Happy Saturday, friends! I hope the good vibes of spring are renewing you all for the weekend. Here is a new chapter that might make you feel a bit . . . glowy. Can you guess what Elisa’s secret discovery is? P.S. This photo is a hint. P.S. This one is for my friend, Linda. For all the glows to come. xo, Ani
My awareness quivers with a feeling of profound beauty. So exquisite I try to linger in the dream a little longer. A gold gossamer veil swirls gently before my eyes, filling my senses with an almost corporal sunshine. The kind that beams only for angels. I try to see through the veil, knowing the sublime vision is just on the other side. But as I chase the elusive wonder, something soft and warm flutters at the hem of consciousness. And reality blows in like a sultry breeze.
“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.
But no, it’s not reality. I have only slipped through the golden veil, and there he is. The angel in my dream. Aiden, as he used to be. His flawless face rests on my pillow without the dark, thick beard. Heart-stoppingly beautiful, more sculpted than my other dreams. From the dim light around us, his skin is almost a starry white. And his eyes . . . I have not seen them so alive in a long time. Even asleep I know that. They are watching me like I am a dream too, gleaming with an inner light.
He pulls me into his vivid, fragrant warmth, and I realize I am cocooned in his arms. That sense of wonder floods me again.
“Did I startle you?” His low, piano voice thrums in my ears.
I lift my hand to his smooth cheek, afraid I might not be able to touch him. But I can—the feeling is so supple, so sensory. A spring of tingles blossoms on my skin. “No.” I smile in bliss. “I knew you were behind the veil.”
A lovely frown creases his luminescent forehead. “The veil?”
I reach a single finger between his brows, smoothing the V. The diamonds from the bracelet he gave me throw sparkles on his lips. “Yes, the golden veil. You can’t see it?”
The frown deepens, and his hand flies to my forehead. The tingles thrill everywhere. “What golden veil, Elisa?”
I squint for the light to show him, but it’s glowing faintly in the distance. “It’s fading now. But it was here.”
“Where, love?” Alarmed now for some reason, but that word. L-o-v-e. So real, the way he says it, layered with tension. I trace his satiny jawline with my fingers.
“Don’t worry. It’s okay. That’s just part of the dream.”
“The dream? What dream?”
“You told me to dream beautiful dreams. And I am.”
“You’re not dreaming, Elisa. You’re awake.” His hand leaves my face and clutches my shoulder, shaking me lightly. Once, twice, three times—his grip as substantial as the rest of him, his face paler than other dreams. I blink away from his angel face unwillingly and search around me. We’re curled up together in the small guest bed, me under the quilt from our happy bedroom, him on top of it. The light is muted from the closed curtains. Hope is growing on the dresser with its second bud leaf. And on the nightstand blooms the bouquet of Elisas, with the origami rose of my brave letter and our phones. All as it was when I went to sleep. Abruptly, my mind clears and the last twenty-four hours rush back in . . . The protein, the harrowing video, the near-fatal reel, Aiden’s fever and agony, his discovery about Fallujah, the hope that came with it, our embargo, the meeting with Doctor Helen tomorrow, science’s surrender, the goodbye looming ahead, that pure, brave love like nothing else, still surging . . . But overpowering all that—like the brilliant cloud of my dream—is the beauty of this present moment. Aiden is truly here with me for a few more hours, finally guilt free.
“Elisa?” he shakes me again.
“Wow, I really am awake,” I muse, caressing his silken cheek that confused me—hollower without the beard, back to his normal temperature. The tingles spark again on my skin like the golden veil still flickering on my retinas. “I was so sure you were a dream.”
He chuckles once, still anxious. “I know the feeling, but what veil were you seeing while awake?”
“Oh, it was just a leftover from the dream. This magical filter in front of your face.” I realize now I was dreaming of the aura that shimmered on him during the protein.
His delicious sigh of relief washes over my lips, and the alarm vanishes from his expression. He chuckles truly now, like the most harmonious music. “I know that feeling too, with Javier’s filter, though I had no idea your dreams were as vivid as mine.”
“Not always.” I can’t stop touching his smooth cheek, and he lets me. “You shaved . . .”
“It seemed like the roses were missing my face.”
“They were. They haven’t seen anything like your face in their thirty-five million years.”
He rolls his eyes. “Maybe you should go back to sleep. You’re not coherent.”
Sleep? When our embargo is just starting? When his first day after the truth has already begun all alone? I’d rather watch the video for the next thirty-five million years. “I’m wide awake now, and fully rested just like you wanted. How are you feeling?”
His fingers trace my cheek too. He gazes at me with a look I haven’t seen on him before. Like that nameless expectant gaze of last night has arrived or resolved. It makes me both anxious and calm. Anxious because I don’t know what the resolution is. Calm because he seems somehow . . . home?
“Not that different from you,” he answers. “I’ve had moments where I had to test myself that I was really awake. That what we discovered about Fallujah was true. Then I would look at you, at this bracelet you made me, the letter you wrote, and I knew it had to be real. I didn’t cause Marshall’s death . . . it was not my fault.”
He says those last words with practiced rhythm as though he has repeated them so many times that they have become a soundtrack in his mind. I take his hand, stroking the wooden A at his wrist. Only now I notice the bandages are gone, his labor blisters more healed.
“It is real, love,” I tell him. “Don’t ever question that again. It was never your fault, and you really are free.”
“Yes, I am. Because of you.”
But that reminds me. “You know how I said I would argue with you when I woke up that you did it all on your own?”
A soft smile lifts the corner of his lips. Not ravaged or war-torn. This one curves with something like peace. And instantly it becomes a favorite for me, second only to the dimple.
“Ah, yes, you did make that threat. But if I’m right, the embargo is still ongoing and all arguments are still banned.”
“Right, damn! Well, tomorrow then, I’ll make you see exactly who you are.” And I finally know the way how. The only way I could find even during the protein.
“I’ll be on my guard.” He chuckles again, and I get lost in the beautiful sound, in the impossible face looking back at me. The shock of his discovery seems to have faded, but the wonder is still there in the newness of his gaze. I search every pore I have missed for answers. He seems centered somehow, more present. And he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to race through our embargo, which suits me just fine.
“So what have you been doing while I’ve been asleep?” I ask, cuddling closer in his arms.
He brushes my jawline with his knuckles. “Selfish things.”
My body feels his words before my mind. They jolt electrically through me like his touch.
“Really?” I squeak in surprise a second later.
He nods, smiling at my evident delight. “I believe you wanted me to be the most selfish man in the world after your letter. I thought I’d give it a try.”
“And I missed it? How—what selfish things have you done?”
“Well, being in your bed, for one. Kissing this for another.” His warm lips press at my temple, triggering an image of the golden veil in my dream. And I recognize now what woke me. Such a light kiss, yet my whole body trembles against his steel lines. But he doesn’t tense away like the last eleven days; he only holds me tighter, his eyes incandescent with desire. Why is that? Is it because of the embargo? Because he is still being selfish? Or something else?
I try to envision kissing his temple, so close, lying in bed, but the idea alone is too much for me to survive. I press my lips over his heart instead. It’s pounding jagged and hard like mine. “This . . . seems a little easier for you today.” I run my fingers along his bicep, feeling it flex back under my hand.
“Does it seem that way?”
“Hmm.” His fingers trail down my spine over the quilt, the sheet, and my sweatshirt. I still quiver like Hope’s leaf.
“So . . . why is that?”
He sighs achingly, pulling back a few inches. The tremor of his breath flits over my lips. “I suppose being selfish with you feels natural . . . like nothing else in the world, if I don’t resist.”
“Then don’t resist.”
He smiles that new smile that makes my heart stutter, and resists. “But there has to be a way to do it right, no?”
I laugh breathlessly, the sound shaking with me. “Only you would worry about being selfish the right way.”
“If something is worth doing, it’s worth trying to do well.”
“In that case, you’ll have to try a little harder. Because I don’t think you’re being that selfish at all. In fact, I’m not sure it is selfish if I want it too.”
“That’s debatable, but since debates are not allowed either, how about eavesdropping on your sleep? Does that qualify as selfish? I think it’s utterly egotistical on my part.”
My grin disappears despite his obvious joke. Bloody hell! I was talking in my sleep? I usually reserve that kind of humiliation for my orgasm comas. What on earth did I say? I try to think through my dreams, but all I recall is the sunshine haze. The possibilities are horrifying. What if I said something about the video? No, it can’t be that because the world would be in ashes right now but he is waiting for me with that ceasefire smile.
“I suppose it could be selfish,” I hedge. “It depends on what you heard.”
“Ah, that’s for me and the roses to know.”
“Oh no, it’s that bad?” Heat singes my face all way to my scalp. Did I do something crazy like propose to him? No, he most definitely would not be smiling about that either.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he tries to soothe me. “I’m sure you heard a lot worse during my sleep.”
I wait, trying to breathe.
He sighs. “It really wasn’t much. You miss Reagan and Javier. It sounded like you were planning their visit. You were trying to give Reagan your mother’s pearl earrings and convincing Javier to marry her. At some point, you ordered me to teach him some ‘kissing tricks’ and started plotting an aphrodisiac formula to sneak into his tea.” He chuckles at the memory of my babbles.
Oh! Well, it could have been a lot worse. I could have been begging him to kiss me, rip off our clothes, and . . . Stop! At least this way I made him laugh.
“Well, that’s absolutely an option if Javier doesn’t wise up. And not just him, but all self-loathing men who are unkind to themselves.”
“I’ll heed the warning and avoid anything you cook or brew for me.”
“Did I say anything else?”
He knows what I’m after immediately because a velvet look passes in his eyes. “Just how much you love me.”
My cheeks burn. “And, umm, how exactly did I do that?”
“With the words of your letter. Amazingly, you remembered them all even in your sleep as clearly as I do. You must have read it to me a thousand times last night.”
Except I remembered it even before then. Apparently, when it comes to the way I love him, it must be branded in my brain. “What else?”
“There may have been some mumbling about an illegal kiss, but I have no idea what you meant by that.”
I do! Now that he reminds me, the golden haze shimmers again at the memory of a dream. A dream of those kisses he used to give me that made me faint. No wonder my brain was mush like in my sex comas. But I can’t allow myself to linger on that. Not if I want to live through these final days. “Hmm, I probably meant that you should kiss Javier for practice. You know, so he can make Reagan say yes.”
“Is that all?”
He shrugs casually. If I didn’t know his eyes so well, I would have missed the flicker of pain he is trying very hard to hide. My heart stammers and thrashes into my ribs.
“Please tell me. I know you remember everything.”
He sighs again. “You might have said you will miss me.”
And there it is. M-i-s-s. The four letters float between our breathless lips and fade. If this is all he is saying, who knows what really came out of my mouth. His control seems to slip and, for a brief moment, I glimpse the staggering agony before he leashes it back. The same agony suddenly scorching through me.
“I’m sorry,” I say as soon as I can speak. “Don’t worry about my unconscious rambles; I’ll be fine. Only rest and selfish things today. Nothing else is allowed.”
He shakes his head, eyes intense and deep. “I’m the one who is sorry, Elisa. I never wanted you to miss anything. Not awake, not asleep.” I can hear the anguish in his murmur, I can see it trying to throttle his new gaze.
“Well, that’s good because I’m missing a lot of things already.” I make my voice as light as possible to cheer him up, and also so I don’t scare him with the vicious longing raging inside me. “Didn’t you promise we would start our embargo the second I opened my eyes? I’ve had them open for hundreds of seconds now, and nothing. We have Marshall to celebrate and your discovery and your first day on this other side. Not to mention this Marine-sized meal I kept hearing about, and instead I’m starving.”
My attempt at humor and distraction works the second he hears I’m hungry. His eyes change in that quick way and settle on the look of home.
“My apologies, ma’am. You’re absolutely right. Today is a first, and I’m wasting it on the past. But with some luck, your Marine-sized meal will actually be edible.”
As if it heard his words, my stomach rumbles loudly, making me giggle-blush. “Bloody hell, you’d think I haven’t eaten in a week. I hope you have secured me at least five MRE’s.”
He chuckles freely at my casual reference of military meals and softens his hold so I can wobble up. “Of course you’d eat even MRE’s. You’ve been asleep for almost twelve hours.”
All the blood rushes to my knees, and the room spins. “Twelve hours?” I shriek, making us both jump. He springs up next to me, catching me before I hit the mattress.
“You were exhausted, Elisa. But don’t worry—I called Bia early and left a voicemail that you were sick. I don’t think they’ll be upset.”
As if I care about that right now. “But—but the embargo!” I wail, trying to count the hours in my head, too terrified to look at the clock on the wall. “I wanted to do so much! Is it really after seven at night?”
He hugs me closer. “Don’t worry about the embargo. I told you we’d have more time after you woke up.”
“But we have to see Doctor Helen in the morning! And—and—” I choke off in horror, shuddering at what I’ve done. Because it will be over after that. There is no more reason left for him to stay. Everything is finished—his closure preparations, the reel, the truth—no more excuses, no more embargoes, nothing else. How could I have wasted our last day together? How did I squander his first day after the truth? The day I knew would end, yet now that he is back in the cottage, I don’t think I can live through watching him leave again, brave or not brave. What am I going to do? How? Abruptly, even though I was trying to cheer him up, blistering flames start chewing up my throat, scalding their way to my eyes. The invisible wound in my chest rips wide open, suffocating my lungs.
“Elisa? Shh, love, listen to me.” Aiden is rocking me gently in his arms, blowing on my lips. “We can have as much embargo time as you want, alright? Stop thinking about that. Just breathe for me, please.”
T-i-m-e? Did I hear him right? “R-really?” I check in a broken whisper. “You’ll give me more t-time after we see Doctor Helen?”
He stops rocking me and takes my face in his hands, locking my gaze in his. “You have my word,” he promises in a voice I trust with much more than my life. I trust it with his every heartbeat. “There is no reason at all for your panic; I want more time too. Now, please relax. You’re breaking your own rules and ruining all the rest you got.”
There is that one word again. T-i-m-e. How can the same four letters that suffocate me become air in a blink? I know he doesn’t mean forever like I want, but I will take every minute he will give. Instantly, my terror retreats, and I slump between his palms. “Thank you,” I sigh, inhaling his sandalwood-and-us fragrance.
“Always. Now, can you promise you will try to live in the present moment with me today as much as possible? Not in the future or the past.”
How can I say no to any of that? When I never want tomorrow to come?
“Thank you,” he says fervently as though he needs this as much as I do. He releases my face and takes my hand, bringing it to his lips. “Come on, let’s start with food.”
My blood thrills under his kiss.
We rise together then, him fluid like water, me rigid with the lack of motion. He eyes me carefully as though I might topple over. And he’s right because as soon as I hop out of bed, I stagger on jelly legs.
“Whoa . . . head rush!” I huff, but he saves me before I can stumble into the nightstand.
“Easy, easy. Come here.” He scoops me up in his arms. “Bathroom first or straight to the kitchen?”
I almost say back to bed. I almost say to the end of the world. I almost say so many things I shouldn’t say, but thankfully I can’t speak. Because he is carrying me like he used to. And it’s so easy to stay in this present moment. To wrap my arms around his neck and pretend again. Pretend that the last eleven days, except his discovery, did not exist. Neither does tomorrow. There is only now, repeating ceaselessly into the arc of time.
And right now, he is smiling at something in my expression. “Never mind. It’s clearly too soon for hard decisions. The bathroom first it is.” And he strides across the hallway to the loo door, looking like he is about to come in with me.
“Bloody hell, Aiden, no! This is one thing I can do by myself.”
He rolls his eyes. “Elisa, relax. I’ll turn my back. I don’t want you to fall and get hurt.”
“Absolutely not. Aiden, I’m serious. Put me down! Right now!” I try in vain to wiggle out of his iron hold. He half-sighs, half-snarls, but sets me down on my feet, his arms hovering around me lest I fall face first into the sink.
“Don’t lock the door,” he growls as I close it. “I’ll be right here.”
Exactly where I want him to be. I race through the motions as fast as possible with my dubious balance so I don’t miss any more seconds with him. But as soon as I glimpse the mirror, I stumble again. Because I look exactly like I have been through a war, and then snoring and drooling all day.
“Ugh!” I groan, staring at my face. There are pillow creases like the mark of Zorro all over it.
“Elisa?” He pounds on the door. “What’s wrong? Did you fall?”
“No, I’m just a mess. How were you not laughing at my face?” I grab the brush and start yanking it through the tangled haystack that is my hair.
“I didn’t see anything laughable about it.”
I scoff. Him and his permanent Javier filter over his eyes. Although I could definitely use it for myself now. That or the golden halo of my bravery visions. I wonder briefly what my own face would have looked like to me if I had thought to see it during the protein. Would I have felt like the most beautiful woman in the world, finally an equal to him? I laugh at the impossibility of that idea and give up on the hair jungle, wash my face, brush my teeth quickly, and come out.
He is pacing, frowning at the floor, deep in some thought, but as soon as he sees me, whatever conflict was tearing through his mind resolves, and a profound peace descends over his face. His beauty grows in that surreal way I cannot describe, triggering an overwhelming sensation of pure wonder. And his eyes . . .
There are some looks we always remember. Looks that can save, heal, revive better than any medicine, protein, or shock to the heart. Looks that can bind, shield, love, touch. Blazing like fire, protective like steel, vital like our own heartbeat. Looks that can speak. My all, they murmur silently, yet every atom hears it.
That is the look I see now in his eyes.
It stuns my mind, my heart, my lungs.
“Come,” he says softly, a deep emotion smoldering below the surface. And before I can remember how to speak or breathe, he swoops me up again and flies with me down the stairs, straight into the kitchen. I still haven’t caught my breath when he sets me down at the table. But as soon as I do, the delicious smell of roasted chicken hits me and my taste buds like a javelin.
“You actually cooked?” I squeal, sniffing the air hungrily. Yes, definitely roast chicken and something buttery. My stomach lets out a dragon-like snarl.
“That’s the idea.” He strides to the oven that is set on warm with such speed, it’s obvious he fears I will die of starvation in exactly one minute.
“What did you make? It smells amazing!” I flit to his side to investigate as he takes out a deep bowl and roaster covered in foil. And then I have to grip the counter for balance again. Because as he removes the aluminum sheets, I see one of the best meals my heart has ever had; I know it without taking a single bite. I would know it even without the sense of taste or smell.
“The dinner we had at your house when we babysat Javi’s sisters,” I murmur through a tight throat, watching the golden roasted chicken, cloudy mashed potatoes, and glistening peas. But I know we both remember this meal for another reason. “The night we first said I love you to each other.”
He looks at me in that breathless way as he did upstairs. “One of my favorite nights.”
My heart is pounding in my ears at the sight—because it looks like another home I’m missing deeply, because my stomach is suddenly full of butterflies, and above all because Aiden chose this memory for his first day on this other side. “Why did you pick it for tonight?” I ask, knowing he never chooses a memory without reason.
He sets down the crumpled ball of foil and takes my hands, sending a warm flurry up my arms. “It seemed fitting. We were afraid that night too. Waiting to meet with Bob and his legal team in the morning, our path so dark and uncertain. But in that one moment, everything felt true, simple—you love me and I love you.”
In his musical voice, his words crystallize this present moment into that simplicity too. Staving off all agony and fear. Is that another reason why he chose it? I wrap my arms around his waist, holding him for as long as I can.
“That part has not changed.”
“And it never will.” His voice has the seal of promise in it. I lean into his chest—maybe he will kiss my temple again—but my stomach decides to ruin everything with a furious roar.
“Christ! I knew I should have fed you before going to sleep,” he says urgently, pulling away to load up my plate to the porcelain brim lest I faint this very second. But if I do, it won’t be from this kind of hunger. Still, I don’t whine about the mountain of mashed potatoes, hillocks of peas, or the near half-chicken he serves me—I’d eat those and the pan too if he made them.
We sit together side by side at the small kitchen table for the first time since the end. His knee by my knee, his elbow next to mine, brushing gently as a chair drags or he fills my glass with our favorite Pinot Noir. Each touch fires like a thunderbolt though my system. But despite the frenzy inside my body, my heart is at peace. Just beating next to his. I know it’s only the calm before the final storm that will drown me tomorrow once and for all. But in this one present moment, all is well.
I shove the first forkful of mashed potatoes and dark meat in my mouth, and almost moan at the taste. “Wow! This is definitely not an MRE,” I mumble as soon as I swallow.
He smiles. “Not many things are.”
“Really impressive for someone who claims he doesn’t know how to cook.”
He takes a bite himself. “Well, I wouldn’t call this cooking. Strict obedience is more appropriate. I had Cora on WhatsApp this afternoon, guiding my every move. I thought she was going to quit half-way through but, thankfully, she likes you too much to subject you to my culinary skills.”
I giggle, wishing I had been a rose at the windowsill to watch the whole scene. And happy because he is eating again even if slower and less than me. “I think Cora might like her boss even more,” I answer, gobbling more mashed potatoes and crispy chicken skin. “You’re like Mr. Darcy that way; all your staff love you.”
He shakes his head. “I’m still questioning if you got enough sleep.”
“Shh, don’t say that word. The roses hate it,” I hiss, listening to his chuckle as I snarf down our I-love-you dinner.
He eats along, his eyes lingering tenderly on my face every few moments. Sometimes I think I sense a question there—something deep and vital—but I’m too afraid to ask what it means. What if he tells me he is memorizing our last supper? I swerve around the thought before it kills me and focus only on this second.
“So what else did you do today?” I ask. “Other than cook me a Michelin-star meal, save my job, and selfishly spy on drooling, unconscious innocents?”
He takes a sip of wine, the gesture easy and familiar like a homecoming. “Caught up on work, filled in Helen and Corbin, called Cal and the others to tell them about the . . . the truth. Cal backed me in the decision to stay in the schoolyard that day. It has torn him up too.”
I like the way he calls it the truth. Overriding his hesitancy, emphasizing the word as if to get used to its sound. “What did they say? Is James feeling better?”
“Didn’t have a chance to connect—they’re all at work still—but I did talk to General Sartain.”
At the name, fear bolts through me despite my vow to stay present. What if the General mentioned the video he sent to Doctor Helen? How long would it take Aiden to make the leap that I’ve seen it? My blood drains out of my suddenly icy face. “What did the General say?” I ask, trying to sound normal but my voice cracks anyway.
He frowns, setting down his knife and fork. “He was shocked too but he ordered the DIA to reopen the investigation and correct the record. Elisa, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, love. Did the General say anything else?”
His eyes are still on me but they soften. “He asked about you actually.”
“Me?” I jump a little on my seat, distracted briefly from my current plight. “The General knows about me?”
He nods. “I told him when we had to help Javier.”
“Oh, right. I guess that makes sense.”
I’m too afraid to ask what he told the General now at our end, but he must sense the question anyway because his hand comes to my face, caressing my cheek. My blood rushes up to the surface again as if to touch him back. “I told him you led me to the truth,” he offers. “And that you are like no one else. Do you want to know what he said?”
I nod, speechless, leaning into his hand.
“He said, and I quote, ‘Wanna free the world, Lieutenant? Send five thousand good Marines. Wanna free their soul? Send one good woman. Wanna find her? Send God.’” His fingertips trace my jawline to my chin. “What do you say to that, Elisa?”
It takes me a moment to unscramble my brain. “Umm . . . that if you want to find God, send the General?”
He chuckles—more today than since before the end. “He’ll like that. Now, will you please tell me what’s bothering you about me talking to the General?”
Oh bloody hell—we’re back to the video. The truth. Only the truth that protects him. “I just don’t want you to hurt,” I admit what I can. “And I’m also thinking about how we’re going to celebrate Marshall and you for our embargo so that it doesn’t cause pain and gives you a good memory for this first day.”
He cups my cheek again. “I’m not hurting. In fact, right now, I’m feeling completely at peace—the way I always do when I allow myself to just be with you. As for celebrating, how about you finish eating first, and then we can start?” He flashes his new smile at me, and I almost liquify in his hand. All the dread slides back. And why not? He really does seem calmer than I’ve seen him in the last eleven days. Dread can wait with everything else.
“Okay, but you finish your plate too,” I agree easily and start gulping down everything, feeling his eyes on me. As soon as I swallow the last pea, I chug some water and jolt to my feet. “Thank you—that was even better than Cora’s, though I wouldn’t tell her. Can we start the embargo now?”
He laughs at my impatience but wipes his lips and rises in all his grace, holding out his hand. “Yes, we can.”
I take his hand, feeling him pull me along like a tide, unable to blink away from his face—more golden than pale now, like an inner light is glowing underneath. Why is that? The absence of guilt, allowing himself some love, a desperately needed break? Whatever the reason, his beauty is hypnotic again.
He pauses in the foyer, under the light from the chandelier. In the muted glow, his eyes deepen with that my-all look that incapacitated me upstairs. My body must sense something in it that my mind can’t because suddenly my heart starts fluttering and I have the dizzying sensation of soaring up high.
“What is it?” I ask, my voice coming out in a whisper.
He smiles slightly as though at something inside him. “I love you,” he says, and for a moment I wonder if he is answering my question or his own.
“I love you too,” I reply, bewildered.
He wraps his arm around my waist, towing me to the threshold of the living room. It takes me several frantic heartbeats to finally glance away from him. But when I do, I stagger again despite his hold. Not because of my balance problems this time. But because I finally understand the reason for that look in Aiden’s eyes, for the emotion flowing through his touch.
A fairytale has been waiting for me.
“Oh!” I gasp the same as in the dream.
The living room has transformed into a snow globe scene. Glowing with magic new and old. The chocolate box windows are wreathed with starry lights—golden constellations charted against the dusk. On their sills glimmers mum’s miniature Burford village: the Inn, the church, the school, the tiny weaver cottages, our home, Plemmons Blooms. All sparkling with fairy lights as they used to in my childhood. The rest feels new. A gentle fire bubbles in the little beehive fireplace, purple and sapphire flames tangoing happily to the crackling sound. Countless white petals strew the floor like snowflakes. A fluffy, cream blanket drapes over the sofa. And in the corner, where the Christmas tree used to glisten each year, is our biggest potted rose. The white Aphrodite. Its branches are woven with our twinkly lights, blinking like fireflies around the chalice-shaped blooms. My knitted stocking leans against the stony pot, and around it shimmers a posy of presents. Three small boxes wrapped in what seems to be printed newspaper. And on the coffee table blossoms a low vase of Elisas, but they are not alone this time. Clusters of forget-me-nots hug the ivory rosettes with their vibrant blue. So similar to the fiery eyes I sense on me now, even if nothing earthly can ever quite compare to their gaze.
“Oh, Aiden!” I breathe, turning to look at him. And abruptly all the magic seems ordinary next to his face. If his arm were not still around my waist, I would have flopped on the downy floor from my trembling knees. “I—you—I don’t have the words.”
“Merry Christmas, love,” he murmurs, that potent emotion back in the timbre of his voice. It blends with the willows that are suddenly susurrating a different song . . . Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. “Is this what you had in mind?”
“I—never—we—we’re really doing Christmas for Marshall?”
He pinches my chin with his free fingers—tingles twinkle everywhere in my body like the starry lights.
“Not just for Marshall. We’re also doing it for us.”
Us. The tiny word trills in my ears, in my blood.
“Us?” I ask, quivering at the beautiful sound.
“Us,” he repeats.
His voice makes the word into music, even if it doesn’t mean what I wish it could. Even if it’s not the us before or the us after. Because it’s still us now. And happiness shifts again under his fingertips. It becomes these two most beautiful letters, more important than all the others, more vital than I. I know there is agony simmering underneath, waiting to scorch me to ash. And I know there is gravelike emptiness ahead—so many Christmases alone, just the roses and me. They will all claim me in the end, but I don’t give them a single part of me now. Not because I’m abruptly stronger—no, I’ve never felt more breakable—but because Aiden is still here, mine. Giving me this most wondrous, final gift. And wasting any second of its miracle on pain is a sin I simply cannot commit, an unforgivable violence against the purest thing there is. L-o-v-e. It gushes bravely from its crescent peaks, as implacable as during the protein, utterly unabated by time or sleep, flooding every space in my awareness until I can barely breathe. It takes me so many heartbeats to be able to find air, then words, then string them into sense and sound. He waits, seeming content just to look at me.
“Thank you,” I manage to whisper at last. “I love, love, love all of this.”
That new smile breaks over his face. “I do too.”
When he says it that way, softly as though the words are new, I finally realize what I’m really seeing. “This is one of your selfish things!” I stare at him in awe as the magic around us takes on a new meaning.
“The us part is.”
“The best part.”
I glance around me to look at our snow globe with this new light. But I don’t want to miss even a speck from his face so my head keeps whipping back and forth between him and the Christmas magic, making me dizzy. He doesn’t laugh as he should—he just smiles, leading me inside the fairytale bubble. As I totter through it in a daze, a familiar jingle floats in the air with the willows. Pink Martini, A White Christmas. I smile because this is us too—the band of our first dance.
“Perfect,” I whisper as he sets his phone on the table.
“Almost,” he murmurs cryptically, looking back at me. A flash burn heats my skin, but not from the flames. It’s from that gaze, from the way his fingertips brush the sweatshirt at my hip. Forcefully again, I wish I could remember like he does. Forever, so I never lose any part of this.
“You know how to make a colored fire,” I marvel.
“Your father’s Encyclopedia of Elements. Salt substitutes, apparently.”
“I really love the blue flames.” I watch mesmerized the way they reflect in his eyes.
“I’m partial to the purple ones.”
“And I love the forget-me-nots.” I caress the blue flowers nestled with my roses, trying to picture him picking them in Elysium. “The Elisas can definitely use the memory.”
“As can I.”
He holds my waist again as I wobble in a trance to Aphrodite glowing. “Aphrodite is so excited about this.” I almost bounce, stroking the twinkling petals. “None of the other roses have ever played an actual Christmas tree before. You’ve made them very jealous by picking her.”
“Well, I’m already in the garden shed with them for saying the word ‘lavender’ last night, so I might as well infuriate them fully.”
“I’m sure they’ll forgive you. You might have to give them a gift though.” I kneel by the stony pot, looking at the presents wrapped in newspaper. Like my old tradition of buying the paper on memorable days.
“What would they like?”
You to stay forever, the answer bubbles to my lips but I bite my tongue. Because I know that chance is lost to us. G-o-n-e. Abruptly, the scalding agony tears through my resolve to stay present with its fire incisors. I’m glad I’m looking down at the presents so he can’t see it. I shove down these thoughts immediately before they can turn me into a jigsaw of torture on the petaled floor. Before they can char even a split-second of this perfect moment.
“I’m sure you’ll find something,” I answer, picking up the smallest box, a square no bigger than a votive candle, and shaking it. There is no sound, no name on it, just the distinctive carbon print that must mean something important to him. “But what will you open? There are no presents here for you.” I count the three boxes unnecessarily.
He folds on the rug next to me. “I already have mine. There is this.” He holds out his wrist with the MIRAJ bracelet I made for him. The wooden initials are brighter under the Christmas lights. “And this.” His hand frames my face, the warm touch settling on my skin like spring. It takes me a moment of scattered concentration to form a coherent reply.
“But that’s still only two. I already have you and Christmas, and there are three boxes here and a stocking.”
He chuckles again—how many times has that been today? Six? Can I make it a million?
“Well, first, as we have established, Christmas is for me too. Second, not all these boxes are for you. One of them is for Marshall.”
His answer is so unexpected, it derails me completely. “It is?” I ask, gobsmacked.
He nods, and the amusement softens in his eyes. It becomes almost wonder in this new world he is charting now. As if he can’t quite believe he is the one taking these steps by himself.
“I am so proud of you,” I tell him, the words seeming so inadequate for what I feel. “For having the strength to get up after last night and choose love over pain.”
He smiles. “This was your idea.”
“Yes, but I could have never dreamt this, let alone make it real. I was thinking Christmas carols and jasmine tea. I love that you’re giving Marshall a gift. Which one is his?”
“This.” He picks up a cylindric present, about the size of a rolled sheet of paper but thicker. His eyes stir with memories as he taps it rhythmically on his palm.
“Is this okay?” I inch closer to his body in case he needs the calm. “Do you want to do this or are you doing it just for me?
He wraps his arm around me. “It’s better than okay. It’s right. And I’m doing it for him and myself too. As you said, it’s time to give him something positive.”
I stroke the newspaper-wrapped cylinder—it feels firmer, heavier to the touch. “I wish I had something for him too.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Elisa, you already gave him the most meaningful gift any soldier could ever have. You named the only bravery protein in existence after him. What could compare to that?”
“I know, but it’s not something wrapped under the tree—or Aphrodite.”
With a jolt of surprise, I watch him smile as he holds his lost brother’s gift. “Criminal, but don’t worry. This one is from both of us.”
Us again. The word shimmers in the air like the starry lights.
“I really like that word.”
“I do too. Are you ready to open yours?”
Bloody hell, it’s now! “Wait, wait!” I cry out. “I want to take a photo first before we open anything!” I scramble around for my phone, wanting capture this present moment for posterity like I did on our first embargo, but his hand closes on my hip. The warmth that shoots through me must spread to his skin and becomes fire in his eyes.
“Stay here. I brought your cell with me.”
He reaches in the back pocket of his jeans and hands me my phone he obviously remembered to retrieve from the nightstand. I snap photos of everything, especially him watching me with an indulgent smile. And suddenly, as I look at him through the phone screen, another vision is triggered for me. Young, whole Aiden, glowing in his tent, with a Peter Pan smile at the corner of his lips and the sapphire eyes lighting the desert night on fire. Incredibly, the two visions merge, and I finally realize what this surreal beauty that Aiden exudes at certain moments is—moments when he does breathtaking things like this. It’s not only love for me. It’s a feeling of wholeness within himself.
I toss aside my phone, knowing no pixel can ever do him justice. “Okay, I’m ready now.” I skip to his side and curl back on the rug under Aphrodite, trembling when our knees bump. “Which one should we open first?”
“Well, only this small one is for today. This other one—” He picks up the thin, rectangle packet, a little longer than his hand. “—is for tomorrow.”
That distracts me again—it’s impossible to hold a train of thought with so many emotions and sensations at once. “Why for tomorrow?”
“Because today is not its turn.”
“So why are you giving it to me today?”
“For a very good reason.”
Abruptly, I worry that this is his goodbye gift, and he doesn’t want our day of peace to blend with it. My chest starts throbbing immediately but his eyes blaze with that my-all look that keeps me anchored to this present moment. Besides, am I not doing the same for him? A secret gift he knows nothing about. A present for tomorrow after he meets with Doctor Helen, and not a second before. The protein taught me that, and it hasn’t yet been wrong.
“Tomorrow then,” I agree. “That way, I’ll have something for you too.”
He smiles, half-adoringly, half-relieved, setting down the mysterious present. “I already have everything I need—”
“Not this one,” I interrupt.
“Fine, you can prove me wrong tomorrow. Now, why don’t you open your today gift?” And hands me the small square box I picked up earlier.
I take it with windy fingers, trying to read the newspaper script. It’s a reprint on our printer paper, but the sentences break off from the wrapping, just words and phrases about a festival and spring. “A newspaper article,” I murmur, peeling it back carefully so I don’t tear any of it. My voice comes out thick at my tradition that he is adapting this way and making it entirely his . . . ours. I open it, expecting today’s date but he surprises me so much I forget even about the cognac leather box underneath. It’s a reprint from another date that means everything.
“October sixteen, 1999,” I read, my breath shaking. “The date dad and I carved the initials under the bench.”
“The date the idea of a magic, all-conquering love was born in your head,” he adds.
I flatten out the paper—a copy of the front page of The Oxford Student. The article is about the exam schedule and the rain predicted for the Spring Festival. “Wherever did you find this?”
“It’s only a copy. Helen scanned it to me this morning from their online archive. But now you know more about that day, like me.”
“I’d love it even if this was the present itself. Thank you.” I kiss it and tuck it carefully in Aphrodite’s branches. It glows there under the twinkly lights like a mini art frame. But why did he choose it for this gift?
“I think the real present is feeling offended,” he chuckles, but I sense a similar emotion in his eyes.
I turn to the leather box, bracing my heart and mind for whatever is inside. But as I lift the lid, I still lose my breath, despite all my preparation. Because there, nestled in the black velvet folds, glimmers a diamond A, exactly like the P-E-C charms jingling on my wrist.
“Oh my God!” I whisper, tracing its brilliance with my fingertip. The diamonds toss and catch the blinking lights like stars. And the phosphorescent borders gleam mysteriously in the dusk like a crepuscular moon. My entire sky right here in this letter A. “Aiden, how did you know?” I look up at him, awed.
The expression on his face overwhelms me. It’s too much—too much beauty, too much meaning. “Your eyes told me when I gave you the bracelet. I ordered this that same day, but then Edison—”
“Don’t! Don’t say his name today, or ever.”
“Fair point. Then everything changed that night, and I didn’t think I’d give it to you after that. I didn’t want it to cause you more pain.”
The diamonds almost dim at his words. “What made you change your mind?”
“Your brave love. The truth. This bracelet you made me. You included the M despite its pain because you believe love conquers that. And I knew I wanted to give it to you then.”
At those last words, something more beautiful than the diamonds sparkles for me. “This is another one of your selfish things!” I grin, impossibly loving the initial even more.
He smiles. “I thought so, but does it qualify under your selfish definition if you want it too?”
I revise my definition immediately. “Yes, I was wrong. It absolutely qualifies if you want it as much as me.”
“I do. Maybe even more.”
He gazes at me like I am his all again. His hand comes to my face as though it’s as eager to touch me as I am to touch him. Except I’m frozen in a spell as his fingers trace the path of my painting along my jawline to the corner of my mouth. He pauses there, half-peace, half-fire, his breath catching. And for the first time since the end, his thumb grazes my lips. Just the faintest touch, but desire ignites in my veins, blazing through my bones and kindling in my belly. Abruptly, my vision shimmers. That unforgettable golden halo flickers on, suffusing Aiden’s face with a subtle light. Not bright and glittery as in my dream or during the protein—this is softer, like candlelit skin. The way he used to glow in our happy bedroom, with the after-radiance of an orgasm.
“Oh!” I start, fingers flying to his cheek. Why am I still seeing this? What is it?
“Elisa?” Aiden frowns, feeling the pulse at my neck. His thumb brushes my lips accidentally with the movement this time. But instantly, the candlelight dazzles me again. With a burst of instinct, everything clicks then. Images, sensations, emotions—all weave together with blinding speed, transforming the scene. What I’m really seeing, what it means, what I get to keep. Beautifully, incredulously, my little world opens in a single blink. Warm tears glint in my eyes as I gaze at him in wonder. Because how many people in the world get their most secret, impossible wish, only to realize it’s even more perfect than they had dared to dream?
“Wow!” I breathe.
“Elisa, love, what is it?” Aiden asks in alarm at my tears. He wipes them frantically with his fingers, skimming again the corner of my mouth. I hold my breath, waiting, and there it is. The bedroom glow breathes with him as yearning sings from my scalp to my toes. I blink off the new tears so I don’t miss anything, especially the worried V. That V brings me back, centers everything where it should be today: him.
“I’m okay, love,” I assure him, caressing the lucent frown, upset at myself for ruining the moment. “You just take my breath away sometimes, that’s all.” I don’t tell him about my discovery—not yet. I don’t want to take a single minute from his first and maybe last selfish day. He would worry, he wouldn’t be able to leave in peace after that. Perhaps someday. . .
He sighs in relief. “Welcome to my world all the time,” he smiles.
“It’s such a beautiful place to be.”
“With you it is,” he murmurs, pulling me in his arms. Then ah! His lips press at my temple again. The kiss sweeps through my skin, jolting into my bones, effervescing behind my closed eyelids. I can feel his steel body harden against every curve of mine. His nose glides down my cheek, his breath coming out rough and fast while mine stops completely. But he doesn’t get close to my mouth now—probably afraid of making me cry again. Or maybe the momentary lapse in his control passed. Would he give in if I turned my head just a little bit? And if he did, can I survive losing it again? Can he? Not that I care what happens to me after he leaves but I still have to be able to breathe. And causing him even one more second of pain—there is no desire in the world justifying that. Even the one that quite literally makes me see stars.
I kiss the tip of his shoulder and pull back to make it easier for him. Still, it takes me a minute to remember where I am with the blue flames in his eyes.
“Right, Christmas!” I recover, jumping up in his arms. “All my diamonds. Where is my wrist?”
He takes a deep breath—the sound is almost agonized—and chuckles. “Here, it’s attached to your left hand . . . I think.”
I laugh with him as he unfastens my precious bracelet and reaches in the velvet folds for the magnificent charm. Then carefully, he rearranges the letters, stringing the A exactly where I want it: next to my E, until the initials glimmerPEAC under the twinkly lights.
“Thank you. It’s perfect now,” I say as he secures the bracelet back on my wrist.
“Yes, it is,” he answers simply, holding my hand.
The phosphorescent borders glow next to the black leather cuff I made for him. MIRAJ and PEAC. Lights in the dark. And I love them even more for what they truly mean: that Aiden is choosing to stay in some form with me.
“So which one next?” I ask, staying only in this present moment. “Marshall’s gift or the stocking?”
“The stocking. It’s for both of us. Although technically I should call it art.”
“Art?” I ask, intrigued, as he hands it to me with that new smile on the corner of his lips.
I peek inside and, under a confetti of petals, is a little card on top. A card I would know anywhere, with glitter and pink hearts. Two stick figures—a tall one and a short one—are holding sticky hands. And right below it, in Anamelia’s crayon letters, it says Aiden + Isa.
“Oh my goodness, did your mum’s care package arrive?” I blubber, clutching the craft paper.
“You could say that. Look inside. Easy though—it might cause some heart palpitations.”
I laugh at his dire warning and toss out the petals. And then the palpitations really start.
It’s not a care package like any I have gotten in my life. Aiden is right: it’s all art. Homemade cookies, individually wrapped in clingy film and decorated with creamy roses by Javier’s sisters. Candid photos of Aiden and me that Stella must have taken when she was here: us laughing, dancing, playing the piano together, building up the rose stand at the Rose Festival, our entwined hands, a kiss. More photos from my camera when I was in Portland that Reagan must have printed: our first embargo, our trip at Powell’s bookstore, our daytrip at the Rose Garden, planting Lady Clare. And rolled carefully, Javier’s unmistakable sketches of us that he must have drawn when he and Reagan were visiting: Aiden and I walking across the field of poppies, curling together at Chatsworth, watering the roses . . . A gallery of us, of every minute we have shared with our other loves yet wrapped entirely in ours.
I don’t realize more tears are blossoming until one splashes down and Aiden catches it on his palm before it hits a masterful drawing of his long fingers on my cheek. His trademark caress.
“I know,” he says, pulling me close. “It’s something else, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. It’s everything.”
“The blanket on the sofa came too. Apparently, it was handknitted by my mother, Reagan, Bel, and Maria for days.” He sweeps it off the couch to show me. In the corner are those two letters again, woven in golden thread: A & E. “Clearly, initials are in vogue these days.”
I sniffle and laugh at the same time, kissing the soft yarn. He throws it over my shoulders, and we tuck the photos and sketches on the branches of our rose-tree. They glow under the starry lights, a tiny museum of our love. I try not to think about what that means. I try not to think of the fact that they always hang here like this for as long as Aphrodite lives. Until that last twinkly light burns out. These are not thoughts I will let in today.
“Don’t worry, these are good tears and palpitations.” I grin at him, taking his hand in both of mine. “I couldn’t imagine an embargo I would have loved more. Even compared to the first one.”
“I tend to agree. I’m not yelling at you about your graduation, glaring at Javier, kicking you of out my house, or trying to give you a million dollars and make you feel like a prostitute in the process. And you’re not having nightmares, working illegally, or getting deported. All in all, I’d say this is an improvement.”
I laugh again—more today for me too than since before the end. I don’t allow myself to think about anything else. “And we still have so many hours left. Shall we open Marshall’s now? Are you ready?”
That old bruise dims his eyes for a moment, but not with guilt—even I can see that. Now that it has vanished from the sapphire depths, I realize the anguish it used to add to the agony.
He looks down at the diamonds in my wrist. Then that look of home, of resolve galvanizes the blue depths.
“Yes, I am.”
At the clear ring of his voice, a curious, familiar trickle of warmth climbs up my throat like a tendril. H-o-p-e. Is this clarity enough to turn his freedom into hope? Turn redemption into faith in who he is? I try to smother the next question, but it blazes in my head as luminous as his glow: can this keep him here with me? Can it give us some way forward that I cannot see? I stop the question right there. Not one syllable longer. I’m too awake now not to know the difference between reality and dreams. Too breakable not to distinguish the hope that builds from the hope that kills.
“Okay, love, let’s celebrate,” I tell him.
He reaches for the cylindrical present—like a kaleidoscope for stars and fairytales—and hands it to me. Outside, a new willow song starts blending with the Christmas carols . . . us, us, us.