NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 43 – SECRET

Happy fall, friends! New chapter for you, and probably one of my favorites. I have waited for so long to give Aiden and Elisa the gift that is here. I hope you love her secret as much as I loved it from the moment it first formed in my head. Thank you to everyone who is reading and writing to me. Love you all. After this, only one more secret left… Theme: healing. Song: A Thousand Years. Favorite line: We are not the big bang; we are stars that shine on. Enjoy!

43

Secret

“So what’s next?” I ask as Aiden carries me down the steps of Doctor Helen’s building.

“Come.” He tilts his head toward the meadow in the back. “Sit with me for a moment before we have to see anyone else.”

For a moment? Forever. “I will sit with you for as long as you want, unless you’re still planning on leaving now that you’re really free.” The reflexive crack in my voice ruins my bad joke.

He pulls me tighter in his chest, his gaze full of that my-all look that heals every pain. “I’m not going anywherewithout you. But it might be awkward for Benson to wait in the car for us for a thousand years.”

I laugh and reach up to kiss his dimple. “Even a thousand years wouldn’t be enough.”

He chuckles and kisses my temple. “Well, we have to start somewhere.”

Start . . . it’s really beginning for us, isn’t it? I scrape the pad of my thumb with my nail, abruptly needing to test reality myself.  It’s real, it’s real, it’s real. Thank you, God. Thank you, Marshall. Thank you, Mum and Dad.

Aiden carries me and my picnic basket behind the building, toward the familiar oak of his childhood. The pink sunrise has turned into an opalescent haze, the sleepy grass still glistening with dew. There are no children in the quiet playground, except the seven-year-old boy of my imagination. He is flying down the slide in his grass-stained Levi’s and white T-shirt, laughing freely like he did the last time we sat here, when we thought we had lost everything.

As soon as we clear the building’s shadow, the last strains of tension leave Aiden’s body and a sense of fluidity flows gradually in its place. I cannot blink away from his beauty. He is even more impossible than the young, unharmed Aiden in the war tent or the Aiden of my dreams. Perhaps because this Aiden has risen above it all and healed.

He looks at the merry-go-round, too tall and leonine for the tiny seats. I cannot imagine what he must feel right now, striding past the childhood that was lost to him, treading to the same thick branches that sheltered him from a world both too small and too big. I give him the moment he needs. Besides, I need a few minutes of my own to collect my thoughts, to process the last secret between us, the full truth that has been waiting for him. What will it mean now that he is healed? More, surely—a lot more than I could ever have dreamed. Right?

At the oak’s canopy, we sit on the same muscular root as we did that dark Saturday morning two weeks ago. Except now Aiden wraps me up in his arms. I curl closer in his chest, listening to the thud-thud-thud of his heart. He kisses my hair, my temple, my cheek, the diamond E at my wrist.

“How are you feeling?” I ask, tracing the polaroid of his healed mind inside his shirt pocket.

He tips up my face to look at me. His eyes are the stillest turquoise. Not like the memories have stopped stirring underneath. But like has finally floated above them.

“It’s hard to find the words,” he answers. “Relieved, grateful, incredulous, happy, but most of all awed, I think.”

“You should feel awed. You just did the impossible.”

He cups my cheek. “I meant awed at you, not me. Elisa, you saved my life. And not just mine. You saved my parents, my brothers, and above all, you saved yourself and us. I have never been more amazed than I am in this moment.”

And here it is. Right here. Right now. I sit up a little so we are eye to eye and take his face in my hands. His skin touches me differently, more intensely somehow. Its warmth melts through my bones, like a melding. I have to use all my strength not to be distracted by the sensation or the effervescent glow that illuminates his skin like the candlelight of our happy bedroom.

“Remember yesterday when I said I would argue with you when the embargo was over?” I ask him.

My favorite dimpled smile curves up his lips—so vital, so beautiful I almost lose my train of thought. “It’s ringing a bell.”

“Well then . . .” The two familiar words that started us trill in the air between our mouths. “Let’s argue.”

His brows arch with amused surprise. “Argue? That’s the first thing you want to do with me?”

“Yes, it has to be.”

“Are you sure? I had some better ideas, not the least of which has to do with your tomorrow-now-today Christmas present that is waiting for you at home under the rose tree.”

His eyes smolder for some reason at the idea, but I don’t want to think about his goodbye present ever again. “I’m sure. Besides, it’s my present to you that we need to argue about.”

He picks up on the emotion on my voice. The smile turns into a frown of confusion. “We’re arguing about the present you gave me right before we met Helen?”

“Yes, your last post-reel surprise although hopefully there won’t be much arguing and you will finally see that you did this all on your own.”

The dimple flashes on his cheek again. “Well, I can’t imagine not arguing about that, but okay, I’m listening.”

I kiss his scar and let go off his face reluctantly so I can reach inside my picnic basket for the small box wrapped in the world map of dad’s old atlas. My fingers shake a little but the simple contact fortifies me through the paper as I hand it to Aiden. “Here, open it.”

He takes it from me, searching my face for a moment, no doubt trying to comprehend what is running inside my head. But I know he will never guess this, despite his ability to read me exactly like the map. He starts unwrapping the cardboard box, taking care not to rip the atlas page. Then I hear his breath catch when he lifts the lid. Because there, nestled deep in the flurry of every Baci quote we have read together this summer, except Shakespeare’s, is a crystal vial I know in every molecule of my body.

The lilac liquid shimmers mysteriously inside, with the seal intact.

Aiden whistles quietly, staring mesmerized at the luminous halo, part-liquid, part-mist. His fingers brush Dante’s quote as he takes out the warm, glimmering crystal. He shakes it gently but the fizzy aura does not give. Entranced, he sets down the box on the grass and holds up the vial against the cloudy sky, no doubt trying to understand the glow within that cannot be explained by the oak’s deep shadow. But there is no sunshine behind the fantastical sparkle. He turns the vial again, watching the glittering substance move fluidly with him.

“Elisa . . . what is this?” he whispers. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Even though I have been planning these words for a while, it still takes me a minute to form them from the sudden wave of emotion engulfing me.

“It’s the protein, love. The protein of bravery.”

His head whips up at me, the V folding between his brows. “What do you mean, ‘it’s the protein’”?

“I mean this is the protein that dad invented, the formula that erases fear.”

He frowns back at the strange, hypnotic mixture, as though trying to reconcile it with what he knows. “Have you made some changes to it?”

“No, it has always looked like this.”

He shakes his head, utterly perplexed. “It can’t be. This looks so different. The protein was less warm, more purple . . . like your eyes . . .” His voice trails off uncertainly, his eyes widening as an instinct of truth must seep through his ironclad perception. I watch that conviction start to waver into shock, perhaps the third biggest shock of his life. “Elisa, what . . .are . . . you . . . saying?”

I cradle his hand where it’s frozen around the distinctive warmth of the vial. “You’ve never taken the real protein, love.” I tell him the full truth. “You really did do this all on your own.”

His jaw falls open, his breath blows out with a gasp, and the vial slips softly on my palm as I knew it would. He doesn’t blink. He just stares at me, as stunned as he was when the startle turned into our dance to Für Elise.

“Never?” he mouths.

“Not a drop.”

How?”

I set the vial back on our Baci quotes and explain the secret I told only Doctor Helen after he fell asleep that night. “I gave you a placebo and made it look somewhat similar to the real protein, although as you can see now, that’s not really possible.”

He is still gaping at me, not a single eyelash fluttering out of his astonishment. “Why would you do that?”

“Because after I took the protein myself, I realized so many things, including the reasons why dad kept it hidden. For one, everything it makes us feel—all that courage—is already within us. The protein only allows us to feel it amplified. And it gives us this unbreakable faith in ourselves because, of course, it suppresses all doubt and fear. But there are side effects too, consequences I could have never anticipated.”

The shock twists with terror on his face, blanching his golden skin. “Side effects?” he chokes, his arms tightening protectively around me. “What—?”

“Shh, I’m perfectly healthy,” I interrupt quickly before he has a heart attack. “It didn’t harm me in anyway, just like I told you.”

“Then what is it? What side effects?”

I choose my words carefully because I know this part of the truth will still hurt him even now. “Well, the main one is that all emotions become very strong, very powerful. Every trauma, every pain you have ever felt in your life combine together without the numbing of fear, and you feel it all at once. As you feel all the good emotions: love, joy, desire, gratitude. They balance each other out, but it’s difficult. And that was only for me with my relatively normal life.”

“How difficult?” He picks out the most important word.

“More than I was willing to let you feel.”

He studies my face, eyes tortured like the idea of my pain is burning him. Then he folds me in his chest, as though he sees all the hurt left unsaid. “Oh, Elisa,” he sighs, kissing my hair.

“I really am okay, I promise.” I look up at him so he can see the truth in my eyes. “The brave love I wrote about in my letter softened all the pain. But once I saw how the protein works, I had no way of knowing how it would impact you with your memory and your past. And I realized why dad made it so difficult, why it tastes as awful as it does. Because we’re only meant to take it when there is absolutely nothing at all we can do about the situation. But I always knew you had it in you. I knew you could leave Fallujah behind if only you believed you could. So I decided to let you think you were under the influence of the protein, so you could feel your full potential. I was so high on bravery I couldn’t doubt at all that the plan might not have worked. But thankfully it did work, just as I thought. You did it—you found the truth about your innocence, you laid Marshall at rest all by yourself. And you destroyed the startle too, although I didn’t expect that. The protein would not have worked against it—Doctor Helen confirmed it with her test. This victory was your own strength. Everything we have right now—your freedom, your health, my dreams, our love, our very life—is not because of me. It’s because of the strong, brave, brilliant man you are.” I take his hand and place it above his own heart. Once he loves, he loves forever. He loves me, his brothers, Marshall, Benson, his parents . . . and at long last, hopefully himself.

He has breathed in every word, eyes still wide, but not in fear for me anymore now that he has seen I really am alright. He is staring in awe, the way we might look at ourselves in the mirror for the very first time.

“I really did this without the protein?” he breathes, as stunned as he was in Doctor Helen’s lab.

“Yes, love. Only you and your own bravery.”

He traces the crystal vial with his finger. The protein’s sparkle casts a rainbow over the wooden A at his wrist. As though Marshall Fortis is winking at him. “So what did you give me?” he asks. “It was purple, though not as beautiful as this.”

“Well, I sort of hinted at this part. It was grape juice with some pearlescent food additive to mimic the sparkle.”

He squints, as if watching the world through this new lens. “But what about what I felt physically? The heat, the odd taste, the rush of strength.”

“I added some capsicum oil—or chili oil—and a micro-drop of denatonium for bitterness to make it seem realistic. Then I boiled them together so the liquid would still be warm by the time I came home. As for the strength, it was all your own. I just asked you to let me calm you. And once you thought you were invincible, you finally felt the full extent of your natural power.”

He is still dazed. “And the sixty seconds it took for me to feel brave?” He asks but then catches up. “Ah, I see what you did. You told me casually before you gave me the fake protein that it took you sixty seconds to feel brave, which subliminally made me expect the same thing and, therefore, imagine I was feeling it too. And you told me to keep my eyes closed for focus, but that was also so I wouldn’t realize there was in fact no difference. Combine all that with telling me you knew it would work, and I stood no chance at doubting your word.”

“Exactly, although when I said I knew you could do it, I meant it. That part was all true.”

The oak leaves rustle as he watches me in amazement. “Brilliant,” he murmurs.

I shrug. “I got the idea during the protein. It allows you to see and plot things like that. Doctor Helen said my brain activity was similar to yours when I took it, although of course nothing can equal that.”

He ignores that last part. “So Helen and Corbin were in on this?”

“No, I only told her afterwards, while you were sleeping, and I assume she told Corbin from the way he was smiling today, but the idea to keep it from you was mine. I’m very sorry I lied to you about that. I wish I could have thought of a better way.”

The tectonic plates shift swiftly in his eyes, as they do when he is remembering something. “You didn’t lie,” he corrects. “Now that I think back to your words, you never told me explicitly that I was taking the protein. You called it ‘bravery’ or ‘our new tea.’ You said everything I needed to win was already inside me.” His voice quiets again—no note of anger or disappointment there. Only wonder, hopefully at himself. “And after the reel, when I thought my dose had run out, you said I was braver than even the protein.”

“Because you are. You never needed the protein, you only needed to believe in yourself.”

He nods in understanding. “So of course had to keep it from me. Although I am curious why you waited to tell me until now. You gave me this box to open after we met with Helen, but you didn’t know then that the startle was finished.”

“That’s true, but I thought both you and she were giving up, and I wasn’t. I still believed that you could heal from it someday. Not soon enough to save us, but eventually, if you kept trying, if you could only see your own strength. That’s why I wanted you to open this present afterwards. So it would give you hope when it seemed there was nothing else left, and faith in yourself so you would have a reason to keep fighting even without me.”

He winces at those last three words, pressing his index finger on my lips. “Shh, don’t say that.”

His touch sends tingles across my skin, suffusing his face with the star-kissed glow. I kiss the pad of his finger and take his hand in both of mine. “We don’t have to worry about that ever again. Because you destroyed the startle. You are the one who saved us. Not me, not the protein, not anyone else.”

He watches our joined hands, as though staring past the skin into a mirror deep within. I let him see his own strength at last, happy to just feel his warmth, to simply be with him.

It takes a while—I don’t know how long, time has stopped having meaning—for him to be able to speak again. Even when he does, he only asks, “This is real, too, right? Not a dream?”

“It’s real and the full truth. Now do you finally believe that you did this on your own?”

His eyes soften out of the shock, deepening into that look that gives me air, that has become my calm, my hope. “I believe I have the strength that I could have done it on my own,” he answers. “But in the end, I still think we did it together. Can we settle that without your faith, I would have never tried again, and without my strength, the reel would not have worked?”

We. I like that even better. “Yes, we can agree to that,” I smile, blinking back tears so I don’t miss a speck of his face.

He looks at me like I am his entire world, his face glowing, partly from my own mind, partly from his.

“Thank you,” he says, kissing a teardrop from my cheek. “For all of it, but especially for never giving up, even when I did.”

“Always.”

The word that has defined us from the very beginning chimes between our lips. But now it finally means what it should mean: always together, not always apart. And abruptly I see that vivid image I had in my apartment in Portland when Aiden first said always to me, the day after our embargo as he was explaining why I should not be with him. I pictured a young couple across the world then, tangled together, beaming, not ashen, warm, not cold, whispering “always.” In a blink, the couple transforms into us right now: brave, not afraid, healed, not in pain, wrapped tightly in each other’s arms—whole at last.

“Always.” The real Aiden murmurs back, bending his face to mine.

My hands fly in his hair eagerly but he freezes an inch from my lips and pulls back, suddenly intense again.

“You said side effects,” he recalls. “In plural. What other side effects did the protein give you besides the intense emotions?”

I have to use all my strength to concentrate on his question through the flammable fog in my brain. His lips are so close, his fragrant breath . . . But as soon as I squeeze in some focus, I remember the other part of my secret—the most beautiful, precious side effect I could never have imagined. The reason why some emotions will always remain potent at certain triggers. Abruptly, I am excited to tell him. I didn’t think I would—he would have never been able to move on in peace—but now I can. Now he can know it without any agony or fear . . . once he understands.

“Elisa?” Aiden prompts. “Is something wrong?”

“Not even the least bit. It’s just that this other side effect is more of a gift, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I only figured it out last night when you gave me the diamond A for my bracelet.”

My favorite letter glitters on my wrist like his relieved smile. “What did you figure out?”

I try to think of the best way to explain. “Well, I think it may be better if I show you. Will you humor me with something?”

“Whatever you need, you know that.”

“Okay, then pick one of your favorite days in life, whichever one you want, and tell me what it is.”

“Easy. May seventh of this year, the day I first saw you. Why?”

I nod at his choice because that day is one of my favorites too, no matter how dark it felt at the time. “And what did you do that day? Precisely, like you remember it.”

He frowns at my odd questions but answers anyway. “You know some of this. I woke up at four thirty in the morning, worked out, showered, ate an omelet with bacon and drank three cups of black coffee while reading the news, including about the UK national election. Then Benson drove me to the office, passing thirty-two cars, with license plates from KBA572 to SNT743. I responded to eighty-two emails, had six conference calls, and went to Feign Art to look for a birthday present for my mom, where I saw your face at last . . .” His speed slows, and his eyes lighten at the memory. “You looked like nothing else in my world. Like nothing I could have ever dreamed. Eyes like violets but red from tears, lips parted like rose petals, that white silky scarf over your head.” He brushes my cheek. “The most beautiful thing I had ever seen, yet so heartbreakingly sad. You leaned your head to the side as you looked at me, and instantly your skin glowed silver and ivory. It was so surreal, I couldn’t understand it. I hadn’t connected yet that it was the silver gloss from the painting I had just seen, because you were covered by the scarf, barely two inches of your real jawline were visible. But even if I could have seen all of you, I don’t think I could have comprehended anything at all in that moment. Not even my own name. Everything inside me fell stunned and silent, from my mind to my breath.”

Tenderness softens his face as he remembers, his eyes luminous with peace, yet smoldering underneath. He caresses my jaw, lingering on the path of calm and desire that bound us in this irrevocable way. And I forget everything.

“Is that enough or do you want more?” he asks, bringing me back to the now, to the reason why I needed him to tell me this.

I want every single second, I think, but he is waiting for me, anxious again. “It’s perfect. Now, ask me what I did on one of the most important days of my life.”

The V deepens in bewilderment, and he cups my face. “If I ask you, will you actually explain what’s going on?”

I nod, playing with his fingers.

“Okay, what did you do on one of the most important days of your life?”

“Easy.” I mirror his words, voice trembling a little with nerves as I try this out loud for the first time. “It was the day I took the protein—the first day you healed. You know most of it already so I’ll tell you what happened after I finished watching the video with Doctor Helen. I sprinted to Bia to make the placebo protein, passing by sixteen strangers, four professors, the elderly groundskeeper, five bicycles, and four cars with license plates OX5391, OX1034, OX9256, and OX768—”

“Elisa!” Aiden gasps in shock. “How? How are you doing that?”

I twine our fingers together as I tell him the very last secret between us. “It’s the protein, love. For those five hours that it was in my system, it gave me a memory similar to yours.”

My words don’t have the effect I had hoped—only the one I had feared. “What?” he breathes, his skin turning a pale, horrified green.

“No, please don’t be worried. This is the most beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me, other than your love.”

Beautiful?” he rasps, staring at me like I have lost my mind.

“Yes, beautiful. Aiden, please! I would always wish in secret that I could remember you forever, like you will remember me. That time, age, and distance wouldn’t fade a single part of you from my memory. I just never dreamed such a thing was possible. But it is, at least just for those five hours.” My voice drops in wonder as I caress the miracle of his face.

He does not seem to agree. “Those five hours include the video, Elisa!” A shudder rocks through him. “You will remember everything that happened in there too!”

And there it is—the reason for his dread. “Yes, but I want to remember that with you. I want to remember every moment that made you who you are. Aiden, please! I wouldn’t change this for anything in the world. Relax, I’m completely fine.”

“But the pain!” He snarls, pulling me close as though to protect me even from the word. “I know how this works. You’ll feel it every time you remember, just as real and intense. Never recovering from that.”

Except I understand my memory better now—all those questions I had over the last two days. Why I feel the scalding agony only at some moments, but not others. Why my love for him remains as Everestian and potent.

I reach up and caress his scar. “Not exactly. My memory is still limited compared to yours. Only one pain will stay that intense for me, and only at one trigger: when I see you hurting, because that’s the kind of pain I saw during the video. The other types of pain are the same as they were before the protein, not amplified. But the good emotions— love, pride, joy, desire—are powerful all the time because I felt them throughout those five hours and because when I see you, those are the primary emotions I feel.”

He wavers at that, no doubt hearing the truth in my voice, but does not relax. “What about the triggers? How have they been?”

“Not bad at all. Except for seeing you in pain during the reel, the rest have been wonderful. Remember, I only have this memory for five short hours, most of which were filled with love and courage and hope. My triggers are a lot easier and fewer than yours.” I don’t tell him about the agony that his Arabic pleas triggered. He would be besides himself. That’s a pain better left behind with the reel, a pain we will hopefully never have to feel again.

He is still staring at me unconvinced. “And flashbacks? Have you had any?”

Of course he would ask about that. “Only a couple. Like when you said Marshall would have joked that you finally got your period, I heard Marshall’s voice so distinctly in my head, saying he would buy tampons at the Baharia Mart.”

He gasps at the realization. “So that’s why you slipped about the video! It wasn’t a lapse, it was a flashback.”

“Yes, exactly. Except it was so vivid, I didn’t realize I said his words out loud until after your reaction. I’m still getting used to it. But I love that we will both remember the best parts of Marshall together.”

He refuses to be sidetracked from my safety. “Any other flashbacks?”

“Mostly the beautiful emotions. Like the brave love—I feel it all the time.” I stroke the denim of his jeans over the pocket where I tucked the paper rose of my letter. “You asked how that was possible after you read my letter, and I didn’t realize why then, but I do know. Because even though bravery has faded, the love is still there like it always was—as deep and unchanged. I just cannot forget what it feels like without fear. Once I love, I love forever too.”

His eyes deepen as he hears his own words in my voice, except now they are about him. And he deserves them. He blinks a few times as if returning from a dream.

“What made you realize this last night?” he asks, his voice a little calmer but still focused only on me.

“When you gave me the diamond A and touched my lips. It was the first time you had done that since the monster, but my physical reaction to your touch was just as strong as it was during the protein. My body physically remembered too, like yours does. And I knew then what it meant. I wasn’t going to tell you right away, but it was the best gift I found under that rose tree, other than your initial on my wrist.”

His expression softens with the same memories as mine. “That’s right—you said it was such a beautiful place to be in my world . . .”

“It is, even if I only see a glimpse of it.”

I can see his eyes change at my words. Perhaps considering his memory under this new filter, as something to cherish, not fight. “You really like this, don’t you?” he asks, studying my face.

“Like? Aiden, I love it . . . I can’t even tell you. I love that we can remember the hours that saved us together. I love that even when we will be grey and old like the Plemmonses, neither of us will ever forget that day. I love that, for those moments, it’s like our minds are one. I love that I can finally see the world through your eyes, even for a blink in time. It makes me so happy.”

At last he smiles, unable to resist that last word for me. Happy. Slowly, he brushes my lips—the soft glow thrills again—and I see a strong emotion start brewing in his eyes.

“Is there a part of you that likes this too?” I ask.

“The important thing is that you’re happy and healthy,” he answers, staring into my eyes. But as I gaze back, trying to name the deep emotion swelling there, his selflessness slips. His eyes blaze with a new intensity. “Yes,” he whispers fervently. “Yes, I love it, and I had no idea. Can you show me again?”

It takes me a moment to catch my breath through the force of his gaze. He waits eagerly, and I finally understand what I’m seeing. Aiden has never seen anything like his memory. In this, he has always been alone in this world. But now, against all odds, he can finally see a reflection of his mind, even if it is only a faint echo of his true powers. He can share some of his heaviest burden and his greatest joy. He can have someone hold his hand and whisper, “I know. I see you and I love you even more.”

So that’s what I do now. I take his face in my hands, letting my memory free as I touch the wonder of his skin. And then I begin. “I’ll tell you the best part: the moment I first saw you with my new fearless eyes. I had only run about two thousand steps to find you, but I would have run ten million miles. And there you were, in the river, trying to remove the boulder that almost killed me. You looked like nothing else in my world,” I quote his words because they are even more true for him. “The most beautiful thing I had ever seen. You turned to look at me but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t find words for you. You frowned and bounded out of the river, frantic with worry. And I still couldn’t speak. You touched my neck then, your hand both warm and cold from the river, and my heart pounded—

“Thirty-two times,” we say together as our memories fuse with laser clarity.

“Yes, thirty-two times.” I smile, tears welling up in my eyes. “And as I looked at your face, it dazzled me with every moment of beauty I had ever seen on it: our first sight at the gallery, our first kiss, every caress, every touch. They sparkled on your skin with every light under which we have made love: the chandelier in our happy bedroom, the nightlight in your home in Portland, the fireplace in our Room of Firsts, the sunrise, the twinkly lights, the stars . . .” As I remember, the golden halo dances around his face again, wrapping it in the soft glow of our bedroom. So stunning I can barely breathe. “It was so surreal, I couldn’t understand it,” I repeat his words, stroking his cheek. “I didn’t realize it was the glow of all those other memories combined in one. But even if I could have understood, I couldn’t have found the words for the man you are. Everything inside me fell stunned and silent, even with my new mind.”

His breath catches at my words like they are an elixir entering his bloodstream. “You really do know,” he whispers, eyes wide with that deeper emotion I can finally name: belonging.

“Yes, I do. I still feel it. Even now that the protein is gone, the glow is there, just softer like candlelight. It flickers every time I want you. That’s why I saw it when you touched my lips last night, why I dreamt of a golden veil as you kissed me awake yesterday, why I thought it was the twinkly lights when we were up in the guestroom. . . Because the way I want you has stayed just as powerful, just as intense.”

He doesn’t speak—perhaps he can’t—but he takes my face between his hands. His eyes roam my skin, my jaw, my lips, just as spellbound by me as I am by him.

“And now you know,” I tell him. “You know what it feels like to be loved as deeply and irrevocably as you love me.”

“Forever,” he agrees, and then he kisses me, his lips fierce and dominant against mine.

Spiked with my memory, the sensations are overwhelming. Desire detonates in my veins, even more powerful than during the protein. My blood sings, I’m light, I’m fire. Every cell starts sparking like live wire. Because this is real. And I don’t care that we are out in broad daylight, right behind a building with large windows. I throw myself at him, crazed for his taste.

He responds with a rough moan that reverberates from his throat to mine, sending my body into a frenzy.

“Aiden!” I whimper.

“Fuck!” He pulls back a millimeter, looking agonized. “Your pill—did you keep taking it these last two weeks?”

“Every day,” I gasp, realizing only now how much secret hope my heart held, refusing to give up.

He blinks at me, eyes on fire, no need for questions—we both finally know the answer. The heart knows. Even when we don’t.

“Come here,” he growls but before I can touch his lips again, he springs to his feet, lifting me up and throwing my legs around his hips. That’s when I realize what he is doing, where he is taking me.

“Aiden, we’ll fall,” I squeak, barely sparing a blink for the oak’s dense canopy.

“Yes, but if we stay here, we will die,” he answers and jumps up.

There is no doubt about it. Already, I can’t breathe right. I grip him with all my strength, locking my arms and thighs around him as he starts to climb, but each time he moves between my legs, the motion almost sends my body into near convulsions. Even his breath, coming fast and hard in my hair, turns into electricity on my skin. I don’t know how I hold on with all my wild, riotous reactions or how he climbs as fast as he does with his thundering heartbeat. But he does. Somehow, we make it to our thick bough near the top, faster than the first time we climbed this ancient oak.

“Hold on tight,” Aiden warns, his voice rough, but not from the climb. It’s low with the same desire I can now finally grasp. He folds down on the branch and leans against the trunk, pulling me astride his lap.

“Aiden, hurry!” I almost burst into tears.

“I know, love. It’s a lot when it first hits.” He grabs my arms and locks them around his neck like fetters. “Right here, don’t let go.”

“Never!”

His own hands turn to manacles on my hips. “Be ready, Elisa. This will be the best sixty-second big bang of your life.”

“Yes!” I laugh shakily at the exact words he told me the first time we made love here in England. But it doesn’t take us sixty seconds this time. It takes nine.

A millisecond for his mouth to swoop on mine. Another for our tongues to entwine. Half a second more for his hands to slide under my dress. A full second for him to shred my knickers into scraps. I feel them slip away, somewhere in the breeze. Then barely a blink for him to unzip his jeans. He grasps himself, and my head starts to spin. I can’t breathe, I can’t hold still. With a gasp from us both, he breaks free. Still not enough time in the world to feel all of him. I try to touch him, but I’m too slow. He lifts me up by the waist and slams home. He is bewildering, more surreal than ever before. Harder, stronger, my all. Heavenly in every inch, in every throb.

And I come. Instantly. Every apex of pleasure I’ve ever felt, every flutter of desire, every tingle, every tremble, every brush of heat and rush of blood, every taste and every touch between us—all surge through my system at once, and I soar into the most intense orgasm of my life. Stars in my eyes, a sensation of flight, a scream through our lips, a curious, powerful river gush inside. My body shakes so much that for a wild second, I think I’m spiraling to the ground. But I’m not. Through the frantic, spasmodic delirium of my body, I sense Aiden’s iron grip, holding my up. And then the force of his orgasm ripples like a tornado through us, half in release, half in restraint, with a torn snarl.

“Ho—ly—fuck!”

His bruising control vibrates from his grasp into my bones as though the oak is shaking underneath. Maybe it is. I hold onto to him with everything I have as we shudder in each other’s arms, sodden, gasping, clutching every body part so we can stay upright. And then we both burst out laughing. Pure, shaky, true laughter—mine lost in his waterfall one that I have not heard in so long. The most beautiful music in my world, flowing straight from his heart. I gulp it in, taste it, listening to the free sound. It’s more fluid, more symphonic, as though all those other laughs before it had missed a new note—an eighth frequency on the scale, a new pitch you can hit only when you are fully healed.

“I think we made it,” Aiden rumbles, still pulsing inside me.

“Hmmm—no—heaven—this.”

“No, I’d have lasted more than ten seconds,” he chuckles. “My cock reverted back to puberty on this tree.”

My giggle trembles with the throbbing of said cock. “S-speak—for—yourself. I—only one second—”

We laugh again, tangling closer even though there is no space left between us. I manage to lift my head from his shoulder and flutter open my eyelids. And there he is—his eyes still blue fire, lips bitten from my kiss, his skin glowing with that flush of orgasm, like an astral light is shining from within. Leaves are raining over us like petals in the garden. A dappled sunlight filters through them, trying to caress the sculpted angles of his face, then fading, utterly unable to compete. He is so glorious, the beauty knocks me breathless. An angel with his wings intact would pale in comparison.

“What’s that look?” He murmurs, smiling my favorite, dimply smile at whatever awe is showing on my face.  “Do you need oxygen?” He blows over my lips, kissing them softly. The light touch flutters through my skin, blossoming into a quiver like the thousands of leaves. It trembles in the pit of my stomach, taking root, then rippling everywhere like a carnal breeze.

“Is this how orgasm feels like for you?” I marvel.

He searches my face in similar wonder. “Hmm, I can’t be sure in your case . . .” The blue depths blaze with the flame of his thoughts. “Does it feel like every orgasm you have ever had, and all the ones you could not possibly dream of, each potent on its own, yet still a fraction of the absolute whole, until every part of your body is both fire and ice, still and storm, and you no longer know if you will live or die or both? But it doesn’t matter because in that moment, you feel all the exquisite things you have ever known—every joy, every climax, every hope, every thing of beauty in your world and the most beautiful one of them all: the woman you love, trusting, trembling, all yours, not by chance but by choice, because you are the only one she wants. So why does it matter if you live or die, when you’re already in the only home you want?” His voice gentles and slows, and his eyes soften. “Is that what orgasm feels like for you now?”

It takes me a moment to be able to respond or even blink, lost as I am in his words, in the impossibility of him. Even then, I barely manage a chirp. “Ah . . . uh-huh . . . yes . . . like that.”

His fingers trail up my waist to my heart, around his dog tags and my locket against my skin, brushing my nipple. My eyes roll in the back of my head a little. “Now imagine adding thirty-five years to that and you will have some idea of how my orgasms feel with you.”

Thirty-five years! I cannot begin to fathom the potency of that. I am barely surviving the beauty of my short, five hours, yet I could never live without their vibrancy ever again. All the life before them seems almost pale grey. And now it’s dazzling like a perpetual sunrise over this new world. Especially because of those last words: with you.

“Wow,” I whisper. He smiles, giving me time or perhaps simply happy to look at me. I stroke his cheek for reality, feeling the soft, vernal glow of his post-orgasm bliss. “And the halo? Does it spark for you too?”

“The halo?” He frowns, and then laughs, low and gentle. “You mean the golden filter you see on my face when you want me?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I already have a silver filter over your face from the painting. You always glow for me, not only when I want you, which of course, is all the time.”

“Oh!” I gasp, my brain finally connecting the dots, seeing the similarity that now seems so obvious I don’t know why I didn’t realize it before. Gold and silver, just two souls shimmering in the same spectrum of light. Even if his will always shine brighter. “I really love this part.” My voice trembles as I kiss the silver strand of hair gleaming at his temple. The thread that turned white overnight after his final battle for us. “I wish I could see the halo over your face all the time too.”

“Hmm,” he muses, and a speculative look falls over his eyes. Slowly, his hand gathers in my hair and tips my head to the side. Then he touches his lips under my jaw, kissing the hollow spot below my ear. “Are you seeing it now?” he murmurs against my skin.

The shimmer flickers like our happy bedroom chandelier. “Yes,” I breathe.

I feel his lips smile as they skim along my jawline to the corner of my mouth. “And now?”

“Uh huh.”

His lips brush mine lightly, and the shimmer trembles with me. “What about now?”

“Mmm . . .”

“You know what the solution is then, don’t you?” he asks, his lips folding with mine.

“Hmm?”

“That I should always . . .” He kisses me between each word in that illegal way that obliterates every single thought, that makes the world whirl. “Always . . .” His tongue traces an infinity loop on my lip. “Every minute . . . of every hour . . . make love to you.”

“Oh!” I cry out as he comes alive inside me again like a second heartbeat. As hard and implacable as five minutes ago, probably with the shortest refractory period known in human history. “I love your mind, Aiden,” I gasp breathlessly, pulling him back to my lips.

“I do too.”

The answer is so easy, so automatic, that we both freeze as we hear the words out loud. The words I never thought I would hear from him. “Y-you do?” My voice breaks with both shock and need.

He stares at me for a moment, considering in similar astonishment. Whatever breaths I was managing stop. I hadn’t realized until now how important this one answer is, as though no victory can be complete without it. I keep my eyes on his, watching as surprise gentles into resolution and then in a slow, inward smile.

“Yes, apparently, I do,” he answers.

The oak rustles around us . . . healed, healed, healed. “Really?” I check again, pinching my wrist.

He brings his hand to my cheek. “Yes, really. How can I not love it when I see you like this? Eyes like violets, sparkling with desire, not tears, your skin flushed silver and ivory.” He turns around his words from earlier about the first time he laid eyes on me.  “The most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I can never hate anything that makes you feel like this. Or anything that now is also a part of you. And I love every part.”

I try to say something, anything, but I can’t. My heart swells, filling up my chest as though my heartstrings alone could hold us up in the air, weightless against gravity. He loves every part of me. And now he loves every part of himself.  Self-love . . . It really came down to that in the end. He may not realize it, but I certainly have.

I launch myself at his mouth, frenzy striking again.

This second time takes us a little longer than sixty seconds. One for our lips to fold together, another for our tongues to dance. Then a frantic race between my hips and his unstoppable hands. I still win on the moans, he wins everything else. My grip loosens on his shoulders, I want to touch him everywhere, but he pulls out and slaps me hard between my legs.

“Hold tight!” He reminds me and waits, suspending me right above his length.

We lose some seconds while I struggle to obey, feverish with need to the point of pain. But as soon I manage to clutch him back, he lowers me onto him with abandon. Up, down, fast, slow. But the deeper we go, the more we still want. Our bodies no longer just remember or absorb. They meld—live, incandescent extensions of each other. His mouth on mine is my taste, his hands on my hips are my flesh, every mind-blowing thrust is my heartbeat. Tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick.  One thrust per second, two, three four. My body builds—even higher than before. Every muscle shakes, my gasps change to a language only Aiden knows.

“Elisa,” he moans, and I know the end is close. And the faster it comes, the more the world slows, spinning, whirling with gold, stillness in the air but inside us only storm, raging, both fire and flood. One more second, one more blow. Until with a final cry, we both explode.

That’s how we come, that’s how we go. With our names in our lips, blindingly and for each other alone. Just like he wrote to me so long ago. Just like we fought for.

We are not big bangs, we are stars that shine on.

In the aftermath, there is only music. Our gasps, our heartbeat, the leaves shushing and whispering. I sink into his chest, my cheek on his heart, on the photo of his mind, listening to the rustle that lulled him through life . . . And happiness shifts again. It becomes us, twined in his tree, two joined oaks of our own, hearts like roots, lips like leaves, minds like crowns, reaching up toward our own open skies, finally healed.

My lips start fluttering of their own volition, kissing every place they can reach—his heart, his neck, his jaw, his lips. He kisses me back too—his mouth whispering warm kisses on my throat, my temple, my mouth, my fingertips. And our bodies begin rising again, fire lighting up every cell like beacons of a new storm on the horizon. How can they not? And how on earth are we ever going to stop?

My stomach is the only one who seems to know that answer. It growls loudly as his teeth graze my lower lip. His chuckle washes over my skin, warm and delicious. “I think we may have found one part of our bodies that wants to leave this tree.”

“The least relevant part.” My body clamps tightly around his—an instinct of some kind.

He tips up my face, his eyes somehow both heated and soft. “We don’t have to go far,” he assures me as though he senses some subconscious emotion behind my reflexive grip before I can understand it myself. “And we have all the time in the world.”

That was it—the old fear behind the instinct. Time. Even if it is no longer racing against us, abruptly I want to hear the truth again in his voice, like he wants to hear it in mine.

“Promise?” I ask him. “That we have all the time in the world?”

He smiles the kind of smile that would stop any clock. “Do you think I’d ever be able to leave this tree if we didn’t?”

That will have to do for now. I will use all the strength I learned during the protein to control this insatiable, frantic desire just a little longer. And then we can be in our happy bedroom, lock the doors, and never stop touching him again until we both drop.

“Okay,” I decide. “Besides, Benson drives fast. We can be home in less than forty minutes.”

The waterfall laughter thrums inside me. “Thirty. I’m surprisingly attached to that number now.”

He has to help me out of my tangle, gently unloosening my stranglehold around him. Kissing my wrists, massaging my shoulders, zipping up my dress, sighing with all the memories it holds for him, from our first night to this first day. Then I help him with his jeans—the same ones as that night, except now they’re a mess from both of us. He laughs and leaves his shirt untucked. Then carefully, more slowly than the race up, with me dangling limply from his neck, he starts the climb down.

When we finally land back on the meadow, me still trembling, I am almost surprised to find the world exactly as we left it: the protein shimmering on its box of Baci quotes, my picnic basket with some fallen petals, the empty playground, the slow Saturday morning. Except it looks different now, brighter, more colorful. As though a dark veil has been ripped away from my eyes. Shakily, I tuck the protein back in its box while Aiden gathers the silky scraps of my knickers that have scattered all over the dewy grass. He kisses the last one and stuffs them in his jean pocket, making me flush.

“Come.” He takes my picnic basket and pulls me to his side. “Let’s get you home so you can eat. Besides, you too have to open your Christmas present. You’re not the only one that can keep secrets.”

That my-all look blazes in his eyes despite the smirk on his lips. Even if the goodbye present can wait forever as far as I am concerned. Maybe I’ll find a way to hide it from him and blame the rose thief.

“I already have everything I need,” I quip, reveling in the absence of tension around him.

“Not everything,” he insists and picks up his pace, abruptly urgent and eager.

As we stride past the playground, the beautiful seven-year-old boy of my imagination laughs and soars at the tiny swing. He looks up at me mid-flight like always and winks, his sapphire eyes shockingly brilliant. Then poof, he disappears.

“Are you alright?” Aiden asks.

I blink up at him startled, not sure I can explain, but then I see his dazzling, luminous eyes. Through all the layers of memories, deep below my turquoise, there is a new, yet familiar light. The purest, newborn sapphire. And I know then where the little boy has gone.

H-o-m-e.

©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 42 – HEALED

Happy Monday, everyone! It’s been a minute because, after dreaming and writing about it for years, I finally made it to England. And not just England, but Oxford, Burford, and the rest of the Cotswolds. I took a writing class right next to the Chemistry Building, I roamed the Ashmolean, I strolled the University Parks and along River Windrush, I stalked every cottage with roses, I ate clotted cream and drank tea and took in every cobblestoned alley I had been imagining, but never seen. I wrote the last scene in a little Inn on Burford’s High Street. And I loved it even more than I love it in my head. More on it soon, but for now, you’ve waited long enough. Here is Chapter 42, written largely at the bench on Lucas Walk where little Aiden saw his parents’ kiss. I hope you enjoy it.  Theme: healing. Song: it has to be Für Elise. Favorite line: “But deep within our hearts, there is always the truth, if we are only brave enough to believe it: love always wins. And in its triumph, it does not die like fire and powder. Love heals.” xo, Ani

42

Healed

This second kiss on the other side is different from the first. Slow, as though we have stopped time. Aiden’s lips fold with mine in a dance, not domination. Soft, tender. I can keep up with him, savoring his fiery flavor. The feeling is like coming home, like returning to myself. And like glowing. Heat smolders deep in my belly and a gold shimmer flames behind my closed eyelids. I melt closer in his warmth, wrapping him with all of me, his air to my air, his skin to my skin.

From somewhere in the distance comes a muffled sound of indistinct voices. And the outside world starts fluttering at the edges of the real one between our mouths.

Aiden kisses my bottom lip, once, twice, nipping it with his teeth, nudging his nose to mine. Then he pulls back with a sigh. His eyes are still brimming with shock and wonder. “Should we go find out how this happened?” he asks, hushed like a bedroom whisper. “Before they decide to trespass us?”

I almost say no—everything can wait, and there is the changing room right next to us—but, underneath his desire, I can see his desperation to make sure this is real. Still too afraid to hope, or perhaps too afraid to wake up. I curl my fingers in his hair so he can feel this is not a dream.

“Yes, but before we go, I want you to know something.”

“What is that?”

“That no matter how this happened, you did this. Not Doctor Helen, not Corbin, not anyone else. This win is all yours. Trust in that.”

His eyes linger on my lips where the words formed, and he tightens his arms around me, still holding me up against the wall. “This win—whatever it is and however it looks like—is all because of you.”

Except there is something else he doesn’t know. Something that will give him the full truth. My gift to him, still wrapped in the small box in my picnic basket that I left in Doctor Helen’s command center.

“You’ll see,” I tell him and kiss his scar.

He looks like he wants to go inside the changing room too, but he sets me down on my shaky feet, holding me against his side, knowing my balance problems after his kissing.

“Come. The sooner we know, the sooner we can be just us.” He smiles, cheered by the thought. “And if it turns out it’s not real, don’t let me wake up.”

“It is real, and I promise to wake you up with these words as soon as you let me.”

That my-all look blazes in his eyes again, almost incapacitating me. I want to ask what he is thinking when he looks at me that way, but not now. This moment belongs only to him.

We start winding down the hallway, our arms around each other, my eyes constantly on his surreal face. It’s still glowing with that faint, candlelit luminosity that it always will hold for me when I feel desire. He looks at me too, his fingers tightening sporadically on my hip as if to test reality. In the one peripheral glance I spare for the outside world, I realize the hall is now entirely empty—we must have nauseated poor Benson, Richard, Doctor Helen, and whoever else ran after me into seeking refuge as far away from us as possible. At other times, I would have blushed brighter than the Reagans. But right now, the only thing I care about is being with Aiden, finally free.

As we reach Doctor Helen’s lab, the tension returns to Aiden’s body. All the memories and doubts start dimming the new light burning in the stunned sapphire eyes. He pauses at the metal doors and looks at me.

“I love you,” he says. “No matter what they say or what this means, nothing will change that part. Do you still believe that after these last two weeks?”

I get lost for a moment in the intensity of his gaze, as though something vital depends on me knowing this before I hear anything else. “I believe it even more. And I love you the same way.”

He kisses my hair and opens the door, waiting for me to go first, still unwilling to let anyone behind his back. I don’t let go of his hand as he follows me inside, hopefully for the last time.

The lab looks exactly like two days ago when I was here—I remember every single wire, beep, and monitor—but now it’s back to its intimidating, white gleam instead of the fantastical, snowy landscape of the protein. The giant screens are still glaring electric blue, each displaying an image of Aiden’s brain from April 12, 1987, and every other scan since then. Doctor Helen is sitting at the long desk with her Van Gogh binder and my picnic basket full of roses, reading her notes. Corbin is above her on the overhead screen, his features crumpled in an abashed expression. As soon as I see their faces, my blood simmers with a strange mixture of anger and gratitude. Anger because they lied to us. Gratitude because where would we be if they hadn’t.

Doctor Helen stands as soon as we walk in. “Ah, Aiden, Elisa,” she starts, gesturing at the two chairs she has set out for us across her desk. “We’re so glad you took a moment to yourselves. If you’re ready, please, have a seat.”

“Where is Benson?” Aiden remembers to check on his friend before anything else begins.

“He’s perfectly alright,” Doctor Helen assures him quickly. “He said he will wait in the car while we finish up here—something about work.”

Aiden nods, and we take the metal chairs that feel too hard and cold to me after his embrace. He grabs my hand, holding it in both of his fists. Abruptly, my conviction becomes fear too. What if I’m wrong? What if this was only an accident, sheer chance, or a simple fluke? What if we cannot count on it to last? How can we survive losing it now that we know how it feels? How can I watch this new light extinguish in Aiden’s eyes, this new life die out before it even starts?

I grip his fingers and cup my other hand over his blanched knuckles. Neither of us is able to speak. We just stare at Doctor Helen and Corbin, waiting while I try to remember how to breathe.

The two doctors must see our sudden paralysis because Doctor Helen rushes to break the silence. She closes the Van Gogh binder, setting it next to my basket, and meets our frozen eyes.

“First, please allow me to apologize to you both,” she begins, her voice low with contrition. The pleading tone is so unexpected, so incongruent with her regal mien that I start in my chair at the dissonance. But there is no question the regret is almost palpable in her liquid, grey eyes. “I wish there could have been another way to test the startle,” she continues. “And I am deeply sorry for the ambush and the fear I caused. Please know that the decision was mine alone. Doctor Corbin, Benson, and my team knew nothing about it until yesterday. I had my reasons for that choice, which I shall explain soon, but now, I’m certain you don’t want to hear my apologies. You want answers about what happened and how is it possible that the startle reflex changed.” She peers at Aiden on that last word, putting volume behind it, as though she can see the shock and doubt rippling through his core.

Perhaps so does Corbin because he intervenes with a similar remorseful expression. “I am very sorry too, for all of it. I don’t feel blameless despite the amazing and incredible results.”

The two doctors nod emphatically in unison, their regret earnest in every blink, but all I can hear is that one word: incredible. Is this change too big to trust or too good to last? My eyes flit to the Clares, still sparking here and there with dew. Make it real, Mum. Make it ours.

“So . . .” Aiden hesitates as though unable to give voice to this fear. “So you both agree that it—the startle . . .”—he forces out the word, his teeth clenching around it— “it has in fact changed?”

“Oh, yes! There is no doubt about that part.” Doctor Helen’s voice rings back to its authoritative note, and I grip Aiden’s fist to stay upright.

He leans closer to me, his body still tense. I can’t feel any flow of breath through his chest. “And this change, could it be . . . just an accident?” The last word is barely audible from his lips.

Doctor Helen’s stately features soften, as if she heard the unspoken dread behind his question. “No,” she answers immediately with decided confidence. “Your reaction was not randomly different. As Elisa so quickly realized, your response was precisely adapted to Für Elise and your nightly dance. There is zero statistical probability that this could be a coincidence. The startle has changed at last.”

My heart inflates, pushing against my ribs, as I clutch Aiden’s fist frantically and sink into him in heady relief.  It’s real, of course it is! And not just luck or chance. It is a change forged deep within Aiden himself. With all his blood, tears, fever, and agony—every reel, every day, every night, every minute. But can it last?

Aiden’s fists do not relax; he does not breathe even as he seems to inhale Doctor Helen’s words like oxygen.

“How is that possible?” he asks.

“Ah, now that is the question, and I believe we know the answer.” The two doctors exchange a nod and, for the first time, the great neuroscientist smiles. Not her barely visible smile, but a full smile I have not seen on her that makes her look decades younger. When neither of us manages to blink or exhale, she continues. “I’ll start at the beginning—the moment when I think the startle began to change: on the night Edison struck.”

“What?” My tongue releases abruptly, and the question tumbles out of me in a choked gasp. Aiden freezes—a flawless statue carved out of ice by my side. His lips fall open in a perfect, silent O of surprise.

“Yes, indeed,” Doctor Helen presses, her smile sparkling an ivory gleam. “That moment of terror went from horrific to hallowed in the end, although of course none of us could have predicted that. You see, when Edison struck that treacherous blow to Aiden’s head, in the exact place as the old rifle injury in Fallujah, in all relevant ways, he replicated the past trauma, down to the details—jagged glass like the broken window in the classroom, dark night like the smoky skies, harming someone Aiden loves, and most crucially, Aiden’s loss of consciousness. By all accounts that should have doubled the trauma and the startle. Yet it didn’t—why? First and foremost, because this time, through the startle, Aiden saved Elisa’s life and his own.  Unlike Fallujah where he was unable to rescue Marshall or himself, or back home when he injured his mother, this time the startle itself became an ally, a savior—not an enemy. And once that happened, Aiden’s mind began reversing a process that started so many years ago in that Fallujah classroom. By chance, intention, and Elisa’s subsequent actions, the entire experience in fact became the opposite.”

She emphasizes that word as though to impart its meaning but my brain is stunned past all basic functions. I look up at Aiden as astonishment starts blending with analysis in his eyes, replaying the past with this new filter.

“The opposite . . .” he muses almost silently to himself.

“Yes, in significant detail,” Doctor Helen explains. “Instead of a bare classroom filled with torture, this time you were in a cozy library you associated only with love. Instead of a rose drawn on a blackboard, there was a real garden full of them. Instead of a prayer on the wall, there was a periodic table. Rather than seeing black smoke, you saw the bright light Elisa flashed into your eyes. Instead of hearing ‘Your death will come soon,’ you heard ‘I love you.’ Instead of falling on a cold, tiled floor, there was a soft pillow that Elisa placed there with her quick thinking.

“And of course, when you woke, that experience was the opposite too. Instead of waking with Marshall’s blood on your lips, you woke to her kiss. Rather than inhaling smoke, you were smelling her. Instead of hearing screams of pain and hatred, you were hearing Für Elise—the melody that calms you the most—as Elisa, in her desperation, was singing it. Instead of seeing Marshall’s broken body, you saw the most precious thing in the world to you: Elisa’s face that gives you peace even in the most profound torment. And instead of failing to save a life, you saved two: Elisa’s and your own. And so the process came full cycle, the opposite from the beginning to the end. That’s when we believe your neural pathways started rewriting themselves . . .” Doctor Helen trails off, her commanding voice lower as she allows us time to process.

I try to follow her explanation but awe is blurring my brain. How can the moments that almost ended us become our salvation? Yet, her words ring with the chime of truth. I can see it in Aiden’s expression as wonder widens his eyes. And something else too: a flicker of h-o-p-e, shining like a light behind his skin now that he hears some reasoning behind the result. But his grip on my hand still does not relax.

“So—” he pauses, as if unsure how to form words. “So because of all that, the violent reflex died that night?”

I look back at Doctor Helen, struggling with the same question, but she shakes her head. “Not quite. I believe it got wounded that night but, on the whole, I think you were right that the violence survived because that original memory of trauma was still very much alive. We can never dismiss the fundamental principle of your memory: the initial one is always the ruler, the decider.”

“But then how?” He frowns, skepticism evident in his voice. “How did the violence end?”

Doctor Helen exchanges a glance with Doctor Corbin on the screen, who grins hugely.

“Because apparently there is a way to change that initial memory even for you,” he answers.

The impact of his words on our side of the desk is staggering. Aiden’s jaw drops, and his fist falls open around my hands. He stares at the two doctors, seeming beyond the powers of his impressive comprehension. Never mind me. I just gape blankly into the white space. Because nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for this. I thought I knew Aiden’s memory better than my own. I thought there was nothing truer in our world than its unchangeability. It’s the reason why we are embedded in each other’s every neuron and heartbeat. The power of his memory has been our creator, our architect, our protector, even our enemy—the soundtrack of our love, like a cerebral Für Elise.

What could be so strong as to change that force?

Aiden is still staring at the doctors, more shocked than I have ever seen him—even more so than minutes ago when the violence itself stopped.

“Excuse me—I think I misheard you. What did you just say?” he asks in a low voice, grasping my hand like an anchor for reality.

I squeeze his fingers back while Doctor Helen smiles her maternal smile. “You heard Doctor Corbin correctly. Apparently even your initial memory can change,” she repeats.

How?” he breathes.

“Only through an equally powerful counterforce.”

Her words, so similar to the question resounding in my head, manage to help me find voice. “And w-what could be such an equal force?” I stammer.

Doctor Helen looks straight at me. “You, child.”

“M-me?” I jump a little at the unexpected word. Did she really say me? She must have because she nods.

I will my mind to make sense of her answer but I can’t. Yet next to me, Aiden comes to life. I can feel the change washing through him in the way his grip softens on my hand, the first deep breath flowing from his lips. Whatever doubts he had, that one simple answer—me—must have resolved them. The shock fades from his expression, leaving behind only awe. He turns to me, his beautiful face triumphant, which doesn’t help me think at all. And his eyes warm with that gaze that has become my entire world.

“Of course!” he murmurs in understanding, a smile lifting the corner of his mouth. “Of course it was you.”

It takes me a moment to remember how to speak, let alone think. “I . . . I’m not following,” I admit, looking away from him reluctantly to the two doctors. “How can I be equal to the strength of Aiden’s memory?”

His fingers trace the PEAC diamonds at my wrist but he lets Doctor Helen explain.

“Remember what I told you both on our very first meeting, Elisa?” she asks, and then proceeds to answer her own question when I barely manage a stupefied huh. “That your calming effect on Aiden is so effective because his own memory gave you that power. When his mind created you during war, it marked you as its equal. It purposefully gave you the ability to calm it, to defeat it. None of us can do that for him like you can—not any kind of therapy invented today. Only you. Because Aiden himself designed it that way.”

I remember now, every word she told me in the command center next to this lab. The hope that rushed through me at hearing that my effect on Aiden is by his mind’s own choice, not just by fate. But how does that give me the power to change his past?

“I’m sorry, but I still don’t get it. Even if my calming effect is powerful, I can’t go back in time and change what happened to Aiden in Fallujah.”

Doctor Helen beams at me. “As it happens, you sort of can.”

“What? How?”

“In ways none of us could have possibly dreamed. Least of all Doctor Corbin and me. We designed this entire experiment based on Doctor Corbin’s brilliant theory that your calming effect was shrinking the snowball of trauma. We believed that if Aiden lived with you in the present, instead of expecting and reliving past horrors, the snowball would not grow further. But we focused so thoroughly on bringing Aiden in your present moment that we didn’t think about the crucial importance of bringing you into his. And even if we had thought about it, how would such a thing be possible? And yet, that’s precisely what you were able to do two nights ago after Aiden completed his final reel. Do you remember?”

A shudder runs through me despite Aiden’s warm hand on mine. I will remember that day with perfect clarity for as long as I live, from every droplet of blood on his blistered palms and every diamond of sweat sparkling on his feverish skin to the scalding agony and that healing, Everestian love still surging inside me as potent as during the protein. Like it always will be.

I blink past the images flashing vividly through my mind. “I remember,” I answer as Aiden wraps his arm around my shoulders.

“Well, you told me on the phone everything you tried to bring Aiden back to the present moment with you. But when it didn’t work, you broke all my rules. You listened to your instinct and made the brave, even reckless decision to enter Aiden’s present moment and follow him inside his terrifying memory. And that changed everything.

“You guided him through the horror in your loving way. Pointing out the positive details that your enhanced mind had been able to perceive during the video. Things none of us had noticed, not even Aiden, because we were all terrorized while watching or living through it. But not you. You saw it all fearlessly because of the protein. And you forced his mind to revise its own memory. You permeated it with your calm, building new associations, new imagery. The market vegetables like wildflowers, the minarets like Oxford’s spires, images that mean something beautiful to you both. You brought your love inside the hatred, your peace inside his war, turning the experience into its opposite. You guided him quite literally through hell with light and faith. And Aiden, now full of something other than terror, was able to focus and follow, feeling for the first time calmer inside that horrific memory. His mind started noticing new angles, new details, new perspectives. It absorbed all that newness, fighting and enduring unfathomable agony until it found the truth, replacing his perceived guilt with innocence. In effect, the initial memory that caused his violent startle in the first place changed itself under your effect and his own raw strength. It became new. And I suspect that’s exactly when the violent reflex was destroyed once and for all.”

Doctor Helen’s voice quiets into a thoughtful silence. Even the digital beeps fade from my ears. Because what she is saying sounds so impossible, yet some place deep inside me recognizes the truth. At the time, I thought I had ruined everything by breaking all the rules. I made Aiden’s agony worse, I added to his fear, I went against the fundamental principles of any experiment. But perhaps sometimes that’s what we need to do—break the rules, write our own, start new. And perhaps at other times, there are no rules at all. Only heart. And we just need the strength to listen to its beat and not give up.

“Wow,” I whisper in wonder—not at myself, but at us. “And so . . .  and so . . . that’s it?”

Doctor Helen smiles. “I believe so. The process was already unraveling from Edison’s blow, but then once that initial memory that caused it was reframed as one of love, peace, and redemption instead of torture, terror, and guilt, the causal connection in Aiden’s brain between startle and violence broke. There was no more reason for it because the underlying threat that prompted the reflex to defend no longer exists.”

“What an amazing force she is,” Aiden murmurs now that I have had time to catch up, his finger caressing the lifeline of my palm. “Does this mean Elisa can change every other memory of pain?” He talks about me with a veneration that makes my cheeks burn but Doctor Helen’s smile shines even more widely.

“For you alone, yes, she can. And if you need proof, think about your reaction last night when you watched the video for the first time. It felt like a new memory, didn’t it?”

“Yes, but I thought that was because it was a new memory. I was, in effect, seeing events from an angle I hadn’t seen before: from Marshall’s body camera.”

Corbin speaks for the first time in a while. “That’s true, but we believe there’s more to it. Think if you had simply heard Marshall’s voice before you completed your fever reel. The sound of his voice alone would have triggered flashbacks for days, if not weeks. Yet, by Elisa’s account, this time, there was nothing but acceptance and grief for a lost friend. And the peace Elisa makes you feel. That’s not only because it was a new memory. It’s because you have healed.”

Healed. The word sounds dreamlike, no matter how true and real I feel it to be. It fills the lab like the lark song, like the willows, like Für Elise. A profound feeling of home settles deep in every cell of me, like we have finally arrived where we fought so hard to be. Whether in an arctic lab or burning schoolyard, a sultry rose garden or blood-soaked dessert, a mournful hilltop or lonely mountain, an English village or American metropolis, a tent or a cottage or a mansion, at peace or in battle, we are exactly how we want to be. Together and healed.

Aiden holds my hand, his eyes full of emotion as he mouths that same word silently to himself. Healed. His breath catches as though the syllables become air and enter his bloodstream. Then he repeats the word again, out loud but still quietly.

“Healed.” Exactly as he murmured “not my fault” two nights ago. And I realize that he is trying to hear it in his own voice.

I squeeze his fingers so he knows it’s real. “Healed, love,” I say it back to him, blinking back tears.

“Healed,” Doctor Helen echoes as though she senses the same thing. “And not only your violent reflex. You are finally healing from a pain I’ve seen in your eyes since you were seven years old.”

The grown warrior blinks up at her, and the years flow between them, from his heavy childhood to this moment. Except even I can see the difference in this reel: the blue sentient depths are lighter.

“So it’s truly over then?” he confirms.

Doctor Helen’s smile glitters pearl and silver. “My indefensible experiment just now proved it. At most, if you are startled, it will trigger memories of Für Elise and you might react to dance to it. But with your learning speed, that should not last long. I suggest you still test it a few more times for your own comfort but yes, it’s truly over.”

O-v-e-r. The four hardest letters for us, second only to t-i-m-e, sing in the ethanol-scented air, musical and free. But they remind me of another question crooning in my brain.

“Why is the startle connected to Für Elise now? I mean, I understand its significance for us but why did Aiden’s mind go straight to my melody when startled?”

“Ah, now that is curious, isn’t it?” Doctor Helen’s eyes spark with fascination. “We wondered the same thing. I believe that, once the violent connection was broken by your calm, Aiden’s memory reacted with what it associates most immediately with rest: the song he has been listening to while sleeping. Your melody obviously played a critical role in his memory healing, although of course, we have no way to measure it.”

I feel my lips turn up in a smile as Aiden’s fingertips tap my palm in a way I know in every pore: the first notes of Für Elise that he has played so many times on my skin. The heat of his touch sends tingles down my spine like music notes on the piano ivory.

Aiden’s fingers twine with mine as they do during our dance. “Speaking of testing, how did you know to run the experiment today at all?” he asks. “I’m grateful you did, of course, but what made you suspect something had changed in the first place?”

I turn to Doctor Helen curiously too, but her face ages back to remorse. “I’m still sorry I kept this from you, but I couldn’t think of another way to hide it so that you could, in fact, be startled. You see, I started suspecting something was changing the morning after Edison’s attack when I scanned the spot where he hit you. There was no internal injury to your brain, that was true, but I could see increased blood flow in the area. Ordinarily, that would mean simple healing. But in your case, it very well could have meant something more. So I didn’t say anything but asked Elisa to walk me through every detail while we were waiting for you—what she saw, what she did, how you reacted. It struck me then how opposite the experience was. And objectively, there was no evidence the startle was the same because it was interrupted mid-progress by your loss of consciousness even if, subjectively, it felt the same to you.”

She gives him a small, apologetic smile, and I remember her cryptic questions and reactions during that meeting. Questions I assumed meant the worst when they were apparently the analysis that saved us.

“That’s when I decided to pretend to agree that the test was off so you would not expect it later,” she continues. “The opportunity was too singular to miss. Our other ideas for startling you became untenable after the attack. Still, it was only a hunch; I wasn’t sure I would actually run the test. The risk to your well-being was too high, but I wanted to reserve the chance. So I tried to bargain for more time or for you to continue the reel, but you wouldn’t, quite understandably. I admit we lost all hope then, given your mental state as the days passed. At that point, we were simply trying to help you survive. Doing all we could, from testing our theories on computer models to speaking with the General and the Marines.”

She pauses, looking a hundred years old, as Aiden tenses at the black memories. They seem so distant now, yet so crystal clear. I can feel the scalding flames licking up my throat at the reminder of his pain. I lean closer into his body to stay in the beautiful, healed present.

“But then Elisa succeeded with the protein and convinced you to start again,” Doctor Helen moves on quickly. “And the most incredible thing happened. She told me about your fever. Only a very powerful mental process could have caused that. Add in the speed at which your memory was processing and your ability to realize your own innocence, and it became quite clear that something was unfolding. I just didn’t know what it was and if it had anything to do with the startle. But I reached out to Benson and Doctor Corbin yesterday to prepare them. Because we all knew this was your final chance. Still, even this morning, I was undecided. Testing you against your wishes for such a traumatic experience goes against all ethics, rules, and conscience. I almost decided against it when you two arrived and I noticed you seemed a little better. Why threaten this new sliver of peace you had found with your innocence? But then Elisa changed everything again. She told me you watched the video without a single trigger. Of course, she was thinking it only meant you had finally laid Marshall to rest, but that was also my clue. The first real proof that something had indeed changed. That’s when I made the decision to test you—only minutes after you went in the antechamber. I sent a signal to Benson, Richard, and Doctor Corbin to confirm it, and you know the rest.”

She shrugs remorsefully again, but I cannot find any anger in me. Only gratitude for her brilliance. I look up at Aiden, and I see the same appreciation in his expression. A slow smile spreads over his face as he looks between the two doctors.

“Well, I’m impressed. I would have never profiled either of you as rule breakers or co-conspirators, and I certainly never expected this. Well-played.”

Doctor Helen lets out a shaky, relieved laugh. “You might be pleased to know it was the single, most difficult trial of my forty-year-long career. So much so that I’m considering retirement. After all, everything else will seem quite boring now compared to your mind.”

Doctor Corbin chuckles too. “Not so fast, Doctor. We might need to work after Aiden fires us. For now, I’m only counting our blessings that he’s not having us arrested for showing Elisa the video. But we would do well to secure some security detail. Only his startle has healed, mind you. His personality is very much exactly how it was.”

And exactly how I love it.

We all laugh together then, with these two generals at our helm, so different, yet so alike in many ways that count. In their intelligence, their care for Aiden, their willingness to take risks for us, their faith in our love. Then slowly, the laughter quiets like the last note on my melody, and both doctors breathe a sigh of relief.

“I suppose all the risks were worth it to see you both laugh like this,” Doctor Helen says.

“Is there any way it can ever come back?” Aiden asks, abruptly tense again.

“I don’t think so.” She opens her Van Gogh binder and pulls out a polaroid, similar to the one of our kiss. “And here is why: this is the last image I took of your brain when you were in the MRI today, processing photos of Marshall. Look for yourself.”

She hands the photograph to him, and we both gasp at the same time. I still don’t know anything about neuroscience, but even I can tell the difference. The dark blue areas in his hippocampus that rage like the vortex of a tornado in all the other historical screens around us are an astonishing azure in this photo, like a summer sky.

“You can still see your incredible recall, perception, and speed right here.” Doctor Helen points to the denser areas. “I was not lying when I said they have not changed. Your memory remains as powerful as the first day I met you. But your automatic reaction to trauma has calmed. The image you have in your hand is what healing looks like for your brain.”

Aiden watches the image mesmerized, tracing the light blue areas with his index finger. “You won,” he says softly, gazing up at me, his eyes shining with pride and victory.

“No, love, you did.”

“But because of your calm and the protein you made for me. And here, we have the evidence to prove it.” He waves the polaroid, then tucks it in his shirt pocket by his heart.

I wait to argue just a little longer because of that something he still doesn’t know, something I want to tell him when we are alone.

The two doctors smile knowingly at me, and I have a feeling Doctor Helen has told Corbin my secret because he amends gently. “I think you both won. I never saw two people fight harder for their love. Aiden with a strength that defied all human limits, and Elisa with a faith I would have never believed.”

“I agree.” Doctor Helen inclines her silver head at us with a dignified nod. “May you live the rest of your days happy and without any fear.”

F-e-a-r.  It’s gone too. Not a single chill left. I feel as invincible as I did during the protein. That sense of infinite possibility sweeps over me, but this time for two. Like there is nothing Aiden and I cannot live through, nothing we cannot conquer after this. He squeezes my hand, and I don’t need his words to know he feels the same. But Doctor Helen’s words remind me of something else.

“There is one thing that is confusing me,” I say, even though that’s an understatement. My head is still spinning with all the discoveries of today.

“Yes?” Doctor Helen invites in the same encouraging way she did when we first met right here in this lab.

“You said it takes ninety days for memories to reconsolidate and change. All this happened on day fifty-five of the reel or sixty-five since Aiden came to England. How could that be?”

All three smile at me now, Doctor Helen indulgently, Corbin excitedly, and Aiden like his entire universe begins and ends with me.

“Actually, Elisa,” Doctor Helen explains. “If you count the first thirty days of your relationship, from the very first moment you entered Aiden’s life in Javier’s art gallery, the change happened right on time.”

Time. The word flows easily without clawing my ear drums, scorching my throat, or ripping apart my chest. There are no shivers scraping my skin, no black river water in my lungs. Willingly, I find the clock on the wall, wanting to remember forever everything from this moment. August 22, 10:05 in the morning. The minute that time stopped racing against us. Two days before the anniversary of when I landed in America and when Aiden bought his home, four years ago. Funny thing, time. I smile, watching the seconds tick away without any pain. Entirely healed myself.

“Is there something else?” Doctor Helen asks, following my eyes to the clock.

I shake my head because right now I only want one thing: to be alone with Aiden.

He must want the same thing too because he wraps his arm around me. “We need to go, but first, we brought something for you. Elisa’s idea.” He gestures to the picnic basket, and I remember what he means. I reach for it and gather the Clares and his heartfelt note for Doctor Helen, wishing we had known to send something to Doctor Corbin too.

She takes the bouquet from me, her regal face lightening at the blooms. “I was dearly hoping these were for me. It’s like having a piece of Clare right here with us in this moment, just like she was the day I met Aiden.”

“Then you will have one of her roses on your desk every day for as long as they bloom. But there is something even better inside the envelope.”

“Ah, in her stationary too.” She brushes the initials, opening the envelope carefully.

I watch her sharp, grey eyes glisten as she reads the words Aiden wrote this morning. I hear her intake of breath as she reaches the part about him being grateful he cannot forget. And I feel her wonder as she looks up at him—a scientist, a mentor, a friend. “Oh, Aiden. You were already accepting who you are even before you knew you had healed.” She picks out the most important message from his note. Then she rises to her full height and rounds her desk to give him a hug, roses and all. “That is a much better victory than any of my experiments could ever give.”

He did not expect her words or embrace, that much is obvious from his wide eyes. But he holds her a moment as he does with his mum even if her touch still strains him. It probably will for a while after all this time. A pink petal flutters from a Clare behind his back, kissing his tense shoulder and floating to the floor in a celestial dance.

“You know—” Doctor Helen looks at us both— “if I must believe in fate as Aiden wrote, I’m quite glad to start with your happy ending.”

F-a-t-e. We really will have our happy ending, won’t we? We were never Romeo and Juliet as I thought. We have always had a healing kind of love. From how we began to how we go on, in every breath and every heartbeat, Aiden saved me and I saved him. He is my strength, I am his peace. I gave him meaning, he gave me my dreams. And in the end, we kept our hearts beating.

But we are not Dante and Beatrice either. We are real, not ideal. We have flaws, we make mistakes, we rise, we fall. We are Aiden and Elisa.

And our violent delights do not have violent ends after all. Boulders don’t whisper tragedies or prophecies. They only whisper our fears. But deep within our hearts, there is always the truth, if we are only brave enough to believe it: love always wins. And in its triumph, it does not die like fire and powder. Love heals.

Aiden’s subdued, piano voice pulls me back from my epiphany. “Thank you,” he tells the two doctors. “For everything.”

“It was my privilege.” Doctor Helen bows her head in her restrained, majestic way.

“And my pleasure,” Corbin agrees, closing his notepad and dimming his desk light. Behind him, Portland’s night is still deep, hopefully giving our families good dreams until we can wake them up with our reality. Abruptly, I wish we were there or they were here so we could all be together, like families are meant to be.

We say our goodbyes then, Corbin promising to check on us next week, and Aiden promising a proper thank you for them both. I cannot fathom the sums of money that will be involved behind that gratitude. The two doctors very well might retire after that. With a last glance at the lab of his childhood, the glowing monitors displaying his mind, the red button that could incinerate his brain, Aiden takes my hand and we follow Doctor Helen outside.

But as we come out, we both stagger in another surprise. Right before us, lining the long, polished hallway to the lift, are Doctor Helen’s entire team of scientists. At least twenty white coats, from Richard, who no longer seems like a bear to me, to Old Morse, closest to Master Aiden. I recognize the nine who have been with us in meetings, but the others are new. Or rather new to me. Clearly, Aiden recognizes them. The tectonic plates in his eyes shift with memories as he looks at their faces. And I realize these must be other neuroscientists who have worked on his case over the last twenty-eight years.

As soon as they see Aiden, they start to clap, unafraid of startling him with their unannounced cheer. I can see his emotion underneath the shock sculpting his features. I’m sure it’s not because he is not used to applause—the military, communities, businesses, even my own little college have honored him so many times before. For his service, his philanthropy, his career. But it’s clear he never dreamed anyone would applaud him for this, not for what he has done, but for who he is.

“They all wanted to be here once they heard,” Doctor Helen says. “Especially Old Morse.”

At the mention of his name, the wispy man shuffles forward, hunched and quivery, looking up at Aiden with a wizened smile. “Well, well, well, Master Aiden.” He takes out a weathered chess piece from his lab coat pocket, and I see it’s a birchwood, scuffed-up king. “I know you remember this.”

The memories deepen in Aiden’s eyes as he reaches for the scruffy figure. “From your old chess set, the first game we played.”

“Yes, you brought your own after that—a beautiful one, it was too. But this kept you still that first day, didn’t it? Even if I lost every game to a seven-year-old.”

And now I know how this Mr. Plemmons got the little boy to sit for all the electrodes. “I don’t think it was the king, Morse,” Aiden answers. “It might have been the hands that moved it.” He grasps the frail hand gingerly so he doesn’t bruise it with his strength.

The old man’s eyes—watery with age—crinkle at the corners. “Well, you’re certainly still at last.” And he rests the war-torn king on Aiden’s palm.

“Thank you,” Aiden tells him. “And not just for the games.”

“Don’t be a stranger now. I have to get to know this lovely lady before I pop my cogs.” Old Morse grins at me, patting Master Aiden’s elbow, and bobs away.

Carefully, Aiden tucks the old king in his shirt pocket with the image of his new mind. It reminds me of the paper clues he placed there when we were at Chatsworth during our treasure hunt. Except this one is a boutonniere of healing.

Doctor Helen pats his arm lightly. “Go on. You have a lot to celebrate, not the least of which is Elisa’s promotion.”

“Promotion?” Aiden’s eyes flash at me in confusion. “What promotion?”

It takes me a moment to remember life before healing, and what she means. “Oh, right, I forgot! I’ll tell you later. It’s not really a promotion.”

“Well, I think it will be,” Doctor Helen counters. “Come by the house after you’ve settled. We can raise a toast to everything and Aiden can tell me how he really feels about that video. I don’t think I’ve heard the last of it.”

It hits me then. There is a life ahead. We can talk about the future without terror. We can choose. We can make plans.

The realization shoots through me like bravery. I throw my arms around Doctor Helen’s waist like I would have never dared without the protein. “Thank you. Don’t worry about the video. We love you.”

One of the roses nudges my head as she hugs me back. Her rare, voluminous laugh follows us into the lift with the neuroscientists’ handshakes and Old Morse’s wave.

As soon as the lift doors close behind us, Aiden takes me in his arms, tipping up my chin.

“What promotion?” he asks again. “What did I miss?”

All the worry about telling him about Graham is gone now, as if his healing cured every fear that ever existed. “Well, as I said, it’s not a promotion at all; it’s a recommendation. Graham decided he needs some leave to recover from the mess with the monster, which will be good for him, so he recommended me as temporary manager of Bia until he returns. Oh, and he gave me this sweet note my dad had written to him for his first experiment. That’s what helped me solve the protein.”

As I thought, the news of me without Graham doesn’t worry Aiden now. For the first time since before the monster struck, Aiden’s lips lift into my favorite, lopsided smile. More dazzling than I’ve ever seen it, the dimple finally glitters on his cheek. Like a star that had imploded has reformed to glow in this new universe just for Aiden and me.

Softly, his hands cradle my face. “You solved bravery all on your own. And there is nothing temporary about you. You are timeless in every way.”

Time . . . less.  The word rings defiantly against our old enemy, triumphant at last. I try to think of something witty to say back, but I can’t. My mind is so full of him, there isn’t room for anything else.

“When will you see that?” He caresses my cheek, not releasing my stare.

It takes me the rest of the lift ride to unscramble my brain, but he waits, seeming happy to just look at me. “Umm, when you see that you won all on your own,” I answer. “Which will be in a few minutes.”

He chuckles like he used to, with a free, deep sound. I get lost in the music, more beautiful than Für Elise. “How about congratulations first? Because I’m sure you will be the next manager of Bia. You can do anything.”

But do I want to manage Bia? Now that we have horizons of possibilities, that a whole new world is ours—without deadlines, ghosts, wars, ICE, or reels—what do I want to be?

“We’ll see. Right now, I only want to think about us.”

His eyes smolder with that my-all look that has kept me alive these last twenty-four hours. “Us,” he agrees, taking my hand and we step out into the lobby.

A few researchers have arrived despite the early Saturday morning, zooming around with their white coats like paper planes. Aiden freezes out of habit, scanning the space, his body reacting faster than his mind after decades of razor vigilance. Tension ripples over him with instinctive guard—not for himself, for others. But it only takes a moment.

Then I watch with a trembling heart as his mind catches up, his memory firing the truth to him: there is no danger here, you are healed. I can see it all on his clenched jaw as it softens, in his eyes as they lighten, gazing at the white hall before him. Just regular walls and ceilings and people he can no longer hurt. And that set of double doors like pearly gates, waiting to open into the new world.

“Come,” I whisper, squeezing his hand. “You’re ready.”

He looks at our joined hands, and his fingers tighten around mine. “We are.”

And we step out of the lift, weaving, half-tense, half-awed through the scientists. Each time one passes by us, a new lightning bolt of tension strikes through Aiden’s shoulders. And each time, I see him overcome it. Step by step, inch by inch. I rest my head on his bicep to add my calm as always. He pulls me close, kissing my hair, but I know it’s not because he needs me for this. He wants me. And because of that, this simple touch—just his arm around my waist, the slight pressure of his lips—means so much more.

In a few small steps—but so big for us—we reach the double doors. Instantly, Aiden’s old neurons command him to stop, let me go through first, safe from him. But that is not our life anymore.

“You first,” I tell him.

He hesitates, muscles flexing automatically against the idea, coiling with the instinct to protect me from himself. I kiss his granite bicep and wait, not caring who else needs to come and go. But his impossible mind doesn’t take long. New, healed neurons fire again, overruling the fear pathways. Aiden straightens his shoulders and grips the steel door handle. Such an ordinary gesture for others, so extraordinary for him. With a deep breath, Aiden opens the door. The morning breeze blows in, smelling of linden and clover. I smile secretly to myself. Linden, the tree of Aphrodite, symbol of love and fidelity. And a little bit of luck for his first breath outside.

The breeze dances again, caressing his face.

“It’s time, love. You’ve earned it.” I nudge the small of his back gently.

He looks around at the clinical building that has dissected, scanned, and imprisoned him over the years. Memories darken his eyes again, but only for a heartbeat. Then he turns his back on the sterile walls and his foot slides forward. Yet something about the motion must not satisfy him because he pauses and turns to me. The brilliant, dimpled smile bursts over his face like sunrise over the horizon.

“I like it better with you,” he says. And before I can blink, he sweeps me his arms, carrying us across the threshold on the same step.

I laugh, winding my arms around his neck and kissing his scar. “And what now?”

“Now this,” he answers, and brings his mouth to mine. Kissing me right here in front of the door, as deeply and slowly as though we are alone.

In the last wisp of thought, I remember something he told me long ago, on his bed in Portland, when he was so torn between loving me and letting me go. What do you want? I had asked him. His eyes stilled then, became translucent with dreams, with all the things he couldn’t have. Kiss you in broad daylight, he had answered, not caring who is around us.

So I kiss him back hard, right here on the threshold of our new life. If anyone is waiting or tsking or laughing or clearing their throat, I don’t know it. The only thing that exists for me is making his dreams true, giving him everything he can finally have.

He started this kiss, and he has to end it. There is no question of me breaking away. He pulls back to look at me, his eyes exultant. But underneath the victory is a deep love, mirroring my own.

“It’s real,” I tell him, like I promised.

He smiles with the dimple. “You’ll have to tell me at least another million times.”

“That suits me.” I reach closer and bring my mouth to his ear. “It’s real, it’s real, it’s real.”

His chuckle caresses my temple and flurries in my hair. He steps away from the door, still carrying me in his arms. As we pass, his shoulder brushes the steel frame one last time. Goodbye.©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 40 – CLOSE

Happy Monday, friends (and Happy May)! Here’s a little something to help with those Monday blues: a new chapter. Hope you all love it as much I enjoyed writing it. My favorite part of it: H-o-p-e. Song: Moonlight Sonata. Favorite line (some of you ask about this?): “We just keep our hearts beating, lights in the darkness, always reaching for hope.” Lots of love, Ani

40

Close

I take Marshall’s gift from Aiden’s hand as if it’s also a gift to me. Almost as precious as the PEAC diamonds chiming on my wrist. And as mysterious as my tomorrow present waiting under Aphrodite’s branches. The wrapping newspaper under my fingertips is an internet print-out of The New York Times, dated February 10, 2001.

“It’s the day he met Jasmine,” Aiden explains, his voice flowing despite the resistant pause that usually stilts his speech when he talks about this. “I thought about picking the date I met him or his birthday but you were right: he really wanted to come home that Christmas for her. She was his greatest love.”

Marshall’s words from the video ring with sharp clarity in my ears, like he is standing right next to us. Gotta keep my balls in shape for Jasmine, man. Maybe this FUBAR war will end and I’ll see her for Christmas. And vividly, as though she is sitting here under the rose tree too, the beautiful Black girl on the photo is laughing as if she can hear him.

“It’s a perfect day to pick for his present. Although now I’m thinking we should also have a little gift for Jasmine.”

He smiles. “Of course you do, but this is technically for both of them so you have nothing to worry about.”

“Oh!” I quip, intrigued, loving the present even more. Carefully, so I don’t tear the newspaper, I peel it back and tuck their love in Aphrodite’s branches with the rest of our gallery. The love that, in its own way, was a genesis for ours. Then in my hand is a neatly rolled stack of papers. I flatten it out, expecting his assertive handwriting, but my breath stops at the bold, typed words across the top:

JJ Marshall Trust

In honor of a brother and his love

And right below it, in legalese, there are several paragraphs outlining the articles of incorporation.

“JJ Marshall Trust?” I whisper, looking up at Aiden in wonder.

“Jasmine and Jacob Marshall. It’s a nonprofit I asked Bob to establish today for a scholarship fund.”

“Wow . . . A scholarship fund for veterans?”

He shakes his head. “No, I didn’t want any part of this tainted with war. You were right, he deserves something positive. So this is for something they both loved . . . children.”

“Oh!” I gasp, my throat thickening with the beauty of the gift as I read through the fine print. It’s nation-wide in the United States, with special focus on students with diverse backgrounds. “Aiden, this is amazing. I can’t imagine a more meaningful way to honor him. I’m sure he would have loved it.”

He nods, staring thoughtfully at the bold names. “I think Jasmine will like it too. They wanted at least six kids, if you can believe it.”

At least six. Like me when I first realized I wanted a family of my own with Aiden, the night of our I-love-you dinner. “I can definitely believe it. They were obviously mad for each other.”

He chuckles again, though it’s a first when talking about his lost brother. How far he has come from the man who could barely say Marshall’s name when we first met!

“Mad? He was possessed, Elisa. I had never seen anything like it. And at first, I kept praying: God, please, whatever else you take from me, save my head so I don’t ever lose it like this. And then what do you know? I lost it after you and I hadn’t even met you yet. I make Marshall seem downright sane. If he only saw me now, wearing bracelets, talking to roses, and making purple flames.”

I laugh at the look of only semi-mock horror on his face. “What do you think he would say?”

“Storm, you finally got your period,” he answers without hesitation, his voice a perfect imitation of Marshall’s Southern drawl that only makes me laugh harder.

“And buy you a box of tampons at the Baharia mart.” The words trigger instantly and vividly in my brain.

Outside of my laughter, I become aware of a very deep silence. Then our little snow globe freezes in a blink.

Aiden’s smile dies on his lips, and his eyes lock on me, wide with disbelief. In the same breath, I realize what just happened. What my memory played out loud. The exact words Marshall said to Aiden in that Fallujah tent. The words no amount of research could have ever given me. The words I could only know because of one thing: the video.

Terror strikes through me, raw and visceral, just as the question fires from Aiden’s lips.

“What did you say?” he breathes.

Blood rushes to my feet so fast, I feel dizzy. My stomach heaves. I can see my own blanched skin down to my fingertips. And my hands start trembling under his clear, unerring eyes that can see everything. I scramble frantically for a single word or even sound, but I’m entirely frozen. Throat closed, tongue glued to the roof of my mouth. What do I do? Do I run? Do I call Doctor Helen to warn her? Do I—what can I say? How?

“Elisa, what did you just say?” he repeats, his voice harder.

“Ah, umm—” I try to swallow for more time, more ideas, or just some volume, but I can’t hear my voice over my pulse pounding my eardrums. “S-something Marshall might say?” I think I whisper.

“No,” he counters firmly; him I can apparently hear. “It’s not something he might say. It’s something he actually said.”

“I’m . . . s-sorry . . . Aiden . . . I didn’t . . . mean—”

How do you know those words, Elisa?” he interrupts my useless fumbling, his razor gaze leaving no room for excuses of any kind even if I could find them. “I’ve never told you about Baharia Mart. And before you say Cal has, he was not there when Marshall said he’d buy tampons for Morton who bailed that night. It was only Marshall and me in the tent—no one—” He cuts off with a strangled gasp. Abruptly, all color drains from his face. His eyes darken with dread, so deep and staggering that he shuts them as though he is seeing death itself. “The camera!” He chokes in a voice from the grave. “Marshall was wearing a camera that morning.”

It took him five seconds. Only five seconds to destroy all his rest, all the momentary peace the truth gave him. If I could move, I’d rip out my own tongue, and my heart too. Bile burns in my throat like acid.

“The river,” he continues to himself in horror. “The chalk rose on the blackboard, the market, the truck, the song . . .” His eyes flash open on me, haunted like nothing I have ever seen. “You’ve seen the footage of that day,” he whispers, ashen, his tone like a last breath that pierces through me with its harrowing agony.

That’s all it takes. At the tortured sound, instantly my tongue releases. “No, love, no—not the whole thing!” I blubber urgently before his own imagination kills him worse than the truth. “I didn’t see the parts you’re dreading—just the beginning. I’m completely fine, I promise.”

At my confirmation, terror throttles his eyes, more scorching than during the reel. All life seems to drain out of him. He can’t breathe. He doesn’t seem able to move or speak. He just stares at me with horror-struck eyes, carved into a sculpture of dread, except a slight tremor in his lips as though he is trying to mouth my name without sound.

E—li—sa . . .

“Aiden, love? Please listen to me.” I shake his arm, blowing on his lips as he does with me, but he doesn’t even blink. “I swear on us and on my parents’ memory that I’m okay. I was under the protein the whole time. Fear couldn’t touch me at all. Remember how strong I was yesterday?”

It’s like I haven’t spoken. He still doesn’t blink or speak. Not a single lash thaws out of his horrified stance. Torn shreds of air are ripping from his chest. Quickly, I take his ashy face in my hands. “Please, sweetheart, listen to my voice,” I beg. “I truly am alright. The protein took care of me, as did Marshall and the video itself. Most of it was through a really grimy screen—I could barely see anything. Please believe me!” My voice cracks at the torment in his expression but, thankfully, the sound seems to finally reach him. He blinks then, and his hands come around my face, gentle as though he thinks I’m breaking.

Alright?” He rasps the word as though he has never heard it before, as though he has no idea what it could mean.

I almost collapse in relief despite the panic still suffocating him. “Yes, love, I’m completely fine,” I reassure him again, trying to soften his petrified jaw. “Here, just look at me and you’ll see.”

“H-how?” he chokes, his fingers shaking on my cheek. “How—could—you—be—fine?”

“Shh, I am, because I was right about this part. Without that initial fear taking hold, it’s not a memory of terror at all. The protein immunized me from the subsequent trauma, just as I thought. I give you my word.”

“But the protein doesn’t immunize you from pain, Elisa!”

And there it is—the reason behind all his dread. He winces, and a long shudder ripples through him as he utters the word.

“No, love, but it doesn’t cancel all the good, happy emotions either,” I answer, choosing my words more carefully about this than anything else. “You know that brave love I tried to explain in my letter?” I pause, caressing his face, waiting for his mind to take him into a positive moment. But he’s too terrified to do anything but watch me in horror. “Okay, well, that super-love was flooding my system the entire time. It was—still is—the most powerful thing I have ever felt. And because of that, it softened the pain. Like a shield or the aloe balm on your blisters.”

His agonized expression morphs to heavy doubt. “How is that possible? It didn’t do that to me.”

Of course it didn’t, but now is not the time to explain everything. “You and I had different experiences, love. And I don’t have your memory or your mind.”

“But you still feel pain! You feel it deeply. I’ve seen what the reel does to you, and that’s just snapshots you witness through me. Now you’ve watched the actual events, almost live.” He flinches again, and another shudder runs through him, rocking me along.

“No, love, they’re not even comparable. The reel was different for me. It didn’t help me find the truth, like the video did. This time I was able to save you. And that made all the pain worth it.”

But it’s like he only hears that one word: p-a-i-n. So quickly I can’t catch my breath, terror changes into fury in his eyes—the kind of fury I have only ever seen once: when Edison slapped and tried to poison me.

Who did this to you?” he demands in a low, deadly voice, dropping my hands off his face, while his own close into fists. His body flexes into a lethal blade. In a blink, he transforms into the Marine who ripped apart fully grown monsters, limb from limb.

“No one!” I blurt out quickly, tripping over my words. “I did it to myself. It was my choice, nobody—”

“Who—gave—you—that—video—Elisa?” he hisses, but then his teeth clench with an audible snap. “Helen!” he snarls between them while my heart drops through the soles of my feet. It’s over, the planet is done, he knows everything. Rage darkens his face like Fallujah’s smoke clouds as he glares through the window to wherever the poor doctor is. “She’s the only link,” he seethes. “And she could only get it from the General, but how the fuck did she know about it? From Cal and the others,” he answers his own question in the same breath, so rapidly, I can barely follow the words firing like bullets from his lips. “She asked them for information, and they connected her to General Sartain. He sent it to her under the DIA’s non-disclosure agreement, which she breached. But why would she take such a risk? The protein. To test that it really worked. Is that it? Is that it, Elisa?” The sniper eyes zoom on me, wrathful and lethal.

It takes my brain almost an entire Christmas carol stanza to catch up to his speed, let alone to figure out what to say or how to lie under the furious gaze that might incinerate to dust Doctor Helen’s lab, the DIA, and the Marines through the thousands of miles right now.

“It was all my fault,” I confess as soon as I can speak. There is no other way; he has solved all of it. How the bloody hell did I ever think I could fool him even with the protein? “I forced her to show me. She tried to warn me a million times, but I wouldn’t listen. If you’ll be angry with anyone, please be angry with me.”

On one hand, I’ve stunned him so motionless he can’t leave . . . yet. On the other, his fury seems to climb an even higher peak.

“With you?” he growls. Where his breath was gone, now it’s coming out in irate gusts of air. “How the fuck could you have possibly forced her, hmm? Did you put a gun to her fucking head?”

“No, but—”

“Did you threaten her fucking family?”

“No—”

“Then tell me exactly how you forced a woman of her status and stature into traumatizing you against her free will!”  He fumes through his teeth, no doubt trying not to roar.

“I’m not traumatized,” I argue, trying to take his fist but he rips it away so I clutch his arm instead. “And I threatened to take the protein on my own if she didn’t help me, that’s how—”

But he cuts me off again. “Why the fuck did she have to tell you about it in the first place when you were under the influence of a potent hormone mix? Why was it so necessary that the protein be tested with the worst of humanity possible?”

“Because that’s exactly what the protein was made for.” I try to keep my voice calm through my own panic, but it almost breaks into a wail. “It’s not meant for typical fears we can overcome on our own. Aiden, please, Doctor Helen took care of me! She adjusted the sound and speed and monitored all my life signs. We owe her for taking so many risks to help me do it safely. To help us.”

Except I have only made things worse. “We owe her?” His icy voice slices through his teeth like knives. “We oweher for exposing you to footage so traumatic that even the top brass of the United States military couldn’t watch it without a break, that my entire squad is unable to even hear about? We fucking owe her?” His volume thunders on those last words, breaking through whatever leash he had on his control and echoing around the cottage.

“Aiden, calm down! Of course, we owe her! Think where I’d have been without her if—”

But his expression becomes so livid at my words that I break off mid-sentence. “I’ll tell you exactly where you would have been, Elisa!” The words explode out of him like grenades. “If she had used her fucking brain for which I have paid her millions, she should have said no like a fucking adult and should have tested that shit on ME directly. Not you! And then you could have just waited, safe and sound, your biggest worry just your imagination. Instead, on top of everything you’ve had to live through, now you’re going to have the most inhumane, sick shit inside your head for the rest of your life!”

“Aiden, no—” I start but his roar drowns my reply.

“FUCK!”

And before I can reach for him, he whips around, storming out of the room.

“Aiden!” I shriek, scrambling to my feet, terrified he is raging straight to Doctor Helen’s house but then I hear the half-loo door slam so hard, all the twinkly lights and frames tremble and dip. I sprint after him anyway, hovering outside the closed door to listen. But the only sound is the faucet running at full pressure. At least there’s nothing breaking, like the mirror or a wall. I start pacing the foyer, trying to think through the panic. What on earth have I done? How could I have been so careless? Except I know that wasn’t the reason. I know exactly what happened to my brain despite my vigilance; I am just new at this power. I had no idea it could do this to me. Not that it changes anything—he is still hurting because of me. And Doctor Helen is still in trouble. How do I calm him down? Where do we go from here? How do I help him?

I wear a path on the floorboards, waiting and waiting . . .

He comes out after seventy-two periodic tables, the collar of his T-shirt soaked, hair drenched, mopping his neck with a towel. Clearly, he must have been holding his head under cold water to reset his sympathetic system. But at least the fury has cooled too, softened with worry now. An unintelligible cry of relief breaks out of my teeth, and I run straight into him.

“Oh, Aiden!” I sob, kissing his chest, running my hands over his cool face to make sure he is okay.

He folds me in his arms, pulling me closer. His heart is hammering loudly in my ear, as frantic as mine. “Shh, I’m okay,” he says, his voice still rough. “I’m sorry I got so enraged. This shouldn’t be about my anger. It’s about what you lived through and how I can help you. I fucked up.”

“No, you didn’t. This is about you feeling whatever you need to feel. Of course you’re angry. You’re only trying to protect me. I’m the one who should apologize.”

His finger comes under my chin, and he lifts my face to look at me. I can see his natural objection to me feeling guilty about anything, but he resists it, no doubt sensing my need. “What do you want to apologize for?” he frowns. “I don’t blame you for watching the video. I know why you did it.”

“I’m not sorry I watched it, but I am sorry for hiding the truth from you. For thinking I should keep this a secret in the first place. And for ruining your first day of freedom and our embargo.”

He shakes his head. “You’ve ruined nothing. And of course I want you to tell me everything, but with the way I react, how can I expect you not to hide something like this from me?”

I should have known he’d blame himself even when I deserve it. “No, love, I didn’t hide it from you because I’m afraid of you. I kept it from you because I don’t want to cause you any more pain.”

His eyes soften even with all the torment underneath. “I know, but it’s your pain I’m worried about, not mine. Come, tell me everything. I promise not to get angry this time. Or at least not so completely unhinged.”

“You’re not unhinged. Although I am worried about Doctor Helen and her whole building.”

He sighs, jaw still tensing at her name. “I’m sure after I’ve had a few years to calm down, I will agree that you’re right. But now, you are all I care about.” He sets down the towel and swoops me in his arms, carrying me back to the sofa in our Christmas snow globe as though he doesn’t think I should walk one more step until he takes care of me. Then he wraps my new favorite blanket around me—the one handknitted by our families with our initials—and drapes me on his lap, exactly where I want to be.

“Let’s start over,” he murmurs, kissing my temple and making the world glow again. “Talk to me. How far did you see? The whole truth without worrying about my feelings. Let’s do this as a team.”

T-e-a-m. The word sings in the air, more beautiful than the Christmas carols. Even if we only have it for one more day. I silence the thought immediately and cuddle closer, burying my face in his neck, inhaling his Aiden-and-sandalwood scent. And then I begin.

“The whole truth: I didn’t see as far as I wanted to see at the time, but I’m glad it ended when it did. I don’t know how much the General has told you about the video, but Marshall ripped off the camera before the . . . the worst parts.”

It’s obvious he didn’t know this because his breath catches and his arms tighten around me.

“He did?”

“Yes, and I think he did it to protect all of you and his family.”

He doesn’t speak right away. His heart is bombing his chest like a distant echo of the IEDs. Lightly, I trace my fingertips down the column of his throat. My whole life flowing right here in this vein. As though he feels the same, he buries his nose in my hair, breathing me in.

“I think you’re right,” he says after a moment. “It’s the kind of thing he would have done.”

“I know this sounds weird and might upset you, but you asked how I feel. I’m so glad I finally met Marshall even in this way. From the very first time you told me his name, I had wanted to meet him. And he was everything I knew your best brother would be. Loving, loyal, brave, noble, strong—just like you.”

I half-expect him to argue with those last three words, and perhaps on another day he would. But now he kisses my hair again and hugs me closer. “He would have loved meeting you too. As you probably heard in the tent, he was fixated with the woman in my letters.”

Despite everything, I smile at the sharp, clear memory, just as I did in that moment. “That part was funny, with the lion and the gazelle and the Jergens. Which letter were you writing by the way?” The question bursts out freely now that I get to ask it. Another gift I never expected today. How can something that scorched me to ash feel so dear? How can it knit us together like we are spun from each other’s soul yarn?

He chuckles softly too as he did in the tent. “The one about my first actual dream of you.” His piano voice croons the words he was writing in my ear. “Last night, I dreamt of you. You were just a light in the dark, floating closer with my breath. I tried so desperately to see your face, but it was like looking into a rising sun. Then you leaned so close and whispered, I am real.” His breath sends whispers of electricity over my own skin.

“I really love that one.”

“I’ll recite it to you later.”

Later? So more embargo? “Promise?”

“I promise.” He doesn’t rush me but I know he is still waiting to hear how much of the horror I saw, how much pain did I feel.

“I was with you and Marshall all through the pipes, the schoolyard, up to the classroom—”

He shudders and tenses, all his breath stopping again. He cannot seem to draw air until he buries his nose in my hair for oxygen like I do with him. But for once, we are both reliving the exact slice of the past, with the same vibrancy, clarity, and intensity. I finally can now. Truly, impossibly, I can see this pivotal point in his life the same as he does.

“You saw everything,” he murmurs when he can speak, his arms like ramparts around me. “The bombs, the . . . the kids—”

“Very little of the kids,” I interrupt in a whisper so my voice doesn’t shake at the crystalline memory. “The camera got smokey and grimy after the IED. But I also saw you. Your strength, your courage, how you led your men, how you saved them. And even there you managed to keep me safe because I kept my eyes on you as much as possible.”

He still hasn’t relaxed. He pours light kisses on my hair, rubbing gentle circles on my shoulder. “You must have been hurting so much . . .”

Lightly, even if it will scorch me later, I press my lips at the rapid pulse on his neck. Ah, the silk of his skin, the fragrant warmth, my home. “You cannot save me from all pain, love. It’s part of life, and you would never want me not to live it.”

His hand curves around my face, angling it up at him. “I know I can’t prevent all pain no matter how much I want to. Loss, illness, grief—those are hard, natural pains we are born to face. But not this, Elisa, not . . . torture.” He flinches at the word, his body cold stone around me.

“I didn’t see the torture, I meant that. The video ends a couple of minutes after you regained consciousness.”

That derails him. His gasp washes over my lips, and his eyes freeze, as though another big bang is about to implode this new world that has barely just reformed.

“You were able to see what happened to me in those few minutes?” he mouths as though his voice has vanished too.

I nod, caressing his scar, blinking past the crimson filter that my memory of his blood is burning me with now. He doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t breathe. His heart is thrashing next to mine. I know he knows his own physical wounds better than anyone—every bruise, every cut. But what do we fear more: the known or the unknown?

I place my hand on his heart. “Don’t be afraid. It was all with dignity.”

He watches me with those newborn eyes. “When you say dignity . . .?”

“I mean none of it would change your soul if you knew. And none of it changed the way I see you. If anything, it made me love and admire you even more, and I didn’t think that was possible.”

He still hasn’t drawn a breath. “And Marshall? Could you see what they did to him during that time?”

I run my fingers over his taut shoulders that were bound with chains. “Not much, love—the camera pointed away from him. I could hear you both though, and could see his boots and the blood, but definitely not the worst parts. I promise you—this is everything.”

Torment still ravages his expression, but I know he sees the truth. I know because he draws the first real breath since he learned about the video. Then a filter I didn’t know existed seems to clear from his eyes. Now that it leaves the sapphire depths, I realize the anguish it used to add. What was it? A deep-buried fear of the only minutes he cannot remember? Or his fear for me? Whatever it was, the tension softens at last and he almost sinks in profound relief.

“Thank God, Elisa!” he says fervently, taking both my hands inside his own, his head bowing like in a prayer. “Thank God. Thank Marshall for ripping off the camera when he did, thank your father for the protein, thank every power up above that this is all you saw, even if it’s still too much.” He kisses my fingertips one by one like rosaries, shooting quivers of life up my spine.

I cup my hands around his face, lifting it so he can see me for the most important part. “No, it was exactly right. And that’s what made the video so different from the reel. Because it had moments of laughter and love. I got to see you whole and free. That’s what that video will always be for me: a memory of love first and foremost, a memory that binds us in ways I didn’t even know were possible. I wouldn’t trade a single minute I watched for an entire lifetime of peace, especially not the last few seconds.”

He has inhaled every word, but he frowns at that final part. “The last few seconds?”

I nod, stroking his cheek. “I will never tell you to watch that video, but I do think at some point, you should hearthe last five seconds.”

His breath seems to suspend again. “Why?”

“Because there is something there that will be very good for your heart.”

He swallows, his Aiden’s apple jolting with the hard movement. “Is it something Marshall says?” he guesses.

“Yes, it’s something meant for you alone.”

He hesitates for a moment. “If it was good, the General would have told me.”

“Assuming he heard it—it’s very low. And even if he could, would you have been ready to hear it back then?”

The question hangs between our mouths for a long moment. Then he shakes his head, eyes drifting beyond the room, into the purple and sapphire flames in the fireplace. I give him the time he needs, curling back in his chest, noticing an easier air flow in my lungs. Like the secret of the video between us was lodged in my throat like a bone, choking me until now. Doctor Helen was right. How did I ever imagine I’d be able to keep this hidden from him? How was I going to live without the way it just united us even here at the end? As though my eyes are his eyes, my memory is his memory even if for a fragment in time. The most crucial one. It’s better than closeness—it’s sameness. And, despite the terror and agony of the video, a deep sense of gratitude overpowers me. Because some gifts are not beautiful like diamonds; they are harrowing, ugly visions that let us save someone we love.

“Where is the video now?” Aiden asks after a while; the colorful flames are burning lower in orange embers.

“I assume Doctor Helen’s office, but I’m not sure. Why?”

He doesn’t answer but reaches for his phone on the table, still holding me on his lap.

“Aiden, what—?” I start, but he is already tapping the screen. Pink Martini stop singing about a little drummer boy, and a ring starts echoing as he brings the phone to his ear. Then a sonorous, male voice answers the call.

“Lieutenant?”

Just one ponderous word, but I know immediately who it must be. I have to stifle a gasp in my palm as I listen in awed disbelief.

“General,” Aiden replies, his eyes deepening with all the memories this giant of a figure must hold for him. “My apologies—”

“Never needed, Lieutenant. I’m sure I’ve told you that a hundred times.” Despite the godlike timbre that is making me shake in my fluffy blanket, General Sartain’s care for Aiden becomes instantly obvious even through the muffled static.

“Only seventy-one, sir,” Aiden responds with similar affection.

A growl on the other line that may or may not be a chuckle. “Are you alright, son—after everything you learned?”

Son. The word seems to have an effect on Aiden because some of the heaviness lifts from his eyes. “I am, sir, thank you.”

“Did you speak with Callahan, Hendrix, and Jazzman?”

“Not yet; they’re still at work.”

“And Elisa—how is she holding up?”

The sound of my name in the stentorian voice startles me, but it has the opposite impact on Aiden. His posture softens, and my peaceful turquoise lightens his gaze as he looks at me.

“Better than all of us combined,” he answers in a proud tone that makes me flush all way to my hairline.

“Women usually do, Lieutenant. I hope you’re giving thanks to the Virgin Mary every night.”

“Celebrating the birth of Jesus as we speak, sir.”

I would laugh if I wasn’t a coil of nerves, but the General has no idea how literal Aiden’s words are. “As you should, Lieutenant. I’d be celebrating Baby Jesus every day if I were you too. Now what can I do for you?”

Aiden’s eyes never leave mine as he responds. “Do you remember the video, General?”

His question drops like a bomb into the abrupt silence. The powerful general falls quiet. Aiden’s heartbeat slows down. And my breath stops completely even though I guessed this was the reason for the call. Not because I disagree. But I still don’t want him to suffer one more second of pain.

The General recovers first. “I do remember it, Lieutenant. Why do you ask?” His weighty voice sounds cautious. Is he worrying about Aiden like I am? Or wondering about Doctor Helen?

Aiden is still watching me. “Because it’s time, sir.”

At his answer, despite my own panic, I feel a sense of profound pride, so consuming that it silences even the hardest four letters of them all. T-i-m-e.

I love you, I mouth to him.

His thumb draws an infinity loop on the back of my hand. Always, he is saying.

On the phone, the General seems to be reflecting. “I didn’t think I’d ever get this call from you, Lieutenant,” he rumbles after a moment, still pensive.

“That makes two of us, General.”

“Is this some wizard’s idea?”

A wizard? What does that mean?

“No shrinks for this one. This is all Elisa,” Aiden translates for me, and I’m glad he is protecting Doctor Helen despite his fury at her. Of course he is. Thank you, I mouth again, and he nods with a half-smile.

A low chuckle from the General surprises me—the sound is more relaxed, almost at ease. “She really is very good for you, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir, she is,” Aiden answers, never looking away from me.

“Is she awake? Would you be willing to introduce us?”

The booming question stuns us both. My mouth pops open and Aiden’s eyes widen into perfectly round blue pools of astonishment. He brings his phone in front of his face, staring at it as though he is not quite sure it made a sound.

“You . . . what?” he checks while my nerves start fraying at the idea of speaking to a general at the highest rank of the U.S. military. What the bloody hell do I say?

“Lower your rifle, Lieutenant, I’ll behave. I still want to retire with Gwen next month, preferably with my seventy-five-year-old dick intact.” He laughs mightily.

“Glad to hear your dick is still STRAC, General,” Aiden hedges, no doubt to buy me some time, whatever STRAC means. “That certainly gives me some leverage. Let me see if she’s done working. She was testing something called NPY/AGRP,” he quotes the paper I wrote with my dad so fluidly, it’s impossible to detect the lie, and mutes the line in the middle of General’s thunderous laugh.

“Hey,” he whispers, brushing my cheek. “Do you want to talk to him? Don’t feel pressured to say yes.” He tucks a lock of my hair behind my ear, searching my eyes in worry. But somewhere between the General’s laughter and their familiar dick jokes—so similar to James—things changed for me. Abruptly, speaking to the man who saved Aiden more than once seems natural, right even. Not to mention everything I owe to the General myself.

“Aiden, I would love to talk to him. He is one of the most important figures in your life.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I am. But do you want us to meet . . .?” My voice trails off as if to silence the hardest part I cannot speak. Do you want us to meet now at our end? But perhaps he hears it anyway because he pulls me closer.

“I do,” he answers without a shadow of doubt in his voice. Perhaps he is still doing selfish things—I hope he is. That’s the only thought I need. I take his free hand and bring it to my lips.

“Well then,” I say like always. “Let’s talk to the General.”

The new smile tugs at the corner of his mouth, his arm covering me like a shield. “I’ll be right here,” he murmurs in reassurance.  If only for forever, I think, but thankfully he is already unmuting the phone before he can see the unspoken words, and their corresponding pain, on my face. “Okay, General, we’re both here. I’ll put you on speaker.” He taps the screen again and introduces us. “Elisa, this is General Sartain. General, this is Elisa Snow.” His voice saturates with so much pride, he sounds like he is introducing Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war.

“Hello, General. Nice to meet you,” I squeak, my stomach churning despite the soothing circles Aiden’s hand is drawing at the small of my back.

“Well, hello, Elisa,” the General booms, and I have to resist the urge to stand and salute the voice of God reverberating through the cottage. “It’s a pleasure meeting you too. And you can call me just Jack.”

Aiden’s jaw drops. “What?” he gasps at the phone, his beautiful mouth falling open into such a shocked, bewildered expression that I start laughing. Clearly, he has never heard these words from the General before.

“I’m not talking to you, Lieutenant. I’m talking to this lovely lady with the British accent.”

“As Jack?” Aiden is still gaping at the phone. “The name that even President Carter couldn’t use?”

“Was President Carter a loving young woman who could put up with people like you and me, Lieutenant?”

Aiden stares at the phone as though the General is climbing out of it. “No, sir?” The answer comes out like a bewildered question.

“What about Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Baby Bush, and Obama—any of them had tits? Sorry, Elisa,” he apologizes, but all I can let out is more stifled giggles.

“Not to my knowledge, sir,” Aiden responds, too stunned still.

“That’s correct, Lieutenant. If they had had tits, maybe the world wouldn’t be the shitshow that it is. Therefore, I’m just Jack to this young lady, and General Sartain to all dicks. Sorry again, Elisa.”

“No problem, Just Jack. I’ve heard worse.” I laugh while Aiden shakes his head, mouthing unbelievable, except his eyes are light now, the way they were when I met his parents.

“I’m sure you have. Now, that Marine of yours tells me you helped him figure out the mess in Fallujah. I owe you my thanks. Our boys deserve the truth about what happened out there.”

“Aiden figured it out all on his own, while asleep no less. And I’m the one who needs to thank you. For Aiden and also for saving Javier and my entire family. I don’t know how I can ever repay you, General Jack, but I will be forever grateful.”

“Oh, that was the right thing to do, but if you want, you can easily repay me by trying to keep our Lieutenant from being his own worst enemy. Do you know what we do with our worst enemies, Elisa?” Despite his easy manner with me, in his voice, the question sounds so imposing that I can’t help but tense and scramble for the right answer.

“Umm, we keep them close, sir?”

Aiden and the General break into similar chuckles, both deep and masculine, except Aiden’s brushes my cheek, sending warm tingles over my skin.

“That’s correct,” the General approves. “We keep them close, and we use all weapons necessary, including heavy iron pans, so the good side can win.”

I use all my strength to stay only on the present moment—not on the war we have already lost—so I can keep breathing. “Don’t worry, sir. I have an army of roses with very sharp thorns at my disposal.”

“She has a lot more than that,” Aiden adds, staring at my face, his turquoise eyes tender and full of things that a deep, subconscious part of me must understand because I feel abruptly safe, like all is well.

“Of course she does. Now, Elisa, will you do this old man a favor?”

“Sure, Just Jack, what do you need?”

“Will you send me a photo of you and the Lieutenant together so I can show it to my wife? She really wants to see you. I’d ask him but I know he never takes pictures.”

I smile, my throat closing at his words, at how much Aiden has changed this summer. “He does now. How about I send you one that he took—will that be even better?”

The General lets out a commanding chuckle. “More power to you, I guess, but can you make sure it shows your eyes? Gwen can’t believe they’re really purple like Callahan says. And your hair too—she was asking if it was long. In fact, your whole face—”

“Okay, okay,” Aiden decides to intervene. “That’s enough before you ask her about other body parts. We’ll send you a photo and let you get on with your day, General. Tell Gwen I said hi.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Lieutenant. Elisa, wonderful talking to you. If you have trouble with him, call me.”

“I will. Bye, Just Jack.”

“Merry Christmas, General,” Aiden adds, making me laugh again.

“What the fuck are you talking about, Lieutenant? Oh, am I still on speaker?”

Aiden chuckles too and hangs up. Then he takes my face between his hands and kisses my forehead—the spot that belongs only to him.

“Thank you for that. I didn’t realize how much I wanted you to meet him until now.”

I caress his cheek—it’s glowing again with the candlelight filter at the closeness of his lips, his delicious breath. I have to concentrate to think through the beauty stunning my every brain cell. “Me neither. I thought I’d be afraid of him.”

His lips brush along my hairline to my temple. “You’re afraid of nothing.”

“N-not true,” I sigh, my breath trembling from his touch, from the surreal vision the closer he gets to becoming just a dream.

He leans back, still holding my face. I can see his eyes again through the golden shimmer. And he is looking at me like he did upstairs, like our whole life is there in his gaze, from our very first sight to our very last breath. Then the most peculiar expression flickers on him, the way waterfalls might look as they’re about to cascade deep below, powerful and certain that they are not falling, they are simply coming home.

“I love you,” he says before I can find oxygen and, for a moment, I think he wants to say something more, but a ding from his phone breaks through the moment, blasting in like a cold gust of wind. The warm tingles become an icy chill. Because I know without looking what it is. After four thousand four hundred seventy-seven days, Marshall’s farewell is here.

The effect of the chime on Aiden is instant. The tension of desire morphs into a different strain as we both turn to look at the screen. A banner notification is there from the General, no words, just a series of numbers, no doubt some encrypted code.

Slowly, methodically, as if each movement matters, Aiden swipes it away and taps his photo library. It used to be empty when I met him. Now it’s full of photos of me, of every moment in our reel of brilliancy until the end eleven days ago. I don’t allow myself to revisit them or to look at the blank white space that glares at the bottom of the screen.

“Which one would you like to send him?” he asks, scrolling up through the photos as though he can’t bear to see the blank strip either.

I’m about to pick our favorite—his first selfie: us in the field of poppies—but abruptly, I realize that’s not what I want.

“How about us right now?” I suggest, never wanting that white, void space in the end.

He looks at me, considering, his gaze like a spell that heals me immediately without a word or touch even as I have no hope of ever grasping the million things that flash in his depths. But I know this new smile. “Us then. Exactly as we are.”

He snaps our selfie—my pale cheek to his hollowed one, my messy tangles to his wet curls, me in his favorite sweatshirt, he in his damp T-shirt, wrapped in our blanket and surrounded by twinkly lights. But with the same thing as always in our smile: each other. He texts it to the General with one word:

Us

It croons in my head like a soundtrack, like all the other words have become meaningless and silent. Then the screen blinks again with the unread message. And Aiden’s smile vanishes.

“Are you thinking of watching it or just listening to the last part?” I ask.

“I’m not sure yet. I just know I want it done.” An intense yearning blazes in his eyes at that last word. And instantly, his urgency catches in my blood.

“Should we try now?”

He raises an eyebrow. “We nothing, and absolutely not. Nowhere near this cottage. I’ll deal with it later. Now it’s just us.”

An idea strikes me in full form then, a plan that has been brewing since the protein. “Wait here!” I tell him, throwing off the blanket. “I’ll be right back.”

His arms tighten instinctively around me as though he doesn’t want to release me even for a second. “Where are you going?”

“Just in the kitchen. You’ll see.”

He sighs but lets me go with another kiss in my hair. “Slow down,” he calls behind me as I try to sprint on trembling legs.

As soon as he is out of sight, the scalding agony almost buckles my knees. Impossibly, it has grown during our Christmas hours while I’ve been ignoring it, becoming even more excruciating than the video itself. It’s though once we fused back together, each second apart tears out my very flesh. How much worse will it be tomorrow, on September eighteen, for the rest of my days? My hands jerk so much, they rattle all the silverware in the drawer. I shove down these thoughts immediately and try to focus only on my motions and how not to burn the cottage down. Then I tuck everything in the covered picnic basket and storm back to Aiden for oxygen.

But he is already waiting for me in the foyer in a fresh, dry shirt—navy this one, from the laundry closet. He catches me in his arms immediately, seeming to inhale for the first time himself. And instantly, the pain disappears. Not like I’m healed, but like I was never broken in the first place.

“Hi,” I breathe, smiling up at him.

“Hi.” He smiles back. “Are you okay? It sounded like you were attacking the cabinets.”

“Yes, they didn’t want to cooperate but I won.”

“Of course you did. What is the basket for?”

“We’re going for a little excursion, if you feel up to it.”

His thumb brushes my cheek. “The better question is do you feel up to it? You’ve been through hell no matter how much you say you’re fine. Maybe we should stay here and watch Christmas movies with hot chocolate? Would you like that? It’s still embargo after all. We can deal with whatever you have planned tomorrow.”

His sonata voice paints the most beautiful picture—just us and maybe his lips on my temple again. And that siren song: another day. “That’s exactly what I want but when we come back. Please? This won’t violate the rest rules—I think this is important for us too.”

The corner of his mouth pulls up in a smile. “Well, in that case, let’s go now. I’ll just douse the fire first and turn off the lights.”

Of course he remembers safety before I even have to ask. He kisses my forehead again and strides back to the living room. Thankfully, he is back before my chest catches fire.

“Will we need anything else?” he asks, picking up his jacket from the peg.

“Just the car keys. I have everything else I need right here.” My fingers flutter up to his face, tracing the perfectly sculpted angles. He takes my hand and brings it to his lips, kissing the inside of my wrist, right by the diamond E.

“True,” he murmurs against my skin. His nose glides along my lifeline, and his face is candlelit in my vision again. He releases my hand, clueless of this secret, and throws his jacket over my shoulders instead of mum’s parka. I set down my basket and shove my arms eagerly in the too-long sleeves. From his sweatshirt and jacket, I feel bulky, but I wouldn’t shed a single layer. My entire body smells of him.

“I like this.” I grin as he slips my wellies over my feet, also wrapped in his socks. “It reminds me of our first embargo night when we went to the Portland Rose Garden. You bundled me up in all your clothes then too like we were going out in the Arctic tundra.”

His eyes lighten at the memory as he rolls up my sleeves like he did then. “One of my favorites.” He smiles, zipping up my jacket. And then we step out into the breezy night.

Only for me to stagger on the doorstep.

Because the Christmas magic is also here. The garden is not just silver this evening. A warm gold sparks in the air from more starry lights woven around the roses like fireflies. Not everywhere, just the Elisas twinkling in the velvet dark. The blooms are fast asleep to the willows’ carols, their petals aglow like crepuscular snow. I inhale their ambrosial breath, almost honey and myrrh with the late summer ripeness. It blends with Aiden’s scent in my airways, making my head whirl.

“Thank you,” I whisper to him. “It has been so long since I’ve seen the cottage like this.” I don’t think of all the Christmases ahead, without the North Star shining next to me. They no longer exist. The only thing that exists is this present moment with him.

Aiden pulls me close, looking up at the cottage with a similar spell in his eyes. “It has always seemed like a fairytale, but for some reason, tonight it feels more real. More home.”

“I think that’s because you’ve come home to yourself.”

He turns me in his arms, and even the Christmas wonder pales next to him. “It’s a good place to be.”

When he says things like this, with that silver look in his eyes, his moon shadow next to mine, it’s impossible notto be us. Not to believe that this present moment is also our future and our past. Not to hope that there has to be a way for a love like this somehow. Just like the willows sang for his mum. Just like their garlands are chanting now. Their aria fills my mind with an ethereal longing.

Somehow, us, somehow.

“This will always be your home,” I say, hooking my arm in his. “Come, let’s do this.”

He hesitates for a second and again I have that fleeting intuition that he wants to say something more. But his eyes flicker instinctively to his iPhone, and he must change his mind. He takes my basket instead, and we set off down the petaled path, arm in arm. I notice as we pass the hedge that the reel and his waders are gone. I don’t ask where—not today. I just clutch him tighter as we cross the starlit Elysium, him carrying the basket, me trying to carry my heart.

When we reach the garage, he starts for the driver side, but I stop him. “Can I drive? Not that it’ll be much of a surprise. You’ll know exactly where we’re going in two minutes.”

He smiles, seeing what I want. “How about I don’t look at the road at all? In fact, I prefer it.” He winks playfully, and I miss the keys he tosses my way.

And he never looks at the road one bit. As soon as he checks my security belt and I clear the garage, he leans back on his seat. I have to use all my strength to stay focused on the empty, dark road, instead of the gaze I sense on me. But I’ve never been able to resist his face, so I slip and glance at him every few heartbeats. From the dim light of the dashboard, it’s difficult to understand his expression.

“What are you thinking about?” I ask him.

“Us.” The word thrills in his piano voice against the low purr of the car.

I listen, unwilling to interfere with the beautiful sound. It sings inside my head with the same willow chant: us, somehow, us. But what does that somehow look like? Maybe living in different houses, spending the nights apart, security always around us? All those half-options that never seemed enough, I would take them all now, without a single regret if I could see the real him for one hour or just one minute every day. Even if only from a safe window every night. Anything but goodbye.

Except all these options end the same way: his guilt and pain for giving me only half a life. And I’ve given him my word that I will live, that I will have a future beyond him.

But what if . . . What if some things are just too hard? What if you can never succeed, only try? What if in trying, you cannot live? Is there some point when it’s okay to give up? To accept that you are not strong enough to resist your heart? And to follow that beating, terrified heart to the end, whatever the end might be? Because that is the only true bravery there is.

“And you?” he asks, touching my arm gently as though to bring me back. “What are you thinking so hard about?”

“I was trying to plot ways to maximize your selfishness,” I admit, peering in the dark as the road curves past the field of poppies.

He chuckles, and I hear a note of relief. “Trust me, I don’t need any help in the selfishness department. I’m already doing too much of it.”

“But still not enough. You’re supposed to be the most selfish man in the world, remember?”

His index finger brushes the back of my hand very lightly, no doubt trying to save us both from a car crash. It still feels like a jolt to my system. The Rover lurches as my foot trembles on the gas, and he pulls back his hand. “Why don’t you tell me one of your ideas then?” His voice is hypnotic, like he is touching me with it instead.

“I’m still working on that part.”

“As am I.” He chuckles again, and I can’t resist. I peek at him again, but for once his eyes are not on me. He is staring at the PEAC charms at my wrist. The phosphorescent letters glow in the dark around the diamonds. And that’s good because it gives me a minute to think. If he is still working on being selfish, then maybe he will give me more embargo. More t-i-m-e. And I can spin this out like Scheherazade, night after night until I can magic something into existence. Abruptly, the Rover picks up speed as though my frantic heartbeat shot like fuel through its engine. The acceleration distracts him, and he looks up at last through the windshield.

“Ah, the hilltop,” he guesses as the road veers left at the end of the clover fields. “Of course I should have known.”

I pull into the narrow shoulder and turn off the car. The cabin plunges into total darkness under the hill’s dense shadow. “Is this okay?” I ask, suddenly worried I chose wrong, that this will cause more pain. But he raises my hand to his lips. Blindfolded with the black night, I only feel the warm touch of his fingers, and the stroke of his breath on my skin.

“Hmm, it’s perfect, actually,” he answers cryptically, and I sense some emotion in his voice, only I don’t know what it is. He kisses my hand again and then we climb out into the satiny air. His arm finds my waist in the dark, guiding me up the slender trail.

The higher we tread toward the summit, the more visible his beauty becomes from the moonlight. It gilds his hair, illuminates his skin, and shimmers into a silvery flame in his eyes. He strolls slower than usual, gazing toward the crest. We don’t talk much, and I sense he has bigger thoughts in his head. Mine continue the same refrain: somehow please, someway.

When we reach the peak, it’s like stepping into a pool of pure, opaline light. And it’s impossible not to feel like the meadow was expecting us. The marble gleams like a smile, the white miniature roses wave, the wind breathes. Except this time, a bouquet of red roses rests next my vial of Aiden’s dog tags, as I knew it would be.

“Who are these from?” Aiden asks as we stride across the pearly grass and sit by Hope’s half-sister, the American Beauty rose we planted together the first time he came to this hilltop. It has grown too, taller than Aiden’s knee.

“Benson,” I answer, feeling a surge of affection for our friend and deciding he too deserves a Christmas present. “I asked him to bring them yesterday for Marshall until we had a chance to do something for him together. I know it’s humble for a war hero, but I thought this would make a good resting place for him . . .” I trail off at the awed look that floods his eyes.

“You’re letting me share this place for Marshall?” he murmurs as he understands the full meaning behind this trip.

I nod, trying to breathe. I should be terrified of engraving him here when he is about to leave. Except I’m not. The closer the clock ticks, I want him everywhere, in every blade of grass and every speck of stardust like he is embedded in every molecule of me. “What’s mine is yours,” I tell him. “And maybe this place will heal you too, like it did for me.”

For a moment, I expect him to argue with this choice—worrying that it’s not best for me—but he doesn’t. Moonlight flows across his face with the soft movement of another emotion. L-o-v-e.  “Thank you,” he accepts, his voice subdued with feeling. “Maybe it will.”

“Oh and wait until you see this.” I lift the lid off the basket and take out a thermos. “Jasmine tea,” I announce, holding it up like the Rose Cup.

He chuckles then, eyes lighter, the smile like a shooting star over the horizons of his face. “Of course you brought jasmine tea. But what will the roses think? I was already caught saying the name of another flower.”

“They’re okay because I also brought this.” I dig out a small sandwich, cut in half, wrapped in a rose-appliqued tea towel. “It’s a version of Marshall’s favorite: peanut butter and rose jam.”

He stares at it incredulously. “You’re unbelievable. Did Cal tell you it was his favorite sandwich?”

“Yes, I told you I was texting with him last night. I was gathering intelligence.”

He shakes his head. “First me, then lethal snipers, now the General. If we manage to bottle your power, we’d have a weapon of mass destruction in our hands.”

I laugh, rolling my eyes at his filtered image of me. But isn’t it the same for me now with the golden tint in his skin every time desire races in my veins? Yes, it is, even though he doesn’t know it. And never will.

I pour the jasmine tea in our mugs—it’s still piping warm—and clink my mug to his. “To Marshall and his love.”

“And to leaving the past behind.”

We sip the tea together and share the sandwich in comfortable silence. Then without me prompting, he sets down his mug on the grass and takes out his phone. My breath stops as he turns it in his long fingers, the way we might hold something precious before letting it go.

“Let’s hear him out,” he says.

A million anxieties prickle my skin like the cypress needles. Is he sure? How much will this hurt him? But I don’t ask him those questions. Why would I cast a single shadow of doubt in his mind? Especially when I know this is right. I set down my mug too and wrap my hand around his wrist where the wooden initials of his brothers rest against his skin.

“Did you decide if you will watch or just listen to the last part?”

He looks at the dark screen. The moon’s sickle reflects distantly on it like a cracked portal to another night. “If you watched all of it, then so will I. I’m not leaving you alone with this just like you didn’t leave me.”

I had a feeling this would be his choice but I know it will be useless to argue with the resolve in his eyes. And maybe this way, he will also see some of the good things under a different light. Except there is one thing worrying me about that. “Will this still trigger all that trauma for you?”

But he shakes his head, seeming confident. “No, I don’t think this will be like the reel. In some ways, this is technically a new memory for me because I will be seeing the events through Marshall’s angle, not mine. Some even for the first time.”

I sigh in both hope and relief. Because if it’s a first, maybe I can make it easier on him? “Then I will be right here in your arms. I won’t look or listen but this way, you can feel my calm.”

He stares at me in his in inescapable way to make sure I really mean it. Then he nods, seeming satisfied, and pulls out his AirPods. I snuggle in his chest, covering him with all my calm.

“Close your eyes, love,” he murmurs in my hair.

And I do. I bury my face in his pectoral, listening only to his heart. Its rhythm is not terrified like mine was—it’s steady and strong. But I know exactly when the video starts because his breath catches and his heartbeat falters. I hug him closer, caressing his tense shoulders, trying to breathe evenly so he can time his lungs to mine.

It’s a different kind of war. Fought inside our arteries and bones. Heartbeats like bombs, breaths like bullets, each other as our only shelter, but we are not alone. As the video storms on, it’s impossible not to think of other battles we have waged on this hilltop. It’s as though each teardrop, each star, the very souls that go on invisibly around us, our old selves, our new ones, every tendril of hope and gust of faith, and this irrational, irrevocable, irreplaceable kind of love, all weave together for the simple purpose of fighting alongside us. For the last time.

And after one thousand four-hundred eight heart-bombs, it’s over. I know because of the low gasp that leaves Aiden’s lips and the slight shudder that runs through him. It ripples out of our twined bodies and blows away in the hilltop wind. But I still hold him close, wrapping him in my calm until I feel his kiss in my hair again.

I open my eyes then and look up at his face, half-dizzy with worry, half-terrified. Starlight has dimmed on his skin, cast into shadow from the tension of his jaw. But there is no fever or torture in his expression, at least not compared to the reel. I remove his AirPods quickly and take his face in my hands.

“I love you,” I tell him so these are the first words he hears on this other side.

His jeweled eyes gleam on mine, liquid and deep. “As I love you.” His voice low, though not as ravaged like it is after the reel.

“How are you feeling?”

He sets down his phone—the screen is back to black—then his arm folds around me again.

“You were right,” he answers thoughtfully. “It was good for the heart despite the pain. I didn’t realize how much I had needed Marshall’s understanding until now. How much I had missed the real him.”

And here is our win. Exactly as I was hoping he would feel. Just a man missing his brother without guilt. “So you heard his words to you?”

He nods. “Not your fault, my brother,” he repeats them. “You said them to me over and over again, only I didn’t know they were that literal.”

“Of course you didn’t. But I meant them, love, as did Marshall.”

He nods again, his eyes tracing the path of calm on my face. “I’m sorry I waited so long to hear them.”

“Don’t be sorry. Some things we can’t hear before we’re ready. If you had heard his words before you found the truth on your own, I don’t think you would have believed them.”

“No doubt about that,” he starts but then frowns as though something else just occurred to him. “Will you tell me something?”

“Don’t I always in the end, even if I fumble along the way?”

“Well, that’s my point actually. If I hadn’t discovered the truth, would you have never told me about this?” He seems disturbed by the thought as he should be. But at least the protein planned for all eventualities.

“Do you really think I would have given up that easily? There was never a chance in my mind that you wouldn’t have figured it out once you were free of fear. But if you hadn’t by tonight, I had a back-up plan for tomorrow. I would have told Doctor Helen all the clues and asked her to give them to you at our meeting. No matter what, you would have found out; I just knew it would mean so much more if you did it yourself.”

He stares at me, part-impressed, part-stunned. Then the first smile since the video curves up his flawless mouth. “I had no idea you were such a plotter, Elisa.”

If he only knew about the next plot twist waiting for him. But at least that one is not hard to keep—it’s more like a gift. “I’m not, but the protein is. As you can see, I crumbled on my own within minutes, especially after you stopped running a high fever.”

He chuckles at last with a free sound like the wind in the leaves. “Yes, you really are an awful liar, but that’s part of your charm.”

“Well, at least we found something you think I’m awful at.”

“What do you mean?” he asks in all seriousness even though the entire hilltop feels abruptly lighter. “There are several things I think you’re awful at.”

“Name even one. And mean it.”

“Easy. You’re terrible at personal safety.”

Okay, he has me there. “And yet somehow I seem to find exactly the kind of people who would do anything to protect me, including sacrificing themselves. So that one is neutral, not awful.”

“I disagree, but the embargo rules prohibit me from arguing and I’ve already breached them.”

“Exactly. So name another.”

“Sure. You’re an unmitigated disaster in rugby, football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, weight-lifting, martial arts—” He cuts off as I start to laugh.

“So basically lying and competitive sports?”

“Basically.”

We laugh together then at the absurdity of our eyes and minds, what they see, what they don’t. His beautiful chuckle strums on my cheek. Making me think . . . If we are so blind to each other’s flaws, what else are our minds wrong about? Saying goodbye? Seeing no other solution or choice? What about that part of us that always knows, that sees the truth exactly as it is? The heart. How do we listen to it?

I burrow closer in his chest, focusing only on his heartbeat as though it can give me the answer now. His fingers start combing through my tangles as the sound of our laughter fades slowly into silence. A change in the atmosphere. I peek up at his face, but he is staring at the epitaph carved on the marble, eyes deep and unfathomable again.

“I still believe it,” I tell him in case this is what is wondering.

He looks back at me, the silver V folding in his brows. “Believe what?”

“That love conquers everything. Maybe not the way we think, but somehow, in the end, the heart wins.”

He tilts his head toward the names carved on the marble. “Do you think they would have agreed?”

The question takes my breath away, perhaps because of the way his voice lowers when he asks it. I think about it seriously, but it’s still the same answer I have known from the very beginning.

“For our kind of love, yes. They would have wished it was less dangerous, I’ll grant you that, but they would have believed there was a way. I’m sure Dad would have invented some kind of selfishness protein that would have cured you of all your high morals and noble intentions.”

“Well, I don’t seem to need a protein for that.” He ruffles my hair, turning back to the marble. I try to understand the intensity in his gaze, but it’s too deep for me. The white miniature roses flutter back as if they know what he means. Under their delicate branches glints the vial with his dog tags that I tucked there my first day in England, when I was trying to leave him behind. Abruptly, that feels wrong now, like I’m excising my own heart.  I reach out and swipe up the vial, unwilling to let it rest on marble a second longer.

“What is it?” Aiden asks, looking at his tags nestled inside the crystal with the dried rose from the garden.

“I don’t want to leave these here anymore. They’re a part of you, and I love every part.”

The confusion dissolves in his eyes; they become luminous with that my-all look I now know well. I don’t understand how but, in just a few hours, this look has become my oxygen. It flows in my airways to the deepest parts of myself hidden even from me. I wait for it breath to breath, my lungs heavy and shallow until I see it again. There is nothing like this look in my world, even now in the end.

“Hard to argue with that,” he says, taking the vial from my fingers. The precious tags chime as if they can feel his touch. He opens the cap and spills the gleaming steel on his palm. Then, lightly, he throws them around my neck, gathering back my hair. I feel the brush of his fingertips to the marrow of my bones.

“Welcome back,” I whisper, caressing his engraved name, his blood type that can save everyone. Yet they still feel too distant. I tuck them under all my layers until they rest directly against my skin. The cold steel makes me shiver but in a good way. Like a missing beat has returned to my heart.

Aiden smiles, his expression lighter as he watches the spot where the tags disappeared. “Well, that’s definitely an upgrade for their home.” Then slowly, he bends his face to mine. Not to my lips, and that’s good. I know he would never blend a memory of this precious part of our love with any kind of pain. Not to mention we still have to survive. After all, how many times can we tear out our hearts and still expect them to keep beating?

His mouth presses on my eyelids instead, then my temple, then at last the center of my forehead. “Now let’s go home for us.”

Home. Us. Somehow. The silver meadow shimmers with the golden haze of his kiss.

We rise together then and pack up our basket. Shadows of fluffy clouds follow us across the meadow like celestial hugs.

“So, except the shock of the video, how was this first day on the other side?” I ask as we stroll back down the hill, arm in arm.

He looks at the village lights in the distance. “Hopeful,” he smiles.

So this is what our other side looks like, after descending through the nine circles of our hell. Each of us have our own brand. Some burn in loneliness, other scorch from judgment. Some drown in loss, others in greed. All of us writhe in our own pain, fight our own war. We win, we lose, we rise, we fall. Then it’s over. And we open our eyes to the world beyond. Praying that it’s softer, kinder, and we’re stronger, wiser than before. But we don’t know. We just keep our hearts beating, lights in the darkness, always reaching for hope.©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 38 – MASTERS

Hey all, I have waited for you to read this chapter for over six years, I’m actually in disbelief. It’s one of the most secret, fundamental things about Aiden that I knew would be excruciating to wait to reveal. But I also knew it had to come only now and not once before. So the clues were buried very deep. I’m oddly emotional setting it out in the world, but also happy and thrilled to finally let it free. And that’s all I will say about it. After you read it, you might see Chapter Ash and all the clues there under a new light.  Oh, and this photo. You’ll see why it’s so perfect for the chapter and, of course, our world right now. #Peace

38

Masters

I scramble on my knees to the side of the bed, searching Aiden’s face to understand the difference in his voice. What changed the desperate pleas to a bold injunction? His feverish expression folds out of agony into the sharp focus of a sniper, all creases of torment gone.

“Stop!” he commands again and, for a second, I freeze. Can he tell I’m here, leaning close to the danger? But no, his eyes are still closed, pupils racing underneath. “Stop, wait! . . . What is that?” he demands again. His voice is iron like the rest of his body. Something about his posture—despite lying perfectly still on his back—is tense, yet graceful, like the pause before the sinuous spring of a lion or the fluid strike of a snake. And even though he is asleep, I have an acute feeling that all his senses are awake, ranging out in hypervigilance. Is his mind reliving or discovering? I have no idea what to think or do, except follow Doctor Helen’s advice to change nothing, to let him process the unfathomable depths of his memory.

“My love,” I keep reciting my letter to him as I was. “I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write you back. After all, we’re still fighting a war—”

A breath whooshes out of him as though he was punched in the gut. “There!” he fires. “Right there . . . listen . . .”

A deep silence grips the tropical guestroom. So abrupt it makes me jump. Foolishly, I scan around me half-expecting a black shadow to morph from the inky dawn but there is nothing. Not even Aiden’s breath anymore. His entire being seems suspended in this one moment in time. Even the pupils under his eyelids have frozen.

“A war like no other,” I mumble. “With hearts instead of shields, memories instead of bombs—”

“There . . .” Aiden murmurs again, but his tenor is different—wonder now. Or is it dread?

“—Dreams instead of missions,” I stammer. “It’s the war to end—”

“That line . . .” he breathes.

“The war to end all wars. The war to save you—” I start again but never finish. Because in the same breath, Aiden’s forehead locks, his mouth parts, and with a thunderbolt movement, he springs up. His eyes flash open, vigilance blowing out of him like a tidal wave of power.

“They were there!” he gasps.

“Aiden?” I cry out startled, jolting on my feet.

He doesn’t respond. His stare is locked beyond this world into the influx of his memory. Not a single blink flutters through the long lashes, not one twitch flickers over the steely muscles.

“Love, what is it?” I call again, unsure whether to touch him yet.

No answer. The darkened eyes are wide with shock. He seems stunned beyond any capacity for words or movement.

“Aiden, please?” I gentle my voice, inching close to the bed. His fever slams into me like a gust of desert wind. “Can you hear me?”

He must because his eyes turn to my face, but he only stares in disbelief. His mouth is parted as though he wants to speak but no words are coming out. Fear slithers down my spine. I pick up the cold compress from the ice bowl on the floor and perch carefully on the bed at his side.

“Aiden, love, you’re alright. We’re in the cottage—”

But he shakes his head, his expression astounded. “They were there, Elisa!” he breathes.

“Who, love? Where?” My voice trembles in fright. Not for me, but for him. What is this? Is it the fever? Slowly, so he sees my intention, I press the iced compress on his bearded cheek. He blinks then, just once, refocusing on me.

“Hey, you.” I try to smile, dabbing his forehead with the damp towel. “It’s okay—it was just a dream. You’re safe, we both are.”

But he takes my hand off his face and folds it in both of his, dazed beyond any sight I’ve ever seen. Even terrified, his touch tingles my skin despite the gauze covering his blisters.

“No, not a dream,” he mouths, seeming unable to find his voice. “They were there, waiting for us.”

It’s my breath that whooshes out of me now at those last three words. The compress slips through our fingers. In a flash, the scene transforms before me. This wasn’t a nightmare, it was analysis. He is not terrorized; he is staggered. And this isn’t a flashback, it’s a realization. Possibly the biggest realization of his life.

The one I sensed in the smoke clouds during the video. The ephemeral instinct the protein gave me. Was I right?

Thankfully, he is too shocked to notice my reactions. Or perhaps he thinks I’m trying to catch up, which is true.

“The insurgents, Elisa!” he explains in a trance. “The IED! It wasn’t an accident. It was an ambush!”

My gasp blows over his parted lips. It’s not a gasp of shock. It’s heady, overpowering relief. Because he listened. He saw. He was able to follow my words. And he found it—the clue buried so deep in the black smoke and flames, even my super-senses barely glimpsed it. His conscience, with some sleep at last, caught up with his amplified memory. It connected the dots planted like landmines on that unspeakable May day over a decade ago, lurking in the deepest chasms of his mind, hidden from our unseeing eyes—his blindfolded by torture, mine blurred with the unknown. Until I saw the video without any fear, until we both felt invincible enough to ignore the terror and see the truth veiled behind.

Abruptly, my heart starts bombing my ears. Will this make a difference as I hoped when I was doubtless and indomitable? Can it help Aiden move on from Fallujah at last?

Half of my brain is racing forward. But the other half is frozen to a full stop, as stunned as Aiden.

“They must have known we were coming,” he continues in awe. “Elisa, they were already there, on the street by the schoolyard!”

Yes! Yes, that’s how it seemed to me too! I almost shriek. Only one surviving brain cell makes me clench my teeth against the gush of words that absolutely cannot slip from my tongue.

“It’s so clear now,” he murmurs, his eyes brimming with amazement. “I can access it all—everything during the reel, and everything before and after . . . everything you said to me.”

“Tell me, love,” I whisper frantically, clutching his fingers. “Tell me all of it.”

“I could hear your voice again in my sleep.” His eyes lighten on my face. The turquoise is almost diaphanous with wonder. “Guiding me through the schoolyard after the reel. You told me to find the market, you compared the colors of the vegetables to the flowers in Elysium— tomatoes for poppies, leeks for daisies, eggplant for orchids, a hijab like our blanket,” he quotes my words verbatim while I fight for air. He heard it all, his hermetic mind preserved every letter, ready for him to weave them into meaning. “Then you told me to search closer,” he presses urgently. “You asked if there were cars, if there was music like the willows. You asked what it was singing. Did you say all that to me?”

“Every word,” I breathe, as awed as he is.

“I searched with you as you spoke. Unearthed all the innocuous details I had never revisited since that first glance that awful day.”

Of course he hadn’t. How could he have lingered on trivia when he was fighting for his life, when he was drowning in torture? It’s not the eye that sees, it’s the mind. And what mind can manage to focus on such minutia when it is tearing apart? I know only one.

“That’s when I finally saw it again,” he marvels. “A tan Toyota truck, across the street from the school, the color of sand—dusty, off to the side, easy to camouflage.”

Yes! I want to cry. Yes, I saw it too, but I clamp down on my tongue and listen.

“It was loaded with banana crates as though it was delivering them to the nearby stall, no one at the wheel. And it was playing an old American song by Bob Dylan. Masters of War.”

So that’s what that song was! I couldn’t place the title or the singer during the video.

“Do you know it?” he frowns in surprise, no longer missing my facial expressions.

“I have heard it before,” I whisper, choosing my words with care—trying to stay as truthful as possible before he can smell the lie in my very breath now that his alertness is returning.

He nods. “Me too. Even before that day, but I certainly heard it then, when I saw the truck. I just didn’t think much of it. American songs were oddly popular in Iraq. We heard them all the time in shops and cars, although it was usually hip-hop, rarely the classics. I suppose, in retrospect, that should have been a hint, but it was not. None of us made anything of it . . .” he trails off, seeming disturbed by the thought.

“How could you have?” I intervene before he finds a way to blame himself even about this. “Who would think of music when the bombs started exploding?”

He shakes his head as if to disagree. “I did the same thing yesterday after the reel. When you told me to look for familiar things, I found the truck and the song in my memories—just the same as it had been that Fallujah morning. Seeming just as harmless and irrelevant. I rested on it only for a second, following your direction. It calmed me even—seeing Elysium superimposed over the market, the images braiding together so strangely. Wildflowers started blooming in my vision, the bananas became trefoils, the tomatoes poppies, Dylan chorusing quietly with Für Elise. It was mesmerizing but only that—a distraction from the pain. . .” He drifts again, now here, now there. I squeeze his hand gently, bringing him back, too amazed to be able to speak myself.

“I’ve told you what happened next,” he continues, his gaze darkening like the smoke that must be billowing in his memories now.

“The IED,” I mouth, shuddering on the mattress.

Even in one of the most pivotal moments of his life, he doesn’t miss it. He releases my hands and throws the quilt over my shoulders. “Yes, that should have been another hint in retrospect. The fact that the blast came from the side of the street. The side of that truck. But the truck didn’t explode, nothing else did—that’s why we concluded it was an off-road device, triggered by accident. Perhaps by the kids playing soccer. That was the norm for the region. The intentional attacks were usually suicide bombs, installed on bodies or cars. The DIA itself analyzed the blast radius afterwards and agreed—”

“The DIA?” I interrupt, confused.

“The Defense Intelligence Agency—the CIA’s counterpart for combat missions. Their exact quote was ‘accident of the most unfortunate kind.’ Of course, none of us realized then what I do now.” His eyes melt on mine. “What you and the protein helped me see at last.”

“What?” I breathe. What helped him make sense of the horror? What made the truth click?

“That the song was aimed at us, the truck was not alone. I finally realized it when I went up to the classroom with you in my ear. I sailed straight to the window where Marshall was, searching the flames for Jazz who was still stuck below. Then for a split-second, there was a pause in gunfire as my ammo was running out. And your voice was guiding me again at that moment, trying to calm me, I think. You told me, ‘Search through the smoke. What do you see? Something old? Something new? You remember it. Now see it, hear it all—not just the horror.’” He restates my words with precision down to my inflections. “Did you say all that to me?”

“All of it,” I whisper, shivering at the image I recall with too vividly.

“That’s when I heard it again. That same song, that same line, ‘And your death will come soon. I will follow your casket, by one pale afternoon.’” He looks at me in sheer wonder while I shudder inside the quilt. Even with my super-mind, I hadn’t caught the words, only the tune. “Then there was a faint break in the smoke, and I saw them. A few more trucks—about four or five, behind the first one—they had all arrived. It was like the chalk rose on the blackboard. Like seeing something with new eyes, with yours. And once I did, it all made sense. Everything fell together. We didn’t walk into an IED. We walked into a trap. They were already there, waiting for us . . .” He repeats the words in a dreamlike state, but his eyes are awake in every sense of the word. Staring again beyond the room as the realities must merge. The one he always knew and the one he has finally seen. Which one hurts more? Which one will he believe?

I inch closer into his body heat, taking his blazing hand again. He blinks at my touch, his expression dazed and wary. Perhaps questioning everything he knows or testing this reality.

“I think you’re right,” I tell him, wishing I could say so much more. How awed I am by his mind, by his strength to watch the horror raw in his sleep—without any anesthetic of any kind except one piano melody—and endure untold agony with the courage to see the truth, to fight to the very end. He is bravery defined. No protein can ever compare. And I wish I had words in any language to tell him all that.

Instead, I only stare at the miracle of his face.

“Do you?” he asks fervently—the first time I’ve ever known him to be unsure of his bulletproof perception. “You agree that it was orchestrated?”

“Without a doubt. You’re the expert, but it all fits. The choice of song, the timing, the matching trucks, the color for camouflage, the motive, the way they got to you faster than you thought. I don’t see how it can be any other way. The only thing I’m wondering is how they knew you’d be there.” It’s the question that was stumping even my super-mind, but he shrugs as though this is the easiest part.

“That’s simple enough to explain. The network of civilian spies in Fallujah was vast. It was one of the most challenging war zones for the DIA and Langley—still remains to this day. Someone must have seen us enter the pipes and alerted them. We had to trek for a while to get there. The Iraqis will always know their desert best.”

I shiver, remembering their hike in the moonless dawn. There were other eyes in the darkness stalking the brothers with me, other invisible shadows haunting them, so enmeshed with the night, even the camera in Marshall’s chest missed them.

He stares at me, still stunned. “How could I have missed this?”

“Missed it? You didn’t miss it. You saw it all—every single detail even in moments of unspeakable horror. And your mind preserved it perfectly for over a decade. My God, Aiden, what human could have ever perceived more?”

He shakes his head. “Elisa, it has been four thousand four hundred seventy-seven days since that classroom. I have relived that morning at least fifteen thousand times. How could I not have seen this once?” Emotions fuse on his face like flames: dismay, pain, anger at himself.

“How could you have seen it even once?” I argue, pressing my other hand to his burning cheek. He doesn’t pull away. The feel of him seeps through my skin into the marrow of my bones. “You may have relieved it every day, but every single time you’ve been fighting it. You had never sat with it, trying to examine every angle, trying to find beautiful things. Who would? Tell me who could focus on songs and veggies when gunfire and bombs were blaring. Who would examine those details under torture?” My voice quivers. I don’t allow myself to remember the blistering image of his blood, the brunt of violence on the body that is my life. I couldn’t live through it without the protein. Even at the memory of the memory, I struggle to stay upright. “I’m not surprised at all it took you until now,” I add. “Until the moment you allowed yourself to see and feel all of it.”

“Because of you,” he murmurs, and the emotional flow changes, becomes wonderment when the real wonder is him.

“No, love.” My hand trembles from his cheek to his scar. From the heat, it shimmers as if it has become alive. “You did this all on your own. It’s okay to give yourself credit for that.”

“But had I not taken the protein, had you not guided me—”

“You still would have found it. I have no doubts about that. You would have seen it all in the end. I know you would have.” And I wouldn’t have rested until that day.

He doesn’t answer, but the tectonic plates shift deeply in the sapphire depths as though reaching seismically to his very core. I hope he believes me. I hope he finds this faith. And above all, I hope he finally frees himself.

“The only thing that matters now,” I tell him. “Is what you do with this knowledge. With what it means.”

He looks at me like a man finally finding the holy grail, the Moby Dick, the elixir of life—seeing that elusive treasure at last, yet too afraid to stretch out his hand and grasp it. Too afraid of losing it again. Too afraid that it is only a dream.

“It means it was not your fault, love.” I put all my conviction in my voice to make it real. “Your decision to stay in the schoolyard and help those little boys didn’t cause Marshall’s torture or Jazz’s scars or anyone else’s loss. The insurgents were already there, waiting. They would have gone after you even if you had gone back. Except in the pipes, it would have been even worse, without light and barely any air. None of you would have survived.” I try to fight the shudder that rattles my teeth at the idea and take both his hands again to anchor me here.

He has listened to every syllable entranced, his eyes liquid. Even his breath has stopped, as though the lightest puff of air might blow my words away. I scoot closer to his warmth, breathing gently on his lips as he does with me. He inhales sharply, the way my lungs open up to his fragrance. But still he doesn’t speak.

“You know it’s true. You know if you hadn’t listened to your heart, you would have gone back to camp through the pipes. The monsters probably hoped for that because they would have had the upper hand inside, with their knowledge of their own homeland.”

Another trembling breath of mine, another shallow gasp of his—two life threads entwined to the end. Strangle one, and you choke the other.

“You saved your brothers, Aiden. You didn’t hurt them. You’re the reason they’re still here, even if Marshall is gone. Because of you, they are safe, secure, and alive.”

Still no answer. Only that sentient gaze, so deep it would take a lifetime to reach the turquoise light. A lifetime I would gladly give.

“Listen to my words. Listen to the truth. You have waited for four thousand four hundred seventy-seven days to hear it. It has been living inside you under all the pain and the guilt and the fear. It’s okay to free it. It’s okay to accept it. This—was—never—your—fault.”

No words, no breaths, no blinks. Just torn gasps, snagging on the jagged teeth of agony, trying to break free.

“I will never stop telling you this. Not even after you’re gone. It was not your fault. It was your merit. You saved them. You brought them home. It’s time for you to come home too, love. Not in Burford or Portland—come home to yourself. To the man you truly are.”

He looks at me like no other time in our love. Utterly lost, with those shocking newborn eyes I saw in Stella’s photos—eyes trying to find their way in this reformed world.

“I know you’re afraid.” I keep going because if I stop, he will not hear the words his heart needs more than blood. “Afraid to believe it, afraid to lay down this guilt. It has been a part of you for so long. It has been your fight, your mourning, and your grief. You feel that if you let it go now, you are betraying him. You fear you won’t recognize who you are without it. But you will. I promise you that. You will still be just as loyal, just as honorable, just as selfless and brave as you’ve always been. Because all those things are in here.” I lift our joined hands to his heart like I did in my old apartment in Portland when he came back after our embargo, when he told me the truth about his startle reflex. His heart hammers back as if clamoring to be heard. I’m here, I’m here. “Listen to your heart. This was not your fault. Say it with me. Say it with Marshall.”

His chest thrashes like a broken eagle wing. Tension strains his jaw as though his body is tearing apart with war. I don’t need to ask if he could hear Marshall’s words, if he could read his lips. I know. I know from the ancient grief in Aiden’s eyes that he couldn’t. It was too low, too far, too stifled with the laughing monsters for Aiden to hear it, lost in his own torture. Fiery tongues start licking up my eyes. How will I give him that truth without breaking his heart?

“You know he would say it,” I tell him as I did after the reel. “‘Not your fault, my brother.’ These are Marshall’s words, not just mine. Say them with us.”

His throat constricts as though the words are suffocating him, stuck there, unable to get out. A single tear glimmers in the sapphire gaze like a lone star. At the sight, I forget everything—all the closure and our end and our own pain—and take him in my arms.

“Oh, my love,” I whisper, kissing his scar.

And Aiden breaks. His steel body wraps around mine, contorting with pain. A vicious shudder radiates through him, as if tearing him into pieces. I clutch him harder and tuck his head in my neck, like I did the only other time he has broken like this. When he attacked me. And like then, I give him everything: my smell, my touch, my breath, my strength, my voice. His fever consumes us both, flame after flame.

“It was not your fault,” I repeat in his ear. “Not as a brother, a friend, a commander, or a man. This was never your fault . . .”  Over and over and over until his silent, absent breath splinters into three ravaged words.

“Not—my—fault.”

They’re barely a gasp in the breeze, barely a note in the piano melody, but I hear them louder than I have ever heard anything. My eyes simmer with tears, but I fight them back for him and kiss his temple. His pulse kisses me back, rapid and deep.

“That’s right, love. Say it again, so you know how the truth sounds in your own voice.”

Another strangled breath. “Not—my—fault.”

“Please believe it. Believe every word because it’s true.” I cover him with all of me, body like a second skin, murmuring in his ear until he can utter the words on his own, without me.

“Not my fault . . . not my fault . . . not my fault.”

Sometimes, big bangs are neither big, nor loud. Sometimes, they are fractured kernels of soul, imploding and reforming breathlessly without a sound. Just a gasp, a shattered heartbeat, three words in the breeze. But that doesn’t mean they are small. It means they are deeper than our eye can see.

When the words fade, we shudder here on the bed, holding each other like no other time in our lives. Like a beginning in the middle of our end. But if we had to end, let it be so he can start to heal. Let it be so he can believe these words. Let it be so Fallujah ends with me. So when that airplane carries him across the skies, it is not just a goodbye. Let it be a hello to Aiden Liber—Aiden the Free.

Outside our heat bubble, the skylark starts to sing for the first time in eleven mornings, harmonizing its warble to Für Elise. My throat blisters as I finally realize why the lark had stopped coming. Because the music stopped inside the cottage when Aiden left at night. But the piano is playing again now. Once more, twice, until his usual wake-up time. Six o’clock. Our embargo is almost over. The melody stops like the breath between our lungs. Then there is only the lonely lark and the willows whispering, he’s free, he’s free.

And even though I vowed he would not see me crying, the tears spill down my cheeks and soak through his T-shirt, misting his wrought shoulder before I can stop them.

He leans back, his grip softening around me. My body shifts reflexively with him trying to prolong the contact. But he doesn’t let me go. One arm stays around my waist as his finger tingles under my chin. Mothlike, I lift my face to the flame of his gaze, afraid to see our closure in his eyes. But there is no goodbye there yet. Nor a hello. Just a crystal droplet at the corner like a question mark.

“Hey, no tears,” he murmurs, his voice rough. “No tears for me.”

I smile so he has it in his first memories for this other side. “They’re proud tears. And hopeful and awed and loving.” And painful and soul-slaying and scalding . . .

He brushes the moisture with his fingertips as if he heard all the unspoken words. “I still don’t like them.”

A cloud of warmth engulfs me as though the teardrops are evaporating from his touch. “What about this?” I ask, wiping the solitaire sparkling on his lashes. “What kind of tear is this?”

“Oh, don’t worry. That’s not a tear.”

“It’s not?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not.”

“Then what is it?”

Lightly, his blazing finger glides down my cheek. “It’s a closed door.” His fingertip comes to a stop at the corner of my lips. “A different life flashing before my eyes. That’s what that drop is.”

I try to live through his words, his touch. My heart almost stops from it, from everything. I fight to keep it beating for him. “A closed door on the past?”

He nods. “It has to be.”

“What about the future? Is there something from the future in that non-tear too?”

A look passes in his eyes—a gaze I have no name for. It’s thoughtful, all-consuming, like a held breath or a stare in the horizon. Here, yet waiting for air or a beacon to lighten. “I hope so,” he answers.

H-o-p-e. “And what does that future look like?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“But you believe it now?”

He knows this one immediately. “A part of me will always feel some guilt. It’s the reality of being a survivor, a commanding officer whose men died on my watch. And I will always wonder if I could have done more, better, faster, smarter. But I won’t lie. That weight feels . . . less crushing. More livable knowing my decision didn’t force him—Marshall—to his death. And it’s all because of you and the protein you made for me.”

I don’t miss the way his voice drops on the name, but he still says it out loud. I see the haunted look that flickers in his gaze, though his eyes stay focused on me. And I feel the intense relief, more overwhelming than even when he returned from the reel. But abruptly there is something else that suddenly matters more than anything. Something so vital that instinctively I know we both need it to breathe.

“Aiden.” My voice trembles around his name, the way it caresses my tongue on the way out. I clutch his hand for strength, for bravery to ask the question. His fingers wind with mine like arteries. “If you had never seen those trucks or heard that song in Fallujah in the first place, if you had nothing at all to clear your decision, do you think you would have always carried that guilt?”

He must hear the gravity of the question because he seems to think about it, his eyes deepening as if looking inside himself. “I don’t think so,” he answers after a moment. “And not just because that’s what you were hoping to hear. There was something different about this reel. I couldn’t reconcile it then—the past and the present were merging so fast—but as I look back at the whole, it didn’t feel the same.”

My heart starts hammering in triple tempo like his mind. “Different how?”

“At first, it was worse. The worst agony of my life, even compared to that day itself. Because the classroom started blending with your father’s library the night Edison attacked you. I don’t know why but the images were melding together in the worst possible way. Your blood with Marshall’s blood. His screams with yours when Edison slapped you—” Fury chokes him off and locks his muscles. His eyes become black tunnels of horror again, exactly like the reel, exactly like that night.

“Hey, it’s okay. I’m safe, love.” I swirl my fingers in his beard, hating Edison’s every atom and all my own molecules for adding to this agony.

He draws a deep, steadying breath. “I couldn’t breathe through it, Elisa.” His voice is more tormented than I’ve ever heard it. “I know you think I would, but I know my mind, my limits. And I know I could not have come back from that reel. I could not have left you there in his hands, even if only in a memory.” He shudders, and I shudder with him.

So this is why this reel took so long. Why nothing I tried was bringing him back. He was trying to save me again. Reliving two tortures at once—his worst terror and worst pain—both tearing him apart and burying him alive. Doctor Helen’s text blares in my vision, blinding me with its black and white letters: Aiden’s memory can stay in the past forever. I shiver as I realize how right she was, how close he came to being lost.

“Hey, don’t say that.” I whisper, unable to breathe myself through the agony that starts scalding my throat. “It’s gone now. I’m safe because of you. And you’re here. Right here, back and freer than you’ve been in a long time.”

His arm tightens around my waist, pulling me into his warmth as he sees the dread I can’t hide. “Yes, I am, because of you. Because you made a protein that gave me the strength to endure. And because somehow, against all rules and reason, you decided to come after me. You joined me in that hellhole, in the last possible place I would ever want you to be. My mind couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t accept it. This illusion of you—so beautiful, so full of love, the most perfect miracle to ever exist—walking through the flames with me . . . I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t tolerate one single second. For a moment, I wondered if I had in fact died and this was what my version of hell looked like.”

Another shudder ripples through us both. And more puzzle pieces fall together. Why he was shaking his head no when I first entered that moment with him, why it seemed the torment got worse. Because it did. Because I added to his agony instead of lessening it. I should be quarantined.

“But then your calming effect started to seep even through those flames, like it always does,” he continues. “And I was able to breathe again. I was able to see something other than Marshall’s body and yours on the floor. I was able to recall there was a reason to live through it, to come back even if we’re not together. Because the real you was worried and waiting. Because I had given you my word. That’s when the change started, I think. Having you there became strength, not weakness. It must have boosted the strength of the protein. Everything felt new. Like I was seeing it for the first time—just as painful, but there was also your calm, your love. And I was able to follow your voice. I could hear you telling me it was not my fault. Even in the end, in that classroom, with Marshall so . . . gone—” A convulsion tears along his shoulders like a ghost blasting through him. The turquoise gaze becomes speckled with darker stars, like Marshall passed and became a constellation in his eyes. “I was able to repeat your words to him. To say goodbye.”

He says it quietly, like a breath. My own breath stops with it. “You did?” I whisper in wonder.

He nods. “As much as I could.”

I want to ask what Marshall would have said back, if there was a final word he would have wanted to hear from his best friend, but somehow, I know this will always have to stay between them. “How do you feel?”

“Like he died all over again, except a better death this time. More human. And I could say a few last words.”

I caress his scar again, lightly so I don’t add a different kind pain. “They don’t have to be last words. I’m learning that. I randomly catch myself talking to mum and dad in my head. Maybe that makes me crazy, but it feels healthier. With a lot less pain. Maybe it will be the same for you.”

“Maybe.”

Neither of us says what I am sure we are both thinking: can his memory ever let him do that?

I remember my idea then—an idea that started brewing during the protein, building after the reel, honing into the night after Doctor Helen and science gave up. “How about we try something together?” I suggest.

“Try what?”

“Well, first, I made you a little something. Do you want to see it?”

He doesn’t miss the new lightness in my voice because a shadow-smile plays automatically at the corner of his lips. “Will it make me cry? Apparently I do that now.”

It’s an obvious joke, but abruptly I hesitate. Will it hurt him? Is it too early for this? Or too late? “I don’t think so, but you don’t have to do anything with it,” I answer, remembering the way he handled the chess set with me. “Or say anything. You don’t even have to touch it if you don’t want to. It’s just a . . . a reminder of something you love.”

He recognizes his own words immediately. “Well now, I’m extremely curious. What did you make that needs a warning?”

I stretch over the edge of the bed, reaching down into the mess of arts and crafts on the floor for my creation. His arm curves around my waist in case I topple and fall.

“This,” I whisper, losing my voice completely as I resurface and open my hand so he can see it in my palm. It’s not beautiful at all, nothing like the gifts he has given me, but his eyes rivet on the tangled coil with eagerness. “It’s a bracelet,” I explain. “Not as precious as the one you gave me—” The diamond initials chime musically on my wrist in agreement. “—But I tried to make it masculine.”

He fishes it from my hand, unraveling the thin, black leather plait and the wooden letters strung on it: M-I-R-A-J.

“All our initials,” he murmurs in wonder, gazing at the letters for the names of his brothers. From the first sunrays, the ordinary wood glows almost like antiqued bronze.

“I kept Marshall’s with an M, instead of his first name—Jacob—because that’s how you refer to him. But for the rest of you, I used the first initial.”

“Life with life,” he mouths in understanding. His eyes deepen with the vision I tried to create for him.

“Yes, but I tried to braid the leather cord like a double helix, like the bracelet you gave me. Because the five of you will always be family. Nothing can ever take that away, not even death. This kind of love does conquer everything.”

He looks up at me, and that nameless look floods his eyes again. Pensive, yet dreamlike, as though hitting pause on everything. I still can’t find the right words for it.

“You don’t have to wear it,” I remind him uselessly in case there is pain underneath. “I just thought—”

“You thought perfectly.”

“You still don’t have to wear it. Or even look at it if it causes you pain.”

“It doesn’t. It causes other things, but not pain.”

“What does it cause?”

He flicks through the wooden letters until he stops at his. “Faith,” he answers, brushing my cheek with the A like he did with the chess queen. “Hope that maybe all love can conquer everything even if not the way we think.”

His initial leaves behind a comet of heat. I open my mouth to speak, but all that comes out is a sigh. Can cheap, non-flame-resistant wood combust from breath? From touch?

As if he wonders the same thing, he smiles his after smile and drops his hand, holding out his wrist. “Thank you. It’s a very meaningful gift. But did you really think I wouldn’t wear it if you made it for me?”

I shake my head to rattle some brain cells back to life. “What if I had made you a dress?” is my genius response. “Would you have worn that?”

He chuckles—the first chuckle on this other side, more beautiful than the lark song. “Well, how far is a dress from a friendship bracelet really?”

“It’s more of a cuff,” I correct, taking the leather cord and tying it around his wrist. Little flames kindle on my skin at the contact and, for a blink, I see stars again even if they’re only the twinkly lights. But the fire must catch in his blood because the bands of muscle in his arm tense as if resisting a great force.

He clears his throat. “Did, ah, Cal tell you Jazz’s first name is Indy?”

“Yes, I texted him last night. They’re all so worried, Aiden. Maybe we should let them come when . . .”

I can’t finish the sentence, and he can’t seem to be able to hear it. “You said ‘first’ earlier, when you asked if we could try something,” he reminds me. “Does that mean there is a second part?”

“Oh! Right!” I remember, grateful for the change in direction. “Yes, but you can say no, like with the bracelet. It’s only if you feel up to it.”

Curiosity flashes in his eyes again, but he smiles. “Duly warned. What is it?”

A frisson of life thrums in my chest. Or is it nerves? I caress the A on his wrist, wishing I had one on mine. “Well, I was thinking, perhaps we could do something to celebrate Marshall today. Maybe as an early birthday or the Christmas he wanted?”

But in my focus on his heart, I have slipped. A big slip. I watch in horror as my words float from my mouth and land on his brain. He stares at me in disbelief. “The Christmas he wanted?” he repeats in a low voice. “How do you know he was looking forward to Christmas? I never told you that.”

Ice whips my cheeks. A wave of nausea heaves to my mouth as I see my blanched face reflected in his unerring eyes. “D-don’t all s-soldiers want to be home for C-Christmas?” I scramble. “B-but it doesn’t have to be Christmas either.” I change tracks frantically. “I just—I think it’s important we give you and him both a good day, like we did with mum and dad. It really helped me.”

He has seen all my reactions, the initial surprise fading and the V deepening between his brows on each word. “It sounds incredibly thoughtful, but why do you look so . . . scared?”

I try to stay focused only on the ultimate truth. The smallest lie and his eyes will catch it. “Because I don’t want you to hurt even more.”

The frown intensifies, and he brushes my arm as if he senses the goosebumps that have erupted there. “I’m not hurting more,” he tries to assure me. “I’m touched—that’s different.”

I manage a slight breath of relief, feeling guilty for letting him misunderstand, but not guilty enough to tell him about the video. Right now he only thinks I’m scared. If he knew the truth . . . I fight back a shudder because he is still watching me, worry creasing his forehead.

“Elisa?” He traces a circle under my eye, thawing the ice. “Your idea is as meaningful as your gift, but you’re obviously upset and exhausted. You’ve been up all night, taking care of me, making me presents, planning birthdays, Christmas, and God knows what else. So, no, sweetheart. We’re not doing anything—no celebrating, talking, or even thinking—until you finally get some sleep.”

“Sleep?” I cry out in panic. On one hand, he’s not pushing me about my Christmas slip. On the other, he has obviously concluded it must be from exhaustion, which is even worse. I’d rather move to Fallujah for the rest of my life than miss one second left of the embargo. “Not now, Aiden, please!” I beg. “This is more important to me—more important than anything else left. It won’t be much, I promise. We’re not supposed to do anything strenuous today anyway, according to Doctor Helen. She wants to check on us tomorrow morning.”

“Exactly—rest is the most important thing right now. We can talk about your idea when you wake up.”

“But then we’ll have to go see Doctor Helen and—and—” My voice breaks at what is coming, at the way her tone sounded last night. So final, so terminal. I can’t tell him any of that. Let him have just one day with h-o-p-e.

But he wraps his arms around me like a shield. “Elisa, you don’t think I know the words you cannot say? I know there is nothing more she can do and tomorrow is just a formality. But it doesn’t change a thing. You still need to rest. Come on, bed.” His arms flex as if to scoop me up.

“No!” I choke, my fingers gripping his T-shirt like hooks. All my resolve to be strong for him shatters, and the full truth spills out. “No, Aiden, please! There’s so little embargo left. I don’t want to miss any of it!”

That look I have no words for deepens his eyes again. Lightening them like skies, softening them like velvet, then morphing into almost palpable tenderness. “Hey, hey, shh,” he murmurs, almost crooning as he pulls me closer. “Forget about the embargo, all right? We can have more time when you wake up. Don’t worry about any of that. Breathe, Elisa!” He blows on my lips like always, slowly until my lungs restart. But I can’t even blink from his beautiful face. Did he really say what I think he said?

“More embargo?” I whisper, still grasping his T-shirt. “Really?”

“I promise you,” he vows, his arms tightening around me. “If you go to sleep, I’ll be right here, and we can celebrate or do whatever else you had in mind when you wake up. Just, please, Elisa.”

I can hear the truth and desperation in his voice even through the blood pounding in my ears. And as swiftly as it struck, panic recedes. Because this is all I want—more t-i-m-e with him. All except one thing: his health, his peace.

“But what about your fever?” I force out the words against every cell that wants me to shut up and curl in his arms for as long as he will let me.

“Elisa, I don’t give a fuck about my fever. I don’t give a fuck about my feelings, my memories, or whatever other worry you’re spinning in your head right now. The only thing I care about is you. Just you. So if you want me to relax, then do it for me.”

How can I argue with his words or his eyes when I feel the same about him? When all my resistance crumbled to stardust at the promise of another day together?

He sees my surrender in my eyes. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that the waterworks almost start again. And before I can breathe, anytime, he lies down with me, wrapping me in his arms. Electricity jolts everywhere the second our bodies touch. Tingles on my skin, trembles in my limbs, stars in my vision, earthquakes in my heart. And he is the force that makes them all run. Fire in the blood, titanium in his body, gravity in his hold, my entire universe in his eyes.

“Aiden, love, if—”

“Shh, you’re staying right here.” He throws a light sheet over me, but then seems to remember something. “Unless you’re hungry. Do you want something to eat first?”

“No, I’m fine.” It’s not even a lie. There are other hungers in me, but not the food kind.

“Not even a scone with clotted cream and rose jam?”

“No, not even that.”

He sighs, pressing his lips in my hair. “All right, but when you wake up, you’re eating a Marine-sized meal. Now sleep.”

I want to answer that when I wake up, I only to make happy memories for him. I want to ask what he would like, I want to tell him so many things.  Like the way his fragrance is blending with the rose mist into the stuff of heavens, the way the skylark stops singing every time he speaks, the tiny new bud leaf on Hope because of his warmth, the willows crooning he’s free, he’s free. Do they still sing Elisa, Elisa for him? I want to say all these little nothings that are my everything, but I can’t find the words. So I curl in his chest, closing my eyes, feeling oddly whole with everything in shreds. I try not to think of tomorrow when we meet Doctor Helen, the finality in her voice last night, the startle we couldn’t beat, the last goodbye. I concentrate only on his body heat, counting the times his heart beats in my ear—fast and vital and mine.

But abruptly, on heartbeat eight hundred and five, a change startles me. Subtle yet fast. Like a cool breath on my cheek.

“Oh!” I gasp.

“Elisa, what’s wrong?” Aiden sits up alarm, scanning my face.

“Nothing is wrong!” I cry out, my hand flying to his forehead. “Aiden, I think your fever might be dropping!”

“Christ, Elisa, relax!”

“Never mind that! Here, let’s measure it!” I twist in his arms to grab the thermometer from the nightstand.

“I can do that. Lie down—” he growls, but I stick the tip in his mouth before he can finish. He gives me a beautiful glare.

“Mmmm.”

“I know you’re saying fuck, not this again, and terrorizing the roses.”

No answer, except maybe the glower becomes darker.

“That bad, huh?” I trace his scar with my fingertip—it’s still hot, but not scorching. “I promise I’ll sleep after this, except it will be so much better if I know the fever is breaking.”

He sighs in a give-me-strength way, but the glare softens. The first rays of sun fracture on his thick beard, filtering into a prism of light entirely his own. Obsidian, midnight, garnet, bronze. Shimmering like the halo of my bravery visions.

“Then again being awake does have its advantages.” I grin at him, running my fingers through the lustrous bristles. “This, for example, would be difficult while sleeping.”

He sighs again, but above the dark horizon of his beard, the sky of his gaze deepens with that held, indescribable look. It lightens on my face, so hypnotic, I can’t even blink. But then the thermometer beeps, jolting me back to reality. I pull it out quickly, my hands shaking.

“You were really off this time,” he says, but my squeal drowns his voice as soon as I see the numbers blinking on the window.

“Yes! Ninety-nine-point-eight! It’s dropping, it really is!” I throw my arms around his neck, almost strangling him in relief.

He hugs me closer, kissing my hair. “That is, indeed, what I was trying to tell you.”

I sob-laugh in his neck. “Thank God! It’s still a little high, but I’ll take any difference. You’re almost normal temperature for a dragon now.”

He chuckles. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it will keep dropping. My memory started slowing after the connections were made. I think they were related.”

I pull back to look at him. “Really? It’s completely back to normal?”

“Well, normal for me. It had to have been the effect of bravery. Now, bed. You got what you wanted, you made a promise, and there are no more excuses left, no matter how much you want to argue with me that I should give all credit to myself.”

I sigh. He knows me too well. “Okay, I’ll argue with you when I wake up.”

He smirks and tucks me in, cradling me in his arms. “Sleep now, love. Sleep and dream beautiful dreams.”

L-o-v-e. The skylark chirps as if it hears the beauty in his voice and knows it cannot compete. “And what will you do while I dream?”

“I’ll be right here, dreaming too.”

“What will you dream?”

“The only dream I see, awake or asleep.”

“It’s Mrs. Willoughby, right?”

“Right.” He chuckles again.

A laugh bubbles on my own lips. And why shouldn’t it? When he is still mine for another day, one step closer to himself? Finally free from a heavy fault that was never his. What is my loss and pain compared to that?

“That is exactly the sound I dream about,” he says, pressing his lips in my hair.

I listen to his piano voice, trying to memorize its music. In secret, I wish I could remember like him. So the years that will sweep my mind can never touch a single note of his melody. “We have a very similar dream then.”

His breath pauses staccato for a second, then bridges fluidly into my lullaby. Not Für Elise, but his letters to me like I did for him. “My all,” he murmurs, as though he heard my thoughts. “Another night, just you, me, and the desert. I don’t know which of us has more heat . . .”

I kiss his heart again and snuggle in his chest, listening. That brave Everestian love surges omnipotently inside me. Inexplicably as strong as during the protein, as immutable as it will always be.

“The desert, you might say, but here is a secret that you don’t know. The desert can never burn the soul. And you are the mirage at the end of the fire. Shimmering like cold water, pouring over this pyre. No, the one burning is me . . .”

Slowly, with each word, a tension I did not know was wringing my muscles starts to drain out of me. His fever softens into the sultry warmth of home, and I start to drift. The last thing I sense is a featherlight pressure on my lips, like a whisper in the breeze.

What a beautiful dream.

©2022 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 37 – STOP

Happy Palindrome Day (22-02-2022) and happy Twosday!  Palindromes are one of my favorite random things and I gave that to Elisa, so it made sense to post today to celebrate. Plus, posting as soon as I finish. Hope you enjoy this chapter and that, if there are tears, they are bittersweet. xo, Ani (P.S. bit of trivia: I found this photo of a wild rose many years ago when I was first thinking of this scene. It feels good to be able to finally use it–you’ll see why it’s a perfect fit.).

37

Stop

The cottage waits for us, back to its fairytale wonder. The limestone walls catch the moon, now silver, now childhood white. Starlight flows over the garden as a molten river, weaving around the roses like freshwater pearls. And the feeling of home swaddles me again. This sense of being complete exactly with what I have, as long as Aiden is next to me.

And for now, he is. Towering here at the garden hedge in his cargo pants and Byron boots, his heavy arm around me, shoulders still rippling with torture, his beauty more dreamlike than even during the protein. The luster of his fevered skin is almost opaline. His soaked hair and lashes glint black, and his bare chest shimmers as though sculpted in the rarest moonstone. He is staring at the cottage with the same longing as me, drawing the first deep breath since the reel.

“I was looking forward to seeing it with bravery,” he murmurs.

I tighten my hold around his waist. “You’re always brave.”

“You know what I mean.”

I risk a kiss on his bicep—the band of muscle twitches back but he doesn’t pull away. “Trust me, it looks a lot more beautiful with all our emotions. It’s perfect exactly as you see it.”

“Yes, it is.” His eyes linger on our open bedroom window where the light is always on for him, like in his war letters.

I drop the evil monitor and the blanket by his waders, keeping them out of our bubble, and hook my arm in his. “Come, let’s go in. The roses have missed you.”

“I’ve missed them too.”

“They say you look good in your new beard, but they really miss the dimple.”

“Tell them they look good in their new dew, but I really miss their blush.”

“They like your pun.”

“I like their everything.”

His fingers brush the Elisas as we pass by them. How am I going to walk in this garden without his hand in mine? Will it hurt worse than watching the video? Will every rose in this cottage wither and die with me? But none of my pain matters now. All that matters is easing the pain for him.

On our front step, Hope the Hybrid is almost invisible with its single leaf. I hope it grows another before September eighteen.

“Hi, Hope,” I greet it. “Look who is here to see you.” I pick up its tiny pot and give it to Aiden. “Hope wants to stay by your side tonight. She says she will be very safe and not touch you at all.”

He takes it from me, his eyes soft even in the dark. “Tell Hope she can stay with me for a while, but then she has to get some sleep. The embargo applies to her as well.”

As if there is a chance of that when he is like this. Still I flutter Hope’s leaf like a nod since my ability to lie to him even while impersonating a rose is now completely null and void.

“Very convincing,” he answers as I open the door.

As soon as we step in the glow of our tiny foyer, the shudders skip a beat over Aiden’s shoulders. His eyes consume the space with famine—the photos on the wall, the Clares blooming on the console as always, the Rose Cup, dad’s scarf on the peg. Gone is the vigilance of checking for intrusion; his memory now gives him the bliss of that first time he walked through this door, so full of hope. I watch with a clenched heart as his gaze lightens when it falls on my childhood photographs, and another deep breath flows through his lungs.

“See? I told you your mind needs this,” I gloat, hanging up mum’s parka.

“I never questioned that.”

No, he didn’t. He stays away only to prepare me for his absence. Except it’s so easy to pretend—as we stand here, our arms around each other, still shaking and burning, looking at our little home—that we are still us, that there wasn’t an end, that there won’t be a goodbye. Even if it’s a lie. But maybe we all need to pretend sometimes to survive. Maybe that’s what bravery is: pretending until you believe. Or until you can accept the truth.

So that’s what I do now: pretend.

I reach up for his burning cheek, swirling my fingers in the thick beard. “Come, the cottage has been missing you too.”

The shiver that runs through him now seems different—less horror, more desire. But the agony hasn’t released his eyes despite the faint light. He takes my hand off his face, still holding my icy fingertips. “I’ll go wash this off,” he says as always after the reel. “I don’t want to drag any of it here.”

Maybe he is pretending too. Whatever it takes for this pain to relent even for an hour, or a minute. “Good idea, but try to keep the shower cold. It’s better for the fever. I’ll go get your pajamas.”

“I can—” he starts but I’m already sprinting down the foyer to the linen cupboard where most of his clothes live now. As soon as I’m away from his body heat, chills erupt everywhere, and my chest starts throbbing. I race back before he has finished slipping off his wading boots.

“You know, I can walk, Elisa.”

“Yes, but I know what calms you so much better. Your favorite boxers are there too.”

His eyes when I say that. Half the bad fire, half the kind that ignites my blood. My knees almost give out. He takes the clothes from me, his fingers brushing mine. Then something catches his attention. He sniffs the air around the soft cotton. “Did you spray your perfume all over these?” he asks, perplexed.

“Exactly.”

He shakes his head, but his lips lift in the war-torn smile. “You’re unbelievable.”

“It helps you with the calm.”

“Not just with the calm.” He brings the fabric to his face, inhaling in the same way he breathes me in when we would curl up in bed. “Is this the second part of my surprise?” His voice is huskier beneath the slow timbre of pain. “I like it.”

“No, that’s later. This is just one of our embargo weapons.”

“Powerful.” His chest rises in another deep breath. “Put on something warm. You’re still freezing.” He brushes the goosebumps on my arm with Hope’s leaf and climbs the stairs. His favorite fifth stair where we used to make love squeaks under his feet.

Did the cottage just get brighter? Are the walls breathing? Is every grain of wood and stone coming to life even if just for one night? I’m unable to blink and check until I hear the loo door close behind him. And then I’m a tornado of chills, updating Doctor Helen and whirling around the rooms to prepare for our embargo night. Without the super-mind of the protein, I’m left with whatever brain cells have survived the scorching agony, terror, and sheer magnitude of the last six hours and ten days. It’s not many. My thoughts feel like mulch, decomposing under the strain of fear and anguish.

But the rainy sound of the shower keeps me moving on my shaky legs. By the time I hear it turn off ten minutes later, I’m already in the guestroom upstairs, throwing open the window to let in the rose breeze and the willow song. It has changed again in my normal ears. Not ephemeral anymore, but more beautiful, homier like a lullaby.

“New song?” Aiden guesses from the doorway. I spin around and there he is in his pajamas and white T-shirt, with Hope still in his hand. The droplets of water glimmer on him like the surreal halo of my bravery visions. But I can tell immediately the fever has not dropped a Celsius from the heaviness in his gaze, which means his mind must still be on fire. And the tension is still wringing his shoulders.

“Yes,” I whisper, my voice evaporating at the sight of him.

“What do they sing now?”

He’s here, he’s here.” I’m afraid again to ask about what he hears. Is it still safe, safe, safe like before the reel?

His eyes stroll around the guestroom, capturing each happy memory I managed to infuse here in the last few minutes. The vase of Elisas on the nightstand, two microwaved bowls of his favorite chicken soup leftovers, two Baci chocolates even though neither of us can eat them anymore, my chess set, the Chatsworth picnic basket hiding the medicine kit, the Christmas lights strung along the headboard, the old record player from our happy bedroom, playing Für Elise. His gaze quiets at last on the full bed. Except now it has our pillows, sheets, and quilt.

Instantly, all tension blows out of Aiden’s muscles like a gust of wind. Light floods his eyes back to their sapphire flames. Not my brilliant turquoise—only our bedroom can do that—but at least it’s no longer midnight. Another deep breath swells in his chest. He sets Hope on the dresser without a word and walks toward me where I’m still frozen at the window in his favorite sweatshirt and my leggings.

“I—” I start and try again because no voice comes out. “Since we can’t go back to our happy bedroom, I thought maybe I could bring some of its happiness to you. Like a Room of Happies compared to our Room of Firsts. I know it’s not the same, but—” I stop babbling because he reaches me. His body is so close I can feel his fever on my lips.

“It’s everything,” he finishes.

I topple headfirst into him, but his arms catch me. I lock mine around his waist before he can pull away, and melt in his blazing chest, inhaling his freshly showered scent. Sandalwood and Aiden and me. My head swirls with it, with the feel of him in my arms again. An old fear slithers up my spine, and I scrape my nail against my wrist to test reality. But I’m awake. He is truly here in the cottage, even if only for a few hours.

And he doesn’t pull away. His arms fold around me too, as he murmurs, “Elisa.”

“Yes?” I clutch him tighter. How is he still able to stand?

“That’s what the willows are singing for me. Elisa, Elisa, Elisa. Isn’t that what you wanted to know?”

How could he tell in just one glance? I press my lips above his heart—it’s thudding faster than the earlier death toll. “Well, I think mine just changed to sleep, sleep, sleep and soup, soup, soup. The willows want you to lie down and eat something.”

His long fingers caress the fabric of my sweatshirt lightly as if anything more or less might end us both. I can only tell because the heat permeates the thick cotton. “In a minute, but first, thank you. You were right. I do love this surprise even if I shouldn’t.”

“You should, but this isn’t your surprise either. You can see it after you get in bed.”

“Hmm . . .” His body sways, whether from the fever or the piano I don’t have time to understand because he abruptly tenses. I freeze automatically in response.

“What is it?” I ask, looking up at his face. My heart almost drops through the floorboards when I see his eyes drifting beyond the room, but he blinks back at me, frowning in confusion.

“Did you try to dance with me at some point when I was under? Or is that a memory?”

“Oh!” I breathe in relief. Not the worst of what he has seen, but his mind is not slowing down at all if he is still trying to parse out the past from the present. “No, you’re right. I did try, when I started playing Für Elise.”

He eyes change again, tender despite the pain. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting, ma’am.” And he lifts me slowly by my waist, sliding his bare feet under mine. We shudder in tandem at the touch.

“Aiden, love, you need to lie down,” I protest feebly. “You’re breaking the embargo rules already.”

“Am I?” He tucks my face back in his chest. “I think the rule was ‘rest and nothing else,’ and this is restful for me. The scientists say so.”

How can I say no to that? Especially when I want him to hold me so much?

As if he hears my thoughts, he pulls me tight against his body—summer and winter—yet it’s not close enough for me. I wish I could be air and float inside his lungs. Or blood so I can flow in his arteries. I want to slip under his skin and become a shield. I grip him back, and we dance through our steps that have become as instinctual as the breath hitching from our lips. I can feel his desire against every line of me—the way it ripples out of him as potent as the fever. I want more than anything to lift my face to his, to tangle my fingers in his wet hair, to taste him now that he is awake. But I cannot fathom the strength it’s taking for him to restrain his need. To deny himself everything he wants only to make the end easier for me. So I have to be good. I have to do the same for him.

He twirls me on the final bridge as always but doesn’t dip me over his arm. That’s good too—I couldn’t control myself if he did.

“Thank you for the dance. Earlier and now.” His voice has a poignant note to it like the last note of Für Elise. I’m too terrified to linger on the sound.

“Always. Now on with you, Adam, get in bed before I call every doctor in Oxfordshire.”

He doesn’t fight me this time—perhaps he can’t. He lies down, propping the pillow against the headboard, the twinkly lights above him casting a shimmering aura. His long legs dangle off the bed as he eyes the small space anxiously.

“Elisa—”

“I know,” I interrupt, throwing only a light sheet up to his waist. “It’s a small bed and you won’t let me in it. I’ll be careful.”

His finger hovers under my chin without contact, jolting me the same as his touch. “More than careful. You’ll go to sleep in your room after we’ve eaten, okay? I’ll be fine. It’s just a little fever.”

“Just a lot of fever. Aiden, I’m not arguing about this. We have a deal that tonight is about your health, with embargo on all else, including arguments. I’ll take care of you, and you’ll have to trust me that I’ll be safe. I wouldn’t endanger myself knowing what it would do to you. Haven’t I earned that trust?”

He opens his mouth to speak, but I stick in the thermometer, envious of its mercury tip under his tongue. “Mmmm,” he answers.

“That’s right. I interpret that to mean, ‘Yes, Elisa, darling, you have earned my trust, and I will not argue again tonight. Instead, I will take the paracetamol, eat the soup, see my surprise, and sleep, knowing that I’m loved.’ Is that what you’re trying to say?”

He looks at me like I’m his life and his worst enemy at the same time. “Mmmm.”

“Exactly. And if you don’t cooperate, I’ll call Doctor Gramercy, Doctor Helen, Doctor Corbin, your brothers, and your parents—they can be here tomorrow, they’re all packed. Oh, and Benson to hold you down while I force feed you.”

“Mmm—” he responds, but the thermometer beeps then, like my heart at the lab. I pull it out and almost collapse.

“Bloody hell, Aiden! It’s a hundred and two! How on earth are you coherent? I’m calling Doctor Gramercy right now.” I turn for my phone, but his hand closes at my hip.

“Elisa, darling, can I get in a word first?”

“Depends on the word.”

“How about these words? You’re right. You have earned my trust. More than anyone ever has or ever will. I’ve had an awful habit of questioning it, and I’m sorry. I’ll change it now even if I’m too late. I will trust you to be safe tonight and I’ll let you take care of me even though it should be the other way around. And if the fever doesn’t drop by tomorrow morning despite your magic, I’ll see a doctor. But tonight, I cannot handle anyone else but you. Can you give this to me?”

I just stare. How can I argue with his words, the pleading eyes, his simple wish, or his rare request for something he needs? How can I not give him everything?

“You’re not too late,” I recover, perching on the edge of the bed, afraid if I get any closer, I will throw myself at him. “And it shouldn’t be the other way around. You can’t always be the one saving me. I want to save you too.”

His lips lift into the worn half-smile, but he does the same, scooting to the middle of the mattress. “You save me every day, Elisa.”

But will it be enough?

He keeps his promise then. He takes the paracetamol tablets without argument, drinks a full glass of ice water, eats the soup, and even lets me take care of his hands no matter how much he hates anyone fussing over him. I disinfect the gnarly blisters with ethanol and cover them with honey balm, avoiding the heated gaze I sense on my face so I can concentrate. If the alcohol stings him, he doesn’t flinch. Instead, his fingertips curl instinctly toward mine. Every time they brush me, my heart hammers so loudly I think he can hear it. Being so close to him after ten days is more overwhelming to my system than even the protein. My emotions are a snarl. Everything possible to feel, I feel to the nth degree. From desire to the most absurd anger that his golden skin is hurt. Now I finally understand the mystery of how Aiden could be so furious at my sandals for giving me blisters. I loathe every shovel in the world at this moment.

“There.” I tape the strips of gauze around his hands gently. “They’ll be better tomorrow. But no shovels or hard labor for at least a week.”

He doesn’t like that—who knows what else he is planning to fix for me—but he concedes. “You really missed your calling as a military nurse.”

“Of course I didn’t. I’m taking care of a soldier right now. Here, let me put this compress on you. I even sprinkled some rose oil on it so it smells good. See?”

He stares at me in that you’re-unbelievable look but recovers. “Well, thank God for that. I wouldn’t want an ordinary compress.”

The note of dry humor under the hoarseness of agony sounds like a symphony to me. I press the damp tea towel over his burning forehead and eyes before he can see my eyes fill with tears. I try to avoid touching his skin—sure that any more contact, no matter how faint, will kill us both—but as soon as the wet cloth drapes over his face, he gasps as he did when he touched the evil monitor. As though something shocked him.

“Aiden?” I remove the towel immediately, but his eyes are focused on the labyrinth of his memory, tracing images I cannot see.

“You were there!” he whispers.

The words turn to chills on my spine. What is this? Is the reel trying to reclaim him? Or is this guilt? “Of course I was. I told you I’ll always be on the other side, just as you would for me.”

He shakes his head, his mind clearly processing with that surreal velocity he mentioned earlier. Here, in the light, I can finally see the stunning speed of thought in his far-away gaze.

“That’s not it,” he murmurs.

“Then what is it? What are you remembering?”

He looks between my face and the invisible mirage before him, his focus a laser beam, yet something seems to elude him. “Not remembering, exactly. Or maybe I am . . . It makes no sense.” His voice tenses with frustration.

“What makes no sense?”

The sentient eyes blink and return home. Meeting mine, torn between awe and puzzlement. “I have this very vivid image of you and me on the riverbank of Euphrates in Fallujah. Your hand is in my hair, and I’m splashing cold water on my face. I can hear your voice so clearly, telling me to do that. The vision is so vibrant, yet I know it’s impossible. I know you weren’t actually there. And I sure as fuck would never imagine you anywhere near that hellhole. But the texture of it—so rich and detailed. I can smell you with the gunpowder. I can see you through the smoke. I can feel your little hand around mine. It’s as if it really happened. As precise as any other memory.” He squints again, trying to reconcile the images.

I flap uselessly around my head. Obviously, a part of him heard me, though I don’t know how or in what order the memories are flowing back. Why this last image and not anything that came before it? Is it just a matter of the compress trigger or something else? But at least I can explain some of it. That way he can relax. “Actually, I think I might know why.”

He frowns. “Why?”

“Because I did tell you to go to the river and splash water on your face. You were so feverish, and Doctor Helen said to keep you as cool as I could, so I thought it would help if I gave you some images of cold water. Don’t worry about this part. Or any part at all. You really need to give your mind a break.” I pull the cold compress over his eyes again, stroking his forehead through the fabric. I can almost feel his thoughts racing inside his brain.

“Elisa?” His voice is unnaturally hard all of a sudden.

“Hmm?”

“How did you know there was a river close enough for me to go to?”

My mouth dries like the Fallujah desert. The only thing that saves me is that his eyes are covered. How could I have made such a blunder? Because the protein was fading, that’s why. My super-mind would have never floundered idiotically like this. “Well, ah, because I have studied Fallujah,” I scramble, sticking only to technical truths like the protein taught me. “I saw the Euphrates River runs through it.”

I would be proud of myself if I wasn’t liquifying into a blob of panic on the mattress. I didn’t tell a single lie, except by omission. Still, I force air in and out in case he can feel my choppy breathing through the mattress.

A few moments drag, stretching like the entire video, while I pray frantically to every angel and polygraph inventor to save me, Doctor Helen, Aiden himself, and Planet Earth. Then he sighs in a way that makes me think the entire galaxy will not, right this minute, scorch to ash by dragon fire. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you would have researched it but I hate that any part of that evil is in your head at all. Is it really so hard not to investigate every single thing that crosses your path, Elisa?”

My breath flows naturally again, and I almost slump on the bed in relief. Would he ever have accepted my explanation this easily if he wasn’t blindfolded with a tea towel, sleep-deprived for ten days, agonized, traumatized, assaulted by thousands of memories at stratospheric speed, and running a fever of a hundred and two degrees? No, not in a million years.

I dab another cold compress on his cheek. “It’s impossible. Snooping where I don’t belong is my specialty.”

Another sigh. “I’m aware . . . But it still doesn’t explain why the image feels so vivid even though it never happened. It’s as though my mind took your fantasy and flipped it into reality.”

The momentary relief disappears. Because for this, I have no answer. Nothing but a mounting terror expanding like an imploded universe. Terror that something has broken. Terror that I violated some fundamental principle of memory and nature by crossing the boundaries of time dimensions when I entered the reel with him. Terror that I made it worse instead of helping. Terror that I may not be able to save him at all. Terror for his pain. And terror that the fever is not relenting. My fingers tremble as I stroke his scar over the damp cloth.

“I wish I knew why, my love. I wish I could make it stop.”

His fingers caress the sweatshirt gathered at my hip, as if hears the unspoken dread. “Don’t worry,” he assures me. “I’ll figure it out.”

“I know you will, but not tonight, Aiden, please. We really need to give your mind a break, something else to work through that’s not burning or painful.”

“Alright,” he agrees, but I hear what he is not saying. What thought is left that doesn’t carry pain?

“How about a riddle so you can guess your surprise and keep your brain busy?” I splutter ridiculously, as if any childish game can tame terrors like these.

But it brings back the ravaged smile. “Very embargoish.”

“Okay, let me think. What would be hard enough for you?” I remove the compress to refresh it with more ice and rose oil. His eyes find mine immediately, lightening, softening, which doesn’t help me at all with the thinking process. I have to look at the soggy towel so I can string together some clues. “Alright, here it is.” I wrap the compress back over his eyes and forehead, wishing it could blind him from the images in his head. “Solve it and you’ll know what your surprise is. I start with love and end with riches. Within me, only mirror images. I am fragile, thin, and very light. Yet I can carry great loads inside. I can be a thought or a feeling. And if you lose me, you might lose meaning. But anyone who’s seen me will agree. There’s no greater suspense than me.”

A low gasp like a chuckle flows from his lips—the first since the end. My heart almost stops at the sound. So beautiful, even if only a ghost of the joyful music it used to be. What I wouldn’t give to hear it again.

“How do you come up with things like this?” he demands. “Do you have a section in your prefrontal cortex reserved for puzzles only?”

“No, but I do have a big part of my brain dedicated to you.” Okay, that’s an understatement. My entire brain is dedicated to him.

He shakes his head as if he doesn’t think a single neuron should be his. “And this is something you’re giving me?”

“Yes, and I’m very late at it.”

“Okay, my turn to think.” And underneath the willow song, I can almost hear the sudden silence in his mind, the ceasefire as he tries to focus only on the riddle.  Let it help, please. Let it cool the fever.

“Is it health?” he guesses, but then answers his own question, “No, it can’t be.”

“A good guess but keep trying.”

“Peace?”

“No, but it could have been.”

“Air?”

“No.”

“Coming home?”

The way home sounds in his voice—so warm, like it was made for him. “That’s your best so far but keep thinking.”

And he does. He keeps guessing answers that are a lot better than mine as I change the compress over and over again. But the fever isn’t dropping. His body is still a furnace, raging next to me. From the heat, the room feels sultry, the rose breeze like a tropical zephyr. And his voice becomes slower, his eyelids heavier as they struggle to open whenever he can see me. I try to fight back my rising panic so I can breathe for him.

“You really missed your calling to be an intelligence code writer, Elisa. Are you sure there is an answer?”

“Of course I didn’t miss it. I’m giving codes to a CIA analyst right now. And, yes, there is an answer.”

“Well, I’ll be Harold Plemmons’ age if I ever solve it.”

My breath rolls out into a faint whisper before I can stop it. “Promise?”

Even burning, he hears it. His hand clambers up to his face and he pulls down the compress. His eyes are abruptly fierce underneath the fever.

“Elisa.” He pours all his strength into his commanding voice. It rings with power, fortifying me as he must intend it to do. His other hand grabs a fistful of the sweatshirt at my hip. “For as long as your heart is beating, so will mine. You are not allowed to ever worry about that. Do you understand me?”

Except I want his heart to beat forever. I shove down the dark thought and put all my strength in my voice. “I do. I’ll keep my heart beating for a lot longer than Mr. Plemmons, I promise. And so will you. You will heal from this. You are not allowed to ever worry about that. Do you understand me?”

He sees my faith, my fear even with his hooded gaze. “I do. That’s why I’m still fighting. Now, is it lavender? Because it starts with an L and ends with R, even though nothing else fits. Or did I just commit a cardinal sin mentioning another flower’s name around here?” His lips force a valiant smile, and I grin naturally in response.

“You’ll have to grovel to the roses first thing in the morning—they’re very jealous flora, but I’ll give this to you because you guessed a flower and that’s close enough. Look under the other pillow and you’ll find your surprise.”

His smile lingers. “Really? You’re giving me a pass?”

“I can fail you if it would make you happier?”

“No, no, I’ll take it.” And his long fingers reach under the spare pillow immediately. For a a split second, a shadow of the seven-year-old boy flits in his eyes, not carefree, but alive. I swallow hard against the lump in my throat as he fishes out the origami rose I folded out of lab paper. “A white rose,” he muses, but as soon as his eyes lock on it, his memory strikes again, impossibly fast. “There was a rose!” he breathes in shock. “In the classroom, on the blackboard, there was a flower drawn in chalk like a rose!”

I hear my gasp of dread and relief. Because he saw it. He heard me, he trusted me, he found the rose as I had hoped. But I’ve triggered another flashback. And we’re getting closer to the torture, to the deepest circle of the fiery inferno.

His eyes flash to my face in awe. “You were there too. Just like with the river. You led me straight to it. How did you do that?”

I feel the blood drain from my skin. There is no compress over his eyes now, nothing to hide behind, except the only truths I can tell him. “I didn’t say anything about a flower,” I whisper, mouth dry like chalk, skin white hot like the desert. “I only told you to look for familiar things.”

“Yes, I know, but what gave you the idea? It’s so different than what you’ve done in the past.”

“I—I was just trying to bring you back, and I couldn’t think of another way.” My voice shatters under his gaze. “Aiden, please let it go. Don’t dwell on the horror now. Please!

My panic must derail him. He lifts his hand to my face, brushing my cheek with the paper rose as though he, too, can’t survive touching my skin. “Hey, hey, shh, not horror. At least not this part. That rose kept me breathing today. It was the one thing of beauty in all that hell. Once I saw it, I kept my eyes on it instead of . . .”

My own breath stops entirely—with the origami touch, with his words, with the tenderness in his gaze. Even the anxiety about the video disappears for the moment at this revelation. Because I’d watch it a million times over withoutthe protein if it gave him one bubble of oxygen. “It really helped?” I whisper. “But I—I broke all of Doctor Helen’s rules!”

He nods, caressing my cheekbone with the paper petals. “I’m glad you did. If you hadn’t, I would have never found the rose, even though I obviously glimpsed it when I stepped inside the classroom that day.”

I press the cold compress over his cheek like a caress too. Of course he hadn’t registered it since that accursed moment. Who would think of roses with all the torture that followed? “I’m glad you saw it in the first place. Thank God for your mind and for whomever drew the rose there.”

His eyes travel, and I’m certain he is seeing the image that I know so well: the simple petals, so obviously drawn by a child’s hand. Was it one of the broken hands Aiden had to pick up and match to the rest? Or is that child still alive somewhere in the desert—an adult now, unaware he just helped a man breathe thousands of miles away? Will that chalk rose be enough to help Aiden in the future when I’m not there?

“Thank God for you.” His eyes focus on me with feeling. “I still can’t access most of it, but I know I’d still be in that classroom if it weren’t for you.”

A shiver runs through me at the haunted look that mars his beautiful face. “No, you wouldn’t,” I say quickly, patting his brow with the damp cloth. “You’d be right here, except you’d be opening your surprise instead of trying to comfort me.”

It works. The ghostly look fades and, for now, we seem to leave the classroom—and my detailed knowledge of it—behind. “Open it? The paper rose you folded so carefully?”

I nod. “Oh yes, the surprise is inside. You didn’t think the answer is ‘rose,’ did you?”

“No, but it seems sacrilegious to unravel this. Haven’t I committed enough sins against the roses tonight?”

“No, the roses like this part. And I’ll fold it again for you if you want.”

He trails the origami rose down my cheek to the corner of my jaw. “I want.”

He opens the rose carefully while I try to find the real rose breeze for air. Abruptly I’m nervous. Will he like it? Or will it cause more flashbacks? It seemed like a good idea when I was brave, but now my decisions during the protein seem downright insane. But it’s too late—he flattens the scrap of lab paper and his breath catches. The weary smile sparks again. “Ah, I see. The answer to the riddle is a letter. Of course it is. Clever.” He looks up at me through his long lashes, heavy with fever. “Now what could you have written to me?”

“I don’t know, I was high.”

“All the better.”

I watch without air as his eyes turn to the words I wrote. The words I remember as clearly as if they were still in front of me.

My love, he is reading,

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write you back. After all, we’re still fighting a war—a war like no other. With hearts instead of shields, memories instead of bombs, dreams instead of missions. It’s the war to end all our other wars. The war to save you. Because you deserve it, and we will fight for as long as we have breath left. Even when we’re an ocean apart.

And one day—whether now or when we’re as old as the Plemmonses—I know you will win. I know I will wobble on my cane to my postbox, and I will see an envelope there with just my address and an international stamp. I will know your handwriting even blind. I will know what the letter says before I open it. Just one four-letter word: F-R-E-E. And I will dance right there by the rose hedge—cane, titanium hip, knee braces, and all. Then I will scribble you back one word. The only one I will know. L-O-V-E.

But until then, maybe we’ll keep writing to each other. Just like this—never goodbyes, only “my” and “yours.” Even you cannot find anything unsafe with that. And I will tell you all the things I haven’t had a chance to tell you. There are only a billion. This time, I will start with how it feels to love you with absolutely no fear. Love you for love’s sake only, just like your first Baci quote said.

I wish I had your talent for writing—perhaps then I could do justice to the feeling. It’s compulsive, instinctual, like every right and wrong has ceased to exist. All my worries and what-ifs no longer matter. Every other purpose in life has become secondary to this one simplicity: I love you. From the A of your name to the Zs of your sleep. I love the totality of the man you are, without a single care of what was or what will be.

I don’t love you safely, tucked between a dream and a fairytale. I love you violently, torn between wars and nightmares. I don’t love you with pasts or time. I love you the way stars are meant to be loved. Forever, in darkness and light.

Yet it still doesn’t seem enough, because I know it can’t last. Fear will return soon and, with it, reason and reality. I know there isn’t a world where you would ever risk my life. And I know bravery changes nothing between us. So when I’m awake from this spell, don’t give me anything but whatever you can. From however far.

Yours,

Elisa

He finishes before me even though these are my words rhyming in my brain more fluently than my own name. But he doesn’t blink away from them. He gazes at every period and every comma the way he looks at me sometimes. As though they’re his reason for living. And for the third time in our love, I see the glimmer of a tear at the corner of his eye. But it’s not a tear of pain. For once tonight, there is no trace of agony in his expression.

A whiff of rose breeze floats by, and I realize I had been barely breathing until now.

At the sound of my breath, Aiden looks at me. And before I can figure out how to blink, he sits up, coming so close with his surreal face, his body heat, his sky gaze full of dreams. His fragrance washes over my lips, and I have to wring the tea towel to stay upright. But the room starts to spin. And the tropical air crackles on my skin like melting ice.

“Elisa,” he murmurs, and the deep emotion is in his voice, too. “I—what can I ever say to a letter like this? There are no words for it.”

I dab the single tear sparkling at the edge of his scar. “I don’t want you to say anything. I only wanted you to know how brave love felt for me.” But as I hear the past tense, oddly, it doesn’t feel in the past at all. It feels viscerally present.

He looks at me with the whole world in his eyes. “I know it. I feel it. But that’s not all you want, is it?” He flutters the paper along my cheek—it billows with our breath. “You want more. So much more than that.”

M-o-r-e. Except what I want no longer matters compared to him. “I want you to be at peace most of all. So I’ll take whatever you can give me safely, even if just in letters.”

It would never be enough. To have the words of our love story tucked in the library right next to Dante, Austen, and Tolstoy . . . in the empty spot left by Romeo and Juliet.

His eyes turn to the letter as if he is considering that other world. The world where we speak only in paintings and scribbles. The paper trembles from his touch. “I don’t know how to be with you half-way,” he admits, seeming lost. “I did it in war, but now that you’re real . . .”

This morning I would have told him to be with me in every way, but that won’t help him now. Not when he needs to hope I will have a life beyond him. The hope that will keep him alive. “That’s okay. Then be with me only in here,” I answer, hovering my hand above his heart. His fever burns my skin even without contact. “Just promise you will send me that letter when you heal. Because you will, Aiden. One day, you will.”

He looks again at the words I wrote, his eyes deepening, and I wonder where his thoughts are taking him. To that dream? That day in his future? I don’t know but my mind flashes to the past. To us. To every maddening, beautiful, surreal moment of being his. They roll by in a memory reel of my own: the first time I saw his exquisite face at Feign’s gallery . . . touching the miracle of his hand at the presentation for my supplement . . . coming alive under his gaze on our coffee date . . . his first kiss and every single one that followed it . . . that first night together and every night since . . . the war we fought . . . the way he healed me . . . his gifts . . . the games of chess . . . the dances . . . the sleeps . . . his waterfall laughter . . . every minute of his impossible, forever love.

The wound in my chest rips wide open, almost curling me over in a torture of loss. I barely have a second to whip around and pretend to soak the compress so I can hide from his quick eyes. But I’m not fast enough. His finger comes under my chin, skin on skin without any fabric between us. The small touch jolts through me like electric current.

“Elisa, love?” He turns my face to him immediately. “What is it? What hurt you just now?”

L-o-v-e. I commit the way it sounds in his voice to memory, wishing I could remember like him so not a single note of his music ever fades from my mind. Even his panic for me right now. But it knocks me to my senses, overruling my own pain. What the bloody hell am I doing? How can I add even a second to the burden he is carrying?

I take a deep breath and press the compress back to his cheek. “Your fever isn’t dropping at all,” I answer, choosing the most urgent of the thousands of flames because it’s the one that will worry him the least.

He doesn’t release my eyes or my chin, still studying me. The light contact grows, sinking through my skin to my very bones. “I’m sure it will. Is that all that’s upsetting you?”

“Isn’t it enough?”

“No, nothing is worth this pain.”

“Well, it is to me,” I say truthfully, because nothing else compares to his health. “Aiden, please, I’m worried about you. Maybe we should try something stronger to break your thoughts. How about blind chess against me and your laptop? That ought to distract even your mind for a few minutes.”

He sighs, no doubt seeing the earnest dread, and relents. His finger drops from my chin, leaving behind the chill of his absence. “I have a better idea instead.”

“What idea? It had better not involve worrying about me, Aiden, I swear.”

“It doesn’t. At least as much as I’m capable of doing that.”

“Then what is it?”

He holds my eyes in that way that makes it impossible to blink. “How about you read your letter to me?”

The sheet of paper quivers in his hand from my surprised gasp. “Really? But you already remember it by now—it won’t be enough to hold your focus.”

“I promise you it will hold it more than anything else. And I haven’t heard it in your voice. Or with you in my arms.”

My mouth pops open. Because I realize what he wants. Didn’t I try and fail to imagine his piano voice when I was reading his war letters alone? How alive did his words feel when I finally heard them in his music, curled in his chest? But did he really mean in bed with him?

He nods as though he is in my head. “Elisa, you’ve been up since four—assuming you slept at all, made breakfast, went to work, solved the protein, tested it, watched me in agony for three hours, revived me all on your own, found a way to save my sanity, prepared my surprise, and now you’ve been taking care of me all evening, refusing to leave me alone, hurting deeply, and putting on a brave face for my benefit. The embargo applies to you too. I’m not going to lie here all pampered with you on your feet, and I don’t think I’ll fall asleep tonight. So if calming me is your goal, nothing else will calm my mind more than your rest.”

And before I can find my breath or blinks or tell him none of that compares to what he’s done for me, he pulls the compress from my frozen hands, tosses it on the floor, and takes me in his arms. His scorching hold zings me back to life. Tingles explode everywhere until I see stars. My arms fly around his waist and my lungs restart, inhaling his delicious fragrance. A shiver runs through me at the same time as it ripples over him.

He sighs in my hair and lies back down, pulling me across his chest. I snuggle frantically into his heat, breath racing, heart pounding, pulse almost breaking through my skin. He is so close, the bed so small, this doesn’t bring us back together, yet it’s so much more than I ever thought I would get again. The feeling is overpowering. Like coming home, air, health, peace—like all his answers to my riddle because he is my answer to everything.

Through the flammable haze in my brain, I realize Aiden has forged into titanium around me as though the fire that’s turning me to vapor has petrified him. Every single muscle is flexed into a blade of restraint. Even his lungs seem to have stopped. But his heart thunders like mortar fire under my cheek. And his hold—so tight, so desperate, like a last breath. Yet even now, he turns his strength against himself so I don’t bruise under his hands.

Only his need can break through my frenzy in this moment. I loosen my stranglehold around his neck and untangle my leg from his.

“Aiden, love, if this is too hard, I can—”

“Shh, it’s harder without this.” His voice is husky, the way he sounded when we would make love.

I want so much to look up at his face, but I know there is no way either of us can survive that right now. One blink, and we will end. On our tomb, it will say Amor Finit Omnia. So I lie very still in his arms, head on his chest, listening to his heart.

“Do you want me to tell you about Rostóv?” I ask, trying to remember War and Peace. “Will that help?”

A quiet exhale flurries in my hair like his lost chuckle again while I liquify at the sound. “No, I’d much rather hear your letter.”

I take it from his hand where it’s shuddering like us. “Okay, whatever you want. After all, you’ve slept on the ground—assuming you slept at all, you didn’t have breakfast or lunch, you lifted a whole quarry of stone, reinforced the riverbank, have fixed the roof and the plumbing and the shutters, cleaned the gutters, built the garden beds, fertilized and mulched the garden, pruned the shrubs and the trees, hacked the thornbushes, chopped wood, established a grant for my job, set up my trust fund, lined up my security, hired me lawyers, attacked the boulder that almost killed me, God knows what else, watched the reel, were stuck in torture for three hours all alone, you’ve been running a fever of one hundred and two all evening while fighting the triple-force of your  memory, and now you’re worrying about me. Did I forget anything?”

Another low chuckle blows warm tingles over my skin. “Yes.”

“What?”

“I finished the entire War and Peace.”

Astoundingly, laughter finds me in this moment. It bursts from my lips as it did the first time he told me about his trick.

“There, much better. I love the sound of your laugh, Elisa,” he tells me as he did then too—if I’m remembering that moment, he certainly is, which means he is not thinking about the reel. And like then, my laugh seems to work better at distraction than Tolstoy. He takes a deep breath and tucks the sheet between us like an extra shield. It’s too warm with his fever, but I’d rather burn to cinder right now than move one inch. I hold up my letter to busy my eyes and begin, voice trembling without the confidence of the protein.

“My love, I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write you back. . .”

He listens with his heated lips in my hair, the thud-thud-thud of his heart to the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of mine. And when I finish, he is quiet. Only our heartbeats and the sounds of the night. The rustle of the beech trees, the willow song, a gentle creak as the breeze kisses the shutters. But the fever still isn’t dropping.

“Do you miss it?” he asks after an immeasurable moment—I’m avoiding the wall clock.

“Miss what?”

“Loving me that way. Without fear.”

When he phrases it like that—in the past too—that visceral sense of presence engulfs me. A familiar force gushes in my veins, just as potent as during the protein. Not scorching or icy, but healing. Like glacial spring water, washing away all the debris of fear and agony. With a startle, I recognize what it is. L-o-v-e.

“Oh!” I gasp, trying to breathe through it with my unfortified lungs. I thought once fear reentered my world, it would normalize everything, but I was wrong. Somehow, through facing our worst terrors, that Himalayan super-love survived. How could that be?

“Elisa?” Aiden props himself up so he can look at me, the V of worry between his brows. And for a second, his face seems to shimmer again with the lovely aura of my bravery visions—but it’s just the twinkly lights.

It takes me a moment to remember his question, to find my voice through the potent emotion. “No,” I answer in wonder. “I don’t miss it at all. I still love you the exact same way.”

The V deepens. “How is that possible without the protein?”

I try to think past his closeness, his fragrance, his gaze, his body heat, the sheer existence of him. “I don’t know but I’m glad it is.”

“Do you think some of the protein’s effects might still be lingering?”

“No, I think it’s because my love for you has always been the same, just as strong with or without fear. Bravery only allowed me to feel all of it. And now that I have, I can’t unfeel its power. I can’t unknow its depth.” Again, the words bring a vivid sense of recognition. Silently, I thank my lucky stars. If I had to keep one thing from the protein, I’m grateful it’s this one.

He watches me intently, his eyes deepening with an unfathomable storm of their own. The rose breeze blows back and forth between our lips.

“Do you wish I didn’t love you like this?” I ask and regret the terrifying question immediately. Or rather the answer he might give.

His gaze softens on mine. “A part of me will always wish that.”

Fire torches my throat, almost as scalding as during the video. It seems some types of super-agony have survived too—why is that? I can’t find enough strength to analyze it through the flames.

“Shh, let me explain!” He shakes my shoulder gently. “A part of me will always wish that for your happiness. Our end would certainly have been easier for you if you didn’t love me like this. But a bigger part of me—the most selfish part—wouldn’t change a single thing about your love. How can I when it keeps me alive? When it’s the greatest happiness of my existence?”

The fire vanishes as quickly as it erupted, as if he doused it with his words. A sense of peace rushes through me in its place. Not because we won or because it will change our end. I feel peace for a victory that matters more than my wants: Aiden has finally accepted love, even if only in a letter, even if only from a distance. The man who wouldn’t even let me tell him I loved him at first, who did everything he could to make me hate him, just heard four hundred forty-four words of my reckless and unconditional love for him and wouldn’t change a thing. If that’s not worth every minute of the reel, every flame of agony, every stab of terror, every empty minute of my future existence, I don’t know what is.

I feel my own lips lift into a true, straight-from-the-heart smile.

“What is it?” He smiles in response, clearly unaware of his own transformation—so subtle, yet so bold.

“Nothing. Only that selfish is such a beautiful word.”

He taps the brave letter at the corner of my grin. “And me being selfish makes you happy?”

When he asks me that, abruptly, happiness shifts. It hasn’t taken any forms in so long. I thought it would always look like the past from now on. But it shimmers again, looking exactly like this present moment: Aiden, even if feverish and worn, cherishing my love.

“Very happy,” I tell him. “I want you to be the most selfish man in the world.”

I know he sees the truth. I can tell from the way his eyes lighten on mine. “In that case, can I hear that letter again?”

“You can hear it as many times as you want.”

His gaze lingers on my smile until a different kind of fever starts to burn my skin. He shuts his eyes with a pained sigh. Hard, harder than I’ve ever seen him fight anything, he leashes back his body and lies back down, hands in fists on the sheets. And I know he made right choice for both of us. Because if he kissed me now, I would not survive losing it again—faith or no faith, protein or no protein. And if I kissed him, I would cool his fire only to finish him in the end.

“Do you have a favorite part of the letter?” I ask for distraction.

He seems to think about it for a second, eyes still closed. “Every word, but maybe the part about the stars.”

“Why that one?”

“Because it’s almost as strong as the way I love you.”

Almost? Don’t you mean equal?”

“No, I mean almost. The protein doesn’t seem to have changed the way I feel about you either. I love you as indescribably now as I did before it. Maybe even more. Though, of course, I have no idea what happened during—”

“Shh, don’t go there.” I tighten my hold to keep him present. “Just think about the good parts you know: that you love me like this because you’ve always been extremely brave and your emotions are naturally much more heightened already.”

“Precisely. So almost is the right word. But surprisingly I like hearing about this other love that comes close.”

What’s the point in racing the stars? You will never catch them. That’s why they are stars. Shining outside your window every night, more beautiful than any dream—forever yours, yet forever out of reach.

“My love,” I start reading again even though I don’t need the letter. But he seems to like looking at my handwriting, and I’d rather his eyes stay here than drift back to Fallujah.

He strains me closer with each word, molding me to his blazing body. And this time, when I finish, I start over without pause like we do with Für Elise. Every now and then, I feel his body tense with flashbacks, but each time, I raise my voice a little and he comes back. Listening to the words of my love with his nose in my hair, fever on his skin, and shudders in his heart.

“I love you the way stars are meant to be loved. Forever. In darkness and in light . . .”

Abruptly, his steely arms become heavy around me, and his hold softens with a sigh. I panic that the reel is dragging him back, but when I peek up at his face, I see he has miraculously fallen asleep. So heroic, I can hardly breathe. His beauty is war-torn with deep shadows under his eyes and hollowed cheeks. The V is still etched between his brows like a peace sign. And the fever is still flushing his pale skin. I watch every flutter of his eyelids and every bristle of his beard, memorizing all of it. Because I know I’ll never have another chance like this. The clock is ticking away every minute of our last embargo. And when it’s over, he will be gone. Aiden and I will be the past.

My chest rips open again, and I let it now. I let agony claw my throat, tearing out huge chunks of my heart. There is no sense in fighting back—it will have all of me in the end. The only thing I stop are the tears boiling in my eyes. Because they would blur Aiden’s face, and I don’t want to miss a blink of it tonight.

But right as he finds a cradle of rest, terror breaks through. The reel snakes inside his dreams and steals him. I can tell from the tension that seizes his body, from the way his breath twists into shallow gasps. How much is his mind reliving? Has it reached the schoolyard? Can it see that vital clue buried in the smoke clouds? Will his memory slow down enough for him to find it like a second chalk rose? And will that clue be enough to give him some peace at last?

A shudder ripples over Aiden—not one of mine, one from the desert. Deadly, with its tentacles deep in the chambers of his heart. And even though I’d give up every rose in this cottage to stay here in his arms, I know the only thing he would want right now is for me to be safe. So I start slipping carefully out of his hold, feeling as though with each centimeter away, a chip of my soul rips apart and stays behind. By the time I climb out of bed, my heart, mind, and breath are still in his arms.

I tiptoe to the nightstand for his iPhone to turn on Für Elise, but something next to it catches my attention: Aiden’s anti-nightmare pill. He didn’t take it; didn’t fathom he would fall asleep. My stomach churns in dread. Because whatever horror is scorching him now, he will be facing it alone without any anesthetic against the poisonous flames. I shudder and swipe up his phone for the only weapon we have left. His screensaver is still the same from our very beginning: me fast asleep in his Portland bed.

“Here you go, my love,” I whisper, tapping the pre-programmed playlist. And the piano starts floating around the room with the breeze. I fold my letter back into the origami rose and set it next to his pillow. “Sleep safe, I’m right here.”

But he doesn’t sleep safely tonight. Because this isn’t sleep. It’s war. Raiding his brain, strafing his heart, bombarding his memories with IEDs. His body revs up, muscles glinting like knives. Deep creases trench his forehead like chains around his mind. I curl on the armchair in the corner and try to count his breaths like always, but they’re not puffs of happiness anymore; they’re heated gasps of torment. And his fever starts radiating out of him in blast waves. I can taste it on my tongue. Even the air in the room changes—no longer tropical; it’s a desert heat dome. Fallujah is here. With its blood-soaked sands, dark shadows, hellfire, and bombs.

I bolt to my feet, searching for anything to stop the torture from drifting closer. The ice bowl and compresses are on the floor, but I know I cannot touch Aiden now in any way. It would kill us both. But what else is left? Old cottages like this were not built with air conditioning or ceiling fans. I dash to the window and tie back the curtains so the breeze can blow in more freely. Then I turn up the volume on Für Elise.

Help him, Dad. Break the fever, Mum. Let him go, Marshall, please.

But the heavens aren’t listening. For the first time, I hear Aiden speak in his sleep. Not the soft moans of love I’ve heard before. These are the guttural, soul-wrenching words in fluent Arabic. They fire from his lips like bullets, sharp and rapid under the staggering processes of his memory. I can barely catch them, and the ones I do, I don’t understand, yet I can remember each inflection, each fierce vowel, each strangled consonant from the video with razor clarity. I can recite them with him right now, as though his pleas for Marshall are branded with hot iron in my own memory.

“Khidhni, aqtilni . . .” His breath slashes the rosy air in agony.

At the sight, my own agony explodes—not the wound in my chest, the flesh-tearing pain, or the intangible torture of loss. This is the blistering kind, the brave torment of the protein, searing me alive. Except I have no superhero endurance anymore. I wrap my arms around my torso, trying to breathe through the scalding smoke in my lungs. Why isn’t this gone? Why now and not before? How did I live through it then? Where are my limbs, my heart, my spine? I can’t find anything in my body—there is only fire even though I know it’s all in my mind. In my normal, limited mind that gives me no answers now.

But there is one thing the flames don’t torch even as they incinerate everything else: Aiden himself. His love, his agony so much vaster than mine. His voice turns into that inhuman sound for which no language exists. And he needs me.

I wrench myself upright and stumble to the nightstand for my phone. It flickers on with my own screensaver: Aiden peacefully asleep in our happy bedroom. The time glares neon white across his smooth, unlined forehead. Five minutes past midnight. Another day gone. So few left to save him. I pull up Doctor Helen’s number, too terrified to care if she is wake or asleep. But she picks up on the first ring.

“Elisa, there you are. How is he?”

I sprint out in the hallway, still keeping my eyes on Aiden, and tell her everything. “What do I do?” I choke. “How do I help him?”

Silence on the other side as she must be taking in the deluge of information I just unloaded.  I expect her to admonish me for breaching her directives but she doesn’t say anything. For once, I will the seconds to tick faster, but they seem to stop as they did during Edison’s attack: only on moments of unspeakable terror.

At last, she sighs. “I’m not sure there is much more you can do, child. From what you’re describing, Aiden’s mind is processing at an unfathomable rate. As excruciating as this is, we must allow it time to do that.”

“But the fever?” I whimper. “I can almost feel it out here in the hallway!”

She doesn’t miss a single second now. “Elisa, you cannot touch him under any circumstances, you know that. Even for a compress. And no medicine or doctor can lower the fever because this is not illness—it’s trauma. We will need to endure as best we can. Do you think a second dose of the protein would help you do that?”

As if I’m worried about myself. “No,” I answer firmly. “I understand the protein a lot better now. It’s not meant for this. I’ll save it for Aiden. For bigger things.” Like September eighteen or that very last breath when he is finally at peace.

“That’s probably wise in any event,” she agrees. “Two doses in one day would be ill-advised with its emotional extremes.”

A shudder pins me against the wall at the idea. For a second, I consider telling her about the super-emotions but this isn’t about me.

“In that case, would you like me to come stay with you tonight so you’re not alone?” she offers.

Except Aiden cannot handle anyone else here tonight. And if I’m honest, neither can I. “No, I’ll be okay. If I need to wake him, I’ll call Benson. But thank you for all your help, for picking up at this hour.”

“Of course. Call me anytime. But tomorrow, you both need to rest. No reel or protein or strenuous activity of any kind.”

“We will,” I promise, even though I have no idea how Aiden will be when the embargo is over. Maybe I can buy another day Scheherazade-style, like I did on our first night.

“Meanwhile, I’ll connect with Doctor Corbin and we can reconvene at my lab the day after—I suppose that will be Saturday now—to see how you both of you are feeling.”

A second shudder almost knocks me to my knees. “You’re not going to show Aiden more awful images, are you?” I croak in horror.

“Of course not. In fact I’m not sure it would help anymore given this reaction . . .”

In her rarely hesitant voice, I think I hear what she is holding back now that my bravery has worn off. She is protecting me from another truth, but I know. This is it. There is nothing more she can do to save Aiden. Science has tried it all.

I feel the doorframe against my back as my body wobbles for balance. An odd blankness tugs at the edges of my mind as if to shut it off, but I fight to stay in the present second only.

“Then we’ll find another way,” I tell her.

“You will never give up on him, will you?”

“Never.”

“Then follow your instincts, child. They’re Aiden’s best hope.”

H-o-p-e. The hybrid trembles on the dresser from the breeze.

When Doctor Helen is gone, I search every crevice of my frantic mind for anything that might help. But without the protein, all genius is gone. All that’s left are slivers of instincts and bursts of faith. It has been enough to survive until now. It will have to be enough tonight.

“I’ll be right back, love,” I murmur.

I race around the cottage, throwing open all the shutters, grabbing the old fan from the living room, mum’s crafts basket, and anything that occurs to my composted brain. As I run, I text, stumbling into furniture in a way that would give Aiden a stroke if he saw it.

“James, can you help me with something?”

His response is almost instant. “Name it, Trouble.”

And he does—in fifteen minutes, I have what I need. Or at least what I believe might help tomorrow. But Aiden has deserts to cross, chains to break, clues to find, and torture to survive before then.

I hurry back upstairs, hauling everything in my arms. On the bed, Aiden is still burning in every way, from his mind to his skin. I set the fan by his side, fill its reservoir with rose water, and train it on him so the mist and ventilation blow straight on his body, amplifying the breeze. Then I spray my perfume in the air and curl on the floor by his side, reciting my letter out loud. It helped him fall asleep. Perhaps it will help again now. I time my words to the notes of Für Elise, rifling through mum’s crafts and trinkets to keep my hands busy so they don’t fly on their own to touch him.

I snip, string, tie, and knot, hands shaking, voice trembling, heart shattering, burning with him. And though it all, Fallujah wins. Torching his body with fire, irrigating his lungs with smoke, retrenching his heart with bombs. And his words change again, back to English, contorting into dry sobs.

“Take me. Kill me, not him . . . it’s my fault . . . my fault . . . my fault . . .”

There are some moments in life—moments drenched in storms, with volcanoes of agony forging ravines of fury, waterfalls of love drenching the crags of fear, torrents of desire flooding mountains of longing, thunders of guilt shattering the skies of freedom—when we are simply small. Just leaflets in the wind, hoping to land somewhere we know. This is one of those moments. A moment when I can only tremble and hope.

Outside the window, the night deepens, then lightens into another dawn. On the dresser, perhaps from the desert heat, a tiny, new bud leaf is peeking on the stem of Hope. And Aiden’s torment changes, ringing out with a different tenor, less desolate, more commanding, until it becomes a single word.

“Stop!”©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: CHAPTER 24 – CIRCLE

Happy Sunday, friends! It’s been a dreary, rainy weekend here in Portland, perfect for moods and writing. Wanted to thank all of you who read and wrote to me about the last chapter.  I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Real v. Reel? I can’t answer that, but I’m loving your comments and theories. Here is another chapter. Hope you like it. Lots of love, Ani

 

24 

Circle

Chronologically, a sunrise lasts only two minutes. Emotionally is another matter. Because right now, waiting for Aiden, the seconds between the first glow above the horizon and the first rays scattering across the sky ooze like congealed blood from an open wound. Each willow murmur sounds like footsteps, each lark song like a familiar melodic voice—but there is nothing. He’s not here, he’s not here.

I jump to my feet, unable to sit on the garden bench without him a second longer. Max’s alert eyes follow me from the hedge as I dash to the hybrid rose behind the shed. Chills prick my skin like thorns at the reel’s proximity. Does the evil inside know it hasn’t been unleashed today? Will it avenge itself on Aiden later? I shiver and force my mind to scour my work bench for any disturbance. But nothing is missing here either. My brain stutters to produce any differences—is that pot of dirt closer to the edge? Has the Elisa graft moved an inch? I stare without blinking, yet I can’t decide if I’m seeing differences or missing them.

Then things strike fast like the sun bursting over the hilltops. Max rumbles, “Good morning,” Benson’s voice booms through the air, “News?”, and I break into a sprint.

“Aiden!” I shriek, rounding the shed, jumping over a Clare, losing a slipper, and launching myself at him the moment he streaks through the garden hedge. His gasp whooshes in my ears as he swoops me in his arms and tucks me in his chest while I run my hands frantically over him to make sure he’s okay. He is—not a single scratch on his beautiful head.

“Hey, hey, I’m fine,” he assures me, but he’s doing the same with me, scanning me from my hair to my bare toes. His shoulders sink in relief when he sees everything is the exact mess he left it. “Elisa, what the hell are you doing up?” he chides, tracing the circle under my eye with his fingertip. “I thought I told you to go to bed.”

I lock my arms in a stranglehold around his neck, blubbering in his throat. “But you—not here—worried—I couldn’t—”

“I also told you not to worry.” His exasperated voice has never sounded more like music to me. “You don’t really think someone can hurt Benson and me, do you?”

“No, but—you’re tired—and stressed—and—”

“Shh, it takes a lot more than that to take me down.” He cradles me in his arms and kisses my hair, all anger seemingly forgotten—or vanished I should say, for him.

“I’m glad you’re home,” I sniffle, crushing myself closer to him and inhaling his scent.

“I’ve told you this, too.” He sighs again, but his lips stay in my hair. “I’ll always come back to you.”

The cottage door flies open then. “Aiden?” Stella cries and hurtles down the path, Robert on her heels.

“Oh, fuck, does no one listen to me?” Aiden mutters under his breath, setting me on my feet without releasing his hold around my waist as he turns to reassure his poor parents. I peek at Benson in his usual spot behind Aiden. He winks at me, but there is a shadow of worry in his brown eyes.

“Are you okay?” I mouth at him behind Aiden’s arm as Aiden keeps saying I’m fine to Stella.

Benson nods with a smile.

“And him?” I tilt my head slightly toward Aiden.

“Worried,” Benson mouths back and the smile disappears.

I tighten my grip on Aiden’s arm, resting my head against his stony bicep. It softens at the point of contact, but I still don’t let go of him or he of me as we troop back to the cottage. His eyes devour the garden corner to corner, and he crouches at the Clare to pick up my fuzzy slipper.

“Here you go, Cinderella.” He slides it back on my foot, his exhausted smile more dazzling to me than the new sun. Then he squints across the rose bush at the garden shed and the hybrid behind it.

“I checked,” I say immediately so he doesn’t have to wonder or spend any more time on his feet.

The V appears between his eyebrows. “And?”

I shake my head, aware of all the eyes and ears on us. “Everything is there, but I can’t tell if they moved an inch or two. I’m so sorry.” My last three words stun us both. Until they slipped out of my mouth under his gaze, I didn’t know I preferred a real intruder to giving Aiden this news.

As if he heard that thought, a trace of the same hurt flickers in the turquoise depths, and he stands, taking my hand. “Don’t be sorry. I’d rather be wrong than have you in more danger.”

And I’d rather be in danger than have him be wrong. But worse than that is that four-letter word—m-o-r-e. No doubt he used it because he believes the first and foremost danger is him. “I’m never in danger if you’re with me,” I answer, knowing he won’t argue with everyone around us.

And he doesn’t—the only sign of protest is his clenched jaw.

Inside the cottage, Stella has been busy while I was staring at empty fields and cluttered working benches. The smell of fried eggs is wafting from the kitchen, but she herds us into the living room, where she has set out coffee, rose water, scones, jam, cream, strawberries, and mum’s soup tureen full of scrambled eggs on the coffee table that’s creaking under the weight.

“Eat something, Aiden. Benson, Max—you too. Elisa, darling, I’ve got your tea right here, in this pretty cup. There you are!”

It’s not until I see the food that my body registers hunger. Or maybe it’s because Aiden is home, and I can feel something else other than my throbbing chest. We all load our plates and scatter on our old seats from the night, Aiden folding on the sofa next to me, except now our arms and legs are touching.

“So what happened, son?” Robert asks when Aiden finishes his scone. “Did you find anything either way?”

Aiden blows out a gust of breath, not touching his coffee, while a shiver whips over my skin. “Many and nothing,” he answers, his voice controlled. If I didn’t know it so well, I would have missed the faint hard edge underneath. “There are tire tracks on the roadside gravel by Elysium but, as Elisa is no doubt thinking this very second, that’s not surprising because it’s the main road to town.”

He nods at me, as if to say I’m considering your theory. I vow to do the same for him. “What else did you see?”

“This was by the garage,” he answers, taking something from the back pocket of his jeans and handing it to me. It’s an After Eight mint wrapper. “It wasn’t there this afternoon when we pulled out of the garage to go to the Inn,” he explains as I pass it around. “But it could have ended up there in any number of ways. Someone could have tossed it out of a car window for all we know.”

“Does it mean anything to you, Elisa?” Stella asks, sipping her tea.

“No, After Eights are popular around here. I’d wager every cottage in town has them. My dad used to love them, but I haven’t bought them since . . .”

Aiden takes my hand, hearing the unspoken day in my drift. There are shadows under his brilliant turquoise eyes, his skin shimmers less, and the ray of sun beaming through the window fractures over his drawn cheeks. Yet he is still here, caring for me.

“Aiden, love, why don’t you get some sleep?” I plead, clasping his fingers. “We can finish this later. You’ve been up all night.”

He shakes his head. “We’re almost done. Benson, show them what you found.”

Benson sets his clean plate on the floor and digs in the liner pocket of his jacket. His massive hand covers whatever it is, but he tosses it at me. I see as it somersaults through the air that it’s a tiny ball of crumpled paper. It lands in my open hand with uncanny accuracy. I smooth it out, looking at the random doodles like concentric circles.  Five necks crane to peek at it with me.

“Any thoughts about this one?” Aiden prompts.

“Umm, not really. It looks like scrap paper. Anyone can doodle like this.”

He nods with a deep sigh. “I had the same thought. I’ve seen you draw circles like this, and seventy-eight other people in my life. It’s in blue ink—also your usual choice—but blue pens are hardly unique. I can’t prove this came from the cottage or was meant for it. There’s nothing unusual about the paper either—just a generic lined notebook.”

I look at it again. I have notebooks like this. As does Reagan. As does the town’s stationer, Mrs. Sterling, and probably everyone who buys notepads there. The doodles are symmetric, it’s true, but I see nothing in them to link them only to me. “Where did you find this?”

“Down the road toward town.” Aiden gestures the direction with his thumb. “Why? What are you thinking?”

I shrug. “Just trying to consider your theory as fairly as mine. This does look like something I would draw but, as you said, so could anyone.”

Aiden runs his hand through his hair in frustration. His eyes zoom on the empty fireplace like last night, the tectonic plates shifting back and forth, back and forth as if he is looking at a chessboard.

“Did you see anything else?” Max wonders, gulping coffee.

“Random details, equally ambiguous,” Aiden answers, his eyes not breaking the inner analysis. “There’s a broken rose in the climber by the garage door, but that could have happened when the door closed behind the car. There’s a cigarette butt further down the road but it could be anyone’s. There are no footprints because, of course, it’s been dry.” Then his eyes flit to Max. “Did you check for footprints under the windows?

Max nods with vigor. “As soon as it got light out. There’s none in the dirt or the rose beds.”

The faithful V forms between Aiden’s eyebrows, and something quick passes between him and Benson.

“If there are no footprints where there should be, that means either they swept them or we’re left with the key theory,” Benson rumbles.

“Or mine,” I offer, looking only at Aiden, feeling like we’re stuck in a circle. I’m about to ask him to stop this now and go to sleep, but he takes my hand.

“Elisa, I know you have serious doubts about this, and if I only listen to logic, I have them too. But I can’t shake off this instinct that I’m right. So, I’ll ask you one more thing about this that you will hate, and then I promise I’ll be done for today. Will you please call the Plemmonses and ask them if they ever gave the cottage key to anyone else? They’re usually up by now, setting up the shop.”

I’m about to say “no bloody way” but the lines of worry on his beautiful face stop my tongue. How can I not give this to him if it helps him sleep and fight the reel later today? How can I not give him everything after the story his parents told me? Exactly as he would do for me.

“If I do this, will you go to sleep?” I ask, brushing his knuckles.

“I promise.”

“And you will stop worrying?”

“I can’t promise that, but I promise I will drop the subject for today.”

“What about security? If the Plemmonses say no, as I’m sure they will, can we let Max enjoy the rest of his vacation? He’ll get so bored guarding me from doodles, he’ll have to steal roses himself for entertainment.”

He shakes his head before I’m done. “I can’t do that—not until I figure out what we’re dealing with.”

I watch his set jaw, knowing this is the best he can give right now. As he must know from my eyes that this isn’t over. I nod, reserving all my arguments for when he’s rested, and pick up my phone from the sofa corner, where apparently it’s been sitting forgotten all night.

“Thank you,” Aiden says simply as I dial.

Mr. Plemmons answers on the seventh ring, and it takes several different shouting volumes to establish the right level of bellowing for him to hear.

“Is summat the matter with the roses, Rose?”

“No, Mr. Plemmons, but I have a quest—”

“Wha’ ‘bout the Festival?”

“I’m all set, Mr. Plemmons, but—”

“Did yeh like the garland, Rose?”

“It was beautiful, Mr. Plemmons, thank—”

“Is Adam being a gentleman? I told him, I said, ‘only because yer parents ‘ull be here, Adam, but yeh keep yer hands off our Rose! An’ we ‘spect to meet them, we do. Didn’ I tell him, Josephine?”

“Yes, you did, Harold. You scared him right off. The man promised he’s sleeping in the shed.”

The first chuckles of the day susurrate around me, Stella’s in a pillow, Benson’s on his knuckles, Max’s in his elbow, and Robert’s in his palm. Aiden is too stressed and tense to laugh or do anything but pinch the bridge of his nose and breathe deeply with his eyes closed for strength.

“Mr. Plemmons, I have a question,” I yell at the top of my lungs into the receiver to delay the stroke that is surely coming for Aiden.

“Wha’ is it, Rose?”

“Did anyone ever borrow the cottage key when I was in Portland?”

“The wha’?”

“The cottage key, Mr. Plemmons!”

“The key? I don’ think so, Rose. Josephine, do yeh remember anyone ask fer the rose key?”

Some silence on the other side presumably as Mrs. Plemmons scratches her head with her knitting needles. “No, I don’t remember anything like that,” she wheezes after a while then her voice rasps closer to the receiver. “Has something happened, Rosebud?”

“Nothing at all, Mrs. Plemmons. Not a thing. I’ll bring by some roses and Aiden’s parents later. They’re coming to the Festival.”

“Oh, how wonderful! On with you, Harold, on with you! I have biscuits to bake for Aiden’s parents.”

“Stop calling him Edmund, Josephine. His name is Adam.”

They are still arguing about Aiden’s name when Mr. Plemmons hangs up without saying goodbye.

“Feeling better?” I ask Aiden as his parents, Benson, and Max are catching their breath from laughing.

He runs his hand over his thick stubble with a deep sigh. “How much can we rely on their memories, Elisa, really? The man believes I’m sleeping in the shed.”

I caress his tense jaw. “And you might well end up sleeping in the shed if you don’t drop this right now like you promised. Now on with you, Adam, on with you. Go to bed and sleep this off.”

The first real smile since the Suite of Firsts lifts his lips. “Oh no, not the shed.” But he stands without further argument, and everyone stands with him.

Fifteen minutes later, after his parents leave with Benson while Max insists on staying guard outside until we wake up, Aiden and I finally climb the stairs to our happy bedroom. With each creak of the old boards, the terror of the night starts to dissipate. First as a wink of a smile at the corner of Aiden’s mouth when he steps on the fifth stair, then as a sigh in my throat when his hands curve around my hips, until the moment we cross the threshold of our room, we both transform. The glow returns to Aiden’s face, warming his ashen skin back to gold. His jaw relaxes, the V releases his eyebrows, and every wisp of tension floats away from him until his long, graceful body moves with his patent fluidity, half-water, half-man. And every debris of fear and anguish disappears from his eyes until they gleam the clearest shade of turquoise.

As for me, I’m back to the drooling state I started this night with.

“Are you having déjà vu?” Aiden smiles as he closes the bedroom door.

“How did you know?”

He flows to me and wraps his arms around my waist. “Because I’m having it, too.”

“Déjà vu to what?”

“To entering our Room of Firsts. You?”

“Me too.”

“Mmm.” He lowers his face to mine as he did last night, pausing an inch from my lips. “Can you make us a protein to turn back time?”

“I wish.” My voice turns to vapor under his heated breath.

“Let’s try to repeat it then.” His eyes become molten and descend over me like fire. I have exactly one second left for thought. Already my body is arching toward his.

“Oh, no!” I lean away, pushing against his chest. “Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Plemmons. There will be no female nudity of any kind. You’re here to sleep.”

He laughs with that waterfall sound as I quote his words to me from Oxford’s University Park but doesn’t release my waist. “But I sleep so much better with female nudity around, Elisa.”

“Well, maybe Mrs. Willoughby can oblige.” I push weakly against his chest again, but he brings his lips to my ear.

“I don’t want Mrs. Willoughby.” His hand trails up my spine. “I want your hair . . .” He sweeps aside my tangles. “And your skin . . .” His fingers trace my throat. “And your smell . . .” His nose skims along my jaw. “I want everything of yours on me.” He molds me to his shape as his lips brush mine. “If I have all that, Elisa, no one on this earth sleeps better than me.”

His words stop but it’s not silent. My heart is thundering, my blood is hammering, my breath is hitching. He blows gently over my lips to open my eyes I didn’t know I had closed. “Can you still give all that to me?” he asks as soon as I blink at him. “After everything I put you through last night?”

It only takes that change in his voice—from amused to tender to uncertain—to clear my mind. “They’re always yours.”

The dimpled smile sparkles on his cheek. “Then may I have this dance?”

We have danced together to Für Elise fourteen times now, once before each sleep. I know his steps by heart, yet each time feels new. He takes off my clothes and I take off his, and we sway together, skin on skin, each piano note as vital as a heartbeat now that I know how it became the soundtrack to our dreams.

“I’m sorry, love,” he murmurs, his voice more melodic than our lullaby. I look up at his incandescent eyes—there isn’t a single trace of fear, hurt, or anguish there now. Only peace.

“Why are you sorry?” I whisper back, letting the melody reign over us.

“For getting angry when you were only trying to reason with me. For worrying you. For making you lose sleep. For being unable to drop this like you wish I would.”

“Shh.” I press my finger on his lips—he kisses it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. I know everything you’re doing is to protect me. I’m the one who should apologize.”

His raven brows arch in shock, and he stops mid-turn. “What do you have to apologize for?”

“For hurting you when you were only trying to save me. For yelling at you. For not believing you like you wish I would.”

‘Shh.” He smiles, pressing his finger on my lips—I kiss it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. You did the right thing. I need you to challenge me. Always, but especially now.”

He picks up the dance, nose in my hair, as Für Elise plays on. I debate whether to tell him I know how he found it, but I don’t want any painful memories to enter this bubble. ‘I can’t be anywhere else,’ he told his parents the night I left him. I lean into his body before chills whip my skin. What happens this time if we lose? Or if the reel takes him from me before time does? Will there be any place left in this earth for him or me now that we are so deeply entwined together I no longer know where I end and where he starts? I press myself closer to him, inhaling his pure, vivid scent that keeps the goose bumps away.

Für Elise ends with its last poignant note and starts again. We curl into our cotton bed that smells like us, and he takes his anti-nightmare pill while I pray for the protein. Make him brave, keep him whole.

“How long should we set it for?” he asks, programming my song.

“Don’t—sleep as long as you need. We can do the r-e-e-l whenever you wake up this time.”

He doesn’t argue or flinch like I do. Still invincible, still braver than me. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me to his front, every curve of me to every angle of him. I can feel his desire, but he keeps his promise. He just buries his lips and nose in my hair, breathing me in. “Don’t worry, love.” His fingers trail down my arm. “I’m built for this.”

“But it’s different now, with all the trauma you’re revisiting.”

A deep sigh flows through him and washes over me. “I know . . . same answer.”

From the beech tree outside the window, a lark starts to warble, harmonizing its song to Für Elise. “Is there any part of you that thinks the r-e-e-l might be causing this?” I whisper, not wanting this question to interfere with either melody.

He caresses my arm, back and forth like piano keys. “Maybe I’m afraid to think it,” he whispers, too. “The idea of not being in control of my own mind . . .”

I turn in his arms, placing my hand over his heart. “You are in control. You’re just learning new ways of thinking. Don’t doubt your mind. Only your reactions to stress. I’m sure Doctor Helen will agree. You should talk to her about this.”

He nods, weaving his fingers with mine, looking at our joined hands. His lashes cast long shadows over his cheeks. “Will you answer something for me? The full truth, no diplomacy or sparing of feelings.”

“Of course,” I answer, surprised by the uncharacteristic request. His eyes usually see my truth before I even know it. But right now, they’re locked on our folded hands as he speaks in a slow, deliberate voice.

“If the reel fixes the startle but breaks my mind, would you still want to be with me?”

His question makes me gasp, but not only because of the heart-wrenching words. I stop breathing because I finally realize why he is afraid. It’s not fear of losing his mind, it’s fear of losing my heart.

“Aiden Hale.” I lift his chin as he does with me so I can see his eyes. They’re steady and bold, except that flicker of pure hurt that now I fully understand. “I will want you no matter what the reel does—whether it changes your mind or not and even if it doesn’t fix the startle. I know you don’t like hearing that, but you asked for the full truth. I’ll always love you, and no distance, or time, or reel can ever change that.”

He has inhaled every word, breathing them in like air. And I know he believes me. I know because the painful question clears from his eyes. “So, it’s not just my brain that you’re attracted to?” he smiles, gesturing to the photo of his brain and heart waves on my nightstand.

I grin back. “No, sorry. It doesn’t even make the top five.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he chuckles. “But I’m curious now, what are the top five?”

“Oh, that’s easy. Your heart, your character, your strength, your laugh, your mouth—”

I’m about to continue, but he kisses me with a low throaty sound. “Mmm, this mouth business seems to be important.”

“Very.”

His fingers braid into my hair and he strains me to his shape until I can feel his heartbeat on my skin. The moment I taste him on my tongue, I realize that until now my own mouth tasted bitter, but it wasn’t the night. It was the hours apart. His lips brush away the acrid residue until I only taste his honeyed flavor.

“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, freeing me for air, but his breathing is almost as uneven as mine. He turns me around—all iron and silk—and presses his lips in my hair. “Our top fives are the same, you know . . . except mine also include your faith in me and your patience and your humor and . . .”

I’m about to point out that this is more than five, but a deep breath of cinnamon air swirls in my hair and his weight becomes heavy around me. I peek around, and he is asleep, his lips parted in a soft smile.

“Like cookies, my love,” I whisper. I lie here as always, counting his breaths, and happiness shifts again despite the night. It becomes his puffs of sleep to my song in our humble bedroom with the dried poppies of our weapons in this fight: our love, his strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love, our families, the team of scientists, my calming effect, Für Elise, hope, laughter, and, if I can finish, the protein. I still don’t know if they’re enough to win against Aiden’s past. And after today, I no longer know if they will be enough to see us through the reel.

Abruptly, sleep vanishes, and I feel wide awake. More than awake—drumming with nervous energy and fear, making my feet and mind twitch. Instead of poppies, I can only see Bia and the protein’s formula in my head. It’s no longer just urgent—after last night, it’s imperative. I can’t afford to lie here when I can calculate Oxytocin Twelve doses instead. I finish counting the one hundred and fifty breaths that it takes for Aiden to drift into deep sleep, and inch out of bed, jittery and tense.

Dad’s library is filled with sunlight when I tiptoe there. The gauzy curtain billows with the rose breeze, and Max’s reflection plays on the windowpane, sipping his coffee by the hedge. Was it only five hours ago that I stumbled in this room shuddering in terror? Now the idea of an intruder sitting on Dad’s armchair or touching our unfinished chess game under the glass case feels fuzzy, like a distant nightmare that has left only its startle behind.

I switch on old Bod, wishing I could run to Bia instead, but there is no point in testing until I understand exactly how much O-12 I should add and why else the formula didn’t hold yesterday. I’m blurry eyed with calculations when Skype’s jingle dings loud enough for Max’s head to snap up toward my window. Reagan! I answer it immediately, not wanting to wake Aiden.

“Top o’ the morning, Rose.” Reagan’s curls explode on the screen and her feigned British accent chimes through the library. As soon as I see her sparkling smile in her pajamas, an urge to hug Bod overpowers me. I blow her a kiss on the screen.

“Hey, Reg—how was the flight? Did you find everything okay?”

“Oh yea, okay and empty and boring. I’ve decided rhododendrons are highly overrated compared to my rose.” She glares at her window where our old pink rhodie is blooming. “I miss England already.”

“And England misses you. How was Javi on the flight? Any progress?” Between meeting Aiden’s parents and dealing with real or reel intruders, I’ve been itching to ask her since Aiden found the sketch of her eyes at the Inn.

She blows a ringlet off her face, and her smile disappears. “Well, we fought for half of it so no—unless you define ‘progress’ as conversation in which case, yes, it was an improvement over the dour silence that filled the other half.”

“What did you fight about?” I ask even though it doesn’t matter. The real reason is Javier being invisible for all his formative life and now he is unable to see when he is seen.

“Everything—no matter what I say or do, I seem to aggravate him. I don’t know, Isa, but I’ve thought a lot about it. I have to let him be . . .” She wipes her eyes with her sleeve.

“No, Reg, don’t give up yet. Javi loves you—he just doesn’t know how.” I trap my tongue between my teeth, so I don’t mention the sketch. I can hear Aiden’s voice, even asleep, thundering through his synapses to tell me to keep my mouth shut. And as much as I hate to admit it, he is right.

Reagan just shakes her head, mopping up more tears.

“I’m serious,” I tell her, clutching the screen as if it were her shoulders. “Let Javi open the gallery and get some confidence, like Aiden said, and I think he’ll come around.”

She wipes her nose this time and nods. “He’s very excited about Solis Art—he’s named it already. But enough about me or I’ll cry all night. How did it go with Aiden’s parents?”

I want to keep talking about her and Javier, but I can tell she needs the space. And I can’t even berate her for not warning me about the fact that Aiden’s parents make the Beckhams look like garden compost. “They’re so sweet, Reg. I wasn’t prepared for how kind and supportive they are.”

“I know, right? They’re exactly who I would have picked for you. Stella already posted a picture of your roses on Facebook, quoting Shakespeare, ‘Of all the flowers, methinks a rose is best.’ Here, look.”

Reagan holds up her iPhone to show me Stella’s profile, but I stare at it without seeing as shivers scrape my skin at the mention of the charlatan. Does he creep up on other people’s lives like this or is he only haunting mine?

“I have to hit the pillow, Isa,” Reg says after I manage a nod. “I’m still jetlagged, but I have to go to work tomorrow. Who invented jobs? Horrible person.”

Probably Shakespeare. “Love you, Reg. Sleep well.”

“Love you, too. Say hi to our dragon. Tell him to prepare in advance because in September, I might even hug him.”

She hangs up with a laugh before she hears the whisper that hushes out of my lips of its own volition. If we have until September . . .

I listen for any sign of Aiden upstairs, but there is nothing. Hopefully he is dreaming of cookies while I stare at my lined notepad waiting for a stroke of brilliance. That odd sensation I felt in the Room of Firsts, like a tugged thought, flutters again now for some reason. What was I thinking about when I first felt it? Oh, yes, I had mumbled “orgasms are oxytocin but taste better” in my sex coma. And there it is—the same curious feeling, like a tip-of-the-tongue hesitancy . . . I try to analyze it but can’t find any clues in it. It must have been because I tasted the protein earlier at Bia and it didn’t taste as good as Aiden. But why did it fizz away?

Outside the library window, Max’s pacing shadow rolls over the roses. And on my notepad, my pen draws concentric circles over my calculations without a single answer.

©2021 Ani Keating

 

 

Day 7: Author Interview with Mia Hopkins

Good morning everyone, and happy Day 7—eek, only one week left! Can’t wait for all of you to hold Thirty Nights and find Elisa and Aiden again, in both their new and old selves.  But we still have a few more exciting plans for you: more excerpts, more posts, a trailer, playlists, reviews, and more interviews.  Here is another one for Day 7 with Mia Hopkins—an amazing author on her own right, who burst into the romance market as the winner of the RWA Contemporary Romance Writers Stiletto Award of erotic romance, and has not stopped since.  Check out our interview, and spread the word.  We little debut authors are nothing without our readers.  xo, Ani

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HI, ANI. CAN YOU PLEASE TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK?

Would love to. Thirty Nights is the first book in the American Beauty series. It tells the love story of an orphan from England—Elisa—and a U.S. Marine with PTSD and total recall—Aiden. They meet in the eleventh hour, when in the height of the anti-immigrant movement, Elisa’s visa to live in the U.S. is denied. Determined to save Elisa from everything, including the government he once served, Aiden fights the way only he can. His only condition is for Elisa to stay away from him and his demons. But despite all the reasons why they shouldn’t be involved, the two soon realize that the biggest battle is fighting their tortured pasts. With thirty nights left, they begin a terrifying and scorching race to save themselves, and each other. But are some demons too deep, too vast to fall? In love, is surrender perhaps the best kind of fight? I’ll let the readers decide.

Your protagonist Elisa faces a difficult challenge when her visa is denied. What inspired you to create her?

Elisa—unlike all other characters I’ve written—came to me fully formed. I knew from the moment I “heard” her voice in my head who she was, what foods she liked, what made her tick. But not because she is me in any way. She incorporates some of the best traits of the most influential women in my life, and their flaws—even though she is entirely fictional.

But at the core, Elisa was “born” because I wanted a heroine who gave voice to the millions of women who have come to (or were born in) this land and fight tooth and nail for their dreams. I wanted to see what the American Dream still means: to Elisa, it means love and family.

Tell us a little bit more about Aiden. What makes him so yummy?

Read more about Aiden at Mia’s Blog

SEE YOU ALL SOON!! Like, in a few hours.  Love,

Ani

Day 23: Another teaser

Happy Sunday everyone! Hope you’re all having a quiet, relaxing day.  Mine is filled with laundry and waiting like crazy for the new Homeland episode tonight. #LetQuinnSurvive.   In the meantime, here is another teaser for you.  23 days left to Thirty Nights!  Spread the word and don’t forget to register for the giveaway.  Thanks for all you’ve done and continue to do for this story. xo, Ani

Tango Teaser

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