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 41: REAL

Happy Monday, friends! What can I say about this chapter? If I had the words, I would have given them to Elisa, but I don’t. Every. Single. Thing in the story has led to this.  Theme: “at last.” Song: just a heartbeat. Favorite line: “At the end of all things, how do you find a beginning?” I hope you enjoy it. Love, Ani.

41

Real

I try with every blink to stay awake but as soon as we get home and cuddle on the sofa together to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, a deep feeling of safety overpowers me, and I pass out despite sleeping all day. When I next open my eyes, dawn is filling the living room with a soft periwinkle light. But time is the only thing that has changed. I am still exactly where I was: curled up under the fluffy blanket, in Aiden’s arms, his lips in my hair as though he has been holding me all night.

I look up at him immediately, a different kind of glow sparking inside, but he too has fallen asleep to the low sound of Für Elise. The auroral light casts his face with a forget-me-not tint. A glimmering thread of sun weaves through his black hair, longer now with the passage of summer. And his lips are parted, a dream flitting quickly under the golden eyelids.

So vulnerable, the air trembles in my throat at the sight. Because underneath the beauty is the staggering cost of the war he fought for us. More visible now that he is adrift in the currents of subconscience. His sculpted cheeks have hollowed, drawn in as though from a prolonged illness. Deep purple shadows circle his eyes. And for the first time, I notice a strand of silver at his temple. Like a brushstroke from the Old Aiden of my happily-ever-after visions. Visions that will only ever remain a fantasy.

I shut down the thought at first flash, closing my hands in fists against the urge to caress his face, to wake him with a kiss. Because today is our meeting with Doctor Helen. How do you wake up from peace for a war you have already lost? How do you open your eyes into the daylight that makes it real? At the end of all things, how do you find a beginning?

I press my lips lightly on his T-shirt and inch out of his arms very slowly so he stays in dreams until he has to face that reality. And until I prepare everything I can to make it easier for him.

The magic of our embargo still twinkles everywhere around us, with a different beauty in the daylight. Like a pale, gossamer moon in blue, sunny skies. My unopened tomorrow present shimmers underneath Aphrodite’s branches. Except it’s today. Abruptly, my stomach twists at the idea of opening it. Because that would be the end of the magic, wouldn’t it? Not to mention this razor fear that this is his goodbye gift.

“Not yet. It’s still embargo,” I mutter to myself so I can breathe. Then I pick up my phone and pad silently up the stairs to get ready, including my present for him. From the corner of my eye, I glimpse the time on the screen unwillingly. Six thirty on Saturday, August 22—only two hours until the meeting. It’s just a check-up after the fever, I assure myself repeatedly. Nothing new, nothing we don’t know. But the fire in my chest isn’t listening. Because I remember the finality in Doctor Helen’s voice on the phone two days ago, her silence, so similar to my parents’ funeral. This is not just a check-up; it’s when science officially gives up. I trip on the landing and rush to the loo, prayer humming in my mind as though it has been drumming uninterrupted all night. Someway for us, please, somehow.

But there are no codes or formulas for this, only indefinable instincts and the frantic beat of my own heart. I jump in the shower, trying to focus at least on the things I understand. How to lather, how to rinse, how to help Aiden today, my gift for him. Another secret he needs to know. And the last plan the protein laid for me.

I dry off roughly, brush my teeth, and shuffle down the hall to our happy bedroom. It waits like always—roses in the air, the white curtain blowing from the open window, the empty bed missing its pillows and sheets that are now in the guestroom, the defeated poppies of our weapons. I dive headfirst inside the closet to shut out the image. Intuitively my hands grasp the same navy dress I wore on our first date—the day of the painting, the day when we chose each other over reason. I throw it on with my PEAC diamond bracelet, the locket, and Aiden’s dog tags underneath. And then I do the same for him. His briefs and jeans from our first kiss, and the white button-down shirt he was wearing before our first sleep. A mosaic of us, of moments when we chose our hearts. Then I dig up the small cardboard box I hid deep behind mum’s journals with some other treasures, and slither downstairs to the library.

The precious room is healed as though Edison never wrecked it—the window replaced, the rug of planets clean, the chess game finished in the corner, its flower glass case sparkling freely on the shelf. Only dad’s microscope is still absent, in evidence against the monster. I start printing, stuffing, and wrapping the box with shaking fingers, each wisp of tissue a kiss, a touch, a tear. How will Aiden feel when he opens this? Shocked, yes—as deep a shock as his discovery about Fallujah. Maybe even angry with me. But I know like I know his every heartbeat that it will be good for him. He has the truth; now he needs the faith in himself. Yet even as I try to prepare him for our end, my mind plays the same constant refrain: somehow for us, please, someway.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s alarmed voice comes from the foyer as soon as I paste the last strip of tape on the gift.

“Yes, love, I’m right here!” I call back, tucking the present in my purse and tossing the wrapping materials in the bin before he can see them. He strides through the library door in seconds, hair tousled, the entire sky lightning in his eyes when he sees me. And instantly, the burning pain in my chest heals. “Morning!” I smile, launching myself at him, greedy as usual for his touch.

“Good morning.” He sighs with relief and wraps me in his arms, pressing his lips hungrily in my damp hair. I can tell from the way his tension softens around me that this is the first breath he has taken since opening his eyes.

“How are you feeling?” I ask, kissing his heart through his T-shirt.

He tips up my face so he can look at me. “Better now that I see you.”

“Me too, but I mean . . . about this meeting.”

He forces a smile for my benefit, but deep in the turquoise depths, I see the pain he is trying to hide. “I already know what they’ll tell me, Elisa. The reel served its purpose—it’s done. There’s nothing more they can do to change what’s left.”

The startle—the only thing we could not overcome. I tighten my hold around his waist. “You know what else they can’t change?”

“What’s that?”

“It was not your fault. You are home. And you are loved. And there’s nothing more important than that. Do you understand?”

A true smile curves the corner of his mouth—no dimple, but it’s that quiet smile of this other side. “I’m starting to,” he answers and pulls me back in his chest.

He holds me like this for a while, swaying as we do with Für Elise, just us on the rug of planets, our feet on Venus, our bodies wrapped in the first rays of run. On the wall, the atomic clock is ticking, but I focus only on his heartbeat. Thunderous and fast. Because of our touch or what’s coming?

“Were you able to rest at all, crammed up in the sofa like that?” I ask, looking up at him.

He strokes my hair, sending an electric current over my skin. “Elisa, I was able to sleep with you in my head through Baghdad’s raids. Of course I did in a comfortable couch with the real you next to me. How about you? Have you been up for a while?”

“Not long. Just enough to bring my hair under submission before I can be seen in public.” I point to my head as an exhibit.

“You look beautiful,” he murmurs, and for the first time this morning, his eyes leave my face. Descending over my body, catching fire when he notices my outfit. Just like that first night, except stronger, fueled with the force of time. “Ah, this dress . . .” His fingers trace the hem, brushing my thigh. The flame is in his touch too; it sweeps under my skin, heating my blood. The bedroom glow suffuses my vision with the candlelight filter that will always bind us in secret.

“I thought we could use the memory today,” I breathe, my voice evaporating in my mouth.

“And what memory is that?”

“A memory of us . . .” I barely hear my voice through the pulse hammering in my ears. “When we were a little selfish.”

His arm winds around my waist, arching me to him. His body heat seems to melt through the fabric of my dress. “Mmm . . .” he whispers, lowering his face until he kisses the hollow spot at my collarbone. “Very selfish.”

“Not . . .” I start but his lips trail up my throat to the corner of my jaw, and I lose my train of thought. All I can feel is the four seasons thrumming inside my body. A spring of tingles blossoming on my skin. Summer heat smoldering in the bottom of my belly. Winds of autumn blowing through my lips. And a quiver of winter in my spine, each molecule melting like snow under his touch.

“Yes?” he prompts, his lips brushing my earlobe.

It takes all my faculties to remember my answer. “N-not selfish enough.”

“No?”

“No.”

His lips flutter along my jawline. “More?”

“Most.”

“Hmm . . .” he murmurs, stopping at the corner of my mouth. His breath is coming hard and fast against my lips. Mine has stopped entirely. Will he break his rules just this once? If he is still being selfish?

“D-did you change your mind?” The question trembles out of my lips.

He pulls back with a pained sigh, eyes on fire, hands in fists at my waist. I can feel the strength of his acute restraint in his grip. “No, my mind changed me,” he answers, his voice rough with his own need.

I try to make sense of this words but I can’t think past the heated gaze. “What do you mean?”

He draws a deep breath, shaking his head.  “Let’s get this meeting with Helen out of the way first. Then you can open your today gift and we need to talk.”

T-a-l-k. The four seasons freeze into a deep winter chill. The lovely glow extinguishes from my vision. “Talk about what?” I whisper.

“Us.”

The library tilts at an odd angle with panic, but his eyes take on that my-all look that immediately heals me. The one I have been waiting for subconsciously even while asleep. It steadies me without knowing how or why. As though nothing can touch me while this look is on me, not even time.

“Okay, but no hard talks, please?” I answer, clutching his arms for balance. “It’s still embargo after all. And you too have a little surprise for later.”

He brushes my cheek, a smile winking at the corner of his lips. “Of course you have a surprise for me, but I think I might win this one.”

As much as I want him to win everything, there is zero chance of that in this case. “You wish.”

He chuckles, but his eyes stir with truth. “Yes, I do.” The words are simple but there is something fervent, almost desperate about them. Before I can understand the deep emotion smoldering beneath the surface, he strokes my face again. “Let me just take a shower and get ready. Benson will be here in half an hour.”

Oh, right! Time starts again, and I remember what we still need to live through. “Here, I picked your clothes too. Better than the ones you wear for the reel, I think.” I reach for the folded stack on the desk—his arm stays around me—and hand it to him.

His expression softens as he recognizes the mementos immediately. “You chose good memories for me too.”

“Yes, I wanted you to feel only love on your skin today. And I put my love letter right here in your jean pocket.” I fish out the origami rose of the note I wrote to him during the protein. “I thought it would be good for you,” I explain, my voice lower with the potency of the brave love still surging utterly unchanged through my body.

He strokes the paper rosette as he would one of the Elisas. Then he leans closer and kisses my forehead. “You are good for me.”

The words trill against my skin, as though a different pulse beats there that responds only to him. “And you for me.”

I expect him to argue despite the embargo, but he just smirks knowingly. “Eat something before we have to go. I won’t be long.”

L-o-n-g. I hold the word inside my lungs, breathing it in. He strides out of the library with something in his eyes, like an unfinished thought. What was it? Is he still reaching for hope, allowing himself another selfish day? Or is the talk he is planning just reality returning because every magic has to end? Abruptly, the chime of the wall clock seems to pierce my eardrums, so I run straight to the kitchen to make breakfast. On each step, the same frantic refrain throbs in my head. Somehow, please, someway.

Sunshine is filling the little kitchen with a profuse light, brightening the creamy cabinets, dulling the glint of the breadknife. All corners seem more rounded under the molten haze, as though this dawn is softening the sharpness out of the world. I start Aiden’s coffee and my tea, and prepare some dippy eggs with soldiers, wishing futilely I had more time for everything: to cook his favorite pancakes, to find a way, to convince him that a half-life together is fuller than any long life apart. But as always, the more I will the clock to slow, the faster it races ahead. Tic toc, tic toc toward eight thirty, toward the white flag.

I tuck the eggs in their cups, butter the toast, and set everything on the table. Then I arrange some blueberries to spell A&E on our plates and turn to another present. Hard in its own way. Because there is a goodbye today: Doctor Helen. She will still be here, I know that—we’ll have tea, we’ll go for strolls at University Park, she will even get her last scan on September eighteen—but our fight is over. After twenty-eight years of trying to save Aiden, science has surrendered.

The idea sets the flames raging in my chest so I cut up some of the best Clares from the windowsill, still sparkling with dew. I consider briefly warning her that Aiden knows about the video, but that feels wrong now, disloyal. He handled his anger so well last night. I just hope he can do the same when he actually sees her face.

“More selfish reminders for breakfast?” Aiden asks, walking into the kitchen. I wheel around, and there he is, in his white shirt and jeans, wet curls on his forehead, a ray of smile on his lips as he looks at our fruit initials like they are Javier’s unfinished masterpiece of me.

“Always,” I answer. “Even if you don’t need reminders.”

“It’s nice to get them just the same.” He strides to me and pulls me in his arms, as though every second apart was burning him as much as it was scalding me. His freshly showered scent stuns everything, even the Clares. “What are you doing with all those roses?” He nods toward the arranged long stems.

Uh oh. I stroke his neck for added calm . . . or distraction. “They’re just a little thank you for Doctor Helen with a note from us. I know you’re still angry with her about the video, but I think we should let it go.”

His eyes widen in disbelief like I just told him to sell Hale Holdings. “Elisa, if you expect me to say nothing to her about that, I’ll first have her scan your brain, not mine.”

A dozen arguments flicker through my head, but abruptly I don’t want to win this on logic. I don’t want to argue at all. I just want us to listen to our hearts. Because I can’t shake off this instinct that this is the only way for us, even if I don’t know how.

“Please, Aiden?” I trail my fingers down his chest to feel the thud-thud-thud there. “I don’t want this chapter of your life to close in anger. I want it to be with kindness and love because that’s who you are. Let’s just think only of the good things and how hard she fought for us.”

At that big little pronoun or perhaps the plea in my voice, the conflict dissolves in his eyes. He draws a deep breath, blowing his delicious cinnamon scent over my lips. “Alright,” he sighs. “I can’t argue with that feeling. Come on, we’ll write her note together while you eat.”

“Thank you,” I say, kissing his heartbeat. A light shudder runs through him.

“No, thank you for always guiding me to the right thing.” He kisses my hair again and carries me to the table.

We sit together, side by side, arms touching, thighs brushing, our breaths mingling through our lips. I give him mum’s stationery and rest my head on his shoulder, watching his pen glide across the parchment like it did in his tent, scribing words that only Aiden knows how to write. Except these words are from us.

Dear Doctor Helen,

This is not the card we had hoped to write. And we know it’s not the card you wish you could have received. But it is the truth of what we have and what you helped us achieve.

We came to you with love, and you gave us hope.

We came with dreams, but you gave us reality.

We came with fear, and you led us to bravery.

And for me, I came to you as a child, wanting to forget, and I am leaving as a man, grateful I can remember.

You say you don’t believe in fate. There was a time when neither did I. But apparently even I am capable of change. So despite all the pain, I have to thank gods and stars for a path that started with you and ended with the greatest love of my life.

For every time you fought alongside us, thank you.

Aiden

He sets his pen down, turning the page toward me. “Is this what you had in mind?”

I shake my head from my spot on his shoulder, swallowing back tears at the difference I see behind each word. “No, I could never have found words like this. Are you really grateful you can’t forget?”

“Now that I know you, yes.” He looks at me again with his life-giving look. It shoots like adrenaline through my system with his words, and I throw my arms around him. Because here is our win even in the war we lost. His self-acceptance, his freedom from guilt, his selfish deeds . . .

“I love you,” I whisper, kissing the pulse at his neck. The bands of muscle relax under my lips despite the suddenness of my attack.

He chuckles and brings me on his lap. “As I love you. Did you want to add something to the letter?”

“No. What you wrote is perfect. I’ll just sign my name.”

I pull back just enough inches to pick up his pen and scrawl my name quickly next to his. Then I turn to him again, but he is looking at our joined names with a curious expression in his eyes.

“What is it?” I ask, checking to make sure I didn’t forget how to spell.

He blinks back at me, shaking his head. “I’m regretting agreeing to this meeting at all. There are a lot more important things to do with this time.”

How can I disagree with any of that when I feel the same? Abruptly, I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here on this rickety chair with him, inhaling his clean scent, feeling his lips at my temple, and kissing his neck again. Then maybe he will be selfish enough and kiss closer to my mouth. And I will be brave enough to touch his lips. I’m about to tell him to break his promise, but the doorbell jingles and the moment is over.

Aiden sighs. “That will be Benson. Why don’t you wrap up here while I let him in?”

“You didn’t eat at all,” I grumble as he slides me off his lap reluctantly.

He swipes a few blueberries from the E and tosses them in his mouth. “I’m partial to these.” He brushes my cheek and goes to open the door. I can hear him talking with Benson while I tuck everything I need in my basket and grab my purse with the precious box still hidden inside.

When I come out, our Big Ben is towering on the threshold in beige slacks and an off-white shirt, not his usual dark palette. The sandy colors trigger a flashback of the video so I try to find his smile, but he is looking tensely at Aiden, no doubt worried about him.

“Morning, Benson. How was your night?” I greet him.

“Just fine. How about here?”

“Don’t worry, Benson. We actually got some sleep.” Aiden settles the score quickly as he locks the front door.

“Glad to hear it,” Benson answers, but his anxious eyes don’t relax.

“Thank you for taking the red roses to the hilltop,” I add, patting his colossal arm for distraction. “They were beautiful.”

“I can’t take credit. The Plemmonses gave me their best once they heard where I was taking them.”

“Of course you can take credit. Here—a little something for you from across the pond. We love you.” I hand him a bag of treasured cookies from our care package, decorated with frosted roses. Merry Christmas forever, I add in my head. The idea of saying goodbye to Benson—our protector and closest friend—sets my throat on fire so I shut down the thought immediately. Not yet, not today.

Aiden pulls me closer as though he felt the scorching flames.

“Ah, well, thanks,” Benson grunts, still tense, and swallows a cookie whole. I think he wants to ask me if the secret invention helped, if my mysterious plan worked, but he must decide against it with Aiden here. I give him a smile to calm him. He doesn’t smile back but leads the way as we set off down the garden path.

At the hedge, Aiden reaches behind the farthest shrub, and suddenly I realize something that should have occurred to me already. At last, the reel is leaving us. Doctor Helen already conceded that. And even though this surrender is torching us both, I know not a single cell of ours will miss the evil monitor. For the first time since I saw it, I breathe with relief when Aiden brings it out even though it’s hidden back inside its original box and out of my sight.

“We might as well return this.” He tucks the box under his other arm, away from me. “No reason to keep it here another minute.”

“Not one,” I agree, grabbing his free arm and picking up our pace in Benson’s quiet wake so the box leaves his fingertips as soon as possible.

There is a crispness in the air, a stillness. As though the world is holding its breath. No breeze, the lark hiding somewhere in the beech leaves. Even the willow song sounds more muted than usual, but I can still hear its quiet aria like Stella did. Somehow, somehow, somehow. It follows us across Elysium like a hymn. I clutch Aiden’s arm as our shadows glide over the purple orchids and the forget-me-nots. Neither of us looks at the scar of the reel on the meadow, where the wildflowers have wilted from the blaze of Aiden’s fever. I will revive them tonight—replace them if I need to—so none of its images will ever touch his retinas again.

At the edge of Elysium, Benson’s black Rover gleams against the country road. As soon as we reach it, I climb in the back seat quickly, curling next to Aiden who stashes the box on the front seat. But he has barely closed his door, when his phone beeps in the notes of Für Elise. He takes it out, frowning at the text banner on the screen—from James.

Callahan: “Sorry I missed your calls, brother. Are you home?”

“Finally,” Aiden mutters and thumbs back a quick reply: “No, on our way to see Helen. All fine but need to talk to you. Will you still be up in about two hours?”

James doesn’t hesitate. “Yea, you sure everything’s fine? Your message said something about hell day.”

“Yes, but it’s good for once. I’ll call when we’re done.”

He finishes texting with James and pulls me on his lap, exactly where I want to be. “Sorry about that. I’ve been trying to reach him to tell him what you helped me discover.”

I caress his scar, worry gnawing at my nerves that he will have to re-live it again. “Eventually you’ll believe me that you discovered it on your own, but I’m glad James is about to find some peace too.”

“Yes, he will,” he answers quietly, still adjusting to this reformed universe where he knows he didn’t cause his brother’s death. He is just a man with wounds, finding his way back to himself. And there is one thing left to help him with that. One thing the protein helped me see above all else. He will know it very soon. Then maybe our end will be survivable for him. And maybe, just maybe, he might stay with me once he sees who he truly is? I try to smother the silent question before it kills me, but it keeps singing in my ears like a siren. Maybe this is our somehow, someway.

“Ready, sir?” Benson checks in the back mirror, still tense behind his aviators.

Aiden looks at me for a moment with a sort of determination, then his arms lock around me like a safety belt. “Yes, Benson, we are.”

And then we are off in the lilac dawn.

It’s a quiet drive, me trying to stay present, Aiden staring out at the emerald hills, his fingers tracing my face over and over. Every few moments, he kisses my hair, my temple, my forehead, the inside of my wrists. I do the same with him—I can’t stop myself even though I know it will hurt me later. I kiss his bicep, his shoulder, his fingertips. It’s as though our lips have transmuted into their own heavens. Rotating around each other’s mouth, helpless against its gravity as we shine our last rays, pulling inexorably toward that final kiss, knowing it will turn us into stardust yet unable to resist it.

But as we enter Oxford’s boundary, reality crushes in with its inevitability. The iron tension grips Aiden’s shoulders, and agony begins to sear my insides. The flimsy fragments of fantasy vanish. And the air becomes heavier in my lungs.

Outside the window, Oxford’s heartline shimmers closer and closer. The domes and spires are gleaming pink-gold with the sunrise. Just petals glowing in the horizon. Rosy clouds wreathe the clock tower, and it’s impossible not to imagine mum’s arms reaching down from the lilac sky to protect the seven-year-old boy who grew up.

“I think Mum is putting on a show for you,” I tell Aiden to distract us both.

He looks at the clouds deeply as he did at her marble name last night on the hilltop. “Or maybe it’s for us.”

Us, us, us . . . someway, Mum, somehow. “I think you’re right. She would have loved us.”

He presses his lips in my hair, his breath catching as if to say something. But the Rover turns into WIN’s alley, and the weight of the last twenty-eight years silences us. Benson doesn’t ask a single question this time. He simply parks under the deep shade of an elm tree and steps outside, busying with his phone to give us the moment.

“Here we are.” Aiden gazes up at the stony building. Memories start darkening his eyes like clouds. At the sight, my words tumble out in a whisper.

“We don’t have to go in, love. Doctor Helen would understand.”

But he shakes his head, as I knew he would. “Unfortunately, I gave her my word when I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

W-o-r-d. How do you give your word to pain? How do you negotiate with lost dreams? I reach inside my purse for that last hope, curling my hand around the precious box like a talisman. It warms me the way breath heats our fingertips on a December morning.

“Then here.” I offer it to him with trembling everything—voice, hands, heartbeat. The most important gift I have ever given him. “This is your surprise to open after this meeting.”

I know he hears and sees my emotion because in a blink, I feel singular—like nothing else exists for him but me. He takes the small box, wrapped in a map from dad’s nature atlas. From my Cotswolds to his Portland. The way Earth should be—no visas or wars. One sky, one core, distance a mere matter of heart and will.

“A map?” he asks, searching my face as minutely as the cartography.

“The world,” I correct.

He brushes my cheek. “I have the whole world right here.”

My fingers quiver up to his heart. “Me too.”

He still doesn’t release my face. “Is there something different about this surprise?” he guesses as though he can sense the wind of change inside the small box.

I nod, trying to swallow past my tight throat. “It’s both something you already have and something you don’t.”

Childhood flickers in his deep eyes like always at the clue, and he smiles. “I think that might be your best clue yet.”

“It is,” I allow. “So think about that instead of this meeting.”

“Is that why you’re giving it to me now?”

“It’s part of a very good reason,” I paraphrase his words about my own present that is waiting under Aphrodite’s branches.

The smile lingers a little longer even as he grasps instinctively the importance of the tiny box. “Come. Let’s get this over with, and we can both open these mysterious surprises.” A light flickers in his eyes at the prospect, and he kisses my temple again.

I expect my mind’s reaction by now—the subtle golden glow emitting from his skin. But expecting it doesn’t inure me to the beauty. It only stuns me more. I still haven’t recovered my breath when he tucks the box in his shirt pocket and opens the door. The fresh, grass-scented air steals in my lungs. He helps me out, holding me to his side, the reel on his other hand.

“Get some coffee, Benson,” he says to our Big Ben who is standing as rigid as the clock tower. “This should only take about an hour.”

Benson nods but doesn’t move as we climb the limestone steps.

Doctor Helen is waiting for us in the polished white lobby, her impeccable silver crown and white coat already in place despite it being Saturday morning. The gravitas of her regal expression seems weightier, more imposing compared to the last time I saw her when I was invincibly brave.

“Aiden, Elisa. Thank you for coming.” She sounds relieved beneath the commanding voice, as though she guessed we almost turned around. Then she strokes my hair in a way that reminds me of mum. “Were you able to get some sleep last night?”

“Yes, we both slept and without any fever this time.”

“That’s good. And you, Aiden?” She turns to him, studying his face with her shrewd eyes. “How are you feeling now that you’ve had some time to adjust to the truth?”

“Better, thank you, although eager to be finished. No offense intended, we just need to spend time together.” His voice is composed, showing none of his disappointment or anger, or maybe they softened at her evident concern for me.

“Of course, that’s understandable,” she answers. “We’re ready when you are.”

“Just one thing first, slightly more urgent.” He hands her the closed monitor box without ceremony. “I think it’s finally time we return this. Even you will agree there’s no more reason to continue it.”

“I do agree,” she concedes, taking the box from him.

As soon as the reel changes hands, a weight I didn’t know I was carrying leaves my body. Like the monitor had been pressing invisibly on my back since that first day the way the world crushed Atlas’s shoulders. I lean into Aiden, sensing a similar lightness in his subtle deep breath.

Doctor Helen is still searching his expression, but if she is looking for any answers, she doesn’t press him. She simply reaches up to squeeze his shoulder. “I’m glad this is behind you. Now come.”

I think about giving her the roses and Aiden’s note now, but it’s clear they are both impatient to be done. And it will be better after, so there is something else to say other than it’s over. I hook my arm in his, and we follow her billowing coat into the lift.

As soon as the doors close, the sensation of déjà vu hijacks me. My mind thrashes with the terrifying images of the last time we were here—the morning after Edison struck. The end, the terror for Aiden, the agony for us. Yet, in retrospect, they still seem more hopeful compared to the finality of now.

It seems to take a lifetime for the lift to ascend to a full stop, punctuated by a chime that clangs through my skull. But when we step out into the top floor, I blink around in surprise. Apparently, I was expecting Doctor Helen’s bear assistant, Richard, or Old Morse at least. But the clinical white space is empty again, gleaming endlessly like mirrors on all sides.

Next to me, Aiden scans the hallways with a similar question in his eyes.

“I asked my team to wait in the control room,” Doctor Helen explains quickly, seeing our confusion. “I didn’t think you would want a fuss.”

“You were right.” Aiden nods once.

“Let’s start with a scan to confirm the fever did no harm, although it’s unlikely, then we can discuss your next steps with Doctor Corbin on the line.” She pauses at the double doors of the massive lab, but all I hear is the separation already starting in her tone. “Elisa, I’m sure you want to go in, but we know your effect on Aiden’s neural activity and unfortunately, we need a stable reading.” She sounds apologetic, and I have a sense it’s for many reasons. That we have to part, that the reel didn’t work, that it caused so much agony, that we didn’t win.

I nod too even though I’d rather watch the video again than leave him for a second. “Don’t worry about me,” I tell him. “I’ll be right here with Doctor Helen.”

Except that doesn’t seem to calm him at all—in fact the opposite. He glares at us both with almost palpable intensity. “Nothing unsafe or painful, do you understand me?”

“I promise,” I answer, but to my astonishment, Doctor Helen smiles almost invisibly as though she just found the answer she was searching for.

“Ah, I see. You already know about the video. Of course you do. Well, you can shout at me later and you have every right. But for now, let’s finish up. Go on, I will take care of Elisa. The safe way this time.”

There is a brief moment of silence—me stunned and anxious, Aiden staring at her in his incontrovertible way as he tethers back all his fury under his iron control. “There will be no shouting today, Doctor Helen, though you owe that to Elisa, not me.” He speaks slowly, precisely, each word on a tight leash. “But she is right. My anger aside, we’re grateful for what you’ve done for us.”

I want to kiss him. Right here, in front of the great neuroscientist who is watching him in unconcealed amazement. Can she see the big, small victories I see? Does she consider the brutal experiment a success because of them?

He turns to me and plucks a petal from one of the Clares in my basket, tucking it in my hand like always. Then he gives me back my gift. “Keep this safe so it doesn’t enter that room with me. I’ll open it on the other side, and we can be just us.” And with a kiss on my forehead, he strides down the polished hallway.

As soon as the changing room door closes behind him, I look up at Doctor Helen who is staring at the space where he stood, eyes narrowed in concentration.

“I’m so sorry, Doctor Helen,” I apologize. “I didn’t mean—well—it’s probably better that I explain.”

She blinks at me as though returning from another world. “It’s quite alright, child. I told you his faith in you was more important than his peace with me, and I meant it.”

“I know but I still want to explain. Because as it turned out, I think it was for the best.” And I tell her everything as fast as I can: from my slip to every minute of Aiden watching the video and afterwards, leaving out only his anger and the reason why the slip happened to me in the first place. Not today—she and I will have years for that.

When I’m done explaining, barely breathing through the deluge of information, she gawks at me in a way I didn’t think was possible for her brain. “Dear God! He watched all of it with you in his arms?”

I nod, still breathless. “He did amazing, Doctor Helen. I know we could not beat the startle, but I think we laid Marshall to rest at last. You said that would help, right?”

“Hmm,” she muses as her eyes squint in some internal analysis.

“What is it? Do you disagree?” The question shudders from my lips.

She focuses on me, as if remembering I’m still here. “Hmm? No, of course it helps. Now, let’s get started. Aiden is waiting.”

She ushers me along swiftly, and I stumble behind her, feeling abruptly panicked. Because I have this sudden intuition that she is keeping something from me. What is it? Is she worried it will still not be enough for Aiden to survive our end? Or something else?

Inside the cold command center, my unease only grows at the dizzying screens and the nine neuroscientists laser-focused on the mass of numbers and symbols of Aiden’s mind. I thought it was going to be only Richard, but it’s all of them. Their absolute concentration is like a dense fog in the air, making it hard to breathe. Shiver after shiver lashes down my arms. How different this room feels from that first time, full of hope and fight. Now, the digital racket seems to rattle inside my very spine. Except the familiar sight on one of the wall screens. Doctor Corbin is smiling at me, in his sage shirt and yellow notepad, sitting next to his dark office window in Portland, still on Friday night.

“Evening, Elisa, or morning your time. It’s good to see you.”

“Hi, Doctor Corbin.” I wave, almost running into his screen as though it could teleport Aiden and me back to the City of Roses for a while, with our families, far away from these arctic hallways. “Thank you for dialing in.”

“Of course. I know this one is hard but we can discuss . . . afterwards.” He seems to stumble on that last word and smiles again, but there is a tightness in his eyes like Benson.

“Yes, yes, alright,” Doctor Helen interrupts briskly, taking her throne before the three central monitors, her Van Gogh binder ever on her side. “We can catch up later. Elisa, you’re next to me. On my mark . . . three, two, one.”

Everyone, from Corbin to her bear assistant, tenses at her command, eyes like snipers on their screens. Their intensity only terrifies more so I scramble to the chair next to hers and, in seconds, the scan begins.

But I don’t give the computers a second glance. None of these numbers, pixels, or algorithms can ever know Aiden’s heart. The universe of him. They cannot chart the stars of his beauty, nor traverse the vast space of his mind. They cannot hold the gravity of his strength. They cannot capture the symphony of his soul or contain the force of his love. All his molecules that sing their own secret tune, each atom that casts its own primordial light, the millions of his cells that dance like planets to the melody of my name across his skies. The surreal, celestial sum of his being, more splendid than all these parts. He is not an answer or a question mark. He is a wonder known only to gods.

Instead, I take out my phone and stationery and start to write. Emails to Reagan and Javi—they’ll be here in only three weeks, and I can’t deny I will need them like air to breathe. Thank-you notes to Maria and Aiden’s parents. And letters to the girls, tucking petals inside. So many people who love us, so many other goodbyes. My hand shakes so much through the words, contorting mum’s calligraphy like a frantic EKG, that her quill slips through my fingers. It’s not until I’m able to hear its quiet, feathery swoosh that I notice how silent the room has become. Deep and cold, like a crypt. Everyone is still, except the occasional blink or click. And not just still, but rigid, their ramrod backs emanating waves of apprehension. I scan their screens in terror for explanation, but the innocuous images still mean nothing—just codes and numbers alternating with photos of Marshall and me.

I want to ask what’s wrong, but my throat is clenched closed because that’s not the right question. The correct one is what can be worse than it already is.

“Has something happened?” I choke instead, but I can’t hear my voice. Perhaps the scientists can’t hear me either because no one blinks away from the screens. “Is Aiden okay?” I repeat, trying to put more volume in my tone.

Doctor Helen’s hand pats mine, her eyes never glancing away from her monitors. “He’s fine, Elisa. Now, please, we need quiet.”

F-i-n-e. Why don’t I believe her? Panic starts stabbing my body like knifepoints, one in my chest, one at my temple, another in my gut, one more on my forehead, dead center where Aiden’s lips turn the world golden. I try to breathe but the room is spinning, walls closing in and out at strange, obtuse angles. Quickly, I grab a rose for air but it doesn’t help. Icy numbness starts prickling my toes. I should have worn Aiden’s sweatshirt or his cologne. But as soon as the idea forms, my mind pulls up his fragrance on its own, as vivid as it was during bravery on the riverbank, nothing changed. It floods my senses as if I am curling in his chest again. But the terror is still mushrooming everywhere, numbing my legs, arms, the base of my skull, my face.

Breathe, I try to reason with myself. Nothing can be worse than it already is. We have already lost everything. There is no more life or love or meaning. What more can they take? But not a single atom thaws out of the frozen dread. Because I know exactly what I’m seeing. I grew up with these scientist eyes. It’s the stare when science cannot explain or understand. The unflinching gaze of finality, of truth.

Something has to be wrong, even more wrong than we knew.

I watch the screens now too, without any understanding. The display speed picks up, numbers, symbols, images racing by, almost blurry for our normal minds while Aiden’s brain leaves us all behind. Then suddenly, they stop. The monitors go dark. The clicks end, the fingers on the keyboards freeze. No one speaks, moves, or breathes. Something is o-v-e-r, but I don’t know what it is. I try to hold onto Aiden’s scent in my mind, and his my-all look that gives me life. Somehow, please, somehow. 

At last, Doctor Helen taps some kind of pager and speaks into her microphone, but her voice is no longer brisk or commanding. It’s gentle, quieter when she addresses Aiden.

“Aiden, that was your last slide. As expected, the fever caused no harm. For the record, I can also confirm the data shows no measurable change in subject’s cognition depth, perception accuracy, or speed of recall and retention. If you wish, we can consider this your final scan. I’ll give you time to get dressed. Please meet us at the lab when you’re ready. I have Elisa with me. She is safe.”

S-a-f-e? Is that what I am as I hear our life reduced to clinical conclusions? My love as a “subject,” the wonder of Aiden as “data”? All our hopes and dreams as “no measurable change”? Our greatest loss as a blank computer screen? What is safety if you no longer feel alive?

I try to look away from the black monitors now but I can’t. Like blood-soaked battlefields at night, when the gunfire finally falls silent. The only artillery left is our heart-bombs, thudding faintly into the quiet. I don’t know how I am sitting or breathing. Maybe there is a back-up system that kickstarts like a resuscitation protein. A spare phantom heart that beats only when the real one stops. A reserve of lifeblood that flows when the old arteries dry. Because that’s how it feels now. Phantom heartbeats, phantom lungs, phantom eyes. Existence, not life.

But if this is the end, why am I still terrified? Why the sense that something else is looming? Maybe because through the fires of my personal hell, I become aware of the silence around me, the lack of change. No one else is moving either or looking away from the dark screens. Even Corbin in Portland is frowning intensely at his computer.

“What is it? Aren’t we meeting Aiden?” I shudder, surprised I can make a sound.

Corbin peers at Doctor Helen to my right. “Doctor?” he asks.

“Silence, please,” comes her commanding reply. I don’t know how she moved her lips—she seems entirely carved in stone—but the denial came definitely in her voice.

I follow her piercing eyes to her central monitors, but I see nothing that would make her look so severe. Yet that sense of foreboding crashes over me. The icy terror spreads to my eyelids, exactly like it did after the protein. Abruptly, I can’t sit here anymore. I can’t handle the tangible sorrow or disappointment or whatever it is. I try to wobble up to go wait for Aiden when a single buzz vibrates from Doctor Helen’s pager. In the same second, static crackles in the thick silence and the screens flicker back on. And the images cut me at my knees. Not because they are gruesome like the reel. But because they’re live, right here, right now.

A camera feed of Aiden in the MRI chamber, alone with the pale blue sheet around his waist, his bare shoulders rounded, face chiseled with both strength and pain. Slowly, he rises to his feet. I bolt up too, ready to run to him, but Doctor Helen’s voice rings out again.

“Wait a moment, Elisa, please.”

I’m about to snap that we don’t have a moment but the camera starts following Aiden. He leaves the MRI chamber and strides down the narrow corridor that connects it to the changing room. His steps are slow, heavy, and I know he is remembering every time he has walked that path since he was seven years old. Always hoping for a change, and now that hope is gone. Tears spring in my eyes, and all I want to do is hold him in my arms.

“I have to meet him,” I whisper, but to my surprise, Doctor Helen’s hand closes on my wrist, firmer than I would have expected—a lot stronger than it felt during the protein.

“Elisa, you need to stay here.”

Abruptly, fury blisters on my tongue. “No, I need to see Aiden,” I hiss through my teeth and rip my hand from her grasp. I spin around for the door but she stands to stop me, as Richard the bear slips out and another researcher shifts to block my passage.

Please, Elisa, trust me.” Her voice becomes imploring despite the edge of authority. The urgent plea derails me with its rarity more than the barricade she is obviously erecting around me.

“Why?” I demand.

Her creased face folds with an ancient ache, and she sighs. “Because if you go now, you will only hurt Aiden.”

Something about the regret in her eyes frightens me. An odd shiver trickles down my spine like ice water.

“What do you mean?” I breathe, but from the corner of my eye, I glimpse the changed screens. On one, Aiden has reached the changing room and steps through the back door to get dressed. On another, two figures slink down the white hallway outside the room’s closed front door.

It only takes a moment. My body reacts faster than my mind laboring to make sense of the scene. A gasp tears from my lips, and the ceiling start to fall. A wave of dizziness crashes over me. I struggle to bring myself to some sort of control, but a part of my brain seems to be reaching for unconscious relief. Anything but the images in front of me. Because I finally understand why Doctor Helen is not letting me go, why the scientists look so grave, why no one can breathe.

The two figures prowling down the hall are none other than Benson and Richard. They spread apart, Richard facing the closed door, waiting for Aiden to come out, Benson rounds the abutting corner, out of sight. And everything falls into place. Why Benson was so tense this morning, the sandy color of his clothes nearly invisible in the white hall, Corbin’s unease, Doctor Helen’s scrutiny of Aiden’s every move and word, why she asked for this check-in, why she pretended to agree not to do the final test of the startle in the first place, what she has been plotting all along.

Her plan is as simple as it is practical: Richard will distract Aiden in the same breath that Benson will trigger his startle reflex from behind. It will be sudden and immediate—Aiden has no way of suspecting this now—but it will be enough.

“NO!” I cry in horror, ducking around her despite the dizziness so I can stop this. But she grips my arm again, shaking it with urgency.

“Elisa, think! You need to be safe for Aiden. I will not allow any risks.”

“Don’t do this!” I scream, ripping back my arm. “You promised him! You promised!”

“I had to, child! He would have suspected something if I hadn’t.”

“It’s his choice!”

“Elisa, please—” Corbin tries to intervene.

“WHY are you doing this?” I snarl at both of them, whirling around with desperate impatience to grab my phone and warn Aiden. But I’m too late. The screens change again. I freeze in horror as Aiden opens the door, still fastening a button on his shirt, hurrying to see me. He blinks up, spotting Richard, clearly unaware of Benson.

“Richard?” He frowns but in the same breath, Benson strikes. His huge body whips from the corner and lurches forward, flinging his fist at Aiden’s back. And that’s all it takes.

“Aiden!” I gasp, but it’s over. It’s done. The moment bursts violently apart.

For a fraction of a second, dread ripples across Aiden’s face, then his body pivots toward his assailant. In the same spin, one of his hands seizes Benson’s arm, the other flies to the boulderlike shoulder, as Benson shifts and crouches into a self-defense stance.

“Benson, abort!” Doctor Helen fires into the pager I thought was just an innocent device. “Step back, now.”

Benson must hear her command on some earpiece because he tries. His feet slide back but Aiden shadows his footwork in a lithe step, his body angling in formation with the sheer muscle mass that can crush him to death.

“Richard, stand by!” Doctor Helen orders again, then she turns to someone behind me. “Go in—Plan B.”

I want to see who it is or what she means but I cannot blink away from the screen. Because Benson raises his knee as if to smash it into Aiden’s ribs. But Aiden shifts another step to the right—a memory flashes through my mind—another right, then left—

“Strobe lights in three, two—” Doctor Helen commands again, as Aiden takes another step to the left.

“STOP!” I shriek, throwing myself at her and tearing the pager from her grip. “BENSON, STOP! HIS FEET! LOOK AT AIDEN’S FEET!”

I know he hears me because he jerks at the volume of my scream, but he drops his knee quickly, frowning in confusion at Aiden’s shoes.

“Elisa, unaccept—” Doctor Helen rebukes in outrage but I cut her off, pointing urgently at the screen.

“LISTEN TO ME! IT’S DIFFERENT! IT’S CHANGED!”

A blur of white coats swarms around the monitors, while Corbin directs frantically, “Let her speak!”

“Stand by!” Doctor Helen instructs her own team, and they all freeze. “Elisa?” she demands, her sharp eyes roaming the camera feed. “What is it? What do you see?”

“Aiden’s steps,” I explain, my voice suddenly dropping into a whisper of wonder as I watch the image before me. And the whole room falls silent in my ears—no breathing, no voices, no beeps. Just a familiar tune trilling in my memory. Because if I know anything like I know my own name is this: our steps to Für Elise. “It’s our dance,” I murmur, my eyes flooding with tears. My hands grasp the monitor as if it were Aiden’s shoulders. “It’s not the startle. I’m sure of it.”

A collective gasp blows through the room, yet despite all the eyes and cameras, abruptly, I feel alone with Aiden. My finger trembles on the monitor, caressing the contours of his body, tracing his next step as Fallujah’s curse breaks before my incredulous eyes.

What we thought was an attack is actually an embrace. The pivot was not to kick, it was only a turn. Aiden’s arms around Benson were not to punch, just to hold. His feet didn’t move in combat; they stepped into a dance. And the startle did not trigger violence, but rest.

I watch in awe as his unfathomable mind—against all odds—overwrites itself. Instead of war, it’s retrieving peace. In the place of terror, it found calm. And rather than hatred, it’s remembering love.

“Extraordinary,” Corbin breathes as he did the day Aiden attacked me, but his whisper is already behind me. I shoot through a space opened between the frozen, scattered scientists and launch myself at the door. If anyone shouts, I can’t hear from the roar of my heartbeat. And if hands try to stop me, I can’t feel past the current blowing on my skin. I am just wind, blasting through the white blur of coats across the hall, and there it is.

The real, true wonder—live, without pixels or screens.

Only seconds have passed. Aiden is still bound with Benson in their clinch, his back to me. Their eyes are locked on each other, Benson’s wide with stunned disbelief as, slowly, they must register the impossible phenomenon unfolding through their grip. Another breathless second or maybe an endless minute. Then at last understanding seems to dawn through the barriers of shock and self-preservation on their minds. Carefully, hesitantly, their arms drop at the same time and Benson steps out of his defensive stance. Falling back to give space to the marvel breaking away from the past.

Aiden’s body straightens, rising fluidly into his full height, the curved shoulders unfurling out of their tension like wings. The powerful bands of muscle soften under his shirt, his fists bloom open into his piano hands, the slightest tremble in his fingers as though he is running them through the ivory keys to Für Elise. The sinister strain that has bound him for the last thirteen years doesn’t just ease; it melts. The invisible chains fall off his back. Leaving behind the most surreal grace. It flows sinuously within him like a spell, elongating his body, broadening his shoulders, changing him in subtle rewind back to the glorious, unbroken Aiden in the tent.

Free at last.

Transfixed in his transformation, Aiden raises his left arm, then the right, as if he were holding me during our dance, gazing at the motion mesmerized. The movement is so hypnotic, I can only gape. Then he murmurs a single word on his first breath.

“Elisa . . .”

At that low, awed music, I remember myself. My quivering body, the tears flooding my face, my heart booming in my chest. And the world vanishes again. I don’t see Benson where he must be still standing, I don’t see Richard and the other scientists, I don’t see the hallway. There is just a blank slate only for Aiden and me.

Entranced, unafraid, I take a small step toward Aiden’s unchained, exposed back.

“I’m here, love.”

He turns around and—oh! His eyes . . . incandescent with shock, filled with the purest of light, their depths stirring glow after glow, through a spectrum of life. The azure of childhood, the cerulean of youth, the sapphire of man, the turquoise of us. At that look, I forget everything—the past, the rules, the pain, all my doubts and uncertainties. Gone. My body takes off on its own and I leap straight into his arms.

He catches me like always, sweeping me up, one arm around my waist, the other hand in my hair, gasping and stunned.

“I love you,” I tell him, and then I kiss him hard. For a heartbeat, I’m afraid he will pull away, but he responds so fiercely that we stagger against some wall, mouth to mouth, a low moan in his throat.

How many times have we kissed? Hundreds, thousands by now? Yet, this kiss feels like the very first one. As though every other kiss—no matter how soft, gentle, sweet, or hard—has been only a prelude to this one, reverberating forward in time. To give us a taste, to keep us fighting for the real us. Because that is how it feels as his lips meld with mine. Like we are entering a brand-new world that has been waiting only for us.

And what a world it is. Shimmering with the purest light like a perpetual sunrise behind my closed eyes. Tasting of fiery spice, salt rose, and a chocolatey effervescence that erases the bitter venom of distance. All forged in the vivid, urgent possession of his mouth. I can feel his body against every curve of mine, fire and steel, molding me to the shape of him. My fingers fly frantically in his hair, over his shoulders rippling only with our tangled weight. No tension, no resistance, no flashbacks. His hands memorize me too, all anew, gripping my waist, caressing my face. And his lips . . . They move dominantly, claiming back every touch we have missed in the last twelve days, inhaling every breath, capturing every sigh. But giving back too: healing the pain, erasing the distance, stopping time. I taste him back in a frenzy—cinnamon, Aiden, and salty tears. His, mine, ours. Flowing with our kiss like lifeblood, bringing us to who we truly are, to who we fought to be, without war, distance, or deadlines. Just two arteries entwined inside the same heart, teeming with life.

My breath gives out before our lips, coming out jagged and fast until my head starts to spin. His mouth slows then, gentles on mine to let me breathe. In the few gasps when his lips are free, he whispers my name. I murmur his too, over and over, not like a prayer or a wish. I say it the way we say sacred things. With faith, with a sort of reverence.

“Aiden, Aiden, Aiden . . .”

He leans back just an inch to look at me. And I can finally see his face—really see it now. If I live a million years and cross a million skies, I will never find words for it. Not for the golden light flickering on his skin or the long lashes, sparkling like diamonds. Nor for the prismatic blue irises glittering with life. He is even more surreal than he was during the protein. More exquisite than the young Aiden in the tent, more beautiful than any other time in my life. Because this kind of beauty is beaming from within, healing at last.

He searches my face with this whole new world in his eyes. “Is it real?” he murmurs, almost fearfully, holding me tight.

“It is real, love,” I answer without a doubt despite the warm glow still filling my sight. “We’re wide awake. It’s not a dream.”

His fingers trace my lips as though testing that reality. “How?” he breathes.

I stroke his face too, his glistening cheek, his bitten lips, his scar. I am sure somewhere in this modern lab, in the clinical data, in the irrefutable evidence of science, there will be answers. But I know the real answers are in the stars.

“Somehow,” I whisper and bring his mouth back to mine.

©2022 Ani Keating

 

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 39 – GLOW

Happy Saturday, friends! I hope the good vibes of spring are renewing you all for the weekend.  Here is a new chapter that might make you feel a bit . . . glowy. Can you guess what Elisa’s secret discovery is? P.S. This photo is a hint. P.S. This one is for my friend, Linda. For all the glows to come. xo, Ani

39

Glow

My awareness quivers with a feeling of profound beauty. So exquisite I try to linger in the dream a little longer. A gold gossamer veil swirls gently before my eyes, filling my senses with an almost corporal sunshine. The kind that beams only for angels. I try to see through the veil, knowing the sublime vision is just on the other side. But as I chase the elusive wonder, something soft and warm flutters at the hem of consciousness. And reality blows in like a sultry breeze.

“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.

But no, it’s not reality. I have only slipped through the golden veil, and there he is. The angel in my dream. Aiden, as he used to be. His flawless face rests on my pillow without the dark, thick beard. Heart-stoppingly beautiful, more sculpted than my other dreams. From the dim light around us, his skin is almost a starry white. And his eyes . . . I have not seen them so alive in a long time. Even asleep I know that. They are watching me like I am a dream too, gleaming with an inner light.

He pulls me into his vivid, fragrant warmth, and I realize I am cocooned in his arms. That sense of wonder floods me again.

“Did I startle you?” His low, piano voice thrums in my ears.

I lift my hand to his smooth cheek, afraid I might not be able to touch him. But I can—the feeling is so supple, so sensory. A spring of tingles blossoms on my skin. “No.” I smile in bliss. “I knew you were behind the veil.”

A lovely frown creases his luminescent forehead. “The veil?”

I reach a single finger between his brows, smoothing the V. The diamonds from the bracelet he gave me throw sparkles on his lips. “Yes, the golden veil. You can’t see it?”

The frown deepens, and his hand flies to my forehead. The tingles thrill everywhere. “What golden veil, Elisa?”

I squint for the light to show him, but it’s glowing faintly in the distance. “It’s fading now. But it was here.”

“Where, love?” Alarmed now for some reason, but that word. L-o-v-e. So real, the way he says it, layered with tension. I trace his satiny jawline with my fingers.

“Don’t worry. It’s okay. That’s just part of the dream.”

“The dream? What dream?”

“You told me to dream beautiful dreams. And I am.”

“You’re not dreaming, Elisa. You’re awake.” His hand leaves my face and clutches my shoulder, shaking me lightly. Once, twice, three times—his grip as substantial as the rest of him, his face paler than other dreams. I blink away from his angel face unwillingly and search around me. We’re curled up together in the small guest bed, me under the quilt from our happy bedroom, him on top of it. The light is muted from the closed curtains. Hope is growing on the dresser with its second bud leaf. And on the nightstand blooms the bouquet of Elisas, with the origami rose of my brave letter and our phones. All as it was when I went to sleep. Abruptly, my mind clears and the last twenty-four hours rush back in . . . The protein, the harrowing video, the near-fatal reel, Aiden’s fever and agony, his discovery about Fallujah, the hope that came with it, our embargo, the meeting with Doctor Helen tomorrow, science’s surrender, the goodbye looming ahead, that pure, brave love like nothing else, still surging . . . But overpowering all that—like the brilliant cloud of my dream—is the beauty of this present moment. Aiden is truly here with me for a few more hours, finally guilt free.

“Elisa?” he shakes me again.

“Wow, I really am awake,” I muse, caressing his silken cheek that confused me—hollower without the beard, back to his normal temperature. The tingles spark again on my skin like the golden veil still flickering on my retinas. “I was so sure you were a dream.”

He chuckles once, still anxious. “I know the feeling, but what veil were you seeing while awake?”

“Oh, it was just a leftover from the dream. This magical filter in front of your face.” I realize now I was dreaming of the aura that shimmered on him during the protein.

His delicious sigh of relief washes over my lips, and the alarm vanishes from his expression. He chuckles truly now, like the most harmonious music. “I know that feeling too, with Javier’s filter, though I had no idea your dreams were as vivid as mine.”

“Not always.” I can’t stop touching his smooth cheek, and he lets me. “You shaved . . .”

“It seemed like the roses were missing my face.”

“They were. They haven’t seen anything like your face in their thirty-five million years.”

He rolls his eyes. “Maybe you should go back to sleep. You’re not coherent.”

Sleep? When our embargo is just starting? When his first day after the truth has already begun all alone? I’d rather watch the video for the next thirty-five million years. “I’m wide awake now, and fully rested just like you wanted. How are you feeling?”

His fingers trace my cheek too. He gazes at me with a look I haven’t seen on him before. Like that nameless expectant gaze of last night has arrived or resolved. It makes me both anxious and calm. Anxious because I don’t know what the resolution is. Calm because he seems somehow . . . home?

“Not that different from you,” he answers. “I’ve had moments where I had to test myself that I was really awake. That what we discovered about Fallujah was true. Then I would look at you, at this bracelet you made me, the letter you wrote, and I knew it had to be real. I didn’t cause Marshall’s death . . . it was not my fault.”

He says those last words with practiced rhythm as though he has repeated them so many times that they have become a soundtrack in his mind. I take his hand, stroking the wooden A at his wrist. Only now I notice the bandages are gone, his labor blisters more healed.

“It is real, love,” I tell him. “Don’t ever question that again. It was never your fault, and you really are free.”

“Yes, I am. Because of you.”

But that reminds me. “You know how I said I would argue with you when I woke up that you did it all on your own?”

A soft smile lifts the corner of his lips. Not ravaged or war-torn. This one curves with something like peace. And instantly it becomes a favorite for me, second only to the dimple.

“Ah, yes, you did make that threat. But if I’m right, the embargo is still ongoing and all arguments are still banned.”

“Right, damn! Well, tomorrow then, I’ll make you see exactly who you are.” And I finally know the way how. The only way I could find even during the protein.

“I’ll be on my guard.” He chuckles again, and I get lost in the beautiful sound, in the impossible face looking back at me. The shock of his discovery seems to have faded, but the wonder is still there in the newness of his gaze. I search every pore I have missed for answers. He seems centered somehow, more present. And he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to race through our embargo, which suits me just fine.

“So what have you been doing while I’ve been asleep?” I ask, cuddling closer in his arms.

He brushes my jawline with his knuckles. “Selfish things.”

My body feels his words before my mind. They jolt electrically through me like his touch.

Really?” I squeak in surprise a second later.

He nods, smiling at my evident delight. “I believe you wanted me to be the most selfish man in the world after your letter. I thought I’d give it a try.”

“And I missed it? How—what selfish things have you done?”

“Well, being in your bed, for one. Kissing this for another.” His warm lips press at my temple, triggering an image of the golden veil in my dream. And I recognize now what woke me. Such a light kiss, yet my whole body trembles against his steel lines. But he doesn’t tense away like the last eleven days; he only holds me tighter, his eyes incandescent with desire. Why is that? Is it because of the embargo? Because he is still being selfish? Or something else?

I try to envision kissing his temple, so close, lying in bed, but the idea alone is too much for me to survive. I press my lips over his heart instead. It’s pounding jagged and hard like mine. “This . . . seems a little easier for you today.” I run my fingers along his bicep, feeling it flex back under my hand.

“Does it seem that way?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm.” His fingers trail down my spine over the quilt, the sheet, and my sweatshirt. I still quiver like Hope’s leaf.

“So . . . why is that?”

He sighs achingly, pulling back a few inches. The tremor of his breath flits over my lips. “I suppose being selfish with you feels natural . . . like nothing else in the world, if I don’t resist.”

“Then don’t resist.”

He smiles that new smile that makes my heart stutter, and resists. “But there has to be a way to do it right, no?”

I laugh breathlessly, the sound shaking with me. “Only you would worry about being selfish the right way.”

“If something is worth doing, it’s worth trying to do well.”

“In that case, you’ll have to try a little harder. Because I don’t think you’re being that selfish at all. In fact, I’m not sure it is selfish if I want it too.”

“That’s debatable, but since debates are not allowed either, how about eavesdropping on your sleep? Does that qualify as selfish? I think it’s utterly egotistical on my part.”

My grin disappears despite his obvious joke. Bloody hell! I was talking in my sleep? I usually reserve that kind of humiliation for my orgasm comas. What on earth did I say? I try to think through my dreams, but all I recall is the sunshine haze. The possibilities are horrifying. What if I said something about the video? No, it can’t be that because the world would be in ashes right now but he is waiting for me with that ceasefire smile.

“I suppose it could be selfish,” I hedge. “It depends on what you heard.”

“Ah, that’s for me and the roses to know.”

“Oh no, it’s that bad?” Heat singes my face all way to my scalp. Did I do something crazy like propose to him? No, he most definitely would not be smiling about that either.

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he tries to soothe me. “I’m sure you heard a lot worse during my sleep.”

I wait, trying to breathe.

He sighs. “It really wasn’t much. You miss Reagan and Javier. It sounded like you were planning their visit. You were trying to give Reagan your mother’s pearl earrings and convincing Javier to marry her. At some point, you ordered me to teach him some ‘kissing tricks’ and started plotting an aphrodisiac formula to sneak into his tea.” He chuckles at the memory of my babbles.

Oh! Well, it could have been a lot worse. I could have been begging him to kiss me, rip off our clothes, and . . . Stop! At least this way I made him laugh.

“Well, that’s absolutely an option if Javier doesn’t wise up. And not just him, but all self-loathing men who are unkind to themselves.”

“I’ll heed the warning and avoid anything you cook or brew for me.”

“Did I say anything else?”

He knows what I’m after immediately because a velvet look passes in his eyes. “Just how much you love me.”

My cheeks burn. “And, umm, how exactly did I do that?”

“With the words of your letter. Amazingly, you remembered them all even in your sleep as clearly as I do. You must have read it to me a thousand times last night.”

Except I remembered it even before then. Apparently, when it comes to the way I love him, it must be branded in my brain. “What else?”

“There may have been some mumbling about an illegal kiss, but I have no idea what you meant by that.”

I do! Now that he reminds me, the golden haze shimmers again at the memory of a dream. A dream of those kisses he used to give me that made me faint. No wonder my brain was mush like in my sex comas. But I can’t allow myself to linger on that. Not if I want to live through these final days. “Hmm, I probably meant that you should kiss Javier for practice. You know, so he can make Reagan say yes.”

“Naturally.”

“Is that all?”

He shrugs casually. If I didn’t know his eyes so well, I would have missed the flicker of pain he is trying very hard to hide. My heart stammers and thrashes into my ribs.

“Please tell me. I know you remember everything.”

He sighs again. “You might have said you will miss me.”

And there it is. M-i-s-s.  The four letters float between our breathless lips and fade. If this is all he is saying, who knows what really came out of my mouth. His control seems to slip and, for a brief moment, I glimpse the staggering agony before he leashes it back. The same agony suddenly scorching through me.

“I’m sorry,” I say as soon as I can speak. “Don’t worry about my unconscious rambles; I’ll be fine. Only rest and selfish things today. Nothing else is allowed.”

He shakes his head, eyes intense and deep. “I’m the one who is sorry, Elisa. I never wanted you to miss anything. Not awake, not asleep.” I can hear the anguish in his murmur, I can see it trying to throttle his new gaze.

“Well, that’s good because I’m missing a lot of things already.” I make my voice as light as possible to cheer him up, and also so I don’t scare him with the vicious longing raging inside me. “Didn’t you promise we would start our embargo the second I opened my eyes? I’ve had them open for hundreds of seconds now, and nothing. We have Marshall to celebrate and your discovery and your first day on this other side. Not to mention this Marine-sized meal I kept hearing about, and instead I’m starving.”

My attempt at humor and distraction works the second he hears I’m hungry. His eyes change in that quick way and settle on the look of home.

“My apologies, ma’am. You’re absolutely right. Today is a first, and I’m wasting it on the past. But with some luck, your Marine-sized meal will actually be edible.”

As if it heard his words, my stomach rumbles loudly, making me giggle-blush. “Bloody hell, you’d think I haven’t eaten in a week. I hope you have secured me at least five MRE’s.”

He chuckles freely at my casual reference of military meals and softens his hold so I can wobble up. “Of course you’d eat even MRE’s. You’ve been asleep for almost twelve hours.”

All the blood rushes to my knees, and the room spins. “Twelve hours?” I shriek, making us both jump. He springs up next to me, catching me before I hit the mattress.

“You were exhausted, Elisa. But don’t worry—I called Bia early and left a voicemail that you were sick. I don’t think they’ll be upset.”

As if I care about that right now. “But—but the embargo!” I wail, trying to count the hours in my head, too terrified to look at the clock on the wall. “I wanted to do so much! Is it really after seven at night?”

He hugs me closer. “Don’t worry about the embargo. I told you we’d have more time after you woke up.”

“But we have to see Doctor Helen in the morning! And—and—” I choke off in horror, shuddering at what I’ve done. Because it will be over after that. There is no more reason left for him to stay. Everything is finished—his closure preparations, the reel, the truth—no more excuses, no more embargoes, nothing else. How could I have wasted our last day together? How did I squander his first day after the truth? The day I knew would end, yet now that he is back in the cottage, I don’t think I can live through watching him leave again, brave or not brave. What am I going to do? How? Abruptly, even though I was trying to cheer him up, blistering flames start chewing up my throat, scalding their way to my eyes. The invisible wound in my chest rips wide open, suffocating my lungs.

“Elisa? Shh, love, listen to me.” Aiden is rocking me gently in his arms, blowing on my lips. “We can have as much embargo time as you want, alright? Stop thinking about that. Just breathe for me, please.”

T-i-m-e? Did I hear him right? “R-really?” I check in a broken whisper. “You’ll give me more t-time after we see Doctor Helen?”

He stops rocking me and takes my face in his hands, locking my gaze in his. “You have my word,” he promises in a voice I trust with much more than my life. I trust it with his every heartbeat. “There is no reason at all for your panic; I want more time too. Now, please relax. You’re breaking your own rules and ruining all the rest you got.”

There is that one word again. T-i-m-e. How can the same four letters that suffocate me become air in a blink? I know he doesn’t mean forever like I want, but I will take every minute he will give. Instantly, my terror retreats, and I slump between his palms. “Thank you,” I sigh, inhaling his sandalwood-and-us fragrance.

“Always. Now, can you promise you will try to live in the present moment with me today as much as possible? Not in the future or the past.”

How can I say no to any of that? When I never want tomorrow to come?

“I promise.”

“Thank you,” he says fervently as though he needs this as much as I do. He releases my face and takes my hand, bringing it to his lips. “Come on, let’s start with food.”

My blood thrills under his kiss.

We rise together then, him fluid like water, me rigid with the lack of motion. He eyes me carefully as though I might topple over. And he’s right because as soon as I hop out of bed, I stagger on jelly legs.

“Whoa . . . head rush!” I huff, but he saves me before I can stumble into the nightstand.

“Easy, easy. Come here.” He scoops me up in his arms. “Bathroom first or straight to the kitchen?”

I almost say back to bed. I almost say to the end of the world. I almost say so many things I shouldn’t say, but thankfully I can’t speak. Because he is carrying me like he used to. And it’s so easy to stay in this present moment. To wrap my arms around his neck and pretend again. Pretend that the last eleven days, except his discovery, did not exist. Neither does tomorrow. There is only now, repeating ceaselessly into the arc of time.

And right now, he is smiling at something in my expression. “Never mind. It’s clearly too soon for hard decisions. The bathroom first it is.” And he strides across the hallway to the loo door, looking like he is about to come in with me.

“Bloody hell, Aiden, no! This is one thing I can do by myself.”

He rolls his eyes. “Elisa, relax. I’ll turn my back. I don’t want you to fall and get hurt.”

“Absolutely not. Aiden, I’m serious. Put me down! Right now!” I try in vain to wiggle out of his iron hold. He half-sighs, half-snarls, but sets me down on my feet, his arms hovering around me lest I fall face first into the sink.

“Don’t lock the door,” he growls as I close it. “I’ll be right here.”

Exactly where I want him to be. I race through the motions as fast as possible with my dubious balance so I don’t miss any more seconds with him. But as soon as I glimpse the mirror, I stumble again. Because I look exactly like I have been through a war, and then snoring and drooling all day.

“Ugh!” I groan, staring at my face. There are pillow creases like the mark of Zorro all over it.

“Elisa?” He pounds on the door. “What’s wrong? Did you fall?”

“No, I’m just a mess. How were you not laughing at my face?” I grab the brush and start yanking it through the tangled haystack that is my hair.

“I didn’t see anything laughable about it.”

I scoff. Him and his permanent Javier filter over his eyes. Although I could definitely use it for myself now. That or the golden halo of my bravery visions. I wonder briefly what my own face would have looked like to me if I had thought to see it during the protein. Would I have felt like the most beautiful woman in the world, finally an equal to him? I laugh at the impossibility of that idea and give up on the hair jungle, wash my face, brush my teeth quickly, and come out.

He is pacing, frowning at the floor, deep in some thought, but as soon as he sees me, whatever conflict was tearing through his mind resolves, and a profound peace descends over his face. His beauty grows in that surreal way I cannot describe, triggering an overwhelming sensation of pure wonder. And his eyes . . .

There are some looks we always remember. Looks that can save, heal, revive better than any medicine, protein, or shock to the heart. Looks that can bind, shield, love, touch. Blazing like fire, protective like steel, vital like our own heartbeat. Looks that can speak. My all, they murmur silently, yet every atom hears it.

That is the look I see now in his eyes.

It stuns my mind, my heart, my lungs.

“Come,” he says softly, a deep emotion smoldering below the surface. And before I can remember how to speak or breathe, he swoops me up again and flies with me down the stairs, straight into the kitchen. I still haven’t caught my breath when he sets me down at the table. But as soon as I do, the delicious smell of roasted chicken hits me and my taste buds like a javelin.

“You actually cooked?” I squeal, sniffing the air hungrily. Yes, definitely roast chicken and something buttery. My stomach lets out a dragon-like snarl.

“That’s the idea.” He strides to the oven that is set on warm with such speed, it’s obvious he fears I will die of starvation in exactly one minute.

“What did you make? It smells amazing!” I flit to his side to investigate as he takes out a deep bowl and roaster covered in foil. And then I have to grip the counter for balance again. Because as he removes the aluminum sheets, I see one of the best meals my heart has ever had; I know it without taking a single bite. I would know it even without the sense of taste or smell.

“The dinner we had at your house when we babysat Javi’s sisters,” I murmur through a tight throat, watching the golden roasted chicken, cloudy mashed potatoes, and glistening peas. But I know we both remember this meal for another reason. “The night we first said I love you to each other.”

He looks at me in that breathless way as he did upstairs. “One of my favorite nights.”

“Mine too.”

My heart is pounding in my ears at the sight—because it looks like another home I’m missing deeply, because my stomach is suddenly full of butterflies, and above all because Aiden chose this memory for his first day on this other side. “Why did you pick it for tonight?” I ask, knowing he never chooses a memory without reason.

He sets down the crumpled ball of foil and takes my hands, sending a warm flurry up my arms. “It seemed fitting. We were afraid that night too. Waiting to meet with Bob and his legal team in the morning, our path so dark and uncertain. But in that one moment, everything felt true, simple—you love me and I love you.”

In his musical voice, his words crystallize this present moment into that simplicity too. Staving off all agony and fear. Is that another reason why he chose it? I wrap my arms around his waist, holding him for as long as I can.

“That part has not changed.”

“And it never will.” His voice has the seal of promise in it. I lean into his chest—maybe he will kiss my temple again—but my stomach decides to ruin everything with a furious roar.

“Christ! I knew I should have fed you before going to sleep,” he says urgently, pulling away to load up my plate to the porcelain brim lest I faint this very second. But if I do, it won’t be from this kind of hunger. Still, I don’t whine about the mountain of mashed potatoes, hillocks of peas, or the near half-chicken he serves me—I’d eat those and the pan too if he made them.

We sit together side by side at the small kitchen table for the first time since the end. His knee by my knee, his elbow next to mine, brushing gently as a chair drags or he fills my glass with our favorite Pinot Noir. Each touch fires like a thunderbolt though my system. But despite the frenzy inside my body, my heart is at peace. Just beating next to his. I know it’s only the calm before the final storm that will drown me tomorrow once and for all. But in this one present moment, all is well.

I shove the first forkful of mashed potatoes and dark meat in my mouth, and almost moan at the taste. “Wow! This is definitely not an MRE,” I mumble as soon as I swallow.

He smiles. “Not many things are.”

“Really impressive for someone who claims he doesn’t know how to cook.”

He takes a bite himself. “Well, I wouldn’t call this cooking. Strict obedience is more appropriate. I had Cora on WhatsApp this afternoon, guiding my every move. I thought she was going to quit half-way through but, thankfully, she likes you too much to subject you to my culinary skills.”

I giggle, wishing I had been a rose at the windowsill to watch the whole scene. And happy because he is eating again even if slower and less than me. “I think Cora might like her boss even more,” I answer, gobbling more mashed potatoes and crispy chicken skin. “You’re like Mr. Darcy that way; all your staff love you.”

He shakes his head. “I’m still questioning if you got enough sleep.”

“Shh, don’t say that word. The roses hate it,” I hiss, listening to his chuckle as I snarf down our I-love-you dinner.

He eats along, his eyes lingering tenderly on my face every few moments. Sometimes I think I sense a question there—something deep and vital—but I’m too afraid to ask what it means. What if he tells me he is memorizing our last supper? I swerve around the thought before it kills me and focus only on this second.

“So what else did you do today?” I ask. “Other than cook me a Michelin-star meal, save my job, and selfishly spy on drooling, unconscious innocents?”

He takes a sip of wine, the gesture easy and familiar like a homecoming. “Caught up on work, filled in Helen and Corbin, called Cal and the others to tell them about the . . . the truth. Cal backed me in the decision to stay in the schoolyard that day. It has torn him up too.”

I like the way he calls it the truth. Overriding his hesitancy, emphasizing the word as if to get used to its sound. “What did they say? Is James feeling better?”

“Didn’t have a chance to connect—they’re all at work still—but I did talk to General Sartain.”

At the name, fear bolts through me despite my vow to stay present. What if the General mentioned the video he sent to Doctor Helen? How long would it take Aiden to make the leap that I’ve seen it? My blood drains out of my suddenly icy face. “What did the General say?” I ask, trying to sound normal but my voice cracks anyway.

He frowns, setting down his knife and fork. “He was shocked too but he ordered the DIA to reopen the investigation and correct the record. Elisa, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, love. Did the General say anything else?”

His eyes are still on me but they soften. “He asked about you actually.”

“Me?” I jump a little on my seat, distracted briefly from my current plight. “The General knows about me?”

He nods. “I told him when we had to help Javier.”

“Oh, right. I guess that makes sense.”

I’m too afraid to ask what he told the General now at our end, but he must sense the question anyway because his hand comes to my face, caressing my cheek. My blood rushes up to the surface again as if to touch him back. “I told him you led me to the truth,” he offers. “And that you are like no one else. Do you want to know what he said?”

I nod, speechless, leaning into his hand.

“He said, and I quote, ‘Wanna free the world, Lieutenant? Send five thousand good Marines. Wanna free their soul? Send one good woman. Wanna find her? Send God.’” His fingertips trace my jawline to my chin. “What do you say to that, Elisa?”

It takes me a moment to unscramble my brain. “Umm . . . that if you want to find God, send the General?”

He chuckles—more today than since before the end. “He’ll like that. Now, will you please tell me what’s bothering you about me talking to the General?”

Oh bloody hell—we’re back to the video. The truth. Only the truth that protects him. “I just don’t want you to hurt,” I admit what I can. “And I’m also thinking about how we’re going to celebrate Marshall and you for our embargo so that it doesn’t cause pain and gives you a good memory for this first day.”

He cups my cheek again. “I’m not hurting. In fact, right now, I’m feeling completely at peace—the way I always do when I allow myself to just be with you. As for celebrating, how about you finish eating first, and then we can start?” He flashes his new smile at me, and I almost liquify in his hand. All the dread slides back. And why not? He really does seem calmer than I’ve seen him in the last eleven days. Dread can wait with everything else.

“Okay, but you finish your plate too,” I agree easily and start gulping down everything, feeling his eyes on me. As soon as I swallow the last pea, I chug some water and jolt to my feet. “Thank you—that was even better than Cora’s, though I wouldn’t tell her. Can we start the embargo now?”

He laughs at my impatience but wipes his lips and rises in all his grace, holding out his hand. “Yes, we can.”

I take his hand, feeling him pull me along like a tide, unable to blink away from his face—more golden than pale now, like an inner light is glowing underneath. Why is that? The absence of guilt, allowing himself some love, a desperately needed break? Whatever the reason, his beauty is hypnotic again.

He pauses in the foyer, under the light from the chandelier. In the muted glow, his eyes deepen with that my-all look that incapacitated me upstairs. My body must sense something in it that my mind can’t because suddenly my heart starts fluttering and I have the dizzying sensation of soaring up high.

“What is it?” I ask, my voice coming out in a whisper.

He smiles slightly as though at something inside him. “I love you,” he says, and for a moment I wonder if he is answering my question or his own.

“I love you too,” I reply, bewildered.

He wraps his arm around my waist, towing me to the threshold of the living room. It takes me several frantic heartbeats to finally glance away from him. But when I do, I stagger again despite his hold. Not because of my balance problems this time. But because I finally understand the reason for that look in Aiden’s eyes, for the emotion flowing through his touch.

A fairytale has been waiting for me.

“Oh!” I gasp the same as in the dream.

The living room has transformed into a snow globe scene. Glowing with magic new and old. The chocolate box windows are wreathed with starry lights—golden constellations charted against the dusk. On their sills glimmers mum’s miniature Burford village: the Inn, the church, the school, the tiny weaver cottages, our home, Plemmons Blooms. All sparkling with fairy lights as they used to in my childhood. The rest feels new. A gentle fire bubbles in the little beehive fireplace, purple and sapphire flames tangoing happily to the crackling sound. Countless white petals strew the floor like snowflakes. A fluffy, cream blanket drapes over the sofa. And in the corner, where the Christmas tree used to glisten each year, is our biggest potted rose. The white Aphrodite. Its branches are woven with our twinkly lights, blinking like fireflies around the chalice-shaped blooms. My knitted stocking leans against the stony pot, and around it shimmers a posy of presents. Three small boxes wrapped in what seems to be printed newspaper. And on the coffee table blossoms a low vase of Elisas, but they are not alone this time. Clusters of forget-me-nots hug the ivory rosettes with their vibrant blue. So similar to the fiery eyes I sense on me now, even if nothing earthly can ever quite compare to their gaze.

“Oh, Aiden!” I breathe, turning to look at him. And abruptly all the magic seems ordinary next to his face. If his arm were not still around my waist, I would have flopped on the downy floor from my trembling knees. “I—you—I don’t have the words.”

“Merry Christmas, love,” he murmurs, that potent emotion back in the timbre of his voice. It blends with the willows that are suddenly susurrating a different song . . . Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. “Is this what you had in mind?”

“I—never—we—we’re really doing Christmas for Marshall?”

He pinches my chin with his free fingers—tingles twinkle everywhere in my body like the starry lights.

“Not just for Marshall. We’re also doing it for us.”

Us. The tiny word trills in my ears, in my blood.

“Us?” I ask, quivering at the beautiful sound.

“Us,” he repeats.

His voice makes the word into music, even if it doesn’t mean what I wish it could. Even if it’s not the us before or the us after. Because it’s still us now. And happiness shifts again under his fingertips. It becomes these two most beautiful letters, more important than all the others, more vital than I.  I know there is agony simmering underneath, waiting to scorch me to ash. And I know there is gravelike emptiness ahead—so many Christmases alone, just the roses and me. They will all claim me in the end, but I don’t give them a single part of me now. Not because I’m abruptly stronger—no, I’ve never felt more breakable—but because Aiden is still here, mine. Giving me this most wondrous, final gift. And wasting any second of its miracle on pain is a sin I simply cannot commit, an unforgivable violence against the purest thing there is. L-o-v-e. It gushes bravely from its crescent peaks, as implacable as during the protein, utterly unabated by time or sleep, flooding every space in my awareness until I can barely breathe. It takes me so many heartbeats to be able to find air, then words, then string them into sense and sound. He waits, seeming content just to look at me.

“Thank you,” I manage to whisper at last. “I love, love, love all of this.”

That new smile breaks over his face. “I do too.”

When he says it that way, softly as though the words are new, I finally realize what I’m really seeing. “This is one of your selfish things!” I stare at him in awe as the magic around us takes on a new meaning.

“The us part is.”

“The best part.”

I glance around me to look at our snow globe with this new light. But I don’t want to miss even a speck from his face so my head keeps whipping back and forth between him and the Christmas magic, making me dizzy. He doesn’t laugh as he should—he just smiles, leading me inside the fairytale bubble. As I totter through it in a daze, a familiar jingle floats in the air with the willows. Pink Martini, A White Christmas. I smile because this is us too—the band of our first dance.

“Perfect,” I whisper as he sets his phone on the table.

“Almost,” he murmurs cryptically, looking back at me. A flash burn heats my skin, but not from the flames. It’s from that gaze, from the way his fingertips brush the sweatshirt at my hip. Forcefully again, I wish I could remember like he does. Forever, so I never lose any part of this.

“You know how to make a colored fire,” I marvel.

“Your father’s Encyclopedia of Elements. Salt substitutes, apparently.”

“I really love the blue flames.” I watch mesmerized the way they reflect in his eyes.

“I’m partial to the purple ones.”

“And I love the forget-me-nots.” I caress the blue flowers nestled with my roses, trying to picture him picking them in Elysium. “The Elisas can definitely use the memory.”

“As can I.”

He holds my waist again as I wobble in a trance to Aphrodite glowing. “Aphrodite is so excited about this.” I almost bounce, stroking the twinkling petals. “None of the other roses have ever played an actual Christmas tree before. You’ve made them very jealous by picking her.”

“Well, I’m already in the garden shed with them for saying the word ‘lavender’ last night, so I might as well infuriate them fully.”

“I’m sure they’ll forgive you. You might have to give them a gift though.” I kneel by the stony pot, looking at the presents wrapped in newspaper. Like my old tradition of buying the paper on memorable days.

“What would they like?”

You to stay forever, the answer bubbles to my lips but I bite my tongue. Because I know that chance is lost to us. G-o-n-e. Abruptly, the scalding agony tears through my resolve to stay present with its fire incisors. I’m glad I’m looking down at the presents so he can’t see it. I shove down these thoughts immediately before they can turn me into a jigsaw of torture on the petaled floor. Before they can char even a split-second of this perfect moment.

“I’m sure you’ll find something,” I answer, picking up the smallest box, a square no bigger than a votive candle, and shaking it. There is no sound, no name on it, just the distinctive carbon print that must mean something important to him. “But what will you open? There are no presents here for you.” I count the three boxes unnecessarily.

He folds on the rug next to me. “I already have mine. There is this.” He holds out his wrist with the MIRAJ bracelet I made for him. The wooden initials are brighter under the Christmas lights. “And this.” His hand frames my face, the warm touch settling on my skin like spring.  It takes me a moment of scattered concentration to form a coherent reply.

“But that’s still only two. I already have you and Christmas, and there are three boxes here and a stocking.”

He chuckles again—how many times has that been today? Six? Can I make it a million?

“Well, first, as we have established, Christmas is for me too. Second, not all these boxes are for you. One of them is for Marshall.”

His answer is so unexpected, it derails me completely. “It is?” I ask, gobsmacked.

He nods, and the amusement softens in his eyes. It becomes almost wonder in this new world he is charting now. As if he can’t quite believe he is the one taking these steps by himself.

“I am so proud of you,” I tell him, the words seeming so inadequate for what I feel. “For having the strength to get up after last night and choose love over pain.”

He smiles. “This was your idea.”

“Yes, but I could have never dreamt this, let alone make it real. I was thinking Christmas carols and jasmine tea. I love that you’re giving Marshall a gift. Which one is his?”

“This.” He picks up a cylindric present, about the size of a rolled sheet of paper but thicker. His eyes stir with memories as he taps it rhythmically on his palm.

“Is this okay?” I inch closer to his body in case he needs the calm. “Do you want to do this or are you doing it just for me?

He wraps his arm around me. “It’s better than okay. It’s right. And I’m doing it for him and myself too. As you said, it’s time to give him something positive.”

I stroke the newspaper-wrapped cylinder—it feels firmer, heavier to the touch. “I wish I had something for him too.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Elisa, you already gave him the most meaningful gift any soldier could ever have. You named the only bravery protein in existence after him. What could compare to that?”

“I know, but it’s not something wrapped under the tree—or Aphrodite.”

With a jolt of surprise, I watch him smile as he holds his lost brother’s gift. “Criminal, but don’t worry. This one is from both of us.”

Us again. The word shimmers in the air like the starry lights.

“I really like that word.”

“I do too. Are you ready to open yours?”

Bloody hell, it’s now! “Wait, wait!” I cry out. “I want to take a photo first before we open anything!” I scramble around for my phone, wanting capture this present moment for posterity like I did on our first embargo, but his hand closes on my hip. The warmth that shoots through me must spread to his skin and becomes fire in his eyes.

“Stay here. I brought your cell with me.”

He reaches in the back pocket of his jeans and hands me my phone he obviously remembered to retrieve from the nightstand. I snap photos of everything, especially him watching me with an indulgent smile. And suddenly, as I look at him through the phone screen, another vision is triggered for me. Young, whole Aiden, glowing in his tent, with a Peter Pan smile at the corner of his lips and the sapphire eyes lighting the desert night on fire. Incredibly, the two visions merge, and I finally realize what this surreal beauty that Aiden exudes at certain moments is—moments when he does breathtaking things like this. It’s not only love for me. It’s a feeling of wholeness within himself.

I toss aside my phone, knowing no pixel can ever do him justice. “Okay, I’m ready now.” I skip to his side and curl back on the rug under Aphrodite, trembling when our knees bump. “Which one should we open first?”

“Well, only this small one is for today. This other one—” He picks up the thin, rectangle packet, a little longer than his hand. “—is for tomorrow.”

That distracts me again—it’s impossible to hold a train of thought with so many emotions and sensations at once. “Why for tomorrow?”

“Because today is not its turn.”

“So why are you giving it to me today?”

“For a very good reason.”

Abruptly, I worry that this is his goodbye gift, and he doesn’t want our day of peace to blend with it. My chest starts throbbing immediately but his eyes blaze with that my-all look that keeps me anchored to this present moment. Besides, am I not doing the same for him? A secret gift he knows nothing about. A present for tomorrow after he meets with Doctor Helen, and not a second before. The protein taught me that, and it hasn’t yet been wrong.

“Tomorrow then,” I agree. “That way, I’ll have something for you too.”

He smiles, half-adoringly, half-relieved, setting down the mysterious present. “I already have everything I need—”

“Not this one,” I interrupt.

“Fine, you can prove me wrong tomorrow. Now, why don’t you open your today gift?” And hands me the small square box I picked up earlier.

I take it with windy fingers, trying to read the newspaper script. It’s a reprint on our printer paper, but the sentences break off from the wrapping, just words and phrases about a festival and spring. “A newspaper article,” I murmur, peeling it back carefully so I don’t tear any of it. My voice comes out thick at my tradition that he is adapting this way and making it entirely his . . . ours. I open it, expecting today’s date but he surprises me so much I forget even about the cognac leather box underneath. It’s a reprint from another date that means everything.

“October sixteen, 1999,” I read, my breath shaking. “The date dad and I carved the initials under the bench.”

“The date the idea of a magic, all-conquering love was born in your head,” he adds.

I flatten out the paper—a copy of the front page of The Oxford Student. The article is about the exam schedule and the rain predicted for the Spring Festival. “Wherever did you find this?”

“It’s only a copy. Helen scanned it to me this morning from their online archive. But now you know more about that day, like me.”

“I’d love it even if this was the present itself. Thank you.” I kiss it and tuck it carefully in Aphrodite’s branches. It glows there under the twinkly lights like a mini art frame. But why did he choose it for this gift?

“I think the real present is feeling offended,” he chuckles, but I sense a similar emotion in his eyes.

I turn to the leather box, bracing my heart and mind for whatever is inside. But as I lift the lid, I still lose my breath, despite all my preparation. Because there, nestled in the black velvet folds, glimmers a diamond A, exactly like the P-E-C charms jingling on my wrist.

“Oh my God!” I whisper, tracing its brilliance with my fingertip. The diamonds toss and catch the blinking lights like stars. And the phosphorescent borders gleam mysteriously in the dusk like a crepuscular moon. My entire sky right here in this letter A. “Aiden, how did you know?” I look up at him, awed.

The expression on his face overwhelms me. It’s too much—too much beauty, too much meaning. “Your eyes told me when I gave you the bracelet. I ordered this that same day, but then Edison—”

“Don’t! Don’t say his name today, or ever.”

“Fair point. Then everything changed that night, and I didn’t think I’d give it to you after that. I didn’t want it to cause you more pain.”

The diamonds almost dim at his words. “What made you change your mind?”

“Your brave love. The truth. This bracelet you made me. You included the M despite its pain because you believe love conquers that. And I knew I wanted to give it to you then.”

At those last words, something more beautiful than the diamonds sparkles for me. “This is another one of your selfish things!” I grin, impossibly loving the initial even more.

He smiles. “I thought so, but does it qualify under your selfish definition if you want it too?”

I revise my definition immediately. “Yes, I was wrong. It absolutely qualifies if you want it as much as me.”

“I do. Maybe even more.”

He gazes at me like I am his all again. His hand comes to my face as though it’s as eager to touch me as I am to touch him. Except I’m frozen in a spell as his fingers trace the path of my painting along my jawline to the corner of my mouth. He pauses there, half-peace, half-fire, his breath catching. And for the first time since the end, his thumb grazes my lips. Just the faintest touch, but desire ignites in my veins, blazing through my bones and kindling in my belly. Abruptly, my vision shimmers. That unforgettable golden halo flickers on, suffusing Aiden’s face with a subtle light. Not bright and glittery as in my dream or during the protein—this is softer, like candlelit skin. The way he used to glow in our happy bedroom, with the after-radiance of an orgasm.

“Oh!” I start, fingers flying to his cheek. Why am I still seeing this? What is it?

“Elisa?” Aiden frowns, feeling the pulse at my neck. His thumb brushes my lips accidentally with the movement this time. But instantly, the candlelight dazzles me again. With a burst of instinct, everything clicks then. Images, sensations, emotions—all weave together with blinding speed, transforming the scene. What I’m really seeing, what it means, what I get to keep.  Beautifully, incredulously, my little world opens in a single blink. Warm tears glint in my eyes as I gaze at him in wonder. Because how many people in the world get their most secret, impossible wish, only to realize it’s even more perfect than they had dared to dream?

“Wow!” I breathe.

“Elisa, love, what is it?” Aiden asks in alarm at my tears. He wipes them frantically with his fingers, skimming again the corner of my mouth. I hold my breath, waiting, and there it is. The bedroom glow breathes with him as yearning sings from my scalp to my toes. I blink off the new tears so I don’t miss anything, especially the worried V.  That V brings me back, centers everything where it should be today: him.

“I’m okay, love,” I assure him, caressing the lucent frown, upset at myself for ruining the moment. “You just take my breath away sometimes, that’s all.” I don’t tell him about my discovery—not yet. I don’t want to take a single minute from his first and maybe last selfish day. He would worry, he wouldn’t be able to leave in peace after that. Perhaps someday. . .

He sighs in relief. “Welcome to my world all the time,” he smiles.

“It’s such a beautiful place to be.”

“With you it is,” he murmurs, pulling me in his arms. Then ah! His lips press at my temple again. The kiss sweeps through my skin, jolting into my bones, effervescing behind my closed eyelids. I can feel his steel body harden against every curve of mine. His nose glides down my cheek, his breath coming out rough and fast while mine stops completely. But he doesn’t get close to my mouth now—probably afraid of making me cry again. Or maybe the momentary lapse in his control passed. Would he give in if I turned my head just a little bit? And if he did, can I survive losing it again? Can he? Not that I care what happens to me after he leaves but I still have to be able to breathe. And causing him even one more second of pain—there is no desire in the world justifying that. Even the one that quite literally makes me see stars.

I kiss the tip of his shoulder and pull back to make it easier for him. Still, it takes me a minute to remember where I am with the blue flames in his eyes.

“Right, Christmas!” I recover, jumping up in his arms. “All my diamonds. Where is my wrist?”

He takes a deep breath—the sound is almost agonized—and chuckles. “Here, it’s attached to your left hand . . . I think.”

I laugh with him as he unfastens my precious bracelet and reaches in the velvet folds for the magnificent charm. Then carefully, he rearranges the letters, stringing the A exactly where I want it: next to my E, until the initials glimmerPEAC under the twinkly lights.

“Thank you. It’s perfect now,” I say as he secures the bracelet back on my wrist.

“Yes, it is,” he answers simply, holding my hand.

The phosphorescent borders glow next to the black leather cuff I made for him. MIRAJ and PEAC. Lights in the dark. And I love them even more for what they truly mean: that Aiden is choosing to stay in some form with me.

“So which one next?” I ask, staying only in this present moment. “Marshall’s gift or the stocking?”

“The stocking. It’s for both of us. Although technically I should call it art.”

“Art?” I ask, intrigued, as he hands it to me with that new smile on the corner of his lips.

I peek inside and, under a confetti of petals, is a little card on top. A card I would know anywhere, with glitter and pink hearts. Two stick figures—a tall one and a short one—are holding sticky hands. And right below it, in Anamelia’s crayon letters, it says Aiden + Isa.

“Oh my goodness, did your mum’s care package arrive?” I blubber, clutching the craft paper.

“You could say that. Look inside. Easy though—it might cause some heart palpitations.”

I laugh at his dire warning and toss out the petals. And then the palpitations really start.

It’s not a care package like any I have gotten in my life. Aiden is right: it’s all art. Homemade cookies, individually wrapped in clingy film and decorated with creamy roses by Javier’s sisters. Candid photos of Aiden and me that Stella must have taken when she was here: us laughing, dancing, playing the piano together, building up the rose stand at the Rose Festival, our entwined hands, a kiss. More photos from my camera when I was in Portland that Reagan must have printed: our first embargo, our trip at Powell’s bookstore, our daytrip at the Rose Garden, planting Lady Clare. And rolled carefully, Javier’s unmistakable sketches of us that he must have drawn when he and Reagan were visiting: Aiden and I walking across the field of poppies, curling together at Chatsworth, watering the roses . . . A gallery of us, of every minute we have shared with our other loves yet wrapped entirely in ours.

I don’t realize more tears are blossoming until one splashes down and Aiden catches it on his palm before it hits a masterful drawing of his long fingers on my cheek. His trademark caress.

“I know,” he says, pulling me close. “It’s something else, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is. It’s everything.”

“The blanket on the sofa came too. Apparently, it was handknitted by my mother, Reagan, Bel, and Maria for days.” He sweeps it off the couch to show me. In the corner are those two letters again, woven in golden thread: A & E. “Clearly, initials are in vogue these days.”

I sniffle and laugh at the same time, kissing the soft yarn. He throws it over my shoulders, and we tuck the photos and sketches on the branches of our rose-tree. They glow under the starry lights, a tiny museum of our love. I try not to think about what that means. I try not to think of the fact that they always hang here like this for as long as Aphrodite lives. Until that last twinkly light burns out. These are not thoughts I will let in today.

“Don’t worry, these are good tears and palpitations.” I grin at him, taking his hand in both of mine. “I couldn’t imagine an embargo I would have loved more. Even compared to the first one.”

“I tend to agree. I’m not yelling at you about your graduation, glaring at Javier, kicking you of out my house, or trying to give you a million dollars and make you feel like a prostitute in the process. And you’re not having nightmares, working illegally, or getting deported. All in all, I’d say this is an improvement.”

I laugh again—more today for me too than since before the end. I don’t allow myself to think about anything else. “And we still have so many hours left. Shall we open Marshall’s now? Are you ready?”

That old bruise dims his eyes for a moment, but not with guilt—even I can see that. Now that it has vanished from the sapphire depths, I realize the anguish it used to add to the agony.

He looks down at the diamonds in my wrist. Then that look of home, of resolve galvanizes the blue depths.

“Yes, I am.”

At the clear ring of his voice, a curious, familiar trickle of warmth climbs up my throat like a tendril. H-o-p-e. Is this clarity enough to turn his freedom into hope? Turn redemption into faith in who he is? I try to smother the next question, but it blazes in my head as luminous as his glow: can this keep him here with me? Can it give us some way forward that I cannot see? I stop the question right there. Not one syllable longer. I’m too awake now not to know the difference between reality and dreams. Too breakable not to distinguish the hope that builds from the hope that kills.

“Okay, love, let’s celebrate,” I tell him.

He reaches for the cylindrical present—like a kaleidoscope for stars and fairytales—and hands it to me. Outside, a new willow song starts blending with the Christmas carols . . . us, us, us.

©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 36 – FORTIS

Hey gang, happy Sunday and here’s to an easy week ahead. How is it February already? Here’s another chapter for you. I thought it would have taken me three days to write this compared to the last two until I realized how much harder it would be to continue planting the clues. But they’re now all out. We will just have to reveal them in the last few. And then somehow, I will have to figure out how to say goodbye to these two characters who, in many ways, feel like my children. They’ve been by me through hell, and I honestly don’t know what I will do without them. Weird, maybe, since they’re not real. But they feel very real to me. Have a great one, peeps. Chat with you next week. xo, Ani (P.S. A note on this photo–straight from Cotswolds, credit Krasimir Dyulgerski. I felt like it perfectly captured what this chapter represents in so many ways, it deserves a blog post on its own.)

36

Fortis

“Aiden?” I call him again as his heart gives another frantic lurch under my hand. “Aiden, love, listen to my voice. Feel my hands on your face.” I trail my fingers up to his steely jaw that is clenching as if against a scream and remove the evil headset. It’s hot too, like his skin. What is this fever? Is he ill? His eyes are closed, the pupils racing underneath. I don’t waste time with just holding his fist anymore—I know it will not be enough. I know this will take everything I have learned, guessed, and discovered in the last four hours, maybe even life.

I remove my parka and lie gently on top of him as he likes, my body to his shuddering lines, my heart to his heart, my breath to his breath, my hands on his feverish face—all of me to him, for him. “We’re together now, love. Even after everything we’ve been through and everything still ahead, in this present moment, we’re together, fighting back. Because you’re worth it, Aiden. Every part of you, from this one hair—” I tug at a drenched lock on his forehead “—to every one of your breaths. You—are—worth—it.”

His heart is still a machine gun against my chest, a jailed eagle thrashing its wings. I massage the sharp blade of his jaw, his stony neck, the wrought shoulders. Not a single shudder slows. His fists don’t soften. Lightly, I kiss his satin eyelids. “When you open your eyes, you’ll see this is exactly your kind of sunset. Gentle and mild, not hazy and hot. There’s a fluffy cloud floating by, shaped like a heart. The breeze has picked up. There are petals flying about—the roses are coming to find you, like I am. And you will come back to us, I know you will.”

There is no change in him whatsoever. I press my lips to his scar, tracing the permanent L above his eye as a reminder from fate to see only love. Usually as soon as I kiss him, the fists start to loosen, but not now. They are still iron grenades even as a trickle of blood drips through the folds from his work blisters. I take the petal he gave me and wipe off the droplets. “This is our petal, remember? Feel my touch. It’s just a rose, waiting for your hand to open.” I bring his fist to my lips, kissing the thorny knuckles. But it doesn’t open a single millimeter. The sinister tension is still wringing his shoulders.

I glance at my phone, still playing Für Elise. Fifteen minutes—the shudders have always skipped a beat by now, his grip has always softened. My own heart blisters with brave agony.

“You know something else about this present moment?” I continue. “There is a forget-me-not by your head, but that’s not your surprise. I think you’ll like this one. It will make you smile, or I hope it does. What is it, you’re wondering? You’ll see. But right now, I’ll turn up your favorite song. We haven’t danced to it in so long. And I miss it so much.” I increase the volume on Für Elise with scorching fingers. The pain in my own body ratchets to another peak as terror would by now, but I ignore it. I tangle my legs with his and hold his fist against his heart as he does with my hand when we dance. “Just listen to the piano and my voice. They’re real, the words are real, all of this is real. Our love, my faith in you, your faith in yourself. You can do this, I know you can.” For the first time since the end, I press my lips to his. I’m not breaking our closure rules—Aiden agreed for this reel. He knew it would take all of me. I just wish he could kiss me back, even if only for a moment.

The instant our lips touch, his face shimmers again with that surreal golden halo. The soft bristles of his beard make me shiver. And his taste . . . so fiery, so pure, with the hint of rose oil I dabbed on him. More heavenly than any delicious morsel I have ever sampled, and every intoxicating perfume. I almost drown in it, but his hot, broken breaths are still slicing through his teeth like the gasps in that Fallujah classroom. And the lovely aura disappears from my vision. I start kissing him in time with the melody, blowing on his lips to cool them. Twenty minutes now. “I love you,” I whisper between each kiss. “Aiden, I love you. Come dance with me.”

But nothing is working. In fact, the opposite. I sense him drifting further and further. It’s in the way the tension strains his body, the way his pupils lock beneath his golden lids, and the way his heart is bombing his chest. Another geyser of heat blasts my throat. Why are my words not bringing him back? Did something break forever? Or is this present moment even more unendurable than Fallujah? Would he rather stay there in torture than here with our shattered love?

The pain climbs again, finding another summit to scorch into ash, but my mind opens up another inch. Trying to find another way. If I can’t bring Aiden here, I will have to find him there. I will follow him anywhere. I register briefly that I’ll be breaking all of Doctor Helen’s rules to the fullest—everything she taught me, and Corbin too. A prickly sensation slithers down my spine like a warning. But what else can I do? Their rules aren’t working. And this is my only chance, while the protein is still firing, while I can’t collapse.

“Aiden, my love.” I make the decision I would never have dared to make, hoping against hope I don’t regret it later. “I know I’m supposed to bring you to the present moment, but perhaps that’s not a moment you want to be in. So I’ll join you in yours, because that’s more important to me. I want to be with you whether we’re in Elysium or Fallujah, whether we’re happy or agonized, in sickness or in health. So let’s live through this together, because right now we’re both unafraid.” I caress his iron jaw, blowing on his lips to synchronize his breath to my calm lungs. But abruptly my own breath shudders for the first time in the last four and a half hours. Why? Has the pain finally turned my lungs into charred bricks? Or is the protein starting to fade?

Another barbed feeling spikes down my spine. Quickly, while I still have my potent mind, I search through everything I found in the video, everything bravery allowed me to see. And then I start, using only the words Aiden has told me about Fallujah. “Let me in that moment, love, from the beginning. You said you were in the tent when Marshall came in, writing a letter. It must have been one of mine. Did Marshall see it? Did he ask you about it? Tell him about me. Say, ‘There’s a girl I met in a painting, but she is real. And she loves me more than anything.’ What does Marshall say? Does he laugh? Does he think you’re making me up like Jazz did? Introduce us. Tell him I wish we had met, and maybe someday we will. But until then, I have a little gift for him. It’s a protein that makes us fearless. Tell him I’m naming it Marshall Fortis—Marshall the Brave. Because he was fearless, too, as were all of you.”

I flutter my lips along Aiden’s jaw, giving him time to process if he can hear me, if he can find me through the fire maze that’s scalding him. But in my own fingertips, I feel a strange, cold breeze. Like a chill. It distracts me for a moment. Nothing has felt cold to me since the protein. I glance at my phone again. Forty minutes since the reel ended—double Aiden’s record. And over five hours since I took my dose. Is it wearing off? Is that what this chill is? No, not yet, please. But in that same second, my breath shivers again and picks up speed. And I know it then without a doubt. Bravery is leaving when I need it the most. When I need every ounce of its strength just to push air in and out.

“I’m still here, love.” I fire all my power into my brain, draining it out of my body. “We’re in your tent, just the three of us, laughing. But we have to go. Take me along with you because I’m not afraid. I’m safe, right here in your heart. Are we meeting James, Hendrix, and Jazz? Let’s sing Marshall’s song together like you used to before each mission. Because this is another mission too, now. A mission to save you. You deserve that, Aiden.”

I reach for my phone, noticing a slight tremble on my fingertips. The chill advances another inch to my knuckles while the blistering fire of the agony closes around my heart. I scroll quickly through the songs, and there he is. Ray Charles.

“Here, let’s listen to I’ve Got a Woman with Marshall.” And the familiar tune fills our sphere of fire on Elysium as it did the tent in the video, except I only hear Young Aiden’s voice crooning in my ears.

“Well, I’ve got a woman,” I hum against his lips, hoping I remember all the words. But as soon as I start singing, something changes. Aiden’s heart slams into his ribs even faster than before. Am I reaching him at last? Or am I dragging him further into terror? Another prickly frisson runs down my arms. I recognize it now. Fear. Faint, but returning, as the chill reaches my wrists. No, not yet. Aiden first, I have to bring him back.

“I’ve got a woman, way over town, that’s good to me,” I keep singing through the last lines, running my cold fingers over his feverish face, memorizing every pore, every plume in his beard. Can he even hear me? Or is he locked at the school in the horror I didn’t see? “Stay with me, love. We have another good-luck song to play before we go. Ours. Tell Marshall about that. Make him laugh. What is he saying? I think he’d chuckle that only you would pick a song with no words, and that Für Elise is for sleeping, not sexing. Tell him he has no idea and start playing it.”

Another tremble through my fingers as I switch back to Für Elise on my phone. Another breath dies on Aiden’s lips. I blow on them lightly as he does with me. Perhaps I should stop, but I can’t. Because if I stop, I have nothing else to fight with.

“There, now we can set off into the night. How far to the pipes? Let them come. Laugh with Marshall because it stinks. Guide your brothers the way only you know how. Lead them out into the fresh air. I’m right there with you because we’re both untouchable now.”

Under me, impossibly the shudders double over his body. His neck jerks to the side, teeth vised together as if he’s saying no. I search through every space of my mind—it’s still clear, still holding—and I need all of it now. I need everything I learned and saw to get this right. “Is it the schoolyard? Don’t fight it. Look around in your memory, not just at Marshall. Look at the last place you were together, well and alive. Is it so different than where we are now? You said there was a market. Are there veggies, like the flowers here on Elysium? Bright tomatoes for poppies, leeks for daisies, eggplant for orchids, a hijab like this blanket. Where is the ancient Euphrates River? Is it flowing by you like River Windrush? Now search closer. What do you hear? Are there cars? Is there music like the willows? What is it singing?”

A sharp inhale of breath burns from his lips. Hotter and guttural. Can Aiden see what I saw, hear what I heard? Is his mind racing ahead like mine is? The chill of fear starts crawling towards my elbows.

“Let’s find Marshall together. I know it’s about to start. You can’t stop it, sweetheart, it’s already there. Waiting . . .”

Another gasp of breath. His chest jolts against mine—once, twice, three times with the IED that is deafening him now. I slide off gently to his side to lessen the weight and bring my lips to his ear. “Shh, love, listen to my voice, to Für Elise. Look past the smoke, past the broken little boy—what do you see? Anything familiar? Ignore the fiery sky; it’s just a hot sunset. And the black smoke is just like that boulder in the river. Both dark and deadly, but neither won in the end.”

Aiden’s heart is still thundering under my hand. And although the fists stay locked, his pupils start racing again. Searching or finding? Or losing himself even deeper in the terror?

“We’re almost to the end, love.” I keep going as the chill reaches my shoulders. “Let’s run inside the school where Marshall is waiting. You’re still his best hope, trust me.”

His thighs vibrate against mine like the imploding desert. His neck jerks again to the side as though he is trying to pull away.

“Take me upstairs with you, step by step, like Für Elise before bed. This is just another dance.” The ice starts biting my heels, frosting up my legs. “Here we are. Marshall is already there. You still have time together, fight again. Save Jazz. He’s stuck in the fires below, you know that. 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.”

Another shudder ripples through Aiden’s body, another gust of breath. Because he saved his friend? Or is his mind weaving the memories together, giving him a new angle?

“The blank minutes are coming now. Let’s use them.” I stroke his heart, counting its thunderous beats as my chest starts throbbing. “Look around the classroom you remember. Let’s find the safe, the familiar in this place. It’s always there.” I scan through the images my mind captured. They’re still crystal clear but in the horizons, dread is rolling in like clouds. “Are there desks like dad’s library? What’s on the walls? And the floor? Is there a pattern there? Maybe like the chessboard you gave me or the rug of planets where you fell and came back again. Because you will come back from this, too. Trust me, trust yourself. Is there a blackboard like every classroom? Is there anything on it? Something different than the horror?” Yes, there is, the rose in chalk, I just hope he is able to find it. “Hold on to that, my love, as it begins. I’m right here.”

The tremor that runs through him shakes my very bones. It seeps through my skin as the chill spreads over my scalp. But the agony is chewing my heart, taking flaming bite after flaming bite. Will it not fade as fear sneaks in? A shiver scurries down my spine. I fight it back by curling next to Aiden’s body heat. Maybe my chilled limbs will cool him. Fire and ice—how will our world end?

“I know Marshall is suffering,” I tell him, peeking at my phone. An hour and ten minutes past the reel. How much longer is it safe? “Try to look away, that’s not where your fight is. Find the safe things you saw earlier. The blackboard, the walls, the floor. I know there’s blood, but something else is that same color, too. Something happy, something ours. The American Beauty roses we planted together in Portland at your house. They’re growing, just like our love.”

If he hears me, I don’t know it. His shoulders strain against the cables that are binding him, utterly unchanged. Another tremble flitters down my neck; the ice spreads to my belly. Quickly, the vast skies of my mind are shrinking, smaller and smaller.

“Aiden? Hold on a little longer, love. This is the hardest part. Turn to Marshall. Look at him now. Can you see his face? You said you know he smiled. Is he saying something?”

Not your fault, my brother. Not your fault, Marshall gasped, but could Aiden hear him as low as it sounded? And how can I tell him without him knowing what I saw? Already my memories of his words, the reel photos, and the video are blending into a macabre mosaic of horror.

“You know what Marshall would say even if you can’t hear him. He would say he loves you. He would say it’s not your fault. He is right, love. Listen to Marshall, to everything you have just seen in your own mind. Listen, then let him go.”

But if he is trying, the past won’t let him out of its jaws. The shudders are still rocking his body, unabated. His pupils are still racing. Have I failed already?  Did I make the wrong choice? Should I have let these last days run quietly to our closure? Can I still go back? But if I can’t bring him from this torture, what other chance is there? Each question claws at my brain as the shield of the protein starts to crumble.

“Aiden, love, it wasn’t your fault. Not your fault. Not your fault, sweetheart,” I repeat, blowing my wintry breath over his lips and scrambling for my phone. It slips through my no-longer sure fingers. I pull up the name, tapping away with one hand as the other cools Aiden’s burning forehead.

“Dr. Helen, you there?”

Her text is immediate, as if she was waiting by the phone. “Elisa, thank goodness. Did you start the reel?”

“Yes. Aiden still away. Over an hour. High fever. Not dropping. Why is that?”

Her answer is not immediate now. The three dots pulse on the screen once, twice, as another shiver trembles in my fingers. Then: “Is your protein holding?”

No, but I want the truth. “Yes.”

The three dots don’t hesitate now. “It sounds like psychogenic fever. It can happen when the mind is under severe duress. Particularly, if in his memory, Aiden is locked in the desert, with the fires burning for such a long time. Do you have anything cold nearby?”

Just my frozen body. “Yes.”

“Good, try to cool him as best you can. It should return to normal once he breaks free.”

But why does even a minute longer feel too far away? “How much longer before it’s unsafe?”

Another fire-quick answer as she thinks me still unbreakable: “Unknown. Theoretically Aiden’s memory can stay in the past forever. At this point, it’s all up to it.”

A shudder riffs through my fingers. The ice spreads to my throat. Forever? “No!” The savage denial clangs through Elysium. No, no, it can’t do that to him. I won’t let it.

On the screen blinks another text: “Elisa?”

I force my icicle finger to the phone again. “Not all up to it. I’ll text when he’s back.”

More dots race on the screen but I no longer have eyes for them. “Aiden, love, listen to me.” I press my cold palms to his cheeks, blowing on his lips. “Let Marshall be at peace. It’s not the goodbye you should have had. There shouldn’t have been a goodbye at all. So let’s have a different one now until you’re grey and ancient. Tell Marshall what you want to say. Tell him you love him. Tell him you miss him every day.”

Aiden’s breath rips and snags through his teeth as though he is suffocating with his own memories. I curve one icy hand over his forehead and the rest around his volcanic neck. “Tell Marshall he’ll always be your best man.” I keep going with every last brave breath I have left. “Promise him you’ll live. You’ll start playing his song more. We’ll have his favorite food. You’ll love the girl in the letters. Tell him he’s the one who gave you the idea. Thank him. Thank him from me, too. I’m so grateful he loved as he did in a war, writing to Jasmine with that flashlight in his mouth. Because without Marshall, I may have never been born in your head, giving you calm even then. He gave us that example, this dream we still have. Thank him, love, and give him a hug. Hold him as long as you need. And when you’re ready, tell Marshall to rest in peace.”

But Aiden’s body is still locked in chains. His heart is still mortar fire between us, ripping to pieces.

“Take my hand, love.” I force my voice to stay calm with every last whisp of the protein and wrap my chilled fingers around his fist where the new blood droplets are blooming. “Can you feel it? Take it and let Marshall go. You’re not leaving all of him, you’re keeping his soul, his love and courage. We won’t relegate him to the physical loss. Tell him goodbye and come with me.” I tug on his fist as though we’re walking. “It’s just us, down the stairs now, across the burning yard. Follow me. Let’s go for a walk along the Euphrates River like we do here.” I blow over his forehead like a breeze. “Take a handful of cold water, splash it on your face.”

I press my free fingers to his cheeks again. His skin is as hot as the scorching agony in my chest. The only spot in my body still burning. Oddly the flames are raging higher there, as if racing the ice that has spread everywhere else. But they will lose in the end as I become more and more myself. No more a super-hero or Cinderella in a fairytale. I’m just Elisa, the ballgown in rags, the clock is ticking to midnight, closer and closer to the moment both Aiden and I dread. Yet I’d take it, I’d take it a million times over only for the chance to bring Aiden back.

“Wash your hands in the river, love,” I continue bravely for as long as I can, grabbing a tissue from my purse and wiping the blood droplets from Aiden’s fists. “There’s no blood there. Not Marshall’s or anyone else’s. It’s just cold, clear water, cooling you after the flames. And then when you’re ready, the two us can come home. Not back to what we’ve lost, but back to what we’ll always have. Our love. Even if we can’t be together, you and I will always belong to each other. So come back with me, come back to our s—side.”

My voice breaks. And with a final gust of arctic air, terror finally reaches my chest. As though to escape the inexorable dread, my burning heart leaps in my throat. But there is no escape. With a racing thud-thud-thud, the ice fills my heart chambers. The boundless universe of my mind snaps back, rattling my skull. And with a mighty shudder that rocks me from my stomach to my fingertips, the last wisp of the protein blows out of my system.

Just like that, bravery is gone.

I know because its veil is ripped from my eyes and the world comes into its usual focus. The emerald sheen fades from the grass. The breeze cuts like December. Elysium is darker than I had realized, the sun long buried behind the hilltops. And before my frozen eyes, I see the true terror, unsoftened by the protein: Aiden’s torment. I thought I was seeing every stab of torture on his body, but I was wrong. I should have known the protein had blurred the agony to let me function. Without it, the image becomes incomprehensible. Even after five hours of burning, my unfortified mind cannot absorb pain like this. Every pore of Aiden’s face is flooded with it, every harsh breath trapped between his teeth. The fever is a lot hotter than I was feeling, the varnish of sweat like a second, liquid skin, dripping from his lashes like tears. Under the bluish dimness of twilight, he looks vigil-like, suspended in that infinitesimal fragment of time between beginning and end. Yet his beauty somehow stays the same—just as impossible, just as dazzling. Even throttled in terror I can see that. I try to move a single finger glued to his chest but the terror of all terrors freezes me beyond all capacity for thought or movement as if it revived every other fear that was erased from the past. I just stare in horror, unable to remember how to breathe or blink or stand.

But under my frosty hand, Aiden’s heart throbs faster, tolling out each beat like a death knell. Thawing me back.

“Aiden!” I wheeze through chattering teeth, scavenging for every crumb of strength left. “Aiden, love, I’m here. It’s over now. Marshall is at peace. Now it’s your turn. Let’s go back. Come home with me, please.” I try to sound calm, but my breath shatters into sobs. Glacial tears gush from my eyes. And once I move, my own body starts shaking violently in tandem with this. “Aiden, I love you, I need you,” I whimper, scrambling to call Doctor Helen but as my tears splash down on his lips, everything shifts.

Aiden’s chest heaves as if he’s resurfacing from drowning, and a ragged gasp strangles from his teeth.

“Aiden?” I cry, bolting up on my knees.

A long tremor shivers down his body. His muscles snap up like knives, vibrating as if he’s breaking through the cable chains, and a low snarl builds in his throat. It tears from his lips and becomes a single word. My name.

“Elisa,” he rasps, and the incredible eyes fling open. Darker than I’ve ever seen them, almost midnight, locked in undiluted torture. So hollow, like his very soul has died, but open and seeing again.

“Oh, thank God!” I bawl, collapsing on top of him, grabbing and kissing the first spots in my reach. His hair, his scar, his eyelids, the deep V between his brows. “There you are!” I sob between each kiss. “There you are, you brave, strong man! I’m here, I’m right here!”

His arm coils around my waist and he sits up unsteadily, covering me like a shield.

“Aiden, lie—” I protest, but one of his hands shudders up to my face, tilting it so his ravaged eyes can see me. Instantly, they widen with a terror that seems to break through his own bravery. “The protein,” he chokes in understanding. “When did it end? How long­­ have you been like this?”

“Never mind me!” I splutter, pressing down on his chest. “Aiden, lie back down! You’ve been through hell. You’re still in it.”

Another shudder rocks his great frame, but he doesn’t relent. “How—long—Elisa?”

“Shh, just a few minutes ago,” I reel off quickly so he can relax. “I’m truly alright, just worried about you. Please,you really need to rest.”

I don’t convince him. “How do you feel other than worried?” he demands, his eyes scanning me urgently. But as they search my face with visceral dread, the faintest speck of turquoise flickers in the tortured depths.

Such a small light—the farthest star in the darkest abyss—yet it brightens my whole vision more brilliantly than the protein even in the pit of terror. Not with the razor acuity that magnified every pixel, but with the supple softness of the whole. That togetherness that turns blades of grass into fields, notes into music, places into—

“Home.” I tremble with forceful longing, reality fully dawning on me only now that he is here, only now that I can tell him. “I feel home. Except home is so much better than I ever knew, with you next to me.”

His eyes see my truth even in torment—all my ability to hide things from him is gone. He can read me like his war letters, knowing every spoken and unspoken line. Exactly as I love it. I realize abruptly how much I had missed the world with fear, with myself, with Aiden and me, precisely as we were made. Was that another lesson dad wanted me to learn? That the emerald grass is not greener on the other side? That we are imperfectly perfect as we are?

“Oh, Aiden!” I cry again, locking my arms around his neck, burying my face there in his delicious, warm scent.

His shuddering arms tighten around me. “What’s wrong?” His hoarse, anxious voice is more melodic than Für Elise in my normal ears. The most perfect harmony, heavenly and mine.

“I’m just s—so glad we’re both back. I missed us s—so much.”

Another tremor rocks through his body. His breath is so shallow and fast, his muscles vibrating steel, but he pulls me closer and runs his fingers through my hair. “Shh, you never left, and I’m here . . . I promised you I would come back.”

I nod even though I know soon he will leave again, this time forever. But at least he’s back from Fallujah even if its flames are still scorching him, dragging him with their scalding fingers into the inferno. The vicious shudder that runs through him reverberates down to my bones. It snaps me back to my senses. What the hell am I doing? How can I give him one more second of worry? I wipe my face and clutch his feverish shoulders.

“I’m sorry, love. I really am fine, just deliriously relieved. It’s you we need to worry about. You’re burning up.” I press my cold palm gently to his forehead, even though I don’t need to. I can feel the heat waves emanating on my tongue.

“What?” He frowns as he registers himself at last. For the first time since they opened, his eyes drift to his own chest. Instantly, the turquoise light dies. His gaze seems to search inward as though he is trying to recognize his body but perhaps can’t. The weight of his arm suddenly presses down on my waist, heavier as if the torture of the last few hours—the last twelve years in fact—is crashing on him again. “Is this . . . heat . . . part of the protein?” His voice drops too. “My dose must be burning off faster than yours . . . I was terrified for you just now.”

I trail my fingers to his cheek. Even his beard is hot, the way my hair feels when I run it through a straightening iron. “I’m not surprised at all that fear is returning after what you’ve been through. The terrors you’re facing are a lot worse than mine. But I don’t think the fever is from the protein. I texted Doctor Helen, and she thinks it’s psychogenic fever. From the trauma. You were gone for almost two hours after the reel. How are you feeling?”

His eyes round in disbelief. “Two hours?” he staggers, finally blinking away from our heat dome to scan the area around us. Dusk has cast its velvet cape. The half-moon is glowing like Aiden’s lost smile, gilding his stunned face. That’s when he sees the blood on his blisters that I couldn’t reach. From the moonlight, the droplets shine silver like mercury. He turns back to me, eyes burning with that unspeakable agony, wiping a spot on my cheek. “I left you—alone for almost three hours—terrified and hurting?” His low voice is half-strangled again, sharpening in that sword-edge against himself.

“No, you didn’t. I was invincible until five minutes ago. You came back exactly when I needed you most.” I take his hands quickly, dabbing off the blood with my tissue. “I don’t know how you managed it, but you did. You’re braver even than the protein.”

He doesn’t seem to agree. He looks haunted, eyes drifting in and out of time and space. His shoulders rise and quiver, as if the invisible chains have bound him again.

“Sweetheart, please lie down. Give yourself some time so the fever can break.” I press on his chest, but he is still staring into the invisible terror, somehow both here and far. His irises seem to be tracing the rapid movement of his mind with a look of unmet expectation. “Aiden? What is it? What are you feeling?”

“I’m just . . . trying to process.” His voice triggers a memory of my own. It’s slower and adrift like the night Edison struck, after Aiden was wrenched awake by my scream. I taste panic in the back of my throat.

“Please, don’t! We can do that later. Just look at me—give yourself some calm. Everything else can wait for now.”

Maybe he is worn even beyond the limits of his immense strength. Or maybe it’s because he gave me his word. Whatever the reason, he rests his gaze on me. And in a few heartbeats, the turquoise light gleams back like his soul, trying for life again and again. So celestial that tears spring in my eyes.

“Shh, don’t cry, Elisa,” he murmurs, wiping them with his fingers. “Don’t cry for me.”

How can I not? He is my everything. But I mop up my eyes and force a smile.

“They’re happy-adjacent tears,” I mumble. “Even though you’ve banned that word.”

“How do I make them . . . fully happy?”

I swallow hard against a sob. “Just stay with me in this present moment.”

He must see my terror twisting into frantic need—or perhaps he needs it too—because he gives in and lies back on the blanket, pulling me against his chest. His clasp on my waist is bruising with urgency, his hold instinctive, familiar like my own breath. And for a precious, fleeting moment it feels like the old times even if they’re forever gone.  “Shh, Elisa” he whispers again. “Don’t worry . . . I’ll be alright.”

Will he? The shudders aren’t slowing at all. The fever isn’t dropping. He almost seems worse. What if it was a mistake to walk with him through Fallujah? What if it was a mistake to restart at all? My mind gives me no answers anymore. The inability to doubt myself is gone. All that’s left is terror and pain. I nestle into his body heat, trying to think of what I learned about how to cope with this. Try to stay only here with him, I suppose. Grip my faith with both hands even if all confidence, bravery, strength, and clarity have disappeared.

“Yes, you will be,” I tell us both. “You’ll be okay. You will heal. I know it. I know it.”

His heart is thudding more heavily under my palm. Its beat echoes in my ears like our bodies are hollow pipelines, carrying thunder from point A to point B, from glowing tents to blood-soaked classrooms and back again.

“Thank you,” Aiden murmurs after a moment, his voice still rough.

I prop myself up on his chest to peek at him. His eyes are still haunted. “For what?”

“For not giving up. For the faith it took to stand by me that entire time . . . For everything you must have done . . . I can’t seem to access it all yet . . . but I know this one was . . . hard.” He meets my gaze as he admits this out loud for the first time.

I want to ask what happened, if he could hear me, if he could follow, if he held Marshall’s hand and said goodbye, if Marshall spoke back, if any of it made any sense, if it helped or made it worse in the end. But I’d rather die here and now than have him think about that horror one more second. Maybe later, when the fever has dropped, if he ever wants to speak of it again.

“I will never give up on you. The protein fading didn’t change my faith in you at all.”

“I know . . .”

K-n-o-w. I hope he always keeps that knowledge inside him. “Try to think only of that faith and this present moment. We’re both safe, Für Elise is still playing, the stars are twinkling—”

“And you’re in my arms,” he finishes, pulling me tighter against him even though there is no more space between our bodies for air. But agony is flowing in his eyes as his memory tries to drown him back.

“And you still have your surprise waiting for you,” I blurt out, desperate to distract him.

It works. His eyes narrow as though he’s searching through the black smoke. “So you really did say something about a surprise . . . that wasn’t a memory?”

I cannot fathom how deep he must have been wading in the foundations of his psyche to be unable to tell a memory from the present. What has it done to him, merging the past and the present so closely?

“No, you’re right. I did tell you about it but it was early on. Do you want to see it?”

“More than anything . . . except your face.”

His voice, his words, so him, yet so far. My body blisters like the brave pain is returning to finish me off without the protein. “Well, you’ll have to look away but only for a few seconds. It’s by your feet. Or at least the first part is.”

That distracts him again. His eyebrows unfurl out of the worried V into surprised arches.

“There are two parts?”

I nod, wishing there could have been a thousand for what he lived through. He sits up on his elbows, still unsteady, holding me to his side. And then he sees them. The words I Sharpied on the soles of his wading boots like he engraved on my sneakers on our first date. The words that mean so much to us.

“He walks in beauty.”

His expression transforms into a prism of emotion, changing in that quick way that always leaves me a step behind. Surprise, longing, tenderness, settling at last into a ghost of the worn half-smile, so beautiful I almost start sobbing again.

“You know,” he says, and the kaleidoscope of feeling is in his voice too. “I think Byron is turning in his grave right now.”

“That’s okay. I’ve broken up with all poets except Dante.”

“Especially Shakespeare?”

“Don’t mention that charlatan to me—I’m banning his name.”

The frayed smile fights valiantly against the weight of his memories. “How do you manage to find a way to make me smile even now, Elisa?”

I push up the corner of his mouth to help the smile win. Every point of contact tingles with that same electric charge I felt during the protein, and for a blink, the diamonds of sweat might as well be the sparkling halo again. “The same way you healed me. We just add love. It works.”

“Yes . . . it does.”

His eyes linger on mine, ravaged and tender, then fall on my mouth. His grip on my waist tightens, a shudder ripples from his iron fingers into my flesh, and his sharp breath brushes my lips. Just a heated breeze but it catches in me like madness. A hallucination of halos bursts in my vision. His own lips part as if to taste my air. The dusk changes between us—charging with longing, desire, need, everything we have lost, everything we will miss. And just like that the reality of our shattered love rips through the flimsy gossamer layer of dreams. The impossible weight crushes us both, strangling me and bending Aiden’s shoulders with a new wave of torture. Agony over agony over agony—all of them untamed. When does it end? The fledgling turquoise light dies under the gravitational force of pain. It stops his breath. His blazing grip loosens and drops from my waist.

I take his hand in both of mine, barely finding air myself. “Aiden, love, come home. You need to rest. Everything else we’re feeling—that’s pain for another day. Tonight, all that matters is your health.”

He watches me with his burning eyes. “I never wanted to give you pain, Elisa . . . Not today, not any other day, yet I keep doing it over and over again.”

“No, my love, you don’t. You’ve never given me pain. But tonight, we can give each other some peace. We don’t have to go back to our bedroom. But you need to be with our other happy memories so you can heal, and I need to take care of you like you take care of everything for me. Then you can see the second part of your surprise, too.” I actually have it here, but anything to lure him back.

He doesn’t answer, still breathless.

“Think of it as another embargo,” I invent wildly, desperate for any scrap of argument before he manages to recover enough oxygen to protest. “A night with no plans, no decisions, no changes, nothing at all except rest. Please? Or I’ll stay out here with you, too. Because there’s no universe where I’m leaving you alone tonight.” My voice breaks twice as I try my best shot, my last chance. For I know in my heart that if he doesn’t come to our home tonight, Aiden will never find home again.

He is still looking at me with war on his shoulders, fire on his skin, bombs on his chest, shamals in his breath, but the faintest light kindles in his eyes at the memory of that first, perfect day of our love. Maybe it’s that memory or my threat to sleep outside. Or the sound of my pain and the palpable fear blowing out of me like the fever from his body. Or perhaps his own need has reached a level that defies even his strength. I don’t know which reason does it, but he doesn’t argue as I expected. He searches my face in his way of seeing everything and I gaze back in my way of hiding nothing. After an immeasurable moment, he folds our fingers together, warming my skin with his touch.

“Embargo then,” he agrees as he did on our first date, three months ago. “For tonight.”

Forever, I want to answer, but that chance is lost for us. “Thank you,” I say fervently, nearly collapsing again in relief. I lean in to kiss his cheek, as I did then, too. The thick beard tickles my lips, making me shiver. A heated sigh flurries in my hair at the touch. When I look up at him, his eyes are a little lighter under the anguish. “Let’s go, love. I think you’ll like the second part of your surprise. It’s not a Nikon camera, I’m afraid. Or flowers from every genus in the world.” I reference his gifts to me from our embargo, trying to keep the happy memories going.

“I don’t need a camera or every flower. I’m partial to only one.”

We rise precariously, mostly because now that I have to be vertical, my legs are shaking too hard for balance. Somehow, Aiden manages to stand before me, pulling me up and supporting my weight despite the shudders still roiling over him. But he is worn, more worn than I’ve ever seen him. His graceful movements are slower, heavier; his breathing harsh and labored. The fever has hooded his gaze. And every few moments, his eyes drift out of focus, deepening and hollowing, as if searching for something he cannot find.

I try to beat him to the evil headset, but he swipes it up before my fingers can tremble in its direction. As soon as he touches it, he gasps as though the metal zinged him. “Marshall Fortis,” he murmurs, flashing his wide eyes to me in shock. “Marshall the Brave.”

My heart kicks my ribs as I realize what he is remembering, but at least as triggers go, it’s not the worst, or at least not as excruciating as what came after it. “Don’t think about that right now, love.” I take the monitor from his frozen hand and hide it inside my parka before he can wrestle it back. “There will be time to revisit. You really need to give your mind time to rest.”

But he is looking at me in astoundment. “Elisa,” he breathes. “Is this real? You’re naming the protein after . . . Marshall?”

We almost never say the name—the torture is too raw for that—even though Marshall is always with us, in every heartbeat. But as Aiden utters it now, there is a note of wonder under the blistering agony. A note worth every sleepless night, every broken vial, every scorching minute of my own pain.

I reach on my tiptoes, caressing his scar. “Yes, I am, if you think he would have liked it.”

I can see memories play in his eyes—light and dark—but he studies the lines of my face. “I’m sure he would have. But do you? . . . Or are you doing this for me?”

“I’m doing it for both of us. I already named the nutritional supplement after dad, and I always thought I’d name the protein after you because you’re the bravest person I know. But now, after everything, I think we should give Marshall something good. Something he deserves. Don’t you?”

A million emotions flit in his expression, too deep, too fast for me to follow. I think I glimpse tenderness and pain and something else I can’t name. “Thank you,” he says after a moment, his tone subdued. “For honoring him like this. He does deserve it . . .  He deserves it a lot more than—”

“Don’t,” I put my hand over his lips to stop the words I know will come. A lot more than him. “You deserve it most of all because you didn’t live that horror only once. You live it over and over again without a break. But you deserve something else above all: peace. And if I ever manage a protein for that, I’ll call it Aiden Liber—Aiden the Free”

He doesn’t answer, but his lips press gently inside my palm. It’s a chaste, reverent kiss, yet firelets spark on my skin at the same time that tension bolts through him. With a clenched jaw, he removes my hand from his mouth, but doesn’t let it go. He just holds it, entwining our fingers. But something about that joining rivets him. He stares at our folded hands with that same searching look, as if he is seeing them for the first time. Why is that?

“Hey,” I squeeze his hand, inching so close my parka brushes his bare arm. “Let it go for now, whatever it is. Embargo, remember?”

He shakes his head, his inquisitive gaze flying to the blanket, still seeking, hunting for something he doesn’t seem to find. “It’s not that, exactly.”

“Then what is it?”

He squints again with a rare look of confusion, of an unanswered question. I can almost see his brain racing in the background. “I’m not sure. Something feels . . . different.”

“Different how?”

He blinks back at me, the tectonic plates in his stormy eyes shifting. “Hard to explain. My memory’s speed seems to have doubled . . . or tripled. Images are flying by faster, reshuffling before I can reconcile them . . .  It has to be the lingering effect of the protein. You said there is more space to process without fear.”

I nod, but an icy shiver flays my skin and I grip his arm for us both. Doubled or tripled? How is that possible? What do we do? We’re barely surviving the usual extraordinary speed of his memory. What hope do we have against this one that has been unleashed? I shudder again.

“Come, we need to bring down this fever and you need to sleep. Maybe things will settle in the morning.”

He nods, still looking unsettled. “I’m sure you’re right. Don’t worry about me . . . You need rest, too.” He throws the blanket over my shoulders, not missing the trembles, and hands me my purse and phone. Then we set off across Elysium, him carrying most of my weight, me trying do the same with my arm around his waist as we tread home together at last.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 35 – BRAVE

Hey, hey friends,

Thanks so much for your response to the last chapter and your good wishes to me. Love you all for your kindness and support. I know that last chapter was brutal, but I promise below the pain, there were a lot of clues. You’ll see why in the next few chapters that are left. Here is the next one. Brave. And that’s all I’ll say about that. Bear with me as these last chapters take a bit longer. They are harder as I tie up all the loose ends. Enjoy.  xo, Ani

35

Brave

It is very difficult, as I wait for Benson to pick me up at Bia, to convince myself not to sprint all the way to Burford on my own. The massive force of the protein buzzing in my muscles makes it seem easy, fun even. But my mind is still diamond clear and recognizes that, although I think I could sprint the twenty miles, wheels will be a lot faster. And I don’t have a second to waste. Oxford’s spires and domes are already glowing with the dipping sun. How much longer will bravery last in my system? How much longer can Aiden breathe without hope?

I grip the small vial in my purse, pacing on the sidewalk against the raw energy. Questions and answers drum like a chemical Für Elise in my brain. Am I right? Will this work for Aiden? What if I’m squandering our last chance for closure, for acceptance? But although the protein has expanded my mind to wonder, it allows zero space for self-doubt. I know when it wears off, fear will suffocate me again but, right now, my decisions are made. The battle plan for the reel is in place. I just have to implement it. And implement it, I will.

The black frame of the Rover glints down St. Giles Boulevard. As soon as I glimpse it, I hurl myself down the street to meet Benson half-way. Because in minutes now, I will finally see Aiden exactly as he is—without the distortion of fear, the limits of my imagination, or a camera lens. I will see the true wonder of him.

The Rover jolts forward the instant Benson must spot me running, and in seconds it screeches to a stop at my feet.

“Kid, what’s wrong?” he booms in alarm as I dive in the backseat. “What happened? Someone hurt you?”

“No, but I think I’ve found a way for Aiden,” I almost shout the words. “But we need to hurry please! I don’t know how much time I have left.”

“Oh shit!” His eyes pop wide, and he shoots off the curb like a bullet before my seatbelt clicks. “Is it the secret thing you’ve been working on?”

And everything else implicated by it. “Yes, but it’s so much more than that. I just hope Aiden cooperates. How was he today?”

“He was just finishing up at the riverbank when you texted me.” He frowns at the windshield, avoiding the real question. But I don’t need more to know every single second is more precious than the protein itself. As though Benson can hear my thoughts, the Rover plunges through two red lights while horns blare everywhere behind us. A single neuron registers how terrified I’d be at this speed without bravery. But not today. Today, it feels like a crawl compared to the race of blood in my veins. I lock all my muscles to stay in the backseat and not rip through the steel door and start flying.

As soon as we clear Oxford’s limits, Benson punches the petrol until the rolling Cotswolds hills become a green blur. The super-emotions start churning wildly. Unfathomably, they’re still growing. All potent, all at the same velocity, each bursting forward at the right trigger, each with its own sensations, force, and rhythm. Except I know them better now after the last three hours. Not how to soften them—only fear can do that—but how to endure. How to strengthen myself.

“Should I give a heads up to Mr. Hale’s parents or the Marines?” Benson asks as he swerves around Burford’s village center for the open country road. “They’ve been texting him happy pictures all day.”

I’ve already thought about this. “Not yet. I don’t want to raise their hopes until we know how it works for Aiden.” If I know anything—know it from my prickly scalp to the bouncing backs of my heels—is the power of hope to kill. And rebuild.

Far in the distance, my eyes capture Elysium’s brilliant dot. From the speed, it looks like it’s zooming toward us, not us to it.  The tires squeal to a stop by the garage in only sixty-five seconds. I fling myself out as soon as the wheels stand still.

“Is there anything I can do?” Benson pleads, half his torso out of the window. “Anything at all you need?”

I clutch his umbrella-sized hand that appears suddenly normal to me. “Take a red rose to my parents and play I’ve Got a Woman, please. Until Aiden and I can.”

If he is confused by my nonsensical instructions, he doesn’t question them. “You got it. And I’ll wait by the phone if you need me.”

“Thank you,” I cry over my shoulder, already sprinting. But the rose breeze engulfs me even from here with these new senses, and I stagger for a second. It’s as if I’ve never smelled it before. So ambrosial, so complex. Not like a perfume of indistinct roses, but like the aroma of each single bloom has blended into a bouquet of a million, both profuse and entirely itself. I inhale it deeply, and then I’m hurtling down Elysium again.

A topaz pollen sparkles above the wildflowers as I blow past the inkblot of the reel.

“Support him today,” I snarl at the flattened tapestry, flying straight to the willows.

I scan the area urgently, but Aiden’s unmistakable form isn’t here. The riverbank is all finished, its walls reinforced for the winter, the muscular logs and stones like a rampart for my protection. On the very top slab is the old stereo I left him, its batteries no longer playing Für Elise. But the willows are still lamenting. Louder in my new ears, ephemeral. And their song has changed. No more ashes, ashes or wishes, wishes. With a shiver, I realize what I’m hearing.

Marshall, Marshall, Marshall . . .

“I hope you’re resting, Marshall,” I murmur. “I hope you’re singing.”

The willows chant behind me as I blast down the riverbank trail. Where could Aiden be? Not at the cottage—I know he doesn’t want to taint it with more agonized memories. And all his tools are missing. Peripherally, I recognize how terrorized I would be by now—Is he hurt? Is he gone?—but bravery overrules all those thoughts and propels my feet forward with invincibility. The world vanishes as I streak by, searching only for his tall frame.

But it takes only five minutes to find him.

He would be hard to miss even without the protein. Standing thigh deep in the river, facing away, trying to dislodge the boulder that almost killed me. He has pulled down the straps of his waders, and his bare back ripples with the storm of his movement, the powerful muscles tense even without a shadow around him. Exactly as sculpted as in that Fallujah tent. Yet his grace now is a different grace. Not airy like shamal winds but dignified like the weathered hills. The sunset turns his skin a deep gold, almost the bronze of his desert youth, and gilds his obsidian hair into a million lustrous strands, each a thread of gravity that suddenly keeps me tethered to the ground. I stare at him with my new eyes, and the super-emotions implode with crushing intensity. My feet sink into the grass like boulders of their own. And all the words leave me.

. . . !!!  . . . !!!  . . . !!! . . .

He must sense the force of my gaze because he stops his attack on the boulder and whirls around. And at last, I finally see Aiden’s face. Even if chiseled in agony.

How many hours have I spent looking at it, awake or asleep? How many days and nights dreaming of its flawless shape? I thought I knew every pore and bristle on his cheek. I thought there was not a truer truth in my world than his beauty inside out.

I had been blind with fear.

Now that I can truly see, I cannot find the words for the reality of him. They don’t exist. Not for the satin of his skin or the curve of his lips or the otherworldly eyes that belong only to me. I watch with newborn awe as my calming effect illuminates their astonishing depths to a blue without name even as worry rushes over the impossible face.

“Elisa?” he calls in panic at my stunned appearance. “You’re back fast. What’s the matter? Are you all right?”

But I still can’t speak because I’m hearing the true sound of his voice as if for the first time. It’s not just musical—it has texture, color, taste. Dark and chocolaty. More harmonious than any melody. More luxuriant than any instrument, despite the layers of pain. It resonates from his vocal cords deep in my chest, right by my heart.

He moves then, hurling the shovel aside and bounding out of the river, his waders hanging off his hips. The symphony of his movement fills my vision despite the tension wringing his Atlas shoulders. He is next to me in a thundering heartbeat that would have fried Doctor Helen’s electrodes to cinder.

“Elisa, what is it? What’s happened?” he demands, scanning me urgently from my tangled hair to my Byron sneakers.

Everything, I want to answer. War, peace, pain, love, hope . . . but before I can manage a single blink, in his dread, he abandons our closure rules. His hand curls at my neck as it used to, feeling my pulse where it’s trying to break free.

And I feel Aiden’s touch for the first, fearless time. Heat whips over my skin despite the cool temperature of his fingers from the river water. Not searing like the agony; smoldering. But just as staggering, just as instant. It jolts through every nerve ending like an orgasm that renders all my new abilities null and void. I can’t even breathe as the warmth trembles in my stomach then bursts like fireworks on my skin. In the same heartbeat, a golden haze dances around the contours of Aiden’s face. At first I think it’s the sunlight, but it’s not. As he bends over me in alarm, it flows with his shape, diaphanous and glowing, as though it’s part of him. I force my eyelids into furious blinks which takes some strength as I don’t want to miss a speck of him. But the glow is still there, radiating from his skin. What is this? Is this Aiden? Or just desire without fear? Or him and me? My fingers flutter up to the lovely aura, trying to feel it, but there’s only air. A startled gasp huffs from my lips.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s voice breaks, his arm flying around my waist as if to hold me up. Electricity tingles on my skin at each point of contact, and the dazzling light intensifies. “Talk to me! What’s wrong? Are you ill?”

Only that dread in his timbre could reach me in this moment. Only the palpable terror in his eyes, as vivid as in that Fallujah classroom. Instantly, my mind clears. Not that the desire recedes—on the contrary, it combusts through my tissues sending every cell quivering—but like the protein blazes a new dimension, making more space for everything to coexist. Thought, feeling, and this inexorable compulsion to touch him. Somehow it compounds bravery, and abruptly I leave even invincibility behind. Under his hand, I feel immortal.

“Elisa, for the love of God!” Aiden chokes, his hand at my neck shuddering.

I wrap my fingers around his, holding his touch to my skin, and finally the words come.

“I’m alright,” I breathe, my voice low with wonder. “Better than alright actually. I’ve never been stronger or more amazed.”

His body doesn’t relax. If anything, it tenses more. “What? What do you mean? You feel very warm—do you have a fever?”

I look only into his eyes as they burn on mine and say the words I’ve been praying to tell him for so long. “It’s the protein, love. It’s finished.”

Shock sweeps over his face. The celestial eyes widen into perfect pools of astonishment, the tectonic plates in their depths stunned motionless. I take full advantage of his frozen form to feel the effervescent radiance around his face, watching it swirl intangibly like stardust around my fingers. And very lightly, I stroke his surreal cheek, testing reality. Instantly, the orgasmic tremor thrills in my belly. How can even this slightest touch feel like this? What would a kiss do? His taste? All this maleness? The golden halo flares around Aiden’s face as the smolder simmers in my veins.

As if it burns his skin, Aiden finally blinks. The phantom of his heart-shattering smile tugs at the corner of his lips. The first smile since the end. “Of course you did it,” he says at last, his philharmonic voice deep with emotion. “How could I be so surprised?”

We did it together.”

He shakes his head, still watching me in awe. “This was all you. My brilliant, forever love.”

And for the first time in ten days, Aiden folds me in his arms. Gently, away from the water dripping from his waders. Except the instant our bodies touch, BOOM! Desire explodes again. Wonder to yearning in a nanosecond. I throw myself at him, arms around his waist, face smack to his chest, fingers hooking into the silky perfection of his skin. His entire being overwhelms my senses and stuns my new mind. The cold river water soaks through my clothes, making me shiver in the same second that his flushed warmth seeps through my skin, igniting my blood. And his scent—his vivid scent, so concentrated compared to his faded cologne on my wrist, beyond any words created by or for any man. I crush myself closer, burying my nose in his pectorals, breathing him in. So lost and found in his embrace, in that four-letter word—love—that I haven’t heard in his voice for so long, that I can’t think of a single thing to say. Only feel more than anyone has ever felt.

“I’m so proud of you,” he says in my hair, his breath firing tingles down my spine. “Every horror that fate throws your way, you face it. With grace, intellect, and strength like no other.”

Except these words apply only to him. “I haven’t overcome anywhere as much as you,” I whisper back the most inadequate words ever formed. “Just when I think I can’t love you more, I do.” I press my lips on his fragrant skin, kissing his heart.

It takes me a moment, even with my new powers, to register the shudder that runs through him under my lips. And through the incandescence of my own body, I remember how painful this embrace must be for him. His muscles vibrate as if tearing asunder with both agony and need. Yet he doesn’t release me, no doubt sensing my longing. His arms tighten even as his heartbeats fall quiet.

That near-silence breaks through me. So similar to mine when I was burning in Fallujah’s fires alongside him and Marshall. I channel all the strength of the protein into my muscles, yanking and pulling until it permeates my limbs. And I manage to loosen my grip on his waist by an inch. Because no matter how primal my desire is, everything is secondary to him.

He must see the extraordinary effort because he mirrors it as if to help me, and gives us another inch of space. More agony, but at least now I can see his face again. The luminescent filter lingers over his skin, glowing above his L-shaped scar. Now that I have seen exactly how he got it, the healed ridge has never seemed more beautiful.

He takes a deep breath, and the pained fire in his eyes changes to curiosity. “What did the trick with the formula?” he asks.

“The code,” I answer quickly, eager to keep the pain away. “I was missing the forest for the trees. I just had to use sixty times the amount of oxytocin for serotonin.”

It works. Another worn smile lifts his lips. “Ah, five times twelve. Of course. Very elegant.”

“Very dad.”

“Very you.”

He looks at me like I am the heavenly vision on this riverbank. But the smile starts to wane slowly with his breath. The sight is enough to bring back the urgency. Instantly, my hand flies inside my purse for the vial. “Here,” I say, taking it out for him. “Take a look at our new tea—no rose petals I’m afraid.”

His breath catches at the sight. He takes it from me carefully, raising it against the setting sun. From the copper rays, the molten substance looks almost iridescent, but nowhere as luminous as the haze still shimmering around his face. He watches it with unconcealed awe.

“It’s beautiful,” he whispers. “Almost the color of your eyes. Of course, nothing can ever equal that.”

Except you, I think, but I don’t want to ruin his moment. He is still staring at the crystal vial. It casts a rainbow sparkle over his long fingers. Nothing like the shattered vial of my Romeo nightmare because bravery has vanquished such visions.

“It’s warm,” he muses, shaking it lightly. “And not solid like the hunger supplement.”

“No, I was wrong about that part, but this is easier and faster to absorb. The effect more immediate.”

He nods, and his eyes start to deepen in that unfathomable way that even the protein cannot comprehend. The smile stays but I sense it’s taking a lot of effort to keep it there. “Aiden, love, what are you feeling right now?”

“Don’t think about me. This is your moment.”

“No, it’s ours. Please tell me.”

He sighs. “Pride, joy for you for accomplishing this incredible triumph, agony that I can’t be with you the way I’m dying to be, grief for us, for what we could have been if I didn’t have this.” His shoulders tense at the unspoken reference to our enemy, too formidable even for the protein.

I understand then. How quick he is! He must have always known the protein will not heal the startle but let me hope and try so I could have faith. So I wouldn’t be even more terrified than I was already. So I could dream until I was strong enough to discover the truth on my own. Even now, he will not say the words, no doubt to protect me.

“I know now, my love,” I answer to relieve him of this silence he is keeping for my benefit. “I know it cannot fix the startle or keep you with me. I cannot tell you how much I wish it could. But it can give you what you need to fight the reel so you can . . . say goodbye to Marshall.” My voice drops with the name. Marshall’s last words echo in my ears: not your fault, my brother. “You both deserve it. You need to be together, just two brothers again, as you were before all the terror.”

The unspeakable agony strikes in his eyes, even deeper than this morning. Except it’s no longer nameless for me. I know it now—know it down to every scalding stab—as my own blazes automatically in response to his. The self-defense instinct fires, but not for me, for him. So much more potent than during the video. My muscles bunch and spring, ready to throw myself between him and the world, and decimate anything that gets close to him. In the same flex, my body angles next to him like a shield.

His eyes don’t miss it even as he reins in the pain. “Elisa, what is it?”

It takes only a second for my mind to regulate the sudden impulse to destroy. To recall that the danger is from the terror inside, not anywhere around us. As abruptly as it rose, the self-preservation instinct softens. My body relaxes out of its defensive posture. And my mind takes over. It’s time for a different kind of fight.

“Let’s get started, Aiden.” I inch closer until my Byron sneakers kiss his wading boots, as big and heavy as the Marine ones that treaded on that blood-soaked desert. “We don’t have time to waste. Let’s go get the reel. You can fight it with this, and win. I know it.”

I’m ready for his response. His eyes flash with an outrage fiercer than Doctor Helen’s. “Absolutely not. This one will be yours after it’s been vetted for safety. We can worry about me later.”

“A step ahead of you this time. I’ve already taken it. How else do you think I’m standing?”

I’ve shocked him again. Whatever blood he has left drains out of his skin, and his face contorts in horror. “You what?” he mouths.

“I took my dose. This is for you.”

He gasps, and his fist flies to his mouth. “You—took—it—without—any—clinical—trials?” he hisses through his teeth. “Elisa—what—the—fuck?”

He is clearly demanding an answer, but for a moment I’m derailed. Because under the dread, I hear a shadow of his former rage. Still alive, still enough of him left to save. Anger has never looked more beautiful.

And despite my control, I can’t help it. I reach up and stroke his shimmering jaw that has clenched into the familiar blade. He must be so shocked and furious, he’s unable to pull away.

“Don’t worry. I took the protein with Doctor Helen. She monitored everything. I promised you I would be safe, and I will.” There is no need to ever tell him about the earlier tests on myself. That might truly finish him.

He blinks once at the unexpected information but continues undeterred. “That’s just one test, Elisa! What about the long-term effects? If—you—risked—yourself—for—me—”

“I didn’t,” I interrupt before he finishes that sentence against himself. “Do you really think dad would ever leave me something that could harm me?”

He glares for a second, considering. So exquisite that it would have flattened all my brain waves without the protein. Then he shakes his head. “Of course not, but he might not have had time to test it. How could you possibly take this risk with your life?”

“There is no risk,” I answer with conviction. I know this, not just from the protein. I know it from the very core of my father’s character. “Dad knew I had access to the safe. He wrote it in the code he taught me. That was our way. He knew I would try it.” But he made it difficult, I add in my head. So I could learn its lessons and only use it when there truly is no other option left.

Aiden is still watching, but the lovely glower disappears. Leaving behind the staggering horror for me. I caress his jaw again, feeling the lustrous bristle of his beard for as long as I can.

“I promise,” I tell him. “And if you need more convincing, ask yourself this: even if I would risk my own safety, would I ever take a chance with yours?”

That question does it. The horror starts to soften. “No, you wouldn’t,” he sighs. “I shouldn’t have questioned that.”

Despite his pained voice, I feel a tingly sense of hope. Because Edison took everything, but he didn’t destroy this truth: Aiden will always know he is loved. Maybe that will help at the right time.

“How do you feel?” he asks, still too dazed to inch out of my touch, which suits me just fine. I revel in the feel of him—his fragrance, the inexplicable golden aura, his gaze deep with something other than pain for once. Even if it’s just worry about me.

“I don’t have the words. Every time I try to think of them, they seem so shallow and inadequate. Like the word ‘strong’ seems in fact weak or the word ‘beautiful’ is suddenly very plain . . .” But I try to concentrate now, choosing only the words that matter for the fight ahead. “I feel everything. Every single thing but fear. But the most dominant feeling is unshakable faith. Faith in myself that I can and will survive anything. And faith in you to overcome the past.”

I trail my fingers up to his scar. The tough L looks almost opalescent, bleached by time. He doesn’t speak, still staring in anxiety and wonder, but the shudder returns at my touch, rippling across his shoulders that, even today, are in chains. But perhaps the cables will not cut as deep when he is no longer carrying Marshall’s body over time and distance.

I drop my hand with brute force of will. “Let’s restart the reel, love. Because you don’t have to worry about me anymore. I’m ready. I have never been stronger than I am right now. I will not be afraid. There is absolutely nothing today that can break me.” My voice rings with conviction, and I’m fiercely grateful for the video that scorched me. What other test would have ever given me this kind of faith?

The worry doesn’t relent in his expression. “What about after the protein wears off, as I assume it does? Won’t the terror be a lot worse then if you experience more trauma today?”

My mind has given me this answer, too. “I don’t think so. In fact I suspect the opposite. I’m fear-proof from everything I do and see while the protein is in effect. Afterwards, I will go back to being afraid. However, facing a specific terror without fear should help make that terror more manageable in the future. For example, if we do the reel today, I wouldn’t be afraid at all. Tomorrow, it will go back to horror, but my hope is that I will have better tools to manage it because, well, I would have already done it. So with time, that specific fear should wane.” I choose not to tell him about the indescribable agony I will feel and remember. He would never agree and, worse, he will feel even more terrorized for me going in, increasing his own pain exponentially.

“But that’s still a theory. I don’t want to risk you being traumatized again, now or later.”

“It’s more than a theory. I know dad. He wouldn’t have created something that simply delayed a specific terror. He would have temporarily erased it so we could learn from it. I’m sure that was his intent.”

“All right, I accept that. But what about the pain? The reel isn’t just terrifying for you, it’s also extremely painful. You can’t tell me your father intended you to hurt.”

And there it is. I knew he would get there, sooner than I had ever hoped, but at least I prepared for this first and foremost. Because if there is one thing I have to get right today, it’s this. “Love, I will hurt either way, whether we do this or not, like Doctor Helen said. But at least now I’m stronger than ever, stronger than anyone I’d bet, until you take it. And this way, we will know we gave it our all. That will help more than avoiding the extra pain, especially when I am so full of faith. Now is the time. Trust me.”

A blistering geyser shoots in my throat as if to disagree but at that word—trust—a faint turquoise light enters his eyes. Not the turquoise I have seen with my fearful vision; this is inhumanly beautiful. I try to compare it to anything earthly but cannot. “I trust you implicitly, Elisa.”

“Then let’s go. Let’s fight together one more time.”

Time. Can he hear my voice not breaking on its vowels and consonants? Can he see only the faith as the protein shifts all the super-emotions? Can he feel bravery reinforcing my mind like fireproof steel?

Yes, he can. His eyes have never missed a change in me even without any sleep. I know because he nods, even if worry doesn’t leave his gaze, even if he cannot breathe the word “yes” to anything that exposes me to any form of pain.

I hold out my hand, following all the cues the protein is firing at me. “Come. Try not to think about how we will lose this touch. From this second until the reel is done, let’s stay only in this present moment together.” The only one we have left.

I expect him to argue more, even speechless as he is, but he doesn’t. Perhaps he doesn’t want to deny me this final hope. Or perhaps his own agony has become unendurable. Or maybe he is still shocked. Whatever it is, he hands me back the vial and twines our fingers. They fold together easily, sliding home into each other’s palms. A tandem shudder runs through us both and turns into current on my skin. I tuck the vial back in my purse and we leave the boulder and his tools behind, winding back to the cottage.

I can afford a second to skim the world now. The river gleaming green-grey-blue, the sunrays dimming over Aiden’s bare shoulders, the redolent breeze blowing toward us. But they’re all peripheral. In the very center is only Aiden moving with indomitable grace, deep in thought, his face still bathed in that strange suffuse light.

“How did Helen test the protein?” he asks, and I know he is still processing. Everything in my mind shifts. Of course he would pick the one question I was hoping would never come. But I’m ready for it.

“The same as she does with you. She wired me to the electrodes and monitored my brain and heart activity. It was incredible actually.”

The V folds between his brows, making my heartbeats shiver. “That’s the physical evidence of thought and emotion, but how did she test for fear?”

The secret to lying, the protein has taught me, is to tell as much of the truth as needed and fill the rest with conviction that you will be believed. I take advantage of my ironclad confidence before it runs out. “Well, as it turns out, it was rather obvious. I was so terrified going in that she couldn’t even get a baseline reading. But once I took bravery, everything went back to normal—better than normal actually—within sixty seconds. Doctor Helen was almost as amazed as she is when she looks at your brain. Of course, even the protein can’t equal that.” I leave out all the rest, surprised by how easily the half-truths are rolling off my tongue, how deep the secrets are staying hidden. A feat that would have been utterly impossible without the protein—I can never keep anything from Aiden. Still, I look ahead at the willows because I most certainly am not immune to his eyes that I can feel on my skin.

But his hand squeezes mine, stopping my feet. “Why were you terrified going in?” As I hoped, he focuses on what could hurt me. “Did something else happen or just me?”

“You are never something that happens, Aiden. You are everything.”

He ignores that. “Just answer me, please.”

I clutch back his hand, tingles flittering up my arm. “You know why I was terrified. And putting our best hope to the test only made it worse.”

He watches me a moment longer, nodding in understanding. Because he knows the terrors that would make my heartrate immeasurable.

“But I’m not afraid now,” I promise. “The protein works. All the terror is gone.”

“I can see that,” he murmurs, seeming pacified for now, and starts walking again. Our shadows float together on the grass that has an emerald sheen I had never noticed before. I try to stay only in this one moment, focusing only on Aiden’s hand. A few blisters have blossomed on his palm from all the hard labor. More fire lashes my throat, and I shift my fingers infinitesimally so they don’t even brush against the sore spots, but his hand clutches mine reflexively even though he is still lost in thought. He will catch up shortly even worn, exhausted, sleepless, agonized, and caught entirely by surprise. Which is part of the plan, why I have to act now. I pick up my pace even though a very loud part of me would rather tackle him and his waders down here on this grass. He matches my step instinctually, still deep in analysis when we reach the willows.

I allow my senses to truly capture them now. How alive they seem! As though their swaying garlands are breathing. And they’re not just one shade of green as I had always thought. They’re a thousand, each strand a different nuance. Eucalyptus, moss, basil, mint . . . all blending into a hue I don’t have a name for. Brave-green, that must be it. And their song. So heavenly, like angels’ harps. Marshall, Marshall, Marshall.

He’s coming, Marshall. Wait for him, sing together once more, then send him back. So you can meet again when he is grey and ancient. And you can say, “Motherfucker, at least I saw you be wrong. She was real, and you let her go.” Aiden will laugh then and answer, “I didn’t. I just kept her safe.” I hope you tell him he saved us both in his way. I hope by then, he will know you were right: he is the very best part of us.

“Has the song changed for you?” Aiden asks. The unearthly emotions must be showing on my face despite the protein.

I nod, reshuffling them quickly with the crystalline thoughts.

“What do they sing now?”

I look up at his breathtaking brave-blue eyes. “Friends, friends, friends,” I modify. But is it just for him and Marshall? Or also for us?

Another wave of torment surges in his eyes but he controls it for me even invincible as I am now. And finally unafraid to ask. “What about you? Has it changed?”

He nods, too, eyes turning to the brave-green symphony.

“What do they say?”

“Safe, safe, safe.”

Then, without releasing my hand, he takes a deep breath, and we step through the perfumed drapes. And abruptly the world stops again.

I thought I was ready to see the cottage with these crystal-clear eyes. I thought no sight, other than Aiden, could stump me. But the vision of home does, especially with his hand around mine.

The usually snow-white walls are glistening, but they’re not a white I know. It’s a veil of all the whites I’ve ever seen, sparkling together into this rarest stone. From our happy bedroom window, the linen curtain billows in the breeze as if reaching to touch us. The beech trees gleam with the sunset, brave-green and Aiden-gold. And the roses . . . Aiden estimates there are about a million, but these new eyes see all of them, taking in their resplendent brocade and each individual petal. Like the other colors, they’re no longer simply white, ivory, or pink. They’re a kaleidoscope of every nuance, tinting the air with a powdery blush. Their fragrance combines with the most beautiful perfume there is—Aiden next to me—and for a moment, I can only hold his hand and breathe. The mega-emotions spin again, settling to a feeling like magic.

“Are you all right?” Aiden’s voice is muted, too, with his own storm. His thumb strokes the inside of my wrist where my pulse has picked up.

I manage a nod. “Just the beauty of this place . . . it hits differently without fear. Almost like yours does. It’s impossible to describe.”

“Something to look forward to.”

Despite the fairytale kingdom before me, my eyes leave it easily for his face. But he is watching the cottage with a visceral longing, as visibly powerful as the one inside me, and he hasn’t even taken the protein. What happens when he does? The defense instinct jolts me again, total and absolute. But I refocus only on one truth: for the first time since we lost everything, Aiden is looking forward to something.

Suddenly, even another second feels too long to wait.

“I’ll go get the reel,” I tell him. “Do you need to change first?”

“No, I’m set.”

I open my mouth to argue but there is no time. So I whirl around, sprinting to the garden shed. The monitor looms in the same shelf as always. A layer of dust has gathered on its icy glimmer. At the sight, my stomach heaves in the same blink as fire claws up my throat as a silent scream. Revulsion and agony, magnified to the extreme. And for a split second, I waver, or rather my heart does. What if I’m wrong? What if this makes everything a lot worse? But the protein dismisses such questions, obliterating any hesitation. That immense energy roars in my body. My mind expands like a blast wave, and my senses range out ahead as they did during the video. Because the same exact horror is waiting in minutes. Not at all faded or less real for Aiden than the one I witnessed. Except now I can do something to help him.

I swipe up the monitor without needing to wrap it in dad’s blanket. Oddly, I want to touch it with these fearless hands. Touch it, pulverize it, but I can’t. We need it now as much as faith. I throw the blanket over my arm and duck out, wishing forcefully I had had time or foresight to prepare a surprise for Aiden for this reel. The reel when he will need it the most.

Aiden has transformed by the garden hedge. He has removed his waders and towers in the dry cargo pants he must have been wearing underneath and his wading boots. His body is back into the lethal weapon it becomes when he heads back into that Fallujah schoolyard. War maces for shoulders, mortars for legs, grenades for fists. Everything is carved into destructive steel, except his eyes. They’re still mine.

“I’ll miss the waders.” I gesture to the neatly folded miraculous fabric. “But the pants will be more comfortable. Thank you, I know you changed for me.”

He nods once, searching my face. “When did you take the protein?”

“About three hours ago.”

“Any idea how long it lasts? I don’t want it to run out on you while I’m under.”

“We don’t know yet, but it doesn’t feel like it will fade soon.” I search my body quickly, but that sense of power is still mushrooming everywhere. “Don’t worry. Look, I can even touch the monster without goosebumps, blankets, or shivers. When has that ever happened?”

His jaw clenches and his fingers twitch as if he wants to rip it away from me. “I noticed. You’re very calm. But perhaps you should keep my dose just in case. I can handle the reel on my own,” he offers, and I realize this is what he has been thinking: how to protect me even now. But bravery is finally a match for him, at least while he is shocked and sleep deprived for ten days.

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say the last part, but if it makes you feel better, I have more if needed. Dad left us three doses. Now let’s go, before this one runs out.”

It works again. At the idea of me having even one second without bravery, he kicks up his pace toward his own torture. I give him the moment and run through the plan in my head one last time.

At the reel’s spot, we spread out dad’s blanket as always. The flames of agony erupt in my chest. Raging sky-high, even hotter than in Doctor Helen’s lab because my worst terror—Aiden hurting—is about to begin in real life.

“Sit with me a moment,” Aiden says as he did that very first time we sat on this spot—his first morning in England when he was still so full of hope. He folds down, and I curl next to him as close as I can without our thighs brushing. Then he takes my hand again. His skin has chilled like it always does before the reel, but it still spreads warmth over me. Not blistering like the agony. A melting. How can I feel made of steel and liquid at the same time?

“Elisa, you still have to be safe during this, even with protein,” he says gravely, locking me in his bold, commanding gaze. “It won’t make me less strong physically or you less breakable from that strength. Are you able to recognize that with all the serotonin?”

Barely—I feel unbreakable—but my mind knows that, physically, he is right. “I’ll be safe,” I agree, even though it will scorch me alive. “I’ll stay in the safety zone until it’s over.”

He watches me in his intense way that, with these new eyes, seems to imprint directly into my brain. “Promise me, Elisa.”

What could make him doubt it now when even I don’t? “I promise. Please don’t worry. I’d never risk myself, knowing what it would do to you, no matter how brave I am.”

He manages the worn smile and turns my hand around. To my surprise, he presses a brave-pink petal from the hedge roses into my palm. “Here’s your petal.” He closes my fingers around it. “You may be infinitely braver than me, but you will always be my Elisa.”

Fire scalds my insides, licking up to my eyes. But no, not yet. “You will always be my Aiden. And I’m not braver than you. Everything you need to overcome this is already inside you. This—” I reach inside my purse with my free fingers and hold up the vial. “—will only bring it out. It will allow you to observe it all, not just the horror. It will sharpen your mind until your thoughts reflect reality. And it will give you faith that you can and will close Fallujah’s door. Not for me or your parents or anyone else. But for Marshall and yourself.”

He listens raptly, throttling back the agony at Marshall’s name. “Theories on how often we would need to do this for that door to close?”

At least he seems to consider that it might. But of all the answers the protein has given me, this isn’t one. “I wish we knew with your mind, my love. But however long it will take, I know it will happen in the end.” Hopefully before our end, so he can only carry one agony at a time.

He nods, staring at the vial with a ghost of life I haven’t seen in his gaze since Edison destroyed it. It’s as good a place to start as I could have hoped. I tuck the vial in his hand away from the blisters. “I’ll make you something for these,” I say, shoving down the lava tears. “But first, will you make me a promise?”

His fingers curl around mine instinctually. “What do you need?”

“Doctor Helen said I need to use whatever it takes to bring you back from this reel. I know this will go against your nature, but I would like your promise that you will listen to me without question, accept my calm and touch without guilt, follow my instructions, and when you’re ready, you will come back no matter what’s happening between us. Even if this present moment feels as painful as the past. Can you promise me that?”

I can see the resistance in his gaze—resistance to me doing anything painful or hard—but he knows there is nothing he can do to avoid that now. “I promise,” he vows, his hand tightening on mine.

An intense wave of relief rushes through my head. I’m abruptly overwhelmed by the depth of his trust in me, like that first night he slept by my side. Except even more forceful now.

“Thank you,” I whisper, my voice bending under the onslaught of emotion. Perhaps I should tell him more about how bravery feels to me, but instinct says no. Because I sense without knowing that we all have to discover our own bravery in the end. But I can guide him to that with every last weapon we have left: our love, his strength, my faith and calming effect. “Now, let’s start with you feeling calm. I think it will be easier if you come from a place of serenity than fear.” Yes, it has to be, I’m counting on that.

And Aiden keeps his promise. Instantly, his eyes find my lips, my jawline, my throat—the parts of my face that calm him the most—until the sapphire of his eyes brightens to the most translucent brave-turquoise. I gasp at beauty of the true color. I have never fully seen it before this second. It exists on an arc of the rainbow all on its own. As though all the blues of the world—from the sky to the ocean, from the Adonis butterflies to the gemstones—gave their most perfect sparkle for the sole purpose of becoming his sight. It takes the full force of the protein to keep my brain going.

He inhales deeply as though he hadn’t taken a single breath until now. “Every time,” he sighs.

“Because you gave me that power, as Doctor Helen says. Now hold on to it and take this.” I ignore the knives of fire as I break our joined hands and unseal the vial. “It doesn’t taste great, I’m sorry. Definitely not Skittle-flavored as I promised. I did modify it though—” I pause because his half-smile tugs lightly at the corner of his lips, almost stopping my heart. Like an echo of the Peter Pan grin in his war tent.

“Don’t worry about it. I’d drink bleach if it would help.”

“This will.”

“I believe it if you made it for me. To your bright future, Elisa.” And, trusting me again, he brings the vial to his lips and swallows in one gulp without a flinch. I watch on fire as the violet fluid slips inside him. One second. He presses his lips together manfully. “It’s not bad. A hint of grape?”

“Yes, a little grape juice. It’s all there was in the drink fountain to make it swallowable but keep the color.”

He nods, tilting his head to the side, eyes vigilant as if listening to his body. Nine seconds. His back straightens ramrod, the muscles start rising. “Oh,” he says, eyes widening. “Interesting.”

“What do you feel?” I ask, thrilling even though I know what he should be experiencing down to the second.

“Heat. Intense heat. From my tongue to my gut.”

“Perfect. That’s exactly how it starts. Now close your eyes and just feel.” I don’t want anything to interfere with the rush of faith. I want his first memory of feeling fearless to be combined only with my calm and his confidence. Nothing else, not even a poppy or a sunray that may carry other triggers.

He becomes a perfect statue more beautiful than Adonis, the golden halo still emitting from his skin. That’s when I take his hand again, following the map my new mind has drawn. He gasps as our fingers entwine but doesn’t open his eyes. I use all my strength to muster my body’s wild reactions to his proximity and lean gently into his fragrant chest.

“Elisa,” he breathes, and the sheer mass of muscle ripples around me like a seismic wave.

“Shh, love, don’t speak. Just listen to your body, your heart.” I fold his arms around my waist and rest my head on his shoulder, covering it with me exactly where the monsters punched him repeatedly. “You will know when you’re ready. Trust me.”

His arms tighten around me, his body shuddering and strengthening in the same breath, but he follows my direction. I let the flames scorch me by the thousands and rest my palm above his heart, feeling its thunderous thud-thud-thud. I don’t know how to interpret heartbeats, but it does not seem terrorized like mine was. Aiden’s heart sounds more powerful, more rhythmic. I want to caress his fragrant skin, kiss his tense jaw, the parted lips. So I lock down my body and count his heartbeats, wishing dad’s watch was working. But the protein gives me an inner sense of chronology.

Forty seconds now: Aiden’s cold skin heats, a mesmerizing flush tinting the golden filter. Forty-two: another inhale, this one longer, deeper. Forty-nine: a low sound in his throat, somewhere between a snarl and a sigh. Fifty-one: his muscles sharpen and expand, a sense of raw power emanating out of him. Fifty-five: the V disappears from his brow, his hands close into titanium fists. Fifty-seven: with another ponderous thud, Aiden takes a final breath in my hair.

“I’m ready,” he says, his voice new again. No note of worry or panic or dread. Just that invincible timbre I first heard in his Fallujah tent.

“Yes, you are,” I answer with all my confidence, unwilling to let any other tone blend with his faith. “Keep your eyes closed. Look only at what you see in your mind. It’s time.”

I curl my hands over his shoulders as he lies down, running my fingers gently along the invisible bruises. A low sigh leaves his lips. Then, with the pain of a branding iron, I pick up the headset of evil. I secure it over Aiden’s closed eyes, feeling like I’m pouring hot fiery oil on the golden lids. And that’s when the blistering tears scald my own eyes. When he cannot see them in his first fearless memory.

“I’ll see you on the other side,” I tell him.

“I still see you now.”

“See me well.”

“I will.”

My fingers hover above his lips. They are still shimmering in my vision, full and bitten-crimson. I’ve never wanted anything more than to taste them. Not even air while drowning in the river. Maybe just a little? But his warm breath washes over my fingertips, bringing me back. Reminding me of everything. I tremble in my purse for my rose oil and dab it on the flawless curve of his lips exactly where the monsters smeared Marshall’s blood. Even at that slight touch, the orgasmic current shocks my fingers. From his low gasp, it must jolt him, too.

“Ah, you,” he sighs. His teeth graze his bottom lip lightly, tasting the oil. I manage to stay upright only by the strength of the protein.

“I love you,” I whisper.

“Always.” His voice is husky. “Whatever else has changed, that never will.”

I bend to kiss his heart where the steel cables crossed, tracing the path of the vanished chains. Then, with a smoky breath through my charred lungs, I press the power button. And the fifty-fifth reel starts. Our fight to save him, not us. Aiden stills as the headset highjacks him, yanking his mind through the portals of his powerful memory into a different place, a different time. And even though he is still here next to me, I know he has left me far behind.

For the first peaceful fifteen minutes, I can’t move despite the raw energy spiking in my muscles. I just burn next to him, feeling like both iron and ash, watching the golden aura that still frames his face. My body echoes with the lack of the physical reactions I would now feel: short breaths, shaking, chills, nausea. They are all absent. In their place are all the mega-emotions. A Himalayan waterfall of love, a volcano of pain, a hurricane of desire, an abyss of longing. I remember when I used to believe that strong emotions last only ninety seconds. But science didn’t know about the protein then. I don’t know how long these emotions will rage either, but I know it will be a lifetime in itself.

Yet it would never be long enough. I would scorch here forever just watching the hypnotic halo, but my mind doesn’t let me. Somehow, while I’ve been in his spell, it has found new horizons of space to think and keep track of time. And Aiden’s peaceful minutes are almost up.

I try to think of a surprise I can do from here so he doesn’t come back to nothing. There isn’t much. I improvise with the contents of my purse, set my phone on Für Elise by his ear, and, in two minutes, I’m coiled back to my safe circle even though I could tango through the seven circles of hell, carrying Dante in my arms.

The second I sit on the wildflowers, Aiden’s agony starts. And mine. Unfathomably more vicious than during the video. Because I am no longer sheltered by a camera lens or a smoky screen—this is real, this is live. I can see every facet of the torment I had missed, each blow of anguish on the face I love. I can hear each gasp from his lips. I can feel each cable slicing his shoulders, each minute of torture ravaging the body that is my home more than any cottage will ever be. And all the words disappear again, there isn’t a human language brutal enough.

!!!

The more I see, the more the emotions scald, flay, tear, rip, saw, and stab. I want to simultaneously sob, thrash, shriek, and die. Yet not a single scream passes Aiden’s lips as he relives the torture the camera didn’t film—the torture no one alive knows except him. But the deeper he sinks, the more his agony changes before my cruelly clear eyes. A sheen of moisture is gathering on his skin like fever. His breathing becomes rapid and shallow as if he is drowning—not steady like mine. And his body is contorting a different way. As though the ripples over his muscles are coming from a vital organ that’s tearing apart.

The vacuum of horror sucks the air out of my lungs, filling them with fire. “No!” I choke as the defense instinct thrusts me to my feet. I will end this. I was wrong. It’s not working—it’s hurting him even more. But as I strike one step in Aiden’s direction, a sound reverberates through my head, more deafening than any IED. Because this sound is coming from inside me. Aiden’s voice is thundering in my own memory, amplified by the protein:

“PROMISE ME, ELISA.”

It locks down every burning muscle, from my fists to my thighs. I cannot move a single inch, imprisoned by my own mind. My thoughts become my steel cables, chaining me down with my vow. Because my mind is right. If I touch Aiden now, I will surely die. And although I can’t care about that in this moment, it will destroy him. The only thing that will help him now is if I sit here and wait. Wait and love him more than anyone has ever loved.

At the excruciating realization, the binds melt off my body. Aiden’s voice fades in an echo. Promise me, Elisa. The ember tears singe my eyes. So this is why he insisted on that promise. He knew even before I did that, without fear, I might not be able to stay away. And he agreed only because of his trust in me.

I drop back on the grass, burning. Across from me, on the blanket, Aiden’s torment reaches a level that almost blinds my new eyes. His body is arching off Elysium, sweat sparkling on his body like diamonds. The blisters on his palms are bleeding. Ten more, minutes, love. Just ten more, and I’ll bring you back. But back where? To a present that hurts just as much? Did I choose wrong? Should we have lived the last days in closure, hoping for the best? Should I have gone the other way? But faith is still firing incontrovertible in my system. No, Aiden can do this, I know he can. I knot my legs against the unreleased reflex, flipping through the raging flames like pages in a book, pulling up a blank one. And then I find the gushing waterfall behind the inferno and fill the blank page with love. Until it’s done. With a final, silent no! Aiden’s body arcs as if dragged up by his very heart. Then it slumps back on the blanket, breathless and unmoving as he was on the broken tiles of that classroom floor.

“Aiden!” I cry instantly, bursting to his side in a flash. But the horror of the sight might break through the protein.

Moisture has soaked his skin like the river water. Even without a single touch, I can feel the fever blowing out of him in waves. His breath is shallow spurts of air through his parted lips. The halo around him is fading in my vision. And the shudders are different, more sinister. Like the cracking earth of that schoolyard after the IEDs. And I know that without the protein, I would have never breathed through this.

But I do now. “Aiden, love,” I call him again in my calm, singing voice that would have been a scream this morning. I kneel next to him, one hand to his feverish face, one to his heart. It’s pummeling his ribs like nothing I’ve ever heard, not even mine. “I’m here, sweetheart. Right here by your side. We’re both safe in Elysium. Safe and strong and loved. Listen to my voice, to Für Elise. It’s over, love, it’s done.”

But his heartbeat is faltering under my hand. Like the crack of bones on Marshall’s chest, like the grenades. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Blowing us up, limb by limb—tiny bodies on this grass like in that Fallujah schoolyard. Because we are both just children now. Children before the vast, black abyss of the past. Reborn violently to that first held breath that we must either take or die.

My body strains for the dulling terror that my mind won’t give me. I claw for my phone to call Doctor Helen but, under my hand, there is a new beat. A relentless pounding, a vital sprint.

It’s the sound of a brave, fighting heart.©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 27: T-I-M-E

Hey friends and happy last hours of the weekend! I hope it was a good and restful one for you. In case you’re looking for a good, cozy way to finish it off before Monday arrives, here is Chapter 27. We’re getting closer to the end now.  Oh, if you need a song recommendation for this, I had Wicked Games playing in my head. You’ll see why. Hope you’re enjoying the chapters and thank you to all of you who comment and write to me with your thoughts.  I love and read each of them. Talk soon, xo, Ani

27

T-i-m-e

I don’t stop running until I’ve cleared the last weaver cottages, looking over my shoulder like a fugitive in my own village. But because I’ve never been much of an athlete, my legs and lungs give out in ten minutes and I sprawl on the grass in the middle of a grazing field, gasping, spluttering, and clutching stitches at my sides. The evening breeze whips my sweaty face. I gulp it down, staring at the evening lights twinkling from windows in the distance.

How much does Aiden know by now? That I went to Javier’s room for the night, absolutely. Max probably texted him before I finished bolting the door. That I ran away? I don’t think he has made that leap yet or I wouldn’t be panting here alone. He is probably still packing up the stand, making sure there isn’t a single scratch on it. But how long will it take him to figure it out after that? I don’t know. If he decides to give me space, I have a few hours, maybe the whole night. If he checks on me, I have one millisecond.

I scramble to my feet, still huffing and shaking. But my sandals aren’t made for escaping. Their straps are already cutting into my ankles and toes, so I set across the field for the shortcut along the riverbank and its velvet moss. The night is falling fast now, settling over everything in shades of plum, ink, and silver. Not that I can see the colors. My vision is locked in the reddish filter of rage. For a while, the mishmash of emotion is so frantic, I can’t even understand it, let alone control it. There’s the acid of anger, the cleaver of pain, the hammer of fear, the bite of guilt, the blister of grief, each crushing, slicing, and eroding whatever part of me they can reach. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong about that. Because I’m still pulsing with them as I tread away from the river and round the foot of the familiar hill. Instinctively, as I’ve done every few minutes, I look around into the burgundy night. Burford’s lights are twinkling far in the distance, but I’m utterly alone. Not a single psychopath, stalker, or enraged Marine is following me. The trail to the top is hard in my sandals. They slow me down when I want to run up to the peak, but that’s good. Because I’m not just visiting my parents this time. I’m also climbing for me. Coming to the only place that’s still mine, free of surveillance and the terror of the reel. How did a place of incomprehensible grief become a place of hope and now of solace? Is this what they mean by healing?

The tiny meadow is bright with moonlight. Not a single shadow on it except the cypress tree. The American Beauty sapling I planted with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier is growing a new bud. The tokens we brought them last time are still by the epitaph along with the vial of Aiden’s dog tags, exactly as we left them. They haven’t moved an inch, nothing is missing. I run my hand over the engraved names—the marble is as cold as my fingertips.

“Here you go, Mum,” I whisper, but the words flow with ease, more naturally than any of the other three times I’ve visited here. I set down the Rose Cup by her side. The silver stem does not sparkle as it does in the sun but it throws a slender shadow over the marble like a delicate, feminine arm. “They all remember you still. And love you so much . . . except Willoughby of course. He’s absolutely livid he lost again.” I smile, registering with some surprise that I’m able to do so here without Aiden next to me. But it’s definitely a smile, turning up my lips even if it disappears at the thought of him. “It was quite a day,” I sigh, taking the Elisa rose he tucked by my ear and setting it down under her name. It has wilted by now. Make this your day as well, he said. I scoff with irony. How can it be my day, my life when he’s not letting us live it? When every minute of every hour of every day, we are locked in a war inside the mind that’s bombing every aspect of our life?

I rest my palms on the marble. Are they still pink? I can’t tell—I’m still seeing red. But as I sit here finally alone, breathing in the cypress air, the snarl of emotion starts to soften and rearrange. Sorrow fades away, grief changes from a blister to an old bruise. And anger shifts far down, making room for pain, fear, and guilt at the very top. I can think through them all, I can add love, I can see the night free and clear. The pure white tomb glowing with a diffuse light. The veins of the marble forming figures like clouds . . . an eye, a heart, a river, a fork in the road. And emotions start to become thoughts and then crystallize into questions: what do I do now? How do I save Aiden from the reel when it’s stealing him from me no matter how grounded I try to keep him in the present moment? How do we win when every weapon seems useless against it and I’m still nowhere finished with the protein? How do we make happy memories when we barely have a moment alone? How do I salvage some stardust if we don’t survive?

He comes out of nowhere. One second, it’s just me by the grave and another he blasts to the crest like a shooting star.

“Elisa?” He thunders, drowning out my startled cry. He freezes when he spots me, a perfect silhouette against the moonlight, holding something in his hand. I think I hear a gusty sigh of relief in the hilltop wind. A moment passes while we gaze at each other—or at least while I stare at the shape of him. Is it vibrating with tension even from here? Then he glides noiselessly across the meadow like a dream. An old fear flickers once and I pinch the inside of my wrist to test reality. But I’m awake, it’s the real him. As he comes close, I finally see the thing he is holding. My pashmina. He hands it to me without throwing it over my shoulders as he usually would. My throat tightens. But it’s better this way, so I can process.

“Thank you,” I whisper, wrapping myself in the soft cashmere. I didn’t realize I was shivering until now.

He nods once and sits next to me in silence, eyes on the epitaph. Automatically, my body softens at his proximity, despite the anger still lurking underneath. I run through the periodic table twice but he still doesn’t speak, either too angry or relieved to say anything.

“So, you found me,” I finally start.

He looks at me then. His eyes are molten silver. “Does that upset you?” His voice is dark and low like the night.

Of course he would wonder given my escape. A few moments ago, I was wondering myself. I shake my head. “I knew you would. The only question was how long it would take you.”

“Too long it seems.”

I have no idea what time it is—I can’t trust my sense of chronology with him—but it feels like I’ve only been here about ten minutes. “No harm done. I was perfectly safe.”

His eyes close, and he pinches his nose. A subtle shudder seems to ripple over him. “Were you?” His question is so quiet, I’m not sure he meant it for me.

I answer it anyway because it’s at the heart of everything. “Of course I was. If anyone wanted to harm me, they could have by now. I was walking alone in the dark with the Rose Cup as my only weapon. I really wish you would drop this now.”

His eyes fling open, and he shudders again. He stares at the grave, his breathing harsher, his jaw flexing furiously, throwing dark shadows in the starlight. He doesn’t answer, and I can’t think of a single thing to say without a fight. I trace the veins in the marble with my finger. A period, a comma, a question mark . . .

“Do you still believe that?” he asks after a while. My eyes fly up at his face, but he is gazing at the epitaph still.

“Believe what?”

Amor vincit omnia—love conquers all.”

I think about that. When I first chose it for my parents, I thought there wasn’t a truer truth. When I returned here a month ago, I thought it was the most beautiful lie. And now . . . “We have to,” I answer honestly, my voice catching. “I’m starting to think it’s a choice.”

His eyes meet mine then, ardent even in the night. “And what do you choose?”

I try to think with his eyes on me, with him being so close, yet so far, but at least this answer doesn’t require a lot of mental power. “I choose to win with you.”

The shadow of his tense jaw lightens. I think I hear another sigh in the breeze. “Me too.”

“But I don’t know how, Aiden. Not when we’re fighting against each other again, like we used to in Portland. We’re not staying in the present moment, united against the reel. We’re divided: you living in fear for me, me running away at night, making your fears even worse . . .”

He looks at his dog tags now, the flawless panes of his face dark blades again. His hands interlock around his knees in a double fist. The knuckles glow a perfect white.

“I don’t blame you for being angry with me,” I add because it’s true. “I’m sorry I worried you.” And I am now that I’ve calmed down. I added to his stress instead of ease it as I’m trying to do.

He inhales sharply, and his eyes flash to me. “Angry with you?” The light flows over his face with his intense expression. “How could I be angry with you when I gave you no choice? When I took away every place of comfort you’re trying to rebuild? When I suffocated you to the point where you felt you had to run out at night and risk your—” He stops abruptly, closing his eyes and drawing another shuddering breath. His knuckles glint. “No, I’m not angry with you.” He shakes his head after a moment. “I’m infuriated with me.”

It’s as though his mind permeated mine as I was running and read all my thoughts. Yet the more fury he fires at himself now, the less anger I feel. There isn’t a single trace of it left in me. The only thing twisting my insides is hurt for him.

He is gazing at the epitaph again. Of its own volition, my body moves closer until our arms touch. I expect his fragrant warmth, but he has become a sculpture of ice. His breath catches though, and his eyes burn on mine.

“I know why you’re doing it,” I say, brushing my fingers over his diamond knuckles. They soften as does the point of contact between our arms. “You’re just trying to keep me safe with everything you have. It’s your way.”

“Yes, my way, and I’m making you miserable in the process. I cling with arrogant obstinacy to my idea of what will keep you safe, and all I do is break your heart over and over again.”

“Aiden, no—”

“Don’t.” One word, sharp and jagged like a knife against the self, yet his hand wraps gently around mine. Instantly, an old tension I didn’t know I was feeling blows away. He twists up my palm, perhaps searching it for pinkness but it’s bleached white from the moon like everything else. “The point is, I don’t trust myself with you anymore. So we’ll do it your way, Elisa. Starting right now.” His silver eyes blaze even in the darkness, while my mind goes blank.

“My way? What do you mean?”

“I’ll let security go. Max, Ferrars, the overnight guard—gone. Tonight. You’ll never have to see any of them again. Except Benson of course, but you don’t have a problem with him. And we’ll start again. The sooner, the better. This minute, in fact.”

Bloody hell! I stare at him in stunned disbelief. Am I hearing this right? Did he really say it? My heart is crashing against my ribs like Ferrars and Felix into the rose stand. “Does this mean you finally agree there’s no danger?” I blurt out, trying to make sense of the chaos. “That you’ll finally relax about this?”

His eyebrows rise with similar incredulity. “Of course not. I still think someone is curious or worse about you, but what options do I have left? I will not force you into more risky behavior like this. I will not continue to rob you of the new life we had just started. And I’m not willing to let this drive a wedge between us like it has been. So that leaves me with your option: I will protect you myself.”

My head is still spinning. “But why do you still think—”

He presses his finger to my lips. They tremble at his touch. “I will not have this argument with you, not now, not ever again. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No, because we’re doing this your way, not mine. Mine is usually wrong.”

He takes his finger away, which is good because my mind is still scrambled. This is exactly what I wanted to hear. Want it so much, I pinch myself to make sure I haven’t fallen asleep on the grave like the first time he visited this hilltop in my dreams. I’m fully awake. So why am I not relieved?

“But won’t you be worried about me still?” I argue anyway.

He shrugs as though this is the least of his problems. “Of course I will. That will never change, whether you have a security team of a hundred or none.”

“I know, but won’t it be worse if you remove security completely? You’ll be dreading that I’m going to get hurt all day instead of saving all your strength for the reel.”

A small smile lifts the corner of his mouth. “First, I sincerely doubt it can get much worse than it was tonight. If I lived through the five minutes, sixteen seconds of trying to find you, not to mention cutting through the festival crowd and the time you were supposedly in Javier’s room, I can probably live through death itself. Second, I’m not removing security completely; I will protect you myself, with Benson of course. And third, yes, I’d worry less about your safety, but more about your heart. So it’s all the same in the end.”

Except I don’t want him worrying in any way. Not under the kind of pressure he is. “Aiden.” I clutch his hand in both of mine. “Is there anything that will convince you I’m safe? Anything at all that will help you relax even a bit?”

The smile doesn’t leave his lips, but his answer sends shivers under my pashmina. “Time, love—the very thing we don’t have.”

No, we do not. Tick tock. Tick tock. But there must be some way that doesn’t involve bombarding the life we’re supposed to live or raiding his mind with stress so he cannot fight the reel. I search the meadow, the epitaph, the marble map for anything. He is the only one who answers. In one of his fast movements, his hand turns so it now covers both of mine.

“It actually might help if I’m protecting you personally, Elisa. Even with Max, I couldn’t rest when you were out of sight. I realized after today, I cannot trust anyone with you like I can myself.”

I cannot argue with that truth. Because I cannot trust anyone other than myself with his rest either. And this way, we’ll have more time together. I feel my own lips lift into a smile. “And I’ll protect you. I’ll make you the protein as soon as possible, you’ll see. And then you’ll never have to fear for me again.”

My favorite, lopsided smile flashes over his face, varnished in silver—so beautiful that my heart stutters at the sight. “Elisa, you already protect me from everything. From the moment I open my eyes with the reel until I close them to your song. It would be impossible to find any man more protected and loved than me.”

At least the reel hasn’t stolen this knowledge from him. At least l-o-v-e is still standing strong against it, his mind is still holding onto that truth like a shield. “Not one,” I agree.

His arms fold around me at last, like protective wings. I haven’t felt them since our doomed lunch, but of course it feels like a century to me. I worm myself into their circle, breathing him in. The air flows easily through my lungs—like sleep, like Für Elise. He is not icy stone anymore, just warm and fragrant steel. He sighs, and his lips press in my hair.

“Is it really going to be just us again?” I verify, still afraid that we will lose more moments alone in our remaining days.

“We already are, love.”

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“You compare a tiny rose to an entire jungle.”

The miniature roses around the epitaph gleam the purest white. Love conquers all. It must. The locket on my chest is pressed between his heart and mine. Help me solve the protein, help us win.

His opalescent arms pull me closer, tucking my head under his chin. He kisses my hair again, holding his lips there, inhaling deeply.

“What are you thinking?” I ask, tracing the vein on his warm neck.

“It might bring back the ire if I told you.”

“No, don’t worry. The wrath is long gone. I lost it with the pashmina.”

“In that case . . .” He breathes me in again. “Thank God you’re safe and thank God for pashminas.”

We chuckle together—his laugh beautiful and argent like the night, mine quiet but effortless for the first time on this hilltop. At the sound, a sense of lightness falls over me like the uninterrupted glow of the moon over the meadow. Something I never could have imagined feeling here. I curl into him totally content, marveling at how time—my Fallujah, my reel, my startle, my mortal enemy—can also be my ally. Because four years ago, this hilltop pulverized me into granules and spewed me across continents like ashes in the wind. Then a month ago, it gave me a purpose, then h-o-p-e. And now another beginning. T-i-m-e. Has it joined our ranks or is it a foe still?

“Do you want to stay here a little longer or go back to the cottage?” Aiden asks after a while. “Just us,” he emphasizes, hearing my unspoken question or perhaps remembering it from this morning. “We can celebrate your win with the others tomorrow on our picnic.”

I smile. “That’s exactly what I want.”

He kisses the top of my head once more and stands, lifting me along and balancing me carefully in case I topple and roll down the hill. But he frowns immediately at my sandaled feet. “Did they give you blisters coming up here?”

“Umm, maybe a very small one. Blister adjacent, I think. Please don’t punish my sandals. I really like them.”

He doesn’t breathe fire on them, but he does glare, not looking the least bit convinced. He picks up the Rose Cup, hands it to me, and swoops me in his arms. “Come on, let’s get those adjacent blisters on some petals. Mrs. Plemmons thinks they fix everything.”

“Aiden, no way!” I protest, trying and failing to wiggle out of his unbreakable hold. “You won’t carry me all the way down the hill. It’s too far.”

“Hah!” He laughs, tucking my scarf around me. “You wanted me to protect you myself instead of the security team. Well, this is the deal. Take it or leave it.”

“The deal is carrying me places?”

He’s already in motion, leaving the moonlit meadow behind. “Carrying you, driving you where you need to be, sitting across from Bia while you’re working, not letting you out of my sight until I fix this, and anything else required to keep all ten of these blistered toes safe.”

He is dragon-serious. There isn’t a single speck of humor on his tone despite the laughter. Except it sounds like heaven to me. I tangle my arms around his neck, kissing his scar. “I’ll take it. You can be my bodyguard anytime.”

He laughs again. “I’ll remind you of that when you’re calling Max and Ferrars in a week, begging them to come back.”

“In your dreams.”

“No, I have a lot better things saved for those.” His arms tighten around me like pearlescent fetters.

I watch his silver profile as he strolls effortlessly down the meandering trail, remembering precisely where a shrub is or a rock. It’s been so long since he has carried me in the moonlight like this. Not true of course. It’s only been a week, but it feels like a different life to me. A life we are starting again.

“So how did you figure out I had escaped?”

A shadow falls over his face as he passes by another cypress tree. “It wasn’t exactly CIA’s Kryptos to decode. Max texted me that you were staying in Javier’s room and that he’d guard you until I was done. Not that I was shocked; obviously you didn’t want anything to do with me. But I thought I’d give you space while I finished up with the stand and then come grovel on my knees. Well, as you can imagine, I barely lasted thirty-four minutes with that noble intention—just enough to dismantle the stand and secure it in Benson’s van. Once I went back to the Inn and knocked on Javier’s door and you didn’t answer, I knew where you had gone. Alone—in the dark—what if—” He chokes off in terror. From his shudder, I shake in his arms.

“Shh, I was all right. I’d never put myself in any real harm.” I stroke his scar, trying to think. He remains convinced I’m in danger. How can I help him with this?

His jaw is throwing starlit shadows with tension. I run my lips over it, back and forth, back and forth until it shimmers silver again. Except I can’t stop. I haven’t kissed him since this morning, and that’s a millennia ago. Besides, how can any mortal mouth be this close to such a face and not touch it?

He smiles. “You need to stop that if you don’t want me to trip.”

“You don’t trip. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you touch me.”

I hold properly still to make this easy for him. It’s hard with all the tingles lighting up on my skin like fireflies—sensations I never thought I’d feel anywhere near this hill. But they’re there, blinking warmer and warmer. Already I can’t breathe right as though I’m the one trekking down the trail.

He is quiet for the rest of the hike, his breath coming out fast and fragrant. Yet his unconscious grace never wavers. And for once I think of Byron, not Shakespeare. He walks in beauty like the night. Aiden says that poem is mine, but as he descends in and out of moonlight and nightshade, now silver, now dark, I’m convinced it was written for him. I should write it on his Timberlands. Would he laugh if he woke up tomorrow to see it Sharpied on their soles?

He clears the hill with me in his arms faster than me climbing with the Rose Cup. The night is thick down here. I half-expect him to insist on carrying me all way back to the cottage, but out of the darkness morphs the black shape of the Rover. I don’t know why it surprises me. How else would he have gotten to me in exactly five minutes and sixteen seconds? He must have raced faster than a nitroglycerin combustion.

He scans the area immediately, and I search with him, rigid with contradiction: body fusing itself to him, mind racing to Bia. We already didn’t have hours to waste, now we don’t even have seconds. But he isn’t tense right now; he is relaxed, whether from the quiet night, my calming effect, or the fact that I’m safe in his arms, I don’t know. He sets me down by the Rover’s door and takes my face in his hands.

“Now about that kiss,” he says and his mouth captures mine. His lips are soft and warm, but his kiss is urgent and deep. I give him back everything I have, parched for his taste. A low moan rises in his throat. He presses me against the Rover’s door, his heated body forged to every line of mine, his fingers gilded in my hair. To my suddenly feverish skin, he feels like a flame. I shiver paradoxically between him and the door. A different mishmash of emotion whirls in me now at the bottom of this hill: the burn of desire, the vise of love, the ocean of longing, the breeze of relief, each healing and rebuilding every part of me.

Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I can’t imagine this all-consuming love to ever end for me, even if I’m ash. I’m still incandescent with it as Aiden’s mouth slows, his tongue tracing my lips with a final sigh.

“Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush mine once more, and he pulls back, his breathing rougher than when he was trekking down the hill while I dangle in his arms, dizzy and gasping. “Come, let’s go home.”

H-o-m-e.  It’s one of the rare times he calls the cottage home. He may not realize it, but I certainly do. I’m counting each one.

He opens the Rover door and stuffs me in the front seat, checking my palms as soon as the cabin light turns on. The pink is fading, only a faint blush now the color of the Clares.

“They still don’t hurt,” I assure him quickly.

“If they’re not back to their perfect condition by tomorrow, we’re going to the doctor, and I don’t want any argument about it.” He gives me a stern gaze.

“I accept,” I answer without hesitation. I’d probably agree to a lot worse if he really would rest.

“Now, let me look at these.” He slips off my sandals carefully, hissing when he sees the two blisters on each big toe, one on each pinky, and another one on each ankle. “As I thought. Blister adjacent indeed. I’m banning that word, Elisa. Right now.”

“Yes, General.”

He glowers as he reaches in the glove box for our first aid kit because of course our cars are equipped with such measures. I think defibrillators and MRI machines are the only medical equipment we’re missing. He disinfects each blister with an ethanol wipe, blowing on it and muttering a string of profanities. Then he wraps a bandage loosely around them, blowing again to make sure air flows through. “You’re not wearing these for at least two weeks!” He orders and hurls my sandals in the back seat.

“Do you have something I can blow on?”

He glares in response, but his lips twitch with a restrained grin. “If you behave.”

The drive to the cottage takes only ten minutes at normal speed. Aiden steers with one hand, twining his other fingers with mine. The rose soundtrack is still on from our Aidonis trip, this time playing Love is a Rose by Linda Rondstadt.

“Do Max and the others know I escaped?” I ask, starting an apology in my head.

He chuckles. “I think it became quite obvious when they saw me bolt out of the Inn like a madman. They’re apoplectic as to how you pulled it off. Incidentally, how did you manage it? Did you take the back stairs?”

I hang my head, feeling guilty. “Yes, that’s why I went to Javier’s room and not Reagan’s. It’s closer to that door.”

In the blue light from the dashboard, his smile seems impressed. “And this is exactly why I need to protect you myself.”

“I didn’t get Max in trouble, did I? He did everything right—even checked the balcony.”

“Of course not. He’s excellent, I’m just impossible when it comes to you. But don’t tell me you’re already missing him?”

“Not in that way. But I do like him, he’s very kind.”

“Well, don’t worry. I’ll bring him back again with Cal and the others. Maybe in September.”

Tick tock. Tick tock.

Everything is quiet when we park in the garage, although it doesn’t stop Aiden’s peremptory examination. But it’s only a blink. He is at my door as I’m unclicking my safety belt.

“Are you tired?” he asks, taking the Rose Cup from me and draping the pashmina back over my shoulders.

Tired? I haven’t felt more awake all week. “Not even a little bit. Besides, I think you promised me a celebration this morning.”

He laughs, sweeping me off the seat straight into his arms, lest I attempt walking the four-minute distance across a velvet of wildflowers on bare feet. “Did I? I must have forgotten.”

“You don’t forget. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you run from me.”

Elysium is brimming with moonlight as he carries me across it. The daisies are brilliant white with the rest of the wildflowers in grey patches like clouds. A heart, a fingerprint, the inkblot of the reel. Aiden tenses as always when we pass by it.

“Will you be okay doing the reel without security?” I kiss along his jaw again until it softens.

“That’s the wrong question, love. The correct question is will you be okay while I’m locked inside the reel. And I’m not going to wait around to find out. We’re moving the reel to daytime” There is no room for opposition in his voice. But I have none. Now that it’s just us again, I will do everything to calm him.

“That makes sense. And I’ll carry my phone on me in case we need Benson. And install a tracking app, too.”

His eyebrows arch in surprise. “I didn’t realize you were capable of being reasonable about your safety, Elisa.”

“It’s all part of the deal, Aiden. I’ll be reasonable if I have you all to myself. Take it or leave it.”

His arms grip me closer. “I’ll take it all, and I might never give it back.” Abruptly his eyes smolder even in the dark, vaporizing my very bones.

The cottage glows snowy white by the river—no guard shadows on its walls. Only the climbing roses and the black shuttered windows. All the roses are asleep lacquered in silver, dreaming rosy things. There isn’t a single sound in the silent night except our breath and the willows’ murmur. They’re here, they’re here. A tiny, peaceful bubble just for us.

I sigh from its beauty, from the longing I’ve felt for it to be ours alone again.

Aiden pauses at the rose hedge, perhaps letting me enjoy the moment, perhaps searching our very own snow globe for safety. I give him his minute too. It could last forever, I wish it would. Because here, cradled in his arms, happiness shifts again for the first time in a week. It now looks like our entwined shadows on the stony path, breathing in the smell of home.

“Welcome back, love,” he whispers, carrying me to the door. I don’t ask if anything looks different or if Jazz saw anyone suspicious today. I know there is nothing to see. And Aiden’s warm, relaxed stride spells the answer in twinkly, star-stitched letters. We are alone. At last.

But he still doesn’t let me cross the threshold first. As soon as we step inside the foyer and he switches on the light, his eyes sweep it corner to corner, his arms flexing around me like shields. Then in another moment, they relax again, but he doesn’t set me down. He rests my Rose Cup on the console and roams the entire ground floor, checking everything. It is his habit now to scan the cottage, roof to studs, before he leaves and scour it again the instant he returns, exactly as he does with me.  Half of my heart clenches at the sight because he has fallen in love with these little walls so forcefully and completely. But the other half shatters because I cannot begin to fathom the terror behind this new routine. I search my head as frantically as he does the cottage for anything that might help him.

“Everything seems as I left it,” he informs me, finally setting me down at the foot of the stairs with a relieved sigh. I can see his entire face in the light now. I haven’t seen it since ten centuries ago under the elm tree when I was accepting the Rose Cup. Impossibly, he has gotten more beautiful to me, even if veiled with worry. Abruptly an idea flickers in my head. Perhaps sometimes all you need to do is turn on the lights.

“Aiden, what if we hid a camera in the chandelier so you can see if anyone is coming in, would that help? That way you won’t have to search the cottage every time, love.”

His eyes pop wide with unexpected amazement—he looks like I just offered him a vacation from the reel. “You would do that?” he whispers.

“I would. And if no one shows up, then we will know once and for all.”

He watches me carefully, eyes narrowing at the corners. “Why would you do this when you’re so certain there is no threat?”

I wrap my arms around his neck where their shape is probably branded into his skin. “For the same reasons you gave up security for me. Because this is your home too. I want you to feel safe and rested here, no matter what I think. Just because I don’t want to surrender it to others, doesn’t mean I don’t want to share it with you. Every single stone of it.”

His eyes don’t leave mine, but they change—no longer surprised or cautious; they beam with a joy that takes my breath away. Stuns me, heartbeat to blink. “Thank you,” he says with feeling. Then his mouth finds mine and he swoops me upstairs with blinding speed.

Our bedroom door is closed, but he must be expecting it because that surreal beauty falls over him. He sets me on my feet, a smile playing over his lips.

“After you,” he says and opens the door.

“Are you sure I remember how to walk?” I laugh and pretend to wobble inside. And then I rock into such a sudden stop that I fall back into his arms.

“Apparently not,” he chuckles, but my lack of balance has nothing to do with my legs. It has everything to do with my sight. Because our happy bedroom has transformed into my very own rose stand right in front of my incredulous eyes.

Elisa petals carpet the wooden floor. More Elisas are on the nightstands with the dried poppies, our double-frames, and the photo of Aiden’s brain. Above the bed hangs a white runner with black lettering like the rose stand sign, except this one says:

Elisa’s Rose Gallery

And on the walls are photos of me from each rose festival, beginning with my first and ending with the nineteenth from this morning—an image of me sitting at the welcome table that Aiden must have captured from a distance. An unmissable celebration of me, not anyone else.

“Aiden!” I whirl around in his arms. He is all golden now, his face suffused with the bliss he associates with this room. “So you did remember.” Of course he did. Of course he made time for this even while running around, protecting me.

He smiles. “Congratulations on your win, my love.”

Mine. Exactly as he wanted this morning. But I think about the other prize I won today: bringing us back to us again. “Don’t you mean my wins?” I pluralize.

He chuckles. “I stand corrected: your wins.” His fingers weave through my braid releasing the wilted Clares, a serious but tender expression falling over his face. “Your roses.” He kisses the spot below my ear, inhaling deeply. “Your day.” His lips flutter to the corner of my mouth. “And now your night.”

So many mine’s. Except my heart, that’s irrevocably his. And my body, it’s already lost. Everywhere he touches, I feel a flash burn on my skin. I trail my fingers over his cheek. “And my Aiden.” I caress his lips. “My kisses.” I press my hand over his heart. “My love.”

He smiles. “You won all those a long time ago.”

“Yes, but they’re the still my best wins.” I wrap my arms around his waist, refusing to allow any space between us. Because he is my Rose Cup, my Nobel Prize, my Oscar, my everything. I don’t want any other victory if in the end, I don’t triumph with him. “Thank you. I love my celebration.”

He tips up my face, surprise obvious in the turquoise depths. “Do you really?”

“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because you’re so selfless. Usually I know immediately when you’ll love something, but I wasn’t certain this time.”

I scoff. “I’m actually not that selfless, Aiden. In fact, I’m very selfish when it comes to you. And the roses. And the cottage. And Elysium. And now Aidonis. And chemistry. And Baci. And clotted cream . . . loads more. I’m selfish about everything I love.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter before I have finished as though me being selfish is a happiness protein. But isn’t it the same for me? The more he loves himself, the happier I feel. “Ah, Elisa. You and your eight selfish things that aren’t even selfish. But I’m glad I made the list.”

“You’re at the very top.”

His eyes change swiftly again, in that way that leaves me a stunned step behind. From amused, they become liquid and warm, and then thoughtful as they burn into mine. His hands travel up my arms to my cheeks, leaving fiery trails in their wake. “Will you let me try to add something else to the list?” The warmth is in his voice too, but with a rare note of plea underneath.

Immediately, I’m curious—more about that tone than anything else. “What would you like to add?”

“A reminder.”

“A reminder about what?”

“You’ll see. Will you please consider it?” he coaxes again.

As if I could say no to that voice and those eyes. “Yes, but on one condition,” I bargain anyway.

What condition?” he asks confidently.

“Well, you accuse me of being selfless, but you obviously suffer from the same affliction. So, my selfish list is open to additions only if we add something to your selfish list as well.”

He laughs again. “Elisa, I’m so selfish with you, I’ve cashed it all in for the entire mankind, but fine, I agree because this should hit both our lists.”

“Oh!” I grin at the chance of being able to give him something he wants. He never asks for anything for himself. “All right then, let me hear this reminder.”

“Thank you,” he says as he did downstairs, except now I hear a strong emotion in his voice. He lowers me at the foot of the bed, his fingertips setting fires on my arms. “Wait here.”

I nod, breathless with his intensity and the curiosity now raging in my brain. For some reason, I expect him to leave the room, but he walks to the window and opens it wide, flashing a smile. “We can’t leave the roses out of your celebration. They’ll be offended.”

The rose breeze blows freely into the room, cooling my feverish cheeks. “Mortally. And they’re already insulted from this last week. You’ll have to grovel and kiss all their petals.”

“Just kiss? I had rather started to think they were partial to other activities.” He winks as he ducks into our small closet while I check my skin for fire. No, nothing is smoking. He re-emerges with a box about the size of a briefcase, wrapped in parchment, and sits on the bed next to me, setting the box between us. His hands reach over it and close around my wrists.

“Just a reminder of something you love,” he repeats gently. “Nothing more.”

My heart starts thumping unevenly from his voice, his touch, his words. Why do I need reassurance for this box? “Aiden, what’s in there?”

He inches the box closer to me. There is no audible movement within.  “Let me unwrap it. I don’t think we need papercuts in addition to irritated palms and blisters today.”

I nod, transfixed as he tears the parchment with a fluid motion, revealing a wooden box. It’s the color of melted butterscotch, polished to a gleam, with a distinctive grain that curls and twists into a mystery map of its own. Instead of a latch, it has a keyhole, carved like an open rose. A faint woodsy aroma wafts from the box. I run my fingertips over the smooth surface, tracing the dense grain, finding figures. A star, a sun, a moon . . .

“It’s so lovely. What is it?”

“It’s called briar wood,” Aiden explains. “A very durable, nearly unbreakable, and heat-resistant wood.”

I look up at him in awe, but not so lost as to miss the way his skin is reflecting the golden glow of the box. “What is it protecting?”

His eyes become very tender. “A part of your heart.”

Oh! The heart in question starts thundering like my brain. In his hand is already a small bronze key, shaped like a rose stem. He slides it into the heart of the rose and the box unlocks with a quiet click. He looks at me through his long lashes. “Just try to remember, love.”

And then his long-fingered hands lift the lid.

Everything changes in a single blink. I hear my gasp, I feel my heart battering my ribs, the shiver on my skin, the blood drumming in my ears. I feel them all, but they are on the periphery. My entire focus is rivetted by the sight in front of me.

Because nestled inside the briar case is the most beautiful object I have ever seen. A carved wooden chessboard set with thirty-two chess pieces, gleaming in the muted light of our bedroom. The dark pieces are deep burgundy, marbled with veins of rich chocolate and crimson. The light ones are golden with a honeyed grain like lacework. The carving is so intricate, the pieces look almost alive, from the flowy manes of the Knights to shimmering crowns of the Queens. Here and there on the chess squares is etched a tiny rosette, like a secret code. An astonishing perfume floats from the board, almost tasteable in the air. Like Aiden, like Aeternum, I have never smelled anything quite like it. It’s a bouquet of rose, musk, woods, and something else entirely. And at the very edge of the board are my initials: ECS.

Supremely magnificent in every way. Fairytale in its beauty.  All mine. Yet my entire being splits in half: my heart and mind hug the chessboard with fervor; my body freezes into its own carved piece of wood, from my eyelids to my hands seizing into fists on my lap.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s soft voice breaks through the thud-thud-thud in my ears. I feel his strong, warm hand around my fists, but I can’t blink away from my initials on the board. He tips up my head until my vision fills only with him. Tenderness marbles his face with its own exquisite grain. He cups my cheek and blows gently across the board over my lips. “Breathe, love.” He draws a deep breath with me, and I realize he, too, wasn’t breathing until now. We inhale the indescribable perfume of the chess set together until I can form sound. Even if only breathy and staccato.

“Aiden, I . . . I don’t have the words.”

“You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t ever have to play it. Remember what I said?”

I nod, realizing now exactly why I needed his reassurance. “This is just a reminder.”

“That’s right. Only a reminder of the game you used to love and that still has a piece of your heart.” He comes to kneel before me and tucks me into his chest, kissing my temple. “Like me, this is only yours and no one else’s.”

“Wow,” is all I can whisper. He is giving me this work of art only so it can be mine. Only so I can have the most beautiful reminder there is. I focus only on his lips and the way they brush along my cheek, as I try to remember the joy this game used to give me, the times I won, the thrill of strategy, sometimes higher than the win itself. I haven’t let myself visit these memories in so long. I didn’t think it was possible to recall them without pain, but apparently it is. Not that the pain is gone exactly, but there are other feelings stronger than it. I know it’s because of Aiden’s warm strength filtering to my very bones. And I start to thaw piece by piece. Except my fists. They remain resolutely clenched on my lap.

He feels my softening immediately, probably like I do for him. He pulls back only enough so he can see my face. I don’t know what he finds there, but he smiles. “Were you able to remember something happy?”

I nod, still stunned. “I was, because of you.” I try to pour all my gratitude into my voice; my vocal cords shake from it. “Thank you. For all of it. It’s so beautiful—no, it’s much more than that. . . ”  The chess set draws my eyes back. There is a feeling about it, like a whisper in the breeze or a breathy silence in a sacred place.

“Is it selfish worthy?”

“Oh, yes. It’s already above Baci and clotted cream. Maybe tied with chemistry . . .”

He laughs with a carefree sound. My eyes flit back to him. “As long as it doesn’t compete with me.”

“Impossible,” I whisper, unwilling to interfere with the music of his laughter.

“Do you want to know more about it?” he asks casually, no doubt trying to remove all pressure for me to answer a certain way. Except I’m curious about the thought he put into this most of all.

“Yes, please. Tell me everything.”

His eyes glint with the deep passion he feels for the game, and I realize this is the first time we will talk about chess in any meaningful, just-us kind of way.

He tightens his hold around my fists, and his other hand frames the board. “The aroma you smell is rosewood—a very rare, strictly regulated wood. You can’t buy it from ethical sources anymore so the only sustainable option is from Old World furniture. This particular one came from an antique piano dating back to Tchaikovsky’s days. It will smell like this for a very long time. But I thought it was a good representation of you: roses and woods and music. Beauty and strength and calm.”

I can’t even blink with the way his eyes deepen and glow when he says things like that. Like I’m his best win, too. “It’s perfect,” I whisper, stunned voiceless again.

“The rose motif you see on the squares repeats in a pattern. See if you can find it.” He grins at my wide eyes as I start scanning the board frantically by position number. While I search, a brain cell wonders whether he embedded so many secret details so I could look at this and find only l-o-v-e and never p-a-i-n, only w-i-n-s, never l-o-s-s. The yes in my brain clicks at the same time as the code.

“My birthday. Six times.”

“You’re quick. Can you guess why six?”

He stumps me here. I try to think of favorite dates, favorite chemical element, favorite number, but nothing fits. “Some help?”

“It’s for all the six opening notes of Für Elise.”

“Wow,” I marvel again at the depth—not a single detail without meaning, not a grain of wood left to chance.

“It was carved for you by an old Russian chess master, Asimov,” Aiden continues. “He rarely crafts anymore, but he liked the story for this.”

“What was the story?”

His piano fingers brush my white knuckles the way they flutter over the ivory. “The story of a beautiful, loving, bright woman who is trying to find her way across the chessboard again . . .” He trails off as if he just finished telling a fairytale.

And like a fairytale, it leaves both beauty and longing behind. I want to touch the gleaming pieces so much that desire becomes physical pain, almost as intense as the way I crave him. I try, I really try to move one single finger, but my fists are locked shut—the way my body used to be before Aiden awoke it. And the air starts to thicken with a sadness that shouldn’t belong here, but it slithers in like a tear at the corner of the eye. Because even though this piece of art was made exactly for me, it can never be truly mine. It will never complete its destiny. The young woman will never play again.

“Are you trying to feel it?” Aiden caresses my knuckles.

I look back at his face—worried now, the V chiseled like golden rosewood between his brows. I don’t want to say the words, but they spill out as always under his gaze, “I want to,” I admit, feeling carved in pieces. “I want to play with you. I want to touch it so much, but I can’t.”

He brings a fist to his lips. “Of course you can’t. But would you let it touch you?”

A whisper of warm goosebumps blows over my skin. “Touch me how?”

“Do you trust me?”

“I trust you with my life.”

He flashes me a wistful smile. “Quite literally in fact, but tell me, what was your favorite chess piece?”

“The Queen.”

His smile becomes true and dimpled. “Mine, too. In black?”

“How did you know?”

“Because it’s the harder win. And it’s something else we have in common.”

Such a small thing to say, yet sadness starts to waft away with the rose breeze. He picks up the dark burgundy Queen so fluidly that the moment they join, it looks as though it’s part of him, shining in his long fingers. As he brings it closer, a trace of rosewood floats between us. I lean in reflexively to sniff it, but my fists quiver on my lap.

“Not your hand,” Aiden says, not missing the movement. “Your heart.”

And slowly, without releasing my eyes, he sweeps aside my locket and touches the Queen’s crown to my fluttering chest.

“Oh!” My breath stutters as the satiny curves brush my skin. They’re warm from Aiden’s touch. A million tingles erupt on the spot. I brace for any pain—perhaps a sting or icy chill—but he presses his palm over my heart, holding the chess piece between my lifeblood and his hand. And I only feel everything his touch always makes me feel. The gasp of surprise becomes an ah of desire. The panting of fear becomes a sigh. And my heart splutters with a different rhythm: no longer anguished or terrified. Freed somehow, leaping over four years of loss, bounding above each jagged flashback, only to beat in his hand.

“Listen to that!” Aiden smiles, feeling the boom-boom-boom. “How does that feel?”

“I can’t believe it!” I murmur, watching the way his hand rises and falls with my breath. “How are you doing that?”

“I’m not. You are.”

“Yes, but because of you.” My eyes flash up to him. Even on his knees, he towers a head above me. His face is glowing like the rosewood, dazzling with triumph. But the win is mine. Because a wondrous being like this is with me, healing in a single touch.

He rolls the Queen over my skin, drawing an infinity loop. Then he bends his head and presses his lips to my heart. Kissing the same symbol. Always. The heat from his mouth is no longer a flash burn across my skin. It becomes a slow, deep ember, smoldering away all melancholy, all fear. My back arches on its own, bowing to his lips as they flutter along the neckline of my dress.

He pulls back, his eyes tender, yet somehow still scorching. “More, Elisa?”

M-o-r-e. “Yes,” I breathe, eyes on the Queen glimmering in his fingers. Where will he take it next?

He trails the Queen slowly up my throat and along my jawline, his lips following the same path until his mouth and the Queen come to rest at my temple. He rolls the smooth curves into a circle. “Your mind, Elisa. It guides the chess pieces more than your hand. It moves them even now. You never stopped playing, love.”

When he says it like that, it rings true. “I guess not,” I inhale a chuckle, feeling the caress of the silky wood, like a part of his hand.

As he did with my heart, he removes the Queen and kisses my temple, my cheekbone, the spot below my ear. “More chess?” he whispers, his breath sending a shiver of pleasure down my neck.

“More you,” I sigh back.

I feel his smile against my skin as his lips follow the Queen across my cheek to the corner of my mouth. “Your lips.” He traces the burnished crown over the contours. “Because they smile when you play, even when you don’t know it.”

The warm tip glides effortlessly like a second skin, the fragrance of rosewood a second breath. My head is twirling with his scent, the aroma of chess, and the rose breeze floating around us. For a second, I wonder whether the wood is heat-resistant enough for his touch, for the flame that is blazing in me again. But his mouth replaces the Queen before she catches fire. It’s too late for me. The moment I taste him, my blood ignites. It scorches like lava in my veins, incinerating any remnant of the past. My fists fling open, fly up, and hook in his hair as always, soldering him to my mouth.

“Oh!” I gasp, feeling my fingers run through his raven strands, eager and free.

“Elisa,” he moans, and his kiss becomes a force. Exactly that. Slow at first, in that way he has of stopping time, of making the present moment last forever. Then deep and powerful, like it’s capturing me inside out. His tongue traces the path of the Queen, then moves with mine in a game of its own. He wins all of it. My body falls open. Legs around his waist, arms around his neck, fingers knotted in his hair, mouth melded to his. Yet it’s not close enough for me.

“Aiden, more,” I whisper, pressing feverishly into his torso. More of him, of his gift, of the wooden figure I never thought I could feel again.

A throaty sound whirls in his chest and echoes in mine. It sets of a frenzy in us both. I grip him closer and he winds his arm around my waist, straining me to him. His other hand with the Queen curves around my neck, pressing the warm rosewood against my pulse. His mouth seizes mine in every way. I surrender to the swipe of his tongue, the dent of his teeth, the sting of his bite. His kiss brands itself on my lips, embeds in my neurons, right next to words like h-e-a-l and t-i-m-e. Behind my closed eyelids—tinted red with desire now, not anger—the world starts to spin. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin. They kiss along my jawline to my ear.

“You smell better than the rosewood.” He sighs, breathing the Aeternum spot. “But don’t tell the Queen.” He combs the chess piece through my braid, untangling my hair with his long fingers. I’ll have to take his word for it. I can only smell and feel him. My entire body starts to tremble in his arms. Then abruptly he stops; his mouth is gone.

“Aiden, no,” I whimper, flinging my eyes open.

He is glorious before me, his face exultant.  My eyelids flutter under his gaze, unable to bear the force of his beauty, yet unwilling to miss a blink of it. Fully open now, my hands reach toward him, clasping his face, trying to bring him back to my lips. But he takes off my locket and sets it by the chess set—masterpiece next to masterpiece at the hands of the most beautiful masterpiece there is.

And this work of art unzips my dress and hooks his fingers under the straps, slipping them off my shoulders, raising goosebumps with his fingertips. Shivering with heat—what a concept. The dress pools in a rose-printed cloud at my waist. He lifts me enough to slip it off, tossing it behind him. And then it’s just me, a wet pair of lacy knickers, and a crimson glow over my skin—a panting, quivering, flesh version of the chess Queen next to me.

“Ah, Elisa, all of this under your roses.” His gaze descends from my eyes to my curled, bandaged toes. How can a look burn like this? How can it tighten and twist every muscle inside me?

“My turn.” My fingers grasp the hem of his T-shirt eagerly—were they ever frozen?—and peel it off him. And there he is. A flawless, real, billions-times-more-beautiful embodiment of the golden chess King. But this perfect figure stands to help me. My hands are quick now, snapping off the top button and unzipping his jeans, ripping them off his sculpted legs, feeling the dusting of hair underneath my sensitized fingertips. And he springs free. A different carving from a rarer wood—no Old or New World can source him. He is entirely singular from the bubbles like diamonds on his crown to the familiar woodgrain of veins shimmering on him.

He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. “Still not used to it?”

I shake my head. “I don’t think that’s humanly possible.”

“Good thing we’re human then.” He smiles godlike and lays me across the bed. “Now . . .” He climbs between my legs and picks up the rosewood Queen, flicking it between his fingers. “Shall we play, Elisa?”

And he takes the Queen to my skin, as he did with the feather quill the first time we made love. Wherever the rosewood glides, his mouth follows. Down my throat, over my collarbones, to the hollow indentation in between. The Queen strokes, his lips conquer. A game of chess unlike any other. A game I can play. A game we can both win.

He circles the Queen over my breasts, drawing loops around the nipples with the curve of the satin tip, his tongue swirling in its wake in a dizzying pattern. Rosewood, lips, tongue, teeth, breath, kisses, sucks, licks. I can’t hold still. I’m a breeze, an Aidonis butterfly, a piano string, a flame, a drumbeat—gasping, trembling, and burning under him.

“Shh, love, there are more moves still left.” My insides reverberate with the sound of his husky voice. And the Queen continues its advance down my belly, along my waist, over my hips. Strolling breath to breath, goosebump to goosebump like cellular chess squares on my flushed skin. Spelling words on me as he did on our first night. Some are the same, engraved there forever: I, mine, A.H.  Others are new: yours, love, Elisa. His mouth follows them like punctuation, a lick for a comma, a kiss for a period, a nibble as an exclamation mark. By the time he reaches the band of my knickers, I feel like a poem, like art, a war letter, a pleasure map, a chess game with only victories. The trembles become foreshocks, gathering like a storm at the epicenter of my body. My hips try to jolt off the bed for relief, but he has secured them to the mattress.

“Aiden, now,” I say his name like a plea, trying to find the breeze.

“Soon, love.” His nose skims down the lace of my knickers, inhaling in that way that makes my eyes roll to the back of my head. “Mmm,” he sighs. “There’s no rosewood that compares to this.” Before either my blush or shudder is over, the Queen rolls on the lace.

“Oh, God”! I cry out, looking down, bewildered. How can something I cannot even touch feel like this? I know the answer to that one, even crazed and shaking. Because it’s in his hand.

“Not God.” He glides the Queen over the lace again. “Just you and me and a game we love.”

He presses the rosewood into the lace, up and down, increasing the pressure until I topple back on the pillow, gripping the quilt, gulping the air, trying not to faint. In delirium, I feel his finger dip into the lace and pull the knickers to the side. The breeze cools my wet skin. The vibrations inside become violent. I can’t muster any part of my body—if I still my thighs, my hands are clawing at the sheets, if I grip his hair, my hips start writhing for his mouth.

“Aiden, please,” I give up and beg, quivering everywhere, voice to fingertips.

“Not yet, love. You have a game to win.” He blows on the tingling skin and slides the rosewood over the length of me. “Your Queen to my Queen.”

Then his mouth closes around me, starting a chorus of Aidens and Gods and cries and moans. At least my voice is free—no one to hear, just us. Each flick of his tongue is an advance, each suck a domination, round and round, circling me into a checkmate until I break, both winning and losing this game. Winning because pain became pleasure, fear became bravery, and chess became a love play. Losing because I shatter into a million pieces—like a waterfall, like stardust, like spirals of rosewood whittling away to form a new, shining queen. The last conscious thought I register is Aiden’s hushing kisses drawing an infinity loop over the trembling folds. And then I disappear.

But he finds me, brings me back as always. Filling my lungs with his breath. Restarting my heart with his hold. Wakening my mind with his words. I open my eyes and he is lying on his elbow next to me, one long leg parting mine, his steely lines welded to my melted curves. Everything about him is on fire, the sharp angles tensed and hard. Behind him, the white curtain billows with the breeze as though trying and failing to touch him. From my orgasm, his beauty seems to shimmer at the edges.

“Hi.” I take his face in my hands, feeling as though my whole universe is between my pink palms. He shudders once.

“Hi,” he answers, his voice low, his breath rough and fast against my lips.

“That was some game.”

He chuckles, his pectoral muscle flexing like a blade. “Is it over?”

I get lost in his primal, smoldering eyes. “No, it’s your turn to win.” I bring him back to my mouth and kiss him with the full wonder he makes me feel. A groan rumbles in his throat. I reach down and grasp him the way I know he likes. “Play, Aiden. Play like you want to.”

He growls my name. The deep sound vibrates from his throat to my core, and my body starts building again. My leg hitches around his hip but before I can grind against him, he grips my waist and rolls with me on the bed until I’m on top of him.

Your game, Elisa.” In his fingers, the Queen flashes like a beacon. “Touch me with this?”

One question, one fiery gaze, and everything changes again for me.

Would I be able to even consider it if he weren’t burning? Would my hand stay open if my body wasn’t quivering again with my overwhelming desire for him? Would my skin endure it if he hadn’t caressed every part of me with chess, bringing me to orgasm, not tears?

He sees the yes in my eyes before I know it. His smile is victorious, blinding as if he has already won. He takes my hand and kisses it—it falls open at his lips, a tremble flitting here and there on my fingertips, but not with anxiety. With desire for him. Then, light like air, he runs the Queen along my lifeline. My breath stops. The feeling is indescribable—like loving him, like coming home, like touching an Elisa petal in the garden.

“Your Queen.” Aiden smiles and surrenders it on my palm.

“Oh!” I gasp as the smooth weight of the rosewood rests on my skin.

“It looks beautiful on you.” The words sound natural in his voice, but I hear again that strong emotion underneath. He lifts my hand to his mouth, kissing the fingertips, the knuckles, the wrist, the palm, until I only feel his lips and my need to touch him. My fingers close instinctively around his jaw. Then he slips away and my hand wraps around the Queen.

“Hello, you,” I whisper, touching it for the first time in four years. Yet I know it will be even longer before I can play with it as it was carved to do. Suddenly, the Queen weighs more, like iron or lead, not rosewood. My arm feels weak with it. I know nothing has changed except in my mind. But Aiden is waiting for me, rippling with need. And the weight lightens. Because to touch him, I would carry anything.

I lift the Queen—hand trembling—to the corner of his mouth. His breath catches, fogging the rosewood with his heat. His lips lift into a smile as I kiss the spot, and a low moan whirs in his throat. Like the click of the briar wood lock, I grasp now exactly how much he likes this. Not just for me, but for himself even though he will never demand it. Sex and chess. This is what was in his selfish list. The realization marks a transformation, wipes away all my trepidation, the very weight of the chess piece. Because to please him, I would do anything.

Even hooded with desire, his eyes don’t miss my change. “Your move.” He nods and I’m unleashed.

Without hesitation now, I trace his sculpted lips with the Queen. They part with a gasp, his delicious fragrance and the rosewood making my head spin. I swipe the tip of my tongue along the contours, moaning at his taste. And a race begins between the Queen and me, which of us can kiss or touch him first. My fingers roll the rosewood over his golden skin, his jaw, down his throat, over his heart, as he did with me. Sometimes my mouth goes first, sometimes my tongue falls behind. I feel him shudder under me, each golden angle and bronze pane of him like a sentient chessboard of my own. His hand closes in my hair, his chest swells and dips with speed, but he doesn’t rush me. He lets me play over his body at my own pace. I get lost in the perfect ridges, racing the Queen with my lips over the carved valleys and peaks.

“You’re dangerous with that,” he murmurs, tensing with restraint under me. He watches me through his heavy lids, his gaze scorching in every way. His erection is pressing at the small my back.

No, he doesn’t rush me, but my own body does. My heart starts pounding in my ears, my throat, between my legs—everywhere I feel, there is a frantic pulse. I race the Queen down the V-shaped Adonis muscles between his hips. And finally, the queen reaches her king.

“You’ll finish me, Elisa.” He chuckles with a breathless sound and grips the headboard.

“Not before you win.” Then, slowly, I circle the rosewood around the crown and run my tongue over him. “Your Queen to my King.”

A guttural groan rips through his teeth, fingers tightening in my hair. I roll my tongue on him again and his hips tilt up, pushing into my mouth with a hiss. The Queen slips from my fingers; I only have touch for him. I take him in my hand and wrap my lips around him, sucking the glistening crown.

“Fuck, Elisa,” he growls. “Slow, I want to be inside you.”

I try to slow down like he wants but the taste of him . . . saltwater and honey and spice and heat, a bouquet that’s entirely him.  So much better than—

“Oh!” I gasp, jolting up.

“Perfect,” he sighs and pulls me up until I’m straddling him. “My turn to win.”

“No, Aiden, wait!” I cry out because above his incomparable body, as if spelled on his skin, strange things are happening in my vision, numbers, symbols, blurring and spinning.

“Elisa?” I feel him move under me, maybe a hand on my face . . . “Love, are you okay?”

“Shh, I’m having an epiphany!”

“An epiphany? About my cock?”

“One second!”

The images transform over the perfect shape of him, flashbacks now, a very recent memory. “Oh, my God!”

“Elisa?” His strained voice breaks through and my vision clears. Only now I see the scene before me. Aiden is sitting up, tense, eyes anxious, forehead lined, arms around me as if he is trying to protect me from dangers he cannot see. The King towers imperiously between us—even in my utter amazement, I can’t miss him.

“I’m okay,” I smile quickly to calm him. “But I think I just solved the protein.”

It’s instant. The tension wipes off his face and his eyes widen. “Christ! Is that what’s happening?”

I nod, still dizzy with my discovery.

“How?” he marvels, hands vising my face as if to shake me out of my stupor.

“Do you remember—of course you do—but last Saturday, when we were in the Room of Firsts, you said I mumbled ‘orgasms are oxytocin but taste better’?”

“Yes, that was one of your best comas.” He chuckles with the memory.

“Well, it’s been bothering me all week. I kept having this tip-of-the-tongue feeling, like I’m forgetting something, you know?”

“No.”

“Of course you don’t, but it happens to the rest of us and I finally figured out why.”

“And?”

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before! Doctor Helen practically told me. She said my calming effect on you is like a shot of serotonin to your nervous system.”

“A powerful one.”

“Exactly, and it makes you calm, it erases your fears. Well, at the time, I focused only on the CREB part to help me sort out which oxytocin we needed. But I completely missed this! I have to add serotonin, too—the other form of love! Love for ourselves.”

“Love for ourselves?” His brows knit in confusion.

“Yes! Serotonin is a different love hormone than oxytocin. It’s a hormone related to confidence and self-esteem. And I make you feel it. I make you love yourself, like you do for me. It’s not just one kind of love that dad meant to add to the formula. To fight fear, we have to have faith in ourselves. That’s why the protein isn’t staying solid. It’s missing self-love! It’s missing serotonin!”

He has inhaled every word. The dimpled smile breaks over his face with a look of pure adoration. “All right, I’m caught up. But how does my cock in your mouth fit in, no pun intended?”

“Because, oh, it’s so perfect—”

“Thank you! I’m very attached to it.”

“No,” I laugh. “I mean yes, he is, but serotonin is not just the self-love hormone. It’s also tied to taste. People with low serotonin have lower taste thresholds. Conversely, when you’re happy, things taste better. And that’s what happens to me when I taste you. You said it yourself during my self-love game, only I didn’t realize it. We taste good to each other because we’re happy when we do this. And so my brain must have used that part to make the connection, but then I passed out after my orgasm and didn’t remember it until now that—“

“You were tasting me while more coherent, and it triggered your memory.”

“Exactly!”

He shakes his head with a look of unfettered, existential pride. “You’re unbelievable, you know that? You figured all that out from going down on me?”

I shrug, still dazed. “Apparently. But I think the King deserves a lot of credit.” I nod at the catalyst of my epiphany who is standing there absolutely livid at being ignored in such a manner, undoubtedly a first for him.

He laughs with my favorite sound and kisses me until I’m dizzy and the chandelier above is swiveling. “So you know the moral of the story, don’t you?” he asks when I can breathe again.

“What?”

“You should always, always have my cock somewhere inside you.”

Our laughter presses our bodies closer, leaving no space for anything else between us except the untamed k-i-n-g.  “Now for my win, Elisa.” His eyes become blue fire and he tosses me on the bed, laughing at my squeal. I’ve barely landed on my stomach when he lifts my hips up in the air, smacking my behind. “Your King to my Queen.”

And he slams inside, conquering every square of me, moan after moan, cry after cry, in our very own version of chess where we both play and we both win.

Later, when the lights are off and my chess set is sleeping on the dresser, I count Aiden’s breaths as he drifts off to Für Elise. In the moonlight pouring from the open window, his beauty is silver again, like a dream. Was it this same moon that shone while I was running from him? The same velvet night as the hilltop? T-i-m-e warps again, squeezing lifetimes into hours, days into blinks. Friend or enemy, healer or malady?

But tonight, it was an ally, a time of wins. I curl on my side, careful to never startle him from sleep, ticking our victories on his breaths like I used to count our self-defense weapons on the poppies. The Rose Cup, a place for solace that used to bring grief, a game of pleasure that used to bring pain, a new, old love back on my selfish list, a rare gift, a step closer to the protein, and the biggest triumph of them all: bringing us back on the same side of the fight. Just him and me.

My heart inflates, filling my chest, flowing up my throat, flooding my eyes. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I have hours of happiness in me.

Outside the window, the garden is quiet, the cottage only ours. The willows murmur, they’re here, they’re here. The r-e-e-l is waiting for us in the morning, but in this present moment, all is well. 

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 11 – PHENOMENON

All the answers, my friends. Thank you for your response to that last chapter and for continuing to go on this journey with me, Aiden, and Elisa.  Lots of love, xo Ani.

 

11

Phenomenon

There is no question about reality back inside the cottage. If anything, it has never felt more real, more full of life since my parents’ accident. The fire crackles in the fireplace; Mum and Dad are still dancing on the small TV screen. But the most tangible life comes from the two people on each side of me. I’m curled on the sofa with my head on Reagan’s shoulder, soaking her blouse with my tears, while Javier has wrapped both my socked feet in his callused hands. He clutches them every so often, probably at an inner thought he does not speak, while Reagan combs my hair with her fingers.

And yet, even with all this life suddenly flowing within these walls, I feel like I’ve just returned from another funeral. A funeral for the deepest, best part of me—for the brightest star of them all. Aiden, Aiden, Aiden. It’s as though his name has breached through the ramparts and now my mind cannot stop saying it, sighing it, sobbing it. I didn’t even invite him inside the cottage. He would have liked this for me. He would have imprinted every book and teacup in his eternal mind, and they would have lived inside him. But could I have ever let him go if I had let him in? Especially now that Javier and Reagan have told me everything he did to save us, to give me this one moment full of life. Things that recast the final day Aiden and I had together in America under a new, blinding light.

I now know how Javier was arrested by ICE that early May morning. How he called Aiden’s phone because mine was still in the trunk of his old Honda. How Aiden told him he would do what he could to help—yet he never told me. Whether to protect me from the distress or to ensure I hated him more, I will never know. But he kept his word to Javier. It was Aiden who sent Benetto at Javier’s hearing, who paid every dime of Benetto’s fees without telling anyone until Benetto himself told Javier in the end. It was Aiden’s Marines who moved the Solises with his parents so they could be safe from ICE, while Aiden and his military mentor at the CIA, General Sartain, secured a safe, solitary cell for Javier. And at the trial, Aiden himself took the witness stand. He testified that he commissioned Javier for a painting as a family gift—not as illegal work—and that the painting supplies were at his home, never stolen. He anticipated every threat and prepared for it with military precision long before any of us could even see it. And it still didn’t work in the end. Judge Lopez still ruled Javier should be deported but no one expected Aiden’s Plan B.  He had mobilized Senator Kirschner—a name I overheard myself that last day—to campaign for Congress to intervene. Such a rare, historical avenue, with such slim chances of succeeding, no wonder Aiden kept it to himself.  But his stock with the U.S. Government must be high indeed. Senator Kirschner and General Sartain—with their vast political networks—managed to give Aiden this one gift, perhaps as a small repayment for everything his country cost him. The Senator used Congress’s legislative power to abrogate the court’s ruling for humanitarian reasons and grant Javier and his family immediate amnesty. And this congressional act means that ICE can never deport Javier or any of the Solises, that Javier is now a legal resident of the land he wanted so much. A freedom, a new life—all possible in the end because of Aiden’s torture in Iraq.

How small and feeble my own sacrifice now seems compared to his. But for his part, Bob kept his word and attended Javier’s trial. When it was over, he told Javier I had left and released the funds to him. Javier was getting mad while talking about that so he skipped over it quickly to the happy parts. How the Solises reunited with squeals that may have actually cracked a window. And how, after Maria and Antonio learned what I had done, they decided Javier should come with Reagan right away to check on me. How Aiden flew them here in a private jet with advance parole from ICE to get to me as soon as possible. And how none of them will touch my one million dollars so I can still use the money to return to America.

But how could I after all this? I didn’t leave America because of Javier’s fate. I left America because I could not live there a single day without my love. And that has not changed. In fact, it’s stronger now that I know everything he did to save the Solises. And I have never felt more bound. But that does not mean Aiden should remain bound to me. And if I returned, the green card deal requires that I invest my money in his company, that I remain in his life. And I can never do that to him. No matter what it costs me, he must have a chance at freedom, at happiness, away from the obligations and pain I trigger for him. Not to mention that I could never abandon this cottage again or give up on the bravery protein that will help Aiden more than I ever could. I have to work even harder now, day and night, to give him some peace.

These are things I cannot tell Javier and Reagan who have travelled across the world to see me.

“Isa, are you sure about this? I hate to see you so upset.” Reagan breaks the long silence, asking the same question for the sixth time since I ran back in, sobbing.

But Javier stops her now. “Not anymore tonight, Reg. You’re both exhausted. Actually, I think it’s time for bed. Things might look a little better after some sleep.” He lumbers up and sets down his empty bowl of pea soup as though to make it final. Then he douses the fire and checks all the windows and doors like he would do back at his home even though Burford has not had a break-in since 1976.

“Bed!” he says again when he is done, and marches us up the narrow creaky stairs even though he has no idea where he is going. I put him in the guest room I had prepared for Reagan. I guess the roses brought some good news after all. But Reagan refuses to sleep in my old bedroom, saying she’ll stay with me tonight.

Curled up on my parents’ bed, she’s on my dad’s side that has been empty for so long, holding my hand. And she starts again.

“Oh, Isa, why did you let him go? You don’t still think he reported Javi, do you?” she whispers, and I know she has been holding this question in because she never told Javier my suspicions. How can I ever thank her for that?

“No!” I shake my head hard. “No, I was wrong about that! You were right all along. It wasn’t Aiden. It was Feign. Did that not come up at the trial?”

“That fucking little weasel,” she hisses in the dark. “That’s who Javi suspected! And no it didn’t. The tip was anonymous like Benetto said.”

At least the Solises never believed Aiden a monster. At least they always saw him for what he is—a good man.

“So why leave him, Isa? If you know it wasn’t him.”

“Because I want him to be happy. I want him to be happy more than I want happiness for myself. And I can’t give him that.”

“But why? I’ve seen you two together and it’s like seeing your parents in the videos. Same look, same love. I don’t get it.”

Same love, same end. I can’t speak. How can I tell Reagan about Aiden’s eidetic memory that holds him prisoner, about his PTSD that will never allow him to give us a life together? How can I tell her he attacked me and now with his memory every time he sees me, he will see bruises and pain, not peace and calm like I used to give him? How can I tell her that Aiden’s love is forever but only from a distance and always at the cost of himself? These are his secrets that I will protect until my last breath.

“Is it because of that thing you can’t tell me?” Reagan guesses.

I nod. “It is, Reg. It’s exactly that thing.”

“I KNOW YOU’RE STILL TALKING OVER THERE!” Javier shouts down the tiny hall. “STOP IT AND GO TO SLEEP. DON’T MAKE ME COME OVER AND PUT YOU BOTH IN DIFFERENT BEDS.”

Reg giggles and, to my surprise, I giggle too. It feels nice, like a soft blanket or rosewater on parched skin. “He’s such a big brother,” I say, reveling in the sound of his free voice reverberating through the cottage.

“Yeah, he is,” Reagan agrees but her smiles fades away. And now that I’m not sobbing, I hear a sadness in her tone, a sadness that has nothing to do with me. I sit up and switch on the side lamp.

“Reg, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?” I touch her cheek, trying to lift up her lips back into a smile. She does it but it’s forced. Her heart-shaped face is pale, her eyes tearful.

“It’s nothing,” she says. “So small compared to what you’re dealing with.”

“Nothing is small to me if it makes you feel this way. Tell me.”

She traces the rose applique on the comforter with her pinky, not meeting my eyes. “I’m an idiot,” she says. My kindest, smartest, strongest friend in the whole word who has been carrying so much weight on her delicate shoulders thinks she is an idiot.

“What lunacy is this? Why would you say such a thing?”

“FINAL WARNING!” Javier howls again, and I see it then. I see the way she closes her eyes as her breath catches at his voice. The way her cheeks flush crimson. I throw my hand over my mouth to stifle my gasp. Her wide eyes match mine, except mine are happy for once and hers are terrified.

“You and Javier!” I mouth the words in case he’s stomping down the hall.

Shhhhh,” Reagan bolts up right, clamping her hand over my mouth. I try to grin with my eyes. “There’s no me and Javier,” she whispers so low I see the words more than I hear them. “There’s just me and . . . me.”

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” is all I can manage before Reagan throws the comforter over both our heads. “He doesn’t know?” I confirm though it’s obvious from the way she looks toward the door even under the blankets.

“Of course not. And he cannot. Isa, swear it!”

“Why ever not?”

She freaks out—that’s the only way to describe it even though it’s entirely silent. Head shaking, hands in fists . “No, no, no! He… he . . . he just sees me a sister, Isa, just like you.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just know.”

The bedroom door bangs open and the lights switch on as the source of all of Reagan’s suffering bursts in. “I warned you,” Javier says while under the covers Reagan turns about five shades redder than her curls. “Are you under the covers? What are you, Anamelia’s age?” He rips off the comforter, glowering at us in his long underwear and a white T-shirt. I see him now with new eyes—not as a brother, but as a man who apparently can turn my best friend into rubidium-hued puddle on the floor. He is rugged and toughened in every way from his worker hands and arms to his full beard. Except his artist’s eyes. Javier has always had the softest eyes. Bloody hell, my big brother is kind of good-looking! How did I not notice this before?

“What are you looking at?” he demands and I giggle again to keep his eyes on me rather than Reagan whose hand is trembling in mine.

“Sorry, Javier, we’ve just missed each other, that’s all,” I mumble in my best little-sister voice. It works. His already-lined forehead relaxes and he perches on my side of the bed. From his weight, the mattress shifts and I can swear Reagan almost tips over.

“I know you have,” he pats my head, and looks at Reagan for the first time. She’s staring at the rose appliques like they’ve come alive and are crawling on her hands.            “Come here,” he says softly, wrapping his arms around us both like a bundle. Reagan’s hand grips mine, and I know in that clasp exactly how she feels about him.

“Listen.” Javier pulls back, clueless about the havoc he is wreaking. “It’s almost light out. Please try to get some sleep. And if you do, I promise to make carnitas for dinner instead of whatever that thing is you Brits call food. Hm?” He smiles and we both grin at him, for entirely different reasons I’m sure.

“Now go to sleep,” he says and tucks us in, kisses the tops of our heads, and turns off the lights. “Dulces sueños.”

When the door closes, I wrap my arms around Reagan as she hides her face in my neck. I see her predicament now. Being a brother is so embedded in Javier’s DNA he can’t see himself as anything else. “We’ll figure it out,” I tell her. She nods but doesn’t speak. At length, as the sky lightens on this endless night, her breathing slows and her faint little snores blow warm gusts of air on my skin. I think about her love story, about how it must have started when she was visiting Javier in jail every day, how Javier could not possibly resist her if he could only see, how easy and perfect it would be, and how it should have a happy ending unlike mine. I’m not guarding my thoughts as carefully as I do so I don’t see where they lead me until the pain stuns me again, pinning me to the mattress until I can’t breathe. I try to match my breath to Reagan’s but it doesn’t work. She stirs, probably reacting to my body that has gone rigid with agony. Hydrogen, I think habitually without hope because I know tricks like that are futile against this kind of pain. It’s worth it for him, I tell myself over and over again. And I can help him from far away without him knowing. It will not be the life I wanted, but it will be life.

My body isn’t buying any of it. Pain radiates in shockwaves until my fingertips tingle. I know the pain is in my mind, but it doesn’t make it less real. I slip out of bed carefully and tiptoe out not to wake Reagan. Down the hall, I listen at Javier’s door, at his deep, rhythmic breathing. The hell he has lived through eclipses all of ours combined and yet he is still here, worrying about me. I kiss his door—I hope he sleeps for days. I hope he never frowns again. Thank you, God, thank you for saving him. I tiptoe down the stairs, skipping over the creaky ones, throw on Mum’s parka over my pajamas, grab my muddy wellingtons, and slip out into the garden. The crisp rose-scented air immediately fills my lungs, jolting them back into a rhythm. It’s staccato but at least I’m breathing.

“Morning,” I tell the roses. “How did you sleep? What a night, eh?” The blooms sway lazily, as though not ready to welcome any visitors, butterflies, or bees.

The spot where Aiden stood is still there, but there are no footprints anywhere, except my heart. I stuff my hands in my pockets and start walking the trail I used to walk with him in my dreams, sensing a routine in the making.

The sun is peeking over the horizon, its heat turning yesterday’s rain into mist. It rises like steam from the earth, a shallow sea of clouds instead of grass. I can’t see James’s tent anywhere but across the field of epiphanies, the town’s nightlights are still blinking. Which of those lights is Aiden’s? I hope none of them—I hope he is sleeping. I love you, I tell every window I can see in case it’s his. For a moment, I wish I had thought to give him back his letters. Perhaps I still should but now I want to keep them. I want that little paper universe where he and his love had a happy ending.

Elysium starts shimmering as the early sun varnishes the willows’ garlands and the river’s crests. The steam rising from the earth is sultry, but I’m still cold. I start pacing to warm up and then halt on the spot. Because there, in the middle of Elysium, Aiden’s unmistakable frame emerges from the mist with his precise, fluid stride. He must see me too, shaking where I am in my wellingtons, because he is coming straight toward me. I will my feet to move but they’re sunk dead in the muddy grass. I rub my eyes—am I always going to worry he was only ever a dream? But the closer he gets to me, the clearer I can see his face, there is no doubt he is real. Because my mind would never dream up the agony in that face. My psyche could never have fathomed it. My body erupts in chills like every pore is a counterpoint to his pain.

He comes to me at last, the first rays of sun glimmering like fingers on his face, as though the sun itself cannot resist caressing him. And I finally see his Aiden eyes. Bottomless, dark as though someone has doused the fire that burned underneath. But then they alight on my jawline as used to be their habit, tracing it slowly down to my throat, along every line of me he first saw in my painting. And the tectonic plates that always tell me the truth start shifting, jolting my heart with them. With a blink, the darkness recedes until all that’s left is the brilliant turquoise that belonged only to me. A single neuron registers with shock that apparently all the subsequent pain I caused him didn’t extinguish this light. All the other one hundred billion neurons are utterly absorbed with him and the fact that—somehow, against all reason—he is still here before me. Ashen, burning, but real.

“I couldn’t sleep or make it a good dream,” he speaks first.

“Nor could I,” I manage, wrapping my arms tightly around my ribcage. That way my heart might actually stay inside of me.

“I had to see you again. See you in daylight.”

“Why?” I whisper. Whisper is good too—it hides how my voice is shuddering with me.

“Sit with me for a minute?” he asks in his husky timbre. I glance back at the cottage where Reagan and Javier are sleeping wondering if my legs can make it that far.

“Here,” he says, his eyes missing nothing. And he takes off his rain jacket—it’s a monumental tribute to his beauty that I only now notice what he is wearing, a simple black T-shirt and jeans—and sets it down on the soggy grass. Then he sinks down gracefully, as though his legs might be having a similar problem.

I sit as far as I can, almost on the jacket collar, folding my legs under me, not trusting myself to be this close and not touch him, not forget all the reasons why I had to let him go. He watches the distance between us and then slowly rests his palm there. If it’s an invitation, I’m utterly frozen—unable to move, breathe, or blink.

“You didn’t answer my questions earlier,” he starts, eyes boring into mine.

“Which ones?” Still a whisper.

“First, if this is really what you want.”

I break the connection with his eyes, knowing my resolve will dissipate like the mist around us if I gaze there much longer. I look instead at the wildflowers that are peeking through the ground fog. Keep him safe, keep him free. “It is,” I force out the words in another whisper, twisting a blade of grass between my fingers. Maybe he couldn’t even hear them. I’m not sure the air could carry such a lie.

“Why is that?”

A blue forget-me-not, similar to the color of his irises is rising above the daisies, lifting its face toward the sun. Make him happy, give him light.

“Please look at me,” he says, his voice as soft as the flower’s petals. “I have crossed the ocean just to see your face even though it’s seared in my memory forever.”

I meet his eyes then; I can’t resist. I would have swam the ocean if I had known I could make them lighten again. “That’s better,” he smiles but there is no dimple in sight. “Now, please tell me. Do you want this because I’ve hurt you so much that you’ve decided to move on? Because you can’t trust me with your happiness? Or is this all for my benefit?”

Each word like a magnifying lens straight into my soul. “What difference does it make if it leads to the same end?”

“It makes all the difference in the world to me. All the other answers in the dichotomous key, all the other reasons I’m here—none of them matter without this.”

How can I not answer if he needs it so badly? How can I not give him everything? Make me brave, make me strong. “I’m doing this because I want you to be happy so much it hurts right here.” I press my index finger in the very center of my chest where the wound is festering. He looks at it with tenderness.

“Does it feel like a dull, jagged knife has cut a huge chunk out of your lungs and you can’t breathe?”

“Yes!” I marvel. “Exactly like that!”

“I’m familiar with the feeling.” He takes a shuddering breath, wincing as though he is testing his own lungs.

“And that’s exactly my point,” I say, seeing the proof of his pain right here. “I want you to be happy and free from having to save me, from all the pain I’ve caused you.”

He opens his beautiful sculpted mouth as though to protest. “But,” I add and he stills. “I also think losing you again would finish me. I can’t always live in fear of when you’ll push me away next. Always worried I’ll step on a live wire that will electrocute us both. Never trusting that you won’t decide to banish me for my own good again if you think it’s the right thing to do to save me.”

It’s all out now—all my truth. His face is burning again, like each of my words was a branding iron. But he reigns it back in, masterful as always. “Yes, I understand all that. But if there was a world where those things didn’t happen, would you want to be with me then?”

I gaze at this little meadow Dad named after me, sparkling with all my childhood memories and my future emptiness. But, look, there we are, Aiden and I, grey and old like the Plemmonses, like my parents should have been, waddling together, arm in arm. The vision stuns me with longing.

“Elisa?” Aiden prompts.

I glance at the blue forget-me-not like his eyes and the truth comes out again. Even if I can only manage it as a faint “yes.” He must hear it because from the corner of my eye I see the palm of his hand close into a tight fist on his jacket.

“Yes you would want me or yes you heard me?”

“Yes, in another world, I’d be with you.” I modify because I want him in every world.

“And what does that other world like to you? What would you want to be happy?”

Old Aiden and Elisa are down by the river now. He’s snow-haired and still so tall, although a little hunched over, and his shoulders are finally at rest.

The real Aiden’s index finger hovers under my chin as he used to do when he wanted to tip up my face. He doesn’t touch me—perhaps he knows I couldn’t handle it or perhaps he too cannot—but it has the same visceral effect. I lift up my eyes to meet his and blurt out the truth again.

“I want the man and the woman from your letters.”

The V forms between his eyebrows and another brain cell wonders if he knew I have them. “Tell Benson thanks by the way. He only gave them to me to help and they did. Please don’t be mad at him. I’ll give them back to you.”

He shakes his head, waving his hand. “Don’t worry about that. They were always yours.  Please explain what you mean though.”

And suddenly my words tumble out fast like the river. Like they sense this might be the only time I’ll ever voice my dreams since I lost them all. “I want to wake up in the morning with your face next to mine. I want us to have breakfast tea over there in the garden with my mum’s roses. And then we’d go to work, to a job we love that gives us a purpose, that helps people. Then we’d come back and walk to our little cottage arm in arm along the river. And maybe tango or garden like we did in Portland that one time. You looked so happy and carefree in that moment. And then night would come, and we would fall asleep together in the same cozy bed. And then with birthdays or anniversaries, or when we’d visit the Solises or your parents, you’d come with me because nothing else would matter if you weren’t there. Maybe we would even have a little Peter or a little Clare. And we’d grow old together like that, you and I. And whichever one of us goes first—and I hope it’s me—would be holding the other’s hand.” I stop abruptly, sensing tears. And he cannot see them.

But for once his eyes are far away, toward the cottage, as though he is trying to see the same dream. Then they’re back to me. “Elisa, I want all those things too. Whether in England or America is logistics, but the point is, I want every single thing with you.”

“But you can’t give them. You told me so when we were at your Alone Place, and I didn’t listen. Another mistake . . .”

Another truth like a grenade on the peaceful meadow. Old Aiden and Elisa disappear with the very last molecules of mist. “But what if there was a way?” he asks then. “If there was a way—even if uncertain—that we could have that life, would you give me another chance? And not because you feel indebted to me for Javier or anything else, but because you would want it—me—for yourself? He looks abruptly intense, the V etched deep between his eyebrows, eyes burning into mine as though trying to see through my skull.

What a ridiculous question. I want him for myself most of all. But can I fault him for wondering after what I said last night? “Of course,” I shrug. “But there isn’t such a way. You’ve said so yourself.”

He smiles the first real dimpled smile I’ve seen in so long. It knocks me breathless even if it barely touches his still-ravaged eyes. “That’s all I needed to hear. Because, as it turns out, there might be.”

“What do you mean?”

“First, please know I had no idea about any of this. Zero. I couldn’t have even dared to imagine it, let alone do it. Corbin only realized it after you had left.” He winces at the last word.

“Realized what?”

“Something that might change everything. That might give us a chance.”

The morning falls silent—I can’t hear a single chirp, babble, or flutter. “What did he discover?”

“It’ll take a moment to explain, but please bear with me. Now, you know how my memory works: every time I see someone or something, my memory will summon with perfect clarity the very first time I encountered that person or thing from the details of their appearance to the depths of my emotions.”

“Yes, and everything else that followed after that first time.” Even though I try, my voice breaks. This is why I now cause him both pain and peace.

He shakes his head, surprising me. “Not exactly. That’s what Corbin realized.”

“I’m . . . confused.”

“Picture a computer file for a minute. Every time you open it, read it, and then close it, the file changes: all the metadata, when last viewed, for how long, etc., right?”

“Right.”

“Well that’s how memory at large—not just mine—works. Each memory is a computer file. Every time we recall a memory and revisit it, it changes. So most people’s memories become faint and false with time. Mine is different in one crucial way: it doesn’t become false, it becomes more potent. When I revisit a memory, for example Marshall’s execution—” his shoulders ripple at the mere word—“I retrieve not just the torture of the moment, but also the pain of every single time I have replayed that memory in my head, in the thousands, snowballing into a massive network of pain in my brain.”

My hands plop to my sides as air leaves my lungs. I can’t understand why he thinks this gives us a chance, it sounds even more terrible. As if he can hear my thoughts, he changes. He turns to face me, crossing his legs, his palms up like he is holding the idea there for me to see. “That snowball has been growing constantly until my attack on you.” Another shoulder ripple, another wince. “But then something changed. You remember Corbin sedated me with Versed—that was standard procedure for my attacks. But when I woke up, the very first thing I saw was you sitting by my side—and that was new. Something showed itself to Corbin then. In essence, he observed that in the minutes, hours, days, and weeks that followed, I was able to speak and move and function in some form. Remember that?”

In some form? He implemented an entire defense strategy for Javier even as broken as he was. “I remember. But I can’t imagine how you were able to do so. You were so broken.”

“That’s precisely it. But it had nothing to do with me. It was because of you.”

“I’m not following.”

“After Marshall, or after I attacked my mom, I couldn’t do anything, and Corbin had seen that. I couldn’t move or speak or eat. I was catatonic for weeks. But not this time. And that’s not because I love you less.”

“Then why is it?”

He smiles another lopsided, dimpled smile that this time lights up his eyes. “It’s because at a deep cognitive level, you have changed my brain. Technically, psychiatrists call it interfering with my memory’s reconsolidation process.”

Umm, what?”

“When I opened my eyes and recalled that unspeakable moment of hurting you—you, my entire universe—at the same moment I was literally covered in you. You were holding me with all of your body, your voice, your smell, your touch, your taste flooding all of my senses, telling me all those loving things that only you and I know what they mean. And your calming effect—of course, my memory retrieved that too at the same time as I was relieving all the terror. Except you won out! Eventually, but sooner than any other time in my life, I became calmer. Remember?” he asks urgently, hands closing in fists like everything depends on me grasping this.

“I remember. I remember Corbin saying it was extraordinary.”

“Yes!” Aiden says the word with force. “Yes, exactly. Extraordinary. Your calming effect cancelled out the new layer of horror that would have been added to the snowball if I was left to my own devices without you there. So, in essence, the snowball shrunk. By just one layer, but it shrunk, Elisa! For the first time in known history, my memory changed by one tiny fraction. It bowed to you.”

Elysium disappears as my own memory replays that excruciating moment in Aiden’s bedroom under this light. How little I cared what Corbin thought. Every part of me focused on the first tear I had seen in Aiden’s eyes. He says his memory bowed to me but all I can think is I bowed to that one tear. “Aiden, are you sure? How does that even work?”

“None of this is sure. But Corbin and I contacted some memory experts at The University of York and Oxford ironically. They had mapped my brain initially when I was seven and we first discovered my memory, and periodically every five years since. They agree something is different. They’re theorizing now that my memory works a little like phobias, which tend to get stronger with time. Every time I was replaying all the horror of Marshall and my mom in efforts to desensitize myself and prevent it from happening around you, in fact I was only making my memory stronger and making me more deadly. I was a ticking time bomb even more than usual.”

“But now?”

“I still am, there is no question about that. But there is hope.”

And here is another heavy four-letter word. Hope. A word I cannot afford to hear. Because if I hear it and let it in, I will never survive losing it. “I don’t see the hope part.”

“Yes, it’s there, faint but it is.” His voice breaks as it would in my dreams when I refused to see what was on the field of epiphanies. “The hope is this: next time I recall a horrific moment, instead of replaying it and wallowing, I would flood myself in you. Your calming effect should erase the dread I feel while I’m remembering—as it did after your attack—and, with time, the layers will keep melting off the snowball, shrinking it until it becomes more manageable and, if we dare to dream, disappears.”

I don’t dare to dream anymore, I want to say. Dreams kill you more painfully than all other murderers combined. So I try to stay clinical, skeptic, focusing on something that hurts only a little less. “But I’ve caused you pain too. What about your memories of that? Won’t your brain summon those too and add them to the snowball?”

He shakes his head, smiling but I’ve made the dimple disappear. “Never forget the first principle about my memory: my initial impression is always dominant. And when it comes it to you, you will always give me peace first and foremost. You could pick up a knife right now and dig it into my chest and the first thing I’d feel is calm.”

I shudder at the image of hurting him even in a hypothetical. “That’s wrong.”

“No, it’s exactly right. And it’s my best hope to give us the life we want.”

That four-letter word again. I was wrong a moment ago. Hope is a more brutal killer than even dreams. I focus on logistics instead. “Flood you in me how? I’m here, you’re in Portland or will be . . .” I can’t finish. He will leave soon. In an hour, a day, a week, but someday because he always pushes me away in the end. My calming effect only dulls terrors; it doesn’t give self-worth, it doesn’t make him accept love. And I will be here alone on this idyllic meadow, looking for the forget-me-nots among the roses—never forgetting him, always missing him in my heart. When it comes to him, I might as well have eidetic memory myself.

He must sense the finality in my thoughts because anguish enters his eyes again, slowing down the tectonic plates to a grind. I give him time to work through it because I need a moment too. At length, with another shuddering breath, he begins. “This is why I am here, Elisa. Not just to see you or bring you your family. I’m here to ask you this one last thing. Flooding me in you can happen in two ways: I can do it on my own back in Portland, using your pictures and paintings after I replay a horror. I’m sure Reagan will give me more pictures of you now. It might work, it might not. Or we could do it together. Fight for it together. Have the real you with me. Not because it might work better for me or because you feel obligated. But because, from what you said earlier, we both want the same thing in the end. Will you fight with me?”

In his flawless face, the Dream Aiden, the Old Aiden, and the Real Aiden merge. The triple beauty is blinding, and I have to close my eyes. I would fight for all these Aidens until that one last heartbeat. But fighting with Aiden is a whole other different plane of existence, one I don’t know if either of us can survive. “What would fighting with you look like? In practice, I mean.”

“We have to break my rules, except the startle reflex. We still have to be religious about that until we know if this works. But other than that, we have to do the exact opposite of what we were doing, of what I was forcing us to do.”

Another four-letter word. Rule. Rule his mind, rule my heart, break a rule, rule us out.  “But your rules are everything to you. They give you the structure you need.”

“No. You’re everything to me. And the rules have to go anyway. Going by those rules, anticipating how I might hurt you every hour of every day while distancing myself from you was apparently very dangerous. Layer after layer of snow added to the snowball every single time. So, if you were to fight with me, we would do it the experts’ way. We would guard against my startle reflex. But other than that, we would live.”

L-i-v-e. “How?”

“Here is what the experts recommend but we could find another way if you feel more comfortable. In the morning when I wake up, I will intentionally recall a painful memory, top to bottom, but only once—probably Marshall because that’s where it all started. Then as soon as I finish, I’ll open my eyes and, if you do this with me, you would just be close by so that you’d be the very first thing I’d see, smell, hear, feel. And, if the experts’ theory is right, your calming magic will do what it does to my brain on its own, melting that fresh layer of deadly snow each time. We would just get on with our day. Do what we want for once, as best we can with me still so limited. And, during the day, I would have the very hard job of not letting my mind go to the negatives, the terror, the what-ifs. I’d have to use everything I have to stay there in the moment with you.”

S-t-a-y. “And what about during the night, when you’re asleep—wouldn’t the nightmares undo all your day’s hard work?” I want to ask another question. Would he sleep with me if I were to do this? But that question is too hard, too close to h-o-p-e.

He may hear my unspoken question anyway because a blue flame flashes in his eyes. Like the fire that burned there when we were together alone, bodies tangled so close I didn’t know where I ended and he started. “We have a solution for that,” he says, and his voice is huskier. “I still think it’s risky but Corbin and the experts think it might help.”

“What solution?” I try to keep my voice calm, scientific—in an effort to douse the f-i-r-e that now has caught in me.

“First, I’d take a medication against nightmares—it’s called prazosin. Then, while I’m asleep, we would need to do something that I associate strongly with you. They think this should help me stay asleep. We’ve tested it in the last two weeks and it works, but of course, I didn’t have anyone in bed with me.”

The flame in his eyes is now wildfire. He looks at me as though he is seeing past my coat and pajamas, through my skin—straight into those deepest parts of me that respond only to him. S-k-i-n. Another logistical question to extinguish these thoughts. “I don’t understand. How can you do something in your sleep that you associate with me?”

He smiles and the dimple appears now. “That part is easy. We play Für Elise.”

The answer is so unexpected I forget everything else for a moment. “You’re serious? Trying to shrink the snowball with my song while you’re unconscious?”

“Especially while I’m unconscious when I can’t interfere with it and make it bigger. I have to use every minute I can. I’m thirty-five years behind.”

“And Für Elise works to keep you asleep?”

“Like a charm.”

“How did you discover that?”

The dimple vanishes. “That’s a very long story, for another day, if you will give it to me. For now, let’s just say that whatever neural association my brain has built between you and that melody—maybe because we played it on our first morning when I was happier than I’d ever been—it works. Just like you’ve changed my brain, you can keep me asleep. And I didn’t even know it.”

A long silence falls between us then. I don’t know if he has said everything he had to say or if he is lost in another place, another time I cannot see. But the silence is good. It gives me time to think, to breathe into these new feelings and points of fire he has lit in me. To sort through all my questions for the most important. And to see a way through the fear. Make me brave, give him life.

“Please tell me what you’re thinking,” he says when minutes pass and I’m still unable to speak.

“Just taking it all in.”

His index finger hovers under my chin and my eyes meet his instantly, helplessly as always. The blue flame is gone. There is nothing but an achy tenderness there. “I know it’s a lot. I know I’m asking you to give me a chance based entirely on a theory that may not work when the pain I’ve caused you is very much real. I can see it here with my own eyes, the way you hug yourself, the way your hands shake, the way you can’t look at me anymore. And it’s tearing my heart out. So don’t say yes because you think you have to do this. You don’t. At all. You have changed my internal landscape permanently, and I can never go back to who I was before you. That’s just a scientific fact. My only option is to go forward and I will. Even if you don’t do this with me, I will keep trying with all my memories and pictures of you. So you’re not hostage to this. All you have to do is say the word “no”—no explanations, nothing, you don’t even have to look me in the eye as you say it. Whisper it if you need to. Or just give me a signal—raise your index finger for example if you don’t have the strength. And I promise I will leave. I will let you go on with the life you’re trying so hard to rebuild. I will never interfere. I will never ask anything of you again except to be happy. Like you asked me. And then some day, if I ever become safe, I promise I will call. Even if we are old and withered. It might not be as fun then, but it would be worth it if I could die next to you, just as you said. And if you have met someone by then—” his breath hitches and, for the second time in my life, I see a single tear tricking down his cheek. He smiles as his eyes become oceans. “Well then, won’t he be so very lucky to always have my heart with him?”

“Don’t!” I say as my own tears spill over at the same time that my fingers fly to his face to wipe his. “Don’t say that! I don’t want anyone else. I’m just afraid. Afraid I’ll screw up again. Afraid it won’t work. Afraid it will kill us both if it doesn’t. Afraid I’ll lose you again.” Why couldn’t I have figured out the bravery protein already? To make us both strong and fearless. Help us, Dad, help us please.

“I know, my love.” L-o-v-e. He takes my fingers in his strong hand and brings them to his lips, kissing the very tips that are wet with his own tears. “I wish I could tell you there is nothing to fear. I wish I could promise you this will work. But I can promise you this: you will never lose me, even if I’m not with you. I’ll always be yours even when you’re not mine as you said last night. And you could never screw up.” He kisses the tips of my fingers again and then gently places my own hand back on my lap.

“I screw up all the time,” I sniffle, missing his touch already.

As if his entire system is hardwired to my needs, he wipes my tears. Gently like butterfly wings. “Elisa, didn’t you listen to anything I said? Even these screw-ups as you call them have given us—me—a chance. If you had listened to me and had left after I attacked you or even before, we would have never discovered this. If you hadn’t believed me about Javier, I would have never found Für Elise. I’ll admit I wish you hadn’t abandoned your green card but you had to face England, I see that now. And it might be easier for us here at first if you do this. I have no memories of this village other than the ones I’d make with you. You might have given us a blank slate, and you didn’t even know it.”

His hands leave my face slowly. More l-o-s-s. He watches me as though he is extracting every pixel from this moment, every eyelash, every pore, every blink. Like he is lifting all thirty trillions of my cells to store forever in his impossible mind, to help him carry all the burdens of its terrors. And I see in that look the force with which he wants this to work. How he has cashed in all his hopes, all his dreams into this one small theory that my mysterious effect on his brain will be strong enough to undo the horrors. A shudder runs through me, and another, and another. What if this doesn’t work for him? What if my calming effect as he calls it is not strong enough to overcome decades of trauma? What will happen to my three Aidens then?

“Love? What is it? Is that a shiver from the breeze or from the storm I’ve put in your head?”

“How would we know if this works?” I ask.

His eyebrows knit at my change of direction but he answers. “That part is straightforward enough. We trigger my startle reflex in a controlled laboratory—away from you or anyone else who could get hurt—and see what happens. If it has worked, we should notice a change. Maybe it will be slower, or shorter, or less violent, we don’t know. But the hope is that there would be some reduction.”

I don’t ask what happens if it doesn’t work. I will need to have my bravery protein first before I can do that. Because I know then I will lose him forever. But as much as that rips the wound in my chest wide open, it’s not as paralyzing as my terror for him. That then he will lose himself, not just me, once and for all. Another shudder runs through me. “When would you do the test?”

“In ninety days.”

“Why ninety days?”

“Because that’s about how long it takes for my memory to shift from short-term to long-term. My memories of you are still new and need time to get cemented into the same brain areas that the old horrors live. At the crux of it, I have ninety days to tattoo you in every single part of my brain. If it doesn’t work by then, it never will.”

Ninety days. Nine million heartbeats. Will our love always be measured by deadlines and clocks? Tic toc, tic toc. Racing constantly against laws, governments, wars, and now against ourselves.

“Are you scared?” I ask him.

“Terrified.”

Trembling, I take his hand in both of mine and bring it to my lips. “Well then,” I say, looking up at him. “Let’s fight.”

Shock flashes through his beautiful face, changing his breath to a loud gasp. It lingers in his open mouth for a second and then it becomes my name. “Elisa!” he says, and brings his mouth to mine.

The moment our lips touch, an electric pulse courses through my body, as though his kiss is jolting it back to life. His lips mold with mine like they are speaking an ancient language to each other, “hey you, I’ve missed you, you’re mine”— words he first wrote on me with the quill on our very first night. The heat of his mouth stills my shivers and spreads over my skin like wildfire. His perfumed breath steals inside my lungs, healing them, filling them with him until my breathing sprints into a strong, healthy, jagged rhythm. At the sound, he moans and his kiss changes. It becomes urgent now, hands fisting in my hair, soldering me to him and yet it’s not close enough for me. I throw my arms around his neck, my fingers knotting in his hair as a frenzy ignites inside me. He responds with such force that I fall back on the grass. His weight pins me against the meadow, each hard line of his against every soft line of mine. His hands memorize my face, my throat, my shoulders, my waist, the entire length of me. With each grip, the ache in my chest disappears. With each stroke of his tongue, the wound heals shut. With each brush of his lips, the last two weeks blow away. And when he frees my mouth briefly to trail kisses along my jawline and my throat, my voice speaks only one word, freed and clear: “Aiden!”

His glorious face is right above me then, smiling—an exultant light in his incandescent eyes. And in this pin dot in time, there is no ache or sadness or fear there. Nor in mine. Only love. With a stunned gasp of my own, my mind—freed too—cracks the code. I smile at the brilliant blue sky beyond Aiden’s luminous face. Thank you, Dad, I think at him. I know now.

©2021 Ani Keating

Day 14: Full-Length Excerpt 2 and Excerpt Tour Schedule

Good morning, and happy Day 14 to #thirtynights!!  Two weeks!  Two weeks! The whole apartment building has been listening to me screaming that, and they’re all sure our apartment is actually a padded, rubber room.  Oh well! I have a couple of goodies for you today:

  1. The second full-length excerpt for Thirty Nights.
  2. A schedule of all the blogs that will be featuring Thirty Nights excerpts from November 2 to November 8.  Go and check them out and find out about some new releases as well.

I hope you enjoy them! And since we are getting so close, I’d love to ask for your help with spreading the word! You guys made this possible the first time around with telling your friends, posting on your media, etc. Please, please, please do the same now so that Thrity Nights can have a good shot on the stands and everyone can meet the same characters we’ve loved for a while. 🙂  And feel free to send me links to your posts and I’ll circulate them too.  THANK YOU everyone! xo

Here is the Excerpt Tour Schedule:

Friends Till The End Book Blog http://friendstilltheendbookblog.blogspot.ca/ 2-Nov
Southern Vixens Book Obsessions http://www.facebook.com/svbookobsessions 2-Nov
Maari Loves Her Indies https://www.facebook.com/Maari-Loves-Her-Indies-483861215121076/timeline/ 2-Nov
Works of Fiction http://bkwrm29.blogspot.com/ 2-Nov
Sanaa’s Book Blog Http://blogtasticreviews.wordpress.com 2-Nov
A Literary Perusal http://aliteraryperusal.com 3-Nov
Shelf Life http://www.mom2hjkblog.com 3-Nov
Tumbleweed Book Reviews https://www.tumbleweedreviews.com 3-Nov
Bad Boy Book Addicts http://badboybookaddicts.blogspot.co.uk 3-Nov
Turn The Paige Book Blog https://www.facebook.com/turnthepaigebookblog 3-Nov
Read My Mind http://www.aliseonlife.blogspotcom 4-Nov
Reading and Writing Between the Wines Blog http://readingbetweenthewinesblog.com/ 4-Nov
Teatime and Books http://www.teatimeandbooks76.blogspot.com 4-Nov
Cupcakes and Vodka Book Blog http://cupcakesandvodkabookblog.blogspot.com/ 4-Nov
Garden of rEden http://www.gardenofreden,com 4-Nov
SnoopyDoo’s Book Reviews http://snoopydoosbookreviews.com/ 5-Nov
grownupfangirl // oh the bookfeels http://www.grownupfangirl.com // ohthebookfeelsl.com 5-Nov
Mama’s Dirty Little Reads http://www.mamasdirtylittlereads.com 5-Nov
A Dream Within A Dream http://adreamwithindream.blogspot.com 5-Nov
Lucky 13 Book Reviews and News https://m.facebook.com/lucky13bookreviews 6-Nov
Pink Lace & Silver Buckles Book Blog http://www.pinklacebookblog.com 6-Nov
Arc Angel http://www.facebook.com/lynseyag 6-Nov
My Favorite Things http://heffroberts.blogspot.com 6-Nov
Adventures in Writing http://thhernandez.com/blog-3 7-Nov
PBC http://www.paranormal-bookclub.com 7-Nov
Up All Night Book Addict http://www.upallnightbookaddict@live.com 7-Nov
Mikky’s World Of Books http://mikkysworldofbooks.blogspot.ro/ 7-Nov
Sexy Bibliophiles http://sexybibliophiles.com 8-Nov
Liz’s Reading Life http://lizjosette.blogspot.com 8-Nov
Evermore Books http://evermorebooks.weebly.com/ 8-Nov
The Book Lovers Codex http://www.thebookloverscodex.co.uk 8-Nov
Alpha Book Club http://alphabookclub1.blogspot.com 8-Nov

And now the Excerpt.  This is my favorite Aiden Moment. Ever.

EXCERPT 2: FIRST KISS

Excerpt 2 First Kiss Photo

He steps inside. I think he’s trying to calm himself but it’s hard to tell with the smoke coming out of his ears. He runs a hand over his hair. What the devil is wrong with him? He takes one deep breath and explodes.

“Are you so above the rest, Miss Snow, that you will not deign to attend even your graduation from the institution that has granted you its highest academic honor? Or is this how little your own life means to you?” He speaks through gritted teeth.

Oh, bollocks! How did he find out, and why does he care? Be strong, Isa. “I’m sorry, but that’s none of your business.” I ignore his second question. Something about it makes me recoil.

He looks at me like I just insulted his mother. Honestly, I think I see fire from his nostrils. “None of my fucking business? Is that your answer?” Still gritted teeth, which I suppose is better than fangs.

“Yes, that’s my answer.” I stay calm, hoping some of it will rub off on him. No such luck.

“Over three thousand people watched President Campbell announce Miss Elisa Cecilia Snow, valedictorian in absentia, and a full minute of silence fell over the crowd, and you say it’s none of my fucking business?” He is spitting fire.

Damn it! Why would President Campbell announce it? I emailed the traitor. Well, one thing at a time. The Dragon first. “No, I didn’t say fucking business. I said simply business.”

He looks at me with flared nostrils and roars, his fists hanging down.

“What is wrong with you?”

Oh, this is rich. He is morphing into a Tolkien creature and I’m the freak? I am usually a calm, rational agent. It’s probably not apparent based on this last week, but I am. But right now, with my newly shaved legs and my lacy knickers on, after practicing his name all day in front of a stupid fan, I want to scratch his eyes out.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, Mr. Hale. However, based on your behavior these last two days, may I suggest the very real possibility that there is something seriously wrong with you? I strongly recommend that you visit a psychiatrist, sir, and soon, before you become a menace on the streets of Portland and incinerate us all for exercising our right as free human beings to go wherever we bloody well please,” I hiss, feeling a kindred spirit with Medusa because he has turned to stone.

Before I can draw a breath, he takes the two steps between us and his mouth closes in on mine, his hands like a vise around my face.

The force of his kiss slams me against the wall and makes me gasp. His lips mold with mine, and his tongue is dancing inside my mouth. My knees shake a little. As if he knows, one of his hands leaves my face, trails down my body and rests at the small of my back, arching me against him and supporting all my weight. I move my tongue shyly around his. I taste cinnamon and something else, something Aiden. My blood ignites, and another gasp escapes me. At the sound, he presses his hips against me, and his long fingers reach into my hair. He pulls my head back until my mouth opens wider. Our tongues move together, and his anger changes to desperation and then to a slower rhythm that I can follow. Of their own accord, my arms reach up around his neck and my fingers knot in his hair. He tenses, so I try to let go but he draws me closer until there is no more space left. I feel every line of his body against mine. His teeth graze my bottom lip. It takes me a moment to realize that the moan I hear is coming from me. He pulls away, his breathing harsh and labored.

“Impossible woman,” he growls.

I open my eyes. His sapphire depths are blazing. Without his arm supporting me, my knees go back to shaky and weak. Then it dawns on me. Bloody hell, I’ve just been kissed by Aiden Hale! And what a kiss it was. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have much experience with such things, but I am willing to bet my supplement’s formula that no girl, anywhere, has been kissed like this. I pinch myself discreetly to make sure I’m awake. Yes, it was real. My lips are tingling.

“Are you ready to go?” he asks, his breathing now back in control. Apparently, we are not going to talk about it. That’s good. What if his next words end this? And what is there to say regardless? By some miracle, he wants me at some level, and I want him at all levels. That’s good enough for now. Good enough for forever for someone like me.

©2015 Ani Keating