group text, but I’m on my way to work. I’ll talk to Doctor Helen again today and let you know what she says. In the meantime, can each of you text Aiden some photos of your day? Only happy or positive images, no words—that should reduce the negative triggers. I’ll call you after work. Love you.

My text bubble has barely floated on the screen when Benson curves around the chemistry car park, skidding to a stop. I missed the whole ride here. Outside Rover’s window, Oxford’s golden heartline sparkles with the first rays of sun. But its soft glow burns my retinas, harsher than all the combined sunrises Aiden and I have watched together, wrapped around each other. I shove my phone in my purse and hop out of the car before Benson can get to my door.

“Late again tonight?” he confirms.

“And every other night until I solve this. I’ll be in the lab all day—Doctor Helen will check on me. You stay with him, please. Make sure you both eat. His favorite chicken soup is in the fridge. Cora sent me the recipe.”

“Don’t worry, Isa. Focus on whatever smart thing you’re doing to help him. Believe it or not, physical labor can help with things like this. The harder, the better.” He winks, trying to cheer me up, but doesn’t move as I sprint across the quad to the chemistry building. I’m already deep in serotonin calculations by the time I bound inside the lobby.

And then for a few seconds it’s like returning to England all over again. The news of Edison’s betrayal has exploded, and curious, blood-shot eyes follow me everywhere despite the early hour. But dad’s bust waits for me like a steadying anchor. I resist stroking his bronze cheek and dart down the hall, looking down at my Byron sneakers.

I burst through Bia’s door, expecting it to be empty, but Graham is there already, hunched over his workstation, staring at the gleaming tiles in his rain jacket. I don’t expect that either—he is never in the lab without his white coat, doing nothing. He looks up at me, no sunny smile on his drawn face. But at least that look is now familiar. He hasn’t smiled once since Edison’s blow, even though the coppers, Oxford, and Aiden’s own private investigation cleared him of any involvement.

“Morning, Graham,” I say, feeling a twinge of sorrow and even more regret that I can’t be alone yet. “You beat me today—did you have a spark?”

He shakes his head and stands. Only now I notice a small package in his hand, wrapped in lab paper. “No sparks; only wanted to catch you before you got started.” His desolate voice derails me from my own hell, and regret becomes worry.

“Graham, what is it? You sound really upset.”

He seems to force a small smile. “I’m taking leave for a while. I just wanted to give you this.” He hands me the white rectangle while I try to blink through this surprise.

“Leave? But why? You love Bia. The 2-AG is your life.”

“That’s precisely why. I’ve been doing loads of thinking, Eliser. If I hadn’t been so obsessed with that bloody molecule, I’d have seen Edison for who he was. Instead, I was so consumed, I ended up passing him information that almost got you hurt. I—” His breath catches, but he squares his shoulders. “I’m sorrier than I could ever say. I was a rubbish friend, a miserable mentor, and an all-around disappointment.”

“No, don’t say that!” I argue, my throat tightening. The only friend I’ve made here, a brilliant chemist on his own right who adored my father, is now exiling himself from the very axis of his life, because of my mistakes. “This wasn’t your fault at all. None of us saw Edison for who he was, not even me and I had several red flags.”

He shakes his head again. “Professor Snow knew it. I’m sure of it now. That’s why he left me no clues about the protein. He must have known I’d fall for the arsehole’s lies. I disappointed your father, too, and almost stained his legacy. I deserve this and a lot worse.”

“Of course you don’t!” I counter, trying to think of a truth I can share with him. “I think dad was protecting you, Graham. If he suspected Edison, he would have never placed you at risk. That’s why he didn’t tell you, not because he didn’t trust you.”

He squints at the package in my hand as he does when he tries to solve the 2-AG algorithms, hopefully believing me. “Your father is exactly who I aspired to be,” he says after a moment.

“You can still be like him. Don’t go now. You’re—we’re lab partners . . . friends.”

He smiles again without any sunshine, but this seems more real. “You don’t need me, Eliser. I’ve known for a while you’re light years ahead in this. You have his brain. You will solve the protein, I just need to get out of your way.” He raises an eyebrow slightly, and suddenly I have a feeling he knows I have been hiding something, a secret a lot more important than he ever told Edison.

“I don’t need you just to solve chemistry problems. I’ll miss you as a friend. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Stay, and we can start over,” I say, even though “starting” has nothing to do with me. But I realize now how much I was counting on his presence. Aiden will leave forever—all love, life, meaning, purpose will be over. Javier is just starting the stratospheric future that has been waiting for him. Reagan will hopefully be by his side as he reaches all his dreams. The Solises have finally found their peace. And the Plemmonses will eventually pass away. But Graham was supposed to be the constant in this imploded cloud of ash. Avogadro’s Number expressed in our devotion to chemistry, our mutual admiration for dad. I thought perhaps this is how I would exist after September eighteen: working with Graham in this lab, both married to science with zero romantic interest, both missing the compass of our lives, him striving toward an ideal, me trying to breathe away from it. I didn’t imagine I was going to lose even that.

Perhaps he senses some of this, more emotionally perceptive than he would ever guess. “Despite the wanker, you have a lot of friends here, Eliser. Let them in.” He reaches in his pocket and fishes out his keys to Bia, dropping them on my desk. “I’ve recommended you as interim lab manager until they find someone more senior. That way you’ll have Bia to yourself. And if you stay true to who you are, I think you’ll run this place someday.”

He runs his hand over his workstation and passes by me while I watch more versions of the future fade away.

“I don’t want to run Bia,” I counter even though I can sense it will be futile. “I’d rather work with dad’s favorite student. Maybe a protein for detecting wankers early next time? Or cure unnecessary guilt?”

He pauses at the door, looking over his shoulder with a faint smile. “Don’t name a bench after me yet. I might be back eventually. Until then, take care of that.” He points at the package in my hand. “Your father gave it to me my first year when I ruined my first experiment.” His butterscotch eyes sweep over Bia one last time, and then he is gone.

I stare at the closed door, feeling off balance. How many times have I wished he would leave so I had time to test alone, and now that he has, I can’t imagine Bia without him at the helm. It seems unnatural, like a rose without petals or Oxford without its spires. Not as life-ending as a world without Aiden—nothing can ever compare to that—but lonely in its own way. Not to mention the added worry it will cause Aiden to hear that I lost a friend, especially a friend that was safe. What can I do to hide it from him with how determined he is to leave everything in order? It’ll be easier to clone Graham than keep this a secret.

I rip the paper off the small package, riddled with guilt. Inside is a silver frame, but that’s not what makes me gasp. It’s the letter it contains in dad’s slanted script.

Graham, he has written,

Don’t despair. There’s no such thing as a failed experiment. There’s only trying, then trying again. And when things seem hopeless, step outside. Everything is better after a deep breath of fresh air. I prefer the old bench myself. It has a rare magic. You may use it anytime.

I caress the glass cover as the words become blurry with tears. I know the magic he meant—it was the magic of love, of our carved initials that I told Aiden about. Not that Graham would have known that, but he obviously cherished this simple wisdom for years. And now he gave it to me despite his own need. I set the frame on his workstation, take a photo of it with my phone, and text it to him.

Thank you. It will wait for you here while you take a deep breath. Do it and come back.

Three grey dots hesitate on the screen, then his answer pops up: Keep at it, Eliser.

And I know I won’t hear from him again for a long while. I hope he finds his oxygen even as I struggle for mine.

I wipe my eyes and follow dad’s advice. Try again. Because I cannot fail this experiment. In failing at this, I forfeit my will to live. And Aiden cannot survive that. I throw on the lab coat and wheel to the fridge, taking out the ampules of serotonin and the twelfth oxytocin. My hands steady the moment I touch the cold glass, then my fingers start flying through the motions with the same desperation that Aiden is moving boulders. Quicker than any other time in my life even though I no longer have Graham to race. But another deadline, deadlier than all the others, is looming closer by the second. And all those frenzied prior experiments—in the first dark days in England, the hours waiting for Javier’s trial, the rage at dad—seem peaceful compared to the current horror. The pipettes seem to fuse with my bones, becoming their own entity. But no matter how many serotonin doses I try, the solution stays the same old indigo sap, bubbling here and there like boiling mud. Still I keep injecting more serotonin with manic precision, milliliter after milliliter, ampule after ampule, molecule of fear after molecule of fear—ninety vials, one hundred, tic toc, tic toc—until abruptly dizziness strikes. A sudden weakness lashes at my knees, and I grip the workstation for balance. What on earth is happening?

I drop on the stool, blinking through my tunnel vision to make sense of the change. And then I see it. The clock on the wall, ticking away time. Bloody hell, no wonder I almost collapsed! How is it already two thirty? How have I worked nine hours straight without any food or break? Even worse, how did I not make a single difference? The crystal vial rests in front of me useless, filled with blue sludge. I almost hurl it in the sink and set it on fire. But I’m still dizzy and have made a promise to be safe. A promise I just broke like a thousand vials. Aiden would be besides any remnant of self if he saw this fiasco, and he would be absolutely right. I wouldn’t put him past him to hire someone to spoon-feed me three times a day, plus snacks.

I rest my cheek on the cool porcelain tiles and close my eyes, waiting for the vertigo to pass. I try to feel past the terror and anger at myself and think only of his sandalwood cologne filling my lungs. And quickly, dizziness subsides. That’s when I realize my other mistake. In my focus, I forgot to keep breathing. What hope do we have if I can’t handle oxygen and chemistry at the same time? Especially when we need both to survive.

I lift my head—it’s pounding now—and stand slowly, testing my legs. All that’s needed to end the world is me spraining my ankle on top of everything else. On Graham’s empty workstation, dad’s frame reflects the fluorescents. When things seem hopeless, step outside. Well, they’ve never been more hopeless than now. I decide to trust him again. What else do I have left?

Carefully, I use the restroom, gulp some water, then grab my lunch and shuffle out to the quad. As soon as I step outside, a light breeze cools my clammy face. The afternoon sun has gilded the air with a molten haze. Students and professors hurry by, some peeking at me, others carrying on with their day. I trudge to the bench with its new bronze plaque, taking a deep breath, concentrating only on the gasping flow. Is this ever going to get any easier? Or will it always feel like a war just to find air, let alone inhale it? I don’t mind for myself—I would fight that war every minute because if I breathe, Aiden breathes. But isn’t there anything left I can do to make this easier for him?

I draw another gulp of fresh breeze and eat my BLT sarnie, trying to think. What am I missing here? Is it just a matter of finding the right dosage or do I need an entirely new element or two or three? Why did you make it so difficult, Dad? There are no answers in our carved initials under the bench.

Futilely, I open the locket where Aiden’s scroll of oxytocin is tucked with dad’s clue. Both worn from the hundreds of times I have read them.

Fifth time. Not December. Add love.

But no matter how long I stare at the words, I find nothing new. “Fifth time. Not December. Add love,” I mumble under my breath over and over until it sounds like a tongue twister. Fifth time—not December—add love. Fifth times not December add love. 

Abruptly, right then, something clicks! When I chant the words this way—quickly, together like a sentence without periods or breaks—their meaning changes. Their sound transforms. And the entire quad vanishes. Instead, numbers and elements spring in my vision, flitting around like the letters of Solstice Gallery in my sleepwalking dream—the dream that gave me the truth about Aiden and Feign. For a wild second I think it’s another dizzy spell, but it’s not. My mind delivers another verdict now as it did then. The elusive answer, the solution that has been haunting my every minute asleep or awake, the yes to all the prayers and wishes. The very obvious formula I have been missing. The antidote to terror.

“Oh my God!” I choke out. “Bloody hell! Is this—no—yes—it has to be. It’s dad’s style: two meanings in everything! It’s not just three sentences, it’s one key! Holy fuck! How on earth did I miss this?”

I stare at the symbols dancing in my vision, unable to blink. I know I should run and test the theory right now, but I can’t move past the epiphany, past the images as my mind breaks through another barrier. The formula spins out as vividly as if etched in dad’s handwriting under this bench. And not just the formula, but the message behind the clue, the lesson behind the solution.

“Thank you, Dad. I get it now,” I murmur in wonder. “I see it so clearly, but am I too late?”

L-a-t-e. The four letters unfreeze me. The outside world blinks into focus again, but only briefly, just enough blinks to register the elderly groundskeeper frowning at me in concern, and then I’m running. Bursting back through the building doors, crashing into a body, shoving it out of my way, and hurling myself down the hall to Bia, straight at the refrigerator. Then I start ripping out fistfuls of ampules in a tray because if I’m right, it will take more serotonin—a lot more self-love—to erase fear. Sixty times the amount of oxytocin to be exact. Five times twelve, add love. For every milliliter of love you need five times more confidence, more faith in yourself. That must be the true meaning of the clue.

I dump all my old work into the sink and line up everything anew on my station. The 2-AG spun five times, minus magnesium. The twelfth oxytocin, five milliliters. Serotonin, sixty milliliters. And the peptides to bind everything together. My hands don’t shake, but my heart is ricocheting off my ribs. I secure a large vial with clamps and start pouring in the ingredients, watching them change with my throat clenched like closure.

It’s not a transformation like any I have ever seen. It’s almost a dance. First the music of the molecules wrapping around each other. An ahh here, a pop there, a hushed ssss. Then love spins with fear, the purple and golden fluids twirling to a lilac shimmer. One leads, the other follows, one takes, the other gives, but both fading, equal forces bubbling above the flames of the burner, until confidence waltzes in. They vibrate together then, rocketing from a gentle tango to a tribal beat. Blending their atomic crescendo, swirling and pirouetting before my incredulous eyes, faster and faster as the liquid emulsifies. The vial starts to shake in the steel clasps, and a violet smoke spirals from it, igniting into golden sparks. I gasp and duck away reflexively, but the fiery stars don’t scatter. They shoot up like a fountain while, underneath, the viscous potion starts darkening, from violet to orchid. Another ripple billows through the liquid with a hiss. Then in the same second, quicker than I ever could have dreamed, the cloud of vapor dissipates completely and the substance pivots to a full stop.

I watch in a trance the amethyst mixture as it settles fluidly at the bottom of the vial. It’s not the hard candy consistency I had envisioned at all. It’s a wondrous texture, part-liquid, part-solid with a pearlescent aura at the very top like a halo. Yet despite the clarity, it looks oddly impermeable, unyielding.

I stand rooted on the spot, eyes wider than my goggles, not daring to breathe, waiting for . . . anything. Fizzing, exploding, dissolving, or simply waking up. Just another false start. But I know I’m not dreaming because Aiden isn’t here. And because a sense of conviction washes over me, more powerful than instinct. Conviction that this is it. Bravery has arrived. After hundreds of hours, countless tears, endless prayers and searches and calculations and tests, right when it was the last resort, when failure was no option, courage is finally ours.

Yet time ticks away and I still can’t move. The vial of bravery rests confidently, waiting like me.

Waiting for fears to tame, terrors to fight, love to save.

S-a-v-e. It takes only those four letters again. And then I’m the one spinning. Not to swallow the protein, although I’m certain it would not harm me in the slightest, but to do this right for Aiden. I unlock the vial—it’s warm, almost hot to the touch—seal it and wrap it safely inside mum’s parka several times, clutching it to my chest. Then I sprint out of Bia, jumping the stairs two at a time. More students and professors give me a wide berth as I huff and leap out in the quad, but I’m already gone, hurtling down the cobblestoned lanes, flying through doors, catapulting in the lift, toward the only person here I can trust.

It takes only a frantic blink to find the familiar office, but its door is closed. I pound on it with my foot, almost tearing it off its hinges. It flings open and Doctor Helen glowers there with a look of outrage that changes instantly to alarm when she sees me.

“Elisa? Good heavens, whatever has happened? Are you alright?”

“It’s—done!” I wheeze, leaning against the door frame and holding out the crumpled parka for her.

She frowns at the ball of red fabric in my hands. “What’s done? Elisa, what’s the matter? Is Aiden hurt—?”

“No—the—protein—it’s done—it’s here!”

A different shock drops over her face in comprehension as her grey eyes widen beyond her rimless glasses. “I don’t believe it!” she breathes, staring incredulously at the parka hiding the vial even though she can’t see through it.

“Test me!” I splutter while she stands there, frozen. “Test me while I take it—my life signs, its strength, everything! Make sure it’s safe for Aiden.”

That unthaws her. She blinks back at me in unconcealed bewilderment as I had feared. “That’s outrageous. We can’t test it on you—”

“I know it’s safe—I’ve tried it before—but for him I want to do it right. Please, we don’t have time to waste. Every hour he grows worse. Every night, I’m losing him before he’s even gone.”

Conflict implodes in her stunned mien. Science and ethics on one side, requiring rigorous rules for testing, but medicine and humanity on the other, mandating immediate action. It’s not a battle Aiden can afford to lose.

“Please, Doctor Helen!” I rasp again, shoving the protein closer to her hands. “I’m begging. You know I’ll do it anyway. Help me do it right. I have to save him! He will not survive the end without this, and you know it!”

That’s all it takes. The hesitation vanishes from her face. “When you put it that way . . .” And before I can gasp thank you or crumble to my knees in relief, she grabs my elbow as if unsure I can stand anymore and tows me down the hall to her vast lab. The white walls blur past me with the sudden motion, then the myriad of screens blare everywhere, all displaying Aiden’s mind as she must be relentlessly studying it. I almost trip over my feet as she marches us across the polished expanse to the electroencephalograph in the corner that measures Aiden’s heart and brain waves.

“Very well.” Doctor Helen gestures toward the chair where Aiden sat the day she took a photo of our kiss. “Let’s be brave.”

But the second she utters that last word out loud, unmistakable panic implodes inside me. I plop down on his old seat, staring at the stormy images of his memory. So staggering and unfathomable compared to the delicate vial tucked in my chest. Doctor Helen holds out her hands for the protein. “May I take it?” she asks, her voice softer as if she sees the havoc. “I will just place it next to you while we get set up.”

I nod woodenly and hand her my precious cargo. The moment it’s out of my touch, the lab’s cold air nips my fingers. A shiver slithers down my spine. She sets the parka undisturbed on her control desk with the wires of electrodes fraying out of it like nerves.

“I’ll need you to remove your blouse, Elisa,” she adds, sounding apologetic. “Please, don’t be embarrassed. No one will dare to come here with me inside, I promise.”

I manage another nod and start wrestling with my locket and buttons, but my hands are shaking so much that she has to help me. I don’t know why, but now that I’m sitting here on this chair, a terror unlike any other I have ever felt crushes me. The policeman telling me there has been an accident was nothing. The ambulance ride to the hospital was almost a breeze. The two beloved bodies in the morgue come close, but still don’t compare to this dread. Neither does Javier’s imprisonment or his trial or leaving America or Edison’s blow. Bravery is resting only a foot away, yet every droplet of my blood feels frozen solid. Because what if it still doesn’t work? What if even this weapon fails? For all our closure and preparation, I know deep down we have gambled our last hope on this one vial. And I’m about to roll the dice on our survival.

Peripherally, I feel my locket and blouse peel away as shiver after shiver ripples over my skin.

“I’m sorry, I know it’s cold here,” Doctor Helen says, but we both know my goosebumps have nothing to do with the temperature in the lab. She starts placing the electrodes on me gently, as Old Morse did with Aiden. On my temples, forehead, scalp, neck, pulse, sternum, wrists, hands. Her touch is light and warm, triggering distant memories of mum combing my hair.

“You look exhausted, Elisa,” she observes as she pastes the last electrode over my thunderous heart. “No sleep again last night?”

I open my mouth to speak but, just then, the wide screen to my right blares with my own heartbeat, and my EKG and brain activity lines blast across it.

“Oh, child!” Doctor Helen’s grave voice mutes my startled gasp as I stare at the monitor in horror. I don’t know anything about neuroscience, but even I can tell my heartline looks nothing like the waves of love that undulated for Aiden. Mine is craggy like the daggers of glass in the library the night Edison struck. And the second line—my brain—is stabbing and plunging erratically as a thrashing power line. My beeps are different, too, more like the rise and fall of ambulance sirens.

“Elisa, dear, you’re terrified,” Doctor Helen reads the data easily as she takes the chair in front of me, the chair I perched on for Aiden. To my surprise, she folds her organza hands around my wired wrists. “I could see that even without the monitor, but the intensity is too high. Let’s try to relax for a moment so we can get a baseline reading, shall we?”

I try. I summon every strategy and trick I know—Aiden’s cologne, the locket, the periodic table, Maria’s prayers, even a photo of our kiss—but they’re all futile. The monitor keeps wailing.

“Deep breaths, Elisa, try for a deep breath with me,” Doctor Helen coaches patiently, inhaling and exhaling to set the tempo. “Keep the faith that it will be all right.”

The knives of terror slash my heartline. “How?” I gasp.

“Follow Peter’s advice that you shared during your speech. ‘Have faith in science when you don’t know, in your heart when you do, and in yourself to be able to tell the difference.’ Maybe your love and this protein will be enough.”

“And if it’s not?” I whisper the words, unwilling to voice them into reality.

Her hands tighten on my wrist, digging in the electrodes. “Then you’ll know you did everything you could.”

I know she is trying to assure me, but all I hear is the postscript: that this is truly our last shot. Another round of beeps fires from the computer like bullets. I focus only on the sterilized air, trying in vain to calm my heartrate. Hydrogen, 1.008, Helium, 4.0026…

Doctor Helen must see the futility in my efforts. “It’s all right, Elisa,” she murmurs, eyes trained on the riotous screen. “I’ll work with this. It’s not standard but in a way, it might make the test more accurate. We won’t have to manufacture fear artificially.”

Manufacture? There could never be any lab-made fear that can compare to this. She stands, setting my quivering hands on my bouncing knees. Then gently, she starts unraveling mum’s parka, finding the vial nestled within.

“Oh but it’s beautiful!” she marvels, and even in my state, I know she is right. “I’ve never seen a substance like this.” Her inquisitive eyes dissect the part-fluid, part-solid elixir. The lilac halo shimmers on the surface unbroken like sunrise mist over the clearest lake. I sense her trying to grasp every facet, but she doesn’t ask me details about how, what, why. She lets me keep those secrets, and for that I’m grateful. She picks up the vial ever so carefully, shaking it gently. “It’s warm,” she muses in wonder. The knives on my heartline sharpen to razor-thin blades as the seconds to the truth tick closer. She peers at me, her gaze filling with apprehension. “Are you sure it’s not harmful, Elisa?”

“Positive,” I breathe, feeling the only gust of certainty. Of all my fears, this is not one. “Dad would have never left me something that could hurt me.”

“That’s true,” she agrees with evident relief. “How many doses do you have in this vial?”

I have no doubts about this answer either. “Three. That was dad’s style: one for each of us in a moment of need. He and I followed the same dosing for the nutritional supplement.”

Her silver eyebrows arch in surprise. “Ingenious. And how long will it last?”

I sense this answer, too, but not from anything dad taught me. “I’d guess a few hours at most. Serotonin has a very short half-life on the brain, but oxytocin can linger. We’ll need to test it to be sure, but I can’t see dad creating something that would eliminate an entire emotion for extended periods.”

“I tend to agree with that analysis. Very good.” Her voice bustles with finality. “Are you ready?”

The beeps trumpet like an alarm clock. “I am.”

She unseals the vial—my hands are too shaky to attempt it—and carefully brings it to my lips. The crystal rim is warm with the protein’s internal heat. “Let’s start with a tiny drop first,” Doctor Helen suggests. And with a slight tip of her hand, I taste bravery for the first time.

And almost vomit instantly. The beautiful tincture is pungent to the extreme. Bitter and sour, not quite as unendurable as denatonium, but certainly worse than raw thistle or citric acid. My throat seizes up against it, and the monitor shrieks. Doctor Helen stops immediately.

“Elisa, what’s the matter? Does it hurt?”

I force down the pool of saliva that surged in my mouth to drown the taste. “No, it’s tolerable. Dad must not have had time to refine the taste . . .” Or perhaps the revolting taste is the point. Like sulfuric acid added to gas to warn or stop you. Perhaps you have to be in dire need to take this. Is that part of dad’s message? Why? “I’ll have to adjust the flavor before Aiden ingests it, not that he would complain.”

A sad smile lifts her lips. “Of course not. Shall we go on?”

“Yes, but in one go this time.” I don’t want to gag and waste a single droplet.

“You read my mind.”

I open my mouth wider, and she pours a third of the vial in one swift spill. I gulp it down instantly but despite the speed, my entire body protests, from my throat to my toes. I have to clamp down my teeth and grip the edges of the chair not to spew it out. But as soon as the potion slides past the gagging point, the taste changes abruptly. It becomes numbing like lidocaine, though only for a few seconds. Then the bitterness starts to fade at the precise moment that a cloud of heat engulfs me, starting from the pit of my stomach and radiating to my fingertips.

“Oh!” I gasp as the racket of beeps literally skips a beat.

“Elisa?” Doctor Helen prompts, but abruptly several things happen at once. A feeling of raw power sweeps over me like a tidal wave. I feel my body snap out of a hunch I didn’t know I was holding. An awareness of physical strength spreads on my skin like a layer of steel. In the same split second my vision sharpens. Like an invisible veil has been ripped off, and every detail becomes crystalline. The first thing I see—although “see” no longer seems to be an adequate verb—is the screen. It looks oddly smaller, not as vast as I had been perceiving. The knives of terror in my brain waves judder as I stare bewildered, and the jagged edges of my heart rate quiver.

“Whoa!” I cry out, transfixed, as the gold of my heartline brightens into sunshine yellow. My brain waves sparkle electric blue, similar to Aiden’s neural activity. Then the digital wailing stops as suddenly as it began, the sirens quieting to chimes and the blades flattening to wavelets.

“Astounding!” Doctor Helen murmurs, but in the same breath, the lab bursts into a focus so clear that all images I have ever viewed through powerful microscopes dim in comparison. And not just clearer, but friendlier. The stark white expanse looks more like a powdery snowfall. The blue storm of Aiden’s memory images seems like a summer ocean. The blood-red button that can incinerate our brains twinkly as a ladybug. And the Amazonian neuroscientist who has always intimidated me looks kindred—a fairy godmother. I see her shrewd eyes widening in awe and her mouth falling open, but I also see her vulnerability, her age. Even the height difference between us shrinks as my vision impossibly hones further. And not just my vision now, but the rest of my senses. My hearing is clarion, not muffled by any hammering of blood in my ears. The calm computer beeps sound cheerful, like jingle bells at Christmas. The lab feels sultry like the rose garden. The hard chair under my fingers like putty. My sense of smell clears too as though I have had a stuffed nose all my life that has finally cleared. I can smell the distinct electric odor of the technology, a faint freesia perfume that must be wafting from Doctor Helen, the ethanol of the sanitizer. All richer, but instantly irrelevant. There is only one fragrance I care about inhaling. My wrist flies to my nose despite the electrodes. And Aiden’s fading cologne suddenly rules everything. It’s as if I have never smelled it before this moment. I try to find words for it but cannot. Pure beauty, almost soporific, and even though I’ve never felt more awake, abruptly my new eyes want to close. I inhale single-mindedly, and desire sings from my every pore, stunning me with its force. How can I possibly feel this when I was just drowning in terror? But terror is long gone like a distant, vague dream from a lifetime ago.

All this takes only a few seconds. Then a sense of endless possibility grips me. My mind seems to clear some quantum leap because the world transforms again, at once expanding and narrowing. It’s as though I can see farther in the distance, yet it would take only one step to traverse thousands of miles. Because cross them I would. As sudden as the changes in perception are, they don’t compare to this new conviction, this creed that I can do absolutely everything and anything.

Take the walls around me: I think I could demolish them. The ocean between here and America: I would swim it. Planes across the sky: I would ride on their wings. Every insurgent in Fallujah: I would find them and flay them alive, first the skin from the flesh, then the flesh from the bone, body part by body part. I would die at the end—I’m surprised by the certainty and irrelevance of that knowledge—but I absolutely would attempt all of it. My mind, freed of all fear, can already analyze exactly the preparation I would want; want but not need because right now, I’m the most fearless human that exists.

“Elisa?” Doctor Helen’s voice weaves easily through my refined perception, but it rings differently than a minute ago. Although louder than usual from her evident concern, her tone sounds soothing like a nighty-night. I realize then exactly what the protein is doing beyond honing my senses and strengthening my body. It’s converting any potential stimulus of fear into one of comfort. Doctor Helen is right: it’s truly ingenious.

“Yes?” I hear my own voice for the first time. The timbre distracts me. It’s more musical than I ever knew but, more than that, it’s slow and measured as though it has lassoed time.

Time! The name of our terrifying foe croons smoothly in my head, not chopped up in four letters and mental gasps. Time, time, time! It plays as easily through my thoughts as Für Elise. It will finish me in the end—I haven’t forgotten that—but it doesn’t matter because I own it until then. For once, time is not an enemy, nor an ally or a friend. Time is an equal.

Another second has ticked by. My entire transformation from terror to invincibility has taken only one minute.

“Your EKG and EEG are extraordinary,” Doctor Helen murmurs, staring in wonder at the monitor where the sunshine and ocean waves are now rising and swelling deeply in perfect synchronicity. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Could you describe what you’re feeling?”

In response to her question, the raw force of my mind breaks into the emotional realm. And then I feel it, truly feelbravery for the first time. It floods every corner of my being, flushing out every obstacle my fears had ever constructed. I always thought the protein would make us untouchable, impervious. But as it gushes inside me, I don’t feel less, I feel more. A lot more than I could have ever imagined I had room to feel. And that’s exactly when I grasp the full impact of the protein, its repercussions, the possibilities, why dad made it so difficult, maybe even why he kept it hidden, perhaps not just from Edison.

Because now that fear has cleared out of my system, it has freed space for every other flicker of emotion. And has magnified it to the nth degree. Surprise, calm, joy, grief, longing . . . although opposites, somehow they coexist in the same heartbeat. So deep and unfathomable, no normal human could breathe through them. The beeps on the monitor become stentorian tolls.

Yet, despite their potency, these other emotions are all tangentials. At the very core of my new being is Aiden. His existence pulsates like a blinding star in this realm. The epicenter, the gravity, the alpha and the omega, the nucleus and its energy, the entire meaning. As if every second in my life has led to this one moment of loving him without fear. The feeling is so overwhelming it disorients me. Even my new mind cannot contain it. All thought is replaced instantly by an irrepressible compulsion to protect him. It isn’t a choice; it’s the most basic of instincts. Exactly like self-preservation, as though he is me and I am him.

“I need to go.” The words fire from my lips as I jump to my feet. The action seems sinuous to my new eyes. A side effect of self-love? Confidence that I can be anything, including graceful?

“Elisa, wait!” Doctor Helen cries in alarm, her hand out to stop me from ripping off the electrodes. “What are you doing? We haven’t finished.”

“We don’t need more testing,” I answer, my mind already working, thinking ahead with this new knowledge. “My fears are gone. I need to go help Aiden.” The moment I imagine seeing him, the beeps quicken again, trilling as my heartrate surges forward. Silverbells of the most powerful love any human anywhere has ever felt at any time.

Even stunned, she doesn’t waver. “Of course this is to help Aiden. And I see the EKG and EEG, but I still need to monitor them to ensure you’re safe and the protein is truly working. Can you please answer my question?”

Another deluge of emotion roils through me: impatience, frustration, desire, longing for him. I have to lock my muscles against their intensity as their gravitational pull thrills in my limbs. A bugle call for me to complete what I was meant to do: save Aiden from anyone and everything. But my mind is amplified too. Despite the super-emotions, it can see all implications, the sense in Doctor Helen’s insistence.

“Elisa?” she prompts again. “Do you remember what I asked?”

“I do. You asked how I was feeling.”

“And?”

“I’m trying to find the words. Our language doesn’t have them.”

Worry crumples her forehead. “Neither does science based on what I’m reading. Let’s start with good or bad. Can you tell me that?”

“No, because both good and bad are an absolute understatement. I feel every emotion I have ever felt in my life all at once but magnified, except fear.”

Her eyes deepen, flitting to the computer. On the monitor, my heart and brain waves are billowing in tandem, charged and ready for action as soon as I release my body. “No fear at all?” she verifies.

“None.”

“But every other emotion must feel a lot more powerful based on the data.”

“Oh, yes. By far and away.”

“Even pain.”

I—or perhaps the protein—must have instinctually been shielding the self from this emotion until now, but the moment she says the word out loud, agony strikes inexorably to my consciousness. And once it claims my focus, it detonates through my body with such force that, without the protein, I’m sure it would have demolished me on this floor. As it is, my heartrate plummets again, and the monitor quiets to near-silence. Because all the facets of the truth become finally clear. Despite bravery destroying fear, it cannot heal pain. It cannot erase violent memories. It will not rewire a conditioned reflex. It does not cancel our own honor code. It will not stop time or distance. All those emotions and processes are apparently separate and distinct from fear. And the protein will intensify them, beyond any limit of the human existence. There is only one thing the protein can do for us: vanquish the terror for each other and give us faith in ourselves. Is that enough to make a difference to survival? In a world where we can be either safe in fear or brave in agony, what do we choose in the end?

Doctor Helen has clearly read my emotions in my tolling heartbeat without me needing to answer. “If the pain is this strong,” she says with a deep frown. “We had better be certain fear is truly gone. Some humans survive torture, but fear can kill.”

Yes, it can. Even though I don’t feel it now, I know which emotion I would pick for myself. But for Aiden? That’s an entirely different question. I sit back down on the chair even though my mind is still racing in the future. “What do we need to do to be sure that the protein works?”

Her grey eyes gentle in a godmotherly way, reminding me of the gazes I would see during the funeral. Gazes of sorrow. She sits back on the chair across from me and wraps her hand around mine. “I think you will need to live through a lot of pain, child.”

On the blue screens, the ocean of Aiden’s memories deepens. My heart and brain waves rise and fall with it. But my new mind flexes with confidence. There is no pain I wouldn’t endure for him.

“I am ready,” I answer.

The lab floor throbs with the knell of my heartbeat.©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTERS 31 & 32 – ROMEO & JULIET

Hi friends,

It’s been a while but I have two chapters for you: Chapter 31 – Romeo and Chapter 32 – Juliet. We’re getting close to the end now. Thank you for your patience as I finish this story while coping with some health matters. And special thanks and love to my friends here for checking up on me and being a source of support: Wattle, Linda, Liz, HN, and Suzi. Love, xo, Ani (P.S. There were no songs for these chapters, but I recommend you re-read Chapter 11, Phenomenon, after you read them. They are in some ways bookends to each other.)

31

Romeo

The sound of rain lashing the window wakes me. I open my eyes to the charred light of a grizzly dawn. In that same blink, a shiver whips my skin despite the woolen blanket and heavy quilt over my shoulders. It takes only another blink to realize why. There is no sandalwood body warmth wrapped around me.

“Oh!” I gasp, sitting up. My body screams in protest at the sudden movement. The anesthetic has long faded, leaving behind only the stabs and aches of last night. The soles of my feet burn, my knees sting, my shoulder throbs where I fell against the chair from Edison’s slap, the corner of my mouth smarts where his bony hand struck, and my head pounds from my temples to my eyelids. But worse than all that is the pain in my chest—that jagged, raw feeling when Aiden and I are apart. It hasn’t left me while asleep; it has magnified.

“Hey, hey, easy.” Aiden’s muted voice reaches me from the direction of my old desk only a second before my eyes focus enough to see him flash to my side, still in his sweats and T-shirt. A deluge of relief floods me at the same time that my stomach fills with splinters of ice. Because he is still here like he promised, but he has changed profoundly in the night. The expression of the burning man has vanished as if his agony has scorched everything to ash. There is no flicker of animation on his face. A pallid haze blurs his skin like dust over his former golden glow. The sapphire eyes are glasslike, their sentient depths gone. And tension strains him differently. Not like a sculpture that still evokes emotion in stillness, but like a lifeless body embalmed in eternal beauty. He is no longer thousands of miles away; he has left life.

“Oh, my love!” I hear myself choke out. I scramble out of the covers he must have draped over me and pull him down on the bed, taking him in my arms. His body is rigid and cold. I don’t have to ask how he feels. I just hold him, trying to think of the first words I want him to hear from me right now. His war letters echo in my head as if they’ve been playing like Für Elise in my sleep. “This is not that day either, sweetheart. We go on together, one minute at a time.”

Nothing passes through his stony frame, not even a breath, as he pulls away.

“How are you feeling?” he asks. His voice is dead, too, without any pulse of intonation.

“Worried sick about you. How is your head?” I reach around, feeling the spot gently with my fingertips. The bump has shrunk some, but it’s not gone. “Any dizziness or confusion?”

“No, I’m fine, but I meant your feet and knees. How badly do they hurt?”

Who cares about my stupid feet when he is like this? “Actually, nothing hurts at all,” I lie with conviction, but I don’t fool him.

“I’ll bring you some Tylenol,” he says, standing so fast, I don’t have time to draw breath.

“Aiden, I’m alright, really,” I argue, but he is already out of the bedroom.

My panic skyrockets through the stratosphere. Even in my deepest fears last night, I didn’t think it was possible he could get worse, but I was wrong. It’s as though every minute has sucked out his very soul. And it hasn’t been a lot of minutes. The clock on the nightstand is ticking five thirty. I was out only three hours. What has Aiden been doing since then? Has he heard from Corbin? How many ways has he found to hate himself? The beloved letters are back inside their envelopes, stacked neatly by the clock like handwaves. If I end, you end, he wrote. Even though the idea of him not existing is unendurable, his words give me some air: he goes on if I’m still breathing. But how? I hug my torso, trying to inhale. To be strong for him. I have barely managed two breaths when he returns—morgue white—with a glass of water and a bottle of paracetamol in hand. I take the pills without argument, saving it for bigger fights that are surely ahead.

He sits at the foot of the bed, checking my feet and knees without any sign of life. At least the gauze is still sterile, not a drop of blood has seeped through.

“They really don’t hurt,” I promise again, not even lying this time. I cannot feel anything but dread for him. He doesn’t blink or speak, doesn’t gaze at my face for calm as is his instinct when he needs it most. Something about that makes the base of my skull prickle, but I set it aside for now. “So what have you been doing while I was asleep?” I ask, even though I’m terrified of the answer.

“Taking care of a few things.”

“What things?”

“Getting you a lawyer in the Edison prosecution, for one. I spoke with Bob—he’s contacting a law firm in London who will represent your interests so you won’t have to deal with it. Bob is confident Edison will plead guilty given all the evidence.”

Of course he took care of this. Of course he will take care of everything except the one thing I want: staying with him. “Thank you,” I whisper, a shudder running through me.

Even in hell, he doesn’t miss it. “He will not bother you ever again, Elisa.”

I nod, letting him misunderstand. My shivers have nothing to do with Edison anymore.

“And for what is worth, I don’t think Graham was in on it,” he adds. “We’ll watch him closely but . . .” He trails off, his eyes drifting inertly to the letters. “I think he would be a safe friend for you.” There is something about his statement, like he has put a lot of thought in it despite its simplicity. I change topics immediately, afraid he has been contemplating who I should be with instead of him.

“What else did you do other than mobilize an international legal team at my defense?”

“Informed Oxford and drafted your report to them about Edison. You should review and submit it this morning. They’ll need to change security codes and take other measures.”

“I’m sure it’s perfect if you wrote it. What else?” I’m still terrified. Any normal human would not have had time to ponder right and wrong after doing all that, but Aiden probably did this and a lot more.

He sighs, no doubt hearing the fear in my voice. “Think, work, Corbin—”

“Oh, thank God!” The words blurt from my mouth. “He called you already?”

He nods once. I expect, even hope for that tight reaction to Corbin’s name he had last night, but nothing glimmers on his ghostly face or the empty eyes.

“What did he say?” I ask, barely hearing my voice over the hammering of my heart.

“He saw fit to wake up Helen. They’d like to see me in an hour.”

My mouth falls open. For a second, I forget even the terror about his thoughts in the black night. They must be besides themselves if Doctor Helen is seeing him at six thirty on a Saturday.

“Bloody hell!” I squeak. “I’m so glad he did that. We need to get going right now.” I throw off the covers, ready to sprint.

“Elisa, wait.”

“What?” I ask, one leg out of bed.

“There is no sense in wasting time with this meeting. I obviously don’t have an internal injury, and there’s nothing left to discuss with them.”

It takes me a moment to comprehend what he is saying. “Of course there is! There is everything to discuss and understand. What it means, what we should do now, how we react—”

“They don’t know any of that. They understand my memory about as much as dark matter. The rest is for us to decide.”

Us. At least he is still using that pronoun. But how can I convince him this is first and foremost for his health? What can I say that would make him care about that?

“Aiden, please,” I beg him, trying to stroke his pale cheek, but he leans out of my touch and closes his eyes. I feel blind without them, as if I am missing my own sight or some deep internal sonar. “I know you don’t see the point but do it for me, if not for yourself. At least let Doctor Helen scan your brain. If nothing else, it might help me sleep better tonight.”

It’s probably not true. Sleep—as in dreams and rest—seems lost forever. But my health is the only argument he might accept.

He opens his eyes unwillingly as if in surrender. “If that’s what you prefer. But I’d rather—”

“I’m coming with you,” I interrupt with as much strength as I can muster before he starts trying to convince me to stay in bed and rest my feet while he is locked inside an MRI tube alone. “Even if I have to walk there, barefoot in the rain,” I threaten for good measure.

We look at each other for the briefest moment: me unyielding, him . . . lifeless—there is no other word for it. Then he sighs, no doubt realizing I mean it, and stands. “I’ll let you get ready then.”

“Please, stay,” I say, taking his hand.

He looks down at my trembling fingers without seeming to breathe. For the first time this morning, a shadow of emotion flickers on his face. And then it’s gone before I can understand it. He sets my hand gently to my side.

“I can’t, Elisa.” His quiet voice is agonized. It lingers in the room as my childhood door closes behind him with a thud.

My body starts shaking so forcefully that for a while I cannot move even though I can hear the clock ticking, his footsteps fading, the willows murmuring ashes, ashes, ashes. My mind cannot think past the blinding fear. I try to remember any other time I have seen Aiden like this . . . I never have. Even after his attack on me, his eyes stirred, he was able to keep up a façade, he held some hope, at first for me, then later for us. Now there seems to be none of that. But every second I stand here is a second away from Doctor Helen and Corbin. They will have some guidance, they must.

Their urgency releases my feet. I scramble out in the hall, noticing as I run to the bathroom that Benson’s door is still closed. But as soon as I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I stagger to a stop.

I have definitely seen worse, but I know—from the goosebumps on my skin to my bandaged toes—that Aiden is bleeding life because of the image in front of me. My lower lip is swollen and red although the cut there is shallow and will heal in a couple of days. There is a faint shadow across my cheek in the shape of Edison’s fingers. A small purple bruise has bloomed on my shoulder and another one is starting at my hip. But it doesn’t matter that my injuries are minor or from a monster’s hand that Aiden saved me from. When it comes to my safety, his perfect cognition sees no nuance. Everything is a mortal danger to be eliminated, especially himself.

Another volley of shudders rattles my very teeth. I start brushing them on reflex, all my conscious mind focused only on one thing: how do I give Aiden some hope? How do I help him? But my brain cannot form any coherent answers, just cracklings of instinct, vague and tenuous. Things like dabbing make-up and lip balm to mask the worst. Or choosing every layer of clothing carefully so they only trigger good memories for Aiden: mum’s scarf from the first time he saw me, the white blouse from my supplement presentation, my old jeans from our date at Paradox Café, the jewelry he has given me, a drop of Aeternum perfume. Head to toe, a collage of some of our happiest moments. I race down the stairs, trying to calculate doses of serotonin. Will I even be able to work on the protein with Edison gone?

But all chemistry disappears from my head the instant I enter the living room.

Aiden and Benson are both there, Benson on the sofa, frowning at his phone, Aiden standing by the window, staring into the rainy garden. I cannot see his face, but he is dressed in his reel clothes: the same dark jeans and blue button-up shirt he wears every morning since the first session with Doctor Helen. The only fabric in this cottage that’s woven with horror. And the only clothes that live outside our bedroom. Is this because he will never step over that threshold again? Or because every minute today feels like its own reel? I swallow hard past my constricted throat.

“Morning, Benson,” I croak, asking him a million questions with my eyes. How was Aiden while I was asleep? Have they talked? Has Aiden hinted at what he is thinking now?

“Morning, Elisa.” He shakes his head slightly, but I don’t have time to decipher his gesture because Aiden turns at the sound of my voice. Against the dawn light, he looks so much like my Romeo nightmare—ashen, frozen, except the open, dead eyes. Somehow, they are worse than closed. At least then I could pretend he was asleep. But there is no pretending now even if there isn’t a vial of my failed protein in his hand. This reality is not a dream. I cannot wake up from this.

But my body does. Of their own volition, my feet sprint toward him. He catches me in his arms instinctively as I crash into his chest. I hold him tightly, resting my head against his pectoral. Listening to his heart.

“Elisa, what happened? Do your feet hurt?” His voice is low and tense.

I shake my head, breathing in his scent, wrapping my arms tighter around his waist. He doesn’t feel like my parents in rigor mortis—even though marble hard, he is touching me back. But only for a second. Then he leans away, extricating himself from my grip. I don’t know if he notices the ensemble of hope I’m wearing. Like before, his eyes don’t stray below mine to anything that might trigger calm or happiness. The base of my skull prickles again. Why is that?

“Do you need more time?” he asks.

“No, I’m ready when you are.”

“Then eat something first. There’s some breakfast in the kitchen.”

Of course there is. “Have you eaten?”

“I’m set.” Translation: no, I have not eaten, and I am not having this argument now. He takes a step back. And then I remember Benson. He is still on the sofa with his phone, studiously trying to ignore us.

“Benson, what about you?”

“I’m good too, Elisa.”

I don’t believe him anymore than Aiden, but there is no time to start a fight I will lose. I force a smile and wheel to the kitchen on shaking knees.

The clotted cream and rosehip jam are on the counter, a scone already slathered with them exactly as I take it. My cup of Earl Grey tea is steaming with my daily Baci glimmering on the saucer. I can’t even touch it without Aiden’s kiss, but I force down a few bites of scone only for him, shoving back tears. Outside in the garden, the roses are drowning. The Clares quiver by the windowsill, raindrops trickling down their petals. Help Aiden again, Mum. Help me save the seven-year-old boy like you did then. The biggest, heaviest bloom taps against the glass from the wind, splashing down a pattern of water. I search it for answers that might make this live reel easier, but the droplets cascade down the pane and disappear. I pack some food in a covered basket, a small token for Doctor Helen, and the post-reel surprise I had hidden for Aiden today. This small ritual never fails to make him smile even after fifty-four reels of torture, no matter how minor or silly the surprise is. Maybe it will help this morning, too. I close the basket and dash back to the living room.

Nothing has changed there: Benson is still on sofa, Aiden is still towering at the window, staring at the weepingElisas. Is he searching for answers like me? Or has he already found them?

“All done,” I announce, trying to inject some liveliness in my voice.

Aiden’s eyes fall vacantly on my basket. No familiar flash of curiosity sparks in their depths. The blankness terrifies me almost as much as my nightmare. “It’s a little something for Doctor Helen,” I volunteer, too afraid not to hear him ask.

He barely nods. And then we’re out in the crisp, sodden air. Ashes, ashes, ashes . . . Beyond the willows, River Windrush is a swollen, muddy gray. From its lethal depths, the boulder’s prophecy rumbles in my ears for the first time in a while: Neither survives if the other dies. Neither dies if the other lives. I huddle under the umbrella Aiden is holding over me, clutching his arm. As we pass the garden shed with the reel, tension bolts through him like lightning. Will Doctor Helen continue that torture or stop it after last night? Which is worse: one more minute of its evil or giving up?

As soon as we reach the Rover in the garage and Benson starts backing out, I climb on Aiden’s lap like always, hoping it will have the same calming effect it usually does. But it doesn’t—at least not enough. His arms feel reluctant and heavy, as they do after the reel. So I do what I do after the reel, too: flood him with me as much as I can with Benson present. I lean against his chest, pressing my lips at his throat, letting my weight, my smell, my warmth engulf him. Yet his posture remains strained, resistant somehow. His breaths are shallow and rare. Why is that? Are there some things that my calming effect cannot soothe for him? What do we do if we lose even that?

I fight back a shudder, staring out of the window into the blur of torrential gray. It whips by like a montage on rewind: rewind to that first rainy night Aiden came to England; rewind to another drizzly drive like this toward another team of experts, that time to save me from ICE; rewind to all the stormy battles we have fought for our love.

“Do you want to hear a little story?” I whisper to him as he asked me on that crucifying ride to Bob’s office when I thought I was losing everything. The ride when Aiden first told me about his dream of me that started the war letters. His breath catches in recognition. He nods once, wordlessly, as I did then.

“You have a birthday you don’t know about,” I quote him, keeping my face in his neck like that time. I only phrased it this way hoping to revive him, but as I speak the words, I realize how true they are. He doesn’t answer, but his breath has not restarted. “It’s October sixteenth, 1999, around eight in the morning, long after you were really born, of course. But I remember the date well because it was the day Dad and I carved our initials—PEC—on the bench. I was six a half, almost your age when you first came to Oxford, and Dad brought me to work with him that Saturday. It wasn’t that different a Saturday from today: cloudy but the rain hadn’t started. I used to love going to his work. He’d teach me how to play in the lab. But that morning, he said, ‘Eliser, we’re doing something else first.’

‘What are we doing?’ I asked him—always eager as long as it involved making a mess.

He smiled, ‘Today, we’re doing magic instead of chemistry.’

‘Magic?’ I remember laughing.

‘Magic,’ he nodded in earnest, grabbing a lab scalpel.

So we went out in the same quad you’ve been guarding every day and crawled under the bench. He didn’t tell me what he was doing right away even though I kept barraging him with questions. But then I understood as he first carved the P—he did it quickly like he was trying to get it out of the way. Then the E—that one took longer as he asked me how I wanted it to look. And in the end the C. That took him the longest. So long that other feet started passing by ours. But he kept going, being so careful with the curve of mum’s name. The whole time, he had this smile on his face. I think you would call it moronic, as you did for Marshall’s when he was writing to Jasmine in the sand ditch. And it was exactly that. Sort of loopy, the tip of his tongue trapped between his teeth. That smile was only hers, no one else ever gave it to him. Except I was getting impatient for the magic to begin.

‘Dad,’ I whined. ‘Stop smiling and do the magic. I want to make pink smoke today.’

He laughed—this big laughter that shook the wood flakes off his face. ‘Eliser, this is the magic. Right here, look!’

‘What is? Our initials?’ I was confused—we wrote down our initials all the time.

‘No,’ he answered. ‘This smile.’

He waited for me to get it as I watched his face differently. I didn’t know what I was seeing, I only realized that my smile wasn’t like his.

‘Why don’t I smile the same way if this is magic?’ I asked him, trying to lift my lips the same way but somehow knowing they wouldn’t.

He smiled even more widely. ‘You will.’

‘When?’

‘When you meet someone that will make you carve out the alphabet on an innocent garden bench. When you love someone the way I love this letter C. That’s magic.’

I was so disappointed—there was no pink smoke or blue sludge or yellow sparks or anything. ‘That’s it—love? Love is the magic we’re doing?’

He heard the letdown in my voice but kept smiling. ‘Love is the only magic there is.’ And he turned to finishing the C until it was an imitation of mum’s smile. That’s when it started dawning on me, kind of like it did for you with Marshall. As I watched how happy he was, lying there on damp grass, whittling these three letters together, I remember wanting that smile. I wanted to feel the magic he felt.

‘So when will that be for me?’ I wondered as he kept perfecting the C.

‘Someday. But it will be.’”

I stop, half in that memory, half in this present moment. Aiden is still silent around me, still hardly breathing. “And that’s when the fantasy of you started,” I add, quoting him again, and then flipping his words to the opposite. “You were not perfect in my head—I was too young to know any of that—but you are perfect for me in real life. Now, what can wars and startles do about that?”

I caress my PEC bracelet, listening for his breath, not really waiting for an answer. Even though he doesn’t speak, I know what he is thinking because it was the same thought I had that rainy Portland day: all those things can take me away, even kill me. But he knows, as did I, they cannot do anything to the dream. That will never be enough for me, but perhaps it will give him a speck of hope today like it did in Fallujah’s firepits.

It doesn’t seem likely from the look of his skin. It stands out in the heathered light of the car, whiter than bones, grayer than ashes. His eyes are trained on the bracelet at my wrist. From the gloom outside, the phosphorescent letters are glowing.

“A beautiful way to be born,” he murmurs after a long moment. His voice is ephemeral, almost part of the rain.

“And to live.”

“Sir?” Benson’s hesitant voice makes me jump. Somehow, we are already in the car park next to WIN—Doctor Helen’s building. Aiden’s vast oak looms in the distance at the fringe of the lawn. Beyond it, the heartline of Oxford’s spires is invisible through the thick clouds. “Same time as usual?” Benson asks, looking at Aiden in the back mirror.

Aiden nods without a word and opens the door. A gust of wind steals inside the cabin, sprinkling droplets on the leather seats.

“Benson, here, I packed you some food,” I remember, handing him a wrapped scone and fruit. “It will be at least another two hours before the shops open around here.”

“Thanks, Elisa.” He gives me a small smile and watches us leave with a deep frown.

Aiden holds his black umbrella over me, practically carrying me up the four slippery steps. But his touch is minimal, distant, releasing me as soon as we are at the entrance.

“So do Doctor Helen and Corbin know everything that happened?” I ask him.

He nods silently again and opens the door, shielding me from the rain with his body.

The empty lobby feels cavernous with the stark white that covers everything—an arctic tundra much like the wasteland of his gaze. He scans the building he has visited since his own seven-year-old days, but there is no vigilance in his eyes.

“Aiden, love, what are you thinking right now?”

He blinks down at me. “Too many things, including that I’d like to get this over with.” He starts leading me down the polished hall to the lift.

“Wait! Just a second!” I rummage inside my basket for the Clares I brought for Doctor Helen. They’re still wet from the windowsill. He watches as I take his hand and press a blushing petal onto his palm. “This is just a petal,” I tell him as he does for me before every reel. Maybe it will help him, too. “I’ll be waiting on the other side.”

But it has the opposite effect. Instead of a ghost of a smile or speck of life, that unspeakable agony from last night floods his face. Except it has grown and multiplied beyond any limit I could ever fathom. So staggering that it closes my throat and twists like a knife in my gut. Has the idea of me waiting for him become this excruciating? Am I making things worse instead of helping? I try to say something—anything—but I cannot form a single sound. Neither can he, it seems. He opens his mouth as one might do to scream, but no words come out. And his eyes . . . they darken from barren to burning as they stare at the petal on his hand.

“Aiden, Elisa, there you are!” A commanding voice breaks through the suffocating moment. Doctor Helen is bustling out of the lift toward us, her pristine white coat billowing behind her despite the early hour. Aiden tries to leash back the devastation in his face, but not fast enough. I watch in horrified stupor as their eyes meet and the unshakeable Doctor Helen falters. Horror because I realize I’m not the only one who has never seen this depth of torment in Aiden before. The scientist who has studied him for twenty-eight years is stunned.

Aiden recovers first. His face folds back into nothingness. He inclines his head at the silver neuroscientist who still has not blinked. But she does now and lopes through the last few steps between us.

“Good morning, you two. My apologies.” Her tone regains its authority as she tries to cover up her shock, but to me it sounds like I’m drowning in the river again. “I’m still reeling from Edison—what treachery from one of our own! I have already reported the matter to the Board. Elisa, thank everything you’re alright.” She grasps my shoulder.

“Thank Aiden,” I whisper, unable to find my voice. I cannot blink out of my retinas the image of his ravaged face at the idea of me standing by his side.

“Of course—him above all.” She turns to him. “Aiden, let’s get you in the MRI room right away, then we can discuss.” And the woman I used to think of as cold takes both our hands and tows us into the lift to the top floor where she presides. I follow her without knowing how—my heart and mind are splattered on the spot where Aiden stood, dying before my eyes.

The familiar, gleaming hall is empty with no court of scientists waiting for Doctor Helen’s every command. “It’s only us for this,” she explains, sensing the question I still cannot form. “And Doctor Corbin, of course. I thought that would be best. Aiden, you know the way. I’ll only scan for brain injury now; I won’t show you any images. Go on!” She urges him down the narrow corridor leading to the MRI machine I have seen only once before. He glances at me, his face remaining void of life.

“Stay with Doctor Helen. I’ll be fine.”

I think I manage a nod, still frozen. But even if I could move my lips, I have no idea what I would say. Somehow, in one minute, everything I thought I knew shattered. He strides away and enters the MRI antechamber without looking back. The heavy door thunders as it locks him in.

“Elisa?” Doctor Helen’s voice sounds distant even though she is standing right next to me. “Come, child. This one will be quicker than last time. You will see Aiden very soon.”

I know I should say something but all I can do is stare at the white expanse that swallowed up Aiden. Peripherally, I feel Doctor Helen’s hand around my elbow as she leads me across the hall to the command center where she tormented Aiden’s mind before, when he was still so full of hope. When the only option he could live with was to walk through the fires of Fallujah every dawn only for the chance of being with me. A chance that now seems all but destroyed.

“Do you need a moment before we go in?” she asks, still muffled and far-away.

I shake my head as she opens the metal door, her hand never leaving my arm. I can’t tell if her fingers are warm or cold.

The analytics room feels claustrophobic without the glow of the giant screens displaying Aiden’s brain in electric blue. Doctor Helen’s Van Gogh binder is resting next to her central monitors. But now I have no murder of crows circling out of me in rage, no sunflower seed bullets firing from my lips at fate. I am just the blank canvass that never became art.

“Have a seat, Elisa. Doctor Corbin is waiting on the line.” She pulls up a chair next to hers. I place my basket at my feet, feeling foolish, even naïve. How could anything I can pack in a basket help with this kind of torment, especially when they dangle from my arm?

“Doctor, we’re here,” she speaks into the ether, then Corbin’s face appears on a smaller screen in front of me like last time. Except unlike then, he is not smiling or waving. Deep wrinkles are burrowing around his bloodshot eyes. He is sitting under a desk lamp, the window behind him black with Portland’s night. The same night lulling Reagan and Javier into sleep. How can I tell them about this? How can I break their hearts along with mine?

“Ah, Elisa.” Corbin’s tired voice pipes through the room. “I’m glad you’re here. How are you holding up?”

It takes me four tries to mumble a whisper. “I’m fine, but Aiden . . .” I can’t finish. What can I say? Does any language in the world have words to describe the harrowing pain I just witnessed? It makes his anguish during the reel seem like a minor headache.

“I know,” he sighs, peering at Doctor Helen. “How does he seem to you this morning?”

She doesn’t answer verbally, but her eyes flit to me then back at him and she gives an almost imperceptible shake of the head. I would have missed it if I wasn’t staring at her like a life raft.

“He’s even worse than I know, isn’t he?” I breathe, clutching the edge of my chair. A hesitant look passes between them. “Please, tell me. I don’t want to be protected from his pain.”

Corbin tries to force a smile through tight lips. “Of course you don’t. And you deserve to know. The trouble is I can’t tell how much worse, but it seems worse than any other time I’ve known him. With every other loss, Aiden has had a purpose—building his empire to support his parents and the Marines, saving Javier, saving you, his hope for this experiment so you could be together. But Aiden without hope . . .” Despite his years of experience, he pales.

My mind reacts quicker than my body: the walls start spinning, the floor shaking, the air congealing. Then my body catches up, swaying on the spot like Aiden in the library last night. I grip the chair harder to stay vertical.

They must notice my reaction because Doctor Helen pats my shoulder.

“Deep breaths, Elisa,” Corbin coaches methodically. “Let’s try to remain optimistic. This time Aiden has your calming effect after all, and there’s no medicine more powerful for him than that.”

Except his words make the dizziness worse. That prickly sense of unease jolts from my skull down my spine. And I finally realize why. “C-can—” I start, then try again for volume. “Can my calming effect get weaker? It doesn’t seem to be working as well today as it was last night.”

Their reaction is unmissable. An identical mask of dread drops over their faces at the same time. Doctor Helen’s forehead crumples, eyes narrowing as though they are reading an invisible text. Then they widen in some inner understanding. “Of course,” she mutters to herself. “Of course, we should have known.”

“Known what?” I wheeze.

Her perturbed, grey eyes zoom on me. “Your calming effect on Aiden is strong and unchangeable. There is only one thing in the world that can impact it.”

“W-what is it?” I didn’t even know this was a real risk we’re facing.

“Aiden himself.” Her voice doesn’t sound distant anymore. It roars too loudly even though she is speaking in her usual, authoritative tone. “He is trying to stop it from helping him.”

Another deep sigh comes from Corbin but I barely hear it over my own gasp as this morning flashes back under a different light: Aiden avoiding my face, leaning away from my touch, not breathing in my scent—fighting all the stimuli that usually trigger my calming effect.

“No!” I tremble. “No, he can’t do that . . .”

Their somber gaze tells me he already has. And understanding strikes as fast as denial. “It’s because he doesn’t think he deserves peace, isn’t it?” The words strangle me as a new terror snakes its way through my heart. How many more kinds of horror can there be? Which one will kill?

The two doctors nod in unison. “You know him well,” Corbin agrees while I wish he would tell me I’m mad. “Yes, there’s no other explanation I can see. And he is probably trying to get used to an existence without you in it.”

Existence—not life. As my days will be without him. Both breathing only so the other can live. Abruptly, the boulder’s prophecy resounds through distance, no longer a prediction, but now reality: Neither survives if the other dies. Neither dies if the other lives. It reverberates around my head, chorusing with Aiden’s letter and my own silent refrain: If I end, you end . . . violent ends . . . Because is there a death more violent than a life unlived?

“Doctor Corbin, you use the word ‘existence.’” Doctor Helen picks up on the same thing. “Is there any scenario where you think Aiden would . . .?” She doesn’t finish because the idea is unfinishable, unspeakable.

But Corbin answers immediately, with conviction, before I can collapse. “Not while Elisa walks this earth. But I have no doubt he will suffer beyond all our imaginations every minute of the time left. I fear I won’t be able to reach him, especially without Elisa’s calm . . .” he trails off, now unable to finish himself.

The room blurs again, the walls closing in around me as if my mind is clamoring for unconscious relief. “What do we do?” I choke, laboring to keep my lungs working. “How do we help him? How can we save him from this?”

To that, the doctors have no answer.

Panic cleaves through my skull like Edison’s microscope. There has to be something, anything . . . “Should we ask his parents to come?” I grasp at any idea even though I don’t think he would allow that anymore. “Or maybe the Marines? Aiden’s mum said they kept each other alive last time.”

Corbin shakes his head, still looking disturbed. “With this revelation, I’m sure he will not accept their comfort. And they come with their own traumatic triggers for him. It might be better if we focus on the two of you having this time together.”

Better together than apart. An axiom on which I would have staked my life when I woke up. But now I can’t unsee Aiden’s pain at the thought of me standing by his side.

“I tend to agree.” Doctor Helen’s eyes are still deep in analysis. “Our priority must be getting Aiden to accept your calming effect. That’s the best hope we have at this point, but I think Robert, Stella, and his brothers should be prepared.”

She doesn’t need to explain for what. I know. The ceiling tilts oddly toward my face.

“Elisa, how far are you from solving the protein?” Corbin asks.

“I don’t know. There’s still a lot left to do, and I’m not sure what will happen to the project now with Edison out.”

“Leave that part to me.” Doctor Helen sounds resolute and confident. “You keep at it, child, keep at it.”

Is that all we have left? An unfinished dream? Even if somehow I manage to succeed, what chance does it stand with Aiden denying himself any form of relief? He simply wouldn’t take it. How can I convince him?

“For now, let’s just try to stay in the present moment and take it a step at a time,” Corbin hedges, perhaps wondering the same impossible questions. “You’re not alone in this, Elisa. We are here for you both.”

I listen to his practiced voice trying to comfort me. But there is only one person I want comforted, and he is tearing apart, alone inside an MRI machine that suddenly seems like a coffin, in a room icy like a morgue.

“Without question.” Doctor Helen revs into motion. “There’s much to consider, but let’s start by ruling out any physical injury first.” With a quick tap, she switches on her monitors. They blare neon blue on the walls that are still spinning. Static bristles in the air like high pitch. “Aiden, we are ready,” she fires into her microphone without any reply. “Starting on three, two, one.”

His wondrous brain lights up the screens in brilliant sapphire like his former eyes. But this time, I cannot bear to look at the images. I fold my arms on the desk and rest my forehead against them. Perhaps it will help me think if I can’t see. Perhaps I will find a way if I am blind. But the computers caw loudly around me with beeps, clicks, tweets. And the doctors’ grave voices like jarring notes in the digital buzz.

“Did Aiden say he was hit right over his old rifle injury, Doctor?” she verifies.

“Yes, smack in the middle,” he confirms while I try to fight the nausea. “Why?”

“It hasn’t caused bleeding or internal swelling in the area—we can be grateful for that part.”

Thank you, God! Thank you, Mum and Dad! My legs almost give out despite the fact that I’m sitting. Even the chaos in my head pauses for a second, immobilized by profound relief. Tears burn my eyes, and I let them fall. It’s better now when Aiden cannot see.

“Thank heavens he turned around so quickly.” Corbin repeats the words that have become a mantra. “He saved his own life and Elisa’s. Although he doesn’t view it that way.”

“Indeed . . .”

And the snarl inside my skull restarts. Like this morning, I only seem able to blurt out questions, not answers. The same question really—how do I help Aiden?—but with a different, razor-sharp edge now. It slices through every purpose, reflex, or analysis, leaving me only with raw instinct. Everything I have ever known, wanted, dreamed, wished, hoped, fought, or strived for all tumble one rung down to make room for this one visceral compulsion at the very top: saving Aiden, no matter the cost.

As from across the globe, the beeps stop at last and Doctor Helen’s voice projects into the microphone. “Aiden, we’re all finished. Good news: there’s no internal injury, just as you expected. When you’re ready, why don’t you meet us in the lab? I have Elisa with me—she’s perfectly safe.”

There is no answer from him, but I expected that. I want to run down the hall and be there, on the other side of that door, when he comes out. I want to take him in my arms. But will that bring back the unfathomable agony? Is my very presence now another reel of torture for him?

I wobble to my feet, wiping off any evidence of tears, and follow Doctor Helen to the futuristic lab where I first saw the waves of Aiden’s heart and mind. Its snowy interior is empty, but as we walk in, Corbin’s face flickers on the overhead screen. He is scribbling furiously on a yellow notepad. Doctor Helen takes her seat at the same long desk, flipping through her Van Gogh binder, eyes narrowed in concentration. And I fall on the chair closest to me, staring at the white double doors.

“While we’re waiting, Elisa, could you clarify something for me about the time Aiden was unconscious?” Doctor Helen asks. “He told us everything you shared, but obviously has no memory of that part, and I’d rather he not relive the experience.”

I don’t want to relive it either, but to help him, I would relive the day of my parents’ accident. “Anything,” I offer.

“I know he started losing his balance quickly after he was triggered, but did you do or say anything to him during that time?”

Despite the chills flogging my skin, I let last night flood my mind. Abruptly, I’m back in dad’s library, staring into every slide of my memory as if with microscope for magnification.

“I was just telling him to keep standing, that we love each other, that the glass was just petals, that I was waiting on the other side . . .” My voice breaks, thinking of the effect those same words had on him today. “I don’t know, a lot of things like that.”

“A lot of loving things,” she corrects kindly. “And did Aiden react in any way?”

“No, he was already locked in the flashback by then. He just fell.”

“Not just. He fell back safely on a pillow because you had placed it there and calculated his trajectory so precisely. Well-done in such crisis. You saved his life as much as he saved yours.”

I listen to her words, finding no pride in me. All I can think of is how can I help him live the life I saved.

“What did you do while you were waiting for the medics?” she asks.

“I was taking his pulse and breathing in his mouth and—” I stop because, suddenly, those few terrifying minutes become private, our last ones together on the same side, in the final throes of hope.

“It seems there is something else. It might be important.”

“It’s not,” I mumble. “It was just things that mean something to him and me alone.”

“I know this is reprehensively intrusive, but would you mind sharing? We’re looking for anything that might help him.”

As am I, and failing. “I was just talking to him . . . trying to keep him in the present moment like you taught me . . . and, umm, I was humming Für Elise. It was silly—I knew he couldn’t hear me—but I couldn’t think of anything else.”

She gazes at me with something like sorrow. “Actually, when I think of it, it doesn’t seem silly at all. It was love in a moment of untold terror.”

“But it doesn’t help Aiden now.”

“No, but perhaps it helped him then.” She gives me a wistful smile.

I look away from it, unable to withstand the grief hidden underneath—the grief that confirms we have already lost. A long, twitchy silence falls over the lab. A scratch of a pen here, a shiver of a page there. And my own thoughts, howling the same impotent refrain. How can I help? How do I convince Aiden to let himself feel peace?

There are no clues in the computer beeps, no patterns in the white surfaces that undulate like Van Gogh’s rippling wheatfields.

“Doctor, perhaps we should check on him.” Corbin finally breaks the silence. I can’t look away from the doors as Doctor Helen answers in a pensive tone.

“Not yet. Aiden wouldn’t make Elisa wait if he absolutely didn’t need the moment.”

I agree, I disagree, I don’t know. My only goal right now is to breathe so if he looks at my face, he sees a semblance of hope. It takes everything I have to sit here and not run to find him: a locket in my hand, ten periodic tables on my mind, non-scientific prayers in my heart, the ticking seconds on dad’s Seiko watch like a back-up pulse: one, ninety, six hundred . . .

At long last, the doors open.

Aiden comes in, as blanched as the wintry space around us, too beautiful to last. His eyes flash to me, then away, but in that glimpse, I see the aftershocks of agony he must have been fighting to control. Unfathomably, it’s even more blistering than an hour ago. How much more can it grow? How is he still standing? I have to lock all my muscles to stay on my chair and not fly to him. I have seen now the pain my touch is causing, like acid on his skin.

“My apologies for the delay,” he says, taking the seat next to me. His piano voice is hoarse, the way he sounded when he first came to the cottage after I left him. My fingers flutter to take his hand, but I grip the rim of the chair hard against the instinct.

“It’s no problem,” Corbin speaks first. “I’m glad you took the time you needed. And even more glad you came. I know you don’t want to be here.”

H-e-r-e. The hardest word for Aiden right now.

“I’m here for Elisa,” he answers.

“I know you are.” Corbin nods in understanding. “I know no one else could have convinced you to stay.”

S-t-a-y. For me. Am I worth this torture? Is anything?

Aiden doesn’t respond again. He stares beyond Corbin, beyond Doctor Helen, beyond anything we can see. How much more is he suffering because of my insistence?

“Why don’t we get started so you can go back to the cottage and be more comfortable,” Doctor Helen suggests while I question everything. “I’d like to begin with the obvious: the startle reflex.” She pauses as though to allow us time to adjust to the name that terrifies Aiden the most. He doesn’t blink, but the tension of his body throbs through the polished floor tiles. “Clearly, it’s still there,” she continues. “Although in what form and to what extent we cannot know without the final test.”

I know,” Aiden states without any inflection. “There is no reason for more tests or for exposing Elisa to them.”

Her intent grey eyes examine him, as his used to do, although the sentience of his gaze is not something anyone else can achieve. “Perhaps, but I won’t argue with you on that point because, as it happens, I tend to agree in part. Even though there is no physical injury, I am deeply concerned about the psychological harm you are suffering. And I have no way of knowing what effect it will have on you if I trigger your startle reflex again so soon after last night. For that reason, I propose that we extend the September eighteen deadline and wait to run the final test for at least an additional month or two while you recover.”

My head whips toward her in shock. Did I hear her right? More t-i-m-e? Isn’t that what I have been begging for every hour of every day since I the very first moment I saw Aiden? And now that it’s being offered, I cannot breathe a single sigh of relief. How can I after seeing how much every minute is costing him? Suddenly, dad’s watch seems to tick the seconds faster on my wrist as if to spare Aiden.

He is staring at her with nothing in his eyes. Somehow the void there makes his gaze more chilling. “Doctor Helen,” he addresses her slowly, deliberately, and I know what’s coming. “There is no circumstance under which I will stay here beyond September eighteen or continue the study of my memory ever again. I suppose it’s up to you how you want to proceed from here.”

The huge lab sways again. They look at each other: her gaze pleading, his dead. Then she nods, but it looks like defeat in her regal manner. “I see. In that case, you are giving me no choice. Since you are determined to leave on September eighteen and I have taken an oath to do no harm, I will not run the test—”

“Doctor?” Corbin interjects, clearly stunned at her decision. As was I a second ago, but now I am nothing. Not because she is protecting Aiden—that’s exactly how it should be—but because how final everything suddenly becomes. The last slide of our reel, the last note of Für Elise, the final words in our story. The End. Life, meaning, dreams, purpose—all over. So certain, so quick. Like death.

I realize now how much hope, instead of fear, I was placing on that ultimate test: hope for a change, for a different result, for waking up and realizing this is only another Romeo nightmare. H-o-p-e. I always knew it would finish me in the end.

I don’t know how I make it through the next minutes. The walls whirl like Bia’s centrifuge, and my fingers glue themselves to my locket for balance. Keep me standing please, keep me breathing for Aiden. Because it’s better this way. Less pain for him. I will gladly suffer every day of my existence to spare him another hour of agony in this lab.

For once, I’m glad his eyes are away, lost in past and future torment. At least he is not seeing the present torture next to him.

“I understand your surprise, Doctor Corbin. I truly do. Even Elisa’s, I imagine.” Doctor Helen’s voice is fading in and out of my ears. “But I cannot justify the procedure so soon. Not with Aiden in this state, no matter how strong he is. The only thing I would insist on is to scan his brain with the war images before he leaves, to ensure Elisa’s effect remains an option for the future ahead. His memory does not need her physical proximity to give him comfort as he grapples with the greatest loss in his life yet.”

She looks only at Aiden for that last part, and I finally understand why she is giving in so quickly, why she isn’t arguing with him, why she isn’t trying to convince him there is hope left. She must have analyzed all battles and realized the only one worth picking now—the only one worth fighting for—is not to save us, not to beat the startle, not even to heal him. The only battle we might still have a chance at winning is to persuade Aiden to allow himself some peace. What is my pain compared to that? Nothing—just a petal.

Doctor Corbin presses his lips together, shaking his head. “I cannot disagree with your rationale, but that must mean you have concluded there’s nothing more we can do to end the startle reflex?”

“Indeed,” she answers, ever logical. “Because Aiden has concluded it, it is over. He knows this reflex better than all doctors and neuroscientists in history combined.”

I can see from the set of Corbin’s mouth how much he wants to argue with that incontrovertible fact, and how little he can. He looks at Aiden from his screen with a beseeching gaze. “Aiden, please reconsider. Are you sure about this?”

There is no wavering in Aiden’s face, but he inclines his head toward me, still staring beyond the lab. “Elisa, is it important to you for me to undergo the final test, however it was planned?”

I can almost hear Corbin’s thoughts imploring me to argue, like my own heart does. But there is something else more important than all that. Something that has silenced all the chaos, finally bringing order, even if not answers. “I don’t want you to get hurt again.” I am surprised by how calm my voice sounds. “And there is no procedure that can take away my faith in you. I will always believe you can do this, test or no test.”

A new wave of agony drowns his eyes, but he masks it quickly and nods as though he expected my words before I uttered them. “Then I am sure,” he responds to the doctors. “No test for the startle reflex, but I will allow a final scan of my brain if you would do me a final favor in return.”

“What favor?” Doctor Helen asks immediately.

Aiden’s eyes focus on her and abruptly come to life. They deepen with an intensity so fierce that I feel as though I am standing at the edge of a great precipice. Even the mighty Doctor Helen withers from it. “Will you be a source of support for Elisa as you were for her mother? For friendship, mentorship, solace, and guidance—a safe, loving presence for her after I leave?” The intensity is in his voice, too; it becomes guttural, pleading. And the air thickens again. It clots in my throat like the failed protein. So this is how we end—the same way as we started: caring for me above all else. I clutch the locket harder. Don’t let me fall apart, please. Give me strength to wait until Aiden cannot see.

Outside my personal hell, Doctor Helen and Aiden are locked in a silent exchange. I cannot fathom their thoughts, but I know the pained look that flows between them. I know it because I have seen it in every goodbye. At last she nods again, but not defeated this time. “I will be there for Elisa until my last day,” she vows in her commanding voice. “And for you, in every way you will allow me to be.”

“Thank you,” he answers—a fervent, agonized sound—and the life dies out in his eyes. The void returns as swiftly as it left. “Then I promise you I will be here on September eighteen and watch every image you show me so that you can collect the last data you need to complete your research of my memory.”

“You have always been more than research, Aiden, but I will take whatever time you give me,” she replies. “Now, let’s talk about what happens from today to September eighteen. I reckon you’ve been giving it to a great deal of thought.”

The lab splits along an invisible fault line at her change of direction. On her side of the desk, both doctors breathe a sigh of relief.  On ours, all breathing seems to stop.

“I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with Elisa,” Aiden says.

Corbin looks between the two of us. “Do you mind if we do so together now?”

Nothing moves in Aiden’s face, yet I sense his hesitation in the air. Or perhaps it’s mine. “Whatever Elisa is comfortable with.” He leans his head in my direction.

I nod, unable to think of a reason to protest but I know I don’t want to see what happens next. Some old instinct, forged in the days after my parents’ accident slithers on my skin like a warning. It will get worse, it says. Much, much worse than everything you have lived through.

“Thank you.” Corbin smiles with evident gratitude. “Then, Aiden, why don’t we start with you? How do you want to spend the next five weeks given the decision you have made today?”

The hesitation disappears from Aiden’s stance. “What I want is irrelevant. There is only one defensible way to use that time: to prepare Elisa for our separation and protect her from me.”

Each word stabs like knives of glass. Each syllable a confirmation of every fear that has been riddling me since last night, since the very first time I loved him, in fact. Yet expecting them does not make the words easier to hear.

“And how do you plan to do that?” Corbin asks, but I know. I knew it from the moment Edison struck. Childishly, I want to throw my hands over my ears so I don’t hear the words that will make it real. But they are real, and they are what Aiden needs.

He doesn’t speak as tension strains his posture. Every part of him seems etched in war: stillness versus tremor; void versus agony, right versus wrong. Then a side must win. His hands close into fists on his thighs and, slowly, at last, Aiden turns to me. His eyes look only into mine. I can see the effort it’s costing him to keep his focus there and not drift anywhere else on my face that might add some calm. Yet despite his Herculean resistance, some specks of turquoise start shimmering in the distant blue depths. The light is so beautiful—like a dazzling star in the vast obscurity ahead—that it fills me with longing. But before it can ease his tension, he clenches his jaw and drops his gaze to my hand around the locket. Then agony throttles him again.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” I murmur so my voice doesn’t shake. “Tell me what you need to say.”

The end comes almost soundlessly from his lips. “I think I should move out tonight.”

Seven words, seven bullets. The same number that finished Marshall. So why are they not enough to finish me? The lab turns upside down in my vision, and I grip the locket tighter. Keep me breathing, please, keep me alive for him.

“Where would you go?”

“To the Inn. It’s still close to the cottage so that it will give you time to adjust to this.”

This morning I would have argued, I would have probably screamed at him, blocked the cottage door, even summoned his parents and the Marines. But now that I have seen his hurt, I cannot fight with him. I can only fight forhim. “And then?”

“And then we would do whatever it takes to make this . . . livable, healthy for you. I would fly over Reagan and Javier earlier if you want, secure your future here at Oxford or anywhere else, build you a support team, anything and everything to prepare you for September eighteen. I know you will not be happy, not for a very long time, but at least you will live, Elisa. At least you will have a chance at a safe future, as it should be.” His quiet voice breaks in the end. The shudder that runs through him reverberates under the soles of my wellies.

“What about your future? What would we do to prepare you?” My voice cracks too, no matter how hard I try to control it. His knuckles glint marble white, no doubt fighting his instinct to comfort me. I know because mine shove the same way against my skin.

“Don’t worry about me,” he answers as always. “I’m built for this.”

“No, my love, you are not. No one is built for this. You will be giving all you have to me, keeping nothing for yourself. I can’t, Aiden. I can’t watch you do that. If I have to prepare for the end, so should you.”

He shakes his head—the motion is rigid as if lifting an enormous weight. “I’ll be fine, Elisa.”

“No, love—” I start to argue anyway despite all my determination to stay calm for him, but Doctor Helen decides to intervene.

“Aiden, I hate to interrupt, but I can’t stay silent. I agree with Elisa on this. We must focus as much on your well-being as hers.”

Aiden looks away from my locket, his eyes skimming over the blank, white slate, landing on the only color in the room: the red buttons of the machine that measured his heartbeat and brainwaves during our kiss. The buttons that can incinerate his brain in one flick. I know, I could wager my life on it, that if it weren’t for me breathing, he would have flipped that switch. Reflexively my body leans to the side to block his line of sight.

“All I need is for Elisa to live,” he answers. “I just need her safe from me.”

The torment beneath his bleak voice is overwhelming. If torture itself could speak, this is how it would sound.

“That’s not enough, Aiden,” says Corbin. “It might suffice to keep you breathing, but not enough to live. You are hurting too much. More than I have ever seen in my career.”

“Or I in half a century of mine,” Doctor Helen agrees. “You will need to allow yourself to heal, and that has to start now while you are still together.”

“This minute, in fact.” Corbin’s urgency radiates from his screen. “You have to allow yourself to feel Elisa’s calm. We can see you are trying very hard to block it, but you can’t. Her effect on you is much stronger and healthier than any antidepressant or sedative I could prescribe. Let it comfort you now so you can grow stronger for September eighteen and beyond.”

No reaction from Aiden at realizing we know what he is doing. Perhaps he thought it was obvious, not the shock it was.

“It’s crucial, Aiden.” Doctor Helen leans across her desk as though to reach him. “You were already weakened by the reel. That was a risk we all accepted. But then you were wrenched awake by the worst nightmare of your life: Elisa in acute danger. And that terror and pain hasn’t stopped since. It’s as bad as Fallujah even though there was no death or physical torture this time. Would you ever have sent any of your brothers on another mission shortly after that schoolyard?” She pauses, waiting for him, but he doesn’t respond. He is still staring at the red button as if he wishes it could blow him up now.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she answers her own question. “You would have given them the time they needed to recover. Show the same care to yourself now. Don’t move to the Inn. You would be making a mistake.”

Corbin nods. “A grave one. Spending these final weeks at a distance will rob you and Elisa of the closure you need to survive the end of this rare relationship.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” she presses without pause. “The only reasonable option is to continue as planned: maximize Elisa’s calming effect while you cope with trauma.”

“Do the opposite of your instincts,” Corbin fires before she has finished. “They have always served your fears, not your happiness.”

With each rapid word, Aiden’s shoulders curve under the onslaught of their dire injunctions.

“Stay together,” Doctor Helen states with finality. “And in a few days, restart the traumatic exposure and let Elisa calm you while she can. This way the old trauma will hopefully be dulled some before this new one hits in full force.”

I stare at her in horror while Aiden’s head bows further. “Restart the reel?” My whisper is shredded by disbelief. She can’t be serious. How can that evil possibly help him when she just said it weakened him?

“Yes.” She doesn’t hesitate. “Restart the reel. Even it hasn’t fixed the startle, it might help close the door on Fallujah at last before the Burford door is ripped off its hinges. One trauma is easier to carry than two.”

Something scorching builds in my throat like a scream. I hate every syllable she is uttering. I hate every nod Corbin gives without argument. I hate their twirling pens and notepads and binders. I hate Van Gogh and every brushstroke of every painting. I hate every brick in this laboratory, every beep, every particle of ethanol in the clinical air that is touching Aiden’s lungs, chilling the body I love more than my own life. I hate them all, but I cannot argue with any of it. Because through this inferno, I finally start seeing a thin trail ahead. Uphill, thorny, bloody, riddled with peril at every blind curve, but a trail nonetheless. Perhaps this is the new purpose, the meaning. We cannot be together. I cannot heal Aiden enough for that. But maybe I can finally save him from his past. So he can go on.

Perhaps that’s what Romeo and Juliet did. They didn’t die. They only finished the life that gave them so much pain, so they could become immortal in the end. Their love did conquer all, survived even human death. That’s why we all know their names; that’s why they’re always uttered together in the same breath—because they don’t belong to us. They belong forever only to each other. Is that what Shakespeare meant? Is that what I have been sensing all along with boulder prophecies and goosebumps at the back of my neck? Is this what my subconscious mind tried to tell me through that vivid nightmare? We have to be Romeo and Juliet before Aiden can be Dante. As for Beatrice? She was only ever a dream.

“Will this really close the door on Fallujah?” I ask her.

“We won’t know until the end, but we have to try. It’s the only chance we have. How can it hurt at this point?”

Aiden moves then. His head snaps up at Doctor Helen, black fury rolling over his face. “It can hurt Elisa,” he snarls in a strangled voice. His body vibrates with the force of the emotions he is trying so hard to contain. “Watching me writhe in pain, over and over again every morning. I don’t give a fuck if it would bury Marshall. I will not risk her anymore for something we now know isn’t working!”

“It hurts Elisa either way,” Doctor Helen counters, not flinching at his profanities. “Either way, she will watch you suffer.”

And Aiden breaks. The void mask melts away, exposing the iceberg of agony underneath. The agony we have only been glimpsing. So primal that it knocks me breathless. It pours from his eyes, shifting them out of focus. He grips his forehead as though he wants to rip it off. The muscles of his back lock as the two scientists eviscerate his plan to save me—the only fight he still is willing to wage, perhaps the only shadow of hope he has left. His ribcage no longer rises and falls, as though they are taking everything from him, even his breath.

“—at least under my plan, she’s doing something instead of sitting there, helpless, watching you repeat your old patterns,” Doctor Helen is admonishing.

“Stop!” I hear myself cry out, my arms shooting in front of him like a shield. “Stop it, stop it, please!”

They all freeze, watching me with wide eyes. Even Aiden, though in a heartbeat his close at the sound of my voice. His head slumps on his hands. If he wasn’t sitting, I’m sure he would be falling on his knees.

“He is hurting,” I lower my voice, pleading. “Don’t push him! We’re here to support him even if we don’t agree.”

The two doctors are still staring but Aiden’s spine ripples as though he is imploding from within. I look away from them and drag my chair as close to him as I can without touching. He doesn’t look up, and that’s good. I will miss his eyes—I will gauge out my own—if it saves him even a second of pain.

“Aiden, love? Don’t worry about me. Because there is a way to make me happy and still keep me safe: just use my calm in whatever way you can, even if from the Inn. You have all my photos, my song, I will give you my home videos if you want. And I promise you, if you do that, there will be no happier woman in the world than me.”

He shakes his head into his hands. They curl inward into claws, digging into skull. He will not claim any part of me, whether near or far. It feels like my own skull is about to shatter from the pain of watching this. I caress his fingers with my eyes, the knuckles that used to brush my cheek, the strong wrists that no longer carry his watch because he didn’t want to watch our time run out. Higher still, the arms that are my fortress, the chest that is my home, the contours of his jaw, the entirety of his beauty, inside out. I kiss it in my mind, trying to get used to this non-life of loving him from a distance, this idea of existing for him, without him. Cell by cell, my own void starts to claim me, but it will have to wait a little longer.

A gentle pressure squeezes my shoulder from a different direction. I look up, and Doctor Helen is there. Silver and Amazonian, with that aura of invincible command. Except now, she looks her age, maybe older. Older than the Plemmonses, older than Oxford itself. In her hand is a polaroid like the one on my nightstand—the photo of Aiden’s heart and brain waves. She smiles the way my mum smiles at me sometimes in my dreams. Knowingly, sadly, from far away. Then, to my utter shock, she kneels on the floor in front of Aiden and rests the polaroid on his knee.

“Aiden,” she says in a voice softer than I have ever heard, from anyone, anywhere. “Singular, brave Aiden. Elisa is right; we are pushing too hard, and I am sorry. So try to listen to me not like a doctor or a friend. Try to listen to me like I am your eighty-year-old self. Yes, the experiment hasn’t fixed the startle, but you still have five weeks with the woman that makes your heart do this. Don’t throw them away. Even if it will be miserable and dangerous, this is the only time you have left. Use it to look at the face you love.”

He doesn’t react in any way. There isn’t a single spot to touch him that doesn’t look like it might break from the force with which he is trying to control himself. She must see that too because she rests her hand on his Timberland boot. “Aiden, I implore you to allow yourself to feel the calm Elisa gives you. You know it’s not as powerful with only the photos or paintings, especially if you won’t look at them.”

He shakes his head again, burying the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I will not take anything from her when I can no longer give her anything back.” His voice is a ravaged whisper.

“Yes, you can. You can give her the closure you cannot have. You know your love for her will never change. That’s not poetry. In your case, that’s a hard, scientific fact. You will love this girl for the rest of your days as deeply, passionately, and irrevocably as you did when I took this photograph. But the time you have left to love together in the same place and the same breath, is now. And it will never come back.”

She stops talking, plunging the lab into silence and ripping out my heart. Because my love for him will never change either. I don’t know much anymore, but I do know that. Above her, Aiden’s body is straining from his effort to hold it together, probably for my benefit. I cannot fathom the depths of his grief, but I know instinctively right now he only needs one thing.

“Let’s give Aiden a moment alone,” I tell them.

Somehow, I manage to rise on my feet. The lab tilts again with the motion, but the locket he gave me keeps me standing. Make me brave. Give me courage to see the right answers.

“That’s a good thought,” Corbin says from his screen. I had almost forgotten him and everyone else that isn’t Aiden. “Take as much time as you need.” His monitor goes blank.

Doctor Helen stands too, steadier than me. She gives me one of her nods that seem to bestow protection and rests the hand that touched Aiden’s boot on my shoulder.

It’s the hardest thing I have ever done to leave him here. Harder than hearing “there’s been an accident,” harder than seeing my parents’ bodies in the morgue, harder than the funeral, than moving to Portland, than the four years orphaned and alone against the U.S. government. Harder than even leaving Aiden the first time or boarding that plane back to England. Harder than returning to the hilltop grave or drowning in the river or trying to leave him a second time in the rose garden of my cottage. Harder than everything else in my short, tumultuous life. Especially leaving him without a word, without a single touch. But I do it because it’s what he needs.

He doesn’t move or breathe as I trail backwards behind Doctor Helen, never taking my eyes off him. The white doors close between us.

My own memory roils with flashbacks. The morgue’s steel doors hiding away bodies, the American courtroom’s wooden doors imprisoning Javier, so many doors shutting me out.

“Elisa? Elisa?” Doctor Helen is calling. “Let’s go to my office. I’ll brew some tea while we wait.”

I shake my head, needing my own alone moment. “Thank you, but I think I’ll just get some fresh air. I won’t be far.”

And then I run without knowing how I move my feet, leaving my heart behind.

32

Juliet

The torrent has slowed outside, but the skies are darker—a bruised purple, churning around Oxford’s heartline. Their weight presses down with an electric charge. It crackles in the crisp air, raising my skin into goosebumps. I hug my arms around my torso and slosh my way across the soggy lawn, past the empty playground to the oak of Aiden’s childhood. Its powerful roots are dry under the shelter of the immense canopy above. I curl against the gnarly trunk where seven-year-old Aiden would crawl to hide. Everything is hauntingly quiet, even the leaves. The students, birds, and animals must be hunkering down.

Here, in the silence, the dizziness subsides. It’s easier to think, if not feel. Easier to focus on the only thing that matters: the seven-year-old boy who grew up. I can see him, perched where I am, away from the games of a childhood stolen from him, looking up at this green dome like his own personal sky. His own universe that no one else could comprehend but him. And I can see through all the questions and fears of adulthood, straight into the heart of things.

How quickly the universe transforms. It becomes a single star. That brilliant, elusive radiance we chase night after night, dream after dream, for the rest of our life. Until we implode, not because we give up, but because the only way to touch that one bold star is to become its sky.

That’s what this moment is, right here under these protective branches. The final big bang that makes us realize who we truly are. I was never meant to reach Aiden; I was meant to hold up his light. That’s how we go on, he and I. Not two stars dancing in the same orbit to a celestial Für Elise. There is only one star, and I am the cosmic dust that lets him shine.

I smile up at his childhood universe through tears. It was never a choice between Shakespeare and Dante, was it? Maybe we are always both things: hope and tragedy, guilt and redemption, love and loss. What matters is which one we choose to win.

A rivulet of rain trickles through the leaves, landing on dad’s watch at my wrist. It splashes on the glass case and soaks through the old dial.

“No!” I whimper, wiping it off but the ancient seconds hand trembles and quits. “No,” I choke again, shaking my arm, turning the crown, tapping the crystal, but the delicate gold hand does not move again. It rests there, stuck at ten past eight after over forty-six years. “Not you too!” I stifle a sob, brushing off all moisture in vain with mum’s scarf. Perhaps she can fix it, perhaps only something of hers can mend something of dad’s. But it doesn’t work. The watch, like my parents, like my life, like my heart, is broken.

T-i-m-e. It has finally stood still.

“Elisa?” Aiden finds me, his voice not lifeless or remote. It’s bending with concern for me. This is the voice I will always remember to keep myself breathing. I look up, and there he is. Towering pale against the dark, fallen sky, with eyes like torn daylight snagged in the gruesome clouds. How can agony look so beautiful, so tempting even as it pulverizes me to ash? “What happened, other than me?”

I shake my head, grateful to have an excuse that doesn’t give him a new reason to blame himself. “Nothing, only my dad’s watch. I think it just retired.”

A ghost of the V forms between his brows. “Can I see it?”

I raise my hand to him, eager for his touch, but he wraps his fingers lightly around my sleeve. Even in that faint contact, I think I feel a shudder run through him. As it does through me. “Did it get wet?” he guesses.

I nod, memorizing the light pressure of his touch through the layers.

He sets my hand back on my knee, closing his own into a fist. “I’ll find a good horologist to fix it.”

“Don’t worry about that. It was about time.”

If he hears my pun, he doesn’t comment. His eyes seek my jawline reflexively, but he clenches his jaw and drops them to my wellies. The blue light extinguishes in an instant, bringing back the devastating void. And all the reasons why we are here. “You’ll get cold,” he murmurs. “I should take you home.”

H-o-m-e. Will it still feel like that without him?

“Your oak has been keeping me dry and warm.” I reach into every nook of my mind for strength. “Will you sit with me for a minute?”

His face doesn’t move again, but he folds down on the thickest root next to me and hands me his rain jacket. The jacket we sat on in Elysium, in the meadow of my childhood, his first morning in England. I wrap it around myself, inhaling his scent as he stares at the ground. I follow his gaze to the emerald blades of grass, brushing against the sole of his boot. Unlike the rest of the lawn, they are not soaked or drowning in mud. The oak protects them.

“Do you feel better or worse than in the lab?” I ask, looking up at his profile.

“Both,” he answers, and I’m glad he is being honest. It seems like a good place to start, even though neither goodnor start has anything to do with this.

“What would make the better feelings win?”

He sighs, scanning the dripping lawn. “Your safety. Your health. Your happiness. Clarity and strength to do the right thing.”

Mine, mine, mine. Never about himself. We will never be free from selflessness, will we? It’s too late now to change. “Maybe I can help with all that.”

His eyes fly to my face despite his resistance. And even though he only allows them to rest on me for a second, he sees everything. “If you’re about to suggest some self-sacrifice for my benefit, Elisa, don’t. I cannot handle it—not now, not ever again.”

I want to argue. I want to ask why he is the only one allowed to sacrifice himself, but I learned some things from Doctor Helen in the lab. I figured out which battle to fight and the only way I might be able to win it. “I’m not suggesting self-sacrifice, not any more than you are. I’m offering a . . . a deal, a compromise.”

His eyes don’t flicker with any expression. He waits, his back as rigid as the weathered trunk he used to climb. I search the lawn of his childhood, trying to find the words and the strength to utter them. And look, there he is. A seven-year-old boy with shocking sapphire eyes, playing at the merry-go-round. Laughing, circling, his black hair ruffled with the wind, a white T-shirt stained with grass and Levi’s jeans. His beauty fills my vision and stuns my mind. And the words release.

“You want me to have a future, a long, safe life,” I start—a fact, not a question.

“I do.” There is no hesitancy in his answer.

“Filled with love and family and happy memories.”

“Yes.”

“Even if it is not with you,” I breathe, my voice quivering. But the little boy laughs again. A precious, cascading laughter that will grow up into a waterfall springing from his heart. It fortifies me for the response I know is coming.

Especially not with me.”

“Because you think you are dangerous and unhealthy for me.”

“I don’t think it, I know it.”

Another argument lost, another battle I will never win. “That’s why you want to move out. To keep me safe in the interim.”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t really want to stay in England at all, not even until September eighteen.” I risk a glance at grown Aiden’s face, beautiful and severe. He is looking at the lawn, too, at the memories of his real childhood, not the one I am dreaming of now.

“Wanting has nothing to do with it. I have given you my word that I will stay, Elisa.” He sounds abruptly aged like Doctor Helen. “You don’t have to worry about me leaving before then. I will keep my promise.”

Little Aiden has bounded to the swing now, shooting up like a fledgling star. My heart stutters at the sight. He laughs again and summersaults in the air, landing supply on his trainers, checkered like a chess board. I draw a deep breath, letting his giggle strengthen me for my next words.

“What would you negotiate to be free of your promise to stay?”

His head turns to me. Surprise flashes across his face, chasing away the void. Not the pain—nothing seems to erase that—but at least it brings him back to some semblance of life. “What did you say?” he whispers incredulously.

“What would you give me if I gave you all that: a future for myself, commitment to my own health and safety, and agreement for you to leave tomorrow, even today?”

He is so astonished that he forgets to avoid my face. His powerful memory takes advantage of his abstraction and consumes my calm with lightning speed. I know because the beautiful turquoise glow illuminates his eyes. And for a moment, he is my Aiden again. Stunned, but familiar like home, like the roses, like the sound of my own name. The sight makes my chest bruise with ache. Because I know soon it will disappear.

“What would you want?” he asks.

I commit his alive voice to memory as countless answers implode in my head. Smile, touch me, look at me like you used to, call me “love” again, yell, shout, take me in your arms, make love to me right here on your rain jacket, stay . . . stay forever. But they are all the wrong answers. There is only one answer that matters now.

“I want something that will make you feel better. I want you to use my calming effect. With photos, paintings, videos, Für Elise, and anything else we can find. And if I ever finish the protein, I would want you to take it so you can fight the reel and finally lay Marshall to rest. And even after that, take it as long as you need to feel alive again. Those are my only conditions. As for leaving, I will not hold you to your promise. You are free, Aiden, not my prisoner. You can go whenever you want, deal or no deal. I will not begrudge you taking away some of our days together. I will only feel grateful to you for giving this time to me.”

He watches me without blinking, his gaze so intense that I cannot handle it despite the turquoise light sparking here and there. I drop my eyes to the grass blades fluttering against the gnarly roots. Does the root feel their gentle caress? Is that what makes it so strong?

“That’s very different than what you were saying last night,” he reminds me. “‘If you leave before then, you might save my body, but you would kill my heart.’” He quotes me perfectly, of course. “Why the change now?”

I want to cut my tongue out. But that was before I had seen the full depths of his pain, before I could even imagine such agony exists. And before he decided to give up his last hope: the calm I give him.

“I was wrong last night to make you promise to stay when you’re hurting so much. I was doing the same thing I did in Portland. Forcing you to stay with me when it terrifies you. And all it’s done is hurt you over and over again. The doctors say not to repeat the past. But maybe it’s not your mistakes we should not be repeating. Maybe it’s mine.”

“Those weren’t mistakes. You’ve never forced me into anything I didn’t desperately want myself.”

“All the same. Besides you kept your promise: you promised to give this your best fight. And you have. You have been fighting all your life. Since you were a seven-year-old boy, climbing up this tree. For your parents, your country, your brothers, me. It’s time for you to rest, my love. That’s all I’m asking. Let me give you peace, like you healed me.”

“How could I possibly be at peace knowing you’d be hurting, Elisa? Sleepwalking and spending your days at the hilltop grave, waiting for the end.”

How well he knows me, better than I know myself. I find Little Aiden in the playground to say the next words without tears. “I won’t let it be that way again. If you dedicate yourself to your health, I promise I will do the same. I will go to work, make friends. And I’ll let you set up everything you need for my well-being, from bodyguards to trust funds and heaven knows what else you have planned for me. I won’t complain. And when you board the plane, you won’t have to see me cry. I will just say ‘like cookies, Aiden’ and turn around. Just please go and take my calm and the protein whenever I finish it. That’s what I’m offering. Will you accept it?”

His eyes become deep oceans, as they were that first morning in Elysium, when he was describing my future without him. I look away from the waves of pain in those eyes, knowing they will become tears in mine. The blades of grass he stepped on as a child swish against grown Aiden’s boots. Would that they could become staircases to heaven now.

“No deal,” he fires after a long moment, startling me.

What?” I gasp in dismay.

“I reject your offer. I appreciate it but reject it nonetheless.”

Why?

“Because it’s not a win-win, like all the other offers you have made me.”

“What do you mean? Of course it is.”

“No, it isn’t. You would be giving up a lot more than you would gain.”

“No, I wouldn’t. I would gain your rest.”

“And you’d be losing yours. The best—the only—persuasive argument I have heard today in favor of me staying until the eighteenth is closure for you. If I leave tomorrow or move to the Inn, you will not get that. You will always wonder what those final days could have been like. It will be yet another shock to your system. And you will hurt even more. You will never move on. That’s not winning, Elisa. It’s losing before you’ve even started.”

I don’t tell him there is no chance I will ever move on, no matter when he leaves. The whole point of this is for himto move on from me as best he can with his memory. “I would try, Aiden. I would give it my everything.”

But his eyes miss nothing. “And it won’t be enough, because you still believe there is a chance I could overcome this. Even when you are Helen’s age, you will wonder what if. What if I had stayed the entire ninety days? What if I were exposed to your effect a little longer? What if I hadn’t moved to the Inn? What if you had offered me something else? What if, what if, what if. You will question everything: yourself above all. And I cannot live with that. I cannot and will not create any reality where you lose faith in yourself.”

How can I argue with any of those truths? Especially when I want him so much to stay with me? “So . . . so what will you do then?”

“Try to give you whatever closure I can. I can’t go back to the way things were—taking trips to River Eden, sleeping in the same bed. And I will not continue the reel. I cannot do that to you now. But I will stay and use this time for what it is . . . the goodbye we never had.” His voice drops, but not the way it does when he calls me “love.” The way it quiets when he talks about Marshall—another torture, another death that he won’t let me heal. And I have nothing left to convince him with. Everything inside and outside of me starts whirling like the merry-go-around. But I hold on to the dimple in Little Aiden’s smooth, golden cheek as he gambols to the slide, climbing up easily, then flying back down with open arms like wings. The dizziness fades again, and I can speak.

“What about my calming effect and the protein? Will you use them?”

Instantly, his eyes close. Is the idea of helping himself so unbearable? Would he rather live through torture everyday than take something from me? “Please, Aiden,” I beg. “It’s the only thing I want now.” It’s true and it isn’t—it’s the only thing I want that he might still give. “I want it more than air, more than water. Please?”

I expect the unspeakable agony now, the one with no name. My hands shake, grasping the thick root, as it floods his face. But he tethers it back, inch by excruciating inch. His throat seems to close as if he can’t speak, but he does—for me. “I will use the protein when you finish it only if there is enough for you to take as well.”

“Thank you,” I whisper fervently. “What about the calm—will you give yourself that?”

He doesn’t answer, jaw clenched into a steely blade.

“Please, Aiden. It’s yours already. Keep this one small thing for yourself. You deserve it even if your mind is trying to convince you that you don’t. You have given me so much love, you have saved my life, you healed me from my own past. Take this little gift in return. It will give me peace, too.” And it will. Nothing else will ever give me that except knowing his eyes will brighten again.

He still doesn’t answer, glaring into the tarry clouds. And I can’t help it, I slip. I touch his hand that is a gnarly fist like the burls in his childhood tree. It shudders under the lightest caress as it does when he watches the reel. I pull back my hand quickly. “Why won’t you do it anymore?” I ask, not sure I can live through the answer. “Is it only because you don’t think you deserve it? Or does it hurt too much to look at me now?”

He closes his eyes. “Elisa, looking at you is like looking at the sky. This beautiful, immeasurable space that makes you believe in wings and gods and dreams. There is nothing painful about it.”

“Then why?”

He shakes his head. “Imagine living in a world without a sky. What would you do? Would you still look up or would you look at the ground because it’s the only evidence that the sky was real once?”

His question makes me gasp. Because this is my world he is describing, my dark universe. It shouldn’t be his. “I’m real now, my love. Look at me, so you can hurt a little less. Even if you only do it a couple times a day, it will be better than nothing. Will you at least try that? Please? I need to give this to you as much as you need to take it from me.” My breath hitches, and there is no locket or little boy that can stave off the grief that grips me.

I don’t know if it’s my pleading that he can never resist, or the quiver in my voice, or if his need is as exigent as my own. But whatever it is, Aiden gives in. He turns his face to mine and lets his eyes free. They race over every line, greedily, hungrily, as though they have been starved. My jawline first, my cheeks, the curve of my lips, my eyes, over and over and over, absorbing every pore of my skin. His breathing picks up, shallow and rapid, somewhere between an orgasm and a drowning man coming up for air. And the turquoise light blasts through the depths, almost blinding me with its force. More beautiful than the little boy of my fantasies, more exquisite than any star. It shatters my mind even as it mends my heart.

But as soon as tension starts to soften around his shoulders, he wrenches back his gaze. It takes only a blink, and his face plummets into lifelessness again. Before I can gasp or say anything, our names ring across the lawn.

“Elisa? Aiden?” Doctor Helen is striding toward us in her white coat and umbrella, carrying my basket on her arm. “I’m glad you’re still here. You forgot this.” She hands it to me before I can test whether I can stand. The wicker feels like a souvenir from a different life. And a colossal testament to the distress Aiden is in, that he didn’t notice right away my basket was missing. He is staring at it blankly, no doubt realizing the same thing.

“Thank you,” I manage, remembering the contents. I lift the lid, trying not to look at Aiden’s post-reel surprise, and take out the Clare roses. “Actually, I brought these for you, Doctor Helen. Thank you for seeing us so early and trying to help us.”

She takes them from me with a look of wonder. “Ah, the Clare roses! It’s been so long since I’ve smelled them.” She brings them to her nose, inhaling deeply. “Clare brought some to me when she finished her fellowship. You weren’t born yet, but she had just married Peter. I have never seen anyone that happy.”

“I found some of her journals. She was very fond of you.”

“And I of her, but I might like her daughter even more.” She looks at Aiden, who is staring at the roses like he is burning. “I’ll let you be together now. That helps you more than any scientific advice I can give.” She inclines her head in her dignified manner and walks away, smelling the roses.

The weight of the basket disappears from my arm as Aiden takes it.

“I got it,” I say quickly, yanking it back before he can see the surprise and feel more pain. I pretend to brush off grass from the lid, holding my breath.

“What is it, Elisa?”

“Nothing. Are you hungry? I brought you some scones. I know you didn’t eat.”

A heartbeat of silence. Then, “Tell me.”

I keep my eyes on the blades of grass, so the truth doesn’t spill out. “It’s just something silly. Please, don’t worry about it.”

“I can’t do that.”

I sigh, not knowing what is worse: letting him worry or causing him pain. In Aiden’s case, they’re made from the same molecules, but only one used to make him smile. I lift the lid, knowing it won’t have that power now. But maybe somewhere deep in the inconceivable networks of his memory, a single neuron might trigger even the faintest release of serotonin. Carefully, I bring out the seedling I have been cultivating between my Elisa rose and his American Beauty. Its very first leaflet has sprouted on Elisa’s stem, bright and chartreuse green.

A sharp breath from Aiden makes it flutter. I watch with a clenched heart as the void on his face changes to recognition, like a pulse of life.

“This was going to be your surprise after the reel today.” I fight to keep my voice even, as I hand him the little plastic pot with the word “Love” painted on it. It balances easily on his palm. He doesn’t move a finger, whether afraid of breaking it or breaking himself, I don’t know. “I first brought it to our Room of Firsts the day of the Rose Festival for our lunch date,” I explain, thinking of that day when I made the mistake with the devastating consequences we are suffering now. “Your clue had said to bring love. But then I got angry with you about my hands even though you were right, and I never had a chance to show you. Probably for the best—there wasn’t much to show then. But it has been growing ever since and it just got its first leaf. See? It’s really nothing, like I told you.”

He is still holding the pot in his open hand. “Nothing?” His voice is rough.

“I—I just thought it would make you smile like these things do after the reel, but it was foolish. Not even ninety thousand more reels can compare to today.”

“Not foolish.” He shakes his head, and his face starts changing again. Fighting between the nameless agony and tenderness. At least he is feeling something else, no matter how minor. “How long does it take for it to bloom?”

A lot longer than we have left together. “A few months,” I murmur, but that doesn’t erase the excruciating pain in his eyes so I change tracks to tangentials. “I wonder what color it will turn out.” Will it look like his rose or mine? Will he take it with him, plant it in his backyard with its grandparents that we planted together? Will it make him smile years from now or will it wither like us? I tap its happy, green leaflet, thinking vaguely of that first morning on Elysium when Aiden told me about his hope for this experiment. I was staring at the forget-me-nots then, trying to avoid his eyes, trying to keep my hope from fledgling. And now everything is the opposite.

“Is this its name?” He indicates at the word ‘love’ on the pot. Perhaps he is focusing on tangentials, too.

It was going to be. But as I watch it dance in the wind, the new green sparkling like the tendril of the American Beauty rose we planted at my parents’ grave together, a different name clicks, fitting the hybrid as his war letter put it: like air and lungs, hearts and beats.

“No, its name is Hope. H-o-p-e.”

The leaflet flutters again with his breath. “You changed your mind about giving it to me.”

“Yes, but only because I saw earlier how much it hurts you. The things we do, how we used to be—they are painful now.”

He shakes his head, still watching the hybrid. “That’s not what hurts, Elisa. It’s the knowledge that, soon, I will lose them.”

L-o-s-e. S-o-o-n. Dad’s watch doesn’t tick. Even my own pulse feels quiet. I cannot think of a single thing to say. Not one word that will not shatter us both. So instead I memorize this moment: the indestructible roots of his oak, the fragile grass, my rose stem carrying the bright, starry leaflet, the playground, the raindrops slipping through the leaves. And I know I will never forget this either, like him. I will return to this oak every day of my existence.

He sighs and rises to his feet, holding Hope in his hand. “Come, the rain is picking back up. Let’s take you home.”

Home. Where he will not be able to r-e-s-t at all if I am anywhere close for f-e-a-r of hurting me.

Not sure I can stand or even breathe, I do the only thing I can—continue the last battle to save him. “Actually, I want to go to Bia. I don’t know what will happen with the project with Edison gone, so I’d like to test some more today. You go on and get some sleep. Use Für Elise, please. I have food with me and paracetamol, don’t worry.”

He didn’t expect my answer, and that’s good. Because in his surprise, his eyes find my face again and some life touches him. The deep V forms between his brows. Resistance clenches his jaw. Worry creases his forehead. I can see he wants to protest that I should sleep or stay off my feet or talk to Reagan and Javier or any number of things designed to care for me. And I can see how much it’s costing him not to say them, as if his very soul is being mutilated. But he does because this is when our goodbye begins.

He nods once, the motion taut against the grain. “Benson will stay with you. And I’ll send Doctor Gramercy to check on you later.”

“Who will stay with you?”

He looks down at the seedling. “Für Elise.”

It’s a win, I suppose, in the dead center of losing everything. I will my deadened legs to stand so he can see me strong, so he can leave. His free arm reaches for me as if to catch me. I reach for him, too, my feet reflexively closing the small space between us. Our fingers brush, sending a shiver through us both like an electric umbilical cord. The feel of his touch spreads over my frozen skin like warmth. I can feel my face contorting in ache, but I control it. Not yet. He closes his eyes as though the image is burning him.

“Be safe,” he whispers roughly.

Then his fingers are gone, and his warmth disappears. Blind, he turns around, taking Hope with him. The green leaflet trembles with the motion of his passage.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 30 – AFTER

Hello friends, after a few weeks off for health reasons, here is the next chapter.  I have missed you a lot. I’m sorry for the delay and thank you so for the amazing response to the last one–I know it was heavy and heart-breaking.  Only about four chapters left now as we conclude Aiden and Elisa’s journey.  Thank you to everyone who has been checking on me and providing support, from regular messages and comments to health research, network, and nutritional tips help (you know you are, my lovely friend).  Hope you enjoy.  – xo, Ani [TRIGGER WARNING: parts of this chapter may contain references to depression or self-harm.]

30

After

“Elisa!” My name booms from the garden, making me jump against Aiden’s inert body. “Elisa, where are you?” Benson is thundering. His heavy footsteps rattle the shards of glass on the floor. A beam of light cuts the night outside the broken window. I tear my lips from Aiden’s unmoving mouth so I can answer.

“Benson, we’re here! We’re in the library!” I shout, keeping my hand on Aiden’s chest. Under my palm, his heartbeat is still slow and quiet.

“Coming in,” Benson roars, and I hear the front door slam. Thankfully, one brain cell remembers that my robe is open, and I tuck it around me quickly one second before Benson bursts into the library. His eyes are huge as he takes in the scene. “Good God! Elisa, are you hurt?” He crouches next to me at once, one massive hand flying to Aiden’s wrist, another to my forehead.

“Not at all, but Aiden is. Edison smashed a microscope in the back of his head.” My voice breaks, and I shudder at the image branded in my retinas.

“Fuck!” Benson’s snarl is almost as feral as Aiden’s. “Edison was the creep?”

“Yes, he’s somewhere by the beech trees, I think. Aiden kicked him—”

As if to complete my sentence, a yelp of agony rises from wherever the traitor is suffering. I bring my lips back to Aiden’s mouth, humming Für Elise loudly so he doesn’t hear, if he can hear. “Aiden, I love you. We’re safe, love. Benson is here.”

“Have you called an ambulance?”

“Yes, they’re on their way.” On cue, a siren starts wailing in the distance. Another howl comes from the garden. “It’ll be okay, love,” I tell Aiden. “Don’t worry. You just breathe with me, all right?”

“How long has he been out?” Benson asks, peeking under Aiden’s head without daring to move it.

“About three minutes.”

“He was out for over ten minutes in Fallujah, and he was okay,” Benson mutters, as if to himself. “But his pulse is faint.”

“I know.” I blow over Aiden’s lips again, my hand never leaving his heart. His face is still peaceful, glowing under the soft overhead light in stark contrast with the havoc around us. “Benson, can you bring me that blanket for him?”

“You got it.” Benson bolts on his feet and hurtles to the desk for my blanket that still has blood from my lip in its corner. He is back before Aiden’s heart has stuttered twice. I tuck the blanket around his waist and legs, hiding the bloody corner down by his feet. “Aiden, I’m still here, love. Come back to me, please. You promised . . .”

The seconds on the clock are ticking. Three minutes and fifteen seconds now. Sixteen. Seventeen. Then abruptly something changes. Aiden’s heart nudges my hand with a firmer thud. Lub-dub.

“Aiden?” I cry, leaning closer. “Aiden, can you hear me?” I run my fingers over his cheeks, wiping away my tears that are still glistening on him. A slight movement flickers under the golden eyelids. In my own chest, my heart stops, restarts, and double-strikes. “Aiden, I love you, I love you so much. Come back, love. I’m on the other side.” Five more seconds, another lub-dub. Then a faint, warm breeze flutters over my lips.

“Oh, thank God!” I sob, almost collapsing on top of him as Benson drops on the rug, shaking the entire library and crossing himself. Another lub-dub, another waft of breath.

Then at long last, a voice that brings me back to life. “Elisa,” Aiden murmurs.

“Yes, I’m here, love. I’m right here. Can you feel my hands?” I stroke his forehead and clutch his long fingers.

The impossible eyes open. Sapphire at first between each slow, heavy blink. Then a spark of turquoise flickers in the blue depths as I must come into focus. I almost flop all over him again with heady relief. Whatever Edison’s blow has done, it hasn’t stolen my calm from him. That weapon is still standing. And so is his memory from the looks of it. Instantly the tectonic plates shift, and a sharp edge of terror slices his eyes like the jagged glass.

“I’m safe and sound,” I blurt out immediately, knowing this is exactly what he is dreading. “You saved my life, Aiden, as well as your own.” I caress his creased brow, yet my words don’t seem to calm him. The seraphic face blanches whiter than bone. Like a portcullis, tension drops down on him, turning him into stone.

“Aiden, love, I’m all right, I promise,” I assure him again before he can speak. “Benson can tell you himself.”

“She’s really okay, sir,” Benson rumbles. “It’s you we’re worried about.”

“How are you feeling?” I stroke his jaw that is sharpening into a glacial blade.

“Fine,” he answers automatically, but his eyes are scanning me as if he will only accept his own evidence. As they do, the terror morphs into agony—an anguish so deep, it looks as if someone is lighting him on fire. Exactly like the one time he hurt me.

“No, love, not that look!” I plead. “I’m not hurt at all. Nothing happened to me, all thanks to you. Please believe me.” I smooth the V between his brows, but the eyes . . . They deepen like an abyss, hollowing further and further, darkening until they close. A shudder tears through him.

“Aiden—” I start again, but he interrupts me.

“I’m fine, Elisa,” he repeats, his voice low and hoarse. “It seems that you saved me, too.” He opens his eyes—there isn’t a single flicker of life in them—and starts to sit up.

“Oh no, you don’t!” I press my hands on his tense shoulders, trying to push him back on the rug. “Aiden, lie down. The ambulance will be here in a minute. I don’t want you moving before then.”

“The ambulance?” Even in obvious torment, he sounds appalled. The siren blares closer, from what sounds like the garage across Elysium. “Christ, Elisa, for this?”

“Yes, for this. You took a blow to the head and were out for over three minutes. Do you remember?”

The plates shift again—it takes only a second, his usual recall speed. “Of course I remember. Edison?” His teeth almost strangle the name, and he tries to sit up again.

“Shh, relax.” I push against his chest with all my strength. “He’s weeping outside, ruing the minute he crossed you, I imagine. Aiden, you need to be still. Please, for me!”

His jaw flexes once, but at least he stops trying to stand. He lies back down and turns to Benson. “Can you secure the asshole for the police? Apparently, I can’t help you because I took a three-minute nap.”

“I’m on it. I’d like a chance to say hello personally anyway.” Benson’s slow grin gives me chills. He rises to his feet and streaks out of the library, much too nimbly for his size. The shards of glass tremble at his passage with a sound like rain. It’s only then that Aiden’s eyes fall on the droplets of my blood on the floor. Instantly, the blue depths harden like gemstones and his teeth snap audibly with familiar rage.

“It’s nothing,” I say quickly, grateful that my legs are tucked under me, at least for now. “Just a little prick. I stepped on a cactus once; this is nothing compared to that. More adjacent to rose thorns. Oops, sorry, you’ve banned the word ‘adjacent’, but you get the idea.”

But the more I speak, the more his face is withdrawing. “Let me see your legs, Elisa.”

Please, stop worrying. You need to relax instead of fussing about a silly splinter in my foot.”

“Elisa, so help me God! Show me or I will stand and look at them myself.” His abs flex ominously through the blanket.

Oh, bloody hell! I don’t want him to look before I’ve had a chance to inspect the situation, but I don’t want him to move either. He starts to rise again.

“All right, all right!” I surrender. “Here, see?” I open my robe only a few inches. The silk quivers in my hands. As soon as my knees are exposed, his forehead locks. Every angle of his face freezes into greyish ice, from the blinkless eyelids to his strained jaw. I follow his gaze and feel my own blood drain away. My knees look almost as terrible as they feel. A dozen splinters are lodged in them like bloody asterisks. A vicious snarl slides from Aiden’s clenched teeth.

“I swear they don’t hurt,” I lie, pulling down my robe, and thankfully in this second Benson locates Edison in the garden.

“Well, good evening, Professor Edison.” A hard thump causes the last of the knives of glass to clatter from the shattered windowpanes, and a new howl pierces my ears.  I take advantage of Aiden whipping his head toward the sound and leap over him before he can grab my ankles and check the soles of my feet. Who knows what they look like compared to my knees? “Don’t move an inch or I’ll call Doctor Helen, Corbin, and your parents right now,” I call over my shoulder, sprinting out of the library despite the stabbing pain. “I’ll go get in my pajamas before the medics get here. Stay where you are!”

His growl follows me in the foyer. As soon as I turn the corner, I pause to examine the mess and, more importantly, what I can do about it before Aiden sees it. Bloody hell—quite literally! My feet are as thorny as they feel. Spikes of glass have embedded themselves like stars forming constellations of their own on the heels and balls of my feet. Halos of blood glow crimson around them. I pick off as many as I can from my right foot and hop on it all way upstairs. It’s difficult, but not because of the acrobatics. It’s difficult because I’m shaking with terror on two legs, let alone one. Terror for what comes next, for what Aiden is thinking about as he lies alone on the rug of planets in the ruined library. And above all, terror that he will decide he has endangered me enough and end us once and for all. A blistering wave of nausea rises in my throat, and I almost vomit on the landing. Hydrogen, 1.008 . . . Help me, Mum. Keep him here, Dad.

Our happy bedroom is still dark. Für Elise is still lullabying softly from Aiden’s phone. The alarm clock glimmers ten to one. Was it only an hour ago that I was dreaming of kissing his back, shivering with pleasure, not dread? I switch on the light, gripping the door for balance. But the intimate glow stabs deeper than the broken glass as it illuminates the little room that makes us, us. The double-frames of our firsts on each nightstand, the rosewood chess set on the dresser, the polaroid of Aiden’s heartline and brainwaves, the dried poppies of our weapons by my locket and charm bracelet. How many weapons do we have left after tonight? My calming effect—nothing can change that, it seems—but can it hold if we lose Aiden’s fledgling self-love, his laughter, pleasure, faith, and even his fight? Especially if I can’t finish the protein that caused tonight’s horror. Another shiver rocks me so violently, it knocks me off balance on my one leg. I pluck off more splinters from my left foot, trying to concentrate only on the way they sting rather than the punctured wound that just ripped open in my chest. I hide the shards at the bottom of the rubbish bin so Aiden won’t see them. Out in the garden, Benson calls over to Aiden, and I’m thankful for his distraction.

“He’s all pretty and tied up, sir. I’ll stay out here, keep him company. What say you, Professor?”

There is no answer from Aiden, but whatever Benson does makes Edison whimper. From the willows drifts a chorus of indistinct voices, and flashlight beams wash over the bedroom window. The medics are here. I swipe up Aiden’s favorite sweatpants and T-shirt and throw on my pajamas and navy socks to hide my grisly feet. Then I dash downstairs as fast as they will carry me.

On the library floor, Aiden has heeded my threat. He hasn’t moved an inch, physically at least. But his eyes are thousands of miles away beyond the ceiling. The difference in them is so staggering, I freeze at the door. They look as if they have been gouged out of their sockets by some cataclysmic force, even though they are physically intact. His face is different, too. Entirely empty; all expression ripped away, leaving only his beauty behind without any sign of life. My stomach roils again. I try to draw air, but I can’t feel anything—nor the smell of roses in the wind or the metal of the doorknob in my hand or even the sharp stings on my skin. But the hurried, stressed voices of the medics break through. Shaking, I pad to Aiden’s side. His eyes flash immediately to my socked feet.

“How badly do they hurt, Elisa? And no cactus or thorn comparisons, if you value my sanity.”  The change is in his voice too. It’s lower, rougher than his usual timbre—fading with the wind as soon as the words are spoken. I scramble through my panic, trying to think which answer will go better. Hastily, I decide for a version of the truth.

“I value your sanity most of all, which is why I picked out the splinters and am completely fine. Here, I have your sweatpants and T-shirt if you want them after the medics examine you.” I drape them over his waist, trying to hide my trembling hands. If he sees them, he says nothing. His eyes return to the ceiling, staring at things and places I cannot comprehend. Before I can wrestle with another breath, the doorbell jingles with the first notes of Für Elise. Nothing changes in Aiden’s face at the beloved sound. I rush to open it, my terror impossibly doubling. A crisp voice calls from the other side of the door.

“Elisa, PC Dockery here with the medics. You rang the emergency number?”

The familiar voice triggers a flashback of my own: the funeral reception, last time PC Dockery was here. What was he saying then? May you remember only the love? Or was that someone else? I trail my fingers along the wall, trying to stay present, and wrench open the door.

A gust of wind blows in with force, bringing me back. The tiny threshold is overflowing with bodies and flashlights. PC Dockery is at the front, two medics and another copper behind him, and to his right Doctor Gramercy, our elderly village doctor, hunched as the day he came to the funeral.

“Oh, hello, Elisa.” His wizened mouth opens in a smile. “I came along when I heard there was need at the Rose Cottage. Are you all right, dear?”

“I’m fine, Doctor, but my boyfriend, Aiden, is hurt. We had an intruder who hit him in the head with a microscope. He’s hurt too, outside around the corner, with our friend Benson.”

“An intruder?!” PC Dockery cries in shock. “What—here in Burford? At this cottage?”

“Blimey!” Doctor Gramercy’s eyes widen behind his round glasses. “Let me through, Philip. Let’s see how they are first, then you can get the story. Mary, Jenny—” He turns to the two medics. “You go around for this character with PC Clarkson—carefully now. I’ll treat Elisa’s sweetheart.”

They bustle in with urgency. Across Elysium, the red and blue sirens arc through the night like macabre rainbows. There’s been an accident, an accident . . .

“Elisa?” Doctor Gramercy is calling me from the present. “Where to, darling?”

“The library, Doctor, just down the hall. Be careful, there’s broken glass from the window.”

They head in before me which gives me a moment to get it together. Aiden will see the flashbacks in my eyes the second I walk in if I don’t clear my head. He would fly back to Portland tonight then. I gulp down the wind, searching for any trace of roses. The night is darker now, only patches of moon are visible through the velvet clouds. The roses turn crimson and blue under the ambulance lights. It’s not the same, I chant in my head, inhaling and exhaling, letting the cold wind blow out the flashback cobwebs. Aiden is strong. Aiden will survive this. But will we? I draw another gust of wind and shut the door on the sirens’ gleam.

The library is bursting at its mahogany beams. It has never looked more crowded, probably because Aiden is so tall that he takes up most of the floor. I immediately find his eyes, hoping for some change, but there is none. They are still empty as they scan PC Dockery and Doctor Gramercy.

“Oh, my!” The doctor rushes straight to Aiden, carrying the same black leather bag I always remember.  “Well, hello to you, sir, Doctor Gramercy here, how do you do?”

“I’m fine, Doctor. Thanks for coming.” I know Aiden’s voice well enough to hear the controlled exasperation buried below his manners.

“Looks like there’s been quite the kerfuffle here. Mind if I examine you?”

“Actually, could you check Elisa first? She has stepped on a lot of glass. I’m truly fine.”

Doctor Gramercy smiles. “I’ll be sure to do that, but I think a head injury is a bit more urgent. Elisa, have a seat, dear, and keep off your feet while I check on your sweetheart.”

I curl down on the rug, trying to give the doctor his space and bring my fears under some form of management.

“All right, Aiden, is it?” Doctor Gramercy proceeds, clearly unaware of the seething underneath Aiden’s composed mien.

“Yes, Aiden Hale.”

“That’s very good. Now, Aiden, tell me, do you know today’s date?”

The doctor starts checking Aiden’s cognition and memory that could dance circles around all of ours combined, even after he was knocked unconscious. There isn’t a second of hesitation or delay in his answers, not one waver from his perfect articulation. But my hands still shake as the doctor feels Aiden’s head and tests his reflexes. Waves of emotion wash over me, wringing my insides. Fear and pain, even more potent than in that ambulance ride so long ago. I grit my teeth against the bile and tears. Save him, God, please. Take everything from me and give it to him.

“You have an old, tough scar back here, Mister Aiden. How did that happen?” Doctor Gramercy’s fingers run gently over the back of Aiden’s scalp, while I twitch on the rug helpless. I know it’s the scar from the insurgent’s rifle—the rifle that knocked him unconscious from the moment he saved Jazz to the moment he opened his eyes and saw Marshall being tortured alive.

“Old and fully healed,” Aiden avoids the question. His voice does not betray a single note of the trauma his memory must have unleashed on him now. Because only the physical scar has healed. What happens to the deep, invisible scars after tonight?

“Thankfully, it didn’t reopen.” Doctor Gramercy palpates the spot but does not push for an answer. Perhaps his years of experience recognize the warning in Aiden’s omission. “The microscope hit it smack in the center. Does that feel tender?”

“No.” Aiden’s denial is immediate, which means the spot is probably as raw as my chest right now. I have to concentrate on breathing in and out as the doctor continues to feel the spot with a frown. Peripherally, I notice PC Dockery revolving around us, taking notes and photos of the library that is now a crime scene. Out in the garden, bright lanterns are glowing electric blue. Mary and Jenny must be treating Edison because he is swearing and weeping.

“My, my, the other fellow sounds positively apoplectic,” Doctor Gramercy notes. “Elisa said he broke in?”

“Twice, at least,” Aiden answers through his teeth. I’m sure, he is silently reciting a full-length prayer in all his twelve languages for this charade to end right now.

“Elisa.” PC Dockery turns to me with his notepad and pen at the ready. “Could you tell me what happened? Do you know the intruder?”

“Oh, Philip, let me examine the poor dear first,” Doctor Gramercy stops him. “You can take their statements while I’m working on her. I’m almost finished here.” He lets go of Aiden’s head and pinches his cheek affectionately as he used to do with me when I was five. “You’re a strong fellow. And a lucky one at that. The microscope spared your skull and brain—a mercy, that is! You must have turned around very quickly to avoid the full impact or the wretch must have been weak. I don’t see any lasting damage except a big bump that should go away with some Tylenol and ice. Here is a cold pack for now. You’ll feel sore for a few days, so no strenuous activity, the telly, or hard brainwork in the meantime.”

Relief, so powerful that it’s almost painful, crashes over me at the doctor’s words. I choke back my whimper and brace my arm against the floor not to topple over. I’ve never thought to be thankful for Aiden’s startle reflex, but I’m grateful for it now. If it hadn’t been triggered, he would have never been able to whip around as swiftly as he did. Not that Aiden will ever agree. He would be furious at the mere idea of me appreciating it.

“Nevertheless,” Doctor Gramercy continues, and I stop breathing again. “I’d like to get an MRI to make sure there’s no internal bleeding, especially given the prior injury. Why don’t you sit up slowly and we can take you to the hospital after I tend to Elisa?”

“Oh, that will not be necessary,” Aiden responds immediately. “I assure you, there was no bleeding last time either. I’ll be seeing my regular doctor tomorrow on an unrelated matter at Oxford. I’ll have her do a scan then.” There is no space for questions or argument in his authoritative voice, as I knew there wouldn’t be. Doctor Gramercy notices it, too.

“Well, I can’t take you by force. But do try to wake up every two hours tonight to be safe then. And if you feel the least bit poorly—confusion, headache, anything—call me no matter the time. Here is my mobile.” He reaches in his coat pocket and hands Aiden his card. “You can move now—gently, there’s a good lad—and I’ll check on Elisa. Do you know I delivered her? The tiniest, prettiest thing she was, too. We’re chuffed she’s back.” He smiles at Aiden and turns to me. “Very good, Elisa, let me see those feet before your Aiden has a heart attack in addition to a skull attack.”

My Aiden rises on his feet faster than the doctor or me, securing the blanket around his waist. He grabs the armchair pillow from the floor and sets it back on its spot, pushing me on the seat with a firm clasp on my shoulder that says clearly “sit or else!” But his touch thaws me out of my frozen anxiety. For the first time since I left our bed tonight, I feel a sense of warmth spreading from his fingertips even though they are icy. I look up at him but he is watching Doctor Gramercy as he teeters toward me.

“A chair, Doctor?” Aiden offers, but Doctor Gramercy waves and sits down at my feet.

“Easier on my back and eyes like this, Mister Aiden. You should be the one to rest, even with your strength. And ice that bump.”

Aiden sits on the arm of my chair, stony and tense, holding the cold pack to the back of his head. Nothing changes in the hollow eyes. I take his free hand in both of mine to comfort him and warm up, but he doesn’t look my way—he is following every movement of Doctor Gramercy who is peeling off my socks and rolling up my pajamas above my knees. A low hiss slides from Aiden’s teeth as he sees the full damage. The armchair creaks with the force of his tension, and I feel a shudder run through his frame. So must Doctor Gramercy because he smiles in a reassuring way.

“Ah, yes, I see! Nothing to worry about. Just a few splinters. I can get these out in no time.” He rummages in his black bag while I stare only at Aiden’s ashen face, thankful I had a chance to pluck out most of the splinters. What would he have done if he had seen all of them?

“Doctor, with anesthetic, right?” he demands, so coiled I think he wants to search the bag himself. But Doctor Gramercy chuckles again.

“Of course with anesthetic. I wouldn’t want to hurt our Elisa. The Plemmonses would beat me up with Harold’s cane, if you don’t wring my neck first.” He brings out a cotton pad and soaks it in liquid lidocaine. The sharp, cherry scent burns my nostrils. “All right, dear, a wee bit of a sting now. Like when you stepped on that cactus, remember?”

As if I care about my skin burning when my insides are on fire, when the wound in my chest is oozing more than any cut or blister. I peek at Aiden again. He is staring at the doctor’s fingers as they brush the cotton ball over my soles and knees. His face is rigid; his eyes could burn holes on Doctor Gramercy’s freckled hands.

“It doesn’t hurt,” I tell him, drawing circles on the back of his fist. “I promise.”

He nods but doesn’t blink away from my feet. A numb feeling starts spreading over my skin. I wish it would numb the pain inside—the pain that doesn’t come from broken glass.

“Doctor, may I question now?” asks PC Dockery.

“Oh yes, Philip, go on. I’ll be here for a while.” He takes out a pair of long tweezers and starts hunting for fragments of glass. Aiden, who never flinched during his examination, winces now.

“I don’t even feel it,” I assure him again. “Doctor Gramercy has the gentlest hands in all of the Cotswolds. Everyone knows it.”

The doctor chortles while PC Dockery drags the chair from behind the desk to my side. He casts a glance at Aiden.

“Normally, we would interview witnesses separately—” he starts.

“I’m staying right here,” Aiden interrupts, glancing away from my feet briefly to lock eyes with the constable in a way that accepts zero opposition. Outside, Edison is whimpering about broken ribs.

PC Dockery nods, seeming unsurprised. “I can see that. Given the type of infraction, I’m comfortable with an exception in this instance. So, Elisa, I’ll start with you. Tell me what happened from the beginning.”

Aiden turns his lethal gaze back to my feet but stops breathing entirely. I realize now that this is the first time he will hear the story, too—at least the part for which he was asleep. I choose my words with care so I can be truthful and earn Edison exactly what he deserves, but not sound so terrified as to cause Aiden more pain. It’s difficult, almost impossible as I remember every horrifying minute. But despite my efforts, each of my words might as well be a stab of jagged glass in Aiden’s own skin. His fist in mine is as cold as when he watches the reel. I stroke it a few times to no avail. His eyes never stray from the growing pile of crystals that Doctor Gramercy is collecting on his porcelain tray. Tinkles of broken glass punctuate my story like exclamation marks. Clink. Clink. Clink. I try to fight back the waves of terror drowning me. But at least I have Edison as an excuse for the cracking in my voice even though right now, I would rather face him a million times over than watch what comes next.

PC Dockery is quiet as he takes notes, although both he and the doctor gasp when they hear the name of my intruder—the polished professor they remember from the hospital, the funeral, and even the rose festivals. Then they fall silent again. The only sounds are my voice, the clinks of glass, and Edison’s cries. When we reach the midazolam part, I feel the armchair vibrate under me with Aiden’s fury as he relives it. PC Dockery reaches in the desk drawer and takes out the brown bottle with a gloved hand. He places it inside an evidence bag that apparently has been with him unused for the last fifteen years and with his predecessor for decades. Now and then, he questions Aiden, too. Aiden answers in a leashed, unemotional tone, his eyes drifting farther and farther away.

“Elisa, dear, try to keep still while I check your toes,” Doctor Gramercy cautions me, no doubt feeling the shivers that are jiggling my body like the wind. I tear my eyes from Aiden’s face and focus them on the doctor’s hands. Like so many aged hands that have comforted me through life. Maria and Antonio, Robert and Stella, and now Doctor Helen . . . What will they say now? How can they help? Will they even have a chance this time?

“Elisa, I do have a question,” PC Dockery says when I finish, skipping over Aiden’s startle and flashback—it’s easy to do, it only lasted a minute before he fell unconscious. “Why did you not awake Mr. Hale right away? Why talk to Edison alone?”

If I thought Aiden was frozen before, it is nothing to how he transforms now. Hard, cold, and entirely still—as though he is channeling all his immense strength toward hiding whatever iceberg is solidifying underneath. He is blaming himself. I know it, I can taste it on my tongue like the lidocaine. My stomach twists with dread. But thankfully the tweezers tug at my skin, yanking me back from the edge. I choke back the nausea, focusing on remembering words and stringing them into sentences.

“I didn’t want to wake him,” I answer quietly. “We were planning on getting up early to go to River Eden, and he had a long drive ahead. I thought I could finish up with Edison quickly and send him off on my own. I didn’t realize he was planning to hurt me.”

PC Dockery peers at me through his half-moon glasses. “I can understand that given how long you knew him, but you must have been suspicious. He came in with a key you hadn’t given him after all.”

“I was but hoped he had a reasonable explanation. I was very naïve,” I mutter even though I am not fooling Aiden. He knows exactly why I chose to handle Edison alone—knows it and loathes himself for it. I caress his arctic fist again, but it doesn’t give an inch. His body is so taut with restraint, he looks like a sculpture. I’m sure only the fact that my feet are scraped and bloody is keeping him sitting by my side.

Doctor Gramercy sighs. “Elisa, next time, use those lungs. I know you have them, I heard them the second you came into this world. Give it a good scream. You’ve got a strapping fellow here who obviously wants nothing more but to keep you safe.”

S-a-f-e. Doctor Gramercy has no idea how dangerous safety is for Aiden and me, how it can tear us apart more than any r-i-s-k. He drops another sliver of glass on the porcelain tray.

“That should be the last of it,” he announces, feeling around my toes for any more splinters. He soaks a new cotton ball with more anesthetic and wipes it everywhere on my skin. This one smells like iodine, mixing strangely with cherry and roses. “I’ll give you both something for the pain, too,” he adds, wrapping a thin layer of gauze over my feet and knees and taping it in place. “But I don’t think River Eden is a good idea tomorrow.”

“Agreed,” Aiden confirms in a decisive tone that cuts through me more sharply than the glass even though I know he is right. But why doesn’t he want to go? Is it only for our health or is he also trying to avoid being alone with me?

“Would you like me to stay tonight if you won’t go to the hospital?” Doctor Gramercy offers.

“No, thank you, Doctor,” Aiden answers, setting down the cold pack. “Benson can stay with us, we’ll be fine.”

“I better interview your friend as well.” PC Dockery stands, midazolam bag in hand.

“We have the evidence from the June break in,” Aiden remembers to add when I completely forget about it. “The mint wrapper, Elisa’s doodles, and the rest. It should be easy to obtain his fingerprints and match them to the bottle and everything else. There is also a security camera in the foyer’s light that we installed afterwards. I’m certain it will corroborate our account tonight.”

“Oh, I’d very much like to see all that. May I search the foyer, Elisa?”

“Please do,” I whisper, realizing that he cannot ask Aiden for permission. The cottage is not his, as much as I long for it to be. Aiden directs PC Dockery to the bottom desk drawer where he has kept the items he and Benson found that early dawn weeks ago—the dawn I didn’t believe him with such drastic, far-reaching consequences. PC Dockery nods and, with a gentle pat on my arm, marches to the foyer.

Doctor Gramercy looks up between Aiden and me, rolling down my pajamas. “You were both very fortunate tonight. I’m glad—this cottage has seen enough heartbreak.”

“I was lucky Aiden came when he did,” I say, looking up at the face I love. It’s still pale, not even the faintest flush of blood in it. “He saved my life.”

“Oh, without a doubt,” Doctor Gramercy agrees. “Now, take these painkillers. You should both get some rest. I’ll call tomorrow after you have visited your own doctor.” He starts to rise, and Aiden helps him on his feet.

“Thank you, Doctor,” I mumble, wishing he would stay. Aiden wouldn’t leave or make final decisions with him still here, would he? But as always, when I beg t-i-m-e to stop, it races ahead. Everything fasts forward at blinding speed. PC Dockery and PC Clarkson download the camera’s footage, sequester the microscope and Edison’s anorak where it is still hanging by mum’s parka, and fingerprint the doorknob, his key, and the photo frame he touched last time. By the time they are done, their old evidence bags are full. Then they finish with Benson and formally arrest Edison, who looks like a mummy swaddled in gauze. The medics load him on a stretcher, and the six of them file down the garden path, lit up by lanterns, flashlights, and the distant sirens. Edison doesn’t look at me when they pass by, perhaps because Aiden—now fully dressed—and Benson are both towering at my sides. Only as the medics carry him by the Clares does his head turn slightly toward the roses. I watch him disappear into the darkness, out of my life. At least my parents are not alive to see his betrayal. At least they never witnessed his full capacity for evil, even if Dad realized his greed in the end.

“Sir, everything okay?” Benson breaks the silence when the responders’ voices fade out of earshot.

I look up at Aiden, but his eyes are on the sirens. Their red and blue beams flash over his skin. I blink away, shivering under my blanket, unable to watch them color the face I love. He doesn’t speak until the ambulance and the coppers drive off. Instantly, we are plunged in darkness. For the first time, I register how much the clouds have thickened. Not a single star or speck of moon filters through their dense canopy.

“Are you able to stay here tonight?” Aiden asks Benson, his voice without any intonation. “The doctor wanted someone around.”

I shouldn’t be surprised he is following Doctor Gramercy’s orders. It’s the right thing to do, it’s for my safety. So why is my stomach spasming with fear again?

“Sure, no problem,” Benson agrees without hesitation.

“Thank you. You know your way up. I don’t want Elisa walking around on her feet.” Finally, Aiden looks at me. In the moonless night, I cannot see his eyes, but my skin erupts in goosebumps as if missing the warmth of his gaze.

“My feet don’t hurt at all anymore,” I say, not having to lie this time. “Come in, Benson, I’ll show you upstairs. Do you want some tea or something to eat first?”

“No, I’m good. I’ll just grab some water.” He steps inside the foyer sideways, stealing a quick glance at his impassive boss.

“You too, Elisa,” Aiden says. “It’s time for bed. I’ll clean up the library.”

“I’ll stay with you,” I insist. “Besides, you’re not supposed to do anything strenuous.”

“Moving a broom around isn’t strenuous. Go on, get some sleep.”

“But—”

“I’ll be up in a minute.”

Even without inflection, there is an undercurrent in his voice. Something I have only heard once before—on our second embargo night when I woke him from his nightmare. It tells me what he is really asking for: a moment alone. Except this time, everything in me recoils from the idea. I don’t want him pondering right and wrong again as he did then, but how can I not give him everything he needs now?

Next to us, Benson ambles from the kitchen with a glass of water, hovering uncertainly.

“I’ll get you set up, Benson,” I mumble, stepping inside. Every string of muscle aches in protest as I twist away from Aiden. He doesn’t follow us. I listen for any sign of him while I lead Benson up the stairs. But there is nothing—only silence.

“Here you go,” I tell Benson, turning on the light to the guest room. “It’s not king-sized, I’m afraid, but it will be more comfortable than the sofa.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

I fluff the pillows that haven’t lulled a guest to sleep since Javier. What would Javi and Reg say now? They would probably be boarding a plane already. How can I tell them about this without worrying them out of their minds? Can I uproot them across the globe again when they are still catching their breath from the last time?

“You ok?” Benson whispers, setting his glass of water on the side table.

I shake my head. “He’s very upset,” I mouth back.

“Yes, he is. This is his worst nightmare. You getting hurt because of him.”

“But it wasn’t his fault at all. This one was all me. I couldn’t rest until he got rid of Max and the whole security bit.”

Benson smiles but his gentle brown eyes crinkle with worry. “It’s not your fault either. You know him inside out. I’m sure you had your reasons.”

I look at his kind face, unable to agree. Yet in some ways, he knows our relationship better than anyone. He has been there with us every step of the way, even the blackest hour of them all—not Aiden’s attack on me, but our break-up.

“I’ll still back you,” he murmurs, sensing my unspoken question.

“You will?”

He extends his enormous hand, the size of a tea kettle. It swallows mine, but he squeezes very gently. “You’re his only hope, Elisa. I’ll back you until the very end.”

The end. What kind of end? When? How? Romeo and Juliet flit in my vision like sirens.

“Thank you,” I whisper, throwing my arms around his vast waist. “I know he loves you, as do I.”

He pats my back lightly, making my knees buckle. “Anytime. Now get some sleep. I heard the doctor. I’ll set my alarm for every two hours and check on him.” He ruffles my hair and pushes me out of his room with a gruff, emotional expression.

The hall becomes dark and empty as Benson closes the door behind me. The light of our happy bedroom glows faintly at the other end. I don’t need to look to know Aiden is not there. I tiptoe to the stairs’ landing, straining to listen. The unmistakable chime of broken glass floats up from the library. I sit at the top stair, huddling in my blanket, waiting. I know instinctively Aiden doesn’t want anyone with him right now. And I don’t want to make anything worse. Maybe he needs this present moment to breathe through his own terror. Maybe he will realize nothing actually happened to me, except being saved once and for all from a lifelong enemy, all because of Aiden. Without him, I would be dead right now, soon joining my parents under marble.

But as I sit here, searching for h-o-p-e, something else finds me. Agony. Creeping at first, only around the festering wound in my chest, then radiating through the rest of my body in wracking waves of hurt. The kind of pain I used to think belongs only beside a grave. I clutch my torso to hold it together, wondering how it is not imploding like the torn ribcages in Aiden’s reel. Lungs and heart and arteries—what is the point of air and blood if the very essence of life ceases to exist?

Downstairs, the jingle of glass gets louder. Or perhaps it’s my senses. Somehow, everything feels magnified, closer. The wind, the broom’s swipes, the willows. Wishes, wishes . . . Or is it ashes, ashes now?

I cover my ears against the sounds, trying to focus on any detail in the present moment that doesn’t hurt. A strategy, a plan. What do we do now? Call Doctor Helen and Corbin at first light—that goes without saying. What about the rest of our allies? The Marines, Aiden’s parents, Reagan, Javier? Would that trigger more flashbacks for Aiden or help? I can’t be sure about that; we’ll have to hear what Doctor Helen says. Yet as I sort through the questions, I realize why they don’t calm me. Because I’m asking the wrong ones: it’s not what we do now. It’s what Aiden will accept for himself. And I have no answer for that.

At last, the glass stops tinkling downstairs. There is only a deafening silence, laced at the edges with willows and wind. I fold my arms around my knees so I don’t run to the library. But t-i-m-e stops again, as it did during Edison’s attack. For the first time since my visa was denied, I look at the clock willingly, longingly even, urging it to move faster. It doesn’t. The minutes stretch, endless and quiet. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-five. Finally, I hear Aiden’s footsteps. I breathe in what feels like hours. He doesn’t take the stairs though; he is striding toward the living room. But he spots me here before I can speak.

“Elisa?” He stops immediately. “What are you doing there? Do your feet hurt?” His eyes meet mine, yet in the time we were apart, they seem to have travelled even further away. Distant and remote—I could search their depths forever and never discover what they are holding. His face is unreadable too, wrong somehow. Too smooth, too blank. My heart lurches to my mouth.

“No, I don’t even feel them,” I answer a fraction too late.

“Then why aren’t you in bed?”

“I’ve been waiting for you.”

He watches me for a long moment from the foot of the stairs. With the soft light of the chandelier behind him, he looks like an apparition. The most beautiful, heart-wrenching kind. Finally, he sighs and starts taking the stairs toward me. The fifth stair that usually squeaks with our love is almost silent at the supple motion of his bare feet. He doesn’t smile when he steps on it, like always. I stand as soon as he is three stairs down, folding my arms around his waist. At this height, my face is almost level with his. It doesn’t help me decipher his expression any better. I lean in to kiss him but he climbs the other steps, towering out of my reach.

“Come on, let’s get you to bed,” he murmurs. “The lidocaine will wear off soon.”

“I’m not going to bed without you.” I take his hand in both of mine—it’s still closed into a tight fist—and try to lead him to our bedroom. But he stops.

“I don’t want to risk falling asleep next to you when I’m supposed to wake up every two hours. I’ll read in your old room if it will make you feel better. Go on, get some rest.”

In the dark hall, his face is shadowed. Terrified, I wobble closer, reaching for his cheek—perhaps my fingers will read something my eyes cannot. The sculpted planes are hard. His jaw flexes once under my palm.

“Maybe being in our happy bedroom will help,” I suggest, knowing how peaceful he becomes as soon as he crosses the golden threshold. “You’re supposed to rest too.”

He leans away from my touch. “No, I’m not bringing in there everything we’ve always kept out of those four walls.”

I think about that—I wouldn’t want to taint that space for him either. “Then I’ll stay with you in my old room,” I insist. “If I fall asleep, I do, but I’m not—under any circumstances—staying away from you right now. I can’t, Aiden. Please, don’t ask me that.”

Another long moment passes in the hallway. Ashes, ashes, ashes . . . Then he sighs again, perhaps realizing I won’t give up. I take it as a yes and take his hand. He lets me hold it as I tow him behind me to my old bedroom.

The room is exactly as it was during my childhood and adolescence. The same white linen curtains drape over the window, the same cream desk, the same full bed lined with rose-printed sheets. Abruptly, the story Aiden’s parents told me about how they discovered Für Elise rings in my ears. Aiden returned to his own childhood home the night I left him. I can’t be anywhere else, he told his long-lost parents. I almost trip as I pad to my own old bed. What will happen this time if we lose each other? There would be no place in the world to hold him or me. Will we be ash then, not even stardust?

I turn on the side lamp and pull back the covers with frozen hands. “Come on, lie down with me,” I tell him, trying to shake off the memory of Stella’s voice.

He takes a deep breath and strides reluctantly my way. His face is still void of any expression, but I will take that over the physical distance. He picks me up carefully, but I know it’s only for my feet because he checks the gauze on them as he sets me down on the bed. I would protest that my legs fine, but I want his hands on me too much, so I let him fuss and examine my knees. Only when he is satisfied that there is no hint of bleeding, he climbs in. I snuggle to his side, much closer than in our big bed, which suits me just fine. His body is statue-like, carved in stone again. I mold myself to his shape like a second skin. He reaches deftly around me to switch off the bedside lamp.

“Sleep, Elisa.”

“Wait, not yet.” I stop his hand. “Can’t we talk for a bit?”

“What would you like to talk about?” he asks in that same detached tone.

I prop myself up so I can look at his face. It’s still unfathomable. “How are you feeling? Does your head hurt?”

“I’ve seen a lot worse than a blow to the head. I really wish you would stop worrying and go to sleep.”

“How can I possibly not worry with everything that happened tonight? Will you really see Doctor Helen tomorrow like you told Doctor Gramercy?”

“Yes, I already emailed her from the library.”

It’s astonishing how much this small initiative relieves me. I feel my lips lift in a smile. “That’s great. What about Corbin?”

His eyes tighten at the corners at Corbin’s name. “I’m sure he’ll call in, too.”

I don’t understand the abrupt edge in his voice, and I’m not sure I want to. But I still can’t help asking. “What is it? Why do you get that look?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t want to get into psychoanalysis now, Elisa. It’s late. Can we give it a rest for tonight?”

I caress his tense jaw, back and forth, hoping it will soften. No matter how much I want to talk, his rest is more important. But I want him to rest with the right thoughts. “Okay, but can I at least apologize first?”

The control slips in his composed face. His raven eyebrows fold in obvious confusion. “Apologize? What did you do that needs forgiveness?”

“If I had believed you about the break-in, we wouldn’t be here tonight. And if I hadn’t woken you up, Edison wouldn’t have triggered you. I placed us in this position, I hurt you, and I endangered myself. I’m so sorry, Aiden. You were right about everything. This was all my fault, and I don’t want you to spend a single minute blaming yourself.”

I have managed to break through the hollow eyes. Something glints there, dark and furious.

Your fault?” He sits up, staring lividly for a brief second. Then the floodgates burst. “It was your fault that you couldn’t keep quiet when a man slapped you hard enough to knock you off your feet? Your fault that I’m so fucked up you didn’t feel you could wake me even to save your own life? Your fault because you questioned someone who is living in several realities at the same time? Or was it your fault because you had to save me from the window I broke by blinding yourself in the process and stepping on the same broken glass you were trying to spare me from?”

“Aiden, no—” I try to interrupt, but he continues in full flow.

“Or maybe it was your fault because you had to lift a heavy desk all by yourself far enough so I wouldn’t crack my skull? Or perhaps I should fault you for saving my life when you were alone and terrified? Which of these crimes deserves the death penalty that I almost delivered to you tonight? Hmm? Tell me, Elisa, because I’m failing to see which of these you want me to forgive.”

He stops talking abruptly, breathing hard. He glares beyond me, while I gaze at him in horror. Even knocked unconscious, he has missed nothing. And he has found a way to blame himself for everything, as I knew he would. I sit up, trying to take his face in my hands, but he tears himself from me and bolts out of bed. In the time it takes me to blink and focus, he is standing at the window, glowering into the black night.

“Aiden, please, don’t do this again,” I beg, climbing out of bed and shuffling to his side. “I know it’s in your character to take the blame, but you have it wrong this time. This one was all on me.”

“No, it wasn’t. There is only one fault you have here as far as I’m concerned: that you fell in love with me. In a world full of Graham Knightleys and Felix Plemmonses, you insist on staying with the absolute worst option for you alive—”

“Aiden—”

“No, strike that. Even that I can’t blame you for. You actually managed to leave me. You found the strength to get on a plane and start again, but I couldn’t leave you well the fuck alone. Oh no, I had to chase you all way around the world because I want you too fucking much. God forbid I should be miserable for a chance that you stay safe and alive.”

“Alive?” I hiss back, losing the grip on my own temper. “What kind of life do you think I would have if you hadn’t chased me around the world? Edison would have turned me into a tombstone on the hilltop by now if it weren’t for you. You’re the reason I’m alive at all. Even you can’t deny that.”

He winces as if I struck him with my words about tombstones. “Yes, I can deny it, because anyone else could have saved you tonight—Cal, Max, any trained bodyguard without you ever knowing. It didn’t have to be me.”

“You’re not serious! What, you would have planted security outside my cottage forever?”

“That’s exactly right!”

“That’s exactly mad! Edison would have found a way—”

“This is not about Edison! Edison is out of the picture now and he will stay that way until he dies. Does that mean you’re less in danger with me, Elisa? Does that mean you can wake me up at night whenever you need? Does that mean you’re safe with the person from whom you are most entitled to expect protection? When you are constantly one startle away from a violent death, more painful than a dose of midazolam? No, it doesn’t. Because I am the most lethal danger that could have possibly crossed your path.”

His words are coming at me fast and gusty like a hurricane. Blowing back all my cells, stripping away everything that gives me meaning. What can I say to convince him? What argument would ever make him accept that I don’t want any kind of life without him no matter how safe or long it might be?

He turns to the window again, his muscles flexing with anger like a churning ocean, keeping us apart. I reach a trembling hand for his granite forearm. “Aiden, you know I could never want anyone else. Why can’t you see how happy you make me? Why can’t you accept that I belong with you exactly as you are?”

He doesn’t hesitate. “Because I refuse to believe in any fate that dooms you to me, that’s why.”

I step in front of him, squeezing myself between his tense body and the window. He doesn’t look at me even when I rest my hands on his chest, but his heart is thundering. “Stop this, please. This thinking isn’t good for you, especially tonight. We’re supposed to rest and do the opposite, not an exact carbon copy of last time.”

He stares into the night for so long, I start thinking he will not answer. But then he speaks slowly. “We can’t do the opposite when the problem is still the same, Elisa.”

His voice has lost all its fight—it’s almost a whisper. The deep eyes break through his control. And for a moment, I’m a child again, like I am during the reel—the same little girl who used to sleep in this white, rosy room with an enchanted life filled with blooms. Because I would have to live through a thousand more fatal accidents, funerals, betrayals, ICE trials and jails, goodbyes, and deaths before I can grasp even a fraction of the agony in Aiden’s eyes. They burn in their sockets, ravaged with despair. His body shudders under my palms and, for a split second, I think his knees will give out. I almost fall on mine, but he flexes and stands taller, as if in front of a firing squad that is not executing him fast enough.

That’s when I realize what I’m seeing, what the searing torture is in his eyes. His hope is gone. And it has taken everything, leaving him only biologically alive.

I don’t know how I breathe through the pain that seems to crush my very bones, how I don’t gasp from the way my body feels ripped inside out at this realization. But I manage, for him. I reach on my tiptoes, ignoring the way the cuts stretch with the movement—it feels like soft petals compared to the mangled mess within—and take his face in my hands.

“Love, we don’t know that the problem is the same. Don’t think that. We still have five weeks left.”

He still doesn’t meet my eyes. He is motionless, as though tied to a flaming stake. “I know exactly how many weeks, days, hours, and minutes are left.”

“Please look at me.” His eyes meet mine, torn and unwilling. My own hurt doubles with the hopeless anguish he is trying very hard to hide. “And we will fight during each one of those minutes. We will fight for the entire time we have left.”

“We have been fighting. I have been exposing you to trauma and danger for fifty-three days. It hasn’t made the smallest difference—not even a moment’s delay in the reflex. I felt it. You saw it yourself.”

I wish I could argue with him. I wish I could say he is wrong. I think back furiously through the sequence, trying to identify any change that will give him life or at least some faith. But how can I dispute something Aiden knows better than anyone? I better stick to facts. “I won’t lie and say it looked different. But I also can’t say it looked the same. It started the same way, but then you were knocked out. I don’t know how it would have ended. Let’s see what Doctor Helen thinks.”

“But I know, Elisa. There’s no one on Earth that knows it like I do. It was the same trigger, the same flashback, the same speed. Of course, it would have been the same end. We have the proof now. Five weeks early, but there it is. All that torture you’ve had to witness, all the pain I put you through every morning, all the risk, everything it costs you to bring me back from the reel—all of it has done nothing. It—didn’t—work. Every additional minute you spend with me now is indefensible and places you in more danger.”

And there it is. Our poison and dagger. The way our love story always races to same end: killing our hearts to save my life. As if I could want any life after that.

He is still looking at me with those same tortured eyes, daring me to disagree. I use the only option, the only h-o-p-e I have left. “Aiden . . .” I clutch his face harder, needing it to be able to stand. “We promised we would fight until the ninetieth day. You will not finish us early this time. Because if you leave before then, you might save my body, but you would kill my heart, not to mention yours.”

With each word I speak, a new inferno seems to burn him. But what else can I say? How else can I buy us more time to try, to find another way? He is still burning at the stake: face a thousand years old, jaw clenched as if against a silent scream, eyes out of focus in agony.

“Aiden, promise me,” I press, my tone bordering on hysteria. “Promise me you won’t leave before the ninety days.” Or ever, I add silently, but I cannot push that tonight.

He closes his eyes, cutting off my only access to his emotions. Seconds tick away, each a new tear through my chest.

“Please,” I implore him again. “Don’t take these last days from us.”

He opens his eyes. Somehow, he has reigned back the agony into a semblance of composure, no doubt for my benefit. I know because when he gazes at me, he looks resigned, as though my words have lashed at his will.

“I will stay until September eighteen,” he breathes at last. “But I need to think about what that will look like.”

Living apart, maybe worse—and he will not stay a single minute more. He doesn’t say it but it’s there in the silence that follows, in his unflinching gaze. Every part of me wants to argue with him, but tonight is absolutely not the right time. I’ll need all our allies and science for that.

I wind my arms around his waist for support. “That’s a good place to leave it for tonight. We can think together what it will look like. Now come to bed. I’ll go get our phones and some ice.”

“I’ll do that—get off your feet.”

Except I need a minute. “No, I need to use the restroom anyway. I’ll be right back.”

Perhaps he needs a minute too because he nods, watching me leave. As soon as I’m out of his sight, I run to our bedroom and grab our phones, trying to think only of a plan for the rest of the night until we see Doctor Helen. Something that will calm him, a way to do the opposite of the last time. But as I search our bedroom for ideas, I find nothing: talking, making love, playing chess, dancing—none of those happy activities will reach him now. Inspiration doesn’t strike until I’m leaving the kitchen with an ice pack and glimpse the light still on in the library. Please let this work, please let us win, please keep him with me.

The library is spotless. There isn’t a glimmer of broken glass or droplet of blood anywhere. Everything is back in its precise place. Aiden has secured the broken shutters together with wire so they don’t slam. The willows’ lament is louder on this side of the cottage: ashes, ashes, ashes… I find what I’m looking for and dash back upstairs.

Aiden is sitting on the bed, toying idly with one of my Rubik cubes—he has already solved it. But his eyes are back in their hollow setting, empty and far away. He raises an eyebrow at his war letters in my hand.

“What are you up to, Elisa?”

“Well, Corbin says we have to do the opposite of last time, and you mentioned reading. So I was thinking of my favorite thing to read: your letters. Last time in Portland, I read only one, all alone. This time, I think we should read them all together.”

His perfect eyebrow arches higher in his forehead. “Elisa, you’ve had a hell of a night. I’d very much prefer it if you got some sleep.”

“And I will, but I’m sure it will be easier to fall asleep to the sound of your voice.” I use the only argument that stands a chance and hand him his phone and ice pack. He checks my knees and feet again as I curl to his side. “They’re warm and cozy,” I lie even though the lidocaine is starting to wear off. I hold my treasure in my hands, stroking the coarse paper that to me feels like my own skin now. “You know when Benson gave these to me, he wrote that he was breaking your rules. What rules did you give him?”

He gazes at the yellowed envelopes for a moment. “He wasn’t supposed to do anything that stopped you from leaving me,” he answers. “No information about Javier, no interference of any kind. Of course, neither of us was prepared for your decision to come back to England. And I should have known in the end he would have been on your side.” He frowns at some thought, glancing at the closed bedroom door.

A shiver runs through me as he confirms my worst fear. I turn his face to me, cupping his cheek. “You will not do anything like that again. No forcing my hand or secret plots for me to hate you, all right?”

His eyes burn on mine, deep and unfathomable. “If only there were such a way, but you seem to be incapable of hating me no matter how hard I try. So there is no point to that strategy now.”

His voice is low with an ancient sadness, but there seems to be only truth in it. Our separation will be different this time. He will make sure Javier and Reagan are here. He will see that Edison is gone away for life. He will set me up with permanent security and trust funds. He will take care of every detail the way only Aiden knows how. And then he will say goodbye. Honestly, truly, forever. The fault lines in my chest tear open. It feels as though everything is cleaving in half, from my body to my life. I have five weeks to stop him. Five weeks to win with almost all of our weapons obliterated in one fell swoop tonight. And I have to start right now.

“You’re right,” I say, knowing he must hear the emotions playing in my voice. “I could never hate you anymore than you could hate me. So stop wishing for it and let’s read. We can start with this.” I pick the most worn envelope from the stack—even undated, I know it by heart. “It’s my favorite.”

A flash of curiosity touches his eyes. “This is?”

“Yes, by a wide margin.”

He frowns, and I can understand why. After all, I was in tears the first time I read, and the second, and the third. But I still couldn’t stop reading it over and over again.

“Why is it your favorite?”

“I’ll tell you after we read it.”

I wrap myself around him, resting my head on his chest. His heart is thudding with its firm, assertive rhythm, slower than during our argument—probably from the memory of writing these letters. The letters that were the genesis of my calming effect. He takes the envelope from me and fishes out the beloved sheet of commissary paper, taking care to keep the red desert sand inside. I know he doesn’t need to read it to remember, but he still begins in his piano voice.

“My all,

This is the day. The day I thought I would stop writing to you. I knew it would come. Despite my romantic notions, I am fighting in a war. I spend my days and nights surrounded by IEDs, artillery, and homemade bombs. But I didn’t know how it would come. I imagined perhaps a grenade on my side of the road, a bullet in the right place, at the right time. The how didn’t really matter—you would know. Because you live inside me, there would never be a need for goodbye with us. I go, you go. In the same last breath.

But as with all perfect things, there is a catch: I love you. Fictional and mythical as you are.

I know that too, I can hear you say. But did you know how deep that love runs? You couldn’t, because until now that I am scribbling these words, I didn’t know it myself. It’s so profound that I cannot bear the thought of you not existing. Even if only inside my head.

And that is why today is not that day. That is why I am still writing to you even though I shouldn’t be here, even though I should join my best man. But if I end, you end with me. And apparently, I cannot tolerate that fact.

How did this happen? How did an imaginary woman become a reason for living when a bullet in the mouth would be the better choice? How did you manage to make me love a part of myself on the day I hate all the rest?

They will say my strength saved my life tonight. They will credit faith, hope, or even angels. But they will be wrong. It was you. I picked up a pen instead of my pistol because of you. There is ink on my fingers instead of blood because of you. I am still breathing so you can continue, even if only as a dream. I am still writing because, in a day when everything feels surreal, I believe you exist.

So we go on, you and I, halves of the whole. You the wind, and I the cloud. You the current, I the ocean. You the fire, I the burn. We go on, like air and lungs, hearts and beats, light and dark.

We go on together because we love.

Yours,

Aiden.”

His voice drifts off, more beautiful than any of the pale imitations I would hear in my head when I read these words alone. I barely breathe so I don’t interfere with the aftersound. Even when he is no longer talking, it echoes in my ears like a lullaby. We go on . . .

“So why this is your favorite?” Aiden reminds me while I commit every tilt of his cadence to my imperfect memory.

“Because in all the other letters, you write about your love for me. This is the only one where you write about loving yourself. When you said, ‘how did you manage to make me love a part of myself,’ it made me happy even though I know this was one of your darkest days. See, there is some self-love in you after all.” I press my lips above his heart, crushing myself closer to him. “And of course I love that you didn’t give up on us even on that day.”

“That day I didn’t know I had developed a deadly reflex, Elisa.”

“I know but, still, you kept some hope.”

He doesn’t answer but his arm winds around me for the first time since Edison’s attack. He looks at the aged letter with a thousand-miles stare, seeing all the images and memories that must be layered underneath each word. His long fingers trail absentmindedly down my arm.

“Hey,” I call him back, suddenly worried I’ve unleashed more terror than comfort.

“Hmm?” He blinks at me. The fingers stop their caress.

“Are these too hard to read? We can find another way to do the opposite.”

“No, not hard,” he corrects. “It’s . . . fitting, I suppose, to read these with you now.” There is a tone of finality in his words, like the sound a full circle might make if it could produce sound. He feels my goosebumps and tucks the quilt around me. “It was a good idea. In a way, they still bring me calm.”

I shudder under the covers. “Let’s go on, then,” I whisper, wondering if he hears my double-meaning. “Read another one. Do you have a favorite?”

I feel his head shake against my hair. “No, each of them felt different and yet the same.”

“Let’s start from the beginning then.”

And he does. “My all,” he murmurs, his voice a quiet sonata. I listen to him read the words that saved him, pretending they can save him again now, can save us both. And despite my efforts to stay awake, slowly, his rhythmic poetry soothes me, too, and I start drifting. Yet, I feel no sense of closure or relief. Because I know darker, more terrifying days are still ahead. Change is coming. I can feel it in the space between my cells, in each breath Aiden takes, in the throbbing of the open wound in my heart. Change is coming. I just hope it’s not the end.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 29 – DEATH

Hello, everyone, and hope you are all having a good Sunday.  It’s been rainy and a bit tearful here with this chapter. Okay, not a bit. I’m a mess, but this is the way of this story and these characters. And that’s all I can say for this. The music of this chapter says it all: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture.  Hang in there, I’ll be back soon with more.  Only very few chapters left now. Thank you for continuing to read this story to its ultimate conclusion. Lots of love, xo – Ani

29

Death

In my dream, our bedroom is very dark. The only light is radiating from Aiden’s skin. I know it’s a dream because there is no Für Elise. The melody has become so deeply embedded in my subconscience that I recognize its absence even asleep. But I sink deeper into the quiet because in dreams I can always touch him. He is sleeping on his side, facing me. The candlelit shimmer of his body triggers a flashback, like a dream within a dream. No, not a dream—my worst night terror: Aiden as Romeo, cold and lifeless next to me. Choking with panic, my hand flies to his chest. But his skin is supple and warm, his heart is beating under my palm, evenly and reassuringly alive. I blow out a gusty sigh of relief. From my breath, a lock of his hair flutters above his scar. He moans lightly and rolls over. And the golden expanse of his back glows before me as it never would in real life. Exposed, vulnerable, and not dangerous. Eagerly, I take full advantage of the fantasy. I wrap my arm around him, safe and sound, and press my lips on his relaxed shoulder blade. The sculpted angles give to the pressure of my mouth. I caress them with my fingers, taste them on my tongue. My body molds itself to his shape. For the first time, in life or dreams, I feel the steel of his back against my bare breasts. I tremble like a shiver on his spine.

“Ah, Elisa,” he murmurs.

In the silence, his whisper sounds clear like a symphony.  “Yes?” I breathe, unwilling to let my voice interfere with his music.

“It’s a dream, love.”

“Then let me dream.”

I kiss the tip of his shoulder, waiting for the sound of his reply. A willowy rustle whooshes in the distance. I press into his back, quivering again, and hold my breath for his voice. But all I hear is a wooden creak. The edge of the dream roils.

“No,” I grumble, burying my nose between Aiden’s shoulders. His scent is so pure here—no rosewood or me, just him—like a new home, counterpoint to my spot above his heart on his chest. But the dream is slipping away. The light of Aiden’s body twists into conscience, turning dark where my fingers touch it. Another creak, and he vanishes.

Irritated with the cottage, I blink awake. The moonlit bedroom takes the place of the candlelit dream. The most beautiful dream—my body is thrumming with it, my breath fluttering. The true Aiden is fast asleep next to me, more surreal than the fantasy. Surreal because my mind can never replicate his beauty. Real because tension strains his shoulders despite the low lullaby of Für Elise. I can never touch him now, nor startle him awake in any way.

I scoot closer to his warmth, trying to go back to dreaming. One puff of happiness, two, three . . . But the shutters creak again with the wind that woke me in the first place. I glower into the starlit darkness. They’ll wake Aiden this way. I steal out of bed carefully inch by inch. Even with the slow movement, my body groans like the cottage. How can it not after three games of real and body chess, all of which I lost spectacularly to the dark king? My ego is obviously not the only sore part. Aiden will have to carry me along River Eden tomorrow. Or is it today? The alarm clock on my nightstand gleams four minutes to midnight.

I teeter to the window to tighten the latch, but it’s still locked as Aiden secured it in his safety obsession. Another creak from downstairs—one of the kitchen shutters must have come loose. Not entirely sure I can make it that far, I start tiptoeing across the bedroom, feeling blindly for my robe on the floor and stubbing my toe on the dresser.

“Ouch!” I hiss, and then freeze. I must look comical, crouching here, one arm in my robe, another hand around my foot, but Aiden doesn’t move. His deep breaths flow rhythmically without a hitch. Mine, on the other hand, have stopped completely. I don’t draw a wisp of air until I slip out of the door.

The wind must have become a near-gale outside because a shutter slams against the cottage with force.

“Bloody hell,” I mutter, padding down the stairs in the dark, knotting the sash of my robe. A metallic jingle chimes nearby. My body freezes on the squeaky step, heart lurching to the soles of my feet. Abruptly I cannot move or breathe. What is that sound? I’m not wearing my new charm bracelet or my locket; I’m not carrying a single thing that tinkles.

The foyer light flicks on, though not from my fingers.

I blink into the sudden glow in terror, my throat closing around a scream. I wasn’t hearing the shutters slam; I was hearing the front door. Aiden has been right from the beginning. It was never the reel or his PTSD. There is no more logic or gravity to argue against his theory.

Someone is here for me.

Pale, thinner somehow in the foyer’s dim light, with an odd glint in the familiar eyes, the real intruder stands motionless, except a bundle of keys dangling in his hand. Confusion and surprise blend in the narrow face when he spots me. Then the wafery lips stretch up in a closed smile.

I choke back my building scream, my stomach heaving with horror. It’s very strange for I know the fear should be for myself. There is no good reason for a visit at this hour, in my home, with a key I’ve never given out. Yet in this moment I feel only one dread: Aiden sleeping upstairs. How do I keep him safe?

No one knows what would happen to Aiden’s memories if he is wrenched awake while they are reconsolidating, but we do know what happens when he is triggered. Doctor Helen’s severe voice reverberates in my pounding ears as if she is towering right next to me: you must guard against the startle reflex during this time . . . it is imperative . . . imperative . . . imperative.

Somehow, someway, I will have to be quiet for this. For Aiden. It’s my choices, my mistakes that have placed him in danger, that have brought us here, all alone and unprotected.

“Elisa?” Professor Edison recovers first as my brain scrambles frantically for a plan. “My apologies, I didn’t realize you were here. I thought you went away for the weekend.”

The normally measured voice has a jolted edge to it, but otherwise is casual, as if we are bumping into each other on the street. But it’s also quieter than Reagan’s on Skype, which doesn’t wake Aiden. And that’s a good thing. Keep Aiden asleep please, keep him away from this.

“I think I’m the one entitled to surprise, Professor,” I whisper, taking the last few steps down the stairs, further away from the bedroom, my legs shaking so much I have to grip the rail. “What are you doing in my home and how do you have a key?”

The smile opens his mouth, revealing an unnaturally red gumline between his lips that I haven’t seen before. The crimson hue lingers like a filter over my eyes. Beneath my terror, I feel a burn of anger. This man who has stood in this foyer more times than I can count—laughing with my father, hugging my mum, ruffling my hair—who is he? How dare he stand where my parents stood as if he owns the life they left behind? As if he owns me.

He takes off his anorak and hangs it next to mum’s red parka with easy, at-home manners. He is wearing the same tweed suit as he was at dad’s bench ceremony this afternoon. The anger seeps through my skin like tonic, fortifying me a little. His greyish eyes don’t seem to fall on Aiden’s trainers in the corner; instead they flatten, as if with an inner decision.

“Oh, I can imagine your surprise,” he answers, comfortable now, back to his professor persona. “It’s quite understandable, of course. But no matter, no matter. It’s better like this.”

“I’m not following you.” I take another step closer to him. On the console, by the Rose Cup and the perpetual vase of Clares, is the skunk spray and the strobe flashlight that Aiden planted to protect me from himself. Both of them out of reach. “Better how, Professor?”

“Better for the truth, of course. Isn’t that the goal of science? Shall we go in to discuss, Elisa?” He smiles the scarlet smile again and gestures toward the library.

On one hand, it’s farther away from the stairs and the bedroom. But it’s also the farthest room from the front door, and I need him out of here immediately. I try to think quickly through the raw panic. Should I tell Edison I’m not alone? But what if he goes upstairs and startles Aiden? Is there any chance Benson is awake at this hour, looking at the foyer camera feed?

“Actually, I’d like to talk when I return from River Eden,” I suggest as quietly as possible. “I still have to pack and my boyfriend will be here shortly for an early start. Please set the key on the console and leave.”

He sighs and shakes his head. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. I’m here for answers that cannot wait and, since you’re here too, I’m certain you can give them to me faster. But you have no reason to fear and invent a boyfriend. I’ve known you since you were born. The library then.” He indicates with his hand down the corridor, with no room for opposition. Yet, for some reason, I don’t think he would hurt me, at least not yet. He is here for the protein—if there is anything I’m certain about, it’s that. The biggest danger is to Aiden and I cannot allow it in any way.

“I’m not inventing,” I answer, wishing I could speak loudly with conviction, instead of the necessary murmur which must make me sound exactly as afraid as I feel. “And frankly this is inappropriate, not to mention unlawful. Whatever answers you need, I will happily discuss at work.”

The red smile opens again, clearly unconvinced. “Oh, Elisa, there is no need for hostility. Such an American way. But I can assure you, I’ll be quick. I only have a couple of questions.” He gestures to the library again, blocking the front door. I can see from the flat eyes that he will not leave, at least not immediately. A chill slithers down my spine. Am I wrong? Would he hurt me? No, he needs me. I’ll have to go with that or I will not be able to stay calm for Aiden.

I try to scan my options swiftly. Everything else—continuing to argue here, disclosing Aiden’s presence, screaming, going upstairs for my cell phone on the charger—runs the risk of waking Aiden, of jeopardizing everything we’ve been fighting for. But if I talk to Edison quietly, closer to a desk phone and more skunk spray, hopefully he will leave. And I may get some answers—answers that I may only have tonight to receive.

Only seconds have passed. Edison is waiting for me with a patient, academic mien. Used as I am to reading Aiden’s deep eyes, his flat concrete shallows keep me off balance. But his stance is casual, relaxed. Outside, the wind is whistling with the willows.

“Ten minutes,” I murmur, hoping I can somehow dial Benson before then if he doesn’t leave. The coppers are out of the question with their sirens and alarms.

I scurry down the corridor away from the bedroom, knees trembling, stomach churning to the point of nausea. The Oxfords click behind me, quieter than Skype’s dings. I tighten my robe, feeling exposed. Upstairs all sounds quiet. Keep Aiden asleep, please, keep him dreaming.

As soon as I switch on the library light, I swipe the blanket from the back of dad’s armchair, throw it around me, and march straight to his desk by the side wall. There are more sprays and strobe lights in the drawers here, there is the phone if I can manage to use it. But that leaves Edison with dad’s armchair across from me, and I see crimson again. That’s good, too; it makes it easier to look brave.

But Edison doesn’t sit right away. His eyes alight on the precious chessboard in the far corner, free of its glass case. “Ah, you finally finished the game! How poetic.” He presses his palms together, but a new bolt of dread strikes me.

“How did you know about the unfinished chess game, Professor?” I try to put strength behind my whisper, but it shudders in my mouth.

“Hmm?” He looks back at me, still casual, but something falters in his gaze. “Oh, I saw it the day of the funeral.”

It’s the only answer that makes sense, yet my stomach heaves again, recognizing the lie. Because in a flashback quick like Aiden’s, I remember the day I returned here from Portland, finding this desk messier than usual, thinking dad had run late the morning before the accident.

“You have been here before, haven’t you?” Of course he has—Aiden discovered one time—but this suggests more break-ins. Why? What am I dealing with here? Have I misjudged again?

He doesn’t speak until I reach carbon, trying not to vomit. The flat eyes are mesmerizing in an odd, chilling way. I cannot look away from them. Eventually, he seems to make a decision and takes dad’s armchair.

“Very well, Elisa.” He tents his hands, his voice quiet and pleasant. “It’s quite natural that you should be curious. And if I expect honesty from you, which I do, I should extend you the same courtesy. I’ll start first. Yes, I’ve been here before.”

“When?”

“The night after the funeral.”

Of all the nights in my life, that’s the blurriest, even foggier than the night of the accident itself. I only know that I was at my grandparents’ home in London at the time, medicated, while my cottage was being raided. Abruptly, I have to concentrate on breathing through the growing rage to control my reactions for Aiden.

“You look so very much like Clare when you’re displeased.” Edison cocks his head to the side, and the glassy eyes take on some semblance of expression. “But you must understand, the work had to go on.” He shrugs as if this one end justifies all the means. And if it justifies this, what else can it excuse for him?

“How did you get a key?”

He takes the cottage key out of the bundle and sets it on the desk in front of me like he is simply returning a borrowed book. “I’ll give this back. I suppose I no longer will have need for it after tonight.”

“Why did you need it at all?”

“Why?” He shakes his head as if in disbelief at my question. “My dear girl, because I had no other option. You were incapacitated with grief, and Peter was gone. I needed access to his work to continue with the protein. I wasn’t going to bother you in the hospital or at the Snows, was I?”

He smiles the gummy red smile as if he truly believes he has done me a kindness. “I asked how you got a key, Professor. I’m certain neither mum nor dad gave it to you.”

“Ah, the Clare passion again. But there’s no need for censure when I quite regret it myself.” There is no remorse in his eyes whatsoever despite the solicitous tone. “I made a copy of the key you gave to the Plemmonses during the funeral reception. Without their knowledge, naturally. I took it from Harold’s coat pocket when he slipped it in. There was no other choice that wouldn’t have inconvenienced you or forced you to comb through your dead father’s papers in such a fragile state.”

Dead father. How easily it rolls off his tongue. How quickly that ease negates the veneer of concern from his explanation. I focus all my mental power on keeping my voice quiet for Aiden. “Why not simply ask the Plemmonses or my grandparents for permission?”

“Because they were elderly and had also been through a tremendous loss, obviously.”

The lie is so fluid, it would be impossible to detect if I didn’t know what Aiden discovered despite my resistance. “There is no need to invent compassion, Professor. Because I know that’s not the only time you’ve broken in here.”

His eyes widen with evident interest or perhaps it’s feigned innocence. As they do, I notice a faint pink tint in their whites. “How curious. Why do you believe that?”

“Because you left marks.” Like a reel on rewind, the last two months flash before my eyes. “Marks that I now realize fit only you.”

The sliver of gumline glints again and the blank gaze becomes eager, acquisitive as it is in Bia. “Ah, you’re analyzing like a scientist. I’m so very interested to hear your hypothesis.”

“It’s not hypothesis. It’s fact. You have a habit of slamming doors and storming in, Professor. You should know that in an old, creaky cottage, picture frames move, scarves and parkas slip. You were careful not to move anything on June thirtieth because I was back, unlike the first time you broke in when you left this desk a mess. But you didn’t realize the unintentional signs you left behind the second time.”

As I talk, Edison’s expression folds from curiosity to incredulity and now in a friendly, indulgent mask. He chuckles. “These are not facts, Elisa. That’s only a theory at best, and a creative one. But proof?” He shakes his head again. “No, my dear girl, it is not.”

“No, but this is. You have a penchant for After-Eight mints. I smelled them on you earlier this morning at Bia but thought nothing of it until now. You ate one on June thirtieth, the night you broke in here for a second time. And you dropped the wrapper in front of the garage, perhaps even smoked a cigarette. I’m certain now that a simple nitrate and ninhydrin powder would immediately reveal your fingerprints. As they would show on my doodles you stole from this library and tossed out of your car window down the road when you realized they held no information about anything. Isn’t that right, Professor?”

The flat façade has vanished from Edison’s face. He is staring at me with the same wide, astonished eyes as he was during my speech, but there is calculation underneath. “Well, well, Elisa, how impressive. You really are Peter’s daughter.”

Except this is all from Aiden, and I didn’t believe him. I made him question his sanity and have now placed him in grave danger. I will deal with myself later. “Why do you come here, Professor? The truth now, so we can be done with this and you can leave.”

The scarlet smile doesn’t waver from Edison’s dry lips, but his eyes flatten again. Why do they do that? “As you wish.” He nods. “I said we will talk openly, and so we shall. I have a hypothesis, too, Elisa. I believe Peter left you the formula for the protein or at least a hint of it. And you have been pursuing it ever since you returned, finally succeeding today before your speech.”

At least I don’t have to pretend to look surprised now. “What?” I breathe, gobsmacked. How on earth did he reach that last conclusion? Not that he isn’t absolutely correct about the rest.

He squints as he did earlier today, hesitating at my genuine shock, but then recovers with another thin smile. “Ah, like a good chemist, you won’t give up your conclusions first either, I see. But not to worry. You gave me your evidence, and I will give you mine.” He knots his bony fingers. “I shall start at the beginning, so you can understand—a professor’s habit, no doubt you know it.”

And he begins in a slow, quiet voice that holds me prisoner even as I will each second to tick faster for the first time in months. “You see, you came back to England right on time, though you didn’t know it. Graham and I had hit a dead end, and I had lost all hope for my protein. Even the funding for it is quite precarious; you cannot fathom the cost of such a project. But here you were, against all probabilities, although just as weak as the day you left.

“I thought immediately I was gaining an asset. Not your experience, of course. There are thousands more qualified than you. But your mind. Ah, yes, it works just like his—Peter used to say so himself.” He nods as if he is praising me instead of confirming that the only reason he gave me a chance was my last name. S-n-o-w.

“But I admit that initial thrill quickly faded into disappointment those first couple of weeks,” he continues. “You moved your hands like him but didn’t think like him. Determined and methodical, yes, but limited in ways he was not.”

He speaks factually as though he is reporting the qualities of a chemical component instead of stirring all my inadequacies with a very sharp, precise pipette.

“Oh, I mean no offense,” he adds quickly, perhaps seeing it on my face. I need to control my expressions better. “And as it turned out, I was wrong in that assessment. Very wrong indeed.  You are not limited, just discreet. I realized all that on Saturday, June thirtieth, the night I came here.”

Whatever breaths I was managing stop. “What did you realize?” I ask, keeping my voice quiet so he doesn’t catch the emotion. Because that’s the day I discovered the right oxytocin, the day the vials stopped breaking, the day Aiden’s parents came to visit.

“That you were using oxytocin, of course.” He watches my reactions carefully. It takes all my concentration not to move an eyelash while my heart is pummeling my throat. He knows. Then why is he here?

“You lost me,” I hedge.

“Did I? The fault lies with the teacher then. You see, Graham mentioned you were working earlier that day, which in itself was unusual for you on a Saturday. But he also observed you were so absorbed, you didn’t even jump when he came in—a habit of yours, that is. And that made me ever so curious. Why would a fidgety young intern who hadn’t been working a single hour on weekends suddenly not flinch? Especially a young intern who happens to be the only living descendant of the only chemist in the world who may have discovered organic bravery right before his untimely demise? Could you have seen something in his notes I had missed? Did he leave a clue for you in a place I wouldn’t know, his briefcase perhaps that you had taken to Portland with you? Most understandably, I had to find out.” He nods again as if to give me time to respond. I say nothing so he can speed up, but my hammering heartbeat might awake Aiden. Keep me calm, please, keep me strong for him.

“I went to Bia after Graham left for supper, searching for any sign or hint,” Edison continues when I don’t acknowledge his theory in any way. “And there it was, in the broken glass container: an empty, cracked ampule of oxytocin.

“I admit I was puzzled. There is no place for it in the formula. I tested some doses right away myself, in fact. Of course, nothing. But I was intrigued, so very enraptured. Like I hadn’t been in four long years. Yet I couldn’t find any notes of yours anywhere. Not one scribble. How could that be? It left the cottage as the only alternative. I already heard from Graham you were dining with friends that evening, so I came in just around eight.” He pauses, his eyes following every blink of mine. Under the blanket, my hands ball up into fists to absorb all fury from my expression. I hold my breath as the wind rattles the closed shutters.

“You might be wondering, why not ask you directly,” Edison prompts without any qualms. “I admit I was not certain you would be honest. After all, you hadn’t shared the oxytocin idea with me.”

“That doesn’t entitle you to break into my home, Professor.”

“Of course not. But your misuse of my lab, chemicals, grant funds, and trust certainly allows me some . . . liberties. And in any event, I feel so very at home here, as if it is my cottage too, in a way.”

The crimson of his smile flares into a haze in my vision, into a fierce loathing. I don’t recall ever hating anyone quite like this: so instantly, so venomously. Not even Feign. “But it is not, Professor. It is mine as it always has been.”

“Ah, Elisa.” His voice lowers with rebuke. “You abandoned it for four years. Don’t tell me you suddenly care for it.”

How deeply he cuts. Does he do it intentionally? Or does he truly believe it? And what did I expect people to think? “I’m not surprised you would think so, but I am disgusted that, after pretending to be a friend to my father, you would use my grief to your advantage.”

My advantage?” His eyes widen in perfect approximation of shock, not that I can trust anything in them. “Certainly, but I think Peter’s dream benefits from this, too, and more importantly, so does science. And in any event, I assure you, I was respectful,” he adds as if this makes everything okay. “I didn’t sneak or pry that night. Indeed, I came only here in the library, but everything was spotless. You had obviously cleaned for your guests. I couldn’t find a single note except the crumpled doodles in the corner of your reading nook. Naturally, I had to study the concentric circles—so unique a pattern. What if they were the code? Perhaps as many circles as numbers on the atomic mass of a new element? But nothing added up.

“You’re right, of course. I stopped by the garage and had a mint and a cigarette while studying it. I so rarely smoke, but I admit you had disappointed me that day, too. But I still watched you in the lab the following week. More oxytocin went missing from the cooler, yet nothing seemed to fit. You certainly didn’t act as though you were braver. But how to be sure? Can you venture a theory on what I did, Elisa?”

My face feels frozen with the effort of composing my expressions, but another chill whips through me. A man able to rationalize every wrong deed like this cannot be harmless even to me. I shift my chair a little closer to the phone. Could I lift the receiver and press Benson’s number one digit at a time? No, I can’t. Edison’s eyes are zoomed on me like a microscope.

“I’m still trying to comprehend your audacity, Professor, so I admit, nothing will surprise me. But your ten minutes are up. Get to the point and leave.”

I expect the flat stare to continue, but he chuckles. “There’s the Clare glare.” Then the eyes empty again. “Very well, the point is that I had to see how you would act in a moment of fear or anxiety. I knew you hated public performances—you always have. So I decided to pay you a visit at the Rose Festival. After all, if you had made a break-through with the protein, surely you would use it then.”

I feel blood draining from my face. In a flash of intuition, all the elements fall together, and I have to fight back a gasp. “It was you!” I hiss, gripping the desk so I don’t shout or hit him. “You made my palms pink!” Aiden was right about this, too. He was right about everything. Remorse stabs my chest exactly where the wound burns at Aiden’s absence. And I deserve it. I deserve a lot worse if I didn’t know it would destroy Aiden.

Edison looks almost elated. “Ah, very good, Elisa. How quickly you see. Yes, I have an anti-theft solution of my own invention to protect the protein. You didn’t think I’d leave one of the most expensive substances in the world unguarded, did you? This solution, when it comes into contact with the skin of someone who has ingested the 2-AG, that patch of skin will turn pale blue, then fade quickly before anyone thinks of seeking medical attention. If you had not consumed the protein, your skin would simply turn pink. It’s entirely harmless, I promise you,” he explains as if this justifies the violation, as if he didn’t invade me and literally stain me without consent. “I just brewed some more tonight, in fact. You might notice the reddish hue in my gums and eyes. I always taste it myself for efficacy.” He taps the corner of his mouth, flashing his gruesome smile while I stare in horrified understanding. “There’s no need to worry.” He waves his hand, missing or dismissing the true horror of his own self. “I only placed a very light coating of the solution on the rose pot I handed to you. And immediately, I noticed your palms blush.” He opens his own palms with something like pride. “In the words of our continental neighbors, voila! I knew then that you hadn’t made a break-through or you would have taken the protein before the festival. But then today changed everything.”

He tilts his head to the side, training his unblinking eyes on me. Rage and fear congeal into their own formula in my head, scorching through my tissues, bolting me to my feet.

“Professor Edison.” The words slice through my clenched teeth, and now I know exactly the kind of effort it takes for Aiden to speak quietly when he feels fury like this. Only the thought of him keeps my voice from exploding. “You have violated me and my home, and I would like you to leave immediately. If you do not, I’m afraid I will have to call the coppers.”

He doesn’t move an inch, perhaps sensing my bluff. He simply sighs, brushing an invisible piece of lint from his tweed-clad knee. “I regret it has come to this. I have clearly lost your good opinion. Pity. But there is no need for the police. Simply tell me what changed today that made you go from a terrified little girl on the verge of crying right before the ceremony to a lioness during your speech, and I will leave.”

Nothing changes in his flat eyes, but his voice becomes softer, almost coaxing. In that change, I finally sense danger to myself. Of course he will leave, but what will he do before then? Can I stay silent through whatever he has planned? The instinct to run or scream is nearly uncontrollable. But I do it for Aiden—I would suffer in silence through Fallujah-level torture for him. “My boyfriend happened, Professor” I answer. “He was in the back and gave me the confidence I needed. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I will dial him. I really must pack.”

I grab the receiver but Edison jumps to his feet and his finger presses down on the phone switch, blocking the signal. Everything changes in his expression in one blink. The red smile starts twisting into a sneer. The eyes flash with malice. Like the mask has been ripped off him, and here stands the true man. The change is so staggering, I stifle a gasp. Yet, when he speaks, his voice is still low and genteel.

“Ah, this boyfriend again. Let’s call him together shortly. I’d quite like to meet him after knowing you all your life. But first, what do oxytocin and serotonin have to do with the protein?”

Now that he is close, a faint whiff of alcohol lingers in his breath with the After-Eight mint. Bile rises in my throat. “Absolutely nothing,” I mutter. “I have been experimenting with an anti-depression solution on the side. I’m sorry I used Bia for that, but it has nothing to do with the protein. If you want, I can give you the formula for the one I’ve been mixing and reimburse the cost of wasted hormones.”

He leans closer. The saccharine odor washes over my face, making me gag. “You are lying, E-li-sa.” His slithery voice makes me shudder. “Peter left you something, I know he did.”

“Why do you think that?” I probe not just to distract him, but because this is the question that has haunted me from the moment I found the code. And this may be the only chance I have to find out. “Why are you so convinced dad kept a secret from you even though you were working together?”

The sneer stretches higher, pulling up into a horrific grimace. “Ah, I see, you will pretend you don’t know. Or perhaps you really don’t. Perhaps he died before having a chance to tell you.” He slurps the word as if he relishes it. “No matter, I’ll tell you the truth. Because we had a row about our goals for the protein three days before he was crushed to death in his cheap Beetle. He wanted to restrict the use of bravery only for medical reasons—patients, the terminally ill, classic Peter.” He smirks again. “All heart, no ambition. That’s why he left you with nothing, living off internship quid and rose dirt, without a single protection. I wanted to sell it to the military. Imagine the value, the profit, the importance in that. What more powerful weapon is there than a man without fear?”

“A man with a conscience,” I answer automatically even though it’s clear he meant the question to be rhetorical. But at last, I know. I know the truth. Dad would have never used the protein as a weapon of war. Dad would have seen that Edison wouldn’t have stopped there. What next? Terrorists? Organized crime? Anyone who would pay a filthy lucre for it? I feel my lips lift in a smile despite Edison’s cutting words. “You should have known dad better, Professor. But I don’t have anything to tell you. And after you betrayed my father in every way, we have nothing further to say to each other. Now, let’s call my boyfriend together, shall we? You should know, he was in the U.S. military and knows about you and your break-in. If anything happens to me, he will know it was you and you will see exactly what a powerful weapon he is.”

I grab the phone and try to yank it away from him, but his hand whips down on my wrist. His fingers are like cold shale, his grip stronger than I imagined.

“Let go of me.” I pull back my hand without success; he crushes my wrist to the point of pain. There will be bruises tomorrow. Aiden will finish him when he awakes. “You are in danger here, Professor. You need to leave. Now.”

The horrific grimace opens further showing a contortion of red-rimmed teeth. The pink-hued eyes widen. He looks almost deranged. “I in danger? Oh, I don’t think so. There is only one danger here, and it’s to the reputation of your foolish dead father. Because if you don’t give me the code, I will be the one calling the police and the Honour Council at Oxford to report you for stealing restricted substances like my 2-AG. Trust me, the prison sentence is severe. Imagine the infamy of Peter and Clare’s daughter caught thieving. I’m quite certain you will do anything to protect their legacy. So tell me the code, and you can go on with your fantasy boyfriend and your beloved father’s untarnished memory.”

It takes me a few thundering heartbeats to remember how to breathe. I don’t even feel his grip on my hand, or the floor, or fear for myself as if anger is its own twisted, courage protein. Only Aiden’s safety hushes my voice. Only he is more important than any of this. “There is no code, Professor, and you can report me to whoever you wish,” I whisper. “But I will tell you this. You can keep dressing like my dad in tweed, eating his favorite mints, using his office, his lectern, his favorite student, even his daughter. But you will never be like him. Now, leave for your safety.”

His eyes mirror my loathing, but his is deeper somehow now that it’s unleashed. And I see more truth in that unhinged stare. His hatred is not new; it’s ancient with spite and jealousy. And I think I know why. It may even be the only quiet way out.

His fingernails are digging into my skin. “You know nothing of what I want to be, Elisa.”

“I know you want to be him. You even wanted his wife. That’s when this hatred of my father started, isn’t it?”

For the second time tonight, his face transforms. Shock slashes his features. “You think I wanted Clare?” he whispers through taut lips, but his voice wraps differently around her name.

“You still do. You hang your coat by hers when you come in despite all the other free pegs. Your show emotion only when you speak of her. When I look angry, it’s hard for you to look at me. You came to her rose stand. You touched the sleeve of her parka last time you were here and her roses on the console, causing their petals to fall. You wanted her, but she only ever loved him.”

Shock is still distorting Edison’s face, but his grip loosens on my wrist. His head dips to the side, and his eyes change again. Distant now, human, they sweep over my face and rest on my eyes. My mother’s eyes. I try not to blink, but shiver after shiver courses through me. Help me, Mum, get him out of here.

“Go, Professor. Do it for my mother. She would have wanted you to let me be.”

A long moment passes. Can he hear my heart jackhammering? Can Aiden? It takes all my strength to stand on my feet. Edison’s head bends toward me. “You look exactly like her,” he mouths, raising the hand that’s not gripping my wrist and stroking my cheek.

“Don’t touch me!” I recoil automatically, cringing away from his fingers.

His eyes empty again so suddenly I cannot control my gasp this time. “But you are exactly like him.” And his raised hand slices through the air and slaps me hard across my cheek.

From the blow, I fall backwards and smash against the wooden chair. It screeches and crashes into the wall at the same time that I hear a high-pitched cry. With horror, I realize it’s my own. I snap my teeth immediately and bury my face into my sleeve to smother the sound. How loud was it? Did it break through stone walls and Für Elise? Please keep Aiden asleep, please, please, please. I scramble up on my elbows, clutching my robe around me, not daring to breathe. But Edison has rounded the desk and wrenches me up by my throat. That’s good—it’s harder to make noise this way.

“Peter’s heart,” he spits, raising his hand again.

I close my eyes, tensing so I don’t let out even a breath, but a deep roar I know to my atoms reverberates through the walls to my very bones, shaking the cottage and me with it. My eyelids fling open as my heart plunges through the floorboards. Before I can blink my frozen, horrified eyes, a massive force rips Edison off me and hurls him away like a rag doll. There’s a split second of Edison’s cry, then two powerful arms swoop me up, giving the sensation of flight.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s voice is strangled with terror as he runs his hands frantically over me. “Can you hear me? Elisa, please, please, please.”

“Aiden!” I croak as soon as I can breathe, unsure whether I can touch him. “Oh, no, Aiden, oh, no! I woke you up. Did I startle you? Are you alright?”

No, he is not alright. As my eyes focus, I see his beautiful face twisted in agony. A violent tremor rips over his naked body, rattling me in his hold. Murder fills his eyes. The very air around him is vibrating with danger. I try to hold very still. At first, I cannot tell if he is locked in a flashback. But then his thumb wipes the corner of my mouth very gently, and I see a smear of my blood. Relief washes through me at the same time as horror strikes again.

Relief—he is present and awake.

Horror—what does it mean for his memories to be woken to this?

Another tremor ripples over him as he dabs a second droplet of blood. I take his face in my hands immediately. “Aiden, I’m okay. I’m fine, I promise, it’s just a small cut.” Only now I taste some blood on my tongue. I stroke his cheeks, but his face is smoldering with fury like black embers. He wipes my lips again with the corner of my blanket.

“Did he hurt you anywhere else?” His voice is icy as he rights up the chair.

“Not at all. I don’t even feel this.” This is actually not true. My back is throbbing where I hit the chair, but he doesn’t need to know that. His muscles are straining as he sets me on it gently, his gaze locked on my bloodied lip. “Aiden, look at my eyes, love. Stay calm, please.”

But a groan drifts from the other side of the desk and Edison rocks back up on his feet. Aiden’s body snaps like armor, and a growl of rage whirs in his chest. Horror and confusion mangle Edison’s expression.

“Ah, so there is a boyfriend,” he starts, his voice a strange mixture of shock and manners.

Almost blurry with speed, Aiden’s arm whips out and backhands Edison on the face so hard that Edison flies across the library and hits the bookshelves with a crunching sound. A gush of blood spurts from his mouth.

“Nice to meet you, Professor,” Aiden snarls.

“Aiden, no!” I cry out, trying to stop him, but he’s already in motion, dragging the desk like a barricade around me and prowling toward Edison. Somehow, he grows larger, taller. Every band of muscle becomes a glinting, golden blade. Tension rolls off of his naked body, almost visible in the air. I can feel the all-consuming fury that shimmers out of him as if it were alive. With his back to me, I can no longer see his face, but it must be something else because Edison cowers back against the shelves, blood dripping from his lip on his tweed jacket. His eyes flit wildly around the library for an escape. There is none. Even the closed window to his right would be too far. He cringes into the bookcase, eyes stuck wide.

“So it was you,” Aiden hisses in a dark, hypnotic voice, tensing up to the professor, glorious and terrible. His head is bent so close to his prey from his towering height that Edison shuts his no longer flat eyes, clearly unable to handle whatever death is coiling to spring from Aiden’s gaze. I can almost feel the fiery breath that is scorching Edison’s clammy forehead now. “You are the fool who thought you could hurt her. I have been waiting to meet you.”

The sibilance of his smoky voice echoes in my ears louder than his roar. Chills erupt from the roots of my hair to my toes. I realize now every other time I’ve seen Aiden furious—every Dragon fire, every battle with ICE—was cuddly puppies compared to this.

The only sound from Edison is a gurgle as another rivulet of blood trickles down his chin. Aiden shifts slightly as if to hide the gore from me.

“Open your eyes, Professor. Open so you can see what happens to anyone who touches a hair in her head.”

“Aiden, please!” I beg him, not for Edison, but for himself. He was startled from sleep, he needs safety and peace until we know what it’s done to him.

Edison whimpers and crunches his eyes tighter.

“Open them!” Aiden orders, clawing his hand around Edison’s jaws. Edison’s eyelids fling wide open. The pink whites are huge around the pale, dilated irises. He tries to jerk out of the iron fingers in vain. “Ah, yes, that’s better. You’ll have to do this without a bravery protein, Professor. You will have to face me, man to man. I’ll introduce myself this time so you know exactly who you’re fighting. Aiden Hale: Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, Honorably Discharged, adult male, not a young woman half your size.”

“Listen, mate—” Edison splutters, but Aiden slaps him hard again across the cheek. There is something debasing about the action, as if intended to humiliate him. Under the terror, Edison’s eyes spark at the insult.

“What’s the matter, Professor?” Aiden still hasn’t released his jaw. “You don’t like being slapped by someone bigger than you?” He slaps him again. Edison’s cheek is crimson like his gumline, like his blood. “What would you prefer instead?” Another ringing slap. “I promise, the menu is long. Perhaps this?” His fingers must crush into some pain point in Edison’s facial nerves because a keening sound of agony tears from the flaky, thin lips.

“Aiden, don’t!” I call, jumping to my feet in my desk prison, wishing I could get near him but I can never stalk his back, let alone when he has just woken, enraged, with me under threat. “Please, love, for me.”

He doesn’t answer but Edison stops wailing instantly and casts a frantic glance at my direction over Aiden’s lethal shoulder. With a slight flex of his wrist, Aiden twists the bloody face away from me.

“You’re right to look at her, Professor, because right now she’s the only reason I’m not reading you the menu. I had hoped to find you alone.” I can hear the disappointment in his chilling voice. “But you’re a lucky motherfucker. Now, let’s see what you brought with you tonight. Cowards never come without reinforcements.”

Edison blanches despite the blazing cheek, and I blanch with him. What is this? What did he bring? Will he live through whatever it is?

“Ah, you don’t like being searched either, but you have no problem breaking into your friend’s cottage and terrorizing his daughter.” Aiden breathes fire into the ashen face. “Maybe I should search all of you, so you know how it feels when someone uninvited breaks into your every orifice. Shall I start with your mouth?” The long, steel fingers pull down Edison’s jaw until his mouth yawns open.

Edison writhes futilely in the unbreakable grip with an aghhhhhh sound, but another slap silences him. “That was just the front door. Let’s see what you’re hiding elsewhere, Professor.”

Aiden starts patting him down, searching his pockets, tossing out everything. Keys (“you stole a copy from the old man, didn’t you?”), wallet (“not enough money for your bail here.”), phone (“I’ll guess your passcode is ME2-AG because you’re that kind of egotistical fuck. And look, I’m right.”), After-Eight mints (“I call these fingerprints.”), a pack of Marlboro cigarettes (“you shouldn’t litter, Professor.”)—and last, from the inside pocket of Edison’s jacket—a small, brown glass bottle. From here I cannot read its label, but my heart plummets to my feet again as the muscles of Aiden’s back rise ominously. A grisly snarl rolls out from between his teeth, rumbling across the library while I shudder, wanting to duck under the desk.

“Oral midazolam,” Aiden hisses, his voice contorted with dread.

My knees almost give out. I know this drug. It represses the formation of future memories when injected. Like Versed, the sedative that neutralized Aiden after he attacked me. But oral midazolam can kill if not in precise, miniscule doses. Suddenly, I can’t breathe.

“Aiden!” I gasp. “Take it and come here. Stay away from him.”

But I have lost him. Another hiss tears from his lips, blowing back Edison’s sparse hair like the wind outside. His free hand flies around Edison’s throat and slams him against the bookcase, while his knee stabs into the tweed-clad stomach. Even dad’s heavy metal microscope wobbles on the lab bench next to them from the forceful impact. Edison lets out a guttural cry.

“This was meant for Elisa, wasn’t it?” Aiden roars, lifting Edison by his throat as if he will rip it out. “You were about to force it down her throat when I came in, you cowardly piece of shit.”

“N-n-no—” Edison chokes. “Didn’—know—”

Aiden lifts him higher until they’re face-to-face, blocking his windpipe. “You didn’t know she was going to be here tonight, but you were saving it for another day. Was that the plan, motherfucker? Drug her to get the formula, then kill her and make it look like suicide? Who was going to question it without any parents or family around? Who would ever suspect the good friend who threw ceremonies for her father? You get the glory, she gets the epitaph, is that it?”

I need a second to shake off my horror. My stomach heaves at the perfect crime, at how close I came to being under marble with my parents. I fight back the sob growing in my chest to be here for Aiden.

“Aiden, be careful, love,” I plea, but he doesn’t answer.

Edison is turning purple, dangling in Aiden’s grip, heaving and spluttering. “N-n-no—tha—diffren—”

Another kick to the stomach cuts him off, then Aiden brings the midazolam bottle to Edison’s lips that instantly press into a tight line. “I will kill you myself,” he says in a low, deadly voice. “I’ll do it now and carve your epitaph with my bare hands.”

“Aiden, no!” I cry out, clambering the desk in panic. Perhaps if I circle widely, I can be in his peripheral vision to calm him. “He’s not worth it, love, think of us. Let’s call Benson and the coppers and let them deal with him. Please, come back to me. Please!”

“Elisa, stay where you are.” His hard command freezes me on top of the desk. How can he see? A ripple flows over his back like a warning. “Professor Edison and I are almost finished.”

I search frantically until I spot my reflection on the black window to the side. But I can’t make out Aiden face on it. Perhaps I’m too far, perhaps his face is too dark for the night to mirror it.

No, I cannot see Aiden’s face, but Edison can. And something must change on it because Edison’s frenzied eyes blink once at me then back at Aiden. “Lis-ten—to—her,” he wheezes, pleading frantically. “Wasn’—gonna—kill—her.” More droplets of blood spatter his chin. “Jus—to hear—about—the protein—she’s been hidin—from me—that’s—all.”

His gasp has barely finished before Aiden chokes him again. The bloodied lips are turning blue. “She’s hiding nothing. And there is no protein in the world that will make a brave man out of you, Professor. Trust me, I have known and killed thousands like you. One way or another, they always died in fear. And I promise, so will you. It won’t be by my hand because she is watching and I want to deserve her. But when your time comes—whether you are in prison or in a hospital because there is no third option left for you—I will be there to watch you die.”

With a final choke, Aiden drops the professor on the floor. The gasping heap of tweed neither moves nor speaks as Aiden strides backwards, eyes always Edison until he reaches me, still frozen on top of the desk.

As soon as my fingertips can touch his skin, I throw myself at Aiden, clinging and kissing every part of him I can find even though I know Edison didn’t touch a hair in his head. Fury is still raging out of him, but my turquoise is starting to flicker in his eyes.

“Are you okay?” I blubber between kisses. “With the waking and this?”

“Don’t worry about me.” He buries the midazolam bottle in the farthest desk drawer. “We’ll take care of your lip. You’ll be okay, thank God.”

We will be okay.” I sob some more, clutching his face in my hands. “I’m so sorry, Aiden. I was so stupid and naïve. You were right all along—”

“Shh.” His finger comes to my lips. So quick I almost miss it, his eyelids flutter once as if to close, but he snaps them open. “Shh, Elisa. You did nothing wrong.”

“Aiden?” I shake his beautiful head. Is it feeling heavier in my hands? “Aiden, love?”

“I’m fine,” he answers, but his voice is abruptly slower, as it sounds when he drifts off to sleep.

“Love? Look at me.” I grip him tighter, but he doesn’t flinch. He just crunches his eyes and opens them, his gaze bold and steady again.

“Elisa, I’m fine. It’s just the—the adrenaline. I’ll call Benson and the cops. Can you . . . bring me my, ah, sweatpants, and we can get rid of him?”

“I’m not leaving you,” I whimper even though his arm around me is strong. But the voice, the words . . .

He smiles—the smile is worn as it is when he returns from the reel. “You may not mind seeing me in nothing but dick, but it would probably scare PC Dockery.” He brushes my cheek and reaches behind me for the phone.

That’s when I see him. Edison must have crawled and is now standing behind Aiden, his frenzied, unhinged eyes on me. The red smile opens like a wound.

“Aiden, watch out!” I scream, but I should have known he would always put me first. Before the cry has torn through my lips, he swoops me up and flings me behind the desk, losing the split-second warning to protect me. In the blur of movement, I glimpse Edison lift both shaky arms. Only now I realize he is heaving dad’s microscope.

“No!” I shriek, trying to launch myself at him around Aiden, but it’s too late. Edison brings down the microscope onto the back of Aiden’s skull with a sickening thud.

T-i-m-e stops. How often have I begged it to pause on moments of beauty, but it halts now on terror? The nanosecond stretches like death as the blow reverberates off Aiden’s head. I can see each ripple of collision on the face I love, each billow of force striking the body I call home, each speck of dread filling the eyes that are my light. I can hear the silent groan trapped between Aiden’s teeth. It feels like my own skull is cleaving in half. My scream dies in my throat and becomes his name, echoing off the book spines.

“Aiden! Aiden! Aiden!”

A puff of cinnamon air slips from his mouth and washes over mine, like a final breath. Then time restarts, ending everything else. I stare in horror as the light goes out in Aiden’s eyes and the startle begins, seeming unchanged by the reel or our fight.

Aiden’s elbow slams into Edison’s chest like a wrecking ball. From the impact, the microscope tumbles on the floor and Edison soars back. In the same movement, Aiden whistles around and his foot plunges into Edison’s gut mid-flight. Edison shrieks and shoots through the air like an arrow from a bow, his tweed body all but invisible with speed. He crashes into the window, blowing apart the glass and shutters, and disappears into the black night. His howl of agony pierces my ears until it fades into a splintering thump as he must wallop the beech tree before all the shards of glass have rained on the library floor.

But only six feet for me, on the other side of the desk, Aiden is locked in a flashback deadlier than any gash or blow on Edison. How differently the scene looks now that I’m not the trigger, now that his lethal startle somehow became my savior. But not for Aiden—his torture is exactly the same. I can tell even though, this time, he is turned away. I can tell from his wounded, shallow breathing as his body enters the violent stance of combat. But without anyone to fight, his immense strength is turning against the self. Wringing his muscles until they’re convulsing in pain. The little library erupts into the unforgettable snarl ripping from the very depths of Aiden’s heart. It’s nothing like his growl of fury or hiss of anger. It’s the most soul-ripping sound I have heard in my life.

I need a second to think; I need it, but I don’t have it.

“Aiden!” I cry on instinct, trying to bring him back to the present moment while punching the phone for Benson’s number. It’s the only thing I can do. I cannot get near Aiden—it would kill us both if I got hurt again. “Aiden, we’re in the cottage, in dad’s library, we’re safe.”

But we are not safe. His memories are tearing him violently apart. His neck is straining against the invisible cable chains that he cannot break, his entire body shuddering on the spot with the torture he is living now.

Somewhere below the deafening thunder of my blood, I hear Benson’s voice calling my name. I don’t know what I say or sob, or what Benson says back; I don’t even know if I hang up. All my senses are on Aiden from the prison of the desk where he would want me confined.

“Aiden,” I scream again, even though I don’t know if he can hear me now. “I love you, you didn’t hurt me, you saved me, you saved my life . . .” But the present moment is slipping away from my own mind. How do I stay in the present when the present becomes the past? When our future just ended? When each second might be our last?

But something changes in Aiden’s posture. His body breaks from the fluid formation with his mind, tilting away from the violent stance. At first, my breath stops with hope, and then with dread. Because I realize it’s not a change we fought for. It’s a new mortal danger. Aiden is not only locked in horror; he is losing his balance from Edison’s blow.

“Aiden, don’t move,” I wail, trying to think through the terror clotting my brain. We have no plan for this—no contingency where Aiden was hurt before the startle began. We always planned for him being the attacker and me the victim.

From outside the window comes another howl. A gust of wind rips the curtains away. And on the rug of planets, Aiden sways on his feet. To his right, only hardwood shelves and thick mahogany beams. To his left, broken glass and jagged windowpanes. In front of him, stone wall and dad’s lab bench that could crush a human skull. Behind him is me at the heavy desk. He is trapped. One more step in any direction, and his body will break as surely as his heart and mind are shattering now. And Benson is still minutes away.

A barbed idea tears through my brain. Am I brave enough? Strong enough to hurt Aiden if it might help him? But what would it do to him? Save him or terrify him more? And then what? What happens to his memories that in the course of minutes have shifted from dreams to violence and now to his deepest terror?

I have no time to think through the answers. Aiden staggers closer to the shattered window with spiked, serrated edges.

I wrench open the desk drawer and yank out the strobe flashlight. I know exactly how this will blind him, how deeply it will burn his eyes. I know pain will split his skull like a second microscope, a second rifle blow straight from Fallujah’s schoolyard. Through the tears, praying I have my calculations right, I crouch and grip the bottom edge of the desk, pulling with all my weight. I cannot possibly be the one that’s moving it back. It must be mum and dad. It must be the God element. Whoever does it, it buys me six inches. I climb over the desk and jump on the other side—only four feet from Aiden’s back now. His long, naked body leans to the left, inches from the jagged window. If he falls, the glass will plunge straight into his heart and stomach, piercing the vital organs that are keeping us both alive.

“Keep standing, love,” I whisper and rip the cushion off dad’s chair, tossing it on the floor. Aiden staggers another step toward the window. I scurry to the bookcase wall, shaking so hard, I stumble twice. The library feels endless as I scramble on my hands and knees to reach the other end, the corner that will allow me to face Aiden and blind him awayfrom the knives of glass, hoping he will lean exactly at the only angle that will not stab him, crack his skull, or crush his spine.

His feet tread on the first glass splinters.

“Aiden, they’re just petals. I’m here, I’m waiting on the other side.”

But even though I scuttle as fast as my limbs will carry me, I feel slow. As if I’m wading through blobs of the failed protein. Help me with the numbers, Dad; keep Aiden standing, Mum.

I round the library at last. I can finally see his beautiful face. I don’t have time to die from the agony in it. I wish I did. I wish I had never seen his horror-struck eyes. But Aiden sways again, careening toward the sawtooth glass.

“Aiden, we love each other!” I shout my best hope to the heavens and aim the strobe light at the love of my life.

One switch, and the beam of light bursts out of the reflector, blasting Aiden’s frozen eyes with its powerful flash. I squint through the blinding rays with ice in my heart, not breathing, only praying. And there, as if I’m looking straight into the sun, I watch Aiden’s silhouette drop backwards on the floor, only inches away from the jagged window. His head falls at the edge of dad’s cushion.

“Aiden,” I choke, the strobe light falling through my hands and going out. Black dots explode in my vision, spreading over my retinas until I’m blind. “Aiden?” I start stumbling in his direction, feeling around with my hands and feet, unable to blink even though I can’t see. The first splinters of glass prick the soles of my feet, so I must be getting closer. “Aiden, I’m coming, love.” A thousand cuts tear through my skin, between my toes, on my heels. Strangely I think of stardust, and the pricks don’t hurt. But wherever I tiptoe, I feel only crystal spikes, not the silk of his skin. I search in a frenzy, crunching and opening my eyes for sight. But it’s full of dark inkblots like the reel’s tattoo on Elysium. “Aiden?”

No answer. He must still be coming to. Or maybe he is answering but I can’t hear from the machine gun of my heart. “Aiden, I’m close. Hold on to my voice, love.”

I find him at last. Or rather my toes find his heel, at the same time that the black smudges become sparkles. “Aiden, I’m here, love!” I blink once and the darkness disappears. Just in time for me to wish I was blind. Because through the stars twinkling in my vision, Aiden’s golden body lies on the floor—motionless, eyes closed, mouth parted, facing me like Romeo. Spikes of glass glint next to him like daggers. I feel the spiney floor against my shins.

“Aiden!” I scream, but I cannot hear my shredded voice, exactly like in my nightmare. “Aiden!” From the force of my cry, my lungs give out, but I know I’m making no sound. I know because Aiden doesn’t answer. Because if he heard me like this, Aiden would open his eyes and spring on his feet. My hands blow like wind over his chest—it’s warmer than the dream, there is a heartbeat, but it’s slow, slower than when he is asleep. Frantic, my lips find his—they’re warm too, but his breath is weak. Not a puff of happiness anymore, just the faintest, fading breeze. “Aiden!” I breathe inside his mouth as I do during the reel. “Aiden, love? Come back to me.” My fingers fly to his wrist, pressing against his pulse. Its rhythm is languid, too—so slow I can barely register it over the mortar blood fire blasting my ears. “No, no, no, love, you’re just resting—your mind is just protecting itself, that’s all. You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.”

Am I standing, moving? It seems I am. More glass is crunching under my feet. The bookshelves are whirling past me. The curtain’s ripped hem brushes my cheek like a broken angel’s wing. Dad’s desk slams its edge into my stomach like an arm. There’s a phone in my hand like a clutch. Buttons at my fingertips—9-9-9. Help Aiden, Dad. Save him, Mum. Whatever life you gave me, let it go to him.

“Hello?” A voice is speaking in my ear. I speak back, I think. Somewhere outside the window, someone is wailing. Forcefully, I want to soar through the jagged glass and choke off the keening howl with my hands, but the calm, methodic voice is asking where I am. In hell. This is what Dante’s nine concentric circles are for us—nightmare, terror, fury, violence, torture, war, wounds, blackout, loss—not doodles stolen from a library nook.

“Is he breathing?” The voice is asking. He was. One puff of dread, two, three. Aiden is still unmoving on the floor.

“Someone is coming, Miss.” And then voice is gone.

Has a minute passed? I don’t know, but the library blurs past me again, more glass under my feet as I drop next to Aiden like I do after each reel, like I did after he attacked me. It helped then, maybe it will help again. I untie my robe and press my chest to his, my heart on his heart, my thighs to his thighs, my bloody shins to his knees. All of me to him, so he can only feel my skin, my smell, my voice. Gasping, I search for the rose breeze; I can’t find it, but it finds me. It slips inside my lungs, giving me enough air so I can speak. I press my lips to his and blow it all inside.

“Aiden,” I call him, my voice muted like Juliet in the dream. I know he may not hear me. I can’t even hear myself, but I don’t stop. “I’m here, my love. We’re together, in our cottage, with the roses outside.” The warmth is seeping from his skin. I caress the cold, ashen face, warming his cheeks, kissing his lips, giving him more air. “We’re still fighting, love, because you’re worth it. Every part of you, from this one hair—” I tug at a lock of it on his chilled forehead “—to every one of your breaths. You are worth it.” I massage the sharp blades of his jaw, gulping more rose breeze and breathing it inside him. “You didn’t hurt me—don’t worry. You saved my life with your startle. I’m safe. If you open your eyes, you’ll see me like always, waiting on the other side.” My breath hitches and stops. What will happen to Aiden when he realizes he was triggered again despite giving this fight his all? When he sees all our efforts have been for nothing? Will he leave right away or stay the five weeks to finish our ninety days? And after that? Abruptly, I’m shaking violently like I’m standing on the edge of the open hilltop grave again. My stomach twists painfully as if full of splinters. A hot wave of nausea rolls up in my throat. With all my might, I shove everything down and gasp another rose breath, blowing it back inside Aiden’s mouth. The air shudders as it passes between our lips. “I’m still here, love.” My voice breaks too, but I try to control it for him. “Come back to me.” There is no movement from him whatsoever, no sound, even his breath is almost silent. I glance at the clock on the wall for the first time. How long has he been out? Two minutes now, three? I rest my palm above his heart—it’s still beating, but much slower than mine. I breathe again with him, kissing his lips. “Aiden? Come back . . . you promised. You promised you’d always come back to me. Come back and stay . . .”  But Aiden doesn’t kiss me back. His warm breath doesn’t wash over my lips. Without any conscious decision, a humming sound builds from my throat: Für Elise. I start kissing him in time with the melody as he does with me, swallowing back panic and tears. “I love you,” I whisper between each humming kiss. “Aiden, I love you. Come back to me, please . . .”

Blood roses have blossomed around us with shards of glass for dew. Under my palm, Aiden’s heartbeat is fading. His body rests on the rug of planets, the sun at his shoulders, finally tension free. And his angel’s face is glowing with peace. My tears splash on his golden cheeks—they sparkle there like lost, skyless stars. A veil of black is falling over my own eyes. I blink in vain, raining more tears on his glistening lids. But my lungs can no longer find the rose breeze. Between our breathless mouths, there is no more Für Elise.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 26 – ROSE THIEF

Hey gang and happy Fourth of July to all my U.S. peeps! I hope you’re all having a great long weekend with family, friends, or just a good book, however you want it to be. And to help with the weekend feel, here is a chapter for you. I took two weeks because it’s an important one, IMHO. And for those of you who read the snippet on Facebook, you might guess why. Hope you enjoy it. Lots of love, xo, Ani

26

Rose Thief

Everything is ready even though it’s only seven in the morning on a Saturday. But when you have an entire Rose Army at your disposal—as Stella has named Aiden, the Marines, and our security team—it takes only an hour compared to the ten it used to take mum, dad, and me to set up for the festival.

And now, after four years under a tarp behind the Plemmons’ shop, mum’s rose stand blooms in the heart of Priory Street as it did for the eighteen festivals our family blossomed together. I stare at it under the sunrise, resisting even a blink.

Dad built it in the shape of the cottage for mum. Just three lattice walls and a peaked roof with wooden slats, painted the same white as our home. Over the roof stretches a canvas of damask roses she bought on their honeymoon, their former pink now faded to the blush of the Clares. Woven baskets hang on the lattice like windows, brimming with roses from the garden: the Elisas in ivory, the Cecilias in cyclamen, the Reagans in magenta, the future Marias. But only the Clares are competing today. Their bouquet—forty-four stems, one for each year of mum’s life—bursts from her favorite vase on a beechwood plinth like a front door. And inside the trellis walls are eighteen rose wreaths with a photo of her from each summer she attended this festival, wearing the same rose-printed dress I’m wearing now and the same roses braided in her hair.

Her smile in the photos turns liquid in my vision.

“Is that a happy tear or a sad tear?” Aiden’s arms fold around my waist, and he kisses the droplet off my cheek as if we are entirely alone, not with a Rose Army around us or vendors throwing furtive looks at mum’s charm from a distance. Mrs. Willoughby seems to be weeping from her champion stand of speckled roses. I wrap my hands around his, eyes on the chime bells tinkling from the picket eave.

“Happy adjacent, I think.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Just because I miss her.” I shrug. “But also happy because I think she would have liked this.”

“Of course she would have. How else do you explain the pink clouds?” He turns me in his arms, his eyes caressing me in ways his hands cannot here. His fingers brush the roses woven in my hair as if the petals are my skin. “You look so beautiful,” he murmurs.

But how could anyone be called beautiful standing next to him? His surreal face eclipses everything, even if it’s still pale from the reel almost three hours later. The images hold him longer now—it takes a few extra minutes each week to bring him back. But he is still here for me, invincible and unwavering.

I trace the circle below his eyes with my fingertip. “How are you feeling?”

He smiles. “Happy adjacent.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Because I’ll miss you and your hair full of roses in a few minutes. But also happy because I have something that might help you with the adjacent part.” A glow falls over him, and the pallor disappears. His usual golden warmth infuses his skin. And even though the edges of the wound start burning at the countdown, I smile back.

“Does it involve a bomb shelter, a new security battalion, or body armor?”

He chuckles. “Not today.”

“All right, go on then. What is it?”

He nods once at someone behind me, and I look over my shoulder in time to see Benson turn the corner to Ivy Lane while the rest of my Rose Army spread out and occupy themselves in an apparent effort to give us privacy.

“So where will you be today while I’m showing off the roses?” I ask him, dreading the long day apart.

“Close enough to have my eyes on you in this dress and with this hair.” His heated gaze descends over me.

“That’s hardly fair,” I grumble. “You get to see me, but I don’t get to see you.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll leave breadcrumbs.”

“Breadcrumbs?”

“Something like that. Here comes Benson.”

Benson is striding toward us like our personal Big Ben, carrying a tall, thin cardboard box under his arm. “Here you go, sir.” He hands it to Aiden, winking at me before joining Max and Ferrars at our welcome table and promptly showing them a map—no doubt the battle plan. Aiden is still looking at me in that fiery way, a smile playing on his lips.

“Allow me?”

“You better. Papercuts are highly dangerous. Why didn’t you hire me a personal surgeon for this?”

“Don’t tempt me. I might throw in a second bodyguard and a bullet-proof vest. Although it would cover the best parts of this dress, I’m afraid.” His eyes linger on my décolleté. I’m about to suggest he builds us a private bunker where we don’t need clothes at all, but he opens the box with a pained sigh, and my snarky remark dies on my lips. Because he takes out a white sign with black letters like the cottage’s shutters:

Lady Clare’s Rose Gallery

“Oh!” I gasp, fingers flying to the painted words to caress the letters. Lady Clare—the name I gave the rose we planted together in mum’s honor at the Portland Rose Garden. “Aiden, did you do this yourself?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the best part. “YouTube and me.”

I throw my arms around him and the sign, hugging them both. “No, it’s just you!” I breathe him in through his T-shirt. “Thank you! I love it and I know mum would have loved it, too.”

He chuckles. “Well, I couldn’t very well leave you with a nameless rose stand. Mrs. Willoughby might have claimed it as her own.”

“And you with it.”

“Not me. I’m taken. I have a thing for Mrs. Plemmons.” He tips up my face, winking at our secret nicknames for each other. Will he always stun me like this? Or will there come a day, whether we win or lose, when I’ll get used to him? The answer might as well be a sign on my forehead: no, I never will.

He hangs the sign under roof, hammering the nails carefully into the slats. I try not to ogle at his arms flexing with the motion but fail quickly and absolutely. Thankfully he finishes before I do something obscene like drag him behind mum’s rose stand for a different kind of hammering with his parents six feet away. He rattles the sign to make sure it doesn’t move an inch.

“Perfect,” he says, regarding his handiwork and pulling me to his side.

I watch his profile, feeling his granite lines against me, inhaling his freshly showered scent.  “Yes, it truly is,” I agree.

He sets down the hammer and gazes down at me, but the familiar hesitancy before we part flickers in the turquoise depths. And the magic bubble pops. We’re back on Priory Street, surrounded by our army, the seconds ticking by. My chest starts to ache under my locket.

“Do you feel it still?” he whispers.

“Feel what?”

“The pain here.” His index finger taps the glowing sapphire.

I nod. “Only when you leave.”

“Me too. But do you remember what I think then?”

“What?”

He caresses a Clare in my braid. “This is just a petal,” he reminds me.

His love-making mantra makes smile despite the countdown. “That’s right, I forgot! The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“Exactly. Think about that with me, and before you know it, the day will be over. And we can celebrate your Rose Cup which I’m sure you’ll win.”

I can tell by the playfulness in his voice that he’s trying to cheer me up. But why is it harder to separate today? I go to work every day and I’m able to crawl out of the car without this kind of devastation. Is it because it’s mum’s favorite event and I want him here with me? Or because I know he’ll be close but stressed, trying to protect me? Whatever the reason, it seems to be harder for Aiden, too. His eyes don’t leave me for long, his body shifts closer every time I move.

“Celebrate how?” I ask to distract myself and him. “Just us?”

I know he hears the desperation in my voice because he smiles. “Oh, I never tell. But will you do something for me?”

“Anything you want.”

He plucks an Elisa from their basket and tucks it above my ear. “Wear something of yours today, too. Make this your day as well.”

He caresses my rose, lips parting, clearly wanting to do more. As do I. But things change quickly then. The horn of the Plemmonses flower cart blares at the end of the street, striking Aiden’s shoulders like a thunderbolt. His eyes harden as he scours the lane that starts bustling at the signal. People are already crowding at the gate. The street vendors start shouting final orders at their own armies. And the local band clangs their cymbals and tests the trumpets. Reflexively by now, our arms fly around each other’s waist—shield and talisman.

“You should go, love,” I say, each word a thorn in my throat. “I’ll be fine with your parents and Max and Ferrars. I wish you’d go fishing or hiking with the Marines, but I know there’s zero chance of that.”

He tenses as if ready to throw himself between the world and me at any moment. “Zero,” he agrees. “But don’t worry about that. Celebrate your mother and have fun.”

His words seem to act as a command to the Rose Army who have clearly been watching him. They spring into movement, even Robert and Stella, forming circle around us, awaiting his orders. Aiden shifts me against his side without releasing his hold on me.

“You relax and enjoy this, too,” he tells his parents. “It’s supposed to stay in the mid-seventies, but if you want to go back at the Inn for a break, Ferrars will take you.”

“Not a chance. We’re staying with Elisa. We have spots in the shade,” Robert assures him. Stella simply kisses him with her eyes. I can’t help but notice a trace of sadness in her smile. If I see it, Aiden certainly does because he bends to kiss her cheek before turning to Max and Ferrars.

“You know the drill. Stay close but inconspicuous. No mistakes. Elisa’s safety first.”

“Yes, sir.” They nod in their casual attire that blends in with the locals and start helping Robert and Stella heave the ice coolers of rose lemonade to our welcome table.

James, Hendrix, and Benson don’t seem to need orders. Like Aiden, they’re wearing more utilitarian clothes: jeans, breathable shirts, Timberland boots. They don earpieces in unison, already scanning the street, their expressions intense even behind their dark sunglasses. At their alert postures, my own spine becomes rigid with nerves.

“Is Jazz back at the cottage?” I guess.

“Yes, he’s betting someone will show up there, but you’re worrying again.” He pinches my chin as he does when making an important point. “Nothing will happen to you. All this is so we can find out what we’re dealing with, fix it, and get back to our life.”

I nod, but I still can’t calm the sudden shivers. Because it’s impossible to look at the lethal men around me and not feel that war is starting on Priory Street. And wars have casualties. What if someone gets hurt? Even worse, what if it’s not me? And what if mum’s day is tainted with this? I have no doubt there is no real danger here. I’m more afraid of what seven men trained to kill will do at Aiden’s direction if he perceives danger.

“Aiden, please be careful,” I beg him.

“Of course, I will. I told you, we’re built for this.”

I glance at the army quickly—hard, vigilant, destructive—and pull him aside by the bouquet of Clares. One of her roses brushes against his forearm like a kiss. “That’s my point love,” I whisper. “You’re trained for war, not this. We’re in Burford, not Fallujah.”

He is too tense to smile but he tries. “As stunning as you are, I still know where I am, Elisa.”

I take his hands in mine, caressing the jagged knuckles. “You know what I mean. It’s just a little country festival. Petals, not threats, love. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for danger. Please?”

He’s nodding before I’ve finished. “I will. Now go, play, let me worry about the rest.”

Before I can formulate a response, he arches me against his granite chest and presses his lips softly against mine. And then he is gone. Waving at his parents and bolting away from me after Hendrix and James, Benson at his side.

“Be safe,” I call after him, clasping my locket.

He looks over his shoulder with my favorite dimpled smile. “The breadcrumb is in the box.” His voice wraps around me, warm and velvet. I blink and they vanish into the rose-scented air as if they were only ever a dream.

The wound rips wide open, as livid as when I used to chase after him in my sleep. But my phone buzzes in my dress pocket instantly. I wrench it out, almost dropping it as I read his text:

“Breadcrumbs, not worries.”

Can he see me? I spin around, scanning the sidewalks and rooftops, even stupidly the sky. But I can’t see any of them. Not even our Big Ben or James’s tangle of red hair. Yet as much as I want Iraq’s ghosts away from Mum’s roses, my chest is burning. I almost tear the box that held the sign to search for my breadcrumb, but a folded piece of paper slides out easily in Aiden’s assertive handwriting:

First Time. December. Bring love.

I grin at the words, fighting the urge to kiss the note with his parents, Max, and Ferrars around. He didn’t make it hard for me to decode: Room of Firsts, at noon. A rush of heat flashes over my skin. It will be just us for lunch at least. I tuck the note in my dress and text him back immediately: “I can’t wait.”

But our date is four long hours away, and these hours belong only to mum. As she apparently still belongs in Burford’s heart. They haven’t forgotten her in the last four years. The moment the Song of Windrush kickstarts the festival, a long line of Cotswoldians forms at the end of the street, smiling and pointing excitedly at our stand with its brand-new sign. “Blimey, Clare’s roses are really back!” shouts someone. “I knew it!” answers another. “Mama, it’s the roses you liked!” squeals a little girl.

Everything else fades then as my throat closes abruptly with a different kind of tears. An acidic mix of grief and remorse. How did I erase Mum from this day? How could I have taken her away from them like she was taken away from me? I run my hands over her dress—so many sorry’s, I love you’s, and I miss you’s left unsaid. But that’s not what she would have wanted today. I skip at our welcome table with Robert and Stella by my side and wave at the crowd who cheers and shuffles forward as soon as the song ends.

“Good heavens,” Robert marvels, pouring mum’s rose lemonade frantically into paper cups. “There must be at least three hundred of them and it’s only the start.”

“She was so loved,” Stella croons, all thumbs and laughter.

But across the lane, Max and Ferrars are in a battle stance. They split up: Max moves between the incoming line and me, Ferrars strides parallel against it searching each kind face for danger behind his sunglasses. If I look closer, I can see their earpieces and quick lips coordinating with each other. A metallic taste builds on my tongue at their vicious expressions looking at the well-wishers who are waiting to welcome mum back and seeing nothing but threats.

“Max, please!” I hiss at him under my breath. “Let them enjoy this. They’ve waited a long time.”

He peers at me through his aviators. Or I think he does—only his furled eyebrows are visible above them. I have no idea what he is thinking but he nods once and crosses the street, strolling casually and looking more like a merry goer. Down the meandering lane, Ferrars starts doing the same. I take a deep breath and smile at the ribbon of faces winding through all the other rose stands for ours first. At the very front, Mr. Plemmons is leading the charge in his crocs and cane, wearing his straw fedora crowned with garden roses. Everyone slows for his hunched frame, tipping their hats at the festival’s official tsar for the last fifty years.

“Rose!” he rejoices when he reaches me, taking my hand in his knobbly fist and shaking it in the air like I have already won the Rose Cup. “Bless me soul! The stand looks beautiful—righ’ like yer mum did it. She’s proud up there, she is, I tell yeh.” He leans his head back, admiring the stand, a tear trickling in his mustache while I try to exhale. Other than me, the Plemmonses are the only two people alive who know exactly how much mum loved this. Over my parents’ hilltop, the pinkish clouds are floating like petals across the sky. Are you smiling, Mum?

“Ah, all the roses are perfect!” Mr. Plemmons declares. “An’ look at them in yer hair, Rosebud. Josephine will like this. She’s with Emma an’ Harry, they’ll stop by. Felix, Lavender, and Lily are here from London, too.” He grins under his bushy mustache at his grandchildren’s names.

“That’s wonderful, Mr. Plemmons,” I shout, handing him a cup of lemonade. “I’d love to see them again.”

He turns to Robert and Stella, whom he calls his good Yankee mates. “Good of yeh to be with Rosebud today, jolly good. Come by our stand for some nosh—Josephine has made canapes . . . but where is Adam?” He squints at the space between the three of us, his fluffy eyebrows furrowing like sheep’s wool at this new transgression committed by Aiden in addition to staying with me at the cottage albeit in the garden shed.

“He’s fixing a pipe at the cottage, Mr. Plemmons,” I scream, flushing as the whole line listens in about the mysterious, beautiful guest, while Robert and Stella nod fervently, their smiles too wide. “But he got me the sign for the stand, see? Isn’t it brilliant?”

That distracts him immediately. He totters closer to the stand, hitching up his spectacles as he squints to read it. “Adam did tha’?” His eyebrows and mustache wiggle with a smile—perhaps the first smile in the same sentence as Adam.

“Yes, he did! And he hung it himself,” I yell proudly as several necks crane up to see the sign too with admiring hums.

“Ah, tha’ is beautiful, tha’ is. Will save him a canape, Rose. See yeh three in wee bit. Stay out o’ this blasted sun and sprinkle the roses.” He waves and turns to face the line of cheery Burfordians, stomping his cane on the cobblestones for silence. They all fall quiet. “Today,” he wheezes with significance. “We welcome back one of Burford’s best roses. May she bloom like spring. Let the festival begin.” He blows his whistle and teeters back to his famous pony cart stand, harrumphing at all the clapping that follows him.

The whole line jolts forward with energy then, louder than the band. Max and Ferrars radiate waves of anxiety pacing across the lane, ready to hurl themselves at me as my hands get passed like coins handshake to handshake in a torrent of welcomes and cheers that gives me barely a second to breathe in between, let alone say anything other than “hello Mrs. So-and-So” and “thank you.”

“Elisa-pea! Welcome back! Happy Rose Day to beautiful Clare!” Mrs. Potts, the town’s grocer, cries as I hand her a cup of mum’s lemonade and a sachet of dried petals which she uses to dab her tears.

“Oh, how I’ve missed these wee baggies for me dressers. Voting for Clare’s roses, I will!” Mrs. Sterling, the stationer, cheers as she takes two sachets from my basket.

“No better-smelling roses in all of England.” Mr. Jenkins, the chemist, grasps my hand next. “Happy Rose Day, Elisa! Proper chuffed to meet you, Elisa’s friends.”

“Ah, to see Clare’s stand blooming again. Blimey, it’s like she’s here. Look, everyone, look at her pictures!” Mrs. Ashbrook, the milliner, claps her hands and grabs her lemonade cup.

“You look right like your mum in her dress, Elisa.” Mrs. Dawlish, the town’s hair stylist fixes a few roses in my braid. “Well-met, Sir. You have lovely hair, Ma’am. Dear me, I can see where your son gets his looks from—all the ladies bump their gums about him in my salon.” She laughs and shakes Stella’s hand, admiring her perfect chocolate waves. “But don’t worry, Elisa, I told them off. I said he already has the prettiest rose in town.”

Robert, Stella, and I are still laughing when Mr. Willoughby, the archnemesis competitor of Plemmons Blooms, steps up and takes a cup of lemonade. “Good luck, Elisa.” He gives me an icy smile and is the only one not looking at mum’s roses. From the corner of my eye, I see Max zip closer, pretending to admire the Elisas. “May the best rose win.” Willoughby nods curtly at the two beautiful souls next to me without waiting for an introduction and marches back to his champion stand where last year’s Rose Cup is gleaming in the shape of a silver rose stem. I clutch my locket at the sight. The Cup used to rest in our foyer, year after year. Let Mum’s roses win. Bring it back to the cottage for her, please. Above the hilltop, the pink clouds have burned off into a gossamer blue sky.

“There’s an oddball for you.” Robert frowns at Willoughby’s retreating figure with a stern gaze, which he obviously passed to his protective son.

“He’s an envious sort,” I explain. “But not dangerous. At most, he’d knock off a vase and mumble that it was an accident.”

It goes on like this for over three hours. Streams of Cotswoldians rush by the stand, babbling with their excitement about mum’s roses until her very name fills the air as if she were still here. Clare, Clare, Clare. Each time it’s uttered feels like her soft laugh tinkling in the breeze. By the time the torrent slows, we are long out of lemonade, sachets, breath, and tears, and Robert and Stella have met every single Burfordian except Willoughby, their families, and their guests, and have been invited to two weddings and four luncheons. Even Stella’s immaculate hair is fluffed Plemmons-style from the frantic greeting. My fingers hurt from all the hand-clasping. And Max and Ferrars look like they have aged at least ten years during the ordeal. A few stands down, I spot Hendrix who must have descended on Priory Street at some point for reinforcement. Flushed and dabbing their foreheads, they’re all reeling off something into their sleeves, no doubt reporting to Aiden and the others that not a single psychopath, pervert, stalker, or thief has managed to pluck one petal off a rose, let alone hurt me. Exactly as I said it would be. If they’re in this shape, I cannot imagine Aiden’s state. But at least he will be able to relax after this. As Hendrix and Jazz said, if someone was trying to hurt me, they would have shown up here today. Yet, the worst thing that has happened in three frenetic hours is Willoughby’s half-smile.

“That was something else!” Robert blows out a gust of air, folding down in his bistro chair and wiping a bead of sweat from his temple. “But I can’t say I saw anyone suspicious, did you?”

“Heavens, not one!” Stella laughs, plopping next to him in the shade and pinning up her hair. “We’ve made more friends in a week here than a year in the States.”

“They all love you.” I grin with pride, filling their cups with rose iced tea. “Except the Willoughbys, but that’s because she’s in love with Aiden, and he’s in love with the Rose Cup.”

“Well, good luck to her with Aiden.”

We burst out laughing while the object of the female obsession in town sends my phone buzzing next to my thigh.

“Are you plotting your security’s demise?” Aiden texts. I look around giggling, knowing I can’t see him, yet unable to help myself.

“Always,” I respond. “But I have a feeling I won’t have to plot long.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right.”

“I am. If anyone wanted to hurt me, I’d be mince by now.”

“Hilarious, Elisa.”

I can almost feel his glare through the pixels. I should know better. Nothing that suggests harm to me in any way is funny to Aiden. “I’m sorry, bad joke.” The three dots hesitate on the screen—sighing, I imagine. “I’m perfectly safe,” I assure him, wishing he were here so I could smooth the V away. “Except I miss you.”

He doesn’t hesitate now. “Miss you too.”

“I solved the breadcrumb.”

“Of course you did.”

“I’ll bring love.”

“I’ll take all of it.”

Am I imagining the sad tone in his text? “How are you feeling?”

“As I always do when I’m away from you.”

Yes, with a throbbing chest and a bitter mouth and a hollowness that erodes the flesh like acid. I know because all the smiles and warmth of the last three hours haven’t changed that. The wound still rages and burns. “Me too.”

“Just a petal, love. See you at noon.”

Noon feels too far away even if it’s only in forty minutes. I pluck an Elisa petal and tuck it in my pocket with the breadcrumb. “Love you.”

“Always.”

His text is immediate as his answer would be if he were right here, brushing my cheek. I stuff my phone next to the petal and duck inside the stand to prepare the love I’m bringing him. Across the lane, Max and Ferrars are relaxing on the sidewalk, but I’m sure their eyes don’t leave us. Hendrix seems to have disappeared. But soon we all will have their lives back. I can almost smell the freedom with the roses.

“Knock, knock.” A familiar voice wafts through the lattice walls. My head snaps up, gasping at my new guests. Edison and Graham are standing by the table—Graham no longer sickly green but still carrying the Encyclopedia and Edison holding the pot of miniature yellow roses that mum gave dad, which has sat in his office ever since.

“Professor Edison, I mean, Nigel! Graham!” I cheer, rushing out of the stand. “What a wonderful surprise!”

“Is it?” Edison smiles. “I used to stop by when Clare ran the stand. You don’t remember?”

“Of course, I do. You and dad played football once using the stand as goal posts.”

He laughs. “And what a lambasting we took from Clare. It never happened again.” He hands me the pot of roses. “I thought this little fellow might like to be at the festival, too. See some of its species for once instead of dusty textbooks and a dour professor.”

“Thank you.” My voice catches as I sniff the tiny rosette. “I’ll introduce it to some friends and bring it back on Monday.”

“No matter. You’re welcome to keep it—it was Peter’s after all.” His eyes fall on Robert and Stella sitting next to me, looking like patron angels of all roses. “Ah, these must be your guests visiting from the States?” Edison guesses.

“Yes, these are Robert and Stella Hale,” I introduce them, heart crashing against my ribs at a part of dad’s life connecting with Aiden’s parents like this. “And this is Professor Nigel Edison and his Chief Researcher, Graham Knightly. They’re my supervisors at Oxford.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.” Robert stands and shakes their hands. “We’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Uh oh, nothing confidential, I hope,” Graham half-jokes, half-panics.

“Not at all.” Stella smiles at him. “Only that you were close with Elisa’s father and how supportive you’ve been of her now that she’s back.”

“Oh, that’s not entirely selfless, I assure you.” Edison chuckles. “We’re hoping she stays this time.”

They all laugh while my heart rips in two as it always does when geography comes up. Especially with Aiden’s parents around. Because how can I take Aiden from them now that he’s back in their lives? But how can I ever abandon this festival again?

“How long are you staying?” Edison asks them.

“Only one more week, unfortunately,” Robert answers as Stella’s smile fades. I’m not the only one who detests the ticking clock.

“Ah, you’ll miss Peter’s bench ceremony then. Elisa is supposed to speak. I’m looking forward to her remarks.”

I feel blood drain from my face at the prospect. On the upside, it distracts me from the mangled ways in which my stomach is twisting at the thought of maps and transatlantic distance even if Aiden and I win. “Don’t worry, you won’t miss much,” I tell Robert and Stella, trying to force a smile. “My remarks will be: Hello. Thank you for coming. Here is Professor Edison for more.”

They laugh as I wanted them to, but I see earnest regret in their eyes. I know because it’s similar to mine. Like Reagan and Javier, they already feel so natural here. And because of that, my chest throbs faster. I usually lose those I love most. My hand flies to my locket. Make me strong, make me brave.

“Elisa, will you show us the roses that are competing this year?” Edison gestures to the stand.

“Of course. It’s only the Clares this time. The others are here for emotional support.”

“So everyone votes for their favorite rose and the one with the most votes wins?” Graham clarifies.

“Yes, but mostly they just walk around, eating, drinking, and smelling the roses.”

He looks utterly perplexed that anyone would want to spend a Saturday like this instead of in a lab. A lab where I desperately need to be without him. “Here, Graham, try it.” I give him a Cecilia to smell. “According to a recent study by the University of Freiburg, the smell of roses while learning and sleeping increases memory and learning skills by thirty percent.”

“That explains Professor Snow then.” He laughs but almost inhales the petals off the stem.

“Exactly. Keep this by your nightstand and sleep until Wednesday. I’ll bet you solve the protein by then.”

He tucks the Cecilia inside the Encyclopedia, while Edison laughs. “I better take one, too.” He chooses an Elisaand threads it in the loop of his tweed vest. “Bring the Rose Cup by the lab when you win it, like Peter used to.”

They cast their votes for Clares, drop them in the ballot box on the stage with the band, and leave shortly, wishing Robert and Stella a pleasant flight.

“How kind of them to come.” Stella looks at their figures as they melt in the crowd toward the car park.

“Very kind. Mum and dad would have been thrilled.”

She and Robert don’t mention Edison’s comment about me staying in England, and neither do I. But have their sharp eyes already seen the conflict in mine? If they have, they simply smile. Only when Stella turns to water the roses do I see a flicker of something in her face that I don’t think I’m supposed to see. It disappears before I find a name for it. But Robert must know it because he picks up the other spray hose and splashes her once.

“Bertie!” She squeals out of the way. “My hair!”

“Your hair is lovely—the town hairdresser said so,” he answers, reminding me of Aiden again.

They laugh together, but I’m no longer here. Because it’s almost noon, and my feet are already scrambling away. I grab the love I’m bringing Aiden and tuck it in a basket, covering it with my pashmina. “Stella, do you mind watching the stand for about an hour? I have to meet Aiden at the Inn.”

She is laughing at a drenched Robert. “Of course darling. Will Max be walking you?”

As if to answer her question, Max materializes at my side. “Looks like it,” I sigh. “Poor Max. You should be having a pint and enjoying the festival, not worrying about me.”

He laughs with a tired sound. “Worrying about you is my job, Elisa.”

“I know but it doesn’t have to be.” I grin at him as we set off. “Even you have to admit, there’s nothing and no one suspicious around.”

His smile is reluctant. “So far. But the day is only half over.”

“The other half will be just as safe, you’ll see.”

And Aiden and I will finally be alone again. I almost break into a run to the Inn. But as soon as we turn the corner onto Ivy Lane, I see him. Striding out of the Inn, hand through his hair, searching the quiet alley with urgency, no doubt for me.

“Aiden!” I sprint at him and launch myself into his open arms. He catches me in his iron grip, crushing me into his chest.

“Elisa! Thank God!” He murmurs in my hair, breathing me in as though he hasn’t drawn much air in the last four hours. Which is probably exactly the case.

“You haven’t been spending the last four hours imagining horribles, have you?” I kiss the spot above his heart, inhaling the scent of him, reveling in the feeling of air flowing in my lungs wound-free.

“That’s an understatement.” He sighs in profound relief, holding me closer and kissing the top of my head.

I wiggle in his steely hold to frown at him with disapproval. His turbulent eyes are clearing quickly as they roam my face. “Aiden, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re breaking Corbin’s rule. I was perfectly safe, even without the seven of you around.”

He chuckles. “I know you think that, but none of us expected the three hundred people that swarmed you. Not even me, and I know exactly how lovable you are.” He nods at Max behind me. “Well done, Max. Take a break. God knows you’ve earned it.”

He swoops me in his arms, basket and all, scanning every part of me as is his custom. But we don’t get far. His eyes widen when they reach my hands. “What the fuck happened here?” he snarls.

I see what he means. Sort of. My palms are as pink as the Reagans, but they make me laugh despite his obvious anxiety. “I think this is a combination of three hundred Cotswoldian handshakes and working in the dirt with roses. Don’t worry, they don’t hurt at all.”

He doesn’t look convinced. He carries me inside the Inn with speed, blowing up the stairs to the Room of Firsts, the creaky lift obviously too slow for him. The door must have been unlocked as he cradles me in one arm and opens it. I don’t even have time to register if anything has changed in our beloved room because he streaks to the domed restroom and sets me down on the counter.

“Now,” he breathes, and just his smell makes me more light-headed than his velocity. “Let me look at this.” He places my basket on the floor and takes my hands gently, blowing on my palms. The soft breeze of his breath makes my eyelids flutter. “Does that burn?”

“No.” I smile, caressing his tense jaw at my fingertips. “But it’s starting to burn in other places.”

He glares, still holding my hands like soap bubbles. “Be serious. Does it hurt when I do this?” He brushes my palm lightly with his pinky.

“Mmm,” I moan, and it’s not even fake.

His finger stops stroking mine. “Elisa, so help me God, answer or I’ll drive you to the hospital right now, festival or no festival.”

He is absolutely not joking. “All right, all right, calm down. I told you, they don’t hurt all. They’re just a little pink.”

“Just a lot pink. What about prickling? Do you feel anything else at all?”

“Oh! Yes, actually.” I pull back one hand, leaving the other in his. “It really tingles here.” I point at my mouth. “And here.” I trace my fingers down my throat to the rose in my décolleté. “And here.” My hand skims down my waist between my hips. “What now, Doctor Hale?”

His eyes follow the trail of my hand with a fiery hunger that tightens the muscles at the bottom of my belly. A slow, heated smirk lifts the corner of his lips. When he looks back at my mouth, his bold gaze turns my entire skin pink. “I will deal with you in a minute,” he threatens, and just his dark, husky voice sends my blood hammering. “Now, please,behave or the hospital it is.”

I hold still, trying to calm my pulse as he opens the faucet and runs my hands under the cold water, washing them gently with the rose soap, massaging little slippery circles on my palms that make the tingles bloom into full trembles. “It’s not going away.” He frowns, rinsing my hands.

“I’m sure it will.” I pull them back and switch off the faucet. “Just leave them alone and touch some other parts of me as soon as possible and they will be good as new.”

He smirks again and takes a fluffy towel from the rack. “Is that so?” he asks, patting my hands dry.

“Absolutely.”

He tosses the towel on the counter. “I see. So you’re adamant this redness is from too many handshakes and playing with dirt?”

“Of course I am. What else would it be?”

He looks at my hands, eyes narrowing at the corners. It’s not until I see the way the tectonic plates shift in analysis like they did the night of the supposed break-in that I realize what he is thinking. What he is concluding. “Aiden?” I choke, the warm trembles turning instantly to chills. “You’re not thinking this was some intentional act by someone to hurt me, are you?”

He doesn’t answer. He just turns my hands this way and that.

“Are you?” I demand, yanking them back.

He takes a deep breath and meets my eyes. The turquoise depths are pensive underneath, clearly still locked in inner analysis. “I’m just considering all options.”

“And these options,” I press, my voice rising with panic. “They include a theory that someone did this to my hands?”

His jaw flexes while his mind continues to process with blinding speed. “They have to.”

I stare at him in horror. He is not seeing less danger after today as I had hoped, as I was just dreaming; he is seeing more. “Why?” I whisper, losing all volume. “Why would you think that?”

“I don’t like thinking it, but it’s probable.”

And I try. I try very hard to control the spew of emotions that erupts inside— dread for him, grief for our life, panic about the end, sorrow that this is happening on mum’s day, anger at him for refusing to see things any other way—but they spin out like Bia’s centrifuge, rattling my skull until they settle on anger with a mental clang. It hijacks my body, and I hop down from the counter, blood flooding my face. “Probable?” I hiss, glaring at his eyes that are seeing yet another baseless threat. “You mean hypothetical at this point, right? Because there is zero evidence to support this one. Not even a crooked frame or fallen petal this time.”

He shakes his head in his defiant way, and I know I’ve already lost. “Of course there is. You work with dirt every day, and I’ve never seen your hands do this. It has been at least twenty minutes now since your last handshake and the redness has not faded. Yes, it’s possible you have an allergy to something, but you have no burning, itching, pain, or other sensations that go with contact dermatitis or sunburn. Therefore, I have to consider other alternatives, including the option that someone did this in some way for some reason I obviously cannot explain but intend to find out.”

I break then. Every speck of this last week—the hours of dread chasing an intruder who doesn’t exist, the constant surveillance, the relentless rampage in the name of safety, the mental war that has erupted in our cottage, the theft of privacy, the invasion of every nook and cranny of the life my parents built, this shadow over mum’s day—combine, overwhelming me with their force. And I can’t form words. Not because I don’t know what to say. But because nothing I say will make a difference. All my counterarguments—no matter how logical and reasonable—will mean nothing in the end. Once we resolve a threat, his mind will find another, and another, and another, trapping him in war. And me with him. A wave of terror crashes over me.

“This is never going to end, is it?” I whisper.

He blinks at me, shock flickering over his face. “Of course it will. As soon as—”

“As soon as you solve this,” I finish for him.

“Yes.” His answer is resolute, his eyes unyielding. He will either destroy the reel or the reel will destroy him. But in three weeks, despite his strength, the reel has already claimed our new lives, our peace, our happy memories, and now stifling even the fragile tendril of h-o-p-e that blossomed by my parents’ grave. Abruptly, I want to leave. Go back to mum’s day with memories and pain I know how to live with.

“Elisa, I will fix this. I promise you that.” He tips up my face as if to reassure me, but nothing can do that right now. Not even his touch.

I manage a nod as I squeeze past him out of the restroom. The gallery of our firsts spans around me with all its beauty. Everything is as we left it a week ago, except the garland of roses is gone and a small table in the open balcony is set with lunch and a Clare for what would have been our date. In one look, the room transforms from a mosaic of our beautiful firsts to a museum of our happy lasts before the reel ruined everything.

He is behind me, so close I can feel his body heat. “Elisa, what are you doing?”

“Leaving.”

He is in front of me in one second, his arms out as if to stop me. “Why?”

“Because I want to go back to the festival.”

He takes my still-pink hand.  “Love, come on. Let’s not fight about this. We’ve been fighting all week. Let’s celebrate your mother today.”

The reference to my mum on the day when she saw only goodness is too much for me. I pull back my hand—it balls up like his fists. “Celebrate her with you? When you only see danger and threat in the people she loved? You must be joking.”

A bolt of agony strikes his face. “Yes, with me. Who else do we have to celebrate her with, but each other?”

“Everyone else apparently,” I spit out, tears gathering in my eyes. “There are at least three hundred people on that street who loved her who aren’t enemies or intruders or poisoners or psychopaths or perverts or whatever other label you want to slap on them. They just miss her like I do. And right now, I want to be with them, not here with you debating yet another life-threatening scenario because my hands are a little pink.”

His arms drop to his sides as if I just shot him. “Elisa, it’s not—”

“Please, stop. Just stop! I can’t do this on her day. I just want to go back to the festival and be with her in my heart. Can you at least give me that?”

All expression drains from his face, leaving nothing but a beautiful, ashen barren land behind. He watches me frozen, his eyes shifting and aging with an ancient sadness. But he nods at last and opens the door, as I knew he would. “I’ll walk you out,” he whispers as I pass through.

He follows me in silence down the stairs to the lobby where Max is already waiting by the door with Benson. Of course he would be.

“So security stays after today then? Despite all the proof that there’s nothing wrong?” I verify, looking at their intense expressions as they dissect the ivy-covered lane.

Aiden’s hand curves gently around my elbow, turning me to him. I look up at his face reluctantly. I don’t want to see the staggering sadness in his eyes that still won’t change his determined gaze. “Love, it has to, until—”

“Don’t!” I interrupt him, pulling back my elbow. The point of contact shivers as though it wants to stay in his touch. “I don’t want to hear your reasons because they’re not reasonable anymore. This will hurt us, Aiden. I promise you that.”

I march past him to the door. He watches me leave with unfathomable eyes.

But with each step away from the Inn, my anger softens even with Max by my side. This is not how I wanted to say goodbye. Because the wound is festering, the clock is ticking, our lives are still entwined, and I already miss him. I almost go back then, but Hendrix and James are ducking into the Inn, talking to Benson, their faces set with warlike intention. Yes, I want to go back, but it wouldn’t change anything. We are now prisoners to the reel.

Priory Street is feverish when Max and I get there. Band clamoring, couples dancing, children giggling, and swells of people flooding the lane like River Windrush. Yet, I feel cold, as though the sun that’s glazing the stones no longer beams on me. From a distance, I see mum’s stand, glimmering like snow. The new sign pops with its black-and-white elegance against the bright colors of the roses thronging the lane. And the Hales are sitting at the table with the Plemmonses and the Jenkinses, laughing and eating canapes under Ferrars’ watchful eye. I change treks, unable to face them in my current state.

“Max, I need to walk around for a while. Just up and down the street.”

His eyebrows knit above his sunglasses. He has been quiet since we left the Inn, obviously seeing the jungle of emotion on my face. “No problem, whatever you need.”

I watch the jigsaw of rose stands, as familiar as the freckles on my hip or the lines in my pink palms. “The thing is . . .” I hesitate. “I’m not sure how to do that with a bodyguard around all of mum’s friends. They’ve known me since I was in nappies. They’ll think it’s mad.”

“Ah.” Max nods in understanding. “Why don’t you start ahead, and I’ll follow from a distance? Will that help?”

I nod woodenly, even my joints feeling stuck at the idea. But what else can I do? I start treading down the lane, stiff with opposition, half of me stuck back at the Inn, the other half here for mum. But this hour after lunch was the hour I had alone with her. She used to take my hand and say, “ice cream and roses, love,” and we would weave through the rose stands, picking our favorites and eating ice cream, just the two of us. Above the hilltop, the sun is glowing like a halo. Ice cream and roses, Mum.

The first few steps down the lane are hard with the pain in my chest and without her sandals on the cobblestones next to mine. But as I stop by our favorite stands to say hello like she would or buy a candle she liked, it gets easier. Each vendor gives me their signature rose for her—a cheery yellow, a fiery orange, a pure white, a bold cyclamen, a shy pink, a hearty crimson, a pensive lilac—until by the middle of the lane, my arms are overflowing, my hands are sore from all the clasps, and the tears have dried before they spilled. But my heart throbs exactly as it did when I left the Inn. How can a street with hundreds of bodies feel empty? How can the stones miss the heavy Timberland boots that never walked on them as much as they miss mum’s kitten heels? Perhaps the phrase “heart of stone” has a different meaning. Perhaps it doesn’t mean a hard, cold heart. Perhaps it means a heart that loves so much, it has become petrified. Frozen with terror of losing its love.

I buy mum’s favorite gelato—honey and rose—from Mr. Flaubert and weave my way through the crowd back to the stand. Only Aiden’s parents are there now, sipping chilled rosé.

“Sweetheart, look at all your roses!” Stella laughs, rushing to take some of them from my arms, but her smile falls when she sees my face. The walk must not have masked the snarl inside. “Oh no, is Aiden being a bear?”

I wish. Bears and dragons, I know how to deal with. The reel I do not. “Not at all,” I answer, forcing a wide grin and dropping the roses in a pail of water. “He’s just worrying about me when he’s supposed to stay in the present moment and not imagine awful things.”

“Ah.” She relaxes, smiling again. “It’s because he loves you, darling, and he doesn’t know what to do with it.”

“That, and it’s a bit of a Hale trait, Elisa.” Robert chuckles. “He gets it from me.”

Stella laughs again, taking me by the arm back at the table and pouring me wine. “It’s true. When I was pregnant, Robert didn’t get a full night’s sleep for nine months. Even the few hours he managed, he slept on the floor in case I’d roll off the bed.”

“Is he worried about your hands?” Robert guesses with genetic accuracy, gesturing at my palms.

I nod even though that’s not exactly true. Aiden is worrying about someone intentionally hurting me. And that’s why the stories about the Hale gene do not calm me. Because there is a difference between l-o-v-e and the r-e-e-l. Aiden’s love does things like move across the world and mobilize the CIA and the entire U.S. Congress to save my family. Aiden’s mind creates danger that robs us of our very life.

“I saw them too but thought maybe the dirt, the sun, and all the handshakes,” Robert reasons. And here is another difference: the Hale gene notices, understands, and protects. The reel notices, terrorizes, and destroys.

“Here, try some aloe vera,” Stella suggests, digging a small tube from her purse. “Save yourself a headache and Aiden a coronary.”

I rub the cool gel on my painless hands, trying and failing to see anything there that could make Aiden dream up a nefarious act. Who would do such a thing? Why? How when I’ve been surrounded by security? And more importantly, if someone was trying to harm me, why would they make my palms blush but not hurt, tickle, or burn in any way? When I think of it, why my palms at all and not some other part of me? I shake my head to dispel the dark, paranoid thoughts. Because today is mum’s, and she saw good—not evil—in everything.

The endless stream of people flowing by the stand don’t let me forget it. Some familiar, some strangers I’ve never met. Most with their favorite story of her, all different, yet all the same. All about her kindness and the way she made them feel. I string their memories of her like a lei, jotting them down in her old guest book, letting my mind get lost in her world. The rose oil she gave that girl to clear her skin, the hybrid she helped that old man cultivate after his wife passed. Story after story, until for a while it’s just mum and me, even with Max and Ferrars pacing, the countless guests filing through, and the sniper gazes I sense on me. Above the hilltop, the sun is starting to dip like a fervent kiss.

The church clock tower booms with a deep knell then, making me jump. In the same chime, from the stage at the top of the street, a line of trumpets pierces the air with their bright jingle.

“Is this it?” Stella shouts over the din as trombones and drums join the carol.

“Yes,” I yell back, bolting to my feet. “It means the votes have been counted and now they announce the winner.”

On cue, the crowd bursts into song, bellowing Rose, Rose on the Wall, Who Is the Fairest of Them All. But before the second toll clangs again, Max and Ferrars streak to my side with blinding speed, forming a wall of muscle in front of me as the throng starts to jostle along the narrow street. So much for being inconspicuous. I grit my teeth, trying to squeeze through the crevices of their backs to watch Mr. Plemmons who will be carrying the Rose Cup up to the stage, but it’s impossible.

“Max,” I scream over the clangor, tapping his shoulder as the clock peals again. “I can’t see!”

“What?” he roars back, pressing his fingers to his earpiece.

“I—can’t—see,” I cry again, and he finally hears me, pulling me in front of him as Ferrars, Stella, and Robert line next to us. But at least I can see Mr. Plemmons now, wobbling with the sparkling trophy in his hand, his mustache quivering as he laughs, his cane teetering on the stones, and his beloved Josephine at his side. The gate of bodies thunders with applause as they pass. My throat catches at the sight—how many festivals do they have left? As if to echo my question, the clock tolls again. I clap as hard as I can, not caring if my hands will throb or blister after this.

The crowd swells, following behind the Plemmonses, tugging me along. Max’s hands grip my shoulders to keep me from falling while Ferrars looms large next to Robert and Stella. The clock tolls again and, with a suddenness that knocks me breathless, I miss a different set of iron hands on me. But even though the horde is swarming the street like Aiden’s worst nightmare, my phone doesn’t buzz in my dress pocket. I cannot imagine the sheer life it’s costing him to give me the space I need. Except I don’t want space from him—I only want space from the effects of the reel. The idea of him in terror sends my hands flying for my phone despite my anger and our fight. I have to lean against Max to be able to thumb a text with the juddering horde around us:

“I’m perfectly safe. Max is right next to me.”

The clock’s bell reverberates in the stones under my sandals at the same time the phone vibrates in my cyclamen palms. “Don’t worry about me. Try to enjoy this.”

When the clock tolls again, it throbs through my chest, pulsing inside my ribcage like the wound.

“Roses and friends!” Mr. Plemmons shouts into the microphone from the stage when the pealing stops. I look up, startled that I missed the last minutes of his parade. I force myself to focus only on him and Josephine now, and their bushels of white hair above the podium covered with rose garlands. Mr. Plemmons sets the Rose Cup on it with a firm thud. It gleams exactly as it used to on our console where mum would tap it on her way out. My hand claws around my locket. Let mum win, please, bring the Cup back to the cottage for her.

“Can yeh hear me?” Mr. Plemmons wheezes and the crowd sings back, “Yes, we can.”

“Jolly good, because I can’t.” He waves at the throng that titters. “Another festival—gone! ‘Twas our biggest ‘un yet, and very special ‘t was too. ‘Un hundred and twenty more votes, we had. Five more competin’ roses. And two thousand tickets sold fer our school. Well done, Burford, well done!” The crowd whoops while my throat roils with emotion. “And now, before we’re sloshed an’ knackered at the pubs . . .” Mr. Plemmons splays his hands in the air with significance. “As me wooly ‘ead remembers it, the Rose Cup needs rewardin’. Like all me years of doin’ this, our rosebuds counted the votes thrice. But this year wasn’ close like other times. And yeh voted with yer hearts and yer eyes and yer noses, as yeh should. Makes me heart happy to say tha’ this year, the Rose Cup—” Mr. Plemmons pauses, his whiskery voice catching and starting again while I stop breathing. “The Rose Cup goes back home tonigh’ with Elisa Snow fer her mother’s rose, our kind and beautiful Clare.”

The crowd explodes in cheers, while I stare open-mouthed at Mr. Plemmons stomping his cane in applause and Josephine clapping and searching the crowd. I heard it right, I know I have, because Max taps my shoulder with a whoop, the horde starts chanting, “Clare, Clare, Clare,” and Stella and Robert pull me into a double hug. “You did it, dear. You brought the cup back to your mom.” Stella cries, kissing my cheek.

“She did it herself,” I whisper, eyes on the silver rose. Am I imagining the sunbeam shining directly on it? Abruptly the scene transforms for me. I see mum climbing the stage, beaming, a tear like a diamond in her eye, hugging Mr. Plemmons, waving the Cup, looking straight at dad and me and blowing us a kiss. This is for Elisa and Peter, she used to say. Behind the curtain of my tears, she dances off the stage and disappears with a faint pop in my heart.

“Rosebud?” Mr. Plemmons calls into the microphone. “Where are yeh? I can’ see yeh. Open up fer her, yeh lot.”

Stella gives me another peck, fixing up the roses in my braid. “You look beautiful. Go, get your Cup, darling.” She places her warm hand on my shoulder, nudging me gently as the crowd parts grinning at me, clapping like castanets, singing Clare, Clare, Clare. But suddenly the lane empties in my vision despite the hordes of bodies flooding it. And the hollow tunnel of homesickness blows through me like cold wind through a vacant crypt. Not homesickness for mum—she feels closer than any other time since she’s been gone. Homesickness for Aiden, to have him next to me even if angry and worried and terrified.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!”

Fragments of hundreds of voices rejoice, yet I don’t feel their cheers. And I know why. Because Aiden was right. Cheer is not cheer if I don’t celebrate with him. Nothing fills the void the way he does. I swallow all kinds of tears now—happy, sad, in the middle and adjacent to everything—and shuffle toward the stage, feeling more ghost than human. Max and Ferrars walk parallel on each side of me, Hendrix appears ahead. But at least there are no nerves. I know everyone, and country festivals don’t require speeches.

“There she is!” Mr. Plemmons claps as I climb the stage stairs to the chorus of Clare, Clare, Clare. They both teeter to me, glowing and sparkling with tears, carrying the Rose Cup. “Finally,” Josephine lullabies as she pulls me into her canape-and-roses hug. “The Cup goes home after such a long time.”

“Keep it there, Rose, keep it righ’.” Mr. Plemmons rasps gruffly. “Don’ go leavin’ the roses again.”

What can I say? That I love this little village so much I would bleed for it if it meant my blood could grow the roses forever? Or that I love a man so much my heart couldn’t even pump blood without him? “Thank you.” I hug them both—they’re so tiny, it only takes one arm. “I know she is giving you all her love.”

Their white heads turn up to the sky in unison, grinning at it. I turn to the crowd as mum would, waving the silver rose as she did, skimming over the faces because the three dearest ones are not here. And that’s when I see him.

He would be hard to miss even in the shade of the elm tree behind the crowd, flanked by Benson and James. Leaning against the trunk like a sculptural Adonis carved in golden marble. Every angle of him is hard with tension as he thrashes with his most violent demon to be here, but his eyes beam on me as if we are utterly alone. Even from this distance, his gaze heats my skin. I’ve never seen anything more life-affirming. And right now I don’t care that I am supposed to be angry with him. I don’t care that I’m terrified. Because I can feel the cheer now, I can feel the joy for mum, and every part of me is brimming with life, not pain. He’s here, he’s here.

The corner of his lip lifts in a knowing smile as my cheeks flush. He mouths something I can’t decipher from this far, but then he tilts his head at the crowd as if to remind me I’m gawking at him on a stage. But I still can’t blink away from him—here, despite his deepest fear, to share this moment with me, knowing exactly how much it means. He winks now, pointing at the crowd with urgency.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!” They are apparently still singing, breaching just enough through the spell to release my voice.

“Hello!” I speak in the microphone, startled by my magnified voice. Is that me? It sounds like mum. They all fall quiet, perhaps hearing the same note. “Thank you for remembering my mother and choosing her roses after such a long time.” I smile at the sea of faces, spotting Stella and Robert filming with their phones and Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix rippling around the stage. Nerves start to prickle but I know my only line—I heard it for eighteen years. “This is for Mum who loved this day so much.” I clutch the Rose Cup to my chest that feels full but well. “And for Aiden who made it possible for me to enjoy it again.”

A low ahh flitters over the crowd and they burst in applause as if I just gave the most riveting of TED talks, not utter exactly four sentences. Under the elm tree, Aiden shakes his head with a private smile and claps in a this-is-Churchill-the-orator way. And for the first time today, I feel like we got this right, like mum would have liked this festival as much as all the eighteen others before.

I almost run across the stage, trying to get to him as fast as possible but the moment I hop back on the street, a deluge of clasps and pats rains on me. The faces are a haze of grins as I sweep through, Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix storming around on all sides. Yet nothing happens to me, as I knew it wouldn’t—just a chorus of Clare, Clare, Clareblaring in my ears along with the festival’s closing jingle. I shake Mr. Flaubert’s hand last and clear the crowd, heading straight for Aiden under the elm tree. But as I pass our rose stand, a gusty hug from behind almost knocks me off my feet.

“Rosebud!” a familiar voice shouts, and that’s all I grasp. Because as I blink back at Felix—the Plemmonses’ grandson who went to high school with me—a massive shape whooshes past the corner of my eye, rams into him, and his arms tear away from my shoulders with a loud grunt. I whirl around, watching in horror as Felix plunges onto the stones under Ferrars’s body weight, and they skate together in an unstoppable collision course with the rose stand.

“Felix!” I shriek, launching myself into their path as Aiden’s voice reverberates under the clamor, “Elisa, don’t!” and Max yanks me out of the way. And I can’t stop it. Felix and Ferrars crash into the vase of Clares, shattering it into a million pieces and slamming against the rose stand with such force that the wooden slats shake to their bolts and the rose baskets and wreaths plummet to the ground in a mulch of petals, bark, moss, and leaves.

It’s utterly silent for one blink then a throng snaps around us with panicked cries. In the chaos, I’m vividly aware of Aiden’s terror for me as he must be trying frantically to break through the horde to get to me without triggering the startle. But of more immediate urgency are Felix and Ferrars still on the ground.

“Aiden, I’m fine,” I scream even though he can’t hear me in the bedlam, and rip out of Max’s hands, kneeling on the stones next to Felix as Ferrars jolts away from him with frenzied apologies. “Felix, Felix! Are you okay?” I splutter, checking to see if he hit his head. But he didn’t. He fell on his side, there is a gash by his elbow, but the rest of him seems all right. He blinks around, shocked and startled, and scrambles to his feet while I almost collapse on the ground sobbing in relief.

“What the bloody hell was that?” Felix blurts out, clearly not connecting Ferrars to me. Despite my remorse, I let him believe it because underneath my terror, something clicks with a silent roar. This was no accident, was it? It was intentional. Ferrars must have thought Felix—my sweet old classmate, born the same week as me—was about to hurt me.

“I’m so sorry, mate!” Ferrars blusters. “I tripped and crashed into you. Are you hurt? I can drive you to the surgery if you need.” He is checking Felix all over for injuries, proving my hypothesis. And dread turns instantly to anger, pulsing hot and livid, scorching all the joy until I taste iron on my tongue.

“No, I’m fine.” Felix swings his arm around as if to check its radius and turns to me with a smile. “Sorry about the stand, Rosebud. But it looks absolutely bangers still, only the roses fell.”

At his needless apology, the blistering rage blurs my vision with a reddish haze, making me dizzy with it. “It wasn’t your fault at all, Felix. Please, don’t even think it.” I manage to form words, wiping his cut with mum’s handkerchief. His blood stains the lacework, and I fight against my gnashing teeth so they don’t break through my tongue. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” And I am. How much worse could it have been? What if he had cracked his skull? And my frail Plemmonses, what would have happened to them then? I shudder. “Let me get you some bandages, Felix, come sit down. Want some water or iced tea?”

“No worries, it’s just a scrape. I’ll pop up at Gramps and change my shirt anyway. Congrats, Rose.” He gives me the hug he started so innocently, and the reddish blaze flares in my vision. “Chips and ale next week? We’re coming back at the weekend.”

“Absolutely, bring Lily, too. And be careful. Are you sure about the bandage?”

“Positive.” He chuckles, still breathless, and traipses through the lasso of people that loosens for him with angry glares and exclamations at Ferrars who turns to apologize to me. Has anyone connected him with me? And why should he apologize? Can I blame him when he’s only following strict orders to protect me from dangers no one else can see? No, there is only one man to blame for this, and he must be straining desperately to get to me. Was it only minutes ago that he righted my world back on its axis? Now it feels as though he’s razing it to the ground, turning each person into an insurgent and each place into a dessert of terror.

“I know you didn’t mean to, Ferrars,” I answer a little late. “I’m glad you’re not hurt either.”

He starts to mumble something, but his voice fades as does everything else when I finally dare to turn my eyes to the rose stand. The Elisas, Cecilias, Reagans, and future Marias have spilled everywhere like floral arteries on the cobblestoned hearts. The wreaths have survived, but some of Mum’s photos have cracked across her beloved smile. The shards of her vase glimmer on the ground like tears. And all the forty-four stems of her life are smeared on the stones, their blush petals like droplets of some magical blood.

Hot tears spring in my eyes. I start gathering the bruised blooms one by one, some thorns pricking my still-pink hands, some glass slivers nipping my skin. I wish they could lance my neurons instead so I couldn’t feel any of this. Nor the p-a-i-n, or the f-u-r-y, or the f-e-a-r—maybe not even the l-o-v-e.  None of the four-letter words that are wrecking our l-i-f-e. Tears splash like rain drops on the crushed petals as the sun starts to dive behind the hilltop, lighting it on fire, turning the street scarlet behind the reddish glare of my vision.

I sense him before I see him. I don’t know how he managed to cut through the crowd so fast, but the hum behind me falls quiet with the astonished silence that only he inspires. His scent blows in the breeze more beautiful than the dying gasps of my roses. And his tall, tense body crouches next to me on the stones. I don’t look at him.

“Elisa, love?” His murmur is breaking as he tries to take my hands away from the broken glass. “Let me do this, you’ll cut your hands.”

The reference to my hands—the trigger that started all this again—slices through whatever thread is keeping me together, and I start shaking with anger. A smashed Clare slips through my trembling fingers as if its first injury wasn’t bad enough. He sees it. He knows it, because his hand swoops down and catches it before it hits the stone. Then it wraps around both of mine. I wrench them back, blisteringly aware of all the eyes and ears around us. His parents squatting to save the blooms too, the Marines and Benson towering to guard Aiden’s back, and even worse, mum’s friends, admirers, and well-wishers muttering, “ah, that’s too bad,” “that bloke was bang out of order,” “poor Felix,” “poor Elisa,” “she’ll be all right, it’s just the roses,” “it’s lovely she has the Rose Cup again.”

I can’t look at any of them. I clench my teeth against the words I want to hurl at him and pluck all wisps of strength from all crevices of my mind so I don’t cause an even bigger scene.

“I’m fine,” I hear myself speak, but my voice doesn’t sound like mine. It’s just a sing-songy mask my mind must need right now. He hears it. He knows it, because he pulls back his hands that are reaching for mine again and his fingers reappear with a folded map as he starts sweeping the broken shards away from me.

“Sir, I’m very sorry,” Ferrars starts on Aiden too, sounding absolutely wretched, but I see peripherally Aiden’s hand fly up. I tense, expecting him to torch Ferrars alive right here, right now, but he surprises me even in my state.

“No need.” His voice is clipped and hard now that he’s speaking at normal volume. “This is on me.”

At least he knows it. Of course he does. Even without his brain, he could have decoded this one. I told him. I tried reason, logic, science, allies, heart, but he wouldn’t listen. He did this with his security and paranoia, not Ferrars. I move away from him, picking up mum’s broken photos, feeling his eyes on me constantly.

“It’ll be all right, sweetheart.” Stella is there, helping me tuck the frames in my basket. “I know your mom still would have loved this. I think she’s very proud of you up there.”

I nod because she is probably right. Mum found goodness in everything. She might have even laughed, but I can’t. The pressure inside my skull is becoming a cleaving headache. I am utterly unable to calm the gale of fury inside. All strength is going to keeping my face together for every set of eyes that are looking on with sorrow, pity, confusion, or any other expression I didn’t want for today.

The vendors start packing up their stalls now, and the crowd is waning toward the pubs. “Well done, Elisa!” “Stop by The Lambs Inn, Elisa-pea, we can toast your win.” “Ah, look at the Cup by Clare’s stand again, how brill.” I wave at them, a smile plastered on my lips, even for Willoughby who is watching me with a curious smirk that lifts his upper lip into a sneer. He seems even colder than this morning with the Rose Cup snatched away from him. I tuck it in my basket too in case he nicks it back.

As the horde thins, our guard all start helping pack up the stand. I see their hulking silhouettes from the corners of my eyes as I stack the wreaths. The broken glass is all gone.

“Where is the stand going tonight?” James asks as Aiden starts dismantling it himself.

“Elisa?” His body turns toward me, but I can’t look up. If I see his face or his tormented eyes, I will cry or scream or implode in some other way.

“Behind the garden shed at the cottage, please,” I answer, one brain cell wondering whether my voice will ever return back to normal. The rest of my mind is powering frantically to get me through the next few moments. But through to where? There isn’t a single place left in my world where I can just be. Every wedge of my life is under surveillance. The cottage, the garden, the garage, Elysium, Bia, Oxford, the open fields, the very people I respect and love, my very skin. Every single part of me. I grind my teeth against the sudden claustrophobia and start sweeping away the debris, trying to breathe petal to petal, trying to think.

But everywhere the broom turns, there is a muscular frame or a set of eyes or a question waiting. “Same for the table and the chairs?” “What about the sign?” “The coolers?” Aiden takes over, knowing everything, but abruptly, I can’t even breathe. Just one more smile, just one more nod, please. And then what? The stony lane tilts a fraction. Of course he doesn’t miss it. He is in front of me in a blink.

“Elisa?” His finger flies under my chin to tip up my face, but I step back automatically. I can’t handle his touch right now—the touch that makes me do anything. “Look at me please.”

It takes every last fiber of strength to resist his voice. I manage only by looking at the trashed Clares in the bin. “I’m fine,” I repeat, but even the strange voice is fading into a whisper. “I have to finish this.”

“I can do that. Why don’t you go sit?” He takes the broom from me. “Or do you want to go back to the cottage? I can finish up here—we’ll be very careful.”

The cottage? Our happy bubble that has been invaded by security more than any intruder? I start to shake my head, but a bubble of space opens up in my hermetic world as I try to look anywhere but at him so I don’t explode in the middle of mum’s favorite street.

“Actually . . . ” I grasp the bubble with all my mind, the contours of a plan forming. Because I need this, I need it for air. “I’ll go back to the Inn for a bit if you don’t mind.”

His answer is immediate. “I’ll walk you.”

“No,” I say quickly, knowing I don’t stand a chance if he comes with me. “I need you here.”

He doesn’t speak. His body is so close, his Timberlands are nudging my sandals. I try not to think of the way his bare toes look when they dance next to mine on the bedroom rug. Those moments no longer feel like our life. “Look at me,” he whispers at last, so quietly I’m not sure I really heard the words. I know he wants to say more. I know from the way his hand is closing in a fist that he wants to touch me. And for once I’m glad we’re not alone.

“Not now, Aiden,” I mouth back and turn away from him before he sees everything in my eyes.

I know he will never let me walk alone, especially now that it’s getting dark. I skim past all the faces around me—Stella tearful, Robert and Benson concerned, the Marines tense, Ferrars remorseful—for the only person I want to find. My choice surprises me as much as him. “Max, can you walk me to the Inn, please?”

“Of course!” He comes to my side immediately. “Do you need me to carry anything?”

“Just the Cup, mum’s photos, and dad’s plant, please.” I hand him the basket carrying it all.

“I’ll get the rest,” Aiden says behind me, and a look passes between Max and him. Max nods once, probably obeying whatever new order he just received.

“The hospital trolly will come for the wreaths and what is left of the roses,” I remind him needlessly and turn to thank the rest of them, even Ferrars, for helping today. Despite the way it ended, none of it is their fault. In a different universe, we could have gone to celebrate, I’d have given them my thank-you gifts that I prepared, but that’s simply beyond anything I have left.

“I’ll see you in a bit.” I wave at them, feeling guilty for the lie.

They all smile back in their own way—“Congrats, Pest, you kicked Willoughby’s shriveling ass.” “Don’t worry, Trouble, we got this.” “I’m sorry again, Elisa.” “Well done, kid.”—but Robert and Stella decide to return to the Inn with Max and me. Whether they’re tired themselves or worried or both, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter, they have their own room.

The Inn is empty and silent when we arrive, as I knew it would be. Stella gives me a silky hug in the lobby. “It was a beautiful day, sweetheart, even with this little fiasco in the end. Try to remember only the best parts because you can.”

“And the hard parts will pass, too,” adds Robert, patting my shoulder.

I think about that as the lift doors close behind them. I know they will pass—they always do—but what will survive? My parents’ favorite memories? Aiden and me? Our life? Or just the reel, not even stardust this time?

“Up to Mr. Hale’s room, Elisa?” Max prompts.

“No, Max. I’m staying in Javier’s old room tonight. I can take it from here.” His eyebrows arch in surprise, but it’s the only habitable place that holds a dear part of me and hasn’t been invaded. And the only room I know here that can give me what I need. Max still insists on walking me up, whether on Aiden’s orders or his own worry, I don’t know. As soon as we open the door to the familiar room, he sweeps it corner to corner, even the balcony despite the fact that we’re on the third floor. The room has been cleaned since Javier left. I manage the first deep breath, sniffing futilely for his homey peppermint and paint smell, but it’s long gone, like him.

“It all seems in order,” Max assures me, not knowing how wrong he is. Nothing is in order anymore, but for purposes of my physical safety, it’s true enough. He sets my basket on Javier’s dresser and leaves, asking me to lock my door even though he’ll be just down in the lobby and Ferrars with him. But I don’t argue. I thud the bolt home with a loud ding, listening to Max’s footsteps fade down the hall.

Finally alone now, I could cry or scream or curl on Javier’s pillow or call him and Reagan or work on the protein or just stare at the spot on the rug where Aiden held me a week ago as I was sobbing, telling me he would stay in England with me. But those are not the only reasons I came here, because this isn’t where I want to be. I grab the Rose Cup, and slide back the bolt quietly, millimeter by millimeter. When I crack open the door, the hallway is empty. I can hear Ferrars and Max’s indistinct voices from the lobby. I tiptoe down the corridor to the door behind the velvet curtains that leads down the old turret stairs where Felix, Lily, and I used to play hide-and-seek when mum and the Plemmonses would deliver roses to the Inn. As soon as I reach them, I leg it. Scurrying down the limestone steps, bursting through the back-alley door, leaping over the low hedge of briar roses, and darting around the corner to Swan Lane. Everything is quiet and empty—the whole town is in the pubs or lingering on Priory Street—but I still can’t help looking over my shoulder as I creep on the mossy cobblestones until I reach the riverbank and the protective canopy of oaks and willows. And then I break into a sprint. My heart is galloping at the same speed, but my lungs are pumping fresh air without effort. I glance back a few times, but there is no one behind me. I’m utterly alone. Bounding across the open fields that are turning inky with the early night, finally free.

Above the hilltop, the moon is glowing.   ©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 23 – BREAK

Hey gang, how is everyone? I hope your weekend is off to a good start and you all have some R&R planned. Here is a new chapter for you, a day early since I’m technically a couple of days late. Hope you enjoy. Things are changing…  lots of love and thanks for reading and writing to me. On a personal note, this blog is giving me a much needed respite from life, and for that, I’m grateful to all of you. xo, Ani

 

23

Break

“Goodnight, dear.” Stella kisses my cheeks as we leave their luxury suite at the Inn after dinner on their balcony. “Make sure you get some sleep. We’ve kept you late.”

“This is what happens when you get my mother started on baby stories, Elisa. I sincerely hope you’ve learned your lesson if you want any of us to sleep for the next two weeks.” Aiden’s voice is exasperated, but there is tenderness underneath. Something flows quickly between him and Stella, and he nods. Carefully, she steps into his arms on her tiptoes and kisses his cheek. He embraces her gently as though she is a soap bubble, but his shoulders turn to granite with memories. In that feather-rock hug, I see the difference between me and everyone else for Aiden: he softens under my touch and tenses with all others, even his mum. Yet he holds her for a while longer, despite the tension straining him, before releasing her with a chuckle. “All right, save some for tomorrow.”

She sparkles at him. “Sweet dreams, Aiden-bear.” That same swift exchange happens between them, and he smiles.

“Like cookies, Mom.”

Some private joke, no doubt, but one I have to know with a similar urgency as the oxytocin. Despite the deluge of details about his childhood, from his first word (“oh, dear, it wasn’t a word, it was a sentence: Mama, where is Daddy?”) to his favorite bedtime story (“he didn’t like baby stories, we had to read him poetry—he loved Byron and Keats”) to his favorite toy (“his chess set!”), I feel parched for more.

“Night, Dad,” Aiden nods at Robert who only hugs Aiden with his eyes.

“Night, son. Goodnight, Elisa.” He clasps my shoulder. “Be careful driving back to the cottage. It’s dark out.”

“We’ll be fine, Dad. Go to sleep.”

They wave together, their soft eyes following us down the hall.

“What does the cookies thing mean?” I ask as soon as I hear their door close, and Aiden presses the button for the lift.

He laughs. “All night you’ve heard all manner of trivia about me, and you still want more?”

“Of course.”

“Fine, that’s how I answered her the day I discovered cookies when I turned three, and it became our standard goodnight for a while. But I suspect it had nothing to do with that tonight, rather than the fact that she finally can wish me sweet dreams again now that I can finally have them. Because of you.”

The lift doors open, but I can’t move my feet—how can I when he says things like this? He pulls me into the tiny box, overwhelming the space, and presses me against the velvet-lined wall with his hips. There is nothing granite about his body now. It’s all steel, forged to every line of mine. The air becomes rare—I lose it and find it as he brings his heated lips to my ear. “At last,” he murmurs, his breath strumming against my skin. “Just you and me.” His nose skims the Aeternum spot. “We met the parents . . .” He kisses the corner of my jaw. “And there were no accidents or heart attacks . . .” His lips brush along my jawline. “Everyone adores everyone . . .” He presses his lips to the corner of my mouth. “Elisa?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you know what time it is?” His dark voice ignites my blood, my memories.

“It’s now!” I gasp as his mouth melds with mine. Every angle of us fuses together. One of his hands gathers in my hair, his other arm lifts me off the floor. I wrap my legs around him, tangling my fingers in his soft waves. He doesn’t tense—the shiver running through him is desire. His hips start grinding and rolling against me.

“This is where we left it, I believe,” he says against my lips. “When I so rudely said no.”

“Mmm . . . very rude.”

“Let me be rude some more.” His erection presses into me over the linen of my dress. Once, twice, and the point of contact becomes a rapid pulse. Then abruptly he swoops me in his arms.  He’s so quick, I gasp and blink around startled, registering that the lift was moving, and it has now stopped. The doors open on the top floor to his suite. “You said something about a Chatsworth bed?” His eyes blaze as he carries me out. “And maybe fainting?”

I bring him back to my mouth. “Hmm . . . I’ll need a reminder.”

“I might have a few.”

He kisses me down the empty hall, lips fluid, tongue alive. I taste him back as deeply as I can. How many times can you kiss a man before he becomes your taste? By the time he breaks the kiss and sets me down at the door to his suite, my head is whirling. He lowers his face to my height, blowing a gentle breeze over my lips. “Reminded?”

“Uh huh . . . fainting . . . you.”

“You take my breath away, too,” he translates. Then his beauty intensifies in that surreal way, as though lit from within. It does nothing to help my balance. “Ready for more reminders?” he dazzles and unlocks the door with the old brass key. “After you,” he whispers in my ear as he opens it, tickling an old memory.

I step inside . . . and gasp to a stop.

It’s the same suite where we had our big bang—the same four poster bed, the same ivory silk linens—but how different it looks. How new, yet how ours. A gentle fire is dancing in the fireplace to the low sultry melody of Amado Mio—the song we first danced together. A garland of the Plemmons’ apricot roses—similar to Aeternum in color—adorn the mantle. On the wall across the bed, taped over the Inn’s painting of roses is a photo of Javier’s first painting of me as it hangs in front of Aiden’s bed at his home. And on the nightstand is the first gift I gave him: the double-frame with my ticket to America and a photo of his home he bought that same day.

“Oh!” I breathe, gazing at the bedroom in a trance. No, not a bedroom anymore—a mosaic of some of our most beautiful moments. The firm thud of the door closing breaks through my spell. I turn to look at Aiden. He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. I take the one step between us, feeling unsteady on my heels. His hands curve around my waist.

“Enough reminders for you?”

“Explain it to me,” I say, knowing by now he never creates a memory without a purpose, a purpose worth remembering for life.

“I’m sure you can unravel this one.” He bends his face to mine as though to kiss me but stops an inch from my lips. “Try.”

And I do, I really do, but it’s almost impossible with a scent like this and eyes like that and beauty like nothing else. “Well, there’s our first night with the painting?”

“Yes, that’s there.” His lips hover so very close to mine. I try to reach on my tip toes, but his iron hands don’t let me. “Solve the next clue, and you get a kiss.”

“Ah, our first date at your Alone Place, with Amado Mio, the roses, and the silk pillows like the bed?”

“Beautiful,” he murmurs, his mouth touching mine. The warm tip of his tongue traces my lips, and tingles spread over my skin. He pulls away at my sigh. “Next?”

It takes me a moment with his lingering aftertaste. Amado Mio ends and starts again. “Something about the fire? Because it wasn’t on last time.”

“Very good. Now what do you think it means?” He inches his lips closer, his hold on my waist correspondingly tighter. His breath enflames my skin like the fire clue, scattering my thoughts.

“Umm, a little hint?”

“What could you burn in a fire, but you would never want to?” he helps me, and instantly I know.

“Your letters! In your homecoming letter, you wrote you would have no words for my face, for my smell, for the crackling fire in the fireplace.”

“And I still don’t.” He gives me his mouth for a while this time, his tongue like a flame crackling with mine. But he stops again when my legs start to shake. “Next?”

“How many clues are left?” I barely hear my voice from the drumbeat of my pulse. “I’m already close to fainting.”

He grins. “Don’t do that. I need you coherent for this last one.”

“Oh, good!” I shake my head to rattle some brain cells awake. “Something about my first gift to you, with the double-frame?”

“I have debated with myself what your first gift to me is but for purposes of tonight it’s true enough.” And then his mouth is on mine in a slow, potent kiss until I drape in his arms. He has to lift me off the floor to take me to the nightstand. “Now find your prize.”

“I thought you without latex invaders was my prize.”

He chuckles. “Okay, I’ll give you that. Find your second prize.”

He doesn’t release my waist as I search through the nightstand, opening the first drawer. Resting right under the double-frame is a rectangle package the same size, wrapped in parchment. I tear it carefully and lose whatever breath I was managing to draw. It’s another double-frame exactly like my gift, but even more precious. On one side is a photo of the cottage as it is blooming now and on the other a yellowed, old ticket bearing the name Aiden Hale and the date April 11, 1987.

“Oh my God, Aiden! Is this your ticket when you first flew to England for your meeting at Oxford?”

“The very same. I had my mother dig for it after we visited Chatsworth. Of course she had saved it. They brought it and your frame this morning.”

I caress the glass over his name, the date, the PDX and LHR airport initials, swallowing back tears before they drop on my prize. “I love it. It’s a real-life treasure.”

He takes the frame from my shaky hands and places it next to the one I gave him. “It’s our first ‘first’” he explains. “Our first connection. My first dream of you in Iraq. First sight of you in the gallery. First date. First dance. And first night.” He brushes my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Tonight is a first, too. Just you and me and nothing in between. It seemed like the right time to remember how far we’ve come.”

His voice turns our history into music, more harmonious than the song that is replaying. I crush myself against his steely lines, half-climbing his legs, throwing my arms around his neck, and pulling him to my lips. “I want my first prize now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he chuckles, and everything else disappears. I hear, see, and feel nothing but us. The riff of our first dance, the sound of our mouths, the pop of his shirt buttons, the tinkle of the locket as he takes it off, the unzipping of my dress. As soon as it pools into a linen cloud at my sandaled feet, he lifts me and wraps my legs around his waist. “Open Sesame,” he murmurs as though finding his own treasure.

I tighten my thighs around him, frantic for contact. His abs ripple in between as he strides to the bed, pulls back the duvet, and drops me on the silky sheets. And air becomes scarce again. I watch, teetering between shaky elbows and crumbling mind, as he peels off his clothes and his body materializes like a sentient sculpture under the muted glow of the chandelier. Then his snug briefs dash to the floor, and my elbows give out. I can’t blink away from the sight of him springing free. Carved steel wrapped in gold silk with a filigree of veins and bubbles like a diamond crown. C-o-c-k: how did I forget the good four-letter words? My skin bursts into flames, blazing hotter than the crackling fire next to the bed.

He grasps my ankle where it’s dangling off the bed and plants a soft kiss at the bridge of my foot as one might with a lady’s hand. “I like these.” he says, tracing the gold strap around my ankle with his fingers. “I think we’ll leave them on, like our first dance.” He climbs between my legs that are quivering like bowstrings to his arrow.  “As for these . . .” He trails his thumb along the wet lace of my knickers, making me moan. “I’m afraid they have to go.” And he grips the delicate fabric and tears it off. The brush of lace raises goosebumps on my feverish skin as he glides the shreds over my torso to my lips. They blow away from my gasp. “I think these are better than the Chatsworth veil, don’t you?” He flutters the cool lace over my mouth. It flurries with my breath.

“No,” I whimper as the lace floats back on my lips.

“No? Hmm, is something missing?”

“Your mouth,” I huff, and the lacy ribbons fly again.

“Ah, yes, how could I forget?” And his lips start racing the frilly scraps. They whirl over my throat, and his tongue chases them off. He sweeps them across my jawline, and his teeth graze my skin. The lace brushes over my mouth, and his tongue traces my lips. The lace flits back, and he sucks my lower lip until blood pools there, throbbing like the rest of me. From my moan, the ribbons fly off and disappear. Then Aiden’s lips and tongue seize mine, spilling kisses, strokes, words inside my mouth. I taste them all, feeling the tickle of my name when he sighs it, the way his I want yourolls off my tongue, until the world starts spinning behind my eyelids. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin.

“No fainting today,” he smiles against my throat as he snaps off my bra.

“Mmm,” is my answer, and the race begins again. He slides the straps off my shoulders, his tongue gliding down their path. His nose skims the lacy trim as he inches down the cups like a veil over my breasts. His mouth folds around me in a lacework of licks and nibbles. And frenzy strikes. My hips arch for contact, and my fingers sprint over every part of him I can reach. How many times can you touch a man before he becomes your fingerprint?

Finally the bra sweeps off and Aiden’s husky voice breaks through the pulse thundering in my ears. “There you are. Just as magnificent as that first time, and better still.” His eyes descend like fire over me, but unlike that first time, I don’t shy away from them. I tangle my fingers in his hair, writhing off the bed toward him.

“Aiden, please, I want to feel you,” I gasp, my voice breaking with need, not nerves.

He holds my eyes. “Then feel me.” And the length of him presses against the wettest part of me in nothing but flawless skin. Ah, the feel . . . My moan mingles with his deep, throaty sigh.

How many times have I longed for the faintest brush, and now his smooth, heavy weight rests on the blazing folds, sending shiver after shiver to my very bones. A sudden wave of emotion rises within me, and I tremble. But the delicious weight disappears. The sudden absence is excruciating.

“Aiden,” I whimper and raise my hips for more contact, but he pins them down on the silky sheets.

“Feel all of me.”

And hard—in this new first time—Aiden slides inside.  My cry drowns the music and the groaned oh-fuck that tears from his lips. Our bodies shudder in tandem, once, twice. A string of profanities in Russian hisses through Aiden’s teeth, but with a low snarl, he reins his body under control and becomes flexed steel above me, breathing hard. I don’t have such mastery. My body is flailing about at breaking point. I feel every ponderous spasm of him inside me as though magnified a thousand-fold, and I’m quivering inside out.

“Breathe, Elisa, breathe and flex,” he guides me urgently, remaining utterly still to help me. And I try. I grip his arms and lock my legs around his waist, but it’s impossible with him so real. I cannot slow a single tremble and he feels it.

“I got you, I got you,” he murmurs, and for a blinding second, his iron chest presses on mine, stunning my lungs.

“Oh!” I huff, and his weight lifts immediately.

“There. Now breathe with me.” He takes a deep breath and lets it wash over my lips. I match my lungs to his, inhaling his fragrant air, and the trembles recede. “Beautiful,” he praises me as if I did anything. “One more time.” And he restarts my mind again, easing me further away from the brink. “Perfect. Now feel with me.”

And I can now. I can feel him with perfect acuity—every angle of steel that manages to feel like velvet, his vibrant heat radiating through my core, the delicious bubbles now a liquid warmth lapping at my depths, and his weighty presence pulsing in sync with me. The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming that it surges all way to my eyes. I close them, drowning in the sensation of being with him like this. All those other times he felt divine pale in comparison, like my dreams paled to the real him.

“Ah you,” Aiden sighs. I fling my eyes open at the sound of his resonant voice rising over the music. He’s watching me with an aura of pure ecstasy. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful—even in my own euphoria I can appreciate that. The sight nearly restarts the tremors as I realize that, despite his masterful control, this is just as intense for him as it is for me. “You feel even better than I dreamed. And that’s saying something.”

“As do you.”

He brings his mouth to mine and for an immeasurable moment there is just this—his taste with my taste, his heat with my heat, most of him in every depth of me, exactly as we were made. Then he releases my lips.

“I have to move, love, or I will die. Please don’t faint on me.” His lopsided smile takes my breath away like his weight.

“No dying or fainting,” I promise. “But there will definitely be dancing.” I circle my hips in invitation. And Aiden starts to dance with me to our song, skin on skin—no veil between us. At first, a slow tango like our first dance. I wind my arms around his neck, undulating eagerly against his hips, following each bump-and-grind. Then his tempo grows, pounding a tribal beat at my core. I fall behind, and moans change to cries—a chorus of Aiden-Aiden silencing the music. And my body starts vibrating again in a pirouette of trembles and quivers. He feels them all. His rhythm becomes relentless, now punishing, now worshipful. I absorb his force, his possession, the feeling of our bodies fused together, flesh on flesh, liquid on liquid. How many times can a man be inside a woman like this before he becomes her heartbeat? A thousand? Once? Whatever the number, he feels like that to me.

And the finish starts. My vision sparkles, my ears ring, and convulsions start shimming inside me. An overpowering urgency builds at the bottom of my belly, and I spiral, palpitating around Aiden with violence, hauling him over the brink with me. A startling sensation surges in my depths in the final beats. Like two rivers breaching through their dams and flooding each other’s riverbeds to form a little ocean. We plummet in its depths and drown.

But eventually we float back to the surface again, gasping and shuddering, Aiden’s head rising and falling with my chest like waves. My senses lap at him like a shore—his warm weight on me, his messy hair brushing my cheek, his sharp breath on my neck.

“Elisa?” His low drawl thrums above my heart.

“Hmm.”

“Are you here?”

“Mmm.”

“Do you remember last night on the kitchen counter with the jam?”

“Mmm.”

“And all the other one hundred fourteen times before?”

“Mmm.”

“How convinced we were it couldn’t get better than that?”

“Mmm.”

“We might as well have been virgins compared to this.”

We laugh together, and he sways inside me with the motion of our laughter. So real and vibrant, exactly as if he’s new. My body, already shaped to his contours, grasps him with vivid detail—every flawless angle of him, the silkiness of his skin, the velvety texture of us together. And the more of him I feel, the more I want.

“So now that we know,” I muse in wonder. “How do we stop?”

He lifts his head to look at me, the panes of his face glowing. “We don’t.”

I’m about to tell him never, but my mouth is suddenly busy, as captive to him as the rest of me.

The next thing I notice outside of our bodies is the fading fire in the fireplace. The sky outside the window is the inky black before dawn. I’m sprawled on Aiden’s chest on the Chatsworth bed, a sash of the silky curtains still tangled around my wrist. It brings back a vision of my hands tied to the poster, and I flush—that was a first too, and what a first it was.

“You’re back.” Aiden’s chuckle rumbles under my cheek. “I worried you really fainted there for a moment.”

“Did I?”

“No, just your usual orgasm coma but deeper. You didn’t even snore this time. If it weren’t for the drooling, I’d have called the village paramedics, which would have been an awkward conversation.”

“Well, you only have yourself to blame and these new antics with the posters.” I press my lips on his chest, sniffing it surreptitiously. “What do you do when I’m oblivious, anyway?”

I feel him shrug. “Watch you. Some of my favorite memories are with you like that. One time you hummed the entire Für Elise. Just now you said, ‘orgasms are oxytocin, but taste better’ and smacked your lips.” He chuckles again, stroking my hair.

Heat burns my cheeks, half-embarrassed, half- irked at myself. “You’d think after one hundred eighteen times, my body would have learned some discipline. I wonder if I’ll ever stop reacting like this every time you make love to me.”

“I sincerely hope not,” he laughs, but brushes my flushed cheek. “And you have nothing to be embarrassed about. I have to talk to Rostov in Russian because of you. Objectively, we can agree that’s a lot more embarrassing than ‘orgasms are oxytocin.’”

“That’s true,” I giggle, something tugging at the edge of my mind like an unfinished thought. It vanishes the moment his fingers trail down my spine.

“Speaking of passing out, did you want to stay here tonight or go back to the cottage?”

“Hmm, what time is it?”

“Almost two.”

It takes me a while to subtract. Two and a half hours to the reel. His voice is quieter, and his fingers miss a step on their stroll over my skin. Is he thinking about it too? I wrap myself around him closer, covering as much of him with me as I can. “The cottage,” I decide. “The happiest place there is. Although this suite is now a very close second.”

His long fingers pick up their promenade on my back. “We’ll keep it like this for the summer—a gallery of our firsts. Maybe we’ll add more.”

The end of the summer. I swerve around the thought immediately, but even in that fleeting space, a shiver prickles my arms. “What other firsts should we add?” I ask to distract myself.

His voice is as soft as his caress when he answers, “A whole life of them, Elisa. If we’re lucky enough.”

 

Elysium is entirely silver when Aiden parks in the garage fifteen minutes later. Moonlight falls over the wildflowers like pollen and, if it weren’t for his arm around me supporting all my weight, I would curl up on the pearly daisies and say ‘like cookies’ here.

“Why don’t you sleep in today?” Aiden suggests, his voice already a lullaby. “You haven’t slept much in the last couple of nights.”

A huge yawn chooses this moment to overpower me. “Why don’t we both sleep in? Doctor Helen said a couple of hours off occasionally won’t make a difference.”

He looks toward the inkblot of the reel—visible to us even under starlight—and the bands of muscle at his waist petrify. For a breath, I think he’ll argue, but he answers quickly. “That sounds nice.”

And he sweeps me in his arms and picks up his pace as we pass by the spot. I watch his moonlit profile, resisting my drooping eyelids. Even two weeks later, there are moments like this—when he glides toward the cottage under starlight, dreamlike in his beauty—that I still test reality discreetly, nail into my thumb, retracing last steps. Not because I’m worried he is a dream. But because I’m terrified he will disappear—my entire being remembers the staggering agony of waking up without him. Reality hasn’t fixed that fear: it has only made it more intense, as it has done for the rest of him.

He is quiet too as we reach the willows. Wishes, somehow, he’s here. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, afraid he is already drifting into terrors.

“Just trying to stay in the present moment.”

“Are you feeling sad?”

He peers down at me, eyes puzzled. “Sad? I can’t recall a single day I’ve been less sad in my life.” His smile beams like the moonlight, lifting my own lips in automatic response. “Because there isn’t one. Today, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“Really?”

He nods, effervescent with bliss. “Elisa, the person I love most in the world just met my parents. I finally was able to give them a day of nothing but joy since I turned seven. And I’ve spent the last three hours inside a woman that seems to have been made exactly for me. I’ve never had more in my life than I do today.”

It is true for me too, in a sense. Despite the terror and unknowns ahead, in this one present moment—fighting together, with our families supporting us, and the cottage beaconing—my orbit is more complete than it’s been in a long time.

The cottage is amethyst with starlight when we cross the hedges, the roses lavender silver, filling the air with their little puffs of breath.

“Like cookies, roses,” I bid them goodnight as Aiden unlocks the front door and we step inside. But as soon as he turns on the foyer light, everything changes so fast, it strangles my cry.

Tension strikes through Aiden like a thunderbolt, and his arm whips around me, wedging me between his side and the corner behind the door as if he’s shielding me from something. A low growl rips through his teeth—nothing like his loving sounds this evening. It’s a terrifying snarl that wrenches me awake and has me cowering in my corner.

“Aiden, what—”

His finger flies to my lips as his eyes eviscerate the foyer with scalpel vigilance. I follow their beams wildly, but I can’t see anything that’s making him tense like a lion next to me. Then his hand curves around my face. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” His whisper is firm and urgent. I open my mouth to speak but he’s already gone. Streaking to the kitchen and living room then back in the foyer, checking on me frozen at the corner behind the door. “Stay,” he mouths and blows to the library, laundry closet, and up the stairs this time. Despite his speed, his footsteps are barely audible with practiced stealth. I crouch in my corner, wide awake, trying to periodic-table through the panic that’s closing my throat. I have barely managed a few gasps when Aiden is back, pulling me in his arms.

“Aiden, what is it? What’s wrong?” I choke.

“I think someone’s been here.” His volume is back to normal, but his voice is strained.

Blood drains from my face. The words are foreign, incomprehensible for Burford. “What? What do you mean?”

He’s impatient now, eyes darting everywhere. “I mean someone who isn’t us came here today or tonight when we were out. They’re not here now, and it doesn’t look like they took anything, but I want you to check to be sure.”

My knees almost give out. “Why do you think this?” I whisper in terror, but his phone flashes in his hand almost blurry with speed and he’s already pressing 2, tightening his hold around me.

“Sir?” I hear Benson’s gravelly voice on the other side after the second ring.

“Benson. Cottage. Thorn. Cold. Leave Max at my parents’ door,” Aiden reels off, his lips moving so fast I barely make out the nonsensical words, but Benson must understand them because he simply answers, “On my way,” and hangs up. Aiden is about to press another number, but I yank the phone from his hand.

“Bloody hell, Aiden! Tell me!”

He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, love. A couple of things have moved since I last saw them when we were leaving with my parents for dinner. That makes me think someone has been here.”

“What things? Where?”

“Here in the foyer, but I need you to check the safe first, then the library, your old bedroom, and the guestroom to see if anything looks different from when you last saw it. I hadn’t been there since you and Reagan cleaned so I can’t tell when the differences happened. Can you do that for me?”

I nod woodenly, and he tows me through the three rooms, his protective arms around me as though to break a fall. I check the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia first, but nothing is missing. Then I wobble through each room, staring at everything for signs of intrusion. Nausea wrings my stomach at the idea of a specter inside our bubble, touching our most precious memories, breaching mum’s magic shield that I thought impenetrable. But everything seems to be where it was—in its neat, orderly place from the deep-clean for Aiden’s parents—at least to my average eyes and memory.

“I wish I could remember like you,” I mutter, scanning every surface. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right, love. Maybe they didn’t come here.”

“What about our bedroom—did they move anything there?”

Fury jolts in his eyes at the idea. “Nothing. I was there last, changing for dinner. Even the door was still closed as I left it.”

“And the other rooms?”

“The only place things have moved is the foyer, as far as I can tell. Now I wish I had entered these other rooms before we headed out, but I never imagined I needed to for this.”

“What did they move in the foyer?”

“Come, I’ll show you.”

As we wade back down the stairs, I recall that fleeting sense of panic when I first entered the cottage a month ago, the guilty worry that someone had touched my parents’ things. How silly it feels now compared to this. Yet everything looks exactly the same to me, even in the foyer.

“Aiden, where—” I start to ask but he gestures to the foyer wall with his chin.

“Look at your picture with your parents in Italy.”

I squint at the photo of the three of us at the Trevi Fountain. “Umm, do you mean that it’s crooked?”

“Yes.”

Without conscious decision on my part, my lungs draw the first deep breath since we came in. “But Aiden, I could have done that when I was dust—”

“It wasn’t like that when we left with my parents,” he interrupts me, shaking his head. “That frame was straight.” There is no doubt in his voice, no room for argument. His memory is absolute, as I know it to be. Yet there is a lethal fervor about him. I watch his face carefully now: the panes are sharp with tension, eyes ferocious with intensity, fierceness emanating from him in destructive waves. Abruptly, a different fear starts spreading over me. Not just for the cottage now, but for him. Is there danger here? Or is this the effect of the reel—seeing danger everywhere, even in the most innocent things?

“But the frame could have moved when you closed the door or on its own,” I argue, trying to stick to logic for answers. “Why do you think someone did it?”

He is shaking his head again before I’m finished and strides to the front door. “Watch the frame,” he says, opening the door and then closing it. “Did it move?”

“No, but—”

“Watch again.” He opens and closes the door three more times, each time harder than the one before, and the frame dips on the third.

“There! There, it just moved!” I cry out, pointing at it. “See, it doesn’t mean anything, love. You’re just extra vigilant right now, that’s all.” I almost sink on the floor with relief, but something flashes in his eyes too quickly for me to understand it.

“I didn’t slam the door when we left, Elisa. I had to slam it now to get the same effect.”

“I know, but frames move all the time. These are just hanging on old nails. Is this the only thing you noticed?”

His jaw flexes once, and that same nameless emotion strikes his face once more. “No, it’s not. Look at your father’s scarf.” He tilts his head toward the coat rack that only has the scarf and parka in it.

A frisson of panic courses through me. “What about it?” I scan the scarf urgently, heart crashing against my ribs, but again I notice nothing.

“It’s slipped on the peg. When we left, both sides were hanging down almost equally. Now the left is a couple inches longer than the right.”

It would have been impossible for me to notice without him pointing it out. “Okay, yes, I see it. But why do you think someone moved it? It’s a piece of tweed on a peg. It can slip on its own. I have dresses that fall from hangers all the time.”

Something gives out at my words, and his eyes start to harden. “Because—” he speaks through his teeth now, but then pinches the bridge of his nose in what I assume is an effort to moderate his voice. “Because—” he tries again. “It’s too many coincidences all in the same six-square feet. That’s why.”

His eyes are boring into me, half-glaring half-imploring me to see things his way. But I no longer know what is worse: for him to be wrong or for him to right. And what is best: to support him or challenge him here? His acute tension decides it for me. “Aiden, love, there aren’t too many coincidences. There are exactly two.”

“You’re wrong!” His voice slips out of his control as it did in my dreams when I couldn’t see past the field of epiphanies.  “Look at your mother’s coat.” My eyes flit to it immediately. “The right sleeve is straight now; it was bent when we left.”

“But, Aiden, it probably relaxed on its own. It’s called gravity. Haven’t you ever heard of hanging up your clothes to release wrinkles?”

His jaw flexes. “I see. And the petals on the console?” I whirl to the console with split terror: dreading and wishing for him to be right. Two petals are under the vase of Clare roses I cut for his parents. “One wasn’t there when we left,” he explains. “The other fell when I slammed the door just now. From fresh roses, I might add.”

I stare at them, counting unnecessarily.

“Well?” he demands.

“I don’t know what answer you want me to give,” I admit, suddenly losing my patience. “If I argue, you’ll just get angrier. Do you want me to agree or disagree with you?”

“I want the truth,” he hisses.

I don’t know what does it—whether it’s that hiss, his refusal to consider a benign explanation, the last several minutes of apparently needless terror, or the emotions of the last forty-eight hours—but abruptly I feel exhausted and angry myself. “Fine, here’s the truth. Petals fall all the bloody time. That’s what they do. I see absolutely nothing about two petals from a bouquet of thirty roses to indicate someone was here, especially when there’s no sign of a break-in at all, in a town that hasn’t had a burglary in forty years, in a cottage that has zero riches of any kind except the roses which are all outside.”

His face becomes livid. “Zero riches?” he roars, hand in a fist around the doorknob still—the brass rose is shuddering from his strength. “It has you, Elisa! For the first time in four years. Maybe that’s why they didn’t steal anything—because who they really wanted wasn’t here tonight! And why would they need to break the door when all the windows stay open the whole fucking time?”

“Enough!” My voice fires off, too loud by my standards, too low by his, shocking us both. He’s breathing hard, watching me with that nameless emotion again. And everything becomes too much for me. I just want to go to bed with realities that, although excruciating, I can understand. Or at least trust. I take a deep breath, trying to lower my voice. “Aiden, it’s been a long day, we have to be up in a few hours for the reel. Let’s just go to sleep. We’re not solving anything tonight even if someone did come in and we can’t call PC Dockery with this kind of evidence.”

I turn for the stairs, but his voice stops my feet. It’s no longer loud or hard—it’s quiet, almost part of the night. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

I look back at him, still standing by door. “I believe you believe this.”

Fury strikes his face so staggering that it makes the livid look of a few moments ago seem like a smile. “Spare me the diplomacy bullshit, Elisa, and say it in plain English. Say, ‘Aiden, I don’t trust your judgment because you’re a madman who has to wear a fucking monitor over his eyes every morning and it’s making you see things.’ Say it!” He speaks in a guttural, arctic voice that rends the night more than his roar. But even worse is the nameless emotion now drowning him. It’s no longer nameless. It’s the purest compound of hurt and fear I’ve ever seen in my life. It knocks me breathless, and I have to grip the rail of the stairs for balance.

“Aiden, no,” I gasp. “I don’t think—” But the doorbell chimes with its Für Elise jingle followed by a battery of booming knocks. I jump up, but he doesn’t move. He is frozen at the door, watching me, anger and anguish in every pore.

Another volley of knocks shakes the door, and a panicked familiar voice shouts, “Aiden! Elisa!” It’s his father, not Benson.

“Fuck!” Aiden hisses, shutting his eyes and trying to rearrange his face, jaw clenching with the effort. But he’s still blanched and jagged when he yanks open the door. I watch, peripherally, as his parents storm in first both in their pajamas, Benson and his military mate, Max, towering behind them. I hear their frantic voices, muffled from my heart hammering in my ears, sputtering that they heard Benson and Max at their door talking about trouble at the cottage, and Benson apologizing for not being able to stop them. But my central focus is on Aiden—shocked, exhausted, worried, furious, surrounded with the people he loves most and vibrating with tension against the foyer wall in terror of hurting them, fuming for his parents to go back to bed right now. That unlocks me.

“Everyone!” I call from the staircase, not wanting to crowd Aiden more. “Let’s all go in the living room and give Aiden some space. We can talk there.”

They scramble and follow me immediately, Benson bending at the waist and Max, not as hulking but still broad, lumbering sideways. None of them even looks at the seats—they just scatter around in various poses of distress while Stella takes me in a hug where I’m hovering by the sofa, gesturing futilely at it. “Are you all right, darling? What’s happened? We were awake from jetlag and heard Benson tell Max something about a break-in.” Behind her, Benson looks almost as murderous as his boss.

“We’re both fine, Aiden’s just being careful,” I assure her but I’m really listening for any sign of him in the foyer. I hear nothing. “Why don’t I get us some tea?”

But before I can take a step, he strides in the room. His face is back under his control albeit ashen, his frame in its granite public setting. He scans the room, eyes landing on me first. They’re opaque under his tight leash, the hurt well-hidden in their depths.

“Everyone, have a seat.” His voice is back to its alpha timbre, too. They all thaw at his command and perch at the edge of everything—armchairs, floor, piano seat—leaving the sofa to us. I panic he won’t sit next to me, but he does. Not close enough for our arms to touch as usual, but I’ll take any closeness at this point. Then he steeples his fingers and starts with his parents. “I’d like for you to go back to bed. This is nothing Benson and I can’t handle—”

“Son, we’re staying.” Robert’s voice is calm but final. “Now tell us what happened.”

Aiden watches his father in exasperation for a moment, then summarizes the last fifteen minutes that feel like fifteen years in three sentences. “When we came in tonight, I noticed a few things had moved. Nothing seems to be missing, and there are no signs of a break-in. But I’m not convinced these changes are accidental, although Elisa has some rational reservations about my theory.”

My eyes fly to him, startled by his admission, but he’s looking at Benson sitting on the floor.

“What was out of place?” Benson asks in an efficient tone, taking notes as Aiden explains everything, including my objections. It’s impossible to miss how unquestionably Benson accepts Aiden’s theory. And how Max nods, clearly considering this possibility. Is that because Aiden is Benson’s employer? I watch Robert and Stella who know Aiden best. Their faces are folded in concern, but I can’t tell if they agree or disagree with him. And the earlier dread starts creeping over me again. Am I wrong? Was there someone really here? Did I hurt Aiden over nothing when he’s only trying to protect me?

“They must have had a key if they didn’t break the door,” Benson concludes. “Elisa, who has a key to the cottage?”

“Just Aiden and me. The Plemmonses had a copy when I lived in Portland, but they gave it back. That’s the copy Aiden has.”

“They don’t need a key,” Aiden disagrees. “They could have picked the lock or easily slip through any of the open windows. No one closes them around here, but that’s changing tonight.”

“Theories on who or why?” Benson prompts.

“Many, one as likely and unlikely as the next.”

“So, we can rule out burglary since nothing was taken,” Max interjects, drawing a line on a scratchpad he seems to have pulled from somewhere.

“I agree.” Aiden nods. “Which points to a more personal motive, but why?”

Benson turns to me. “Has anything like this happened here before?”

I shake my head. “Burford hasn’t had a break-in since 1976 and even then, it was Plemmons Blooms, not a home.”

“What did they steal?” Aiden looks at me again, and I meet his anxious eyes immediately.

“Roses.” A general gasp fills the room, and his eyebrows arch in disbelief. “But it never happened again,” I explain quickly. “It just became a local legend—the Rose Thief. The story goes that it was the ghost of Lady Tanfield who used to own Plemmons’s street hundreds of years ago or a desperately poor farmhand trying to impress his love.”

“So they never caught the Rose Thief?” Benson clarifies.

“No, but it was forty years ago. And they didn’t cause damage or hurt anyone.”

“They didn’t tonight either,” Max points out and ticks something on his notepad. “So maybe we have a motive. There are thousands of roses around here.”

“Yes, but they’re all outside,” I argue, feeling mental for considering legends as options instead of gravity. “Why would they need to come in if they were after roses? And just about every other cottage in town has them. Why this one?”

“Why indeed,” Robert muses, eyes on Aiden. Something quick passes between them, and Aiden’s jaw flinches in defiance.

“You have been working on that new rose hybrid you showed me,” Stella suggests. “Maybe something about it? And the Rose Festival is next weekend.”

I can see all their faces pondering her theory with seriousness, although Aiden shakes his head. “The timing with the festival is suspicious, I’ll grant you that. But the hybrid is out in the garden. As Elisa said, they wouldn’t need to come in. And whoever the intruder is wouldn’t know about it in the first place. But let’s keep it on the table for now. I’ll search the garden as soon as it’s light out.”

“What about a stalker?” Max throws out.

A muted snarl rumbles from Aiden and, for the first time since our argument, his arm flies around my shoulders. “It was my first thought,” he answers through his teeth. “Although Elisa’s things are untouched, which is inconsistent with their playbook.”

I should shudder at the idea as improbable as it sounds, but with his stony arm around me, I can’t feel that kind of fear. My only fear is for him.  I lean closer and he peers at me, eyes softer now. “Have you seen anyone follow you since you’ve been back or even before you moved to Portland?”

“No, never as far as I know,” I assure him. “I would tell you about something like that.”

He nods, but the phone screen flashes to his ear. Everyone is frozen as he waits for an answer from someone at two thirty in the morning. He doesn’t have to wait long. Whoever he’s calling picks up almost as quickly as Benson.

“Yeah, Cal, it’s me,” Aiden speaks into the receiver. I inhale every rapid-fire word he exchanges with James. “Sorry about the hour . . . when you were watching Elisa, did you ever see anyone around the cottage?” A quick answer. “What about anyone following her? Town, Oxford, anywhere?” Another quick answer. “I figured . . . Yes, she’s fine. I’ll fill you in later . . . Agreed . . . See you next weekend.”

“What did James say?” I ask as soon as he hangs up.

“He didn’t see anyone, and if there was someone to be seen, Cal wouldn’t have missed him. And I certainly haven’t seen anyone or they wouldn’t have come here tonight. Don’t worry about this. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” His voice is resolute, and his hand clutches my shoulder on the last words.

“I know you won’t—I’m not worried about that. I’m more worried about the stress this is causing you.”

He looks like he’s about to argue, but Robert jumps in with his idea. “What about anyone at work, Elisa, where Cal and Aiden couldn’t see?”

I shake my head, a smile pulling my lips without permission. “No, I’m working with one of my dad’s friends and his best former student who thinks my dad was a chemistry god and talks to him out loud. They quite literally are dedicating a bench to him like a shrine. I’d suspect Lady Tanfield over either of them.”

“Does anyone else know about the protein?” Aiden asks.

“Just the other Bia chemists, but they’re all screened and know everything already.”

“Not everything,” he reminds me.

“Yes, but no one alive knows about the code or the list except you and me. The code is in the you-know-what and the list is always you-know-where and we’ve left no evidence of our work here or there. Besides, if they had found out, why would they need to break in? They’d camp at Bia twenty-four seven, celebrating and testing.” I caress the locket for emphasis.

“I’m sorry, I’m not following,” Stella speaks for the first time in a while. All their eyes are on us, brows knitted in confusion.

“Elisa is working on a highly complex and confidential project,” Aiden explains and, even in his tension, a note of pride still enters his voice. “But we can’t discuss the details.”

“So what options are left? If this project, the roses, a stalker, or a burglar are out?” Robert looks straight at Aiden now and the room falls quiet. He gazes into the empty beehive fireplace, eyes squinting as they shift in analysis too quick for me to follow. Only in the end do I see a flicker of the hurt before he throttles it immediately.

“Well, first, I’m not ruling out any of those options until I have solid evidence to the contrary,” he answers in a tightly controlled tone, eyes still on the fireplace, but his hand on his knee has turned into a fist again. “But if it’s not any of them, the only other option left is that Elisa is right . . . that I’m seeing things.”

“Aiden, no!” I take his fist in both of mine, not caring of the four pairs of eyes on us. “I don’t think you’re seeing things, love. But I do think you might be seeing danger. I don’t question the frame has moved, or the scarf has slipped, or your judgment. I’m only worried you’re under incomprehensible stress and might be interpreting these things to mean something sinister in your heightened vigilance. Please believe me—there’s no one I trust more than you.”

I brush his white knuckles and let him see everything he can see in my eyes—the whole truth. A very, very small part of my brain registers how silent the room has remained around us. Eventually his fist opens, and he nods once. “Fair. We’ll keep that option on the table, too. But I can’t ignore the others. If you’re right, there’s nothing I can do about it. But if I’m right and someone was here, there’s a lot we need to do.” He pulls back his hand and his head snaps up at Benson. “We need to scout the area. It’s almost light out. Max, how long can you stay in England?”

“I have another week off work.”

“If I double your current salary, will you consider staying here as Elisa’s security until I find someone local?”

“My what?” I gasp, but he silences me with one look.

“I’m indulging your theory, now please indulge mine.” His eyes fly to Max again who jolts to his feet and almost salutes him while I watch my life transform in seconds.

“Absolutely, sir. I’ve been wanting to work for you since Benson first started. No one will get near her.”

“Agreed. And vet security for my parents while they’re here as well. Cal and the others will be here next weekend for the Rose Festival, so that’s three more hands. We’ll discuss surveillance and logistics when I get back.” His sniper gaze flashes to his parents who are still at the edge of their seats, faces in identical masks of stress. “Can you stay with Elisa until I get back?”

“Of course,” they answer in unison.

With a deep breath, Aiden turns to me and cups my cheek. “I know you think this is unnecessary and even insane, but I have to do this. I cannot take any risks—no matter how remote you believe them—with your safety, do you understand me?”

I manage a nod, too stunned to produce any words.

“Good. Now stay here and don’t worry—Max will guard the cottage. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

Translation: I’ll be up all night for you, then do the reel, then protect you from known and unknown dangers no matter what it costs me. That unlocks my tongue. “Why don’t you sleep first and go out later?” I plead with him. “Sleep is important for you right now.”

“I’ll sleep afterwards. It’ll be easier to notice any differences now before there’s more activity around or to check if anyone is still in the area. But the three of you should absolutely go to bed.”

“I will if you will,” I offer urgently. “Please?” But he presses his lips on mine quickly and bolts to his feet.

“Benson, let’s go.”

They’re out of the door before I can say or do anything else. I sprint to the window barely catching their shadows disappear over the rose hedges into the violet dawn.

The silence that follows their departure is deafening. I stand frozen, staring at the empty garden, the wound in my chest ripped wide open. What is happening to my love? How can he keep up with this stress? And what if he’s right against all reason, and someone is out there? What if Aiden gets hurt trying to protect me? I’ve been dreading losing him at the end of the summer if we don’t win. But what if we don’t have even that long? What if this experiment or something else claims Aiden before then? Abruptly a flashback of my Romeo nightmare blasts in my vision for the first time in over a week, blinding me with its force. I shudder at its clarity, seeing nothing but Aiden’s parted lips, feeling his cold skin on my fingertips, so much like Mum’s hand in the morgue or dad’s forehead in the casket. A gasping sound patters close by—my own. Distantly I feel a warm arm around my shoulders and Stella’s faraway voice snaps me out of my own terrifying reel.

“Elisa? Darling? Come sit, sweetheart.” She pulls me back on the sofa that no longer has Aiden’s warmth, and curls next to me, holding me in her gardenia hug—much like Reagan two weeks ago except Stella’s arms are wrought with her own terror for her son. That seeps through me. I should be comforting her, not the other way around. I breathe against my own fear, clutching my locket, and fold out of her embrace. Robert is sitting on the other side of her, face lined with worry. Max has taken my spot at the window, staring out into the garden.

“I’m sorry,” I croak, voice hoarse with unshed tears. “I’m being an awful hostess. I’ll start the kettle. Or do you want to rest for a bit? The guestroom is clean, and it would make Aiden happy if you tried.”

Stella chuckles with a forlorn sound. “Oh, sweet pea, you’re not our hostess. You might as well be a second child to me as much as my son loves you. And there’s no chance of us catching a wink. Come on, I’ll help you with the tea. I could use the busy work, too.”

In the kitchen, I don’t dare to touch mum’s tea set in my state. Just our old everyday cups that are almost as precious in their chipped way. I warm the leftover scones from our afternoon tea, fighting back tears at Aiden’s playfulness with the kettle. How blissful and proud he was just two hours ago. The happiest day of his life, he said, and it ended like this—with terror and hurt from me. I stifle back a sob and chase it with tea from his coffee mug to cover the sound. It doesn’t fool his mother.

“You know,” she says, shuffling the Twinnings tea packets in their wicker basket. “Aiden has always been very strong, even as a little boy. He’s like Robert that way. I’m worried about a lot of things tonight. But not about anyone hurting him and Benson together.”

I nod because it’s true—physically Aiden is a weapon of mass destruction—but I don’t feel comforted. Because the reel and he are destroying each other every dawn in other ways—and his parents don’t know that. Outside the kitchen window, the sky is turning sapphire. Max’s boulder shape is out there pacing the garden perimeter, and the roses are washing off their sleep with dew. Did you see anyone last night? I ask them in my head. I think you’d have found a way to rise from your roots and scratch their eyes out with your thorns if that was the case. They don’t answer.

“How has Aiden been sleeping, Elisa?” Robert’s quiet voice startles me from my monologue. It’s the first time he has spoken since Aiden left. He’s at the kitchen table in dad’s and Javier’s chair—his tea and scone untouched.

“Quite well actually, except tonight of course.” I take a sip of chamomile tea, blush prickling my hairline at discussing our sleep with his father.

“That’s good. At least Für Elise is holding.”

The mug shakes in my hand so much that hot tea spills on my fingers, but it’s still cooler than my cheeks. “You—you know about that?”

Stella is dabbing off my hands with a tea towel, looking as stunned as me. “Know about it? We were the ones who discovered it. Didn’t Aiden tell you?”

The kitchen goes blank, except their lined beautiful faces and the gasps of air on my lips. I shake my head, barely mouthing the words. “He said it was painful for him to talk about.”

“Oh, believe it.” Robert nods, exchanging a glance with Stella.

I look at his grave expression then at Stella’s sad smile then back at Robert then back at her again, thoughts a snarl. Can I ask? Should I ask? But Stella nods in encouragement. “Would you like us to tell you, dear?”

“Oh, please, will you?” I stammer, all breath gone. “I’d never make him relive it, but . . .”

“But you want to know. Of course, you do. Here, come sit, and we’ll tell you the story. I don’t want Aiden to have to revisit it either.”

I perch at the wooden edge of mum’s seat and wrap my hands around Aiden’s mug as Stella takes my old chair next to Robert and starts in a low sonata voice. “How to start? From the beginning, I suppose . . . The last night Aiden ever spent in our home was June eighth, 2003—the night he attacked me, about one week after he had returned from that unspeakable place. He was sleeping in the basement back then, although ‘sleeping’ is a generous word. He’d never been a good sleeper, but this was different. He would just lay on the hard floor, either in a nightmare or wide awake—nothing in between. Robert and I used to listen at the stairs . . . I still hear the screams . . . ‘let him go, let him go, let him go,’ he would say in Arabic . . . I was foolish that night. He had told me not to wake him, but I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer that way and . . . well, you know how it ended . . .” She shudders and tea splashes from her cup. I dab her hands, as Robert rubs her shoulder. He doesn’t seem to be breathing.

“He never returned after that night, no matter how much we pleaded with him,” she continues. “I would see him some nights—under the old cedar in our backyard or driving by, but he never crossed our threshold again. He felt so wretched for hurting me, he didn’t think he deserved to come in . . .” She drifts again, a tear sparkling in her eye.

“Where was he staying?” I whisper.

“Outside, camping with Cal and the other boys for a while. They were all in bad shape, although Aiden more so, of course. He was lost to us for a long time. As were they to their families. Only the four of them know how they lived through it. But they did somehow, they kept each other alive, I’m convinced of that . . .” She shudders again, and the cup slips through her hands, tea sloshing everywhere. “Oh, I’m sorry, Elisa. What a mess!” She apologizes frantically while I try to comfort her and mop up the tea, my own hands trembling. Robert shifts his chair so close to her that their arms are touching, like Aiden does with me.

“Anyway,” she sighs. “For the next few years, we’d hold our breath every time we heard tires on the driveway, or a knock on the door, or the doorbell. But it was never Aiden. He would only call or write. Once he started his company and could afford Benson, we’d visit him at home but the pain and guilt and fear in his eyes when he’d see us . . . I couldn’t stand for him to feel it. And so the distance grew year after year and we stopped holding our breath when the doorbell rang . . . But it all changed one night a month ago, the night you left.” Stella looks at me, eyes glimmering with tears and a smile lifting her lips. Robert seems to breathe for the first time I’ve noticed since the story began while my chest throbs at the reminder.

“He had called us earlier that evening to ask if the Solises could stay with us for a couple of weeks. He sounded upset; they’re very important to me, he said. Of course we agreed immediately—it’s so rare for him to ask anything of us. So they moved into the guest house only a couple hours later, and Berty and I had gone to bed.  Then around one in the morning, the doorbell woke us. I don’t know how long it had been ringing, and there he was—right on our doorstep as we had always dreamed but looking so destroyed, we almost fell to our knees. I thought a diagnosis or another Marine had been lost or another accident. But he just said, ‘Can I stay here tonight? I’m not in trouble, but I can’t be anywhere else.’ I don’t even remember what we said . . .

“I just remember he crossed the threshold, very carefully, and that’s when we saw Benson behind him, looking pale, but he didn’t come in. And then Aiden took the stairs to his old room where all his childhood things still are. We followed at a distance, expecting him to close the door, but he didn’t. He let us sit with him in total silence. For almost an hour, he just sat at the edge of his old bed, no words, no movement, staring at an old frame of the three of us at Oxford, for moments at a time he wasn’t even breathing. Then my heart started acting up and I needed my medication, and that’s when he came to. He looked at me and said, ‘I met someone.’

“At first, I didn’t think I heard him right, but he said it again. ‘I met someone, and I lost her.’ We didn’t know what to do, we were just . . .”

“Shocked,” Robert speaks for the first time since the story began. “Absolutely floored.”

“You see, ever since Aiden’s gifts became apparent, we had spent years worrying about the right girl for him, then years worrying about the wrong kind, and then years no longer hoping he’d find anyone at all. And now here it was, and we didn’t know what to say. My first worry was that you had been hurt, dear, but I knew with his memory the very first words we’d utter were the most important.

“So I just asked, ‘what’s her name?’

“‘Elisa,’ he answered and then sort of breathed.

“‘That’s beautiful,’ I said, ‘like the melody?’ And he nodded.

“I don’t know what made me do it, I don’t know why—maybe because I couldn’t find the words—but I went to his old record player and put on Für Elise. And almost immediately he started to breathe. Just regularly, in and out. I sat next to him on the bed—which would have been unthinkable for him to ever allow—and said, ‘tell me about Elisa.’ He lied down on his side, facing us, and said ‘I love her.’

“Neither of us was breathing at that point even though he was, were we, Berty?”

He shakes his head, eyes on his cold tea.

“Then the song ended, and Berty replayed it. ‘I love her,’ Aiden said again. ‘The Solises are her family, but she’s gone. And I don’t know how to be with her or without her . . .’ We waited for him to finish but he just fell asleep. Just like that. Poof! Our Aiden, our tortured, beautiful, kind boy just drifted. We couldn’t believe our eyes . . .”

For a while, they both gaze unseeingly at their cold cups, their faces folded in wonder, as I labor sick with worry to find my lungs or anything in my body to keep me here instead of running through the fields to search for my tortured, beautiful, kind love. To bring him home where he can sleep and dream sweet dreams, safe from everything outside and inside of him. I’ll stand guard while he rests, not Max or Benson—because I’m the one who calms him.

Robert comes back to the kitchen first. “We stayed up all night, just watching him, replaying your song. We figured out how to do it on our phones, so that one would start as the other ended.”

“And through it all, my baby slept,” Stella sniffles, wiping her nose with the wet tea towel. “I know it sounds odd to call him that, as big and hard as he is, but he’ll always be my baby. And that’s why for us, you could have been Medusa living in Hades and we’d still love you. But you’re not—you’re a loving, beautiful girl who is giving our boy sleep.” She caresses my cheek.

“Thank you,” Robert says with a deep emotion in his voice.

I watch their faces, blurring through tears, without knowing what to say or how to breathe or sit still.

“Oh, don’t cry, darling.” Stella wipes my cheeks even though hers are almost as soaked. “This is a good thing. He loves you so much. I know it’s difficult to deal with his . . . intensity, his protectiveness, not to mention his awful temper and stubbornness, but you’re the most important thing in his life. Please indulge him, like he said.”

“But stand up to him, too,” Robert urges. “Like you did today with this threat. I think it’s important you do that. Aiden wouldn’t accept it from anyone else, but he needs to hear it.”

My head is spinning with all the revelations, the different directions my emotions are pulling at me, the millions of needlepoints of panic for Aiden, and love so strong it feels it might crush me more than his startle blow. I try to squint through the gale of my thoughts for the most immediate. “Thank you for telling me,” I manage after a while. “And for being here.”

“Where else would we be, dear? We’ll help you through this and anything else you need. But don’t be afraid, if there is someone out there trying to hurt you, God save him when Aiden finds him, and he will.”

A shiver courses through me, and I gulp some tepid tea, placing my lips on the mug where Aiden wraps his. “I’m not afraid of that. I’m more afraid of what Aiden is going through.”

“You really don’t believe this threat is real then, Elisa?” Robert frowns.

I shake my head. Who would ever want to hurt this place? Or me? Why?

“You make some good points. On the other hand, I’ve never known Aiden to be wrong on matters of perception,” Robert argues. “Emotion is another issue. And this is a bit of both.”

“You agree with him then, Berty?”

“Hard to say.”

They start the same argument then—is it real? Is it not?—while outside, the early sunrise is filling the garden with a diffuse light. Abruptly I can’t sit here any longer. I mumble something about the roses and slip out in the garden. Max’s eyes follow me from the hedge as I pad to the bench where Aiden and I sit together at this hour after the reel, drinking coffee mouth to mouth. But his unmistakable silhouette is nowhere on the horizon. I clutch my locket, eyes flitting over the field of epiphanies. Bring him home. Keep him safe. Give him peace.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTERS 21 & 22 – ANSWER & THE HALES

Hello friends, and welcome to tea! Or rather to two chapters since I didn’t post on Sunday: Answer and The Hales.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them. I’m savoring these moments with our couple, you’ll see why.  More soon, and thank you as always for reading and writing to me. Hope the week wraps up well.  xo, Ani

21

Answer

Reagan and Javier’s last hour in Burford comes too soon. Where did two weeks go? How has it been only two weeks when they feel so permanent here, as natural as the roses? How can I watch them go? And what then? Continue living goodbye to goodbye?

“You know we’ll come right back if you need us, right?” Javier asks Aiden and me as we’re all sitting in the Inn’s terrace Friday evening for a final toast before they go to Heathrow Airport. Not that I can swallow anything. Aiden’s arm hasn’t left my waist since he picked me up from Bia four hours ago.

“We do, thank you,” he answers now for us both—my voice has disappeared.

Amorcita?” Javier takes my hand across the table. “I promise. You just say the word.”

“Absolutely, Isa.” Reagan takes my other hand. “As often as needed until you two figure this out and come back.”

At least my blanched face can be blamed on the goodbye this time. At least I don’t have to force a smile. I manage a nod.

“About that,” Aiden adds. “These are for you.” He hands them the two first-class tickets he has bought them. “They’re for . . . September.”

I know he chose the bare minimum words needed but a chill whips my skin anyway. September 18, when our ninety days are up. In case I need Javier and Reagan here then. In case we don’t win.  His hold on my waist could crush the boulder in the river but it’s still not tight enough for me.  He throws his jacket casually over my shoulders.

“That’s when you’ll find out if things have improved?” Javier confirms, his voice lower.

Even Aiden can’t form a verbal answer now—he simply nods, pulling me closer.

“And then what?” Reagan starts but Javier elbows her.

“Reg, don’t.”

“Why not?” she fires back at him, eyes flashing. “Why can’t we discuss the elephant in the room, Javi?”

For a moment I don’t know if she is talking about them or us—there has been no progress with them on that front—but Javier shakes his head. “Because it’s not our elephant to discuss.”

“What did you want to discuss, Reagan?” Aiden asks my question, no doubt for my benefit.

She glares at Javier and, hesitantly, takes Aiden’s hand too. I feel tension jolt through him. It strains him more now the longer he watches the reel. “I don’t care if I’m interfering, I have to say this part. I know you have serious things to deal with but I’ve also seen how much you love each other. And that kind of love is rare. Don’t throw it away.”

“Reg, for the love of God!” Javier explodes—very rare for him. “Isa could get hurt! And not just hurt, but really fucked up! Is that what you want?”

“Of course not!”

“Then what the fuck? Isn’t it hard enough without reminding them how much worse it can get?”

I barely hear Javier and Reagan’s loud voices over the shudder that rocks through Aiden and the snap of his teeth at the mere idea. Javier and Reagan notice it too, and stop mid-fight. Javier takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Aiden. I didn’t mean to—”

“There’s nothing to apologize for. You’re absolutely right.” Aiden’s voice is clipped, filled the terror and self-hatred twisting every band of muscle in his back. That snaps me out of my self-pity.

“No, you are not!” I yank back my hands from their hold, my voice a lot louder and sharper than I ever thought I could produce against Javier. “You don’t know Aiden like I do. He’s working hard at it every day—harder than you could ever know—and he will not hurt me!”

Anger burns my throat and my breath is coming out in hard gusts. I’ve never yelled at Javier before—this is not how I want to say goodbye. But even worse is saying goodbye with him thinking of Aiden this way.

“Elisa, love, it’s all right.” Aiden’s voice—so tender with me when seconds ago it was so vicious against himself—makes me even more furious.

“You stop it, too! You’re worse about it than Javier. Can’t we all just have some . . . some faith in you? In who you are?”

He raises his eyebrows, taken aback by the force of my anger. As we all are. I scowl at the veranda’s balustrade, hands in fists. I don’t understand my fury right now. The last minutes with Reagan and Javier are ticking, I’m more terrified of losing Aiden than ever, yet I’m fighting with them for worrying about me. But I do understand this: I’m not scared of Aiden hurting me physically. I know that’s mad given our history, but I just cannot feel that kind of fear. I’m terrified of what this fight will cost him, of losing him if he doesn’t beat this when I would want to be with him no matter what. Exactly as Reagan said.

She nods at me in understanding.

The two most self-loathing men on the planet heave a similar deep sigh. I don’t want to imagine the arguments Aiden is having with himself right now—they might as well be scrawled in blood across his forehead. At last Javier nods. “Okay, Isa, I can see your point. And I do have faith in you, Aiden. I don’t think you’d ever hurt her intentionally. It’s accidents I worry about.”

“As do I,” Aiden answers, ignoring my huff.

“But I also worry about you two all alone here with so much hanging in the balance. I’m glad your parents are coming tomorrow but after they leave . . . Isn’t there a way for you both to come back while you deal with this? We still have your million dollars. Come back to Portland where we can all be together and support you more.”

Javier looks straight at me now, and whatever blood boiled to the surface from anger drains off my face. Behind him, the moon glows over the hilltop with my parents’ grave. The cottage’s rooftop looms across the field of epiphanies. And in my chest, the locket with my father’s dream is pulsing next to my heart. Tears spring in my eyes, and I have nowhere to look, nowhere to hide.

I know they have seen everything under the veranda’s lanterns. I hear it in their silence, in Reagan’s sigh, and yet I cannot form a single word, I cannot gaze anywhere except at the mental image of a ribcage torn apart like the one in the reel of torture.

“The thing is, Javier,” Aiden breaks the silence in a measured tone as chill after chill flays my arms. “The scientists who are helping me are here. And this place is a bit easier for me right now, quieter, more open. So I’ll have to impose on you to be here for us this summer.”

He just took it all from me and put it on himself so I don’t have to choose or even answer right now. I don’t know if it works on Reagan and Javier, I can’t look because I finally can meet Aiden’s eyes when this topic comes up. They’re the softest blue—softer than the moonlight. Is this how they’ve looked at me every time I’ve hidden from them?

“In that case, we’ll come here as you need us,” Javier says without further argument. “We can revisit if—when—things work out.”

I know he corrected himself for me. I know because he smiles when I manage to look at him.  And then it’s time. Benson comes into the terrace, telling us the van is ready to take them away. All my anger and indecision disappears—the only thing left is anguish and goodbye. No, don’t go, I want to shout in front of that van, but they have their own troubles, their own lives.

“I’ll come with you to the airport,” I sniffle as they stand.

Dios, Isa, no. You wouldn’t get back here until midnight. Aiden’s parents are coming tomorrow.” Javier grins despite my earlier yelling.

And that does make me smile. I get to meet the two people who created the most beautiful force in my life tomorrow, just as Aiden planned it so I’d have something to get me through today.  But I still don’t know how I get through the next few minutes. Only Aiden’s hand in mine keeps me standing or walking as Benson and his mate, Max, start carrying out Reagan’s and Javier’s suitcases one after the other, double in number now because of Reagan’s new hats. Then Aiden’s hand squeezes mine.

“Have a few minutes with them,” he says, kissing my temple. “I’ll be in the lobby.” His eyes follow me as I shamble to Javier’s room in the quiet Inn.

Reagan and Javier are both there, double-checking Javier’s travel parole documents. As soon as they see me, they pull me in their arms in a three-way hug, as they did when they showed up on my doorstep exactly two weeks ago.

“We’ll call as soon as we land, and every day after that,” Reagan says. “I’ll be back before you know it. Take care of my rose until then.”

“I will.” I take their hands and put them together. “And you take care of each other, okay?”

“Don’t worry about us,” Javier answers while Reagan stares at her trainers.  “It’s you and Aiden you need to worry about.” They drop their hands at the same time.

“Love you,” I tell them both. “Love you so much. I’m so sorry I yelled at you, Javi.”

He laughs, mussing up my hair. “Don’t worry about it. That’s how I know we’re family.” Then his face becomes somber, and I know before he speaks that he’ll say something that will ring in my ears long after his plane takes off.  “You know we’re family, right?”

“I do.”

“We’re never going to replace your parents on that hill, sweetheart, but we’re here, flesh and blood. Life is long—you need family with you. Heal Aiden here but come back to us.”

He gives me another peppermint hug, Reagan kisses my cheek, and with a love you corazon y alma, they walk out.

I sink on the rug of Javier’s room as their footsteps fade, clutching my locket, trying to breathe, trying to see the present moment instead of the torn, unknown future ahead of me. But there is nothing visible through the tears that are gushing now. The whole world has become liquid like transatlantic oceans, drowning me in it.

It takes Aiden exactly two minutes to find me here, gasping and weeping on the floor. He folds down next to me, cradling me in his arms. And at first, it’s worse. Because that terrified part of me that’s drowning imagines another goodbye—his—and sobs wrack my lungs so violently that he tightens his hold and starts rocking me in place, murmuring words I cannot hear. I grip the collar of his shirt and another image—this one of gripping the marble grave when I first came back—flashes in my own reel of torture.  But wafts of cinnamon breath wash over my face one after another, and eventually I can find the present moment. I’m in Aiden’s chest, his shirt is soaked, his hand is cupping my cheek as he keeps murmuring, “I’m here, I’m right here, I love you, they love you.”

And though the tears are still trickling, I can breathe through them and it’s not the worst goodbye of my life. I take strength from that. And I’m not alone. Even though my mind dreads his goodbye, in the present moment, Aiden is with me, I’m in the fortress of his arms. And I’m able to lift my head, look up at his eyes.

Just in time to wish I hadn’t. Because the agony there is so staggering that it suffocates my lungs. I’m adding to his pain when the reel already brutalizes him each dawn. And its toll is getting higher each week, each day. The reel holds him longer; it takes a few extra minutes to bring him back; he is more vigilant, seeing more dangers; and his eyes lock in memories more often. Yet he’s here, trying to comfort me, absorbing my tears along with Fallujah’s bombs.

That’s when the tears stop. Immediately as though his anguish switched off my tear ducts and restarted my mind.

He notices. “Elisa?” His voice is panicked, as though he’s not sure if it’s over or about to start again. “Talk to me, please.”

“Hi,” I croak, wincing at the hoarse sound of my voice. He doesn’t speak, but his hand feels my forehead, my pulse. “I’m okay,” I assure him.

“No, love, you’re not. I’ve never seen you in so much pain.”

But I’ve known a lot worse pain. Losing him for one. Losing my parents for another. But he doesn’t need to hear that. “I’m just awful with goodbyes, Aiden, but I’m better now.”

He wipes the moisture off my cheeks, the V a deep canyon between his brows. “It’s not just goodbyes this time though, is it? It’s having to choose: half your heart here, half in Portland, and you don’t know how. That’s why you hide your face when it comes up, why you can’t look at me or anyone else.”

He has seen it all—I never fooled him for a second. I nod a weak yes, limp in his arms. “I didn’t think . . . I didn’t know I’d feel this way . . . until I came back.”

He watches every flicker of expression on me, and I let him, relieved for the truth to be out even if painful. “I’ll fly them over as often as possible,” he offers. “All of the Solises, not just Reagan and Javier. I can buy them a cottage here if you want. Would you like that?”

But they all eventually would leave. Unless I abandon everything I love here, we will always be apart. These are not burdens I can lay on Aiden’s tense shoulders. I stroke the worried V to smooth it—it doesn’t give. “I know you would, but they have their own lives in Portland. They’ve sacrificed so much to be there. I can’t uproot them. I’ll just have to choose which half of my heart I can give up. ”

“Tell me what to do, Elisa.  How do I help you with this?”

I rest my head on his chest, listening to his heart. “This is enough. Just be with me.” No matter what, even if we don’t win, I add in my head, because if I have him, I can live through anything. But that’s the one request that would be excruciating to him, the one thing in the world he would not give to me.

He shrugs as though he doesn’t think he’s enough. “I’m yours, you know that.”

I do know. I just don’t want him to be mine from a distance. I snuggle closer, like a second shirt over his soaked one. He strokes my arm, no doubt noticing the goose bumps. “Will you promise me something?” he asks.

“Anything. Unless it’s some self-loathing nonsense.”

“No, it’s not about my . . . renovations. Will you promise me you’ll talk to me about this next time? You won’t try to hide it like you’ve been.”

I nod, kissing the spot above his heart. “I promise. I don’t know why I try to hide anything from you. You see it all anyway.”

“I do, and the answer is yes.”

His heartbeat is even, calmer than mine that is abruptly galloping again. I look up at him, and his eyes are serene, the V is gone. “The answer to which question?”

“To whether I would consider living here if I become safe for you. Isn’t that what you’ve been wondering?”

I watch him stunned, unsure he spoke the words, but the small smile on his lips is evidence he said them. “You would?” I whisper.

He nods, brushing my cheek. “I can’t promise I will become safe, but I can promise that if I do, I will not make you choose. Whatever you decide, I would support you. Does that help?”

It takes several thundering heartbeats and another waft of cinnamon breath for me to form words. “More than you know,” I answer, the rush of gratitude muting my voice.

His smile widens. “There, you can take that off your list of worries.”

So many other things I want to ask—whether he would want to live here for himself, whether I could ever ask him to give up his life, his empire, his parents with whom he is trying to rebuild his relationship —but I don’t because they’re still just if’s. What matters in this present moment is the love behind them. I take his face in my hands and bring him to my mouth. His lips are willing but hesitant—probably wondering if I’m well enough to be kissed—so I crush myself against him, my lips leaving no room for doubt. Instantly, his body responds, and his mouth starts moving with mine in his possessive, healing way. One of his hands curls in my hair, his other arm tightens around my waist, straining me against the steel lines of him. And that’s when I remember.

“Aiden, oh my God!” I gasp.

“I prefer being your man.”

“No, I mean, do you know what time it is?”

His fiery eyes smolder in a way that sets my skin ablaze. “I’ve known what time it is since five fifteen.”

“Bloody hell, that’s four hours of no condoms! Why didn’t you remind me?”

“You were ups—” His answer fades in my mouth. I can’t kiss him deep enough, taste him long enough, touch him fast enough. My hands swoop down on his belt, snapping the buckle. His fist in my hair tightens as he tilts up my face, and his other hand closes like iron fetters around my wrists. It takes a few moments of rolling frantically on his lap to realize his strength is not possession now—it’s restraint.

“Elisa,” he says, his voice suede and warm—a direct counterpoint to every hardened angle of him. “Will you please stop grinding against my cock?”

“You don’t like that?” I gasp, unable to locate my hips, let alone stop them.

“Clearly I very much do, but not now.”

“What?” His words stop my hips wherever they are. As a rule, he never says no to this. He chuckles at my bewildered expression. “Why not now?” I ask, brain glitching.

His beauty transforms in that fluid way of his that leaves me breathless—or it would if I wasn’t already panting. “Because I’ve thought about feeling you that way hundreds of times, maybe thousands. And now that it’s here, I don’t want it to be right after you’ve been sobbing. Or on Javier’s floor for that matter.”

I try to think through the way his words make my pulse and other things race. “But I’m fine now. And we can go to your room here—we haven’t tried that bed yet. It looks a bit like the one at Chatsworth. Who knows what kind of fainting it would cause.” My body arches futilely against his restraints.

He smiles at my attempts to seduce him. “All painfully excellent points, but I still want my first memory of us together like that on a happier day.”

“Oh!” I breathe, brain finally reconnecting. His memory would always associate our most intimate moment with a day of tears. Perish the thought. “You’re right, definitely not today. I almost ended the world.”

He laughs and releases me now that he knows I won’t attack him. “Come on, my dear Mrs. Plemmons. If memory serves, there’s still one last condom hidden in garden shed to save our lives the old way.”

He starts to stand with me still soldered to him, but something catches his eye. He frowns at the floor under Javier’s dresser. “I think Javier forgot something.”

He reaches under the dresser and drags out a sketch. His low whistle mingles with my sharp inhale. Because there, in carbon pencil, vivid even in black and white, are Reagan’s eyes. Unmistakable and inquisitive as though they’re looking at the man who drew them, asking why not, Javi?

“Wow!” I marvel.

“Quite.”

“I have to talk to him. He has to tell her!” I reach for my purse but Aiden stops my hand.

“Don’t. Let him have this secret if he needs it—we’ve already won.”

“Won how?”

He taps my nose with the sketch. “If I recall, the goal was to make Javier see. Well, he very clearly sees. What he does with that is up to him. Besides, you and I have more urgent things to worry about right now.”

“We do?”

He rolls up the sketch and takes my hand with humor in his eyes. “Of course we do: we have a condom to ruin, scones to bake, that infernal silver tray to polish for the sixth time, parents to meet. These are heavy things, Elisa.”

I laugh as we leave Javier’s room and walk into the sultry night to the cottage. Because I’m with him.

***

Most goodbyes are followed by a hello—even the hard ones, even for me. Like a glistening morning after a night of squall to get us through storm to storm. And that’s exactly how Saturday’s sunrise is, even after the reel. As though all my stars have custom-ordered it for Aiden’s parents’ arrival. I gaze out of the open kitchen window, trying to see my nook of the world with visitors’ eyes. Loving, worried, overjoyed visitors who are finishing off five thousand miles right now to reconnect with their only son and meet his girlfriend for the first time.

The rose bubble around the cottage is shimmering with a golden mist. River Windrush seems more glass than liquid—a flecked mirror from the slow current underneath. On its bank, the willows sway like vermeil sirens in their hushed duet with the larks’ opera. And Elysium’s velvet of wildflowers is so dense it could be a tapestry worthy of Chatsworth’s gilded staircase. If I squint, I can see a thread of grass here and there in the brocade of daisies, forget-me-nots, poppies, wild orchids, and columbines. Even the sunrise is molten today—a dome of gold silk without a single cloud.

Yet despite the magnificent welcome nature has mounted, I feel utterly unprepared. How do people do this? Google was no help for my case. For one, Robert and Stella are the forces that created Aiden—enough said. For another, this is their first extended time with him since he hurt his mum and exiled himself from their life for their safety over a decade ago, as he did with me. There are no etiquette books about how to meet parents like these.

I wipe mum’s special tea set on the kitchen counter for the nth time—the gold rim and blush roses gleam like the rest of the cottage. What would you do, Mum? I laugh, thinking of her journal entry for meeting dad’s parents. The entire tea was an ordeal of epic proportions culminating with mum spilling hot earl grey on Grandpa Snow’s lap. “And we made it,” she wrote. “Just let them see your love, dearest. And bring roses.”

Outside the kitchen window, my million roses are sparkling with welcome, the blooms twinkling with dew, their perfume almost visible in the air.

“If you polish that teapot one more time, a genie will come out of it.” Aiden’s arms wind around my waist, making me jump. “Shh, just me,” he says in my ear. Just him—my entire universe. His freshly showered smell stuns all the roses. “What would you wish for?” He kisses the hollow spot below my ear.

“You.”

“Something you don’t already have.” His lips brush down my throat, blowing away my thoughts. “Wishes?” he murmurs again, like the willow song he hears.

“Umm, that I don’t spill tea on your father’s lap, that I solve the protein before your parents come, and that the plane is a little late, but not too much.”

He chuckles against my neck, sending tingles everywhere. “I will pour the tea, although it’s my lap you should worry about.” He nibbles my earlobe. “And you’re going to Bia this morning while I go to the airport so you might solve the protein.“ His lips flutter over my jaw. “As for the plane, it’s on time, but we’ll grab some coffee first and I’ll take the long way back.” His mouth presses at the corner of mine. “How is that?” He turns me in his arms, and all the other wishes disappear.

He is glowing before me more brilliant than the morning outside, in a white linen shirt and his staple jeans—a droplet water like a diamond in his still wet hair. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful, but I try to see him as his parents might. He looks playful, but his sculpted cheek is more drawn from the reel, and his eyes change more often. Although not now—his smile is as blinding as the sunrise.

“Will I do, Mrs. Plemmons?”

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” He sighs with exasperation as he does when I check on him like this. “They are my parents, Elisa. I’ve met them before. From the minute I was born I’m told although, thank God, that is a moment I don’t remember.”

“I know but it’s—”

“Complicated, yes, I’m aware. But today, it’s easy for once. They’re meeting the woman I love, and I couldn’t be prouder or happier about it. Can we leave it at that?”

As if I can resist him in anything, let alone for happiness that has shifted again and now looks exactly like him. “Whatever you want.”

“I have everything I want in my arms. Now why don’t you tell me what you’re feeling that’s making you polish that tea set for the twelfth time that I’ve counted?”

I shrug. He’d be late for the airport if we covered all my nerves. “Mostly I want it to be a special time for you and them. And I want them to see our love, not just the danger.”

A dozen emotions flash across his face, from disbelief to amusement, but he settles for tenderness. “Elisa, the fact that this is happening at all is special enough. None of us could imagine this happening a month ago. Or my whole life for that matter. As for the love, how could they not see it? What other sane reason would any woman have to be with me?”

I frown at his choice of words. “A million.”

“All right, maybe that’s true on paper, but physical safety seems to be a basic prerequisite in life. And you endanger yours every day to be with me. My parents, more than anyone else, understand the love it takes for that. And the love it takes for me to allow it. So—stop—worrying.” His eyes are piercing as though trying to tattoo this very elemental truth straight into my brain.

“Can I worry about one more thing?”

“No.”

“Please?”

He sighs in that give-me-strength way, but cannot resist. “Fine, what else is worrying you?”

“Do you think they’ll like the scones?”

“You’re impossible.” He brings me to his mouth, kissing me in a way that should be banned and illegal. By the time he releases me, I can’t even remember my name, let alone my worries. I just droop in his arms, the kitchen twirling. He chuckles, although I think his hand curved around my neck is feeling my pulse—checking to make sure I won’t faint no doubt. “That should do it,” he says, satisfied. “Now, please, for today, could we try to be just Aiden and Elisa doing this very normal thing and enjoying this present moment without worrying about what’s behind us and what’s ahead?” He unleashes the full force of his eyes on me, like he did with his mouth. It takes multiple heartbeats, blinks, gasps, and a whistle from the kettle for my brain to unscramble. Even then, I can only manage a breathy, “yes.”

His dimpled smile almost incapacitates me again. “Thank you,” he says softly. He holds me a moment longer until my legs can support me. “Benson is here. Shall I send him to the airport alone while I resuscitate you from my kiss?”

He sounds serious, except the eyes dancing with humor at my expense. “That little peck? I’ll survive. Besides, I have the rose petal jam to taste—much sweeter than you.”

He laughs and throws a tea towel over my head like a birdcage. “Relax!” He kisses me through the other side of it as if I cannot handle his bare lips a second time, which is absolutely true. By the time the towel slides off my face, he’s in the foyer. “The scones are delicious. And be safe at Bia,” he calls behind him as he closes the front door.

I watch him lope gracefully down the garden path to Benson who is standing like another beech tree at the garden hedge, waiving at me. The moment they’re out of sight, two things happen at the same time: the wound starts festering and the nerves start humming. If I stay here much longer, I’ll end up cleaning the cottage to the studs again. Bravery is more urgent. I turn off the stove, throw on my locket and dad’s lab coat, and dash across Elysium to our garage shed for the Rover. Far in the opposite direction of the country road, I think I see the dot of Benson’s van racing toward Heathrow Airport as Reagan and Javier are still charging toward PDX.

22

The Hales

Bia is empty when I bustle in. It’s only eight fifteen on a Saturday morning after all—perfect for under-cover work. I steady my hands and start testing the oxytocin options. Seven down so far, ninety more to go from Aiden’s list inside my locket. As though to contain my nerves, my hands move faster—like they did the day of Javier’s trial—and I eliminate an eighth, ninth, and tenth oxytocin formula within the first two hours, one eye on the combusting vials and the other on the clock. I have only one hour left before I have to go. Another oxytocin ampule explodes, a shard of glass nicking at dad’s initials on the coat. If all fails, I’ll talk about the weather. That’s a good, solid British philosophy. And if his parents ask me whether I’d ever return to Portland, I’ll say what? Have more tea? Do you like the scones? I’m an undecided mess and I couldn’t decide anyway until our terrifying experiment with your only son is over? Because if we lose, there will be no place in the world for me? And if we win, he promised he would support me if I choose England? The questions are so deafening that I almost miss a change in the lab’s atmosphere, almost like a creeping sensation. I look around startled, but there is nothing. And then I finally hear what I sensed: utter silence. The vial in my hands has not exploded.

The gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp of my breath shatters the precious quiet as I stare at the lilac liquid in disbelief. Could it be? Is it possible? What was I doing? Which oxytocin was it? The twelfth! Was this it, Dad? Did “December” have two meanings? Not magnesium the twelfth element, but add the twelfth formula of love? Trembling, with my heart in my throat, too afraid to move, I gently shake the vial. It doesn’t break; there isn’t a single crack on it. But the substance is also liquid, not solid as it should be. In an unforgivable, inexplicable, and utterly mad moment, I tip it to my lips for a tiny drop. I know there’s nothing toxic in it, but no serious chemist would ever do this. Only the desperate ones. I almost hear dad’s voice thundering down on me. Yet the liquid doesn’t sting or hurt in any way. I smack my lips—it’s a bit sour, like lemon. Certainly nothing like what my love tastes. Maybe one more drop? I lift the vial again, mumbling “Salud,” when BANG! It explodes in my gloved hand at the same time that the droplet fizzes on my tongue. I deflate on my lab stool, heart plummeting in my stomach with disappointment. The good news is my stomach doesn’t heave or expel its contents. The bad news is I still don’t have the protein. Or any time left to test more today. As soon as that thought reenters my consciousness, I’m forced to surrender with a groan. Of course this would happen today of all days—on the other hand, it’s better than the ninetieth day. I tuck the oxytocin ampules back in their fridge and start sweeping the shards into the glass disposal bin. Yet underneath it all, I feel a frisson of joy—at least we know which oxytocin it might be. But why on earth is it still falling apart?

“Oh, hey, Eliser!” Graham’s voice blasts behind me. “What are you doing here? I didn’t know you worked Saturdays.”

“Hi, Graham!” I turn to grin at him, saying a fervent and silent thank you to any angel up above, including to my furious father, that Graham didn’t arrive ten minutes ago. “I just came in for some testing, but I’m almost done.”

“You’re becoming as obsessed as me. That’s brilliant, that is. Any luck?” He stows his satchel and tosses on his immaculate coat while I scan my area for any evidence of my work. Luck is indeed on my side—the only sign left is the usual shards of glass.

“Look for yourself,” I answer, inclining my head toward the splinters.

“Oh, more broken vials—that’s novel!” He laughs as I sweep away the crystal fragments. “Well, I’m not giving up, I’ve had an idea.” Graham pulls up the first volume of the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology and plops on his lab stool. “I think we’re missing something. Edison is adamant this is the formula he developed with your dad, but it can’t be complete. So I’m going to sit here today, tomorrow, and the rest of the year if that’s what it takes, looking through each substance in this abomination and see if I can come up with anything. Interested? It’ll be most riveting.” He flips open the tome to letter A with another laugh.

I forget sometimes how much I like Graham and his uncomplicated single-mindedness. All he seems to want in life is chemistry—that’s it. With more strength than I realized I felt, I hope he succeeds. I hope he finds the oxytocin on his own, and we can be true partners again. “I’d help but I have to run. A couple of friends are visiting.”

He looks up with a frown. “More guests from the States?”

“Yes, but don’t worry,” I assure him. “They’re retirement age and they’re staying at the Inn so there will be no wild parties to make me late for work.”

His forehead relaxes. “Eliser, I never thought I’d say this to anyone but myself, but you need a life with people your age. What will you do with your fossil mates?”

I laugh, wiping down my counter with ethanol. “Plenty. Tea today, out to dinner tonight, the Rose Festival next weekend . . .” Graham pretends to fall asleep and snore. “Good luck with your abomination. See you Monday.” By the time I close Bia’s door behind me, he’s already absorbed in the Encyclopedia, seeming lost to the rest of the world.

The golden morning is even more brilliant when I park the Rover in the garage, but the nerves are prickling like thorns. I snap off a wilted bloom from the climbing clair-de-lune roses and scuttle across Elysium’s wildflower carpet. A shiver runs through me as I pass by the spot of the reel at the edge—it’s visible from here, the wildflowers are flattened to Aiden’s body shape like an inkblot on the vivid tapestry. I trot to it, fluffing up the daisies, poppies, and trefoils as much as possible. I don’t want Aiden to see his own imprint, although if I noticed, his eyes have certainly not missed it. I roll a Baci quote inside an orchid for him to find after tomorrow’s reel and dash through the field to the cottage.

The moment I reach the garden, the nerves soften a little. The roses have never looked more magical. They went through a rose spa this week, as Reagan called it. We pruned all the wilted blooms, withered petals, and dried leaves we could reach, and now the roses twinkle, draping like Chantilly lace from the rooftop to my feet.

“Well done, you,” I mutter, caressing the Clare rosettes. Whatever else Aiden’s parents will think about us, no one can resist mum’s magic.

Her spell flows inside the cottage too as I look for any speckle of dust with visitors’ eyes. But there is none left. The cottage sparkles—the dove gray velvet sofa, the blush pillows, the heather-plaid armchairs, the vases of roses everywhere. Even the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights are painted in rose tones to blend in—courtesy of Javier. All my wellies and Aiden’s shoes are hidden away, although mum’s parka and dad’s tweed scarf are still in the coat hanger where they will always remain. The sight of home is so overwhelming that it stops my blinks. Will Aiden’s parents like this? Not just in vacuum, but for their son? By Reagan’s account, their home is straight out of the pages of Architectural Digest, which makes sense since Robert is, indeed, an architect.

My phone vibrates against my behind with a text. Aiden: “Dropping off luggage at the Inn. 20 minutes. Good or detour?”

The nerves explode with full force like the vials. “Good,” I manage to text back as I sprint up the stairs, hair and heart everywhere. Because the hardest question that I’ve not dared to examine too close is now clamoring over the bright white walls: will they like me for their son?

Of course they’ll love you. Who doesn’t? said Aiden, the man with Javier’s filter over his eyes when it comes to me. I hope he doesn’t embarrass me with his this-is-the-only-woman-in-the-world nonsense. I scoff, pawing through mum’s dresses for the dusky rose linen dress that Reagan and I selected for the occasion. Then I busy myself with peeking through the lace curtain of the kitchen window, tasting jam and reciting the periodic table.

I hear them before I see them. A deep hearty laugh that has to be Aiden’s father, a soprano one that must be his mum, and my favorite sound in the world—Aiden’s waterfall laughter. Then the three of them emerge through the willow garlands, and my mouth falls open. If there has ever been a more attractive family, I’ll broadcast dad’s bravery formula on BBC. I don’t know how or when, but somehow, someday, Reagan Starr will pay for not warning me about this.

Aiden’s father is the Old Aiden of my visions, tall and leonine, with a full head of hair that glimmers snow-white, which makes his steel blue eyes brighter even from my sneaking spot. I absolutely must not spill tea on his taupe slacks or oyster shirt. Yet my eyes drift to Stella now standing with her mouth open like me as she takes in the roses.

“Oh, my stars!” she gasps—I like her already. Her hair falls in chocolate waves to her shoulders, and she has a heart-shaped face. But it’s her eyes that hold me. Although Aiden’s eyes have no parallel, it’s clear that his neutral sapphire came from her. She is petite, wearing black linen pants, a cream turtleneck, and a caramel purse like the one on Reagan’s dream wardrobe Pinterest account. “It’s like a fairytale,” she swoons, but her eyes never leave Aiden’s face for long. He stands a few steps behind her, and she looks over her shoulder at him with a shining love I’ve only ever seen in my mum’s face in our home movies.

“It does feel like that sometimes,” Aiden answers, and now I examine his face. There is a different beauty about him when he looks back at her. Softer, almost with longing, and something dawns on me that I should have realized by now: unlike most of us, Aiden has not forgotten those initial emotions in life, that first powerful bond between mother and child. That’s exactly what he must be feeling now. How has he been able to endure their separation?

“Come, meet Elisa,” he says, and his voice becomes suffused with pride and excitement. Yes, he’ll definitely embarrass me. They start walking up the path while I sprint to the front door, smoothing down my dress and hair and checking my lips for jam.

“How many roses are here do you think?” I hear Stella ask. According to Aiden, she loves gardening.

“Oh, I’ve estimated just under a million. Many of them have a story, some have names. Elisa can introduce you to them later, she does it better than me.”

“Names? How precious!”

I take a deep breath and open the door. The three exquisite creatures look at me with varying smiles: Robert’s dignified, Stella’s warm, and Aiden’s dazzling as his eyes lighten to my turquoise.

“There she is,” he says, stepping next to me and wrapping his arm around my waist. I hear a low gasp from his parents—perhaps seeing my calming effect on him for the first time?—and feel my face burn. “Elisa,” Aiden breaks the short silence. “These are my parents, Robert and Stella. Parents, this is Elisa.” If there was pride in his voice before, it’s nothing to how he sounds now.

“You’re very welcome,” I say, flushing. “I’m glad to meet you.” The words no longer feel rehearsed—they are true in every syllable because I’m meeting the two most influential people in Aiden’s life.

“It’s so wonderful to finally meet you, Elisa,” Stella says with feeling, reaching out her hand. I take it and, to my surprise, she pulls me into a gentle gardenia hug. “You’re even more darling than in Maria’s and Reagan’s pictures. Thank you for inviting us.”

“It was Aiden’s idea actually, but a good one as usual,” I answer, suddenly wanting her to know this. She beams at him behind me while Robert extends his hand.

“A pleasure to meet you, Elisa.” He doesn’t hug me, but his grasp is warm and firm.

“And these are the roses,” I add breathlessly, and they all laugh. “I can give you their names later. Please come in, you must be tired.”

“Oh, not at all, Aiden spoiled us,” says Stella, referring to the first-class flight he bought them, no doubt.

We make it to the living room despite the small foyer, Aiden’s arm never leaving my waist. They seem to anticipate his movements to the millimeter—much better than me, and only a degree below Benson—despite more than a decade of distance between them.

“Oh, this is lovely,” Stella enthuses as she looks around. “Exactly like a fairytale, I just telling Aiden.”

“Beautiful architecture,” Robert approves, his eyes tracing the ceiling beams.

“Thank you. It was falling to ruin when my parents bought it, but they restored it. Please take a seat. Would you like something to drink before tea?”

“No, no, we’re fine,” Stella chimes. “Come, sit with us for a while.”

They take the armchairs, insisting that we take the sofa. At first, I think they must like the squashy seats, but then I notice a sense of wonder flit through their faces each time they see Aiden touch me. Like right now as he winds his long fingers with mine.

“Do you play, Elisa?” Robert asks, inclining his head toward mum’s upright in the corner.

“Only a little. Not as well as my mum and definitely not as well as Aiden.”

“She’s being modest,” Aiden interjects in his this-is-Beethoven voice, his thumb drawing a half-moon on the back of my hand. “She’s an excellent player. We usually play after dinner together.”

“Speaking of music.” Stella looks at me with another smile, and I get the feeling she is trying to make me feel welcome even though she is in my home. “Aiden just had us play the willow game.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter while I melt. “Yes, mom, tell Elisa what you heard.”

“I swear they say ‘more shoes.’”

Robert chuckles too—maybe this is why they were laughing earlier. “Darling, you don’t need more shoes or willows to tell you that.”

She laughs. “Because yours was so much better? Fishing, fishing, fishing?”

I listen to the sound of their family—so new for the cottage, yet so familiar—trying to find nuances and similarities to what I know despite the different cultures and tragedies that have struck our families. They are there: the easy manner with which they show love, the way they tease each other. And the nerves fade. Aiden and I have something in common beyond our connection forged in the fires of Iraq and Javier’s brushstrokes. Our families do not seem that different. Yet could I ever take him away from this even if we win? When I know exactly how it feels to lose it?

“I’ll go set out the tea,” I say, standing. “Please make yourself at home. Or we could have it in the garden if you prefer?”

“Wherever is easiest for you, dear. I can come help.” Stella starts to rise from her armchair, but Aiden stops her.

“I’ll help Elisa, mom. You relax.”

He takes me be the waist to the kitchen, and I sense marveling eyes follow us there. As soon as we turn the kitchen corner, Aiden pulls me in his arms. “Hi, you,” he murmurs, his eyes doing that part-fire, part-adoring thing.

“Hi,” I breathe.

He arches me closer, lips at my ear. “You shouldn’t look this stunning. It’s excruciating with parents around.”

“Me? Have you seen the three of you? You make the rest of us look like wet tea bags.”

He chuckles, kissing the corner of my jaw, inhaling the Aeternum perfume. “Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush to the corner of my mouth. “They like you, you know.”

I push weakly against his chest—his mouth is already messing with my thought process. “Let’s wait for the verdict, shall we? I’ve barely said five words.”

He releases me with a sigh, his eyes still on fire. “I don’t need to wait. I know my parents.”

“They’re so sweet, Aiden. I’m so glad they came.”

“They’re absurdly over the moon. I’m certain every time I touch you, my mom’s heart has arrhythmia.”

He helps me arrange the infernal silver tray—or rather watches me as I do it, his gaze enflaming my skin even though I avoid looking at him so I don’t break mum’s china. “Aiden, behave.”

“What?”

“You know exactly what.”

He chuckles again and this time helps me fold the rose-embroidered napkins. The good news is his heated gaze leaves my skin. The bad news is his fingers brush against mine now and then, giving my own heart arrhythmia. But thankfully he takes over when it comes to the scorching kettle. “I believe I promised to do this for the sake of my father’s lap. Although there’s only one lap burning in that living room and it’s quite the safety hazard.”

A scone drops from my fingers on the silver tray. “Aiden, please!”

“All right, I’ll behave. Tell me about your second wish. How was Bia?” He starts filling the rose teapot, guarding my hands away from the blistering stream.

“Hopeful at first, then it fell apart again.”

“What happened?”

“The twelfth formula stuck for a minute and then exploded.” I decide he doesn’t need to know about my reckless taste test. He would have a dragon fit, parents or no parents around.

“Maybe a dosage issue?”

“That was my first thought, too. I’ll start recalibrating on Monday.”

“It does sound like the correct oxytocin though. It rings true with the December code.”

“Yes, it feels like the sort of thing dad would do: layer meanings in his clues.”

“Just as his daughter does.”

We end up in the garden for the tea under the deep shade of the beech trees in the bistro table and chairs that mum used for al fresco dinners. Stella is bubbling like the Bollinger champagne Aiden is now pouring. “Robert, look at this! There are rose petals in the bubbly.”

“And in the tea.” Robert chuckles with an indulgent sound.

Stella looks at me, her eyes soft—they change almost as quickly as Aiden’s. “You’ve gone to such trouble for us when you’re dealing with so much. We would have been happy with just toast and water, but I can’t deny I love this. Thank you.” There is an old ache hidden well in the velveteen folds of her voice.

“It was no trouble at all,” I assure her. “Besides, Aiden helped me with all of it.”

“Oh, yes,” he answers in a tone so uncharacteristically light, I think he’s trying to banish the ache in hers. “The rose petals in the Bollinger were definitely my idea. Not to mention taking the scones out of the oven and making sure the oven was off.”

Her bubbling laughter returns immediately and she picks up a scone. “I’m not surprised. You were always a helpful little boy.” She turns to me, spreading rose petal jam on her scone. “Would you like to see some pictures, Elisa?”

“Oh, dear God!” Aiden groans, sitting up in his chair and turning to his father. “I thought we discussed this.”

Robert chortles, raising his hands. “I’m sorry, son, I tried. At least she only brought one album. There were five packed in her suitcase before I discovered them.”

“Aiden, stop it,” I laugh. “I want to see them. You’ve seen mine.”

“That’s different—yours are hanging on the wall. I have to see them.”

“And I have to see these.” I scoot eagerly close to Stella, ignoring his resigned growl, as she takes a small album the size of her palm out of her purse.

“Here he is, a month old,” she croons, flipping through the pages, while I try to muster heart, tear ducts, lungs, and ovaries. Because baby Aiden was something entirely wondrous. Even in those early months, his eyes were shockingly aware for an infant under his mop of black hair—certainly more so than Anamelia, for example, when she was a baby. I watch him over the years in this different reel, shooting up and filling out, blowing out candles, riding the blue bike I saw during his MRI, and transforming out of the innocent baby to the somber child with the burden of his entire world imprinted on his mind. Yet his eyes do not change—they remain sentient in every way. I can tell exactly when Stella was the photographer and when it was Robert. Because the child’s gaze holds that undercurrent of longing for Stella and a strand of deference for Robert, until the last photos of pre-teen Aiden who never looks at the camera again.

“All right, that’s enough.” Adult Aiden’s long arm swoops across the table and takes the album over our protests. “I’m confiscating this for the next two weeks.”

“And you accused me of being the cutest kid,” I say, but my throat feels full—full of bubbles, full of his baby smile, full of his memories.

“And I was right.” His otherworldly gaze meets mine, and I wish we were alone so I could ask what he is thinking in this moment. Do I want to know? Under the table, his hand grasps mine, his thumb drawing an infinity loop on my palm.

“Stella, I think we’ve embarrassed our son enough for the rest of the year. Why don’t you show them what the Solises sent?” Robert interjects casually as if he senses exactly the wave of emotion that has suddenly swept the garden.

“Oh, yes, good idea.” Stella scrambles inside her purse again with a grin. “Here, Elisa, this is for you.” She hands me a small glass bottle full of dirt. On it, with sparkly craft paper letters that could only be the work of Javier’s sisters, it says: Isa’s Home. “Apparently, it has dirt from Casa Solis, your apartment with Reagan, and Aiden’s backyard,” Stella explains.

I smile at the dirt, trying to breathe, unable to meet their eyes. Of all our family, Robert and Stella are the ones who absolutely cannot see my conflict—not when they are only now getting their son back. “It’s brilliant,” I whisper, bringing the bottle to my lips and setting it at the center of the table.

“And Maria sent you this.” She takes out a floppy something wrapped in more sparkly paper. I unwrap it, and this time cannot stop my sigh. It’s a handkerchief crocheted with Maria’s lacework and all our family initials embroidered in icon blue. “She made it while Javier was . . . unavailable,” Stella adds softly.

“Of course she did.” I kiss the handkerchief too and set it on top of mum’s rose napkin before I need it for tears.

“And, Aiden, this is only for you.” Stella laughs, handing him an envelope with so many Hello Kitties on it, the paper is not visible. “It’s from Anamelia and she gave us strict instructions that no one else is to open it.”

He pulls me close as I lean in to see. Inside is a drawing and two words sprinkled with more sparkles. Aiden + Anamelia, she has scrawled in pink crayon. Below the words are two stick figures, a tall one with big black hair and a small one with pigtails. Around them, she has drawn a giant heart. Despite the emotion, it makes me laugh. She thinks Aiden is her special friend and the rest of us are allowed to borrow him on occasion.

“She has her brother’s talent,” Aiden chuckles, folding it carefully and setting it on top of my handkerchief. Then his hand grips mine under the table again. “I’ll have to draw something back, won’t I?” he asks me.

“Yes, and right away. She’s probably waiting by the mailbox.”

“Christ.”

“And this,” Stella says with a flourish. “Is from Cora.” She hands us a photo of Aiden’s backyard where the American Beauty roses we planted together before I left are bursting with crimson blooms. And my throat feels full of bubbles again. How can I miss that yard where I barely spent a month as much as I miss this where I’ve lived most of my life?

“Speaking of roses,” Aiden jumps in, no doubt seeing my torment. “Elisa, why don’t you introduce my mom to the ones here?” He strokes my hand under the table, and I know he picked this moment on purpose: to give me a breather and allow me a chance to showcase my life here.

Strolling the garden with Stella is like nothing I can compare it to. She is a bouquet of familiar blooms—kind like Mum, warm like Maria, perceptive like Aiden—yet with something entirely her own. She gives me time between roses, asking just enough questions to draw me out but not enough to push me, and I sense she is being careful, that this is as new to her as it is to me.

“It’s beautiful here,” she says after I finish telling her about the Clares. “I wish I could have met your parents. I’m very sorry you’ve been through that.”

“Thank you. It’s better now than it used to be.” Especially here, so close to them.

“I feel I can imagine some of the pain from losing that kind of love after losing Aiden for so long.” She looks over her shoulder at Aiden and Robert talking at the tea table, Aiden’s eyes checking on me every few minutes. “But he seems happier and calmer than we’ve ever seen him, except as a child of course. That’s why Robert and I are so happy he has found you, dear.” Her sincerity is etched in every line of her smile, in every softly spoken word. “We had stopped hoping he would ever allow himself any love.”

Her openness disarms me so much that my own truth comes out with ease. “I worry about that still,” I admit. “But you’re right that at least now he wants to.”

She nods as we stroll to the Elisas. “How well you know him already! But we must have faith, mustn’t we? For him and for ourselves?”

“Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.”

She smiles, fluffing an Elisa bloom. “Isn’t it funny how love works? We are the only two people in the world he has hurt, and the two who have the most faith in him. I prayed every day I would be the only one, but if it had to happen again, let it be to a good end. Let it be so he can overcome this.”

Yes, let it be. There is no other end that’s acceptable, no option where Aiden is lost not just to me and his parents, but to himself. Abruptly the garden seems darker despite the bright afternoon sun, as though Aiden’s star flickered with my thoughts. “He’s working very hard,” I say with force to silence the abstraction. “I’ve never seen more determination or strength.”

Her forehead is creased with worry as I lead her to the Reagans. “He has been vague about this experiment. I’m sure he’s keeping all sorts of horrifics from us, and I won’t ask you to tell me. But please tell us what we can do to help. His father and I are here for you both in every way. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can’t ask of us.”

“I think being here and spending time with him will help. I know he wants to rebuild his relationship with you very much.”

“But there must be something more we can do,” she presses. “Please.” Her voice catches with her breath, and her index finger presses against a thorn absentmindedly. She pulls it back quickly, but it was enough—enough to see the deep fear that must be scalding her insides like mine, even with the faith we’re trying to keep. And enough to see how desperately she needs to do something for him.

“Well, the most important things are to avoid the startle at all costs and stay in the present moment. And, hard as it seems, we’ve been trying to build as many happy memories as possible to counteract the trauma. It might help for you and Robert to do the same with him, especially while I’m at work.”

Her face brightens immediately. “Yes, yes, that’s perfect! We can do that. And I can cook or help with anything else you need—the garden, the cottage—so you can just be.” She sounds lighter, eager, as though she wants to get started right now. Her pace picks up, but then she seems to remember where she is. “We won’t interfere with your time,” she assures me quickly. “We’ll stay at the Inn and give you privacy. More than us, more than anyone else, we know Aiden wants time with you.”

We’re at the garden shed now where the reel lives, and I lead her around it into Elysium. “You and Robert . . .” I hesitate, unsure how to phrase this. She gives me time. “I don’t know how to ask this, except directly I suppose. You don’t mind that I’m here for now? That I have my own . . . baggage?”

She rests her arm on my shoulder with a smile like the daisies. “No. You’re whom Aiden wants. And maybe it’s exactly that . . . history—” she chooses a different word for me—“and this beautiful place that have enabled you to capture him so entirely when no one else ever did. You must understand, we’ve never seen Aiden chase a girl or even hold hands with one, and he chased you all the way across the world, learning rose breeds and drawing for Anamelia and hosting tea. He has completely lost his head. We love it.”

For the first time in this conversation, she laughs freely—the sound flitting through Elysium like a skylark’s song—as though the idea of Aiden losing his mind in such a fashion is her personal bravery protein. The bubbling sound is infectious, and for a while we’re both laughing. Then the laughter becomes an easy silence as we stroll around Elysium. She steps carefully around the forget-me-nots, like me, but seems to avoid the purple wild orchids too. A sense of comfort sweeps over me exactly as in my childhood memories in this meadow despite the newness of my companion. And the vivid tapestry seems as sparkly as it did then. Not like new stars have entered my constellation, but rather like I’m seeing a star that was always there, just on the other side.

I turn us around before we reach the inkblot of the reel. Carefully, asking permission with her eyes, Stella hooks her arm in mine. “It will work out,” she says, gazing at the willows. “Somehow. The willows said that right after the shoes, although I wouldn’t tell the boys.”

I laugh. “What else did you hear?”

“Just that: somehow.”

Aiden and Robert appear from the garden then, striding with a similar step toward us, although Aiden’s fluid grace is not something anyone can match.

“How many baby stories have you told, Mom?” he asks when they reach us.

“I was just about to start on the first time we visited Oxford.” She releases my arm to him immediately.

“Too late.” He grins, tucking my arm in his. “I beat you to that one.” And very chastely he kisses my lips.

“Oh!” Stella gasps, her hand over her heart, while Robert’s arm flies around her. Their eyes are liquid seeing for the first time their son kiss on the lips.

Aiden laughs with my favorite sound. “I picked a good one, Mom, just as you said.”

For once, his pride does not embarrass me. Because underneath, I finally see, it is also pride in himself.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 19 – DAWN

Hello all, and happy Tuesday instead of Sunday! Computer troubles are always a pain in the tonsils as a good friend here would say, but during a pandemic they’re more akin to strep throat. Hence my delay. Hope you enjoy this chapter, and thanks as always for reading and writing. Lots of love, Ani.

19

Dawn

One week of war. The most beautiful war there has ever been. Every day is a new reel of brilliancy—one blissful moment to another, all blending into a catalog of happy memories counteracting the reel of torture. Each night is a sheet of music—Aiden’s waterfall laughter, the sounds of our love, and Für Elise rebuilding his memories note after note. And Aiden and I have never been closer. Even our internal clocks have synchronized, melding together in a united front. How different love feels at war. It’s as though each cell dreads love’s absence and therefore magnifies its presence a million-fold. Each touch feels like a hundred touches before, each kiss like a thousand of the ones pre-war. Or maybe our cells have not changed—maybe we’re simply living more. Every day, every hour is a new life, even the darkest hour of them all: right now, at dawn.

Because this is the hour of the reel of torture. We tried other times for it—before supper, afterwards—but the waiting was its own torment, at least for me. Only this small hour wedged between the blissful moment of waking up together and the blissful moment of watching the sunrise in the garden has been survivable.

“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep in today?” Aiden asks as I throw on my pajamas. He is still in nothing but star-gold skin and midnight hair, glowing under the soft light of the bedroom chandelier. He pulls me into his chest. “It is Saturday after all. You deserve a day off.” His eyes are overwhelming, his voice a lullaby willing me to drift. I have to use all my strength to resist them.

“I’ll take a day off when you take a day off,” I answer, caressing his scar.

“It’s not the same, love.”

“You’re right. You have by far the hardest job.”

He brushes my cheek with whisper-light fingers. “I don’t think that’s true. I know I’d rather go back to that school in Fallujah every hour than watch you do it once, let alone every day as you’re doing with me.” The music of his voice misses a note at the mere thought, as it does every time we have this argument.

“But even worse than that is not being there at all.”

“You would still be there for the recovery part. You just don’t have to be there for the gore.”

I place my hand over his lips. In a few moments, their warmth will disappear, their vivid plum color will bleach away. “Aiden, we’ve been through this and through this. It’s the only option I can live with. I have to be there.”

He kisses my palm and moves it to his cheek. His eyes hold me for a moment, their depths unfathomable. “I love you,” he says. “It’s a selfish reason for you to deal with this, but it’s still the truest thing in my world.”

Before I can say I love you back, his mouth captures mine. His lips are gentle but his tongue is deep, as though he is trying to kiss me inside out. I give him back everything I have, drinking him like an elixir for strength. Because without his taste, I cannot live through the forty-five minutes ahead.

He breaks the kiss with a sigh. “Come on then. Let’s get this out of the way.” He looks around our happy bedroom one final time and takes my hand.

The moment the bedroom door closes behind us, Aiden transforms. The warm glow of his skin vanishes, and he expands—taller, Herculean in his stance. It’s as though the more this war takes from him, the stronger he grows. A flame is lit within him, finally unleashed to raze his past to the ground.

But every war exacts its toll, even the beautiful kind. Not like a big bang—this cost is insidious. It’s in the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights that Aiden has planted like landmines throughout the cottage for my safety—which are an improvement to the Tasers and bear spray he wanted. It’s is in the laundry cupboard where each morning after the reel Aiden washes and stores his battle uniform—the same dark jeans, blue shirt, and grey boxers he wore for the MRI because he will not taint any other item of clothing with his memories of terror or allow those memories to linger inside the cottage even if only on cotton fibers. He dons his uniform now, his eyes darkening except that flicker of turquoise that will continue to gleam as long as I’m in his sight. Because there are live landmines inside us, too. They’re in Aiden’s longer silences and the far-away stare at certain moments. They’re in his touch and mine—the way we hold each other as we pause in the foyer.

“What will you remember during this?” he asks, throwing my mum’s parka over my shoulders.

“This is just a petal.”

“And what does that mean?”

“That the worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“That’s right. And what is our reward today?”

I smile even here on the threshold of our bloodiest battle. “We’re going to Pemberley with Reagan and Javier, and you have a surprise for me that will make my heart melt.”

He traces my lips with his thumb. “I do. I want you to think about that for the next forty-five minutes. Think only of the good things ahead.”

“I have a surprise for you, too,” I tell him, kissing the pad of his finger.

His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile—his last true smile until I bring him back. “You do?”

I nod. “I know you can’t think about that in the next forty-five minutes, but just keep it here.” I rest my hand above his heart. The blade of muscle flexes under my fingers.

“I will.”

Abruptly, I wish we could skip the next hour, climb in the Rover, and drive so he can see it now, so the dimple can stay. It’s almost impossible to surprise Aiden, but I think I’ve managed it this time.

He sighs as though he is wishing the same thing and bends to slide my socked feet inside my Wellingtons. Then with a last glance at my childhood photos, he opens the front door. Because we both knew from the beginning we could never do this inside the cottage or even in the garden.

The sky is still dark when we step outside. The roses are fast asleep under the moonlight, but their fragrance is always awake, healing our lungs. I hear Aiden take a deep breath at the same time that I inhale until my ribcage hurts. Stay with us, Mum.

He is quiet as we cross the garden, and I give him the silence he needs to harvest his strength from every corner of his mind. I do the same but tuck my arm in his and rest my head on his stone bicep. The spot of contact is softer than the rest of him now entirely carved in granite. His knuckles brush the Elisa blooms as we pass them.

We stop at the largest landmine of them all. The garden shed where the headset of torture lives, pulsing with evil. I duck inside to pick it up, ignoring the snap of his teeth in wordless protest. He knows by now this is another argument he cannot win. I crave the pain it gives me to touch it so he doesn’t have to hold it a single second more than he needs. I wrap it inside the woolen blanket dad used for camping, drawing strength from mum’s gardening tools. I am steel like them. I’m the shears slicing off each cable that bound him. I’m the rake flaying the skin of everyone who touched him, the spade digging their graves. I tuck the other item in my pocket, having zero sense or science for it, and come out. “I have a good feeling this comeback will be easier,” I say, trying to make him smile again.

He does, but there is no dimple anymore, no light. “They’re all easier with you.”

As soon as we leave the garden, his stride picks up, tension snapping like armor over him, ready to demolish and be demolished. The opposite happens with me. Even though I battle to stay with him every dawn, suddenly I want to slow to a crawl or even better go back under the sheets with him and hide him in my hair for the next eighty-two days.

But the spot in Elysium where we do this comes too fast. It’s the spot where we sat together exactly a week ago after I had left him a second time. These are the only blades of grass in Burford that hold an initial painful memory for him. We spread out the blanket together while I straighten the corners, prolonging each last second. An ancient grief enters his eyes as he watches me and I know in this moment his only wish is for me to leave, to run away as far as possible from this. No matter how much he wants me.

“I’ll be right here,” I say, forcing my voice to remain steady.

“Only during the safe time.”

“I know.”

“After that, you’ll go straight to the safe zone until it’s over. Promise me.”

“I promise.” It’s the hardest promise to make, the hardest to keep, but the most vital one not to break. Because he needs to trust this to get through the rest. His eyes arrest me, burning intensely, but I don’t blink so he sees the truth in mine. He nods once and sits on the blanket, folding me with him in the fortress of his arms. I rest my head on his chest for a final moment, listening to his heartbeat, drawing his fragrance inside me like a tonic.

“Here,” he says, and I can tell the effort is costing him to keep his voice light. He pulls an Elisa petal out of his cuff and presses it into my palm, closing my fingers around it in a fist and bringing it to his lips. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

“I’ll be waiting,” I whisper so my voice doesn’t break. He reaches for the headset but I beat him to it for once. “Let me do it. I know how.”

His jaw clenches again but he doesn’t argue. He lies down for me even though how he sits doesn’t matter. The white headset is icy like my body heat or dad’s woolen blanket never touched it. I fight my shudder as I look into Aiden’s eyes. In the dark dawn, I feel more than see the turquoise flame go out.

“Think about your surprise and stay safe.” His final words are low, tension twisting the music of his voice into a hard command.

“I will.”

His hands cover mine, pulling the evil over his beautiful head. I secure the strap around his soft waves and snap the buckle at his temple, swallowing my tears. If Aiden doesn’t cry through this, neither will I. I kiss his lips—they’re cooling already. “I love you,” I tell him.

“Always.”

With more strength than it took to attend my parents’ funeral, or to board my flight back to England, or to visit their grave, I press the white button in the center. The sinister red dot gleams immediately like a sniper point at his forehead as the reel starts. Aiden’s body becomes motionless with a soft gasp. And I know even though he is here on the blanket with me, he is now gone. Traveling places, decades, years, days, even hours of the thirty-five years of his incredible life.

I know each minute of the reel by heart—Aiden walked me through them painstakingly second to second to prepare me now that I get to see him, even though we both know no amount of preparation will ever inure me to this. But the first fifteen minutes are the easy ones. Just neutral or positive images from Aiden’s life, including me. I use them to prepare for his arrival. It makes no sense to do this whatsoever—as soon as Aiden reenters the present time, we will want to leave this spot as soon as possible to start our life. But I still decided yesterday to make each comeback new, different somehow. Not because it will make any minute of this hour more livable. But maybe it will make his return easier. I take out the spool of fairy lights from my pocket and tiptoe around the blanket, unraveling it while drawing deep, slow breaths like Aiden taught me to conserve air for the hardest part. I flip on the battery switch and his still form is surrounded with a hundred bright little stars, twinkling under the indigo sky. His face below the headset looks warmer under their glow, like he is sleeping, even if soon it will turn to ice.

“You’ll like this,” I whisper and trot to the safety line he has marked in the grass for me some twenty feet away where I imagine the rose shield starts. The easy fifteen minutes are almost up. I sit on the meadow where I first crawled and wrap my arms around my knees, counting the seconds in my head, eyes never leaving Aiden’s form encircled with lights.

I know exactly when he enters that schoolyard in Fallujah. I know because his restful body becomes rigid, chest jolting upward as his shoulders press against the ground.

“Thirty minutes, love,” I mutter, clutching my petal. But what thirty minutes they will be. In Aiden’s world under the blistering Fallujah sun, the IED just exploded as his body shudders here on Elysium while the shock reverberates through his mind equally deafening as that fateful May morning, unmuted by time. Yet not a single sound escapes his lips. The picture of the little boy’s ruptured torso strikes him now, and Aiden’s throat bends like he is choking on bile. I breathe like he taught me, but the dust and the little boy’s blood are suffocating him. His breaths become gasps as he tries to find pieces of the boy while a helmet full of brains strafes his retinas. But despite Aiden’s gasping, I don’t want the next minute to come. I’d rather asphyxiate here and now for him than have him live through it, but come it does. Aiden’s chest heaves with another shattered breath as the image of the school flashes on his screen and the Marines become surrounded by insurgent fire. He retreats inside the school with Marshall for cover, his body taut on the woolen blanket.

“Twenty-five minutes, love.” I press the heels of my boots in the meadow.

The photo of a young Jazzman blasts Aiden now, as he reaches the second floor, crossing the classroom I wish they had never entered, to save Jazzman and the others who are under fire below. Go low, Aiden signs to Marshall. Cal and Hendrix are upstairs. I grip my own arms and lock all my muscles in place despite Aiden’s flat and alert body on the meadow, because his hand just closed in a victorious fist. He just fired his last shot, the shot that saved Jazzman’s life. Then Aiden’s head jerks violently and slumps to the side as the back of a rifle cracks his skull.

For the next ten minutes—the only minutes Aiden doesn’t remember—his body is inert on the blanket, his mind utterly dark. I should use these minutes to breathe for the horror ahead, I should use them to think of Aiden’s surprise and mine as I promised, but a different darkness enters my own mind. In thoughts of the worst kind. What if Aiden had never tried to save Jazzman and the children? What if he had gone to the third floor with Cal and Hendrix instead? Worse still, what if Aiden had not woken? What if he had never seen what happens next? I clutch mum’s sleeves, rocking in place, each what if pounding like a crack to the back of my own skull.

But no amount of bartering lives with the universe can stop time. Aiden’s mind reconnects with his body, and he comes to with a strangled gasp. And the torture begins.

No one touches Aiden here on Elysium, yet he starts writhing in silent agony. His head jerks side to side, and he cringes against the blanket, shoulders rounding forward then suddenly convulsing as he tries to tear through the steel cables that now bind him. But he can’t break though. His body contorts in pain right here before my eyes, but not a single scream tears through him, not one cry, as he is throttled from behind.

I jump to my feet then, clenching my jaw to stop my own screams, clutching my head to keep it from imploding like that schoolyard. If I could only get closer, if I could only touch him, hold his anguished face, bring him back now. But I couldn’t—I know that—he is locked in the darkest flashback of his life, his eyes seeing only his best friend being tortured alive. He will need the reel of my pictures before the danger passes for me to get close. I can never betray him now.

On and on Aiden strains in universal agony and I start pacing, shuddering up and down the safe half of my childhood meadow, eyes on him. Because for these ten minutes I am just a child, just a girl who has never once felt pain like this. My parents’ crushed Beetle, their broken bodies, their coffins in the grave together—although big bangs to me—they’re tragedies happening every day in life. They’re not the kind of horror that stuns history and stumps science. Their massacre of the soul does not compare to this.

“Six minutes,” I gasp through my teeth. “I’m coming, love, you just have to hang on for six more.” And he does. He burns in soundless agony, his fists shaking at his sides. “Five minutes. Five petals, Aiden, and we can be together.” Between my fingers, my own petal disintegrates, and I stifle my sob. Because the worst images are still ahead.

Abruptly, I’m furious. With a red-tinged haze over my eyes, Elysium looks different. Nothing has changed—Aiden is still burning on dad’s blanket inside the wreath of lights under the cobalt sky—yet the scene transforms for me. I’m no longer the orphaned girl, the muse in a painting, or the woman who waits for the letters at home. I’m not a warrior or a survivor. I am the war. I am his peace. I summon all our weapons like a shield over me. Because I cannot stop the next four minutes, but as soon as the reel ends, I will need to be as invincible as him.

I stop where I am, steadying my mind, quelling my lungs as the seconds tick away and the sky turns sapphire. “Three minutes, my love. Just three more, and I’ll bring you back. I won’t let anything touch you then.”

But the end does not come easy for him—it never does. If it were for myself, I’d shut my eyes and ears. But I’m here for him. I plant my feet, shove my hands in my pockets to warm them for him, and brace for his visceral low snarl that reaches me here. Chills run from the crown of my head to my heels, but I flex every muscle as Aiden taught me so I don’t move an inch. The torment on his face impossibly doubles, whether with his own agony or Marshall’s or both he will never tell me. Then suddenly he stills, he breathes, because in this image the insurgents have agreed to release Marshall in exchange for Aiden’s life. Go, pretty boy, they’re sneering at him because he is no longer the handsome, young Marine I saw in the photo. His face without lips, nose, or ears is scorching Aiden now. Strangled sounds are ripping from his teeth, as he begs Marshall to leave him behind.

And Marshall listens. Aiden’s ribcage rises and falls quickly as the picture of a blood trail sears his eyes. I watch without blinking as Marshall crawls to the classroom door in Aiden’s flashback. I know because, even drowning in pain, Aiden smiles. Just a small smile watching his best friend leave, no regret for having traded his own life for Marshall’s freedom.

Then with a sudden gasp, Aiden’s torso jolts and his smile dies. Because one of the insurgents fired the first bullet, ending Marshall’s life. Then another jolt and another—like a defibrillator shocking Aiden’s heart—seven times, one per each bullet riddling the corpse of Marshall that is flashing on the screen now. A guttural sound of agony rips from Aiden’s chest, and his lungs give out. It’s the single most harrowing thing I’ve ever heard. His body slumps seeming lifeless in the same position he was then—shoulders contorted and shuddering throat to fist. Under the warm glow of the fairy lights, his mouth is parted in a silent no.

And then it ends. The torture is over even if Aiden is still in its grip. Yet, the chills leave me as I stand here shaking and silent. Because in five seconds, my photo will caress his eyes. My sleeping face, my rose, the stave of my music, my favorite chocolate— the small things that calm him, that make him happy—will enter his mind.

“Almost home, love,” I whisper, swallowing more tears. “I’m coming, Aiden, coming right now.” I step over the safety line, timing my steps to each image.

I would know the second my photograph hits the screen even if I weren’t counting. I would know because he draws his first breath and his arms settle naturally on each side of him. My rose softens his throat. But he is still gasping, his shoulders are still convulsing, his fists are iron hammers at his sides. Then my face kisses his retinas again, over and over, breaking the steel cables and slowing the convulsions of his shoulders. By the time I cross the fairy lights, the tremors have become the familiar ripples that, until I witnessed his torment this week, I had thought were earthquakes. His seraphic face is ashen under the fairy glow, but no longer contorted. The red light on his forehead goes dark. I can touch him now, even if he is still locked away in the aftermath.

I sit next to him and wrap my warm hands around his fist as Doctor Helen taught me. “Aiden,” I call him, pouring all my love, faith, and pride in my voice. “You’re through, you brave, brave man. You’re right here on Elysium with me.” The fist skips a quiver but remains closed. His breathing is still harsh as strangleholds of tension strain him. “You’re safe, I’m safe, and we’re together. I’ll take off the headset so you can see when you’re ready. Feel my hands, love, I’m touching your face.” I tuck his fist between my knees so it stays warm and cradle his face. The sharp panes are cold. I shove back my Romeo vision—this is Dante, he just walked through hell for me—and massage his jawline gently in little circles. “Do you feel that? It’s my fingertips that you kiss each morning.” His jawline flexes, like a hello. “Hi, you,” I greet it back. “You’re strong, you’re loved.” I trail my fingers to his temples and release the small buckles that secure the evil thing. It’s warm now with all the life it has drained from him. I pull it off, immediately finding Aiden’s eyes. They’re closed as I expected them to be, his pupils still racing under the lids in flashbacks. I lower my face to his and kiss them like petals. “We’re on dad’s green blanket, my love, with wildflowers around us. Daisies and forget-me-nots and orchids and poppies.” I kiss his eyelids on each flower name, but there is no change in him. “The sky is lightening, almost lilac-sapphire like it’s mixing the color of your eyes and mine. And in a bit, we’ll watch the sunrise like every morning, just you and me. Can you hear the skylarks and the nightingales? They’re starting to trill.” The fist softens between my knees, but shudders are still running through him. “Do you know this present moment right here is probably the seven thousandth time I’ve sat on Elysium? I can’t remember most of them, but I’ll always remember this because this is when you come back to me. And I have a little something for you when you open your eyes. It will make you smile. What could it be, you might ask . . . ” The ripples are not slowing. “I’ll give you a clue: ‘love that moves the sun and other stars.’ How about that, Dante?” His eyes remain closed, and his breath is still ragged. I press my lips to his and blow inside his parted mouth as he does with me. “Let’s breathe together, love. Your air and my air and the rose breeze. We can smell the roses even from here. They’re awake, waiting for us.” For a moment I start to panic that it’s taking longer to bring him back, but then a familiar sigh warms my lips. His gasps slow as his lungs synchronize to mine, and Aiden kisses me back. Just a gentle brush of his lips, but he is here. “Hi!” My voice breaks in relief and I clutch his face so I don’t collapse on top of him. “Welcome back.”

His eyes open at the same time as his fist. They are dark and ravaged still, but the turquoise flame starts to flicker the moment he sees me. “I missed you.” I smile at him, ribcage swelling at his arrival.

He doesn’t speak but, slowly, lifts his head for my mouth. I mold mine to his, keeping him inside my hair bubble because he likes the way my hair smells. On clue, he inhales deeply. His fist leaves my lap and his arm winds around my waist—it feels weighty, as it does when he falls asleep. He holds me to him, breath to breath, mouth to mouth, as the last wave of ripples disappears. I feel him test his body for response, and I know exactly the moment when control reverts back to him. The weight of his arm eases but he doesn’t release me, and his lips fold with mine. “I missed you, too,” he says as soon as he can speak. His voice is worn and hoarse as though his silence under torture scrubbed it more than a scream would.

I pull back an inch to watch his now-clear eyes. As soon as they meet mine, he smiles. An I-crossed-the-desert-for-you smile, but it lifts up his cupid lips. I will never tire of this smile, ravaged and exhausted though it is. It’s as precious to me as his dimple—because this is the smile that brings him back to me.

He brings his hands to my face—they’re steady and warmer. “How are you?” he asks, searching my eyes, feeling my forehead.

“I’m fine, sweetheart. Safe and happy and so proud of you.”

“As I am of you,” he says. “You did beautifully.”

The word sounds backwards when he says it—like it was made only for him, no one else. “I worried it was taking a bit longer this time,” I admit.

“I’ll always come back to you.”

He pulls me back to his lips here inside my hair bubble and I kiss him back with hunger. Like his worn smile, this languid kiss has become life to me. Second only to his very first kiss because it vanquishes the last dregs of tension and brings him back to him. With each brush of his lips and stroke of his tongue, Aiden comes to life. His mouth takes on its brand of possession, seizing the present moment inside mine. Then abruptly he stops. “Love that moves the sun and other stars?” he asks as all his memories and synapses reconnect. His voice is gaining back its music.

I smile, suddenly feeling as girlish as I was when I first did cartwheels on this field. “Yep. Solve it and you get to see your present moment in full.”

The dimple puckers in his stubble more beautiful than the fairy lights outside my hair curtains. Not that I need their cover—he hasn’t looked away from my face once. “Is it Baci?” he guesses reasonably since that was the first quote Baci gave him in England.

“No, that was to trick you.”

I love watching his eyes shift with childish curiosity, not horror. “Is it one of Dante’s books?”

“No. You’re thinking too big.”

“Something small then . . . that you could fit in your pocket so I wouldn’t see . . . that has to do with love and the stars and the sun . . .” he muses while I almost bounce next to him because he is not thinking of Fallujah now. “A condom?” he asks, and I laugh at his boyish grin.

“No, sorry. But soon you won’t need those anymore.”

Apparently that thought works better at revival than riddles. Pure delight bursts over his face like the imminent sunrise. “In exactly six days—”

“And seventeen hours.”

I’ve never seen his eyes torn with better conflict: desire and curiosity splitting him in half. They both win and lose. He pulls me on top of him, rippling with a different kind of hardness. “I give up,” he says against my lips, pressing into me. I press back, sweeping my hair to the side.

“For you, Dante.”

He blinks in the sapphire dawn where the fairy lights are still twinkling. His grin becomes a soft, good gasp and that flicker of shyness gleams in his eyes, like an echo back from seven-year old Aiden. He sits up, holding me to him, and gazes around at the circle of lights speechless. “I did it during the safe time,” I assure him. “They were shining on you, like our bedroom chandelier.”

It’s a testament to how selfless he is—how little he accepts for himself from others—that even this smallest of gestures stuns him. If this is his reaction to some old lights, what is he going to do at Pemberley today? He feels my excitement in my bounce and looks at me, his eyes brighter than the twinkly lights. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that my chest tightens. “I love my surprise.”

“Oh, this isn’t your surprise. You’ll see that later. This is just our present moment.”

He smiles with a strong emotion in his eyes. “Leave it to you to find a way to make even this beautiful.” And he brings me back to his mouth.

By the time we reach the rose garden to catch the sunrise, the hour of torture feels far away, a different life. How can all the terror of the last hour fade so quickly? Add love, just the right kind. Aiden strips out of his clothes at the threshold immediately and leaves them in a pile with the blanket and the headset, but throws the twinkly lights over his neck—his mind already disassociating them from any pain. At the sight, even the sunrise doesn’t impress me anymore. A flash of heat whips my cheeks. He swoops me in his arms and strides in nothing but lights and golden skin to the garden bench.

“Are you warm or is it my male nudity à la Oxford?” Aiden teases as he sits on the bench with me across his lap.

“Oh, more of one and less of the other,” I answer, eyes on his erection pressing firmly against my thigh.

He chuckles and slips off my Wellingtons and parka, setting them carefully aside. Then he turns me on his steely thighs so we can both see across the river, past the field of epiphanies, and over the rolling hills where an orange flame very similar to the one on my skin is kindling the horizon. Magnificent and utterly ordinary compared to the face behind me. Or the erection now pushing against the small of my back.

“Maybe this will help with the male nudity part.” Aiden’s lips are at my ear, sending tingles down my spine.

“Definitely not helping.”

“No?” His lips press at the Aeternum spot below my ear and brush down my neck. “What about this? Does this help?”

“Not at all.” My voice quivers like the rest of me. A marigold halo bursts through the sky.

“And this?” His hands slip under my pajama top, peeling it off a step ahead of the sun. Wherever his fingers touch, my skin catches fire despite the sultry morning and the rose breeze.

“Huh-uh.”

“My, my, male nudity seems positively dangerous. How about this?” He cups my breasts, and I fall against his chest with a sigh, reaching behind me to grasp the male nudity in question. “Oh, this won’t do, Elisa.” He twines my arms over his neck with the twinkly lights. “Male nudity is distracting you from the sunrise. Maybe something stronger?” His fingers blaze their own fire-trails over my breasts, and his teeth graze my shoulder. My sigh turns into a moan. “Sounds like this is helping.”

“Hmmm . . .”

“And this?” A smooth glassy tip circles my breast, and my eyes fling open. Two twinkly lights are flickering around my nipples as sunrays scatter over us. Every nerve ending in my skin becomes a spark. “Does this help?”

“Mmm . . .”

“More help?”

“Please . . .” The sssss blends with the willows. He draws orbits with the lights on my breasts like they are his suns and his hands revolve around them. The lights gleam on my skin as streaks of heliotrope, saffron, gold, and honey flare across the sky. But the only color I crave is turquoise. The familiar ember in my depths starts pulsing with life. I press my thighs together for some relief and roll against him.

“Looks like we need reinforcements,” he murmurs, kissing the spot just under the corner of my jaw. Before I can think, before I can concentrate on his words over the blood thundering in my ears, he starts winding the string of lights over my breasts, across my ribs, and around my waist like a glimmering thread tying me to him.

“Oh!” I gasp, mesmerized by the little stars blinking on my skin as dazzling as the new sun, as bright as the heat within.

“Helpful oh?” Aiden’s lips brush along my cheek to the corner of my open mouth.

“Yes,” I breathe, turning my face for his kiss. I get lost in his mouth as his hands slip under the waistband of my pajamas. He slides them down my legs along with my knickers until they fall off my feet. Hot as a sunray, his tongue traces my lips at the same moment that he entwines his long legs with mine, spreading them apart as the full sun blazes across the sky. I gasp again, and he frees my mouth.

“Feel, love,” he murmurs, his arms and legs encircling me like the lights, his fragrant body heat engulfing me with the sun. But on the hottest, wettest part of me, I feel only the cool rose breeze. Breathless and trembling, I clutch his hand and press it between my legs.

“Here, please,” I beg shamelessly. It would only be embarrassing if I didn’t know with certainty that he wants me as much as I want him.

One warm finger traces the length of me. “This helps more than this?” he asks, thrusting into the small of my back.

“No . . . but . . . condom . . . far.”

His finger trails back up, making me hiss. “Oh, Elisa, you’re not the only one with tricks.” Before my moan fades, his hand leaves me and reaches under the bench. I’ve barely managed to focus my eyes when he taps the foil of a condom inside my thigh.

“Wha—how?”

He chuckles. “I’ve hidden these everywhere. You have six days, sixteen hours, and forty-five minutes to find them all and ruin them with me.”

He turns me around quickly so we face each other again. And for a moment the world stops for me, even the rapid pulsing inside. What are sunrises compared to him? The blue fire in his eyes smolders, his skin gleams, his lustrous hair like a black corona over his impossible face. Half of the twinkly lights are still draped around his neck, the other half sparkling all over my torso. He looks at me the same way—as though I am his sun.

Just one moment, and the world starts again. I launch myself at his mouth, starved for his taste, his feel, gripping his face, inhaling his scent. Over the rushing in my ears, I hear his moan and the foil tearing. Then he lifts my hips and pauses, waiting for me to open my eyes. I do—how could I miss a single fleck of him?

“Love that moves the sun and other stars, you said, Elisa?”

At my gasp, he lowers me onto him, twinkle after twinkle, inch after inch, moan after moan. Then he takes us both over the horizon until our bodies start to fracture like the sunrays on our skin and a new reel of brilliancy begins.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 18 – FIGHT

Happy Sunday, friends! Time for another chapter in Aiden’s and Elisa’s story. I hope it wraps up your weekend with a smile and that you are are all enjoying some rest and relaxation.  Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

18

Fight

By the time we drop off Reagan, Javier, and Benson at the Inn, it’s nine o’clock and the terror of the day is winning, settling like sediment in my brain crevices, my ears, my eyes. Each time I blink, Marshall gazes back at me. Each time the Rover purrs, I hear monitor beeps. Each time I wade through my thoughts, Aiden’s pain lances through me, sharper than my own.

“You’ve been quiet,” Aiden observes next to me as he turns left off Ivy Lane toward the open fields.

“Just thinking about it all.”

“It has been an interminable day.” He hits the gas as we zip through the only country road to the cottage. My day is only half-over, but I can’t bring myself to tell him I’m going back to Bia tonight to test the idea Doctor Helen just gave me. How can I add even one more grain of worry to the incomprehensible weight he will be carrying for us, for me?

We reach Elysium in two minutes. Across it, the cottage’s peaked roof rises like a beacon against the brilliant moon. Aiden parks the Rover in the shed at the edge of the field that dad converted into a garage when he and mum bought their Beetle.

“Almost home,” Aiden sighs. He tucks the box with the torture headset quickly under his arm, as if to hide it from me, but even in that glimpse a shudder jolts down my spine. I pat the polaroid of our kiss in my purse and get out of the Rover as quickly as I can. He takes my hand, pressing his lips at my wrist, and we set off across Elysium. In a few steps, mum’s rose shield will fall over us, over him. Guard him, Mum. Take everything from me and give it to him.

The perfume of the roses intensifies, as if they smell the arrival of a new kind among their own—the rare Aeternum oil that Aiden realized for me. Like he did all my other dreams, like he is trying to do for my ultimate dream of being with him. The cottage and the garden come in full view, silvery white. Aiden is quiet, too—perhaps he senses my urgency to get inside the rose bubble, perhaps he feels it too. But the second we reach the garden threshold, he stops, halting me with a gentle clasp of his fingers. I turn, unaware that for the first time I remember, I had been walking several steps ahead of him. He sets down the box of torture outside the garden threshold and takes my face in his hands.

“Please tell me what you’re thinking. Before I lose my mind.”

What can I tell him? That I’m afraid even as I believe in him more than I’ve ever believed in anyone? That the present moment is as terrifying as the future and as fearsome as the past? Or the hardest thought of them all?

His face gleams with moonlight. No wires in his hair—just soft onyx waves, swept with the breeze.

“Elisa, please!” Urgently now, and his eyes seize me the second I lapse and gaze into them. The secret thought blurts out with irrelevance.

“I don’t think I’m worth all this pain . . .”

His soft gasp washes over my face, rendering all roses redundant. But I can’t breathe it in because I see the flicker of agony my words caused him. “This is my fault,” he says. “You’re so extraordinary to me that I forget you’re still only human. You have your own doubts and insecurities just like me. I’m sorry, love. I won’t miss that again.”

I try to look away, shaking my head, but neither his eyes nor hands let me. “I’m not looking for compliments . . . It’s not just me who is not good enough. Nothing ever could be worth you living through this.”

“Ah, Elisa, my fault again.” He releases my face, but takes my hands. “I haven’t explained this right. You say I brought you to life, but it’s the other way around. If it weren’t for you, I’d be stuck in Portland but living in Fallujah still. There would be no brilliancy, no beauty, no love. Just guilt and self-hatred. But you came in—not just as a fantasy or a painting, but so real, you eclipsed everything. All my rules and pretenses and structure and control. And suddenly there was light; there was life. Then you were gone. You did exactly what I forced you to do, but you turned off my sky. There was no more light, no more reason for anything—I couldn’t even go back to my old rules. I didn’t want to because you had made me want to live. That’s why I’m going through all this, for a chance to live. If my life, my health, my dream—and you are all three—are not worth this, then tell me what is.”

My life, my health, my dream . . . listening to him is like hearing my own life in words—it sounds beautiful in his voice. So beautiful, I don’t want to ruin it with mine.

“Do you see, Elisa?” he asks intensely. I nod because when he puts it that way I agree. Only he himself is worth this. But what happens to him if we don’t win?  He sees my shudder even in the balmy night. “You’re scared,” he says, a statement, not a question.

“Yes, but not because I doubt you.”

“I’m scared, too, my love. Do you believe that?”

“You don’t seem scared of anything anymore.” I remember his strength and resolve today—the utter absence of fear when he learned the battle plan.

He smiles without the dimple. “Wrong again. I’m terrified of losing you. But you know what? I know from experience, the fights you’re the most afraid of tend to be the worthiest fights.”

He doesn’t promise me we will win. He cannot. All we can do is fight in every way we know, with every weapon we have left.

I reach on my tiptoes, pressing my hands against his face that still feels like a fairytale. “Make love to me then. Make us forget all this fear, and remember only why we’re doing this.”

His eyebrows arch at my sudden change in direction, but he smiles and the fire ignites in his eyes. “Now there’s the fight I’m talking about. Straight to the fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“No. Make love to me here, right now. Let’s not bring any of this inside the cottage.”

He doesn’t even blink. He sweeps me into his arms over the garden threshold as I knot my fingers in his hair. “Should the roses be watching this? I seem to recall being told not to say ‘fuck’ in front of the roses once.”

“Of course. Roses love love.” I pull him to my mouth. “They just don’t like dirty words. You’ll have to save those for the fifth stair.”

He chuckles, striding into the garden straight for the Elisa roses without breaking our kiss. He sets me down on the petal-blanketed grass, right at the spot he waited for me in my dreams, the spot where he stood when he came back to me.

“Stay,” I whisper, meaning so many things. He becomes utterly still except his hands clutching my waist. I start unbuttoning his shirt—not like he did at the lab, but the way we do together, slowly, eyes on each other—and slide it off his shoulders, down his arms, on the petaled ground. The gold of his skin is silver with the moon, free of the electrodes’ metal discs. I run my hands over his chest, kissing each spot where the discs were. Above his heart, on his sternum, at the pulse on his neck. “Kisses, not electrodes,” I say, reaching on my toes to kiss his temple. His heated gasp enflames my skin.

“You, not memories,” he answers and pulls me hard against him, molding his mouth to mine. His kiss is so overwhelming that I hang in his arms, fingers knotted in his hair. The fear shudders recede. A different kind of tremble starts at my knees, and he tightens his arm around my waist, knowing by this point I have trouble standing upright.  His lips flutter, soft as petals, over my jaw to the hollow below my ear where I dabbed the Aeternum oil. He inhales hungrily there, and good shivers flurry all over my skin. “God, the smell of you.” He sounds pained, like the ache gathering at the bottom of my belly. “It brought me back today, Elisa.” He kisses the Aeternum spot and kneels at my feet, taking off my Byron sneakers and socks. “And these wiggling toes.” He smiles, kissing the tips that curl. “They made me smile in hell—I couldn’t believe it. Just these tiny, itsy bitsy toes, able to lift all of me.” He nips my big toe but sets my foot back on the petals when he notices the wobble of my knees. “Strong, love, we’re just getting started,” he murmurs, running his hands up my legs, over the jeans. I wish I could speak, but I can barely breathe. Was I feeling afraid before? Now I can’t feel anything but the fires he is lighting everywhere with his touch, like fireflies in this garden. He unbuttons my jeans and unzips them with his teeth, peeling off the denim slowly, his lips following the trail of his fingers over my exposed thighs. The cool breeze tickles his hot, wet mouthprints.

“Aiden,” I sigh. His name has become synonymous with so many things. Help, save, love, live, home, kiss, hold—so many good four-letter words.

“I know, love.” He kisses the inside of my thigh. “But you wanted to forget. Forgetting is hard work, I ought to know.” He slips off the jeans completely and tosses them aside. The breeze whirls around my shaky legs as his nose skims back up. He clasps my hips as he inhales the lace of my knickers with the same hunger. I close my eyes, unable to watch when he does that, but I see fireflies even behind my closed lids. He does it again, pressing his nose firmly and I don’t know if this is my moan or his.  “This here,” he says buried in the lace. “This is the reason why the roses don’t like dirty words. Because they’re jealous.” The movement of his lips sends a tremor through me.

“Aiden—I can’t—” I breathe, tugging his hair.

“Yes, you can. You’ll see.” He kisses the lace again and slides off my blouse, lighting more fires with his fingers around my waist, over my ribs, tracing the cream lace of my bra. His mouth wraps around the nipple hidden underneath. “It was nippy there today, wasn’t it?” His tongue wets the lace, but it feels like liquid flame to me. “That made me smile, too, Elisa. Was that a pun?”

“Ah . . . I . . . can’t . . . remember.”

“Good.” Another wet circle of fire, then my bra melts off and I’m free only to realize I’m bound to his mouth closing on my breasts. Whoever said hell burns has never been to heaven. His lips, his tongue, his teeth—they strike like firebolts through me, and my knees give out, but he catches me and lays me on the petal blanket. The petals are cool against my feverish back. I sigh with some relief and am able to open my eyes. He is lying next to me, propped on his elbow, moon and stars and roses above him, one long, denim-clad leg between mine. His eyes cascade like molten silver over my breasts and he brushes them with his knuckles. Such a light caress but the effect on me is gravitational. My back arches toward his hands for the faintest touch.

“Yes, the roses are definitely envious . . .” He plucks an ivory Elisa petal and flutters it over my lips. “There’s no comparison.” And he kisses me over the petal. What a kiss this is. The redolent petal as a thin veil, molding like silk with the pressure of his lips. I kiss him back, feeling the warm tip of his tongue through it, caressing mine. From my sigh, the petal flits back to him. He blows gently, tapping it back against my lips. The petal flutters between our mouths, kissing us both, breath to breath, moan to moan. And the throbbing begins. Not slow and steady as usual, but heavy and fast from the start.

“Your jeans . . .” I murmur through the petal, reaching to unbutton him. His mouth never misses a volley but he grasps my wrists above my head. Fistfuls of petals tickle my fingers.

“Soon. But first you wanted to remember why we’re doing this.” He leaves the petal on my lips where it promptly blows off from my jagged breath, and plucks another one, this for the center my forehead. He kisses over it—his wet mouth sealing the petal on. Another petal at my temple, another kiss. More petals in my hair, weaving with his fingers through my strands as I realize he is placing petals on me wherever there were metal discs on him. “Roses, not electrodes,” he smiles his lopsided smile, now kissing a petal over my cheek, and another at the corner of my lips, a trail of them down my throat, each pasted with the wet heat of his mouth. Petals and kisses rain over my chest, around my breasts, fluttering over my nipples until every spot where his tongue seals a petal is quivering. I’m lost on my own skin—cool breeze, hot breath, soft petal, fire lips—but he doesn’t stop. He drops petals down my belly and over my waist, kissing them in. I try to press myself against him but he hovers just a breath out of touch—only his lips and tongue through the petals on my skin. And the throbbing becomes painful. Not a rapid pulse anymore, but an achy hook, reeling me to him with a flaming pang.

“Touch me,” I whimper, fireflies blinking here and there in my vision.

“Soon, love.” Another petal along the lacy band of my knickers, and then the garden starts spinning because he hooks his fingers into the lace and rips it off, his knuckles brushing my skin. My hips tilt toward him as always, but he drops more petals over my pubic bone, inside my thighs, and at last presses a single petal with his lips right on the center where I need him the most. Another jolt of my hips but he is ready—they drop straight into his hands and he pins them back down on the petal blanket. And then the torment starts with the petal in the center. He blows on it and it flutters against me; he taps it with his tongue and I flutter against it; he kisses it and the ache becomes a deep, radiating thing; he licks the petal and my breathing stops. “Aiden, now.” It’s more of a cry than a plea.

“Just a little longer,” he answers, his voice strained with the same tension that is wringing me.

“Why?” I gasp, a hand pulling his hair, another grabbing petals on the ground, legs coiling around him.

His lips press the petal against me again and again. “Because if we’re strong enough for this . . .” He wraps the petal around me with his mouth. “If I can live through one more minute of not tasting you and you can live through one more minute without my touch, we can live through anything.” The petal circles me driven by his tongue, and tears gather in my eyes. “That’s what you really wanted to know, Elisa, isn’t it?”

How did he know that’s what I wanted before I did? I try to say yes, I try to say I love you, but all that comes out is a garbled, agonized moan. The petal of torment is wet, sticking to the fieriest part of me, and the achy wavelets ripple everywhere.

“See, this is torture too, love, just a different kind.” He slides the petal up and down with his tongue, as I try to find the breeze, the sky, the ground. “Your taste, your feel, your orgasm, mine, all just on the other side of this petal, and we can’t have them yet.” His lips press the petal hard against me, making me hiss. “It hurts, it feels like one more minute will finish you, doesn’t it?”

If I answer yes, I don’t know. I hear nothing but him.

“Me too, love. Right now the need to be inside you is so painful, it could kill me right here on your namesake roses . . . but then I think . . . this petal will fall apart. Any second now it will disintegrate from my tongue, from my hatred of it, and on the other side is you. And on this side is me. Doesn’t that help, Elisa?”

A tear trickles in my hair—a tear of pain, a tear of pleasure—as my scattered mind finally catches up. I moan to agree, clutching more petals on the ground at the next nudge from his hidden lips.

“And that’s all this is, everything you’re scared of, love, is just a petal. Forget all else and remember this.”

“I will.” Somehow the words form—a breathless jumble, but still words—and I start fighting through the petal with him. His tongue presses it into me, I thrust gently back; his lips fold it over, I rub myself against it; his mouth wraps me with it, I grip his hair and push toward his mouth.

“Perfect,” he sighs, breathless like me. “Fight, Elisa. Because through this stubborn, cruel petal is the biggest pleasure there is.” His lips twist it around me one more time and his tongue rips through. His mouth swoops on me, free and clear, and I explode instantly. My cry drowns his pained groan. I writhe with his lips, his tongue, pushing into his mouth, his face, any part of him I can find as waves of release crash over me so violently that fireflies burst in my eyes and tears spill over, Aiden after Aiden, God after God. His mouth knows me by now—knows exactly when to pull, when to kiss—and it sees me through to the other side, sodden, shaky, a mass of limbs and moans and tears on the petals, but alive.

“My turn,” Aiden says immediately before the shakes have subsided. By the time I manage to open my eyes, he is ripping off his jeans. Every aspect of him is raw with need. He springs free, but I barely see the bubble glimmering like a diamond because it disappears behind the condom. Before I can register I forgot to arrange my pill, he kicks apart my legs and slams inside in a blinding exquisite thrust. For the first time, his cry drowns mine. He freezes for a moment, eyes shut, jaw strained, teeth clamped over his lower lip, shudder after shudder running through him as I try to muster my own shaking, my own lungs. I don’t know if it’s the aftershocks of my first orgasm or a new one but it sets off the deep ache again—as if it wasn’t healed, only numbed. He is pulsing everywhere—ponderous spasms that make my own insides contract with him. His deep moan mingles with my sigh. I kiss his lower lip, releasing it from his teeth so I can bite it myself. The moment our lips touch, he is unleashed. All of him, bubble to hilt, relentless with no blinks in between, each thrust harder than the one before, hitting the deep ache head on. And the harder he moves, the harder I want. I cling to him with everything—my teeth, my arms, my legs, every muscle tightening inside. But his thrusts leave all my grips behind. And each time he moves, the ache disappears. All that’s left is the delicious tension building, magnifying every cell waist down. I know exactly when the pain leaves him too because he smiles, melding his mouth to mine, locking our fingers together, whispering his words of love—now dirty, now sweet—so the roses don’t hear. And pleasure comes for both of us at once in waves of warm tingles surging over us in lockstep, seizing our bodies with its singular tension. We fly at the same time, mouth to mouth, skin to skin, moan to cry—it lasts forever, it lasts a blink, it doesn’t matter because we float back on the petals on the same heartbeat. Gasping, shaking, laughing, weightless and tangled like vines. From the earthquake of our battle, little hurricanes of petals are swirling above, raining down on us as though his thrusts shook the roses root to stem. Maybe they did, maybe it was my cries. Whatever it was, there is no pain or fear—only my own body teeming with life.

He rolls off me onto his back, chest rising and falling like mine. “We survived,” he chuckles, catching one of the petals before it lands on his cheek.

“Either that or we died and this is what our heaven looks like.”

He looks at me, heart-stoppingly beautiful, carved moonstone with sharp angles of silver and shadow, and white petals in his messy hair. “It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, Elisa.”

I turn to face him, more petals gamboling off my skin with the movement, and rest my hand on his cheek. It’s warm and flushed. Even in the moonlight, I can see his calm, blissful eyes.

“Did I complete the brief?” he asks, turning to face me too, and dropping a fistful of petals over my head.

“What brief?” I laugh, brushing the deluge off my face.

“You charged me with making us forget the fear and remembering only why we’re doing this.”

“Oh, yes, with flying petals, I might add.”

His eyes soften, but his face intensifies. “The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side. Will you remember this when it gets hard?”

I curl into his chest, breathing him in—covered in my roses, his own fragrance is even more impossible than the Aeternum. “I will.”

“I’ll remind you,” he says, and I sense something in his voice but I don’t know what it is. I try to look up at his eyes but he tucks me closer, trailing his fingers down my spine.

I could stay here in this present moment forever, just adding love each time either of us feels a frisson of fear. But the night is deepening, his memories need sleep, and dawn is coming with a fresh reel of terror waiting for him. I cannot let him live through that horror with only a twenty percent strong remedy even if it feels stronger to him. I need to fight at night in Bia so he can have an easier day.

“Come on, love. It’s past your new bedtime,” he says, no doubt seeing the prospect of the night dawning on me and attributing it to exhaustion. “I’ll make you my special scrambled eggs and we can sleep.”

“Tell me about these special scrambled eggs.”

“Oh, the secret is salt.” He grins and rises fluidly, lifting me with him. Torrents of petals pour from everywhere. His gasp draws my eyes up to his face, and I’m certain the wonder in his eyes is a mirror of my own. “You’re stunning,” he murmurs and, in this moment, I believe my effect on him. Or rather the effect of Mum’s roses. Who isn’t stunning when wrapped in magic? He picks up our clothes and takes my hand, heading straight for the cottage’s front door. Neither of us looks at the box of the headset of torture by the hedges at the garden threshold. I suppose it will spend the night there tonight—it’s certainly safe. Unfortunately no one will steal it around here.

Thirty minutes later, fed and exhausted, we make it to our bedroom. I walk straight to the bouquet of the twelve wilted poppies of our weapons on my nightstand, and rest the picture of our kiss against the vase. He smiles—all dimple and turquoise from the happy memories he has in this room. “Will you please explain to me what the deal is with the wise-not-dead poppies when you have about a million roses outside and probably as many petals in your hair still?”

I shrug, shaking off the petals and putting on my night oil so his eyes don’t see my insane plan on my face. “I like them. Now off to bed with you, Mr. Plemmons. You need sleep at your old age.”

He laughs, swallows his anti-nightmare pill, and turns on Für Elise. “Our dance, first. We have to follow the first night’s routine, remember?”

I do now, and for the next few minutes, I forget my plot. Because dancing with Aiden is fourth of my favorite things: only his laughter, his lovemaking, and sleeping together rank higher on the list. He lifts me by my waist and slides his bare feet under mine as he did two nights ago, wiggling his attractive toes with a grin. And we sway, petals floating to the floor with each turn. He holds me tight against him, plucking more petals from my hair as I memorize the steps to his lullaby. I remember most of them already. Three languid rights, two quick lefts, turn, turn. He dips me over his arm on the final note, kissing at the end of my jawline.

It only takes a second Für Elise for him to fall asleep tonight, wrapped around me, nose in my hair. If that doesn’t betray the toll of torture, nothing else does. I know how many puffs of happiness it will take for him to sink into deep sleep. I keep very still and count each waft of cinnamon breath as his weight gets heavy and he rolls away, lying on his back. On puff one-hundred-and-fifty-two, I move one inch at a time—not afraid of him, but afraid of getting caught. He would be a dragon, it’s true, but worse than that, he wouldn’t let me go. He would camp at the front door and probably have Benson, Javier, James, Hendrix, and Jazzman guard the cottage windows at night so I could get enough sleep. But I need every minute I can get with the protein to test the idea Doctor Helen gave me. If Corbin was right today, having me in bed adds two hours of sleep for Aiden, which means, without me, he will wake around four. I must be back here before then and pretend to wake up to go back to Bia. I recognize it is a downright mental plan based on one single supposition by a single therapist from one single night that could be entirely wrong. And I’m fully aware I cannot keep this up, but I’ll do it for as long as I can. If need be, I’ll take power naps in the library.

It takes ten excruciating minutes to crawl out of the bed, heart pounding and barely breathing. I tiptoe to the door, lungs stopping every time a floorboard creaks, but Aiden stays asleep. Thank you, Beethoven. Another three minutes to open the bedroom door just enough to squeeze through one limb at a time. But when I’m almost out, I cannot move, I cannot look away from the sight of him, peaceful and asleep under the moonlight. I know the wound will start festering as soon as I leave. I almost go back, I almost curl right next to him to watch him all night. But the reel of terror is quite literally waiting outside. Sleep well, my love. I’ll be back before you know it.

Torso aching, I get dressed in my old bedroom, in my old high-school clothes, and sneak down the stairs, skipping the creaky ones, smiling at how much he loves them. I leave a note on the fifth stair, hoping he never sees it but not wanting to worry him if for some reason he wakes before four. Although he shouldn’t—Corbin and he have been testing Für Elise for over two weeks. It has worked every night, with or without me.

I had an idea so I went to Bia. I’ll be back soon. I love you.

Mrs. Plemmons

I pick up the Rover keys he left on the console, shake off more petals, and steal outside. But I don’t run right away. I wait on the threshold, fretting that the door woke him, half-expecting his beautiful head to peek out of the bedroom window, shouting enough fucks to scare all the roses. But he doesn’t. I glance at the petal angels we left on the garden and break into a sprint, not looking at the box of torture as I leap over it, plunging down Elysium to the garage. Every few moments, I look over my shoulder like any fugitive, but he is not behind me. Guard him, Mum. Keep him safe until I’m back.

I turn on the Rover as soon as I throw myself inside, but despite the gentle purr of the engine, I still jump, squinting in the darkness. But no light switches on at the cottage. I drive down the country road carefully until I reach town. Then as soon as I clear Burford’s border sign, I hit the gas, eyes on the road, mind on Aiden’s waterfall laughter, hands on the wheel exactly where he rests his.

I reach Bia in twenty-four minutes, chest blistering in pain. I have five hours left before Für Elise wears off. A few researchers are huddled over piles of books in the lobby as always, but Bia is dark and empty. I run straight to the bookshelves to confirm the idea I got from Doctor Helen. She said my calming effect decreases Aiden’s fear by reducing the CREB protein in his neurons. So, theoretically, if I can identify all oxytocin options that reduce CREB, I should be able to find the right one. The trouble is I have no clue which of the four hundred and thirty oxytocin formulas decrease CREB and which ones increase it or leave it unaffected.

I wrench out every textbook on neural chemicals and sit at the corner desk to read. It’s hard, tedious work on three hours of sleep and the day we’ve had. I would do much better if I was mixing oxytocin instead, but I need a way to identify the right one before I start. The hours pass, chapter after chapter, mumbling to myself, muttering to Dad, looking for any scribble of his on the pages and finding none. But at two-fifteen in the morning, as my eyes are itching and panic is setting in with jitters, there it is in bold font: a list of compounds that impact CREB proteins. All eighteen hundred of them. I almost vomit on the page. I almost crawl to the vent for air, but I don’t have time for meltdowns. I select the top one hundred with the highest potency in reducing CREB to start with. It will take weeks, maybe the whole summer, to eliminate even these from the oxytocin options, but it’s the only path I can see. I take a screenshot of the list and start compiling an inventory of all the ingredients in the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules in the cooler to compare them against the CREB list. I scrawl them in my notepad, not wanting to leave any computer traces in Bia. It feels like I’ve catapulted back to pre-historic times but computers can’t keep secrets. At least this part is mindless—just copying down chemical names—it’s all the calculations afterwards that will break my brain. I scribble name after name in mum’s writing to fight off my heavy lids, smiling at her and dad joining this way while Aiden’s waterfall laughter plays in my head. Almost like a family all of us together here in this present moment . . .

The slam of a door startles me. I jump up, almost toppling off my chair, realizing with dread I had fallen asleep. I glance at dad’s watch in panic, but then I see him. Aiden is towering by the lab door, in jeans, a T-shirt, and my dad’s lab coat over his arm. How he got in I don’t know, but I do know no wall or door would have stopped him because the fury and anxiety emanating from him are so palpable they could shatter all the vials and ignite all the combustible chemicals. It is beyond anything I imagined. He is not the Dragon, whom I’ve tamed. He is whatever fear itself is afraid of. He doesn’t speak but, from the way his jaw is set, his teeth must be clenching so hard they could pulverize the building walls. He is glaring down at me, either beyond all powers of speech or still choosing his words. Yet despite his fury, the wound in my chest—festering even while asleep—disappears. I scramble to speak first, with zero formula or plan.

“Hi there,” I start, my voice high enough to break a few beakers on its own. He doesn’t answer in any way, but his jaw flexes once. I look back at Dad’s watch even though I already saw it’s four forty. “Looks like Corbin was right,” I continue in bat-ear frequency. “Did you sleep well? I sure did . . . this desk is so cozy.” Still no response from him whatsoever. “I was going to come back before four but—ah—I’m so thrilled you came here instead because I can show you my—umm—workstation.” That earns me a blink. “Oh, good, you’re thrilled, too.” I hold out my hand, teetering to my bench scrubbed spotless with not a single item of interest on it. “So this is me . . . and over there is Graham who will be here in an hour and a half . . . strong emotions near his beloved 2-AG will give him an aneurism . . . and over there are some beakers . . . oh, have you ever seen a Bunson burner? I think you may be cousins—”

“Enough!” His voice is low and hoarse, yet it silences me more than his dragon roar. He doesn’t move, but his hands clench in fists. “Do you have any idea how it felt to wake up and not see you there?” The question is a strangled whisper. “Any idea at all how worried, how sickened I was?” A shudder runs through him. “I thought I had hurt you in my sleep. I was searching the sheets, the floor for any drop of blood only to find your ridiculous note and then worry more that you were out driving at night stressed, with no sleep, not answering your phone—what if you had gotten hurt?” He shudders again and throws the lab coat on the desk, breathing hard.

I, on the other hand, can’t breathe at all. How did I manage to torment him when I was trying to protect him? How did I cause the exact fear I’m trying to heal here in this lab? How could I have added even one minute of pain to the horror he already lived through yesterday and the horror he will live through again today?

I run straight to him, wrapping my hands around his fists. “I’m so sorry, my love. I fell asleep and didn’t hear my phone, and even worse, I was reckless. You have every right to be furious.” His fists soften in my hands, and his breathing slows. “I’ll never put you through that again,” I promise, leaning my head on his chest.

He takes a deep breath and wraps his arms around me. “Do you know what you mean to me, Elisa? What you would have done to us both if something had happened to you?”

I nod against his T-shirt that he barely must have thrown on. “I do because I know what you mean to me.”

“Then why did you come back here last night? What was so important that couldn’t wait until you got some rest?”

I look up at his anxious eyes, and the words I never wanted to weigh on him spill out. “It’s the protein . . . it’s failing. I had an idea about how to save it, but even that I don’t think I can solve on time now. I know you don’t want me to stress about it, but I can’t do that, Aiden, I have to try. I want us to have every chance and every weapon we can get. But I’m losing this one. Losing it for you, losing it for my dad . . . ” As soon as I say the words, they become real. The truth and exhaustion break through, and the tears start, splashing down my cheeks like his petals. Was it only seven hours ago that we were tangled together under the roses?

“Oh, my love.” He folds me into his chest and carries me back to my chair, sitting with me on his lap. “You’re not losing anything for us—this isn’t your fault. How could it be, loving and brave and bright as you are? Shh, don’t cry. It’ll be all right. We’re fighting together now.” He tips up my face, brushing away my tears. His forehead is lined with worry like his heart line at the lab. That brings me back to my senses. Haven’t I caused him enough grief for a day? For his whole life? I wipe my nose, trying to smile.

“You’re right— we are together, and I don’t want to waste another minute crying. Let’s get some fresh air for a while before I have to come back for Graham and Edison. I’ll be better about sleep tonight.”

He cups my cheek, shaking his head. “Show me the problem, love. Show me what’s upsetting you so I can see if I can help.”

“No, you have enough on your plate, you don’t need to learn chemistry, too.”

“I don’t give a fuck what’s on my plate if you’re hurting. Show me before Graham comes. ”

“But you don’t want anything to do with the protein.”

“I want everything to do with you. And if I can’t convince you not to worry about it, then at least let me help.”

“Really?”

“Really, but only if you give me a real smile. I can’t stand seeing you in pain, Elisa.”

His lips lift into an automatic smile in response to my own, except his is a lot more beautiful. I kiss the corner of his mouth and tell him everything. It feels like it did by my parents’ grave—like the moment I tell him my problems, they split in half or we become double-strong. I show him the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules and the one hundred compounds that increase CREB proteins. “So, you see, we need the protein to emulate my calming effect on you so we can boost its power—maybe instead of twenty percent, we can make it forty or fifty. But the problem is there are too many choices. So I need to cross-reference these CREB compounds against all the ingredients in the four hundred thirty ampules and eliminate all oxytocin formulas that contain any compound that increases CREB proteins. And hopefully the options I’ll need to test will be more manageable then.”

He has absorbed everything—names and concepts that took me entire semesters. “Sounds like a perfect job for my brain.” His eyes are already scanning the labels of the ampules, capturing the ingredients list. “I won’t be any help with the experiment, but combinatorial calculations are my thing. That was going to be my specialty at the CIA.”

“You really think you have time to help me with everything else you have to do?”

He nods, eyes racing over the CREB list—no notes, no screenshots, nothing but his own mind. “How many ampules can you test per day while still getting at least seven hours of sleep?”

“One, two at most before Graham comes in or after he leaves.”

“So we need to narrow down the options to about eighty and we need it stat so you have the rest of the summer to test?”

“Ideally even less than eighty, but if you do this, it frees me up to research other ways to identify the right oxytocin and how much to add.”

“And to sleep.” He strides straight to the cooler of oxytocin and starts turning the ampules so he can see the ingredient list for each.

“Aiden, Graham will be here in an hour. We can come back tonight.” I glance at my watch, a new worry gnawing at me. The last thing I need is for Graham to catch us here.

“We’ll be gone by then,” he answers with confidence, never looking away from the ampules.

“But—”

“Give me fifteen minutes.”

I fall silent, watching him mesmerized. I realize until now I’ve never truly seen him work. Everything I’ve seen him process—from complex financial documents and stock analyses to the books he reads in hours, sometimes minutes—must be as effortless to him as the periodic table is to me. But now that I see him really use his mind, I’m awed. He is memorizing about twenty ampules per minute, slowed only by the time it takes to turn them over for his eyes to photograph the ingredient list and place them back in their previous position. And I finally witness the processing speed that so astonished the Edinburgh scientists—it is not something anyone can envision without seeing it in action. He stops exactly in fifteen minutes as he predicted.

“There,” he says. “Now we can leave.”

He smiles when I just stare with an open mouth, unable to form any words. “There are some benefits to my mind, I acknowledge that.” He grabs me by the hand and helps me put back the books and erase all evidence of my work—he of course left nothing behind. In five more minutes, we’re done. He throws my dad’s lab coat over my shoulders and rushes me out of the lab as I finally manage to find some words.

“So how did you get in? Can you secretly walk through walls, too?”

He chuckles. “Nope, I innocently told one of the researchers in the lobby that you forgot your father’s lab coat. As soon as he saw its initials, he let me in.” Of course, easy as breathing, provided that you have his brain under pressure and remember everything. I stumble next to him, stunned and wordless again, and in another two minutes, we’re out in the parking lot, not a single Graham or Edison in sight.

But Benson is there in his rental van, waiting for us, puffy eyed and in pajamas. I shouldn’t be surprised to see him—of course he would have driven Aiden here since I took the Rover—but it still takes me off guard. A new wave of guilt washes over me. “I’m sorry, Benson. I messed up your sleep, too.”

“Don’t worry, Elisa. I’m still jetlagged,” he lies with a sleepy smile.

Aiden opens the van’s back door and brings out my blanket from the cottage. Even in his panic and anger, he thought ahead for me. The tears almost start again, but I fight them off while he sends Benson back. “Thanks, Benson. I’ll take the Rover back, you get some rest.” He starts towing me toward the Rover before Benson has turned on the van’s lights.

“Where are we going?” I ask him as he tucks me in the front seat and secures my safety belt in case I find the task too onerous in my state.

“University Parks so you can take a nap.”

Despite the exhaustion that suddenly crashes over me, I smile—it will be just the two of us together for a while longer. He backs out of the parking lot and whips right on South Parks Road. I can’t look away from his face—here, caring for me while internally his brain must be already processing. “So how many ingredients were there?”

“Three thousand four hundred and forty seven,” he answers automatically. “You were right, this will take some time.”

“Bloody hell!” All the relaxed feelings disappear. “How can we possibly eliminate them on time?”

He’s racing down the empty road. “That’s my job now. Your job is to relax before you have to go back there. I’d tell you to call in sick but I don’t think you will listen.”

“You would be right.”

He sighs in a way that could only mean give me strength. In minutes, the brakes skid to a full stop at the secluded corner of the park, by River Cherwell. I grin, peering out of the window. “Did you know down the path here is where the dons of Oxford used to go for male nude bathing away from delicate female eyes?”

He chuckles. “Don’t get any ideas, Elisa. Your no-longer-delicate eyes are here to sleep. There will be no male nudity of any kind. And that’s a promise.” He gets out of the Rover quickly lest I rip off his clothes, which is entirely possible even with my current heavy limbs. By the time I unbuckle my safety belt, he is already at my door, wrapping me in the blanket like one of Maria’s empanadas. He carries me as always, striding across the soft grass to the shrubs by the river. A déjà vu of him carrying me across his Alone Place in Portland hijacks me, and I kiss his neck.

“What was that for?” he asks.

“I love you.”

“Are you after male nudity, Elisa?”

“Always, but I don’t think you will listen.”

“You would be right.”

He sets me down by a tall cluster of salvias that are blooming a deep inky purple against the still dark sky. The shrubs and stalks hide us completely as the grassland slopes toward the river. “Sleep now, love,” Aiden says, lying next to me directly on the dewy grass and pulling me in his arms.

“No, you’ll get wet. Come inside the blanket with me.”

He chuckles again. “Elisa, this is a feather mattress compared to Fallujah. Sleep.”

“We’re not in Fallujah. We’re in a quiet park together and I’m not sleeping unless you’re inside the blanket with me.”

Another deep give-me-strength sigh, but he crawls inside the blanket that stretches like a hug around us. He brings me in his chest, and his fragrant body heat envelops me, blowing the scent of the park’s lime trees into oblivion. “Happy now?” he murmurs.

“Yes.” I bury my face in the spot above his heart, knowing there are salvias, cedars, and mugwort blooming around but smelling nothing but him. I feel his nose in my hair, perhaps inhaling me too. His body relaxes like another blanket over me, as if we are back in our bedroom, but abruptly I panic.

“What is it?” he asks, sensing my tension.

“Did I ruin your happy memories of our bedroom tonight with my stupidity?”

“Of course not. That bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life. And it wasn’t stupidity, it was love.”

I want to tell him he is the most beautiful place in my life. Whether among petals or in his primordial oak or his sky-high craggy mountaintop or here in a sleepy park—nothing compares to him. But not because he has the face any angel would become a demon for. Because of all the beauty he has within.

“Are you asleep?” he whispers.

“Not yet. It feels like a dream, though.”

“Do you want me to play Für Elise so you feel like we’re at home? I thought maybe the river would help.”

Always thoughtful, always for me. “It does, but I prefer your voice. Tell me a story.”

“What kind of story would you like?”

“Tell me how you discovered that Für Elise helped you sleep.”

He hugs me closer, lips in my hair still, but his body tenses around me. “That’s a very difficult thing for me to talk about. I found it on the night you left . . .” A shudder runs through him and me.

“Then don’t.” I stop him before he forces himself to think of more torment. “Only happy memories now. Pick whatever story you want.”

His comforting, relaxed weight cocoons me again. “All right,” he murmurs after a moment, his musical voice more soothing than any lullaby. “I’ll tell you about my first memory of this park. I was seven, and my parents and I came here before my first meeting with Doctor Helen on April 12, 1987. I was a difficult child, as you might imagine. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Why could I remember everything my best friend Brandon told me but he couldn’t remember anything I told him? Why were the teachers whispering about me? Why did I have to meet with scientists instead of playing ball with the other kids? And why was mom crying at night? Anyway, when we came here that day though, it wasn’t bad. I felt somewhat normal. This was a brand-new place, no memories yet, and I could just run amok or play ball, without crystal clear images in my head every corner I turned. And mom seemed happier, too. She was smiling, as was dad. They were so hopeful the brilliant Oxford scientists would help me. And I saw them kiss. Right down Lucas Walk over there, on that bench. It was just a light kiss, but I hadn’t seen them kiss since Christmas morning in 1986—over four months prior. And in that one moment, they looked happy. It lasted seconds before they spotted me looking at them. They pulled away quickly and waved me over. I pretended to gag but went and set with them. ‘Does our kissing embarrass you?’ Mom asked. Me, the brat: ‘It’s gross, but at least you remember how to do it.’ And she laughed, Elisa. I hadn’t heard her laugh in so long—ever since my mind started showing. She kissed my cheek, as I was squirming away, and she said, “Well, you will never have that problem, Aiden-bear. When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.” I lied and told her I had kissed Jenny, Sarah, Myra, Kate, Laura, Ashley, Emily, Tara, Erica, Leah, and Anna—basically all the pretty girls in my class. She looked horrified until she saw the lie in my eyes, and then laughed again. But what she said stayed with me. That’s how I knew not to kiss on the mouth until I met a woman whose taste I’d want to remember forever in mine. Until I met you. And that’s my first memory of this park—a happy one, just like right now.”

His piano voice stops and, for a while, I don’t know whether I’m asleep or awake. But I must be awake—my mind could never conjure this. I lift my head, fighting off the wall of sleep and the heavy lids just enough to look at him. “Kiss me here then, Aiden-bear.”

He sighs again, no doubt thinking I had fallen asleep, but he kisses me. Softly, slowly, so light it could be the breeze. Or just a dream. And I drift, sleep shutting all of my mind except this one urgency of being the Oxford scientist that can save the seven-year old boy who became a soldier and is now fighting for his own peace.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 17 – WAR

Hello again friends! Hope you’re having a wonderful Sunday. It’s sunny in Portland and warm enough for shorts, which are a nice change from pandemic sweats.  Here is Chapter 17 as war starts for our couple. I hope it gives you a good break today from everything you are facing in your lives. Thank you as always to everyone for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

17

War

The lab that has studied Aiden’s mind since childhood is the size of Goliath. A dizzying number of screens glow from the vast white walls and the runway of white desks lining them—neuroscientists apparently use computers like chemists use vials. Monitors hang even from the ceiling. In each corner are clusters of futuristic equipment that looks like it belongs at the helm of a starship. But more overwhelming than all this is the platoon of neuroscientists waiting for us. Seven white coats stand in line as we walk in, two more are on video screens projected on the wall and—the only colorful wink in the white expanse—Corbin is smiling at us from yet another video screen straight from Portland.

“Aiden, Elisa, great to see you!” He waves at us in a checkered sage shirt.

“Victor,” Aiden nods at him. I wave back but I’m riveted by the woman standing in front of the line of the white coats. She is Amazonian in stature, white and silver from the crown of her short, swept back hair to her grey eyes and eyelashes. Her skin is ivory lace, each wrinkle a neural pathway leading to her steady, penetrating gaze. She is regarding me with gravitas, and I see a flicker of recognition in her eyes.

Aiden pulls me close as he introduces me with unrestrained pride. “Doctor Helen, this is my Elisa. Elisa, this is Doctor Brahms or Doctor Helen to me.”

“You are a daughter of Oxford,” Doctor Helen states like an edict. Even her voice is regal, with a ring of authority that silences the beeps and signals tweeting from the monitors.

I have to resist the urge to bow. “You knew my parents, Doctor?” My voice bends with the reflexive reverence she inspires.

“I did. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” I whisper as Aiden’s hand clutches my waist.

“Your mother was my favorite,” she adds in her commanding tone. “She helped restore Ashmole six-eleven—the very first manuscript in existence to discuss human memory.” She turns her dignified gaze on Aiden. “That was the manuscript I had to unearth the day I met you.”

At her words, the icy expanse of the lab’s tundra thaws for me, as though Mum’s warm hands are molding it to back to spring. Aiden smiles. “April twelve, 1987, six thirty, I believe. You said to my mother there was no such thing as fate to explain me.”

Doctor Helen’s grey eyes shift with a sort of wonderment when she looks at him. “I have yet to see evidence of fate. But I’ll allow serendipity. Speaking of both . . .” She turns to her team and they rumble as one. “We have a lot to do. Let’s get started.” She pivots royally to her desk, her lab coat billowing like a mantle behind her as the other researchers scramble to catch up with her ringing footsteps.

Aiden and I take our white seats in front of her—the white is so absolute, I wonder if it’s intentional to avoid triggers—and Doctor Helen introduces us to the rest of the platoon. “On the screens behind me are Doctors Nagapan and O’Connor from Edinburgh. You already know Doctor Corbin, of course, and this is our Oxford team.” She pulls out a binder from below her desk and I thaw further. It’s the only warm, personal detail against the white blank slate. The binder is covered with a collage of Van Gogh’s most famous prints—the wheat field with crows, the vase of sunflowers, the blue irises, the French Alps, his self-portrait—Javier would like it. She flips the binder open with a thud.

“Right then,” she announces. “Our plan today is to test Elisa’s calming effect on Aiden and see whether it’s simply placebo or whether there is scientific evidence of it. This will help us implement an experiment for the next eighty-seven days to reconsolidate Aiden’s memories with the hypothesis that the traumatic ones generally, and his startle reflex in particular, will decrease in intensity once allowed to freely associate with Elisa’s effect on him. Questions?” She reels all this so quickly that I have to blink a few times to realize she is looking at me—who else would have a hard time understanding this in such company?

“Umm, why does it matter whether my effect is placebo or real if it helps Aiden?” is the first question I manage, feeling utterly out of my depth. Chemicals are so predictable—memories and emotions are like fate.

But Doctor Helen regales me with a stately smile. “Excellent question, indeed. Therapeutically, Doctor Corbin would say perhaps it doesn’t matter in the short-term. But for this experiment to hold in the long run, as I understand you both wish, your effect must be real and significant at that. Any other questions?” More rapid-fire decrees, but I also can’t help but feel she wants me to keep asking. Next to me, Aiden is beaming with pride as though I’m the Einstein of neuroscience, not a blob of nerves.

“Ah . . . how do you plan to test my calming effect?” Me again, the Einstein. Except abruptly I feel exposed, riddled with a new fear I did not expect. We have taken for granted my calming effect. It’s our lodestar weapon—the mother of our bombs. Is that about to be eliminated too like the protein was this morning? And then what do we have left but our love and Aiden’s strength?

“You’ll see shortly. Aiden, did you bring the scent we requested?”

“I did,” he answers and nods at me. With trembling fingers, I hand my precious vial of Aeternum, feeling like I’m cutting out an artery of my heart. One of Doctor Helen’s assistants takes it from me with hairy bear fingers instead of the gentle, rose-breeze hold it deserves.

“Please be careful!” I urge before I can control my tongue.

“Don’t worry, Elisa, we only need a microliter of it.” Doctor Helen nods at her bear mercenary who marches out of the lab, taking my artery with him. But I can’t even stare behind it because Doctor Helen fires at us again. “Any more questions?”

Aiden asks his first. “How do you plan to trigger my startle reflex without me seeing it coming if it has to be in a controlled setting?”

Personally, I think it’s a brilliant question at the crux of the matter, but Doctor Helen simply waves her hand. “Obviously, I cannot tell you that, but trust me, I have a plan. I have known you for twenty-eight years, Aiden.”

“And this plan,” he retorts as his chair creaks with tension. “Guarantees Elisa’s safety?”

She doesn’t even blink. “It does. And if you need further reason to believe that, I owe it to her mother.”

That seems to pacify him for the moment while my nerves are buzzing like the hundreds of monitors around me. “And your sleep?” Corbin pipes up. “Have you tested it together with Für Elise?”

I clap my eyes on the Van Gogh prints, and let Aiden handle this one. “We have,” he answers in his controlled tone. “Two nights so far. Full eight hours the first, only three last night, but that was an exception and it’s changing tonight. No nightmares. Little movement. Some increased . . . nocturnal activity.”

The Starry Night is a true masterpiece, isn’t it?

“Full eight hours, really? That’s two hours extra than just Für Elise alone. Let’s keep track of that. Now, what is this increase in nocturnal activity?”

Artists are so warm unlike my next of kin in science who decide to torture me more with questions about our nocturnal activities—all of which make Corbin gleefully happy and Aiden monosyllabic with Aidenisms. I stare at Van Gogh’s self-portrait in the asylum, feeling like our most precious moments, our secret parts—every touch, every caress—is being siphoned into their clinical files. And although I know they’re our allies, maybe even generals in this war, my nerves disappear and abruptly I feel anger. Anger at science, anger at fate that Doctor Helen says doesn’t exist.

Finally the interminable discussion of nocturnal activities ends and Doctor Helen stands. The rest of them stand with her—very clearly not daring to blink without her command. “Aiden, you know this next part. We’ll need your heart rate and brain electrical activity. Elisa, you may stay with him for this. We’ll instruct you on next steps when you’re finished. Everyone except Morse, out with me.” She closes her Van Gogh binder and strides out of the lab with her court of scientists at the same time that the Edinburgh team and Corbin turn off their screens. The only one left is old Morse. He is a Graham-thin fellow in his seventies with wispy, static white hair; Aiden clearly likes him.

“How have you been keeping, Morse?” Aiden asks as he stands, holding out his hand for me. I take it, clueless about where we’re going, wishing I could take the Van Gogh binder with me.

“Oh, older and slower, Master Aiden. You are the one with the exciting life. Falling in love—golly gumdrops, I thought the monarchy would fall before I saw that.”

Master Aiden winks at me. “Old Morse is a monarchist. He’s been handling this part of the circus since I was seven. No one could get me to sit still for this back then except him. You’ll see why.”

I smile at old Morse as though he is Aiden’s Mr. Plemmons. He shuffles with us across the colossal lab to a monitor the size of a windshield, which is attached to a dashboard of countless buttons and dials the way a cockpit looks on TV. Next to it are two more white chairs.

“Morse has to attach a few electrodes on me, Elisa. Have a seat.” Aiden brushes my cheek and starts unbuttoning his blue shirt. I fall down on the chair and with every pore of his revealed skin—the warm skin I love, the skin I have kissed more times than I can count—the anger returns. Anger that his golden skin has to be exposed under harsh fluorescents, attached to electrodes in the cold, sterile air of this lab, only so that we can be together. Only for this simple, human dream of being in love.

“I’m fine,” Aiden assures me, seeing it all on my face. Shirtless now, he takes the chair in front of me and old Morse starts hooking him to a wheat field of wires over Aiden’s temples where the bead of sweat glimmered as he was climbing the oak, over his forehead I kissed only this morning, through his hair where I knot my fingers when we make love, over his chest where I rest my cheek. When Morse glues the next one over Aiden’s heart, I stand, unable to sit still.

“Elisa, love, this doesn’t hurt, I promise. Old Morse knows what he’s doing.”

“Oh, I know, I just want to look around.”

I glare at the blank monitor screen attached to Aiden’s electrodes, its beeps cawing around us like the wheat field crows. And suddenly I become Van Gogh’s sunflowers—firing seeds like bullets at the world. I am his cypress tree darkening your sky so my star can glow. And I can understand preferring an asylum to a world that did this to my love.

“Don’t touch the red, dear! You don’t want to fry Master Aiden’s brain now, do you?” Old Morse cautions me as I hover over the dashboard where the wires are ready to extract the inner Aiden, reducing the wonder that is him to more beeps. How could I have been excited for this? How could I have bounced on my car seat this morning? Now all I feel are murders of crows diving in and out of me.

“Of course not!” I spit out more sunflower seeds, glaring at the row of red buttons on the dashboard—the blood hue feels jarring to Van Gogh’s colors swirling in me.

But Aiden is perfectly still. His eyes are the blue irises, lightening and darkening as I flit in and out of his vision.  His torso is the inverse mountaintop of the French Alps despite the adhesive discs on his skin. His eyes are following me with concern, and he opens his hand in invitation for me to sit back down. I perch like a raven on the chair next to him and grip his warm, strong hand in both of mine.

“Please relax,” he says as though he sees all the madness inside. “I’ve done this dozens of times, although I’ve never enjoyed it until now. And in about three minutes, you get to meet my brain. You love that part. Think about that, okay?” The dimple winks like the starriest star of the Starry Night as he tries to comfort me. The man who needs peace the most is trying to assure me. At that, the rippling stops inside me, and the crows disappear. I am here for him, not the other way around. I force my body to be still like his, willing my calm effect to fall around him like a shield. Finally the last electrode is attached, old Morse flips a switch on the dashboard, and the monitor glows to life. After a flicker, Aiden’s brain waves oscillate brilliant blue on the huge screen and right below them, in gold, is his heartbeat.

“Oh!” I gasp, my hands flying to my mouth, all anger draining out of me.

Shh, listen,” Aiden says with a smile and I cup my ear as we did with the willows. After a static whirr, I can hear his mind speak. It’s a humming sound, a bit like soft waterfall and echoing wind. And every few flickers of the brain waves, his heart beeps as though not wanting to be outshone. Except this beep sounds like a piano note—not a caw—to me, more beautiful than Für Elise.

“Can you make out words from this one?” Aiden’s eyes are dancing in response to the wonder he must be seeing in mine. Peripherally, I register old Morse leaving us but I’m lost in the music of Aiden’s mind and heart. Mmm, ding,

“Mine,” I decide, eyes on the monitor. How could I have wanted to shatter it five minutes ago?

“Yours.” The waves flutter gently on the screen and my eyes fly to Aiden’s face—he is smiling. “Come here, Elisa,” he murmurs as if we’re in our warm bed, the only two people in the world. He pulls me on his lap and takes my face in his hands. His eyes seem to take in the moment, as his scent washes over me—headier than the Aeternum perfume. Then his lips brush against mine. At the some moment, a beep chimes from his heart.

“Oh!” I gasp again, eyes flitting to the monitor, lips glued to his. The gold line of his heart is spiking. His hands tighten on my face, bringing me entirely back to him, as he parts my mouth with his tongue. More beeps ding—the song of our kiss—and I close my eyes, listening. Ding, ding, ding. We chuckle together, mouth to mouth.

“Look,” he whispers, freeing my face as his lips start their favorite trail along my jawline to my ear, inhaling the perfume there. I open my eyes and gaze at the screen even as my eyelids want to flutter close. But I cannot blink because the heart waves are swelling and dipping. Then suddenly the beeps go wild—I panic but then I feel his body hardening against me on his lap. He chuckles again. “This, I have to see.” He meets this part of himself—the visual transcription of his desire for me—with curiosity. I hope he can turn it into self-love, I hope he can see what I see.

“Now you look,” I tell him and let my lips travel over his sculpted jaw down to the hollow on his throat away from the electrodes. The dings go mental, and his waterfall laughter washes over us. How are we ever going to pull apart?

But Doctor Helen’s brisk voice blasts through the lab over some sound system. “All right, you two. We need a baseline reading. Some neutral thoughts would help, Aiden. Elisa, if you could go across the room. In fact, if you could please wait outside the lab altogether while we finish. You can see Aiden afterwards.”

“Look what you did.” Aiden grins while I spring away from his lap, cheeks burning.

“They could see us?” I whisper in mortification.

“Of course not. They must have just received the data, and they know how to interpret it. Go on, love, I’ll finish here soon.”

I leave him there with all my strength, looking back at his face every few slowing beeps—his smile is fading with each step I take. The moment the heavy lab doors close behind me, the wound starts to fester again. I pace at the threshold, arms around my torso. If it hurts so much when we’re only apart for a few minutes, how will I live with it if this experiment doesn’t work?

One of Doctor Helen’s assistants enters a room down the hall, and I sprint behind him to sneak. The metal door has a narrow glass pane at the top, and I have to rise on my tiptoes to reach it. Even then I can only see more screens on the wall showing the monitor in the lab. To my untrained brain, it appears Aiden’s brain activity and heart lines are straighter than when I was there. I stare at every slight undulation, barely breathing.

“All right, Aiden, we have what we need. Morse will clear you and I’ll give you time to go to the fMRI room for the next part,” Doctor Helen says from behind the closed door. I race back to Aiden’s lab for a glimpse of him. The moment he comes out in his jeans and open shirt, all electrodes and adhesive discs gone, I can tell from his guarded eyes that he is not excited about this part. But he smiles when he sees me and pulls me against him with a sort of urgency.

“What happens now?” I ask as he starts walking down another white hallway opposite from the kiss lab. His long stride is slower.

“This is when they scan this beast.” He points at his temple.

Before I can find any useful words, he has stopped by yet another white door at the end of the hall. “I have to go in, Elisa. I’ll see you on the other side.” He kisses my hair and then he is gone without a smile. The door closes behind him with a click. A spike of fear lances the wound’s raw edges, rooting me here, palms against the cold door. There is no audible movement for a while, then it sounds like another door is opening within the same room. The sound releases my feet and I dash back to the control center, reaching on my tiptoes to see. But all the screens on the wall are dark. No one says a word as my toes start to wobble . . . Phosphorus, 30.974 . . . silver, 107.87 . . .

“Aiden, can you hear me?” Doctor Helen finally calls from behind the door. I can’t hear Aiden respond, but she must because she adds, “Very well. This will be hard, but you know the process. Lie still, blink and swallow as little as possible, and look at the photographs that will appear on the screen right above you. Forty-five minutes as usual, but after that, Elisa will join you. Try to hold on to that. We start in . . . three, two, one.”

Then the room goes dark and there is total silence. Not a single syllable or movement. Not one sound to tell me what is happening to Aiden. The pain in my chest rises up my throat, constricting it with panic. The white hallway becomes a tunnel of ice, and my teeth start chattering. It takes exactly one minute to realize I cannot breathe through forty-four more minutes of this. Without a second thought, I pound on the door. One of the researchers opens it with wide outraged eyes, but I’m past caring.

“I have to see,” I say, my own voice sounding foreign to my ears.

“Let her in,” Doctor Helen calls, and I step inside quietly, squishing myself into the corner behind the door. The control room is pitch-black except the monitors. Each scientist is at his or her desk, studying their own screens displaying numbers and patterns I cannot comprehend. One central monitor shows what I assume is Aiden’s brain and the way blood is flowing through it like a storm. Doctor Helen sits at the helm of the room, her back to everyone else, but that’s exactly what I need. Because I can see the wide screen she is commanding where a reel of photographs plays with eye-watering speed. I try to blink as little as possible as I realize these must be the images she is feeding Aiden in the MRI machine. They seem innocuous at first, without a visible pattern to me. Traffic light, Christmas tree, chess set, a blue bike, on and on, a few hundred. Then abruptly my own face startles me—the photo of me sleeping, the only one Aiden had before he came to England. And after my face, the reel changes—people now. Some I know, some I don’t, some I can guess: Aiden’s parents, Benson, Cora, James, two others I assume to be Hendrix and Jazzman, a military headshot of a young Black man in his Marine blues, countless unknown others, again in the hundreds, again with no pattern I can decipher. Then the reel changes quickly a third time—these images are more familiar, warming me. An Aeternum rose, a stave of music from Für Elise, Javier’s fateful painting of my jawline, a Baci chocolate, purple eyes . . . My eyes fill with tears as I realize she is feeding Aiden every image he must associate primarily with me.

I almost miss the next abrupt change of the reel from my tears. Then once I see it, I wish I had never seen. Because the images they are blasting on Aiden now are of terror, gruesome to the extreme. A military helmet splattered with human brains, disembodied torn human limbs, an imploded rib cage glistening in the sun, half a little boy, a flayed corpse, a face that once must have been human before it was peeled, eyes gauged out, nose, lips, and ears scraped off, and the young Black Marine who, with a strangle in my throat, I conclude must be Marshall.

“Stop!” I shout, bolting to my feet, my voice echoing in the control room as all the scientists except Doctor Helen gasp and leap off their seats. I jump forward to—what, do something, anything to the screen of horror—but the bear assistant throws himself in front of me, glaring in disbelief. “Don’t show Aiden those! Please!” I cry, trying to get around him.

But it’s Doctor Helen who speaks in an even tone never looking away from the screen or stopping the reel of terror. “We have to, Elisa. Now, please, we need quiet, or I’ll ask you to leave.”

The bear blocks my view of the screen, towering over me until I fall back on my corner and sink to the floor. He flits back to his desk, freeing my line of sight again. I should close my eyes, but I don’t because if Aiden has to see these, so will I. My stomach heaves violently, bile rising to my clamped teeth—over and over until my insides are burning with acid. A knifepoint pain stabs through my skull, dulling even the throbbing in my chest. I clamp my arms around my knees, pressing my back against the corner, rocking in place to fight off the shudders, as Doctor Helen triggers Aiden’s traumatic memories, searing his retinas while he is captive in the MRI machine with hundreds of sickening, macabre images. It’ll be over soon. It’ll be over soon, my love. Only twenty minutes left. Then we can go back to the cottage where Mum’s magic will help you, and you can sleep while I go back to Bia—to the lab that is trying to fight fear, not inflict it.

Doctor Helen changes the reel again, now alternating the horrific images with the images Aiden associates with me. Marshall—my face, flayed corpse—my face, dismembered body—Aeternum, on and on. Bile rises again and I grip my skull as I stare in horror at what he is living through for us. Then the speed of the reel skyrockets until the images become so blurry I can no longer distinguish them from each other.

“Is he truly processing at this speed?” Doctor O’Connor’s voice pipes through a speakerphone, and I realize the computer is feeding the same images to him in Scotland. Rage burns my throat as I try to find air now that the images have blurred for me.

“Yes, he is,” Doctor Helen responds in a majestic tone that makes me want to scream. “He is extraordinary. We cannot explain him.”

“But maybe we can help him,” Corbin says over the phone with a protective edge and, if he were here, I would hug him. Or ask him to hug me.

Doctor Helen does not respond in any way. Her silence strangles me more than the reel of terror, more than the failed oxytocin this morning. Is she silent because she doesn’t think we can win? Because she doesn’t think we can save Aiden?

“Last wave,” she announces and, for some reason, they all sit up straighter while I shrink smaller. The reel is still too fast for me so I fix my eyes on the image of Aiden’s brain. The brain I wanted so much to meet. The brain that is absorbing image after image of trauma so that Aiden and I can be together. But now that it’s here in front of me, I only see Aiden’s heart.

At long last the reel stops, landing with the image of me sleeping. My face fills the screen—calm and peaceful, hopefully filtering that peace straight into Aiden’s mind.

“Aiden,” Doctor Helen speaks on her microphone, and I jump to my feet again, fighting off dizziness. There is no response from him whatsoever. “The worst is over. Remain still and keep your eyes on Elisa’s photo.” Then she turns to me. “Elisa, if you could join Aiden now in the fMRI room, please? Richard will show you. Quickly. We need to capture these next few minutes.”

I barely hear her last words because I’m already bursting out the door, not waiting for Richard who runs after me. I streak down the hall toward the last room Aiden entered, but Richard leaps in front of me.

“Miss Snow!” he cries, hands out to stop me. “You have to remove your clothing in this room first and all metal from your body. The MRI machine is very strong. There are lockers for your valuables and another door that will lead you straight to it.”

“Fine, fine,” I shout, ducking past him and shoving open the door. It’s some sort of antechamber, but I see Aiden’s belt, shoes, and clothes folded neatly on a bench. I rip off my blouse and jeans, cursing the underwire of my bra. My only valuable—Dad’s watch—goes inside a locker, and I throw a gown over me. Then I wrench open the other door, plunging down another endless hall to the clearly labeled MRI room. I burst through those doors too, wanting nothing but to take Aiden in my arms away from all these computers and horror. But I can’t because he is still inside an astronautic-looking MRI pod.

“Elisa, are you in?” Doctor Helen’s voice blares through an overhead speaker.

“I am,” I gasp, hoping she can hear me.

“Good. Aiden, this part is new to you, too. We have never done this before. We will slide out the bed so that you’re out of the bore waist down. Then we will continue the imaging, so don’t talk or move. Starting in . . . three, two, one.” She counts evenly and the MRI bed rolls out, exposing Aiden’s long legs and narrow waist. He is covered with a pale blue sheet except his toes.

“Now, continue to remain as still as you can. I’ll ask Elisa to come stand next to you and say your name when she’s there. Do not speak. Elisa, now please.”

I sprint to Aiden, forcing myself to say his name as I normally would, not gasp it. I hope I sounded calm, I hope he can hear me.

“Very good,” Doctor Helen coaches. “Aiden, same orders: no movement or talking—we are still imaging. You will be smelling Elisa’s perfume in . . . three, two, one.” A stream of air blasts everywhere, making me shiver in my thin gown, but not because it’s cold. Because the scent of Aeternum floods the room and presumably the MRI bore. I gulp it, closing my eyes, gathering all my strength from every corner of my mind like he gathered roses across the globe for me. The perfume fortifies me like a tonic, and I brace myself for whatever comes next.

“Now then,” Doctor Helen speaks. “Elisa, please take Aiden’s hand gently and again say his name when you do so. Aiden, continue not to move, no matter how much you might want to. In . . . three, two, one.”

I reach under the blue sheet and find his hand. It’s curled into a shuddering granite fist. I wrap both my hands around it. “Aiden,” I say, and the shaking slows a fraction, but the fist remains locked.

“Well done,” says Doctor Helen. “Now the last part. Elisa, I’d like you to talk to Aiden. I want you to describe the present moment to him as if he is unable to see it. Bring him back to you, as it were. Aiden, your job is to focus every single thought on Elisa, continue to watch her image on the screen, and stay away from the images you just saw as much as possible. Feel what you need to feel, but listen to her voice and continue to stay still. We will start in . . . three, two, one.”

Wait, I want to call. Wait, I’m not ready. But Aiden is stuck in some horror while I scramble to find words. I draw another gulp of Aeternum air, and start. “Hi, my love,” I say, not caring who else hears except him. “I’m here. Where is here, you might ask. Here is a white room, with four white walls, smelling like the most beautiful memory in the world. Or in practical terms, like hundreds of Aeternum roses that you shipped for me from Kenya because I had never seen them. Isn’t that incredible? But more incredible than that is this moment right here. Just the two of us, you inside this white MRI machine under a blue sheet and me in a matching blue gown standing next to you in my rose socks, holding each other’s hand because this moment right here is your our fight and I’m so proud of you. That’s why this moment is more important even than Aeternum night. And also because I can see your toes. I’ve never told you, but I love your toes. Who knew there was such a specific type of love? But there it is, making my own toes wiggle in response. There’s some track lighting too—it’s a bit harsh, you wouldn’t like it, but I like it because it lets me see some of you even if you are under a sheet. I hope you’re not cold. It’s a little nippy here. But my hands are warm around yours so think about that and come back to me when ready. I’ll be right here. I love you.”

I stop talking, worried I said too much, too little, too fast, too slow. I don’t know—but I tried to deploy some of our collected weapons: our love, humor, his fighting spirit. Maybe that helped. The fist stopped shaking and has opened.

“Excellent work, both of you.” Dr. Helen’s voice booms over the intercom. “We have what we need. Aiden, you can relax but try to stay in the moment. We’ll give you some time and privacy, and then we’ll discuss.”

The static of the microphone cuts off and the MRI bed slides out, jettisoning Aiden in front of me. I immediately find his eyes—they’re bottomless ocean blue, the depths ravaged by the horrors the images must have triggered, but they are lightening. Specks of turquoise are already flickering.

“Thank you,” he says, and the hell he must have lived through is in his voice, too. It’s slow, hoarse, the way one might sound after a long illness. He takes a shuddering breath and stretches, searching his body that tenses here and there. I give him time as he opens and closes his hands, rolls his wrists and shoulders, wiggles his toes. He smiles then—a worn, exhausted smile that barely lifts the corners of his lips, but a smile still. “Toes?”

“Toes and everything.”

I sit on the edge of the narrow MRI bed, ready to give him more time but he opens his arms—they seem heavy. “Come here,” he says as he did before.

I lift his sheet—he is wearing his grey briefs underneath—and lie gently on top of him because the MRI table is too narrow for both of us. His heartbeat is fast under my ear. He folds his arms around me and I feel his lips in my hair. He is Van Gogh’s Alps again but this time in wrought iron, shoulders rippling like the wheat field, skin frozen like the Alps’ snow, breathing wounded and clipped. He doesn’t talk. I search through our weapons to help him stay in the moment and find one. His words of self-love. “You’re loyal. You’re strong. You’re loving. You’re fucking smart. You’re an excellent fighter. You always win. You’re thoughtful. You are loved.”

And Aiden comes back with a shaky breathless sound that could be a chuckle. His fingers trace my spine over the thin cotton of the gown. I lift my head and watch his eyes clear as they gaze back at me until they beam with my turquoise. At that moment, he kisses me lightly, holding his mouth to mine. I follow his lead, and at length his body comes to life. The heaviness becomes strength—I feel it in his hold, in the way his hands clutch my waist, travel up my arms, and knot in my hair. His lips brush along my jawline, down my neck, and he pulls the gown off my shoulder, kissing to the very tip. By the time he is back at my mouth, the Alps of his body are a different mountain—vibrant and warm, rippling with a faint breeze of desire. But he simply holds me, his fingers memorizing my skin.

“It was a lot easier this time . . . with you.” His voice is back to its beautiful husky timbre, although slower.

I kiss above his heart, fighting a shudder at his words. If this was a lot easier, how was it without me? At least he has a three-month break until he has to be inside this torture chamber again. At least the next eighty-seven triggers will be just Aiden and me in our cottage with Mum’s magic. And I’ll do everything I can to make them the best eighty-seven days of his life. A thousand happy memories to each horrific one.

The telltale static of the sound system makes us both tense. “Aiden, Elisa, if you feel ready, could you join us in the control room?” Doctor Helen calls.

We climb off the MRI bed, neither of us looking back at it. We help each other get dressed in the antechamber—not because we need the help, but because we need the touch—and plod down the halls to the neuroscientists.

But only Doctor Helen and her Van Gogh binder are in the command center now, as well as Corbin over the phone. We take the two seats in front of her, never releasing each other’s hand. Did we win this battle? Or are we about to lose more?

“Aiden, how are you feeling?” she starts with him, as she should. Yet, I taste anger in my tongue. Even if she’s trying to help us, she will always be Doctor Pain to me now.

“Better,” he answers politely. “Much better than five years ago when we last did this.”

“That’s wonderful,” says Corbin; it sounds like he is clapping. “Well done, both of you.”

“You certainly look better and sooner,” Doctor Pain agrees. “And that’s a good place to start. With the encouraging news.” She bestows a nearly invisible smile on us—noticeable only because the gravitas of her face is so absolute. I grip Aiden’s hand tighter. “There is little doubt now that Elisa’s calming effect is more than placebo. It’s very much real to you and its impact on your brain is no different than a powerful injection of serotonin.”

“Of course it’s real. It’s too strong to be anything but,” Aiden responds with conviction as if he never doubted this part, while I draw the first effortless breath since smelling the Aeternum. We get to keep the mother of bombs.

Doctor Pain gives him one stately nod. “That strength, however, is hard to quantify. But based on the fear-related brain areas with heightened CREB protein, we guess Elisa’s effect reduces your terror by about twenty-thirty percent.”

Something about her words tickles a memory of my own but I have no power to chase it because she just drained me with her last two words. “That’s all?” I ask, unable to control the fear in my voice.

“That can’t be right,” Aiden argues. “It feels a lot stronger than that. You saw how quickly she brought me back. About half the time of my best record on medication.”

“I saw. And it’s possible that Elisa’s effect is stronger—our experiment is limited by laboratory conditions. We tried to approximate her presence as much as possible inside the MRI bore with her picture, smell, voice, and touch, but we were lacking the sense of taste and of course the sum of her and the two of you alone together without my voice interfering which of course you associate with unpleasantness and pain. But the point is that we are unable to give it beyond twenty-thirty percent.”

When neither of us can speak—I because all I hear is eighty percent chance of losing this war, Aiden for whatever reason that’s making his jaw clench—Doctor Pain continues. “That said, there is something surprising we discovered about Elisa’s effect on you. It appears to be particularly effective at counteracting images of war.” She gives us another regal smile that I cannot return.

“What does that mean?” I ask. “Is that good or bad?”

The regal smile remains, but her eyes seem to soften when she turns to me. “I believe it to be encouraging.”

“By all means, take your time to explain,” Aiden says in his arctic tone, and I have a mad Van Goghian desire to laugh, if I could move my face.

Doctor Pain’s near-smile becomes more visible. “It means that although Javier’s painting is what brought Elisa’s effect to life, it was very clearly conceived a lot earlier by you yourself, Aiden. We believe it goes back to your war letters. In a nutshell, when you were surrounded by war atrocities, you calmed yourself by writing letters to an unknown woman. And your powerful memory started to associate the idea of being in love with this mysterious woman with being at peace. When Javier practically handed such a woman to you in a frame, he completed a process that had already started twelve years before. That’s why Elisa is able to bring you back from images of war much more quickly. Because you chose her. Your memory itself gave her that power. And I hope in the end that will make a difference.”

“How big a difference?” Aiden’s voice is soft now, perhaps with the same wonder, the same H-O-P-E that is flooding me. Somehow knowing that my effect on Aiden is by his mind’s own choice makes me feel like we belong together in a real, not magical way.

“Unknown. All of this is conjecture at this point. We are not operating within known scientific concepts when it comes to you.”

“But you have designed an action plan for us?” Aiden prompts.

“We have. You just did your first session of it. You’ll need to trigger yourself with traumatic images and have Elisa bring you back to the present moment as she did now but to the full extent of your senses, every day for the next eighty-seven days, at the same time, the same place away from the bedroom or anywhere you associate with rest.”

Aiden nods tensely in understanding, but I no longer feel the chair underneath me. “Excuse me, what do you mean ‘first session’? What do you mean ‘traumatic images’?”

Aiden’s thumb rubs my palm as if to comfort me, but she picks up a box from the desk and brings it on her lap, glancing at me with a trace of concern. I watch in horror as she takes out a monitor wearable over the eyes, like a virtual reality headset, and hands it to Aiden. “This has been uploaded with all the images you saw during the fMRI. You will have to watch them every day, Aiden. I’m very sorry, but it’s the best way.”

“No!” I gasp, jumping to my feet again and grabbing the headset before it can touch his fingertips.

“Elisa, be careful with that!” Doctor Pain’s clinical tone betrays the first note of anxiety as she stretches out her hand. The Van Gogh in me wants to smash the implement of torture on the polished floor. I clutch it to my chest instead.

“Love, what’s the matter?” Aiden rises on his feet too, brushing my cheek—still slower than his usual reflexes. “This isn’t like you.”

“I don’t want you watching these images again. I saw them, Aiden. They’re awful.”

Where the prospect of watching the reel of terror eighty-seven more times didn’t shake him, hearing I watched it once does. He blanches and his entire frame locks in horror. “You saw them?” The strangled question is clearly meant for me but he turns his lethal gaze on Doctor Pain, and for a moment he looks truly frightening. He looks exactly like the Marine who lived the atrocities I only saw in pictures.

“It wasn’t her fault,” I intervene despite my own problems with the regal neuroscientist. “I barged in after snooping. And yelled at everyone.” I peek at Doctor Pain, face hot enough to power all the monitors. “I’m very sorry about that, Doctor.”

“It’s quite understandable.” She nods and meets Aiden’s sniper glare without flinching. “She had a right to see them. This is her fight, too. She clearly loves you very much.”

He turns his eyes back to me, but they’re wild with anxiety now. He cups my neck, except it feels like he is checking for vital signs. “Are you all right?”

“How could I be all right, Aiden? I’m worried sick about you. Watching these horrors every day is torture.”

His hands come around my face, light as if I might break. “Love, please sit. Don’t worry about me, I can handle it,” he pleads. His voice is tender with the concern I’m adding to the agony that must already be burning him. I drop on the chair, gripping the torture headset. He sits down too but shifts his chair so close to me that our arms are touching. His hands are open, ready to catch the monitor that will brutalize him in case I drop it.

“Doctor, please!” I look only at Doctor Pain now, and all my anger at her drains away, all that’s left is terror for him. “This is too much. Why can’t Aiden simply summon a memory on his own instead of watching these? I thought that was the plan.”

“I’m sorry, Elisa, that was our initial idea but it won’t work based on the tests we just ran. Aiden’s brain is too powerful for that, his memory too smart, too quick and adaptable. We have to meet it at its level, while combining exposure therapy with reconsolidation. Please trust that we considered all other methods.”

A total silence follows her words, and I wish Corbin would speak or Mum and Dad would alight from above to put an end to this, to show us another path that doesn’t involve Aiden walking barefoot through the fires of Iraq to come to me. But Aiden pries the implement of torture from my grip—pries it by gently opening each finger one by one—and takes it from me.

“I’ll do it,” he says with finality, leaving no room for argument. There is no hesitation in his voice, no fear. Nothing but resolve.

“Wait!” I gasp again. “Can’t he at least alternate—one day with images, one day by himself? Or would it help if I watched with him on a TV or something? Please?”

“Over my dead body!” Aiden snarls, angling himself as though to hide me from the world. He holds the headset of horror behind his back where he knows very well no one will reach.

Doctor Pain’s face softens in a maternal way that startles me, and she takes my hand. Her touch is not cold, as I expected it to be—it’s warm and tender, like crimpled organza. “Elisa, daughter of Clare, you are so very much like your mother even though everyone says you have Peter’s talent. How I wish I could say to you there was an easier way. But Aiden’s startle reflex is too strong, child. This is the best method that stands a chance at helping him. Many others are more traumatizing or dangerous if you can believe me.”

Abruptly, she becomes Doctor Helen again. Next to me, Aiden relaxes now that she has ruled in favor of him being the only one to watch the horror. “How high is that chance?” he asks. “Knowing that I’ll do this regardless.”

Doctor Helen releases my hand, but the maternal edge stays on her face when she looks at him. “Unknown. Unknown how high. Unknown if it will work at all. Science can’t give you any answers for this. You will have to give the answers to science.”

I grip Aiden’s hand again, and Doctor Helen sees it. “But you do have a choice.” She regards us both now, and the gravitas returns to her face.

“We do?” I whisper, and I no longer know to whom. To science or magic?

Doctor Helen is the only one who answers. “Of course. There is always a choice. Option one, you do this—you stand to risk everything or gain everything. Option two, do nothing—continue as you are but risk Elisa’s safety and Aiden’s sanity if another attack happens again. Option three, you say goodbye now—you lose each other, but perhaps someday science discovers something new, although we cannot promise that will happen.”

A deep chill falls over the control room—or perhaps it’s just me. And the space feels cavernous, but perhaps it’s the wound in my chest that just ripped wide open. The air feels muddy and liquid too—but maybe it’s the river water. And I don’t see the overhead track lighting—it’s extinguished like the dark void before and the dark void after Aiden. No stars, just endless night.

I realize now that Aiden and I have turned toward each other reflexively. His eyes find mine, agonized as though he is back in the MRI.

“We’ll give you a moment,” Doctor Helen’s voice sounds faded but Corbin speaks for the first time.

“One second, Doctor, if I could add my two cents. You are the memory expert and I’ll defer to you on that. But in my experience, Aiden and Elisa’s connection to each other is just as unique on its own right. We cannot underestimate the risk of significant new trauma to them if they lose each other. I fear they would also lose themselves.”

His words light a single candle in the darkness. A candle like the one that burned by Romeo and Juliet.

“Well said,” Doctor Helen agrees. “Aiden and Elisa, you have a difficult choice before you. We’ll leave you alone now so you can decide.”

The door closes behind her as our foreheads fall against each other. Aiden sets down the headset of torture, and wraps both my hands in his—fingers knotted together like the branches of his oak tree that we climbed today. Was it only today? Has it only been one day of war?

“They say it’s a difficult choice,” he says. “But to me, that’s the easiest part. Option one is the only option I can live with. I cannot risk your safety or give you up without all my fight.”

“Are you sure, my love? It’s too much pain, you would be hurting too much.”

“We knew this would be hard.”

“Not this hard. We didn’t know you would have to watch those horrible images every day. Was that M-Marshall?” Despite my resolve to be strong for him, tears fill my eyes. I try to wipe them, but he is there first. He dries them with his fingertips before they spill and pulls me gently onto his lap, folding his arms around me like he is trying to fit me inside his heart.

“Yes, but he is gone, love. No matter how hard I’ve tried to keep him here, he’s gone. All of it is gone, and I’m trying to lay it to rest. I’m just sorry you saw them. I’m sorry they’re in your head. I’m sorry they touched any part of you. I’m sorry I’ve dragged this torment in your life. I’m sorry I am the way I am—”

I place my hand over his mouth. “Please, don’t.”

His eyes rage with acute conflict between fury that I know it’s at himself and desperation to give me what I want.  His jaw is flexing as if to contain all the sorries left unsaid. He takes my hand from his lips and rests it on his cheek. “You’re right,” he finally says. “I’m sorry for so many things that don’t matter anymore. All that matters now is us. Do you choose option one? Will you still fight with me now that you’ve seen all this?”

The direct question leaves me breathless—because it was never really a question. “Of course I will. I promised you that.”

He shakes his head, eyes still agonized. “Not because you promised. I’d understand if you change your mind. A part of me still wants you to—you’d be better off. But I will never force your hand again. Do you want to fight with me now that you know what it will take? Do you have faith in me, Elisa, to overcome all that?”

He asks that last question in a hard, jagged tone—a counterpoint to the vulnerability he must be feeling. I realize with horror that, in my fear for him, I’ve made him question this most axiomatic truth, instead of protecting him as I was trying to do. I grab his face not at all gently like he does with me. “Aiden, I have faith in you most of all. Your strength and our love are the reasons I said yes. Nothing I’ve seen today changes that. If anything, I’m more in awe of you. And I didn’t think I could love you more but I do. Don’t you ever question any of that. Of course I want to fight with you.”

He nods as much as he can in my tenacious grip, his eyes no doubt seeing the pure truth in mine. But his arms tighten around me like a vise. “That’s all I needed to hear. All those images, I can watch them every day, every hour if I have to, if I know you’re on the other side waiting for me.”

“I will be. And after you watch them, we will make the rest of the day so happy that even you will forget what you saw.”

He releases my finger-hooks from his beautiful face, bending it to mine. Love is a strange, powerful weapon. We are in a clinical, cold room, surrounded with monitors whirring with danger, bombarded by the beeps of the risks we’re taking, suffocated by horrific images of the enemy ahead and the enemy within, yet we both smile as our lips meet. And the monitors go silent—there is only the soft sound of our mouths and our breath, hitching with desire, not fear. Or maybe it’s not love. Maybe it’s madness. Maybe we are not in Van Gogh’s paintings. Maybe we are Van Gogh himself—cutting off ears, eyes, and hearts for each other’s love. Whatever it is though, I don’t care as long as I am with him.

He breaks the kiss first, but seems as unsteady as me. “Let’s call them in so we can go home. You need sleep and I need you.”

Sleep is not in the formula for me this summer, but he doesn’t need to know that right now. He sets me back on my chair and strides out of the door to locate Doctor Helen while I sit here processing how a room that seared him with so much cruelty became a place of love. When they return, Aiden sits next to me, arm around my shoulders while Doctor Helen dials Corbin to join over the phone.

“Elisa, Aiden says you have made your choice,” Doctor Helen starts.

I nod, smiling that he waited for us to tell them together. “We choose option one.”

Neither of them seems surprised by this. “In that case,” Doctor Helen says with significance. “Three rules. First, self-care. This will take its toll. In Aiden’s case particularly, sleep is crucial as the memories begin to reconsolidate. Continue to follow the routine of that first night and keep track of everything. Let us know if you start noticing any changes.”

“We will,” Aiden nods.

“Second, endorphins. Live the life you want to live as fully as possible, and stay in the moment. That’s the point of all this. We stand a much better chance if Aiden has as many happy memories as he has traumatic ones.”

“We will,” I promise while Aiden’s fingers draw a happy circle on my shoulder.

“And third—the startle reflex.”

The happy fingers stop and Aiden turns into stone at the mention of the formidable foe. His hand in mine closes into the shuddering fist again. Doctor Helen nods, her face severe as she notices his lockdown. “I’m sure we don’t need to explain how imperative it is that you guard against the startle reflex during this time.”

Corbin interjects in a forceful tone. “I couldn’t agree more. For both Elisa’s safety and Aiden’s mental health.”

Identical shudders run through Aiden and me at the same time—probably for different reasons. I shudder at the fear in Corbin’s voice when he talks about Aiden. I’m sure Aiden is over there in his chair terrified for me.

As if he feels the shudders himself, Corbin continues, “To help with that, we think you should implement some safety measures since you’ll be living without Benson. Maybe things like pepper spray or some other method to incapacitate Aiden should the startle get triggered during this process.”

Aiden is nodding in vigorous agreement before Corbin has finished while all I hear is incapacitate Aiden. “Agreed. Benson and I are already working on some options.”

I watch Aiden terrified about what options of self-incapacitation the most self-loathing man in the universe is contemplating. At my look, he backtracks quickly. “Correction, Victor. Elisa and I will be working on some options.”

He rubs the goose bumps under my sleeve, raising his eyebrows at me as if to ask, is that better? I nod, somewhat relieved, while Corbin chuckles. “My wife wishes I could learn as fast as you, Aiden.”

Aiden smiles, but his turquoise eyes that have absorbed so much trauma today stay on me. Abruptly I want to leave. I want to go back to the cottage—just us and Mum’s roses that will heal him as he sleeps, while I try to be Dad and solve the protein that can protect him when he is awake.

Seeing the urgency in my eyes, Aiden stands. “We need to go,” he announces. “It’s been a long day.”

Things wrap up quickly then. One minute, we’re collecting the box with the torture headset, the next Corbin is gone and Doctor Helen is walking us through the door.

“We’ll be in touch to schedule the next scan. In the meantime, here is your perfume,” she says, giving me back my treasure that immediately warms my fingertips. “Oh, and I thought you both might like this.”  She takes a polaroid out of the Van Gogh binder and hands it to us. “It’s a picture of your kiss,” she explains as I take it with trembling fingers.

There, on the black glossy paper are Aiden’s electric blue brain waves and his golden heart line, spiking and swelling as we were kissing.

“May it bring you both calm when you feel the most fear.” Doctor Helen casts the words like a benediction.

From her binder, Van Gogh’s brushstrokes look suddenly ordinary compared to the brushstrokes of Aiden’s mind, but my own brain waves are abruptly spiking. Because Doctor Helen may have just given me another gift.

“Thank you!” I say with fervor.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 16 – SHOCK

Happy Sunday, friends! Hope the weekend was a relaxing and happy one. To help with Sunday Scaries, here is Chapter 16. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

16

Shock

Monday morning at precisely four o’clock, I want to laugh despite the indecency of the hour, my bleary eyes, and gelatinous legs. Because the Dragon that is driving me to Oxford is very clearly not a morning beast now that he is able to sleep in his den. As it is, my giggle is stifled by a yawn, followed by two of his.

“I really would have been fine riding the bus,” I tell him, my voice still raspy with sleep. “That’s what I had been doing.”

“Fuck, don’t yell!”

“I’m serious,” I whisper, gripping the edge of the seat of his newly leased Range Rover not to laugh.

“No bus!” He glares at the dark road as though he is about to carbonize it into volcanic rock with his fire breath.

“All right, if you want to be gallant and protective, then at least go back to hibernation after you drop me off.”

“What part of my face says joking is welcome at this ungodly hour?”

“The fangs.”

This yawn is more like a fuming roar. The talons grip the wheel. But despite the scales, I have an overwhelming urge to pet him. He needs sleep more than me right now to consolidate his memories, yet he dutifully rose an hour ago, helped me with my breakfast, and now is driving the long way to Bia so that I don’t have to pass by my parents’ accident site.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I have to go in this early so I can test the protein before Edison and Graham show up. Dad didn’t want anyone to know for a reason.”

“This—” yawn “—is exactly what I mean by don’t stress yourself for me, Elisa! I don’t want you operating on three hours of sleep.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have had three hours of sleep if someone hadn’t insisted on avenging my self-love game on every surface of the cottage once the pestilent soreness was gone.”

It works some. One reference to our happy, albeit obscene night and the claws are retracted but he is still glaring. “Yes, well, that ends after tonight. Going forward, sex will be at eighteen hundred hours sharp! You will be asleep by twenty-one hundred.”

“That’s a good thought, Lieutenant. There’s still an awfully lot of floor left.” The scales smooth out and the fangs disappear. The lips almost twitch in a smile. “Not to mention half the stairs,” I continue.

The Dragon flies out of the sunroof and my Aiden is back on the wheel. Because, as I discovered through gymnastics I did not realize I could accomplish, the stairs are Aiden’s favorite, second only to our bedroom. He gulps some coffee from his fourth cup, much calmer.

“You’ll be okay today?” he asks, his voice now a muted, slow key instead of a growl.

“Of course. I’m not handling any dangerous chemicals. Just the protein.” I decide he doesn’t need to know about the way it combusts into flames exactly like him.

“Maybe I should reschedule our meeting with the scientists so you can come straight home after work.”

For a second, I’m distracted by the flutter in my stomach when he calls the cottage home no matter how casually. But only for a second. “Absolutely not. I’m as excited to meet your brain as I am about the protein.”

He sighs, frowning at the road, but doesn’t answer. A heavy feeling—like his memory heard its name and is rising, shifting all its vast weight around us—fills the Rover. Abruptly, I feel selfish, buzzing with excitement when the process must be difficult for him.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “That was thoughtless of me.”

“Of course it wasn’t. How can I be upset with you for loving every part of me no matter how unlovable it is?”

“You’re violating the self-love rules. You know what happens when you do that.”

“It’s not self-loathing if it’s a fact, Elisa.” The melancholy in his face changes to anger as his hands tense on the wheel again. “If I had a normal brain, you wouldn’t have to wake up at this hour. You could sleep in, go to work at a reasonable time, develop the protein at your pace—not exhaust yourself to save the man you love. And then you could come home where we would be together without every tick of the fucking clock feeling like an IED. And I could fall asleep with you in my arms without dreading what I might see next to me when I open my eyes in the morning. So yes, if that violates your self-love rules, so be it.”

I never know what to say when he speaks truths like this—truths that are true in abstract, but completely untrue to me. He is glowering ahead, but I know it’s not at the windshield. It’s at his own reflection. “This isn’t feeling like the opposite,” I mumble. “It’s feeling like more of the same.”

“The opposite doesn’t mean a lie, love.”

I snatch that last word—small as it is, shuddering with anger and fear—and tuck it into every thought. It cancels all his other words. “If truth is what you’re after, if you had a normal brain—whatever that means—we might have never met. And even if we had, it wouldn’t be this kind of love. I’d rather love like this than play it safe.”

More four-letter words, so I grip L-O-V-E tighter. It’s ours—no torture, capture, or war can take it from us while we are still breathing.

His face softens, whether at my words or something else, I don’t know. But he takes my hand where it’s clenched into a fist on my lap and brings it to his lips. “You’re right. I can’t hate anything that brought me to you.”

I caress his lips and the tension of his jaw drains away. I see his mind rearrange the tectonic plates in his eyes as he glances at my profile for a second and finds his peace. When he sighs again, the sound is light and his lips lift in a sleepy smile. “I really know how to kick-start the day, don’t I?”

I grin. “You definitely woke me up.”

He chuckles, the soft sound flitters around the Rover’s cabin, carrying away the memory’s weight on its wings. “Let’s hit restart. I’ll meet you outside your lab at six and we can walk over to the WIN Centre together. And you can look at my brain as much as you want. God knows it loves looking at you, so it’s only fair.”

I smile at his familiar shorthand for the Wellcome Centre for Interactive Neuroimaging. And I love the WIN part for our fight. “Do you think we ever saw each other when you were coming to Oxford and I was little?”

“We didn’t. I wondered about that as I was looking at your childhood photos. I never saw your parents either.”

“Well, maybe I saw you,” I muse, looking at the Oxford road sign. “Maybe little me saw teenage you and tucked your face away so I would recognize you later. Maybe that’s why you feel like home to me, too.”

His hand tightens around mine. “Maybe you did, love.”

I like the fantasy of that. Little us, old us—all sprinkling a pinch of stardust from every time dimension to help us through this one. I will take every bit of help I can get, real or imagined.

Aiden pulls over in the parking lot of the Chemistry Building, and the dimple wakes up in his cheek. “This brings back memories of parking at Reed to ambush you at Denton’s lab for our first coffee date.”

I pick up his coffee cup and sip a mouthful, placing my lips exactly where he drank. Then I reach over to kiss him, pouring some of it in his mouth. “To coffee dates, Aiden.”

He swallows and laughs. “I’ll never enjoy drinking coffee out of a cup again compared to this.”

With his memory, this might actually be true. “What will you do with yourself today?” I ask, prolonging each last second.

“Go for a run on the hills, work at the Inn, miss you.”

I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here in this dark car, drinking coffee mouth-to-mouth, listening to his quiet chuckle, watching his sleepy eyes awake. There is still so much to catch up from the last two weeks. I don’t know every hour of his days without me. I don’t know what he read, what he ate, what songs he listened to, which favorite pajamas he wore, whether Cora made him his chocolate chip cookies—all these insignificant details that blend into a vital whole, the full totality of him.

“And you wanted to take the bus?” he smiles, reading my thoughts on my skin. Or maybe on his own.

“Terrible idea. Don’t ever let me think such lunacy again.”

I force myself to stumble out of the Rover—force only by thinking of the protein we so desperately need.

“Here, you forgot your snacks,” he reminds me, whirling down his window. “And your purse. And your kiss.”

“Bloody hell, I think I forgot my brain.”

His mouth takes it easy on me but I still feel the heat of his lips and the flame of his eyes as I plod across the parking lot to Bia.

“Be safe,” he calls behind me as always when we part. His gravelly morning voice would make Beethoven weep. It almost makes me turn around. As it is, I pause at the front doors to wave at him. He waits for me to go inside, but I peek through the glass panel, watching the lights of the Rover fade down St. Giles Boulevard. The moment they disappear, the livid wound in my chest rips open—as furious as on Friday—like the only anesthetic that soothes it is gone with him. My arm flies around my torso and I shamble down the hall to Bia, trying to remember how I lived with this. How did I think around it to get through the day? Did I lose the micro-layer of strength I had gained? Or has the pain at the thought of losing Aiden magnified, multiplying to the nth degree each second I spent in the bubble of his unrestrained love these last two days? A shudder of terror runs through me and I sprint toward the protein.

Bia is dark and quiet when I go in. It feels like I was here a lifetime ago, not on Friday. Because it was a lifetime ago—an entire dark existence of grief and loss. If its agony had not been etched on my insides, from my lungs full of river water to the festering wound, I wouldn’t have believed the woman who scrubbed these beakers on Friday was I.

I run straight to the cooler of chemicals but the moment I open the pressurized doors, I almost collapse on to the tile floor. Right there, in neat rows with clearly marked labels are hundreds and hundreds of ampules containing oxytocin in one form or another. By the time I’ve calculated four hundred compounds of it, I sink down, head between my knees, palms against the cold tiles, trying to gulp air. But all oxygen is gone. There are not enough days left to test all these. I will not be able to finish on time. Aiden’s cold lips flash in my vision from the nightmare and I cannot breathe. The tile floor starts spinning like a centrifuge. I lift my head to look at the periodic table on the wall but it is blurry with speed too. I can’t even see the lab. All I see is Aiden’s frozen body in permanent sleep. And the boulder’s sickly lapping sound hisses like high pitch through Bia so resonant it could shatter the oxytocin ampules: violent ends.

I throw my hands over my ears and lean my forehead against the cooler door. I should have worked all weekend. I should work all night. But even if I spend every single hour in this lab—not only the secret hours—I’ll never have enough hours to test all the oxytocin options. Even I confide in Graham and Edison—against Dad’s wishes—we do not have enough time. How can I tell Aiden? How can we lose one of the very few weapons we have? How can I kill the tendril of hope before it has even blossomed?

I try to focus only on the cold air blowing from Bia’s temperature-controlled vents. At the same moment, my phone buzzes in the pocket of Dad’s lab coat. Only Aiden would text me at this hour. Only he could get my hands to move or my eyes to see something other than my nightmare. I open the text and the picture Aiden took of us on the poppy field fills the screen. Right below it are his words:

“Does my first selfie count as self-love if we’re in it together? ”

Could he sense I was falling apart? Is his chest hurting like mine? Is that how he knew to send me the only thing that could restart my lungs?

I gaze at his face full of life—the turquoise eyes that manage to look sentient even in pixels, his vivid lips—until I can breathe regularly again and Bia stops spinning. Then I wrench myself upright. I still have to try, don’t I? For the face on the screen, I will do anything.

And right now, I know he is waiting for me. I take a deep, shuddering breath to steady my fingers, my thoughts, and text him back.

“Yes! And it’s extra points. Use them well.”

The three dots indicating he is typing race on the screen. “Then I’ll meet you on the fifth stair before bed, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“I’ll be there.” Until the very end, until my own heart stops beating.

“Present moment until then,” he reminds us both, and then he’s gone. But he brought me back to me.

I stare at the lines of ampules in the cooler. Which of these bottles did it, Dad? Why did you keep it a secret? There are no answers, no miniature roses waving from the marble stone. He lives in you, Graham would say. You are your own brilliant scientist, Aiden would argue. I close my eyes, still seeing blotches from the cooler’s fluorescent bulbs like a Rorschach test. Dad believed the simplest solution is the most elegant. So I begin there, too. I select the purest, most elemental oxytocin compound and prepare the 2-AG blue liquid. I don’t even know how much oxytocin to use. I only know when to add it. And I try. Over and over and over again. But no matter how much I modify the measurements, the vials explode. BANG! BANG! BANG! Each a shotgun bullet straight through my chest. Each broken vial a Juliet flashback. Each explosion decimating the few allies we had managed to collect. Graham’s usual arrival time ticks closer and I’m forced to clean and destroy all evidence of my efforts despite the utter failure. And that was only one ampule of love.

“Top of the morning, Eliser!” Graham calls, bursting through the door right on time. Even though I was expecting him, like all good clandestines, I still jump and whirl around, hand clutching my throat. He laughs. “Every morning! You’re as good at getting startled as you are at handling the pipettes.”

He wastes exactly two minutes hanging up his jacket, donning his lab coat, disinfecting his hands, and marching to his own bench to my left.

“How was the weekend? Did your friend arrive?”

I have to remember what I told him on the last day of my dark ages. Right—only Reagan was visiting then, every other star was imploding or was already gone.

“Yes, she did,” I answer a little late. For a second I contemplate telling him about my other visitors, but the last thing I need right now is for Graham or Edison to think I’m too distracted by social obligations. I need their full confidence now more than ever.

“It must have been quite the weekend,” Graham observes, beginning to allocate the fear molecules futilely.

“Why do you say that?” I go through the allocation motions, feigning concentration when I know very well his method will fail. But I cannot feel enough guilt to share Dad’s last secret. Not when my love depends on it.

“Because you look almost normal. Still your pale self, but no dead eyes. They were a bit spooky. No offense.”

This morning’s meltdown must have bleached all the pink in my cheeks that Aiden so energetically painted there last night. “None taken.”

“Go on then! What did you do?”

Why, of all the mornings, is Graham choosing this one for small conversation? “Not much. Explored Burford.”

“All the eight streets and eight hundred fields?”

I think he is joking so I force a laugh. It sounds like a maniacal screech.

“By the way, did Edison tell you yet?” he asks.

“Tell me what?”

“They’re finally naming the bench out in the quad after Professor Snow. Where he used to sit, you know. I think there will be an inaugural ceremony—plaques, speeches, and all. Mad, isn’t it?”

My hands tremble so hard I spill some of the fear molecule.

“Ugh, watch it, Eliser! Bloody hell!” Graham tries to recapture the spilled drop frantically while I concentrate on breathing. It is too early for so many emotions. Dad’s favorite bench. The bench where we secretly carved PEC beneath the seat with a lab scalpel.

“At least you only spilled a few microliters. What the hell is the matter with you this morning?” Graham demands, his voice half-puzzled, half-mad. There is no bigger crime in Graham’s eyes than wasting his beloved 2-AG.

“I’m sorry, Graham. The bench ceremony distracted me.”

He takes a deep steadying breath. “Yes, all right. But it’s not until August, Eliser. And you’ll get to go. I know they’ll want you to speak now you’re back.”

Another hand tremble and only half a spilled drop this time but Graham doesn’t miss it. “You’re not handling the 2-AG today,” he fires me summarily. “You’re on peptide duty.”

“What? No! I’ll—I’m very sorry. I—I just have a fear of public speaking, that’s all. Here, look, hands steady as forceps now.” I hold them out as evidence.

“No.”

“But—”

“No, Elisa. I’m sorry, but this is vital. Not to mention expensive.” And without a word, Graham—the only semi-friend I’ve made here—turns his back and starts measuring the blue fear liquid with the pipettes.

I gather the refrigerated volumetric flasks of bubblegum pink peptide bonds, fighting off tears. My throat and eyes are aflame like Graham’s Bunsen burner that I cannot touch. I’m not angry with him. Graham is right and, although he doesn’t know it, I already wasted some 2-AG this morning with my first oxytocin disaster. But that’s not what hurts right now—what hurts is my father’s lab coat that suddenly weighs a million pounds. A million pounds of embarrassing him. I swallow wave after wave of tears, not letting one spill, stealing looks at Graham’s back clad in his own brilliant white coat that has never been stained by shaking hands and undisciplined emotions. Because he is a true, grown-up scientist. Not a child whose only accomplishment for access to the exclusive doors of Bia seems to be her last name. Sophie, Rupert, and Elena come in about fifteen minutes later, and I hear their footsteps pause when they see me demoted to the peptide bench. I can’t look at their reflections on the glass cabinet doors in front of me. Without a word, their trainers shuffle to their own workstations, leaving mine next to Graham sterile and empty. I separate all the peptide bonds, not needing brain or attention for it: I learned this from Dad when I was fifteen. I try to find one peaceful spot in my mind to rest my thoughts—one without fear, shame, or pain. But everywhere I look, there is only loss. Either loss in the past or loss in the future. Either loss of life or loss of love. And the present moment is uninhabitable. I squeeze through my neurons, weaving in and out, looking for any image to get me through this day. I find it at last—Aiden’s waterfall laughter. The carefree sound, blasting away all the debris of the mind. I replay it in my head like he does with Für Elise. And the hours pass.

Before lunch, Edison blows through the door with his usual marathon step. And as with Sophie, Rupert, and Elena, I hear his Oxfords skid to a stop on the tile floor.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demands. “Why is Elisa at the peptide bench?” I steal a glance at his reflection on the cabinet doors. He is facing Graham.

“She’s not feeling herself today,” Graham responds charitably, but his voice wavers under the weight of Edison’s authority. I’m sure the other three are pretending to look at their workstations like me.

“Elisa?” Edison turns to me. I draw a quiet breath and turn, unable to look Edison in the eye and missing Denton so much.

“Graham is right, Professor, I’m sorry.”

The tip of his Oxfords taps the floor slightly. “Are you feeling ill?”

Do invisible chest wounds count? “No.”

“Are you under distress?”

Yes. “No.”

“Has anything whatsoever happened to you that makes you unable to perform your regular lab duties today?”

“I was a bit nervous about the . . . the bench ceremony, Professor, and my hands shook. But I’m better now.” I risk a peek at his face but I cannot understand his expression. “Graham was right to assign me the peptides,” I add loyally.

“Elisa, return to your workstation and resume your duties. You are Peter’s daughter. You do not allow anything—absolutely anything—to get in the way of his dream and now yours. Not time, not exhaustion, not failure, and most certainly not nerves. And if you ever forget what you are made of, come talk to me.” The Oxfords pivot on the tile floor and stride out of the lab.

I still cannot face the others so I return to the peptides, pretending to mix the viscous mass while trying to muster things like lungs and tear ducts and fingers. Every molecule wants to sprint out of Bia, go sit on that bench, and text Aiden to come pick me up and hide me away. He would. He would take me into the deepest forest or the highest mountain top—he’d find a way through borders, passports, memories, and rules—and we could camp in my little tent, just the two of us, and wait out the next eighty-eight days. It would be a kind of heaven in Dante’s nine circles of hell.

But I resist all that because Edison is right. In the end, even I fail with the protein, I would at least have stayed true to Dad. I would have tried.

“Come here, Eliser. You heard Edison,” says Graham.

I step up to my workstation, stretching my fingers to make sure there isn’t a single tremor there. When I pick up the pipette, it is so steady it might as well be an extension of my bone. And I start piping the fear molecule into vials, never missing a single drop, no matter how useless I know this method to be.

“I’m sorry I was harsh,” Graham mumbles under his breath.

“No, you were right. This is vital.” For the love of my life, for my dad, for me.

Graham and the others ask me to join them for lunch but I turn them down. I cannot waste a single minute. As soon as they’re gone, I start thinking of ways to eliminate oxytocin options without needing to test everyone. But I don’t dare test a second ampule. I’ll have to come back tonight. I shudder when I think of the fight that would cause with Aiden. I’ll have to leave while Für Elise keeps him asleep. The wound throbs at the idea of missing even a minute of sleep with him. But what else can I do?

Graham returns early, and I’m grateful I didn’t attempt testing more oxytocin.

“Listen,” he starts. “I feel awful. I was a tosser.”

“No, you weren’t. You’re a real scientist, Graham. Able to turn off emotion to benefit the protein before all else, as it should be. I wish I could do that.”

He grins his sunbeam smile. “You just did. I’ve never seen a steadier hand. Not even your father.”

I clench my hands into fists, as Dad taught me to do during lab breaks. His never shook in a lab though.

“Mates still?” Graham asks.

“Mates still,” I smile back.

“All right, you drive the 2-AG today. I’ll finish the peptides.” And without waiting for a response, he demotes himself to the peptide bench of shame.

The day improves then. Not only because I can use my time with the molecule of fear to understand it more—how it bends, how temperamental it is, how sensitive to the smallest flicker of change. And not only because the lab feels warmer with Graham’s sunbeam on my side. But because the minutes are passing and I will see Aiden’s face in three hours, two, one. With each tick of the clock, the familiar energy builds in my tissues like electric current. But my fingers do not tremble, even if everything else starts palpitating at Aiden’s arrival.

“Well, there’s another day with no breakthroughs,” Graham declares the obvious with a sigh. “We try again tomorrow.”

I watch him clean up, riddled with guilt. Should I drop just a little hint? A feeling in my stomach—like slammed brakes—seals my lips. I let him and the others leave first, unable to walk along them with my secret.

By the time I sprint through the front doors, I almost crash into Aiden himself. He has ventured into the quad, leaning against the wall, my personal statue of Adonis sculpted in a way that would make Michelangelo resign.

“Aiden!” I squeal, running straight into his chest. He opens his arms at the exact moment I leap into them. We have this move so synchronized by now that it makes him chuckle as he folds me in his embrace. I listen to his strong heart and gulp his Aiden scent, and instantly the wound seals shut as if it never existed.

“You’d think we’re at the airport and she hasn’t seen him in a year!” Javier’s voice floats from somewhere. It’s only then that I notice him, Reagan, and Benson standing almost right next to me, laughing.

“It’s called love, Javi. You should try it sometimes,” Reagan responds, pulling me into her own version of an airport hug. “We hitched a ride with Aiden so we could see where you work and tour Oxford while you two meet with the experts.” She has reserved an elaborate hat for the occasion that is an art form in itself. A pearl-white beret covered with silk ivory roses.

“It’s perfect,” I tell them—the hat, their smiles, the four of them right here on Dad’s quad, everything.

“Is this where you’re geeking out these days?” Javier points with his chin at the monolithic building.

“Isn’t it brilliant?” I say, squinting at the way the sunset is breaking over the straight, precise lines and reflective glass windows.

“I guess, if you want to go blind. That’s the problem with you scientists. You have no sense of style at all. Let’s go, Reg. There’s real architecture to see around here that’s not made up of four boring walls.” Javier laughs, unfolding a map of Oxford from his back pocket. I circle the places they must see and they take off while Benson waits for us.

“This day really did feel like a year, didn’t it?” Aiden says. He’s still lounging against the wall, in a blue shirt that matches the eyes behind the Raybans and his staple dark jeans. I knot my hands and feet so I don’t run straight to his mouth. Not here in front of Dad’s work or mine.

“A decade,” I breathe.

“Should I assume from your current pretzel position that I am not to kiss you here or that you need to use the restroom before we go to WIN?”

“The first.”

The dimple blows a kiss at my forlorn voice anyway, and he takes my hand. “Probably for the best. After a decade without kissing, we’re guaranteed to be late.”

We cut across the quad, Aiden made of granite and Benson close behind even though most summer Oxonians are either still behind office, laboratory, and library doors or off to supper at this hour. Aiden asks about my favorite spots and I show him the bench, RadCam, the cobblestone where Mum broke her kitten heel the first time Dad saw her, the Ashmolean’s columned rooftop in the distance, but despite these keystones of my life, I cannot take my eyes off Aiden, off the reality of him walking the same paths that Mum, Dad, and I walked.

“So how was your decade-long day on three hours of sleep?” Aiden asks as we take the quiet Queen’s Lane to avoid the busier Magdalen Street.

I pretend to look around to make sure we’re alone but in fact I’m trying to compose my face and words so his eyes don’t see the awfulness of my day. “No breakthroughs yet,” I shrug. “But guess what?”

“What?” The dimple is still there. So far, so good.

“In August, the Chem department is having a ceremony to dedicate the quad bench to my dad. And I’m supposed to speak.” I only shared this so he would attribute any flicker of fear on my face to public speaking but as I say the words, I hear another truth. The truth of how much this ceremony means to me, how much I want Aiden there.

“Is that what’s worrying you? The speaking?”

I nod, not needing to pretend anymore. “I’m terrified of it. It’s my spider.” If only there was a way to have the protein by then. But there is no longer hope for that.

His brow puckers in confusion. “How could that be? You seemed so calm during your supplement presentation to Samson and me.”

“That’s because I had worked on it for four years, practiced for hours with Denton, and had a whole box of paperclips with me. And I still barely slept the night before.”

“Well, you could have fooled me.”

“You really didn’t notice?”

He smiles, shaking his head while I miss his eyes behind his Raybans. “I had a lot on my mind.”

“Like me trying to sell you my supplement for a million dollars?”

“No, like me trying to stay in my seat and behave normally when I knew you were the woman in my paintings.”

I stumble over a cobblestone, grateful I’m not wearing kitten heels. “That’s when you figured it out?”

He nods, looking down at me but all I see is my wide eyes and open mouth reflected on his sunglasses. “As soon as I saw your jaw and neckline without the scarf you were wearing at Feign’s gallery, I knew. I was barely able to function after that.”

“Well, you could have fooled me.”

He chuckles and we both look ahead on the walled ancient lane, but I’m certain we are both lost on that day. For me, despite the nerves and anguish, that’s the day I first touched his hand, heard his chuckle, felt the electricity of his skin on mine. But now it’s more than that. It’s the day his memory brought us together by a scrap of skin.

“We can practice your speech together, if you want,” he offers. “You knew your father longer than you knew your supplement. You’ll do great.”

I want you to be there, I think. I want to add an A to PEC. But he cannot come because there will be a crowd, even if small. Unless we win this fight, he will always be absent from moments like this. “Careful what you offer,” I answer. “I’ll probably need to practice every day for the next two months just to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ for something like this.”

“Sometimes, those are the most important words.”

It’s true, isn’t it? Bookend words that open and close entire conversations, even relationships. The high stonewalls curve with us toward WIN, Benson’s shadow over us like a shield.

“How are you liking England, Benson?” I ask him, suddenly worried he is missing his home, that he resents being conscripted into this fight with us.

But his smile is bright and genuine as always. “It’s practically a vacation for me. All these open fields and scientists will put me out of a job.”

Aiden chuckles. “If that day comes, Benson, you have my word you will never need a job.”

They laugh while I break Corbin’s rule and catapult myself into the fantasy of such a day. Saying thank you to Benson as our guard, saying hello to him only as a dear friend. Strolling without his protective shadow, just Aiden and me. The beauty of the daydream pierces me like a new siren song, stunning me with longing as strong as the dream of sleeping with Aiden. I tear my mind away from such dreams—they’re enemies still. They’re the apex assassins in this fight.

WIN with its artless four walls that would offend Javier emerges at the end of the street, and Aiden tenses further—not just his shoulders now, but all of him.

“We got it from here, Benson,” he says. “You know this drill as much as me.”

“I’ll be back in two hours, sir.” And with that Benson turns back the way we came.

“Benson used to come here with you?” I ask.

“Of course, every five years since Iraq. Before then, it was my parents.”

“And everyone we’re meeting has been with you this entire time?”

“The lead neuroscientist, Doctor Helen—Doctor Brahms, of course, but I used to call her Doctor Helen when I was seven so it stuck—has been with me since then. She knows my brain better than anyone. Her research fellows have changed over the years except old Morse—you’ll like him. And the Edinburgh team is new for this. They’re all itching to meet you. None of them has ever heard of such a thing as your calming effect on me.”

Abruptly I’m nervous. “Should I have prepared, Aiden? I feel like I don’t know anything.”

He shakes his head. “They didn’t want us to prepare. I expect that’s part of the plan. They wanted you to be you and us to be us—as much as we can be with all the circus.”

I nod, wishing for a paperclip. Hydrogen, I start in my head but he interrupts me. “Before we go in, there is something I’d like to give you. We have a few minutes. Come.”

He takes me by the hand to the back of the building—a place new to me. But that’s not why I’m surprised when I see the grove of oaks. It’s because of a simple playground to the side, clearly for all the children who must need neuroimaging here. Only two swing sets, a slide, a couple seesaws, and a merry-go-around.

“Oh!” I gasp. “Aiden, did you play here when you were a kid?”

He laughs, but it’s not a joyous sound. It has a hard edge, like a “no.” He marches us past the playground that abruptly looks desolate—the swings swaying empty in the breeze, the seesaw squeaking. He stops at an enormous oak—the Benson of trees. It takes me a moment to grasp it’s not just one oak, it’s two conjoined ones, like two open hands attached at the inner wrists. The branches are thick gnarly trunks on their own right and the canopy of leaves is its own green sky.

This was my playground,” Aiden says, tilting his head toward the two-headed tree. The hard edge is in his voice too.

“Take off your glasses, please.”

He almost huffs but takes them off. And his eyes tell me everything—the way the blue has hardened too, the plates grinding with all the memories this place must hold for him. For the seven-year old boy with a gift no one could understand, a weight he could never share—a lone star, away from childhood and childish things. I step into his tense arms, knowing they will wrap around me like the oak’s branches. “It must have felt so lonely.” I kiss above his heart. Is the past tense really appropriate? Does he still feel lonely now?

He shrugs but the pectoral muscle softens slightly under my cheek as my calming effect fights with his memory. I wish I knew a way to intensify it. Maybe there is. “Show me how you would play. Do we have time?”

He deliberates, but the conflict in his eyes is not one of terror. It’s one of sadness. For what? A lost childhood? Lost time? “Come on,” I coax him. “Let’s play for two minutes.”

His lips lift in a tight, closed smile and that rare flicker of shyness glints in his eyes.

“All right,” he says with a sigh. “Look inside.”

I peek between the two oaks. At the ground where the roots grew together, they left a perfectly round circle surrounded by the thick trunks, like a well. Small enough for a seven-year old boy to play without triggers of any kind.

“I stopped fitting in there by the time I turned twelve. After that, I just climbed the branches.”

“When was the last time you climbed?”

The smile grows bigger, eyes softer—my calm is gaining ground. “When I was seventeen. But I get a feeling I’m about to climb again now.”

“Climb, Aiden!” I grin at him, and the calm advances further. He looks up at the oak canopy of leaves and back at me. Then before I can blink, he lifts me by the waist, making me gasp, and secures my arms around his neck and my legs around his hips. And the calm wins. The plates release and sudden excitement flares in his eyes. His mouth lifts into the dimply smile.

“Hold tight, Elisa!” he warns, and with one jump that makes me shriek, he grabs onto the lowest branch.

“Aiden, I weigh more than my rucksack.”

He laughs, but now the sound is happy and carefree. “Hah! But not much more than full battle rattle.” Then with another laugh, Aiden starts to climb. I solder myself to his front, laughing with him at the different kind of hardness I feel now. The thick branches are so enormous that he might as well be climbing up a steep trail or a rock. But he remembers each knot in the ancient wood, each bough. I’m lost in the way his body ripples with strength, not tension; the way his breathing spikes with athleticism, not fear; and the way he chuckles now and then, both seventeen and thirty-five. In minutes, we reach the thickest branch near the top, like a wooden bridge that has grown between the two trees.

“Hold on to me,” he says, only breathless from the climb that would have made the rest of us faint, drop, and maybe die, and sinks down carefully until he is sitting on the hulky trunk, me coiled tightly around him like the wood’s knots. “Well, this is it.” He shrugs, the dimple forming in his cheek as he takes in the tree of his childhood and adolescence. “It hasn’t changed much—just grown even more massive.”

I wipe a bead of sweat at his temple. “It’s incredible—like its own universe.” I follow his eyes through the dome of branches and leaves, trying to remember everything like him. “What did you do here after you climbed?”

“Usually nothing. I’d climb after all the imaging and the memory tests and the rest of the circus you’re about to see. Mostly I was just hiding if I’m being honest.”

“Let’s hide together then.”

I kiss his lips like leaves. They flutter back, quick as the wind of his breath. A brush of tongue like the tip of a reed, then two mouths joined like the oaks around us, our arms branches knotted in each other’s tree. We don’t have much time, but his memory only needs a blink. And now this kiss is climbing his memories too, hopefully softening their bark with desire and calm.

He smiles. “I’d never have believed this when I was hiding here.”

“I barely believe it now.”

“I need you to do something,” he says. “I planned to give this to you on the ground, but your way is always better.”

“Give me what?”

“Reach carefully in my shirt pocket,” he says, tightening his arms around me as I do what he says. Inside is a tiny two-milliliter lab vial of some kind of oil, sealed hermetically shut.

“What is—” I start to ask but then I gasp because as I bring it close to my nose, despite the laboratory seal, a faint whiff of its scent blows with the wind. “Oh, my God! Aiden, is this—is this what I think it is?”

He laughs his pure waterfall laughter that got me through today. “If you’re thinking it’s the perfume from your Aeternum roses, you would be right.”

I blink at the vial, speechless. I barely mouth “Wow!” and sniff it again, wishing I could break the seal now without risking dropping it. I never thought I would see this, I never thought I would smell it again except in memory.

“I have to admit, at first I was not sure about this,” Aiden murmurs. “I thought I wouldn’t like you in perfume. I worried it would change such an intimate part of the way I perceive you. But then I got this and it’s so perfectly you. It smells like my Alone Place that night, like one of the best memories of my life.”

“Mine too. How did you get it? Did Denton give it to you?”

He nods. “Yes, we need it for this meeting apparently so I reached out to him last week. He’s still processing the rest of the roses. He thinks by the end of it, you might have nine milliliters. He misses you, by the way.”

“I miss him, too,” I breathe, smelling the vial again, leaning in to kiss Aiden’s lips but, in an unprecedented move, he pulls back. His eyes are darker, but with desire, not memories.

“If you do that, we’ll miss the meeting,” he explains to my startled face.

“Oh, right!” The meeting, his mind, his childhood, his memories, his everything. He says he needs to be flooded in me, but I’m flooding in him. And the deeper I sink into his depths, the less I want to come up for air.

“Tonight on the fifth stair then, Mr. Plemmons.”

He laughs and starts climbing down carefully after I tuck the rare bottle of Aeternum oil back in his shirt pocket. “So why do we need this today?” I ask.

“I’m not sure—” a huff as he negotiates the branches. “Doctor Helen told me—to bring a smell I associate only with you—which proved incredibly hard when I remember every smell I’ve ever smelled. But since I cannot bottle you up—this was the closest thing.  And once I got it, I had a vague dream of giving this to you here—in my only other Alone Place . . . by this tree.”

The moment we touch ground, I tear off the seal and dab a drop of Aeternum oil behind each ear. The indescribable scent makes my head whirl—more beautiful than any rare chemical in Bia. Aiden pulls me against him, burying his face in my neck, inhaling deeply with something like hunger. His nose skims along my throat with a low moan. Despite the perfume, I stop breathing and hang limp in his arms, trembling knees, racing pulse, and good goose bumps exploding everywhere. He seems unsteady too—where the oak branches didn’t shake him, the Aeternum scent does.

“Fuck!” he hisses and wrenches himself away, running his hand over his hair. “Rostóv, rubbing his eyes that seemed glued together, raised his disheveled head from the hot pillow . . .” And Aiden starts marching a foot away from me back to WIN, reciting War and Peace.

Rostóv is fighting with Denísov when we reach the lab. But neither of us needs him anymore. Because the moment we enter through the lab doors everything becomes real and Aiden morphs back to stone. Our war has started.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 15 – HOPE

Happy Sunday, friends, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Hope it’s a day of rest and renewal for all of you. In that spirit, here is a new and (IMHO) important chapter. Thanks as always for reading, writing, and following. Lots of love, xo – Ani

15

H-o-p-e

Something soft and weightless pulls at the edge of sleep like a forgotten dream. I breathe against it, too comfortable and warm to wake up. It flutters again, like a puff of breath or a rose dancing over my lips in a familiar way. Memory and consciousness strike at the same time.

“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.

Aiden is lying right next to me, his face more radiant than the sun, taping an Elisa rose over my lips, exactly as he did on our very first morning together.

“Good morning.” He smiles, his voice still gravelly with sleep.

“Aiden!” I rejoice and throw myself on top of him, quilt, sheets, and all.

He laughs and wraps me in his arms, burying his face in my hair as I burrow in his warmth.

“Elisa, we just woke up together,” he sighs with a profound note of relief. “You and me, and all your perfect ten fingers and ten toes. I checked, they’re all there. Can you believe it?”

“Yes, I can,” I answer, looking at him and believing everything. Not just because he is glowing on the white pillow, under a beam of sun, with the lightest blue sky in his eyes. I believe it because of last night—because of who he is. A whisper from my nightmare hisses like an echo, but I shove it back. Not today.

“What is it?” he asks, looking at the goose bumps that erupted on my skin at the nightmare’s hiss.

“Today will be another good day,” I declare to him and the goose bumps, kissing his lips. He engulfs me in his body heat, and we kiss like this for a while in our hot, sunny bubble. I breathe in his scent until my lungs hurt. He smells like a cinnamon stick inside a leaf of sandalwood wrapped with a rose petal warmed in the sun all tucked inside a heavy cloud of an unknown pheromone blowing out of some pagan sex god—all in concentrated form here under the sheets with me. He frees my mouth when I start hyperventilating and sweating, and throws off the sheets, letting the cool breeze tickle my back.

“I’m sorry, I’m a warm sleeper.” He blows on my flushed cheeks.

“Perfect because I’m usually cold. How did you sleep?” He looked so peaceful while I was keeping vigil, but I don’t know what happened after.

His eyebrows arch in bewilderment. “The best sleep of my life, Elisa.”

“Really?”

He nods with something like awe. “I don’t think I even had any dreams. I must have rolled onto my back at some point but I’m not sure I moved after that. Corbin will want to know.”

That’s true. He never moved while I was awake. And although he doesn’t know it, there was enough commotion to wake him up. “Do you think it’s because you were so tired from the flight and all the awfulness of the last two weeks?”

He shrugs. “Maybe. We’ll see, I suppose. My guess is it’s you but I’m not sure.”

I love that. The idea of giving him a full night’s rest. “Why do you look worried?”

“Not worried exactly. It’s just a very sudden, big change. Full eight hours, no dreams, no movement. I didn’t have that even before Iraq. I don’t know how long it can last.”

And there it is. Tic toc, tic toc. We’ve been given so much in the last twenty-four hours. Is this the held breath before the war?

“Did you sleep well?” he asks, his index finger tracing a circle under my eye.

I’m grateful my goose bumps can be blamed on the breeze this time. “My favorite part was when I was awake.”

He looks at me with a raised eyebrow. “Were you watching me?”

“Of course. You used to do it to me all the time.”

“That’s true. I’d like it better if we were both sleeping though. Were you afraid?” The first V of the day forms between his eyebrows.

Not from you, from my own mind. I smooth the V away. “Not at all. I was just getting to know you.”

He smiles. “Yikes. How the tables have turned. Do I want to know?”

“Oh, nothing serious, only eight erections by the time I fell asleep.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter. “Eight? My, my. Sounds dire. That will make for an interesting conversation with the experts at Oxford tomorrow.”

I prop myself up on his chest—his strong heart thuds there reassuringly alive. “What should I expect tomorrow? I want to get this right.”

“Well, Corbin will Skype in—you’ve already met him. They’ll scan my brain to compare it to five years ago before I met you, and again in eighty-nine days. And they’ll go over their plan with us. Just be you, and you’ll get it right. Look how far you’ve brought us with me completely against you. Maybe we can travel a little farther now that we’re on the same side.”

His voice becomes soft, colored with the h-o-p-e he is holding for us both. Maybe it’s that tone or last night’s nightmare or the loneliness of him carrying this little torch alone, but I let my mind tip-toe around the edges of h-o-p-e. How would it feel if I stepped inside its pool of light? Would it blind me so I can’t see the horrors ahead? Would it stun me so I cannot fight with a rational mind? Would it give me life so it can kill me in the end? Is h-o-p-e the dagger to the chest? I shake off the image, but even with that sliver of thought, the goose bumps return.

“What are you thinking?” Aiden asks, brushing the goose bumps on my arm. “These left and now they’re back.”

So much for the breeze as an excuse. “I was breaking Corbin’s rule and looking ahead instead of at the present moment.”

He nods, rubbing my arms until the goose bumps disappear. “Easy to do. How about my virginity Baci? Only happy memories in this room.”

I laugh despite my current love-hate relationship with Baci quotes and pick it up from his nightstand. “Make it a good one.”

He peels it slowly while I remind myself that I am a woman of science and took an oath last night against superstitions. My hands don’t care—they still clutch the sheets as though he is detonating an explosive device. But Aiden smiles as he reads the note.

“Oh, Elisa, you’ll love this. ‘Everything I know, I know because of love.’”

“Who said it?”

“Our closest friend and confidant, Tolstoy. Straight from War and Peace.”

“Yes!” I squeal, half-relieved, half-furious with myself for my reaction to this most trivial and nonsensical ritual.

“Share it with me.” Aiden pops it in my mouth and chases it with his tongue. We have learned to melt these little chocolates together by now—not a single crumble or drop ever spills. And they no longer taste as good on their own, without the taste of him. He doesn’t stop the kiss when the Baci is gone, and neither do I. His mouth changes, becomes full of slow, heated things. Things my body understands instantly, the way it catches fire and moves on top of him, searching for a precious blink of skin-on-skin.

“Elisa, you seem to be after something. Is there anything my twentieth erection and I can get you? We’re taking requests.”

“Yes, please.” I try to glide against him but he’s too quick. He lifts me an inch, where I can feel all his heat and none of him.

“Behave,” he says darkly when I whimper but tilts his hips a fraction for the faintest brush. “Is this what you want?”

My “yes” is more of a sigh, and he presses a finger gently into me. I tense, feeling the effects of last night’s homecoming.

“Are you sore?”

“No,” I breathe.

“I don’t believe you.” And the finger disappears.

“No, Aiden, more!” Oxygen becomes rarefied, and I try to find the rose-scented breeze.

He chuckles. “The headboard, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“The . . . the . . . the what?”

“Like this.” For a scarce heartbeat, he lets go of my hips and takes my arms, stretching them over him until I can grab the headboard. I take advantage of my hip freedom and brush against him.

“Hold on to that,” he says with a growl and locks my hips again. “I’m going to chain these, Elisa.” He smacks my behind while biting my breast, hard. It makes the fire worse. And the new problem of shaky arms. I grip the headboard as he pulls my prisoner hips upward until I’m hovering over his mouth.

“Wait, no, no—yes!”

His warm lips smile against me. “Now you can dance,” he murmurs. And he releases my hips while his tongue begins gliding as though it’s melting another Baci. Finally free, my hips tango to his rhythm. If he draws circles, they roll. He traces figure-eights and they shimmy. When he blows, they sway. Then his mouth changes again. Instead of a tango, it becomes a tribal dance—pressured, fast, and heavy until with one quick flick, I spiral and fall, sliding down the headboard and all over his face into an inert mass of trembles and whimpers.

He rearranges my melted arms and legs on top of him with a self-assured chuckle, while I try to regain some composure. The clock on the nightstand informs me that my entire transformation from adult woman to blob of molecules took him less than five minutes.

“Are you pleased with yourself?” I try to sound sarcastic and self-possessed but it comes out like a string of drunken slurs.

“Exceptionally. This is one thing where I’m above reproach as a partner. Don’t take it away from me.”

“Not the only thing.” I press my lips over his heart. “But you could certainly improve on self-love.” I wait for my body to solidify, the vague contours of a plan forming in my head. A rational brain cell warns me that I have no clue what I’m doing. But I only have so many weapons, and I promised to fight with him. And the fight has to include this.

“Speaking of self-love,” I say, sitting up and straddling him when I’m steady. His abs flex against me—hopefully an ally in my current incursion. “I’d like to play a game.”

He grins. “What kind of game?”

“It’s quite simple. Someone with your expertise should have no problem.” I press myself gently against his abs, but even the light contact tingles my still-sensitive skin.

Instantly, his grin becomes an arrogant, lopsided smirk. “Is this a sex game, Elisa?”

“It can’t be, can it? As you so thoughtfully observed, I’m a little sore. Which means we can’t use this—” I brush over the length of him, not bothering to hide my sigh. “Or these.” I knot my fingers with his. “As you’d never want to hurt me, right?”

The smirk disappears. “Of course not.”

“Exactly. And we already used your mouth but it just . . . how do I say this . . . it didn’t hit the spot.”

“What the fuck?”

“Yes, I think it left something . . . to be desired.”

He looks almost enraged—as though he has never heard such words in any of the twelve languages he speaks. “Encore,” he hisses, trying to bring me closer to his mouth, but I have his fingers locked with mine, knowing he’ll be gentle while in my hands.

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” The words slice through clenched teeth, as though all the strength I have neutralized from his hands has seeped into his jaw.

“Because your mouth and I have reached an impasse.”

“Excuse me?”

I press myself against his abs more firmly and they nudge back—reflexively swearing allegiance to me. Good, I need reinforcements. “Yes, you see, your mouth—despite its considerable talent—has an awful habit of saying terrible things about you. So your mouth will not have any part of me until we fix this problem.”

His eyes darken as he catches up to my game. The good news is that the fury disappears from his face. The bad news is that it’s replaced with his patent fire. On command, my skin bursts into flames. “That’s a grave impasse, indeed.” The fire is there his voice too—low, with an after-sound building in his chest like smoke. “And how do we remedy this transgression according to you?”

His abs ripple under me, fueling me on. “It’s simple really. I’ll just have to love myself.”

He did not see this coming, that much is obvious. His mouth pops open into a perfect O, along with his eyes. With more courage than I knew I had, I release one of his hands—he grasps a fistful of my thigh immediately—and trail my fingertips between my breasts all way down like he does, until I feel wetness there. Then I place one fingertip inside his open mouth. He sucks on it with a growl, biting hard. “Do you taste that?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever because it’s the last time you taste it until your mouth and I resolve our dispute.”

He doesn’t release my finger, his teeth and eyes imprisoning me here. “You can keep that one finger, Aiden, if you want it so much. I have nine other perfect ones, as you call them, and your abs, which have sworn allegiance to your favorite home.” I roll against them with another sigh. “So, I will be just fine.”

He drops my finger. “You will beg.”

“Oh, but as you assured me last night, you would never let me burn. So I’m hedging my bets that you will beg first.” His abs twitch under me while a growl whirls out of his mouth. His twentieth erection presses imperiously against the small of my back.

“As you wish, Elisa,” he enunciates darkly, as though his tongue is moving inside me, not in his mouth. “We’ll play your little game. What do I have to do?”

His eyes don’t release me and his free fingers are digging into my thigh, so my voice is as tremulous as I feel. “ Well . . . as you know, I’ve never done this self-love business before. And I would want you to guide me through this very first time, like you have done for all my other firsts. But you lost that right for yourself.”

“An immense oversight on my part that will be rectified as soon as I’m allowed, I assure you.”

“Well, here is your chance. I’ll fumble my way through, just me and myself. And if you want to join, first you have to say something nice about yourself and mean it. And then I’ll do what you tell me to do. Agree?”

He looks at me like I’m the bane of his existence and his reason for living at the same time. “Agree,” he says with something like venom and fire. His free fingers grip my thigh. I slap away his hand as he does with me.

“And no touching, please. This is between me and myself. You can touch when you behave.”

I notice with satisfaction that a low gasp escapes his lips.

“Now, where shall I begin?” I circle my hips over the ridges of his abs, losing my train of thought. They flex with me, and I don’t stifle my moan.

“Elisa!” My name fires through clenched teeth like a warning, his hips thrusting underneath. I tighten my thighs around his waist as hard as I can to lock him down—it’s difficult with a thousandth of his strength and my own body shaking.

“Tsk, tsk. I might have to chain these, Aiden. You’re interfering.”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

“You should. Because the more you interfere, the more I’ll change the rules. For example, right now I’m contemplating doing this alone in the bathtub with a locked door while you have only your ears and imagination to torment you.”

“It’s not a hard door to break.”

“That may well be. But it’s an awfully small, European-sized tub. Not at all designed for the likes of you. I’m certain only I can fit in.”

“Fuck you.”

“I really hope you do. And soon. But for now, I’ll just do what you would do.” I’m no longer able to handle the heat of his furious gaze so I close my eyes and, with a burst of courage, I throw my head back and wrap my hands around my breasts. “You would start here, I believe?”

A whimper—an actual whimper—comes from the god of sex. It’s the sound I needed for confidence. My hips unleash themselves on his abs, soldered as we are together from my thighs and my weight. And my hands start to mold around my breasts. I know the way he would touch them—his fingers have branded a permanent trail on my skin. I follow it now with my own fingers, thinking only of him. And everything inside starts to pulse.

Aiden shudders underneath me and the whimper becomes a growl that sounds like, “Oh dear God.”

“No, not that God,” I gasp through the inferno I just lit for myself. “Dear Aiden.” I brush my fingers over my nipples—this is harder, more intimate under his blistering gaze that burnishes my skin even with my eyes closed. I pinch as he does at the same time that I circle my hips.

“I’m loyal.”

I almost miss the snarl of his words over the blood hammering in my ears. But they hang in the air, raspy and clear.

“Yes, you are,” I smile. “One of your most noble traits. What would you like me to do in return?”

“Look at me.”

And I do. Those are the rules I made, even if they light me on fire. Under me, Aiden is falling apart. Every band of muscle has turned into a blade of steel. The V is carved so deep between his eyebrows, it might become permanent. His hands are in white-knuckled fists, clenching the quilt. And his fiery eyes are dark and hooded, boring into me with greed.

“Am I doing this right?” I ask, circling my nipples as he would.

He nods furiously, beyond all speech, his eyes unblinking on my fingers. His abs and I continue to dance to the music of my moan.

“I’m strong.” His words ring out again, a little louder.

“Very strong. Stronger than anyone I know. What do you want me to do next?”

“Lower,” he commands as another shudder runs through him. My fingers flutter over my belly like his did when he was playing the piano on me.

“I love you.” His words spill out again.

“No, that’s about me, not about you. Try again.”

“It is about me,” he protests through his teeth. “My love for you is my best trait.”

I deliberate but the throbbing inside makes me a biased judge. My fingers brush over my pubic bone. “How about you’re loving? Can we settle for that?”

“I’m loving.” Half-snarl, half-whimper.

“Yes, and I love that about you. It makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the world.”

“You are.”

“What next?”

“Lower.”

My finger tiptoe my public bone to the inside of my thighs, tracing little circles there like he did yesterday with me. “Like this?”

“Uh huh.”

“I like it so much better when you do it.”

“Let me.”

“No.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes . . . wouldn’t that be nice?”

But now I have a dilemma. Where do I go from here? If I move, I lose the friction of his abs and I need that—I need it like air. If I don’t, I run out of real estate on my thigh. And then there is only one spot left. The inferno that will burn us both alive. He must sense my battle because he doesn’t speak—he is breathing hard though. Like my next touch is air to him. And I give it. I wedge my hand between myself and his abs, pressing hard as he would. I barely hear him over my own moan.

“Christ.” His hips thrust again, almost buckling me off.

“No, just you in my head. And control your hips or I will stop.”

He becomes utterly still with a pained groan.

“Good. Now . . . the piano you said, Aiden?” And I play the first notes of Für Elise against myself. I know he can feel them on his abs. I know because he shudders, snarls, and swears at the same time.

“I’m—fucking—smart.”

“Yes! Even though it’s an understatement, I’ll accept it. What now?”

“Get—on—this—bed—now.”

Damn him. He’s taking away his faithful, miraculous abs that have done nothing but love and support me. But these are the rules I made up. “Goodbye for now, Aiden’s abs.” I roll one final time against them and slide off him onto the bed.

He takes full advantage. He springs onto his knees between my legs, looming above me, fire raging from everywhere. He spreads his thighs slightly, forcing mine to open more. He seems taller, broader somehow—as though the last few minutes have stretched his contours to breaking point. His chest is rising and falling with his hard breathing. His fingers are curled inward as if he is gripping me in his head. His now-permanent erection is pointing straight at my mouth.

And the throbbing inside gets worse—like a drum on fire pounded by a flamethrower. I will my fingers to continue to play Für Elise, but I can only summon random, off-beat notes even though I heard it all night. My breathing becomes jagged, matching his. He doesn’t speak so my body arches toward him, as though pleading for his words.  It marks a transformation. A flicker of calculation glints in his eyes, his hands relax, and his breathing steadies. His lips lift into a slow, deadly smile. Abruptly, I feel like I’m about to lose my own game.

“I’m an excellent fighter, Elisa.” His voice is now dripping with triumph. “I always win.”

“That’s true,” I sigh, addictive fear gathering like static over my skin. Not fear of him—fear of whether I can handle whatever he is about to unleash on me. “What would you like me to do?”

“I want you to play your song inside you since my fingers are banned.”

Oh bloody hell! Playing on the surface is one thing, venturing into the dragon’s den with him roaring on the threshold is quite another.

“Your rules, Elisa.” His voice is even and dark. I lost all his whimpers and growls the moment I laid back on this mattress. “I’ll even play the music on my phone to help you because I’m thoughtful like that. And that counts for two self-loving things, which means I’d also like you to spread your legs as far apart as they will go. Now.” Then eyes never leaving me, he calls to his phone. “Siri? Play Für Elise . . . for the only woman in the world,” he adds the last part under his breath.

And the piano starts. “Carry on, Elisa.” His voice is back to its taunting setting—he has already won, I just haven’t found out how yet.

Well, I might as well not go down without a fight. “Like so?” I breathe as I obey both his commands. But only one finger—that’s not bad.

“You will need two fingers for your notes, darling, unless it hurts. I earned this one fair and square.”

“Yes, you did,” I concede and do as he says. The first thing I notice is the soreness has eased, either from the heat or the throbbing I don’t know. The second thing I notice is a lot of wet, warm mess.

“Well, well, isn’t that interesting? How soreness just heals from self-love.”

“Only for me.” I try to sound strong but my breath leaves me entirely as I trace the paths he has blazed inside me as well. So familiar with him, so strange and new to me alone. But pleasant too—in a way I didn’t know I could give myself. Nowhere as bewildering as when he does it, more like a snack to his feast . . . but good nonetheless. My eyes flutter close.

“Oh, no. I earned the open eyes as well,” he reminds me.

I force mine open, begging him in my head as he predicted. Say more nice things, please. More nice things about yourself, and then make them into nice things for me.

“Now,” he begins in a tone that makes me shiver. “Self-love, you said?” And eyes on me, he grasps himself. I whimper as though he grasped me. “I don’t think your cruel rules prohibit this, do they?” And with a controlled sigh, he moves his hand up and down his length to the languid rhythm of my song. It’s my mouth that pops open now, my fingers that curl and stop. I’m the one shuddering. I can’t blink away from the sight.

“Your song, Elisa,” he prompts evenly. “Play it, like I earned it.”

I try. I really, really do. But I’m frozen. I barely survive Aiden pleasing me. How am I supposed to live through Aiden pleasing himself? His beauty in this moment is a force. Exactly that. He knows his body with such precision and control—a fluid symbiosis unlike the treacherous flailing my body is exacting against me. And then he stops. The sparkly bubble of liquid forms over him.

“Don’t stop!” My plea escapes without permission—body and mind completely breaking ranks.

“Oh, no. This is your game. You play, I play. Self-love and all that. Go on.”

As if I can resist him. The sight, the voice, the bubble. I play the keys, and he starts again, as though he can see through my skin. I watch every stroke of his hand, the way the shimmering liquid spreads over him, the way the two of them mold together perfectly without me. And lust becomes almost anger—at myself, at him.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” He smirks. “Feeling so left out when the person you love most in the world turns against you like this.”

“Please, Aiden!” My traitor mouth fires away, completely on his side now.

“Are you begging, Elisa?”

“Yes,” Judas continues.

“What would you like?”

“More nice things . . . about yourself.”

“Ah. I’ll have to think . . . hard,” he says as he pushes himself into his strong hand with a hiss. “It’s difficult to think about myself when all I have in my head is you. And what I’ll do to you once this pestilent soreness is all gone. You have chairs in your lab, don’t you, love? Because I don’t think you will be able to stand. But maybe all the oxytocin will help.” The crescendo of my song starts, and I manage to tap out one note out of three. Gasping, coming apart at the sight of him. The familiar tension wrings my body. At least it’ll be over soon. But the moment the trembles start, his words ring out.

“I’m loved.”

“Wha—? R-right now? I’m busy.”

“No better moment. You heard me. I’m loved. Admit it, that’s your favorite nice thing I should know about myself.”

It is. It is and he knows it, that’s why he saved it for now. But at last I’ll have my release. “You’re—very—loved—especially—by—me—what—next?”

An infuriatingly controlled chuckle. “Fingers out.”

“What? No, no, no.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Why?” The whimper sounds like another “no.”

“Because I earned it. And this one was a very hard one for me to admit. I have plans for this.”

I can’t argue with him, even if my brain cells had not been decimated by his strokes. I almost cry as I obey. The emptiness left behind is physically painful.

“I hate you,” I hiss at him, and he chuckles.

“And there’s the difference between our love. I love you even when you hate me. Now, those perfect fingers of yours . . .”

I tense. “Yes?”

“Since you’ve broken up with my mouth, I’d like you to put one of them in yours.”

“Ew! Really?”

Another slow stroke, another bubble sparkling on him. “Ah, now that hurts my feelings, Elisa. I admitted this very difficult, very vulnerable part of myself. It’s engrained in me not to accept love, but I want to accept yours. I want it so badly, I have gathered scientists, psychiatrists, Beethoven, medication, U.S. Marines, the U.S. Congress, the CIA, Siri, not to mention crossing an ocean and eight thousand miles—all the king’s horses and all the king’s men for the single purpose of deserving your love, but you—love of my life, star of my dreams, peace of my war, lullaby of my sleep—won’t even taste yourself from your finger when you have no problem doing so from my lips? Which is ironic when you are trying to teach self-love. And what’s worse, you refer to my favorite taste with ‘ew’. What is a man supposed to do with all that?”

I just stare. He has stunned even thought into silence, let alone speech. Eyes on him, I put my finger in my mouth without hesitation because he’s right—I’ve done this countless of times with his mouth. I think about the way his bubble tastes instead of me. His eyes widen a fraction—he must have expected more arguments—and a slow smile spreads over his face. I notice with some h-o-p-e that his hand is moving faster. Two bubbles now.

“Thank you,” he says, and his voice is huskier too. “Was that ew?”

I shake my head, still unable to speak.

“Will you say such awful things about yourself again?”

Another shake.

“Good. Did you like it?”

A shrug.

“Ah, that’s too bad. Personally, I could live on it. Would you like to taste something else?”

A nod.

“Well then,” he says, and gathers the gleaming bubbles on his fingertip and brings it to my lips like I did with him. “Taste.”

I shiver from the warm liquid steel that, at least to me, is better than melted Baci. The same moan escapes my lips as it did for him.

His breath catches as his eyes darken. “Better?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever, Elisa. Think about it because it’s only yours. And allowing myself to be yours is the most self-loving thing I can do.” His finger circles the tip of my tongue, sending a jolt through the rest of me, releasing my words.

“I’m only yours, too,” I whisper as he takes his finger away. I’m palpitating from the torture I brought on myself. What was I thinking going against him in this area? But it was worth every unreleased tremble, every ring of fire, every achy throb, just to hear him say, “I’m loved.” I try to press my thighs together to relieve some tension but he is still standing between them—no doubt part of his plan. I give up and close my eyes, reciting the periodic table in my head. My brain glitches over all the elements that are combustible.

Then his warm breath washes over my lips, and my eyes fling open. His face is so close, so heady, the bedroom spins. “Now, will you please forgive my mouth?” he asks, and his voice has become very tender. “It says it’s very sorry and it really wants to taste you.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Oh, I’m serious. I have learned my lesson. It was a very effective teaching strategy. I’ll never forget it.”

“You never forget anything.”

“That doesn’t make it less memorable. Please, Elisa?”

“Are you begging?”

“Begging and dying.”

“And you’ll try not to say bad things about yourself again?” I sound almost in tears. Even his body heat and the sheets feel rough against my over-sensitized skin.

“I will. Now please kiss me. I’m literally on my knees.” His lips inch closer, almost brushing against mine.

“You’re forgiven,” my mouth says to his mouth.

He moans. Where his own hand didn’t break his composure, my lips shatter it. He kisses me like his whole soul is pouring into me through his tongue. I do my best to match him—it’s not even close—and every time I kiss him, I’m also kissing the words he formed in his mouth, the syllables of his self-love.

“Aiden, please, let’s try,” I mumble in garbled English. “I’m not that sore.”

“No, love, heal,” he murmurs, and then his mouth—my new ruler and savior—starts traveling over me. Wherever it touches, my skin zaps at even the lightest pressure. By the time he makes it to the mess I made, he has to hold me because I’m shaking so hard. And then he takes my hand.

“Let me show you,” he says and guides my fingers. It’s entirely effortless with him.

“Not this anymore . . . you.”

“You should always know how to pleasure yourself, Elisa. Always.” I sense something in his voice but I don’t have enough brainpower to understand it. I just follow his patient, mind-blowing lesson, introductions to parts of myself I only know from books of science. And soon I’m flying. The little snaps are starting.

“And now together,” he says and his mouth closes on me. It takes exactly one kiss, and I explode into a million tiny pieces—pieces of mind, of heart, of my body that now I can say I thoroughly know.

I feel his gentle lips and strong hands, holding me together until my breathing eases and the shaking recedes. When I’m finally still, he says, “And that, my Elisa, is self-pleasure. It is yours and no one else’s. Keep it and don’t ever give it to anyone. Not even to me.”

I think about his words, his voice—so forceful but for a trace of wistfulness. I’m too afraid to ask about it without my protein. Because a small part wonders if he showed this to me so I know it in case I lose him. So my body doesn’t shut down again after he is gone, like it did after the accident. A shiver having nothing to do with my recent orgasm runs over me. Violent ends . . .No! I mentally stomp on the whisper. I won’t let it slither inside this purest, closest part of our love. Pleasure is our super-power. Is there a weapon more powerful than that?

Aiden is still on top of me, on his elbows, tense with his own unreleased pleasure. Every plane of his face is etched with need, from his dark hooded gaze to his parted lips.

“You know something I’m learning about pleasure?” I ask him.

“What’s that?”

I sit up, forcing him to rise back on his knees. He is right in front of my mouth, soaring. “It feels as good to give it as it does to receive it.” And I swirl my tongue over the glistening bubbles. A shudder and a hiss rip through him.

“The headboard, Mr. Plemmons,” I say with another swirl.

His chuckle breaks and he actually grips the headboard. I wrap my hands around him and take him in my mouth as far as he can go in one swoop. He shudders again with an unrestrained “fuck” and the headboard shakes behind me. I do it again and all his control shatters with a snarl.

At the sound, I become possessed, ruled by instinct—my entire vision narrowing on this one goal of pleasuring him. He has never let me loose on him before like this, only as foreplay under his careful control. Sure, I have the matter of physics—there is only so much of me, and too much of him. But if I ignore the mechanics and think only about his mouthfeel, his taste, then I understand. I understand exactly why Aiden loves doing this to me. Why he was indignant at my ‘ew’—because if he ever said that about himself, I would be furious.

His entire body, from his vocal chords to his thighs, is thrumming. My name is slicing through his teeth, punctuated with groans and profanities that to me sound better than Beethoven. Every time I feel him at the back of my throat, I taste more of him. And the deeper I try to go, the more vicious his battle. I learn his body as he has done with me. The way his head falls back when I do this. The way his knees almost give out when I do that. I use every move he has used on me: from a peck to a suck and everything in between. He falls apart at the sucks—the harder, the better—and goes completely mental over the swirls, thrusting inside my mouth. Knowing him now, I pick up depth and speed. And Aiden—force of nature, epitome of physical strength, and paragon of sexual control—starts trembling, and the entire bed shakes with him.

“Elisa!” he grabs my hair, trying to pull out, but I grip his hips as he does with me. It seems silly to let go now after everything. I take him in the depths of my throat one last time.

He comes like war. There is no other way to describe it. A guttural growl, one hand nearly ripping off the headboard, the other in my hair, convulsion after convulsion, and then Aiden falls backward on the bed, shuddering and twitching.

Bloody. Hell.

I just did that. And survived.

I tilt my neck to test if my head is still attached to my shoulders. It is. To my utter amazement, I feel relaxed despite the tornado that just happened in and around me. Except for a trickle of warmth inside, I feel only wellness and a small sense of pride.

I look over at the foot of the bed where Aiden’s head is barely visible under the arm over his face. He has not resurfaced, ribcage rising and lowering rapidly, spasms over his muscles like waves, his sprinting breath filling the bedroom. I crawl over him, rest my head on my favorite spot on his chest, and kiss his heart. A gentler ripple courses through him with a low moan. I wait for him to recover, thinking about this new weapon in our hands. I add pleasure,self-love, and sleep to the list of defenses we are collecting for this fight. Is that enough for h-o-p-e to turn from foe to ally for me?

“Hi.” Aiden re-enters our realm with a hushed, husky sound.

“Welcome back.” I use his words with a grin.

“Hmm, have I been out long?” He plays along, even though we both know he wasn’t asleep.

“Just your first post-orgasm coma that I have witnessed.”

“Just the first post-orgasm coma, period.”

“That can’t be true.” It’s an unspoken pact that we don’t discuss his prior liaisons.  I know he remembers them with perfect clarity and neither of us wants to revisit those memories. Oddly, I’m not jealous. On the contrary, I’m glad he allowed himself this healthy, ordinary part of life and made it extraordinary like he does with everything else. But I’m still curious about all the careful restrictions he imposed on himself and his partners before me.

“It is. I never would have allowed myself to relax like this, as I do with you.”

My cheeks flush with pride. More firsts—that too has to help.

“Well, Elisa, I’m amazed.”

“I know, the orgasm comas are good, aren’t they? Even if you didn’t pass out like I do.”

He lifts his arm off his face with some difficulty and peers at me with a loopy grin. Lazily, he turns to face me, curling around me and resembling very much a placated, well-fed, happy dragon on a sunny rock. “Yes, they are, but that’s not what I mean. That was quite your first time, too.” His nose skims my throat and he places a soft kiss on it. The flush spreads from my cheeks to my chest because I know what he means. The finale was a first for me. “Did you like it or did you do it just for me?”

My blush must burn even his skin. “I liked it.”

He kisses my throat again. “Don’t be embarrassed by our love. It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

And just like that, the first four-letter word joins our ranks. L-O-V-E.

It takes us a while to leave this bed—neither of us is willing to burst this bubble like no other we have had. But eventually the real world intrudes. Growling stomachs, parched mouths, still-packed suitcases, texts from Aiden’s phone about work, texts from Reagan and Javier that they’re awake and will be here in an hour. And Aiden starts making his own big place in the cottage. Hanging up his shirts with my dresses (“aren’t you glad I didn’t pack a lot of feathered hats, Elisa?”), tucking his boxers with my underwear (“will these dried rose packets irritate you with your soreness?”), the books he is reading on his nightstand (“I’ll finish these tonight and start on your father’s library.”), his toothbrush necking with mine in the restroom (“you were not kidding about this bathtub. How are we going to fuck in the shower, Elisa?”) his cologne nudging my face cream (“I have a surprise for you, but it won’t get here until tomorrow.”) All these little intimacies and normalcies—so routine for others, so ephemeral for us.

Eventually we make breakfast and eat it out in the garden, sprawled on a picnic blanket, waiting for Reagan and Javier. Aiden drinks his coffee, his phone tossed aside on the blanket. He checks it less, looks around more. The tectonic plates do not shift as much in his eyes as he builds new memories here.

“So what would you have done with yourself today if we weren’t here?” he asks, popping the last of the strawberries in his cupid mouth—he inhaled four scones and four eggs, the mush, the ham, and the fruit. Even his appetite seems better here.

I shrug, not wanting to imagine such a dark day. “I probably would have gone to the lab to work on the protein. I can’t wait to test it tomorrow. See if I got the code right.”

The same powerful emotion that fell over him when I told him about my protein yesterday morning molds his vernal face now.  But unlike yesterday, I can’t hold back my question, or at least a version of it. “Why do you get that look when I talk about my protein?”

“What look?”

“I don’t know. Like you don’t want me to make it for you or something. Or are you worried I can’t finish on time?”

His gives me a tight smile. “Elisa, I think you can do anything you set your mind on. And that’s not just a cliché boyfriends are supposed to say. I really believe that.”

“Then what is it?”

He tilts his head side to side, deliberating. I sip my tea to give him time, watching every flicker of emotion on his face. But it’s carefully composed. “I suppose I don’t want your second invention to be tied to me. You already tied your first protein to me for your green card—which you threw away.” He glares at me, but I don’t take the bait. “Staking a claim on this second one too . . . it feels unconscionable.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know how to answer that without breaking Corbin’s rule.”

A shiver whips through me, and I see him notice the new crop of goose bumps on my arms. A familiar bolt of fury strikes in his eyes as the jaw flexes—a fury I now know is not at me. It’s at himself.

“It’s in case we don’t win, isn’t it?” I whisper. “That’s why you look like that?”

“I don’t want your second invention tied to me,” he repeats. I take it as a yes.

“But it could help you even if . . . even if . . . that happens.” My voice breaks. I need the protein for myself, I need it for Dad, but I need it for Aiden more than anyone else. Because I can’t shake off the terror I feel for him if we lose. He has cashed in all his hopes and dreams on this final chance. What will happen to the man with the dimply smile, shy eyes, self-loving words, and peaceful sleep if we don’t win? It would kill him, James said. He’d rather die, Javier agreed. A snapshot of my nightmare—the worst one, Aiden’s cold lips—flashes in my vision, making my gasp. Is this what killed him in my dream? Because we didn’t win? Because I made just one vial of protein and he refused to take it from me?

Aiden brushes my arm, no doubt attributing my gasp to his words. “I’m sorry. Don’t mind the crackpot fool—negative thoughts are a hard habit to break. You keep working on your protein. And when you finish it, I’ll try it. But please do it for yourself and your father. Don’t stress yourself for me. Okay?” I hate that he is blaming himself for my terror. And I hate that I’m letting him do it. But I’d rather board the flight I took back to England a million times over than tell him about my nightmare.

“I’ll make it Skittle-flavored,” I offer to move away from these thoughts.

His lips lift in a true smile. “But I’m so attached to the cinnamon flavor of your first supplement. That’s why I changed my toothpaste.”

“It is?”

“Yes, it was all spearmint before you.”

I lean in and peck his lips. “Cinnamon then. But only because your mouth and I are back together.” I lie down and rest my head on his lap.

He chuckles and takes a picture of me, eyes shifting between the iPhone screen and my face. “What does a picture look like to you?” I ask him to distract myself from the odd sense of unease that creeps over me when he takes pictures. “Compared to your memory, I mean.”

He smirks. “The best analogy I have is the difference between a faded Xerox copy and a high-resolution photograph. Pictures are just copies; they lack the depth, the detail my mind absorbs from the moment.”

“And what does the original memory look like in your mind exactly?”

“Well, imagine pulling up that high-resolution image in Photoshop, and the app gives you options of filters to choose from. My memory works sort of like filters. I see you right now sharp and clear, but if you turn your head like this—like you were in Javier’s painting—a translucent filter falls over you, silver-white because he had made your skin look silver. So right this second, your skin looks like porcelain, shimmering with a silvery light. You take my breath away.”

He brushes his index finger over my jawline where he must see the silver veil while I marvel at the woman he paints, trying to grasp his mind. Tomorrow, for the first time, I get to see his brain. Truly see it in ultrasound. “So, if I’m understanding this right, if you were to see me when I’m all wrinkly and old, you would still see the young silver pretty me?”

He smiles. “You’re never just pretty. But other than that detail, yes, even at eighty-five, you will have the youthful filter for me. I’d see the wrinkles, but Javier’s filter would light you up, fade them if you will.”

“Wow.”

A loud whistle shrieks through the air then, startling a lark out of my beech tree.

“ISA! AIDEN!” Javier calls from what sounds as far as the willows. “REG TELLS ME WE HAVE TO ANNOUNCE OURSELVES, WHICH IS DISGUSTING.”

Aiden chuckles, looking in the direction of the howl with something like indulgence.

“Speaking of the genius. He thinks he owes me, but I’m the one who owes him for the most beautiful thing in my life.”

Jumping Aiden now is out of the question with Reagan and Javier emerging on the garden path. Reagan is wearing the most spectacular emerald hat with an enormous peacock feather so tall that it flutters above Javier’s head, tickling his hair so that every few steps he swats at it like a fly. I meet her eyes for an update but she shakes her head slightly with a sad smirk. Bollocks. Maybe we need more aggressive measures.

“How was the Inn?” I ask them as they plop on the blanket with us, thoughtfully giving Aiden his space. I push toward them the few scones, jam, and clotted cream that survived Aiden’s appetite.

Dios, it’s like a different world. I’ve already sketched it. Speaking of, Aiden, how much do we owe you to stay there for the next two weeks?” Javier asks, while sniffing the clotted cream with a suspicious look.

“You don’t owe me anything. It’s already paid for.”

“Told you,” Reagan chimes while loading a morsel of scone with a dollop of cream.

“I know it’s paid for but we want to reimburse you,” Javier presses.

“You’re not reimbursing me.”

“What the fuck? Yes, we are.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, we are. You’ve done way too much for us, I can’t accept this.”

“I haven’t done nearly enough and yes, you can accept it.”

Javier looks at me completely bewildered. “Isa, help me with your man. Speak his language. He seems to be taking this whole do-the-opposite thing literally.”

Reagan giggles, and I with her. Aiden just looks calmly at Javier who stares at all of us like we belong at the Burford Dementia Centre.

“Javier, sweetheart, you don’t argue with Aiden about money,” I explain. “Or really about anything. It’s a terrible, terrible idea that never ends well for anyone. You would do better if you ask him ‘why’ questions.”

“Thanks for giving out trade secrets, love,” Aiden says next to me, but he is smiling.

“And you,” I turn to him and the smile drops. “You will do better if you explain your reasons to Javier so he understands where you’re coming from.”

They both blink at each other, while Reagan almost chokes from laughing.

“Fine,” Javier starts. “Aiden?”

“Javier.” Aiden inclines his head.

Why do you not want us to pay you for the Inn?”

“At least five reasons. First, you are Elisa’s family, and I never let family pay for anything. Second, you have become my friends independently of Elisa and, as Cal will tell you, my friends also never pay for anything. Third, I’d like you to save your money now that you have your green card so that you can invest in your future and begin your new life. Fourth, the price of the Inn is nothing to me for the value of having you near while Elisa and I have our privacy. And fifth, as I was recently telling her, I’m the one who owes you for bringing us together in the first place.” He looks at me with an expression like, ‘how did I do?’ I squeeze his fingers to tell him he did very well indeed.

Javier blinks a few more times, speechless—a common side effect when one first experiences Aiden in full form—and eventually finds some words. “Well . . . that . . . okay then.”

Reagan claps, still laughing. “Well done, boys. Personally, I don’t see why it’s so hard but I also speak Aidenish well by now. I’m not as fluent as Isa, but I can definitely converse.”

It’s Aiden who chuckles first—a soft chuckle, nothing like the belly laughs James gives him, but it’s a happy sound. They laugh together as Reagan provides a dictionary of Aidenisms that she has developed in her head. “Yes, ‘hm’ usually means ‘I heard you, have already thought about it, but no.’ ‘Mm’ means ‘interesting idea, and worth considering, but still no.’ ‘Huh’ means ‘stupid idea, definitely no’ and ‘huh-uh’ means ‘get out of my face or you’ll burn alive.’ And the worst part is, he’s usually right. How did I do, Aiden?”

“Huh.”

“Shit, I went too far.”

“Mm.”

“Oh, okay, then. See, Javi? It’s easy.”

I watch them banter this way—learning each other, finding their own frequency, easing into each other’s orbit—and their constellation becomes so radiant that for a moment I have to close my eyes. Behind my eyelids, as though imprinted on the retinas, they are still laughing in this garden, but Mum and Dad are also here, on the wrought iron bench where they used to sit, smiling at us. The image is so stunning that I can’t breathe or open my eyes. How can I lose all this again? Make us brave, keep us together.

“Isa, did you fall asleep over there?” Javier asks while Aiden takes my hand. I swear he is feeling my pulse.

“Are you all right?” His voice is immediately anxious.

“I’m better than all right. But I’d like to take you three somewhere. Are you up for it? It’s a bit of a walk, like everything around here.”

“Will this hat work?” Reagan asks in complete seriousness. “Or should I change?”

Javier shakes his head with a chortle. “No way, Reg. The peacock feather screams countryside.”

“Shut up, Javi,” she retorts but I know her eyes. She is in so deep that even the most innocent tease from Javier hurts.

“The hat is perfect.” I smile at her. “You never know, you may run into your David Gandy while you’re here.”

“Oh, my goodness!” She gasps, as though she had forgotten the entire existence of her favorite male model.

“David who?” Javier pipes up.

I wink at her and scurry to the garden shed, trying to marshal the vortex of emotion. I don’t recognize my insides. Everything is a contradiction. Deliriously happy and utterly terrified.  At peace while fighting my biggest war. In love and loathing everything that conspires against us. I rummage through the tool rack, tossing items into my camping rucksack and needing to get through the periodic table a couple of times to fight off tears. I can just imagine Aiden’s panic if he finds me here falling apart. And I’m not falling apart because I’m upset. I’m falling apart because apparently there is such a thing as too much love.

By the time I drag my rucksack back to them, Reagan has regained her smile while Aiden and Javier are debating how many years Feign will get in prison.

“If my sources are right, it will be at least ten,” Aiden says. “He’ll never bother you again . . . Fuck, let me carry that.” He stands when he sees me and grabs my rucksack, which rattles with a metallic clang. “What the hell is in it?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out. Let’s go.” I pick up one of the American Beauty seedlings I bought from the Plemmonses, saving the other one. He takes that, too, lest I strain my back from carrying a single rosebud in a plastic pot.

We set off across the fields, the four of us. The village of Burford has never seen a stranger group, of that I’m certain. Reagan leads the way with her peacock feather; Javier next to her with a pencil above each ear and a cross-body satchel full of sketchbooks; Aiden in a white T-shirt, Raybans, and jeans, too beautiful to belong on this planet, let alone in my village, carrying a rose and a rucksack that clamors and bangs loudly with his long strides; and me tripping every few steps because I can’t tear my eyes away from the three of them.

“Will we be walking through town or anywhere we might need Benson?” Aiden asks under his breath.

I hook my arm in his—it’s turned into granite again. “No, just open fields and air. And the occasional deer.”

The tension of his arm softens. “I hope some day we never have to worry about this again.”

H-o-p-e. “I don’t feel deprived of anything. Besides, town is overrated. What are men to rocks and mountains?” I quote Elizabeth Bennett like we once did in his library.

He chuckles and kisses my hair, shortening his stride to match mine. “It’s beautiful here,” he says after a while, eyes roaming the open fields brimming with wildflowers, the river gliding next to us, the rolling shamrock hills like the curves of some earth mother goddess protecting all life within its valleys.

I lean my head against his arm, imagining that his simple observation means more, fantasizing that he wants my little village to be a beautiful home for a beautiful man. He has not mentioned me returning to the U.S. and neither have I. What can we possibly say? We both know where I live is irrelevant if we lose this fight. It’s not a question we can ask until we know our fate. But I wonder if his unerring eyes see the way my heart twists at the idea of abandoning the cottage or Oxford again. Has his quick mind already sensed another deadly war ahead even if we survive this one? A war that could spread my organs across two continents like I’d be blown up by mortar fire: bits of heart here, sponges of lungs there, never whole, never at rest.

“So does Gandy visit where we’re going, Isa?” Reagan calls over her shoulder as we cut across another field, this one carpeted with daisies and forget-me-nots.

“Will somebody tell me who the hell we’re talking about?” Javier demands.

“He is an exemplar of male beauty, Javi. That’s all you need to know.”

Aiden slows down until we fall back a few steps. “So, how would you feel about these two together?”

I yank his arm to a full stop. “You know?” I whisper.

He shrugs. “Of course.”

“How did you find out? Reg barely admitted it to me!”

“I have eyes, Elisa. It’s not that hard to figure out.”

“Not for you, maybe. Javier hasn’t got a clue.”

He starts walking again, eyes on Javier’s back. “I don’t know about that. I just don’t think he’s willing to see.”

“Same difference. Meanwhile, Reg is in hell.”

“Yes, I recognize the symptoms. Give them time. They’ll figure it out.”

“I’m not sure they will. I don’t think Javier envisions a love life for himself at all.”

Aiden laughs. “Elisa, he’s a man. I guarantee you he envisions a love life. Whether he goes after it is a different question.”

“I’m starting to think he won’t though. He’s convinced himself he has nothing to offer. He’s almost as self-loathing as you.”

“You know what to do with these self-loathing men, Elisa?”

“What?”

“Add self-love.” He winks, his eyes instantly catching fire at the memory of our game.

I grip his arm. “Don’t joke about that right now. Please help me make Javier see.”

“What could I possibly do about it? The man has to want it, Elisa. And I can see his point to a degree. Wanting to build some security, to be able to provide for his family before he gets involved.”

“Reg doesn’t care about any of that.”

“But he does, my love. It’s important to him.”

“Are we still talking about Javier?”

He smiles with the dimple. “Yes, we are, but I understand him on this point. You and I have serious problems, but at least I’m able to protect you from everything except myself. That’s important to me and I’m certain it’s important to a traditional man like Javier.”

I watch Javier duck away from Reagan’s feather as she skips past him playing with a daisy.

“Trust me on this one,” Javier’s new comrade-in-arms insists. “Javier has to be ready on his own. And if you need more proof, I draw your attention to exhibit one.” He points at the center of his chest, in the exact counter-spot where the raw wound used to hurt me two days ago.

“But in the meantime Reg is hurting,” I argue. “And Javier would hurt too if he knew he is hurting her.”

Aiden sighs. “And you would hurt with them. All right, at least give him these two weeks. Maybe being in this romantic place will trigger something. And if not, I’ll help you. I have no fucking clue how, but I’ll try. Is that better?”

I grin at him, watching his lips lift into a mirroring smile. As unfathomable as Aiden’s mind is, there is a simple axiom at the very kernel of its existence: to protect me, he would do anything.

“You think this place is romantic?” I kiss the spot above his elbow where my lips reach—his golden skin is warm from the sun.

He laughs. “Don’t read too much into that. I also used to think a sand ditch in Iraq was romantic when I was writing your letters. So I’m not to be trusted with the concept.”

A fiery field of poppies ripples around us now. The flowers brush against Aiden’s jeans like Marilyn lips. I watch the soldier who believes he doesn’t understand romance step carefully not to crush the blooms. Then I watch the man who doesn’t need photographs snap a selfie of the two of us parting the poppy sea. And despite the ice trickling down my neck at the camera’s click, I smile. Because this is the kernel of my existence: for him to see himself clearly, I would do anything.

We leave the poppy field behind and I lead them up the hill. For a while speaking becomes difficult from the climb and, in my case, from what the hill means.

“I’m very curious to see where you’re taking us,” Aiden says in perfectly even tone, despite carrying a rucksack full of metal, while the rest of us are huffing and puffing.

“We’re almost there.”

As I say the words, however, a current of panic courses through me. Was this a good idea for Aiden? Will it trigger anything? I stumble at the thought but he catches me gently at the elbow. “Careful, love.”

“How are you feeling?” I ask him.

He frowns at my sudden question. “As I always do with you. Calm. Why?”

“Just checking.”

I hesitate where I am—wanting this deeply, but also wanting only happy memories for him. Javier and Reagan stop with us, clutching their sides. I contemplate turning around, but then, right above us, a beam of sun breaks over the summit. A single, brilliant ray like a halo over the crest. It blinds me to everything else, even the three people next to me, and I start climbing in a trance, as though the beam is a gravitational string made of the most dazzling starlight, pulling me to the peak. I can’t hear Aiden, Javier, or Reagan behind me—I can’t hear anything. Just Mum’s voice crooning like in our home movies, “keep going, Elisa.”  My feet gather speed like last time and I break into a run. The wind flings my hair, the sun blinds my eyes, but I’m air. Just air trying to float to the heavens above. Then with one leap, I’m on the tiny crest meadow.

Under the cypress tree, the white marble tombstone glimmers and sparkles like always. And, as always, I can’t breathe.

Aiden reaches me in a blink. I know because even though my eyes are fixed on the shimmery grave, I sense his presence like a shield right next to me. It blasts away the chills, releases my lungs, and fortifies my knees. He doesn’t speak, but he wraps his strong arm around my shoulders, holding me up, standing so close that I only have to tilt my head and it leans on him. And all the grief, all this implacable loss, all this anguish are also now resting on him, on his iron shoulders carrying this sorrow with me. The agony splits by half so my knees don’t give out like they did when I last came here. My body doesn’t break into dry sobs. And my voice doesn’t disappear. I can stand, I can breathe, I can form thought, even if I can’t speak.

Javier and Reagan appear to my right. I feel Reagan’s hand on my hair and Javier’s fingers around mine. And the climbing roses on the marble flutter with the breeze. Hello.

“Hello,” I whisper back.

The rose buds have now opened into white miniature rosettes, each like a smile, flittering with a “come here” gesture. It releases my feet and I walk to the tomb on my own power. The roses sway when I reach them. I notice our four shadows fall over the sparkling stone, the tallest right next to me. Below the roses, on the marble is the vial of dried rose and Aiden’s dog tags that I last left here. I can’t blink away from my parents’ names to look at him. I test the words in my mouth before I speak. They’re there, I just have to breathe.

“Mum, Dad,” I tell them even though I know they cannot hear. “This is Aiden . . . and Reagan and Javier.”

The rosettes wave.

The first sound registers in my ears. Reagan’s sniffle. I watch her shadow remove the hat, Javier’s shadow pat her shoulder, and Aiden’s shadow pull mine close, his arms folding around me until our two shadows become one that looks like a distorted heart.

Other sounds enter then. Aiden’s strong heartbeat, thudding fast like mine. The warble of the lark that lives in the cypress tree. The whoosh of the hilltop wind. And more words come.

“This place is where they had their first date,” I say, noticing my voice is not a whisper anymore, just a quiet key.

“It’s beautiful,” all three of them answer in unison.

“The four of us are the only ones alive who know that.”

None of them says anything but strangely it’s as though their silence finally allows me to talk in this place. Actually talk. “Everyone in town thought I had gone mental insisting they rest here, away from everything. Of course, I was mental so they gave in to me. I think it turned out well. I think they like this.”

“Of course they do,” says Reagan.

“I brought them something this time. This American Beauty rose from all of us. Will you help me plant it here?”

And they do. I hear Aiden unzip the rucksack, no doubt realizing the racket inside was a hand spade and shovel, a large stainless steel water bottle, and a bag of enriched dirt.  We start then—all four of us together. Javier’s callused hands, Reagan’s delicate alabaster ones, Aiden’s strong fingers, and mine that look exactly like Mum’s. We dig the small hole in the grass at the foot of the marble, and I lower the seedling into it, covering its delicate roots with dirt and watering it. We use the rest of the water to wash our hands. In the end, the little seedling sways in the breeze.

“Want to sit here for a while?” I invite them, eyes still on the stone. “I know it’s strange but . . . it’s the only time I’ve actually been able to truly visit.”

As one, they sink on the grass around the seedling with me. After a while, we start chatting, not an involved conversation—just bits of thought and feeling. Javier draws a rough sketch of the cottage and tucks it with the rose vines. Reagan digs her favorite British toffee out of her purse and places it on the marble. And Aiden opens his wallet and takes out a familiar strip of waxy paper—“Love me for love’s sake only”—the very first quote Baci chocolates gave him on our embargo day. To my utter shock, a smile finds me here. He has kept it all this time and now secures it under the vial of his dog tags and dried rose.

I look up at his face, recalling my fear of whether this would trigger bad memories for him. But he is entirely here with me, from his tender eyes to his hands like strongholds around my waist. And this moment will live on in him, with every pixel of ache and beauty.

“This isn’t a happy memory for you,” I say.

“It’s better than that. It’s precious.”

“I’m sorry about the dog tags. I was trying to leave you behind. You should have them back.” I try to get out of his hold but his arms tighten around me like a fortress.

“Don’t think about that now. Let them stay here, in this special place with your parents. Hopefully that part of me will be at rest, too.”

H-o-p-e again. I look at the seedling, feeling something germinate in my lungs and wind up my throat like the rose’s tendril. It’s a singular, curious sensation—like a tickle, wrapped in warmth, swarming with butterflies. Light like a breeze, yet mighty too, as though it could parachute me straight up. I try to understand what it is. Sunrays shatter into millions of crystals around the epitaph: “Amor Vincit Omnia.” Love conquers all. And I find a name for the tendril. Odd that I should find it here in this place with so much pain, loss, and time long gone. A place of so many four-letter words.

“I hope it does,” I answer Aiden a little late. Here, by my most tragic loss, H-O-P-E joins my side. Or perhaps I join it.

The way back down the hill is easier. Not just physically, but emotionally too. So different than the two other times I’ve stumbled down this trail. By the time we’ve reached the open fields again, I feel light—like the tendril of hope is parachuting me above ground.

“Feeling a little better?” Aiden asks as we stroll across the poppy field back to the cottage.

“Yes. I actually feel happy in an odd way. Everyone I love now has met each other.”

I smile at Reagan picking poppies ahead of us, while Javier opines that she should balance out the red only with dark grass. To which she replies, “you should balance out your dark grass with red.”

“Good one, Reg,” I cheer for her under my breath as she fluffs her flame of red curls. But her euphemism flies right over Javier’s raven-black waves.

“Elisa?” Aiden pulls me by the elbow. I look up at him, tripping to a stop not because of his gentle hold, but because of his face. It’s always stunning but there are some moments, like right now, when it looks surreal.

“Yes?” I breathe.

“How would you feel about meeting my parents?”

Can one trip while standing perfectly frozen? Seems like I can. “What?”

He smiles patiently, giving me time to process.

“Are you serious?”

“Very.”

“B-but . . . they’re in Portland.” Of all the thoughts scrambling in my brain, this is the one my mouth picks.

He chuckles. “Elisa, to meet you, they’d swim over, let alone take a flight.”

“They know about me?” Maybe I should sit down, if I could move.

“They do. I told them after you left when I asked them to shelter the Solises.”

He gives me another moment to process, which is good because I need it. Aiden has isolated his parents since he attacked his mother when he returned from Iraq twelve years ago. Our conversation about this during the drive to his Alone Place might as well be blaring through foghorns over the poppy field. He doesn’t see them—only speaks to them occasionally by phone or other safe methods of communication that do not expose them to his startle reflex and him to the excruciating memory of hurting his own mum.

“I . . . I didn’t realize you’re reconnecting with them,” I manage. “That’s wonderful, Aiden.”

He shrugs with a small smile. “You told me I can’t shut them out. You said someday they will be gone and nothing will be able to take my grief away.” He quotes my words verbatim, of course.  “I thought a lot about that after you left. And then seeing you just now, how close you still are to your parents even though they have passed, made me think you’re right about this too, like you have been about a lot of things.”

I stare at him, unable to voice all the emotion inside. When I still can’t speak, he continues. “I know it makes no practical sense for you to meet each other now if in eighty-nine days you and I . . .” His eyes fall on the immediate goose bumps that sprout on my arms and he rubs them gently. “But somehow that makes it even more important that you meet. That we try this normal life thing to the fullest.”

Finally my brain is able to string together the biggest question—the one that is ruling them all. “Do you want me to meet them? Or is this for me . . . or Corbin?”

“All three. I find that I want you to know them, and them you. I want them to meet the woman I love, no matter what happens in the end. I really haven’t given them many moments of joy in life as a son should. And I might never be able to, except this time with you.”

Except now—this present moment we may never get again.

“And I suppose I thought you would want this, too,” he adds. “To meet everyone we love. Do you?”

His question—as though he still cannot believe I would want every speck of him, let alone such a core part—releases my words. “Of course I do, Aiden. I’d love to meet your parents. I just want to make sure you’re doing the right thing for you, not because you feel you have to do it for me.”

The dimple winks in his cheek, lifting his beautiful mouth into a moon of a smile. “This is the right thing for me. You’re teaching me that—you take these memories in life, no matter how ugly and you make them beautiful. I guess I want to do the same.”

“Well then,” I take his hand in both of mine as I did yesterday. “Let’s welcome your parents.”

He laughs with that pure waterfall sound. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

He runs his hand through his hair, looking around like he wishes someone was close to hear this. But Reagan and Javier are in the distance, plopped under the shade of an enormous oak, waiting for us. Aiden laughs again. “Fuck, I better give a heads-up to my mother’s cardiologist. She might need him.”

He tucks my arm in his and we start walking again. His step is quicker, lighter somehow.

“So when would they come?” I ask, nerves already starting to creak. How will it be meeting the genetic forces that created Aiden? What do they think of our experiment? Of their only son being in this far-flung village, thousands of miles away in another fight for his future, maybe even life?

“Well, if it were up to my mother, they’d get here tomorrow. But I was thinking it might be better after Reagan and Javier leave, so you can have something to look forward to. That way, we’ll also have family and friends around for about half of the summer.”

The easier half. He knows neither of us will be in any shape for company during the second half as the ninety days run out. “Very thoughtful.”

“What’s that in your voice? Are you nervous?”

“A little bit.”

He laughs. “Don’t worry—I’ll keep my mother in check.”

“No, don’t. She must miss you so much. Let this be special for her too,” I tell him, unable to ask my hardest question. But his inconveniently observant eyes have already seen it.

“So if that’s not worrying you, what is?” He tips up my face so I can look into his eyes and, on cue, the question blurts out.

“What do your parents think about us being together? With everything we have to overcome, I mean.” With how much there is at stake if we don’t, I add in my head. He must hear the unspoken part too because the tectonic plates shift in his eyes as he retrieves his answer.

“I won’t lie, they’re worried. Worried about both you and me if I were to . . . again. But they’re also ecstatic that I’ve found someone who has given me a reason to fight and take care of my health. So I’d describe it as joyful terror. A bit like us.”

Oddly his words make me smile despite the f-e-a-r. Because it’s similar to the reaction I see in Javier’s and Reagan’s eyes. And it’s the same reaction Mum and Dad would have had, of that I’m certain. Desolately terrified and deliriously happy—unable to help us with anything but their love. Could our families’ unconditional and undying love be a weapon? Could it help Aiden and me in the same mystical way that Für Elise does—ways science can’t explain because they’re written in the stars?

“And if you’re also nervous about whether my parents will like you—although I cannot imagine your brain forming such a ridiculous thought—of course they will. How could they not?” adds the man who literally has Javier’s magic filter over my face.

“Hmm,” is the only answer I give him.

“Is that an Aidenism?”

“Definitely.”

He laughs, clueless that my brain is more than capable of such questions. Will they like me? What do they think of their son falling for someone with her own trauma? Someone who lives so far away? Someone who—if they knew the full truth—believed their son to be such a monster that she left him and wasted his one million dollars?  But none of my insecurities matter in this bigger constellation we are charting. They’re trivial compared to the brightest thing: Aiden is letting more love in his life.

“All right, tell me more about your parents. Robert and Stella. Tell me everything.”

“Well, this is their last year before retirement . . .” he starts as we make our way to Reagan and Javier. I listen to every word, picking some wilted poppies. No reason to end the young, pretty ones. But wilted poppies have their own beauty too. They’re not bubbly and cheerful, but their swan necks have their own grace—they have survived the wind.

With each withered bloom, I tick off our new list of allies and weapons: our love, Aiden’s strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love if we can grow it, our families, the team of scientists, these mystical gifts from our stars—my calming effect from Javier’s genius, the protein from Dad, and Für Elise from Mum—and now H-O-P-E. Will they be enough for the unfathomable enemy before us, lurking, waiting to strike? Because strike it will.

“Why are you picking only the dead ones?” Aiden asks looking at the eleven wilted poppies I’ve collected.

“They’re not dead. They’re wise.”

He laughs again, and I listen to the sound floating free over the poppy field with the gentle breeze. I add a twelfth withered poppy—laughter has to be a weapon too.

“You two look like you belong in a Shakespeare sonnet or a Jane Austen novel,” Reagan grins when we reach the two of them under the oak tree.

“Shakespeare was an idiot,” I respond.

All three of them lecture me about my issues with the overrated fool all the way home. But they did not hear the chilling whisper that deafened my ears despite my bouquet of allies and the tendril of hope: these violent delights and have violent ends.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 12 – BIG BANG

Happy Saturday, friends! What can I possibly say about this chapter? I’ll let you find your own words but I will add that the “Male” poem under the Poems page in my website was written exactly for this chapter. Hope you enjoy it and thank you as always for following this story and for commenting and writing to me. It means a lot and I might not have found the energy even for these chapters without your words. Happy weekend! xo, Ani [The following material is R-rated.]

12

Big Bang

“What is it?” Aiden asks, noticing my smile. He is still glowing above me, breathing hard, his body still pressed against every inch of mine.

“You gave me an idea.” I breathe, my legs wrapping around him like a vise.

He closes his eyes with a moan. “Does it involve how to prevent pregnancy when the most desperate man on the planet does not have a condom?”

“Umm, no, but it should help with desperation generally.”

“Mmm, I’m beyond help on that point.” He runs his nose down my throat and around the nipple protruding through the thin cotton of my pajamas. He shudders and opens his eyes—looking at me that way—and my body riots. It arches off the meadow, brushing against the denim of his jeans. He presses into me reflexively, that part of him to that part of mine, cancelling out the whole world.

“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, his jaw flexing, the bands of muscle tensing like he is trying to move and stay still at the same time. I’m not sure though, I’m over here on the soggy meadow, burning. With a groan, he pulls away from me and rolls on his back, staring at the sky and muttering something fast and low.

The small distance feels transatlantic. I turn to my side and flutter my fingers on his cupid lips. But his hand flies up and places them over his chest where his heart is crashing against his ribs like mine. “A man minute, please,” he breathes, lying here motionless on the wildflowers, all the sky in his eyes.

“What are you doing?”

“Reciting War and Peace backwards.”

A laugh bursts through my lips. A true-bubbly-effortless-straight-from-the-heart laugh. Of course an impossible being like this needs a fifteen-part saga to cool his fire.

I think my laugh works better at distraction than Tolstoy though because he turns to me with my favorite lopsided smile—ardor reined in. “I love the sound of your laugh, Elisa. I thought I’d never hear it again anywhere except in my mind.” He props himself on his elbow. “Now tell me about your idea. What was it?”

It takes me a moment to remember lost as I am in this feeling of laughter. But when I do, words tumble out, telling him everything about the protein of bravery from the moment I first interviewed with Edison. He listens to me incandescently, that’s the only word to describe it. “Anyway,” I take a deep breath when I get to the clue part. “I’ve been so sure I would disappoint Edison and, worse, embarrass my dad. He’s a legend there, Aiden, I can’t even describe it. And they all seem to think I’m a mini-him with his skills and brain. It’s mental. But then I found a clue in Dad’s safe the same night I started reading your war letters because that’s where I keep them. He had locked the clue in there at some point, but clearly didn’t tell anyone, I’m not sure why. Want to know what it said?”

He strokes my cheek with the back of his fingers. Humor has left his eyes, and they have become unbearably tender. “I think you are a brilliant scientist on your own right, not just as your father’s daughter. You may have inherited his talent but your work, your worth, that’s all yours. Never forget that. You are nobody’s mini. All of them are just mini-Elisas.”

“Want to hear the clue or not?”

He chuckles. “Yes, dear.”

“It said: Fifth Time. Not December. Add Love.”

I see his own intelligence and curiosity flash in his eyes, and the tectonic plates shift, probably retrieving everything he has ever heard, read, or learned about number five, December, or love. He whistles in awe. “There’s a lot to unpack there. We can break it though; let me think for a minute.” And he closes his eyes, his pupils shifting rapidly under the eyelids as his super-brain starts sifting through a vast network of data at lightening speed. A part of me wants to drool here in awe but a bigger part misses his eyes on me.

“I already cracked the first two sentences,” I say, and his eyes are mine again.

“Of course you did. Why would I think you need my help? Tell me.”

“It means I have to remove magnesium, the twelfth element, after the fifth spin on the centrifuge. But I had no idea what “add love” meant until you helped me with your kiss.”

“Oh?” A blinding smile.

“Yes, I was watching how you happy you looked compared to how afraid we were right before—”

“And still are.”

“And still are, but tell me, during the kiss were you feeling any fear at all?”

“None. I was drowning in you. And those pajamas.”

I nod as he confirms my hypothesis. “That’s the third code. Kissing releases oxytocin. Dad is telling me to add oxytocin to the formula.”

His mouth pops open.

“Or at least I think that’s what it means. I can’t wait to test it. But it’s really complex. I have no idea how. And I have to do it in secret—Dad obviously didn’t want anyone to know yet. And if I can do it, it can help you so much. You can eat it like candy every morning, no side effects, and the terrors can’t touch you at all even if my calming effect fails. I’ll save you, you’ll see.”

He changes before me—emotions flitting through the beloved face so fast, I’m breathless. I try to name the ones I can fathom: pride, joy, tenderness, love, pain. Others are too big, too nameless for my mind. At length, his eyes settle in their peace setting and he lowers his face to mine. I reach eagerly for his lips, but they rest on the center of my forehead. The spot my dad always kissed, the spot I couldn’t bear to touch until that last time Aiden and I made love. The spot that now belongs to him.

“You save me every minute, Elisa” he says. “Don’t stress yourself for me. Do this because you love it, do it for your father, not for me. Promise?”

I try to decipher his mood like my clue but it’s too deep. Is it because he thinks my calming effect will win? Or because he thinks no protein of bravery could save him if it doesn’t? I want to ask but instinctively I sense a wall there—a wall he is keeping up for a vital, fundamental reason. A chill prickles my neck. Make us strong, make us brave. I pull him to my mouth for more oxytocin but he sits up, smiling now. “I don’t want to run through the entire fourth book of War and Peace, do you? Come, you’re getting all wet.”

“I know,” I grumble, and he laughs. My favorite, free-waterfall Aiden laugh that springs from a secret part of him and crashes through all his craggy cliffs, washing away every memory debris from his eyes even for just one brief, cascading moment. And I know what he means by the sound of laughter. I could lie here and listen to his all day.

“I meant wet from the grass,” he chuckles. “But I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in my inferno. Come.”

“I’m trying.”

“Elisa, I swear.”

“Oh, yes! Swearing is good too.”

“‘Early in the year 1806 Nicholas Rostóv returned home on leave. Denísov was going home to Vorónezh and Rostóv persuaded him to travel with him as far as Moscow,” Aiden starts reciting, yanking me up with one hand as though touching me with anything more might bring war here in Burford. “It’ll be Rostóv and Denísov all the way if you don’t behave yourself,” he says with a stern voice that doesn’t match either the fiery eyes or the dimply smile.

But now that I’m vertical, I see exactly what he means by “wet.” The back of me, from my hair to the wellingtons, is muddy. An imprint of my body is pressed into Elysium from Aiden’s weight. And his rain jacket looks like a tarp forgotten on a sludgy ditch overnight. For his part, Aiden wears mud extremely well. It has molded around his shoulders and derriere like it wants nothing more than to become an exact replica of him. And his black wavy hair is specked with it, as though Old Aiden sprinkled him with silver wisdom when passing by in my vision.

“Keep looking at me like that, and I’ll tell you all about how Denísov met a comrade at his last station, drank three bottles of wine, and—”

“Okay, okay, I’ll stop.” I laugh, trying to brush off some of the mess in vain. It’s caked everywhere. I look back at the cottage where from the shuttered windows Javier and Reagan are clearly still sleeping.

“You’re a mess. Let’s go to my hotel before everyone wakes up,” Aiden says, seeing my predicament. “Besides, I’ve brought you something.”

“Is it condoms?”

“Elisa!”

“That’s okay. I’ll go on the pill. Especially if we need to flood you in me.”

“Denísov did not once wake up on the way to Moscow, but lay at the bottom of the sleigh beside Rostóv—”

“All right, I’ll really stop this time. Rostóv is starting to sound appealing.”

He zips up my parka with the very tips of his fingers lest my nipples electrocute him, tosses his rain jacket over his shoulder with a deep sigh, and tucks my arm into the crook of his. And we start walking along the river to town, following the trail of my dreams. He slows his long stride to match mine, never rushing, his eyes absorbing the countryside. It’s still early, the hilltops just glazed with the sun’s lacquer. And the willows, the larks’ warble, the river whitecaps, the arched bridge all start becoming imprinted in Aiden’s mind. I try to watch my childhood world through his eyes. It’s peaceful, quiet—the only sounds coming from nature, not man. A land with circadian rhythms that never change, always predictable like the infinity symbols of the rolling hills. Rise, fall, rise, fall—an eternal, cozy pattern of the simple life.

One look at Aiden and I see it, that pastoral standstill filling his eyes. He looks restful, a small smile lingering at the corner of his mouth like a kiss at certain moments. His steel shoulders are less tense, swaying more with movement than his American ramrod posture. Because, as he said, he has no memories of this landscape. Nothing but the ones he is creating right this very minute. I keep quiet to give him these first images to himself. He must be thinking the same because he doesn’t talk, but his hands never leave me. Every few steps, he strokes my cheek, my hair, my arm. As I do with him. But not because I don’t think he is real. Seeing him here, teeming with beauty on my dream trail—how could I possibly have believed those pale imitations my psyche threw together were reality? They were blurry polaroids, grainy images, muffled sounds compared to the real him.

“What are you thinking about?” he breaks the comfortable silence as we are crossing the field of epiphanies.

“Dreams. And you.”

“You mean nightmares?”

I scoff and lean my head on his arm. Always against himself. “In England, Aiden, you’ll always be better than dreams.”

He pauses and takes my face in his hands. “Will you tell me something?” he asks.

“If you take back the nightmare part.”

“I take it back.”

“All right then,” I smile.

“When we were in the garden at your cottage last night, you asked what I did on June sixteenth ten years ago and then said, ‘It’s really you!’ You seemed so shocked. Why was that? Did you believe I’d never come for you?”

I feel my smile fading. He must sense my tension because he releases the pressure of his hands, but not enough to let me look away from him. “Would you have?” I ask, suddenly unsure if I want to know the answer. “If Corbin hadn’t made this discovery that’s given you hope?”

I know the answer before he speaks it; his eyes give it to me. A ghost of the wound creeps up my throat. “I don’t think I would have risked your safety ever again,” he says at last. “But I also know I couldn’t have stayed away. I guess I would have done what I was always planning to do if you had left me but stayed in the U.S. as I thought you would.”

L-e-f-t. “What were you planning?”

“I’d have let you live your life, knowing your normal memory would eventually fade and leave me behind, allowing you to move past the pain and wreckage I had caused. But the whole time, I would have stayed yours. I always planned to find a way to steal a glance at you from a distance. Not like a stalker, just occasionally to get through life, one glimpse to the next. But I never expected I wouldn’t have even that distant glimpse. I didn’t realize how much I had poured all my hopes for survival in that one glance. So when you came to England and took the hope of that glimpse away . . . ” He shakes his head, eyes dropping at my feet.

H-o-p-e. Is this the future that awaits us if Corbin’s theory is wrong? Or will it be even worse? Will there be enough Aiden left to chase that one glimpse? Will there be enough of me? Could I walk through life, sensing his eyes on me every blue moon but when I would whip my head around, he would not be there? Would I always look over my shoulder for my own glimpse of him, search all my déjà vu’s for his mark? A forget-me-not here, a Für Elise there, a line of Byron’s in an old book. And I would think, is this him? Or is it wind swirling our stardust around because our stars would have long since imploded? Goosebumps erupt on my skin, as though the cosmic wind is already blowing. Keep us whole, make us brave.

“Let’s not think about any of that now,” Aiden says, brushing my lips with his thumb, perhaps sensing and asking the same questions to himself. “We’ve been given ninety days, and that’s much more than I could have ever hoped. Not to mention that I’m under strict medical orders to stay in the present moment with you. And in the present, you’re here in my arms, covered in mud and I can’t think of a time when you’ve looked more beautiful.” Then he pecks my lips lightly, flooding my system with oxytocin and, at least for now, fear recedes. Why would I want any other moment than the one here with him?

When Aiden stops us in front of the quaint hotel he has booked at the edge of town, I smile. Not just because it’s down the lane from Solstice Gallery and that feels like another good omen. But because I should have known he would have picked this when I was searching for his window this morning. Aiden is nothing if not intentional about the symbols he creates in his memory.

“Rose Arms Inn?” I grin at him.

“It seemed appropriate.”

“And I assume it’s all vacant because you’ve booked all seventeen rooms despite any prior reservations and compensated the proprietors for their lost earnings so excessively that they have already exceeded their revenue for the next five years?”

“Of course,” he shrugs, but his smile disappears. “Elisa, this isn’t a joke, love. We still need to be very careful, you understand that, right?”

I caress his scar. “I know,” I assure him. “We will be.”

He shakes his head. “My love for you is a terribly selfish reason for exposing you to this again.”

“It’s not just for your love that we are doing this; it’s for my love too. We both want the same thing. Besides, if I’ve learned anything these last two weeks is that selfless love is highly overrated. We have to love ourselves as well.”

He smiles—just a longing smile—and opens the inn’s heavy wooden door. “After you,” he says in that way that sounds like “for you.”

The quiet round lobby looks exactly as it used to when Mum and I delivered roses here on weekends. The same deep chocolate walls, the same wide fireplace burning even in the summer, the same chesterfield sofa with burgundy velvet cushions, the same winged chairs flanking the hearth. Only there are no roses from my cottage anymore and the receptionist is new. But the biggest difference, in every sense of the word, is the colossal man on the sofa, occupying at least a quarter of the space.

“Benson!” I cry and recklessly sprint at him. One should never intentionally collide with Benson. But he rises and catches me gently with a laugh.

“Hello Miss—Elisa.” His kind eyes squint down at me and I have to throw my head all way back to see them.

“I’ve missed you,” I say.

“You’ve been sorely missed too.” He ruffles my hair, frowning at the dried muddy nest.

“Don’t ask.”

“Wasn’t gonna.”

How relaxed he looks compared to the last time I saw him as Reagan drove me away from Aiden’s home. “Thank you,” I tell him, trying to pour all my gratitude in my voice. “For the letters. I didn’t open them soon enough but they really helped when I did.”

Aiden reaches us then and pulls me to his side. Benson looks at our arms around each other with a smile. “Very glad to hear it. For all our sakes,” he chuckles and steps aside to let us pass. And that’s when I notice for the first time the man lounging in the wing chair by the fireplace. Actually, I can only see the shock of wild auburn curls over the chair’s back but there is no mistaking him.

“James?” I call, peeking around Benson while Aiden tenses under my arm.

James unfolds in all his immense height that still barely clears Benson’s shoulder but certainly hovers over Aiden, and looks at me. “Hello again!” he says, eyes calm, polite smile, as if he didn’t save my life exactly a week ago.

But it’s Aiden who answers before me. “‘Again?’” he repeats, eyes like snipers on James. “Cal, what’s going on?”

I look up at Aiden, confused, but he has locked eyes with James. “Did you call him Cal? I’m sorry, do you two know each other?”

He tears his eyes from James to look at me, and the snipers become smiles. “Elisa, this is Callahan, James Callahan. One of my closest friends. Cal, this is Elisa.” He announces me like I am The Mona Lisa of women, not a muddy recently-drowned sleepwalker.

With a swipe of mortification, everything clicks. “You’re one of the Marines!” I say to James, the words sounding like an accusation, but I can’t meet his eyes. Heat sears my cheeks.

“Nice to formally meet you, Elisa.” I hear JamesCalCallahan respond as I turn to my real problem next to me. “You sent him here?” I whisper to Aiden even though there is no hope JamesCalCallahan or Benson won’t hear me.

He shrugs, still beaming with pride. “Of course I did,” he says as though this is the most natural thing to be doing. “Elisa, you had just come back to your hometown after four years and significant trauma with only two octogenarians for protection as far as I could surmise. Of course I’d sent one of my brothers here to make sure you were safe at least until Reagan arrived. I was losing my mind. There wasn’t supposed to be any interference, however.” The snipers turn on James again, a familiar icy undercurrent in his voice.

I manage to peek at James and I’m glad I do. Because in that glance he frees me. I know from his hazel eyes and the almost imperceptible shake of his head that he hasn’t told Aiden about my river disaster. I don’t know his reasons, but I know I’ll forever be indebted to him not only for saving my life, but also my dignity. “He didn’t interfere,” I rally to his aid. “I just happened upon James during one of my night walks.”

The good news is that my statement distracts Aiden from James. The bad news is that the snipers are now on me. “Night walks?” Aiden says through his teeth, wisps of smoke starting to whirl from his ears. “What the hell are you doing walking out at night, Elisa?”

Despite the Dragon landing on Burford, I smile. He truly does not know. “I like the stars.” I shrug and drag him by his claw toward the lift before he starts breathing fire on my savior.  As we step inside, I glance over my shoulder at James.

“Thank you,” I mouth.

He winks with a smile as the lift doors close.

“Stars?”  The Dragon in the antique lift hasn’t dropped the subject.

How did I ever find this intimidating? Right now, even though he is glowering down at me, I can’t stop smiling. He is so close, so everywhere in the tiny, velvet-lined space that I walk into his arms, scales and all. They wrap around me automatically like iron wings. “Yes, stars,” I tell him, tapping his snout. “I’ve developed an interest in astronomy recently. You know, big bangs, black holes, that sort of thing.”

“I don’t want your euphemisms right now, Elisa! Tell me what really happened.”

How curious. “Why do you suspect something must have happened?”

“Because James Callahan is a human sniper and was one of the deadliest Marines in the Corps history. No one ‘happens upon’ him if he doesn’t want to be seen. And he was under strict instruction not to be seen unless it was absolutely necessary. That’s why.”

“Oh! Bloody hell, these deadly men,” I grumble as the lift grinds to a stop on the top third floor—which is a tall building for Burford. I exit as soon as the doors open, but he is behind me in a second.

“Yes, deadly. Now what happened before I go back down there and get it from Cal myself?” he demands, marching me down the hall to his room as though preparing exactly for such a battle whether with James or me. The oil paintings of deep red roses that line the walls speed by. Like our American Beauty ones back in Portland. Abruptly I miss their vibrant buds. I take his hand that planted them with me. The moment our hands touch, he slows with a sigh and morphs back to my Aiden. “Elisa, please tell me. Or I’ll just imagine a lot worse than what actually happened, and I’m not supposed to do that.”

I nod even though my mouth has gone dry. I doubt he can imagine this. But how can I deny him even an ounce of relief? “You’re right. I’m sorry,” I say, as we reach the last door and he opens it with the skeleton brass keys they still use here in my village.

Inside, the suite is a wink in time, an ellipsis at the end of a fairytale book. The four-poster bed dominates most of it, with the cozy fireplace tucked in the corner. And on his nightstand is a framed photograph of me sleeping—the same as his old screensaver—facing his pillow. The only photo of me he has. That’s all I have time to see because Aiden tips my head up to him, waiting with tense eyes. Will he think I’m entirely insane when he hears it?

“It truly is nothing for you to worry about,” I start.

“I’m listening.” His voice is forced calm.

“Just a little quirky thing that happened the first week I came back.  See . . . I . . . started having these very vivid, very real dreams . . . of you . . . and I couldn’t wake up easily. One might exaggerate and call them . . . next-street over, adjacent to sleepwalking type of behavior . . . but one would be very wrong indeed to go even that far.”

His eyes lock in terror. “Sleepwalking?” he sounds strangled.

“Adjacent. Adjacent to that. Not even that really… more like, going on a night stroll with a . . . dream.”

“You—were—walking—out—at—night—while—asleep—dreaming—of—me?” The strangled voice becomes a horrified whisper, and his shoulders could pulverize Rose Arms Inn to the ground.

“Yes, but I was completely safe. I know this village like the periodic table. We . . . I mean I . . . was walking along the exact trail we just did . . . except even safer because everyone else was asleep. And truly, this is an exceptionally safe hamlet with one of the lowest crime statistics in the world. The last crime here was in 1976 and it involved stealing rose breeds, and the whole town—”

“Elisa!” Half-strangle, half-snarl.

“Right. So, we . . . I . . . would then wake up and . . . umm . . . skip right back to the cottage. All ten fingers and ten toes.” I hold up my hands as evidence, but they’re shaking so hard they could be used against me.

“Then why did Cal have to intervene, Elisa?”

“Oh, hah . . . that . . . well, that was just . . . nothing . . . a complete misunderstanding between me and the . . . the river.”

His hands fly to his face, pulling it down in a realistic, but much more exquisite, rendition of The Scream. “The river! You fell into the fucking river while sleepwalking, and the river dragged you down to the point where you must have been drowning and that’s why Cal had to jump in to save your life! Is that what you’re telling me?” He is breathing like he was in the river with me.

“Well, technically, you said all that, but you would be . . . adjacent right . . . on that theory. But, as you can see, James and the river completely overreacted, and I’m just fine.”

“Fine?”

“Yes. The pink of health. It only lasted for about a week until I found the answer and—voila—it went away and I’ve been ever since sleeping very soundly in my bed, with very warm blankets and . . . umm . . . quilts.”

“Until you found the answer?” His tone is dangerously flat without any inflection, probably because all inflection has gone into his muscles.

“Right! Right! Uh huh. I can see why . . . umm . . . you might have more questions about that, but—”

“Elisa! You are this close,” he says, pinching his index finger and thumb together. And then I truly see his eyes—his ravaged Aiden eyes, torn between the horrors of imagination and reality, sickened with panic about me, probably growing the snowball as we speak. And at that look, I no longer care if he thinks I’m certifiably mental and locks me in a padded room at the Burford Dementia Centre for the rest of my life, so long as he heals.

H-e-a-l. Make him whole, keep him safe. I take his fist in both my hands—it feels like a grenade. And I tell him the rest, including my gratuitous home-made drug use while his fist never relaxes, the knuckles icy white under the strain. “But it’s all gone now,” I finish. “It only lasted while my mind redeemed you. And even with that river mess, I’m so glad it happened, Aiden. Because I couldn’t bear living a lie. Where that river didn’t kill me, believing that awful thing about you would have done the job. So please don’t let this ruin this day we never thought we’d ever have again. The present moment, remember?”

He had listened with horror until now but that changes. The fist opens, his face ages, as if he drowned with me, and he brings me to his chest clutching me like a life raft on that river. “Oh, my love!” he kisses my hair, my temple, my forehead. “Thank God Cal was there.” He shudders in my arms. “Thank God! I’ll never forgive myself—”

“Stop.” I place my hand over his lips. “There’s nothing to forgive.” He looks like he wants to argue but decides against it, holding me a while longer as his body relaxes around me. “Does this mean you won’t call the psych ward on me?” I laugh, only half-joking.

“Only if they lock me up with you. And as we’ve established I’m by far the worse patient. From nightmares to fighting imaginary insurgents, you name it. Five scientists across the world can’t sort me out. And that doesn’t include my very favorite scientist of them all. You have to admit, I win this one. It’s not even close.”

This kiss is different. Gentler, slower, like he is solving anagrams inside me with his tongue. A little tip here, a little stroke there, spelling, rearranging my letters, my signs until I’m breathless and—like in my dream—there is only the truth left. The truth of his love for me. And my love for him.  A love that has ninety days to survive or end forever.  At the thought, my fingers pull his hair like hooks and my leg wraps around his, pressing him closer.

“Hold that thought,” he says, untangling himself from my snare.

“What? Rostóv again?”

He laughs and flits to what I assume is the restroom. I barely have time to take off my crusty parka when he remerges with a victorious smile like he just vanquished War and Peace. With a flourish he rips open a pack of condoms. “Be ready, Elisa. This will be the best sixty-second big bang of your life.”

“Yes!” I laugh and launch myself at him.

It takes less than sixty seconds. One second for him to catch me. Another second for our mouths to meld.  No time at all for our breath. Then we lose some seconds wrestling who can touch the other more—a race of lips and tongues and hands; he wins on the kisses, I win on the moans. In another second, I’m flat on the floor. Covered in him, as his T-shirt flies to the wall. His teeth graze my throat as his hands grip my collar. And in another second, my top is ripped open. His mouth closes on my nipples in revenge, and I’m torn. A fire starts there, matching the fire below. In another second, my pajama pants and knickers disappear. But my wellingtons resist—stealing five whole seconds—so he hurls them across the room as far away as possible. I make up some time snapping his belt open, then waste a few seconds fumbling with his buttons. I shove down the waist of his jeans; with a gasp from us both, he springs free. I finally take him in my hands—not enough seconds in the world to feel all of that. He hisses and slaps my hands hard away, pinning down my wrists right above my head.

“Eyes open,” he groans and kicks apart my legs.

A millisecond for my eyes to meet his blue fiery depths. Half a second for his teeth to tear through a condom. In barely a blink he is covered. Then one hand grasps my hip as the other clenches my wrists. And in one more second, he slams inside me. We both cry out—it’s been much too long. But it only takes a breath for our bodies to respond, to remember. To grip and grind in that way they only do for each other. And then it starts. Two power lines thrashing, thrust after hard thrust. His body bolts every inch of mine to the floor. One thrust per second, two, maybe more. But the deeper he moves, the more I want. Every muscle starts shaking, my moans becomes words, cries, muffled by his mouth.

“Elisa!” he gasps, and I know we’ve started the countdown.

I think I say “Aiden” but I don’t know. That one spot in my depths that he keeps hitting is expanding, radiating like a centripetal force field; my vision is narrowing. I try to match his tempo; his rhythm leaves me behind. I grip him with my legs, with my insides, and absorb every final thrust. Every final blow. Until with one last cry, with both explode. Gasping and writhing to that very last drop. And then stilling and collapsing, and the whole world stops.

He is not the big bang; he is whatever big bangs come from.

The sudden stillness is deafening and blind. I can hear nothing but my blood roaring in my ears and our shattered breaths. And for a space in time, I can’t even open my eyes.  I sense everything else though. An odd poetic rhythm inside my head. The smell of Aiden—sandalwood and liquid steel. The blanket of his weight all around me. His head rising and falling with my chest. The tempest of his breath on my skin.

He stirs first, and I feel his weight shift. His nose nudges mine.

“Hey.” His husky timbre reverberates inside me.

“Hey,” I breathe, eyes still closed. My hoarse whisper brings a memory of these same two little words during our very first time. If I remember them, he certainly does because, instantly, his entire body springs to life.

“Oh!” I gasp, and my eyes fling open. His stunning face is inches from mine, an exultant smile on his lips like a firework—exactly as then, but exactly for now. He flexes his hips, pulsing inside me.

“You know—” I say, breathless “—there are some benefits to your memory. This would be impossible with a normal man.”

“Let’s be impossible then.” He laughs and rolls us until he is beneath me on the floor and I’m straddling him. The ripped pajamas drape down like love letters. But the moment my arms become bare, everything tilts on its axis. His laugh dies on his lips, draining his face from all color. His eyes lock on my left arm where he last saw the purple bruises left by his crushing grip. And although my skin is ivory now and all healed, the tectonic plates grind to a halt. And in that one glance, we are catapulted from the first time we made love to the last time when he was saying goodbye.

“Aiden, no,” I say, caressing his jaw; it has turned to granite as his teeth are gnashing, exactly as then. “They’re all gone, my love.” I take his face in my hands, trying to turn his eyes on me rather than my arm, but he is frozen away, seeing only the dark patches. Tension rips through him, and the earlier vibrations of his love become ripples beneath me. His hands close in fists where they were resting on my hips, in an identical image of the past.

No, my mind revolts. I won’t let this horror have him. I promised I’d fight with him. But I have no idea how, wishing for Corbin as my Aiden trembles underneath me. Then abruptly my own memory comes to my aid, replaying his musical voice from this morning in my head. ‘We have to do the exact opposite of what we were doing.’ Quickly, I rewind our last time together and the world tilts again, as I start turning everything from that memory upside down.

Where then he leaned in and blew on my bruises, I now lean close and blow gently on his lips. “My love, you love me,” I say, turning his past “I love you” on its head. “You love me so much.”

His breath hitches once, but his eyes are still gone.

Where he last kissed the contours of my bruises, now I kiss the contours of his eyes. “Look at us,” I whisper, instead of the “look at me” he groaned then.

He blinks and slowly the plates start to shift. But his body is still taut, muscles shaking like he is tearing from within.  So where the last time it was he kissing every inch of me, I take over now, kissing all of him. His last kisses were all goodbyes so I try to make all of mine hellos. And because last time was silent, now I talk.

“Hello you,” I say to the center of his forehead, kissing it as he did with mine.  “Hello,” I kiss his scar. “And you, too, you get a kiss as well,” I peck the tip of his nose and the nostrils stop flaring. “And so do you,” I kiss along his jaw and it slackens. “And I missed you most of all,” I say to his mouth. It opens now, he breathes—and his very first air is the air inside me. I trail down his throat, to his Adam’s apple that bobbles. And wherever my lips touch, the tension starts to soften. At the tip of his shoulder now, the craggiest crest of them all. “Hello stubborn!” I greet it. “You get lots of kisses.” And the moment my lips close there, the tremors slow; I kiss it again and again and again until they stop. And it feels like Corbin’s voice is echoing through time.

“Extraordinary,” I whisper now. I see my calm start spreading over Aiden like light. As though my lips are striking the horrors down. Every time I touch him, that last memory seems to bend. I give him all my kisses, all my touch, like he did with me then. Under my lips, all the tension disappears, blowing out of him like some dark evil force. And with a sharp gust of breath, my Aiden returns.

“Hello,” I say, and he smiles. His eyes find mine; brightening, they become vernal, the shimmering turquoise like a sky for this new constellation. My favorite dimple twinkles on his cheek.

“Beautiful!” he marvels as though I am the art. But in this new opposite dimension, he is the painting and I am the painter.

“Yes, you are,” I answer, and my lips starts again. Not to reverse time now, only to taste him. But he is back in full force and wants to take over. He sits up, his hands tangling in my hair, gripping me closer. His body revs up in ardor, not flashbacks. But I am not letting this calming power slip. My hands lock like manacles around his wrists.

“You’re mine,” I tell him and all the horrors within.

“Always,” he smiles, his hands tightening on my face as though to press the point. And then his dominant mouth is on mine. I get lost in the feeling of him here and more powerful because of me. The expanse of his golden skin, the dusting of dark hair, all his peaks and valleys and riverbeds and cliffs—the entire battlefield of his body. It starts flexing and hardening under my hands, but this hardness I know, I crave. My frenzy strikes again. And although the bed is right next to us, I know I’ll never make it that far.

“Aiden, now,” I beg, but he is already ahead. Jeans gone, new condom, he lifts my hips. Then slowly he lowers me onto him, inch after endless inch. The instant he slides