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 34 – ASH

Hey peeps,

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

34

Ash

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

“Aiden hurting,” I answer without hesitation.

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

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

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

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

“What about the next greatest fear?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What duties? How are you crossing them?”

“With what I’m about to show you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agreed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll have to live a long time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My dick.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“PMS,” Marshall informs everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The road, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching Edison hurt him—that was just death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hush, child, you’re safe.”

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

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

“It’s over, Elisa. It’s done.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod, convinced of that axiomatic truth.

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

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

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

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

“Has Aiden told you about General Sartain?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m all right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you expect?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 30 – AFTER

Hello friends, after a few weeks off for health reasons, here is the next chapter.  I have missed you a lot. I’m sorry for the delay and thank you so for the amazing response to the last one–I know it was heavy and heart-breaking.  Only about four chapters left now as we conclude Aiden and Elisa’s journey.  Thank you to everyone who has been checking on me and providing support, from regular messages and comments to health research, network, and nutritional tips help (you know you are, my lovely friend).  Hope you enjoy.  – xo, Ani [TRIGGER WARNING: parts of this chapter may contain references to depression or self-harm.]

30

After

“Elisa!” My name booms from the garden, making me jump against Aiden’s inert body. “Elisa, where are you?” Benson is thundering. His heavy footsteps rattle the shards of glass on the floor. A beam of light cuts the night outside the broken window. I tear my lips from Aiden’s unmoving mouth so I can answer.

“Benson, we’re here! We’re in the library!” I shout, keeping my hand on Aiden’s chest. Under my palm, his heartbeat is still slow and quiet.

“Coming in,” Benson roars, and I hear the front door slam. Thankfully, one brain cell remembers that my robe is open, and I tuck it around me quickly one second before Benson bursts into the library. His eyes are huge as he takes in the scene. “Good God! Elisa, are you hurt?” He crouches next to me at once, one massive hand flying to Aiden’s wrist, another to my forehead.

“Not at all, but Aiden is. Edison smashed a microscope in the back of his head.” My voice breaks, and I shudder at the image branded in my retinas.

“Fuck!” Benson’s snarl is almost as feral as Aiden’s. “Edison was the creep?”

“Yes, he’s somewhere by the beech trees, I think. Aiden kicked him—”

As if to complete my sentence, a yelp of agony rises from wherever the traitor is suffering. I bring my lips back to Aiden’s mouth, humming Für Elise loudly so he doesn’t hear, if he can hear. “Aiden, I love you. We’re safe, love. Benson is here.”

“Have you called an ambulance?”

“Yes, they’re on their way.” On cue, a siren starts wailing in the distance. Another howl comes from the garden. “It’ll be okay, love,” I tell Aiden. “Don’t worry. You just breathe with me, all right?”

“How long has he been out?” Benson asks, peeking under Aiden’s head without daring to move it.

“About three minutes.”

“He was out for over ten minutes in Fallujah, and he was okay,” Benson mutters, as if to himself. “But his pulse is faint.”

“I know.” I blow over Aiden’s lips again, my hand never leaving his heart. His face is still peaceful, glowing under the soft overhead light in stark contrast with the havoc around us. “Benson, can you bring me that blanket for him?”

“You got it.” Benson bolts on his feet and hurtles to the desk for my blanket that still has blood from my lip in its corner. He is back before Aiden’s heart has stuttered twice. I tuck the blanket around his waist and legs, hiding the bloody corner down by his feet. “Aiden, I’m still here, love. Come back to me, please. You promised . . .”

The seconds on the clock are ticking. Three minutes and fifteen seconds now. Sixteen. Seventeen. Then abruptly something changes. Aiden’s heart nudges my hand with a firmer thud. Lub-dub.

“Aiden?” I cry, leaning closer. “Aiden, can you hear me?” I run my fingers over his cheeks, wiping away my tears that are still glistening on him. A slight movement flickers under the golden eyelids. In my own chest, my heart stops, restarts, and double-strikes. “Aiden, I love you, I love you so much. Come back, love. I’m on the other side.” Five more seconds, another lub-dub. Then a faint, warm breeze flutters over my lips.

“Oh, thank God!” I sob, almost collapsing on top of him as Benson drops on the rug, shaking the entire library and crossing himself. Another lub-dub, another waft of breath.

Then at long last, a voice that brings me back to life. “Elisa,” Aiden murmurs.

“Yes, I’m here, love. I’m right here. Can you feel my hands?” I stroke his forehead and clutch his long fingers.

The impossible eyes open. Sapphire at first between each slow, heavy blink. Then a spark of turquoise flickers in the blue depths as I must come into focus. I almost flop all over him again with heady relief. Whatever Edison’s blow has done, it hasn’t stolen my calm from him. That weapon is still standing. And so is his memory from the looks of it. Instantly the tectonic plates shift, and a sharp edge of terror slices his eyes like the jagged glass.

“I’m safe and sound,” I blurt out immediately, knowing this is exactly what he is dreading. “You saved my life, Aiden, as well as your own.” I caress his creased brow, yet my words don’t seem to calm him. The seraphic face blanches whiter than bone. Like a portcullis, tension drops down on him, turning him into stone.

“Aiden, love, I’m all right, I promise,” I assure him again before he can speak. “Benson can tell you himself.”

“She’s really okay, sir,” Benson rumbles. “It’s you we’re worried about.”

“How are you feeling?” I stroke his jaw that is sharpening into a glacial blade.

“Fine,” he answers automatically, but his eyes are scanning me as if he will only accept his own evidence. As they do, the terror morphs into agony—an anguish so deep, it looks as if someone is lighting him on fire. Exactly like the one time he hurt me.

“No, love, not that look!” I plead. “I’m not hurt at all. Nothing happened to me, all thanks to you. Please believe me.” I smooth the V between his brows, but the eyes . . . They deepen like an abyss, hollowing further and further, darkening until they close. A shudder tears through him.

“Aiden—” I start again, but he interrupts me.

“I’m fine, Elisa,” he repeats, his voice low and hoarse. “It seems that you saved me, too.” He opens his eyes—there isn’t a single flicker of life in them—and starts to sit up.

“Oh no, you don’t!” I press my hands on his tense shoulders, trying to push him back on the rug. “Aiden, lie down. The ambulance will be here in a minute. I don’t want you moving before then.”

“The ambulance?” Even in obvious torment, he sounds appalled. The siren blares closer, from what sounds like the garage across Elysium. “Christ, Elisa, for this?”

“Yes, for this. You took a blow to the head and were out for over three minutes. Do you remember?”

The plates shift again—it takes only a second, his usual recall speed. “Of course I remember. Edison?” His teeth almost strangle the name, and he tries to sit up again.

“Shh, relax.” I push against his chest with all my strength. “He’s weeping outside, ruing the minute he crossed you, I imagine. Aiden, you need to be still. Please, for me!”

His jaw flexes once, but at least he stops trying to stand. He lies back down and turns to Benson. “Can you secure the asshole for the police? Apparently, I can’t help you because I took a three-minute nap.”

“I’m on it. I’d like a chance to say hello personally anyway.” Benson’s slow grin gives me chills. He rises to his feet and streaks out of the library, much too nimbly for his size. The shards of glass tremble at his passage with a sound like rain. It’s only then that Aiden’s eyes fall on the droplets of my blood on the floor. Instantly, the blue depths harden like gemstones and his teeth snap audibly with familiar rage.

“It’s nothing,” I say quickly, grateful that my legs are tucked under me, at least for now. “Just a little prick. I stepped on a cactus once; this is nothing compared to that. More adjacent to rose thorns. Oops, sorry, you’ve banned the word ‘adjacent’, but you get the idea.”

But the more I speak, the more his face is withdrawing. “Let me see your legs, Elisa.”

Please, stop worrying. You need to relax instead of fussing about a silly splinter in my foot.”

“Elisa, so help me God! Show me or I will stand and look at them myself.” His abs flex ominously through the blanket.

Oh, bloody hell! I don’t want him to look before I’ve had a chance to inspect the situation, but I don’t want him to move either. He starts to rise again.

“All right, all right!” I surrender. “Here, see?” I open my robe only a few inches. The silk quivers in my hands. As soon as my knees are exposed, his forehead locks. Every angle of his face freezes into greyish ice, from the blinkless eyelids to his strained jaw. I follow his gaze and feel my own blood drain away. My knees look almost as terrible as they feel. A dozen splinters are lodged in them like bloody asterisks. A vicious snarl slides from Aiden’s clenched teeth.

“I swear they don’t hurt,” I lie, pulling down my robe, and thankfully in this second Benson locates Edison in the garden.

“Well, good evening, Professor Edison.” A hard thump causes the last of the knives of glass to clatter from the shattered windowpanes, and a new howl pierces my ears.  I take advantage of Aiden whipping his head toward the sound and leap over him before he can grab my ankles and check the soles of my feet. Who knows what they look like compared to my knees? “Don’t move an inch or I’ll call Doctor Helen, Corbin, and your parents right now,” I call over my shoulder, sprinting out of the library despite the stabbing pain. “I’ll go get in my pajamas before the medics get here. Stay where you are!”

His growl follows me in the foyer. As soon as I turn the corner, I pause to examine the mess and, more importantly, what I can do about it before Aiden sees it. Bloody hell—quite literally! My feet are as thorny as they feel. Spikes of glass have embedded themselves like stars forming constellations of their own on the heels and balls of my feet. Halos of blood glow crimson around them. I pick off as many as I can from my right foot and hop on it all way upstairs. It’s difficult, but not because of the acrobatics. It’s difficult because I’m shaking with terror on two legs, let alone one. Terror for what comes next, for what Aiden is thinking about as he lies alone on the rug of planets in the ruined library. And above all, terror that he will decide he has endangered me enough and end us once and for all. A blistering wave of nausea rises in my throat, and I almost vomit on the landing. Hydrogen, 1.008 . . . Help me, Mum. Keep him here, Dad.

Our happy bedroom is still dark. Für Elise is still lullabying softly from Aiden’s phone. The alarm clock glimmers ten to one. Was it only an hour ago that I was dreaming of kissing his back, shivering with pleasure, not dread? I switch on the light, gripping the door for balance. But the intimate glow stabs deeper than the broken glass as it illuminates the little room that makes us, us. The double-frames of our firsts on each nightstand, the rosewood chess set on the dresser, the polaroid of Aiden’s heartline and brainwaves, the dried poppies of our weapons by my locket and charm bracelet. How many weapons do we have left after tonight? My calming effect—nothing can change that, it seems—but can it hold if we lose Aiden’s fledgling self-love, his laughter, pleasure, faith, and even his fight? Especially if I can’t finish the protein that caused tonight’s horror. Another shiver rocks me so violently, it knocks me off balance on my one leg. I pluck off more splinters from my left foot, trying to concentrate only on the way they sting rather than the punctured wound that just ripped open in my chest. I hide the shards at the bottom of the rubbish bin so Aiden won’t see them. Out in the garden, Benson calls over to Aiden, and I’m thankful for his distraction.

“He’s all pretty and tied up, sir. I’ll stay out here, keep him company. What say you, Professor?”

There is no answer from Aiden, but whatever Benson does makes Edison whimper. From the willows drifts a chorus of indistinct voices, and flashlight beams wash over the bedroom window. The medics are here. I swipe up Aiden’s favorite sweatpants and T-shirt and throw on my pajamas and navy socks to hide my grisly feet. Then I dash downstairs as fast as they will carry me.

On the library floor, Aiden has heeded my threat. He hasn’t moved an inch, physically at least. But his eyes are thousands of miles away beyond the ceiling. The difference in them is so staggering, I freeze at the door. They look as if they have been gouged out of their sockets by some cataclysmic force, even though they are physically intact. His face is different, too. Entirely empty; all expression ripped away, leaving only his beauty behind without any sign of life. My stomach roils again. I try to draw air, but I can’t feel anything—nor the smell of roses in the wind or the metal of the doorknob in my hand or even the sharp stings on my skin. But the hurried, stressed voices of the medics break through. Shaking, I pad to Aiden’s side. His eyes flash immediately to my socked feet.

“How badly do they hurt, Elisa? And no cactus or thorn comparisons, if you value my sanity.”  The change is in his voice too. It’s lower, rougher than his usual timbre—fading with the wind as soon as the words are spoken. I scramble through my panic, trying to think which answer will go better. Hastily, I decide for a version of the truth.

“I value your sanity most of all, which is why I picked out the splinters and am completely fine. Here, I have your sweatpants and T-shirt if you want them after the medics examine you.” I drape them over his waist, trying to hide my trembling hands. If he sees them, he says nothing. His eyes return to the ceiling, staring at things and places I cannot comprehend. Before I can wrestle with another breath, the doorbell jingles with the first notes of Für Elise. Nothing changes in Aiden’s face at the beloved sound. I rush to open it, my terror impossibly doubling. A crisp voice calls from the other side of the door.

“Elisa, PC Dockery here with the medics. You rang the emergency number?”

The familiar voice triggers a flashback of my own: the funeral reception, last time PC Dockery was here. What was he saying then? May you remember only the love? Or was that someone else? I trail my fingers along the wall, trying to stay present, and wrench open the door.

A gust of wind blows in with force, bringing me back. The tiny threshold is overflowing with bodies and flashlights. PC Dockery is at the front, two medics and another copper behind him, and to his right Doctor Gramercy, our elderly village doctor, hunched as the day he came to the funeral.

“Oh, hello, Elisa.” His wizened mouth opens in a smile. “I came along when I heard there was need at the Rose Cottage. Are you all right, dear?”

“I’m fine, Doctor, but my boyfriend, Aiden, is hurt. We had an intruder who hit him in the head with a microscope. He’s hurt too, outside around the corner, with our friend Benson.”

“An intruder?!” PC Dockery cries in shock. “What—here in Burford? At this cottage?”

“Blimey!” Doctor Gramercy’s eyes widen behind his round glasses. “Let me through, Philip. Let’s see how they are first, then you can get the story. Mary, Jenny—” He turns to the two medics. “You go around for this character with PC Clarkson—carefully now. I’ll treat Elisa’s sweetheart.”

They bustle in with urgency. Across Elysium, the red and blue sirens arc through the night like macabre rainbows. There’s been an accident, an accident . . .

“Elisa?” Doctor Gramercy is calling me from the present. “Where to, darling?”

“The library, Doctor, just down the hall. Be careful, there’s broken glass from the window.”

They head in before me which gives me a moment to get it together. Aiden will see the flashbacks in my eyes the second I walk in if I don’t clear my head. He would fly back to Portland tonight then. I gulp down the wind, searching for any trace of roses. The night is darker now, only patches of moon are visible through the velvet clouds. The roses turn crimson and blue under the ambulance lights. It’s not the same, I chant in my head, inhaling and exhaling, letting the cold wind blow out the flashback cobwebs. Aiden is strong. Aiden will survive this. But will we? I draw another gust of wind and shut the door on the sirens’ gleam.

The library is bursting at its mahogany beams. It has never looked more crowded, probably because Aiden is so tall that he takes up most of the floor. I immediately find his eyes, hoping for some change, but there is none. They are still empty as they scan PC Dockery and Doctor Gramercy.

“Oh, my!” The doctor rushes straight to Aiden, carrying the same black leather bag I always remember.  “Well, hello to you, sir, Doctor Gramercy here, how do you do?”

“I’m fine, Doctor. Thanks for coming.” I know Aiden’s voice well enough to hear the controlled exasperation buried below his manners.

“Looks like there’s been quite the kerfuffle here. Mind if I examine you?”

“Actually, could you check Elisa first? She has stepped on a lot of glass. I’m truly fine.”

Doctor Gramercy smiles. “I’ll be sure to do that, but I think a head injury is a bit more urgent. Elisa, have a seat, dear, and keep off your feet while I check on your sweetheart.”

I curl down on the rug, trying to give the doctor his space and bring my fears under some form of management.

“All right, Aiden, is it?” Doctor Gramercy proceeds, clearly unaware of the seething underneath Aiden’s composed mien.

“Yes, Aiden Hale.”

“That’s very good. Now, Aiden, tell me, do you know today’s date?”

The doctor starts checking Aiden’s cognition and memory that could dance circles around all of ours combined, even after he was knocked unconscious. There isn’t a second of hesitation or delay in his answers, not one waver from his perfect articulation. But my hands still shake as the doctor feels Aiden’s head and tests his reflexes. Waves of emotion wash over me, wringing my insides. Fear and pain, even more potent than in that ambulance ride so long ago. I grit my teeth against the bile and tears. Save him, God, please. Take everything from me and give it to him.

“You have an old, tough scar back here, Mister Aiden. How did that happen?” Doctor Gramercy’s fingers run gently over the back of Aiden’s scalp, while I twitch on the rug helpless. I know it’s the scar from the insurgent’s rifle—the rifle that knocked him unconscious from the moment he saved Jazz to the moment he opened his eyes and saw Marshall being tortured alive.

“Old and fully healed,” Aiden avoids the question. His voice does not betray a single note of the trauma his memory must have unleashed on him now. Because only the physical scar has healed. What happens to the deep, invisible scars after tonight?

“Thankfully, it didn’t reopen.” Doctor Gramercy palpates the spot but does not push for an answer. Perhaps his years of experience recognize the warning in Aiden’s omission. “The microscope hit it smack in the center. Does that feel tender?”

“No.” Aiden’s denial is immediate, which means the spot is probably as raw as my chest right now. I have to concentrate on breathing in and out as the doctor continues to feel the spot with a frown. Peripherally, I notice PC Dockery revolving around us, taking notes and photos of the library that is now a crime scene. Out in the garden, bright lanterns are glowing electric blue. Mary and Jenny must be treating Edison because he is swearing and weeping.

“My, my, the other fellow sounds positively apoplectic,” Doctor Gramercy notes. “Elisa said he broke in?”

“Twice, at least,” Aiden answers through his teeth. I’m sure, he is silently reciting a full-length prayer in all his twelve languages for this charade to end right now.

“Elisa.” PC Dockery turns to me with his notepad and pen at the ready. “Could you tell me what happened? Do you know the intruder?”

“Oh, Philip, let me examine the poor dear first,” Doctor Gramercy stops him. “You can take their statements while I’m working on her. I’m almost finished here.” He lets go of Aiden’s head and pinches his cheek affectionately as he used to do with me when I was five. “You’re a strong fellow. And a lucky one at that. The microscope spared your skull and brain—a mercy, that is! You must have turned around very quickly to avoid the full impact or the wretch must have been weak. I don’t see any lasting damage except a big bump that should go away with some Tylenol and ice. Here is a cold pack for now. You’ll feel sore for a few days, so no strenuous activity, the telly, or hard brainwork in the meantime.”

Relief, so powerful that it’s almost painful, crashes over me at the doctor’s words. I choke back my whimper and brace my arm against the floor not to topple over. I’ve never thought to be thankful for Aiden’s startle reflex, but I’m grateful for it now. If it hadn’t been triggered, he would have never been able to whip around as swiftly as he did. Not that Aiden will ever agree. He would be furious at the mere idea of me appreciating it.

“Nevertheless,” Doctor Gramercy continues, and I stop breathing again. “I’d like to get an MRI to make sure there’s no internal bleeding, especially given the prior injury. Why don’t you sit up slowly and we can take you to the hospital after I tend to Elisa?”

“Oh, that will not be necessary,” Aiden responds immediately. “I assure you, there was no bleeding last time either. I’ll be seeing my regular doctor tomorrow on an unrelated matter at Oxford. I’ll have her do a scan then.” There is no space for questions or argument in his authoritative voice, as I knew there wouldn’t be. Doctor Gramercy notices it, too.

“Well, I can’t take you by force. But do try to wake up every two hours tonight to be safe then. And if you feel the least bit poorly—confusion, headache, anything—call me no matter the time. Here is my mobile.” He reaches in his coat pocket and hands Aiden his card. “You can move now—gently, there’s a good lad—and I’ll check on Elisa. Do you know I delivered her? The tiniest, prettiest thing she was, too. We’re chuffed she’s back.” He smiles at Aiden and turns to me. “Very good, Elisa, let me see those feet before your Aiden has a heart attack in addition to a skull attack.”

My Aiden rises on his feet faster than the doctor or me, securing the blanket around his waist. He grabs the armchair pillow from the floor and sets it back on its spot, pushing me on the seat with a firm clasp on my shoulder that says clearly “sit or else!” But his touch thaws me out of my frozen anxiety. For the first time since I left our bed tonight, I feel a sense of warmth spreading from his fingertips even though they are icy. I look up at him but he is watching Doctor Gramercy as he teeters toward me.

“A chair, Doctor?” Aiden offers, but Doctor Gramercy waves and sits down at my feet.

“Easier on my back and eyes like this, Mister Aiden. You should be the one to rest, even with your strength. And ice that bump.”

Aiden sits on the arm of my chair, stony and tense, holding the cold pack to the back of his head. Nothing changes in the hollow eyes. I take his free hand in both of mine to comfort him and warm up, but he doesn’t look my way—he is following every movement of Doctor Gramercy who is peeling off my socks and rolling up my pajamas above my knees. A low hiss slides from Aiden’s teeth as he sees the full damage. The armchair creaks with the force of his tension, and I feel a shudder run through his frame. So must Doctor Gramercy because he smiles in a reassuring way.

“Ah, yes, I see! Nothing to worry about. Just a few splinters. I can get these out in no time.” He rummages in his black bag while I stare only at Aiden’s ashen face, thankful I had a chance to pluck out most of the splinters. What would he have done if he had seen all of them?

“Doctor, with anesthetic, right?” he demands, so coiled I think he wants to search the bag himself. But Doctor Gramercy chuckles again.

“Of course with anesthetic. I wouldn’t want to hurt our Elisa. The Plemmonses would beat me up with Harold’s cane, if you don’t wring my neck first.” He brings out a cotton pad and soaks it in liquid lidocaine. The sharp, cherry scent burns my nostrils. “All right, dear, a wee bit of a sting now. Like when you stepped on that cactus, remember?”

As if I care about my skin burning when my insides are on fire, when the wound in my chest is oozing more than any cut or blister. I peek at Aiden again. He is staring at the doctor’s fingers as they brush the cotton ball over my soles and knees. His face is rigid; his eyes could burn holes on Doctor Gramercy’s freckled hands.

“It doesn’t hurt,” I tell him, drawing circles on the back of his fist. “I promise.”

He nods but doesn’t blink away from my feet. A numb feeling starts spreading over my skin. I wish it would numb the pain inside—the pain that doesn’t come from broken glass.

“Doctor, may I question now?” asks PC Dockery.

“Oh yes, Philip, go on. I’ll be here for a while.” He takes out a pair of long tweezers and starts hunting for fragments of glass. Aiden, who never flinched during his examination, winces now.

“I don’t even feel it,” I assure him again. “Doctor Gramercy has the gentlest hands in all of the Cotswolds. Everyone knows it.”

The doctor chortles while PC Dockery drags the chair from behind the desk to my side. He casts a glance at Aiden.

“Normally, we would interview witnesses separately—” he starts.

“I’m staying right here,” Aiden interrupts, glancing away from my feet briefly to lock eyes with the constable in a way that accepts zero opposition. Outside, Edison is whimpering about broken ribs.

PC Dockery nods, seeming unsurprised. “I can see that. Given the type of infraction, I’m comfortable with an exception in this instance. So, Elisa, I’ll start with you. Tell me what happened from the beginning.”

Aiden turns his lethal gaze back to my feet but stops breathing entirely. I realize now that this is the first time he will hear the story, too—at least the part for which he was asleep. I choose my words with care so I can be truthful and earn Edison exactly what he deserves, but not sound so terrified as to cause Aiden more pain. It’s difficult, almost impossible as I remember every horrifying minute. But despite my efforts, each of my words might as well be a stab of jagged glass in Aiden’s own skin. His fist in mine is as cold as when he watches the reel. I stroke it a few times to no avail. His eyes never stray from the growing pile of crystals that Doctor Gramercy is collecting on his porcelain tray. Tinkles of broken glass punctuate my story like exclamation marks. Clink. Clink. Clink. I try to fight back the waves of terror drowning me. But at least I have Edison as an excuse for the cracking in my voice even though right now, I would rather face him a million times over than watch what comes next.

PC Dockery is quiet as he takes notes, although both he and the doctor gasp when they hear the name of my intruder—the polished professor they remember from the hospital, the funeral, and even the rose festivals. Then they fall silent again. The only sounds are my voice, the clinks of glass, and Edison’s cries. When we reach the midazolam part, I feel the armchair vibrate under me with Aiden’s fury as he relives it. PC Dockery reaches in the desk drawer and takes out the brown bottle with a gloved hand. He places it inside an evidence bag that apparently has been with him unused for the last fifteen years and with his predecessor for decades. Now and then, he questions Aiden, too. Aiden answers in a leashed, unemotional tone, his eyes drifting farther and farther away.

“Elisa, dear, try to keep still while I check your toes,” Doctor Gramercy cautions me, no doubt feeling the shivers that are jiggling my body like the wind. I tear my eyes from Aiden’s face and focus them on the doctor’s hands. Like so many aged hands that have comforted me through life. Maria and Antonio, Robert and Stella, and now Doctor Helen . . . What will they say now? How can they help? Will they even have a chance this time?

“Elisa, I do have a question,” PC Dockery says when I finish, skipping over Aiden’s startle and flashback—it’s easy to do, it only lasted a minute before he fell unconscious. “Why did you not awake Mr. Hale right away? Why talk to Edison alone?”

If I thought Aiden was frozen before, it is nothing to how he transforms now. Hard, cold, and entirely still—as though he is channeling all his immense strength toward hiding whatever iceberg is solidifying underneath. He is blaming himself. I know it, I can taste it on my tongue like the lidocaine. My stomach twists with dread. But thankfully the tweezers tug at my skin, yanking me back from the edge. I choke back the nausea, focusing on remembering words and stringing them into sentences.

“I didn’t want to wake him,” I answer quietly. “We were planning on getting up early to go to River Eden, and he had a long drive ahead. I thought I could finish up with Edison quickly and send him off on my own. I didn’t realize he was planning to hurt me.”

PC Dockery peers at me through his half-moon glasses. “I can understand that given how long you knew him, but you must have been suspicious. He came in with a key you hadn’t given him after all.”

“I was but hoped he had a reasonable explanation. I was very naïve,” I mutter even though I am not fooling Aiden. He knows exactly why I chose to handle Edison alone—knows it and loathes himself for it. I caress his arctic fist again, but it doesn’t give an inch. His body is so taut with restraint, he looks like a sculpture. I’m sure only the fact that my feet are scraped and bloody is keeping him sitting by my side.

Doctor Gramercy sighs. “Elisa, next time, use those lungs. I know you have them, I heard them the second you came into this world. Give it a good scream. You’ve got a strapping fellow here who obviously wants nothing more but to keep you safe.”

S-a-f-e. Doctor Gramercy has no idea how dangerous safety is for Aiden and me, how it can tear us apart more than any r-i-s-k. He drops another sliver of glass on the porcelain tray.

“That should be the last of it,” he announces, feeling around my toes for any more splinters. He soaks a new cotton ball with more anesthetic and wipes it everywhere on my skin. This one smells like iodine, mixing strangely with cherry and roses. “I’ll give you both something for the pain, too,” he adds, wrapping a thin layer of gauze over my feet and knees and taping it in place. “But I don’t think River Eden is a good idea tomorrow.”

“Agreed,” Aiden confirms in a decisive tone that cuts through me more sharply than the glass even though I know he is right. But why doesn’t he want to go? Is it only for our health or is he also trying to avoid being alone with me?

“Would you like me to stay tonight if you won’t go to the hospital?” Doctor Gramercy offers.

“No, thank you, Doctor,” Aiden answers, setting down the cold pack. “Benson can stay with us, we’ll be fine.”

“I better interview your friend as well.” PC Dockery stands, midazolam bag in hand.

“We have the evidence from the June break in,” Aiden remembers to add when I completely forget about it. “The mint wrapper, Elisa’s doodles, and the rest. It should be easy to obtain his fingerprints and match them to the bottle and everything else. There is also a security camera in the foyer’s light that we installed afterwards. I’m certain it will corroborate our account tonight.”

“Oh, I’d very much like to see all that. May I search the foyer, Elisa?”

“Please do,” I whisper, realizing that he cannot ask Aiden for permission. The cottage is not his, as much as I long for it to be. Aiden directs PC Dockery to the bottom desk drawer where he has kept the items he and Benson found that early dawn weeks ago—the dawn I didn’t believe him with such drastic, far-reaching consequences. PC Dockery nods and, with a gentle pat on my arm, marches to the foyer.

Doctor Gramercy looks up between Aiden and me, rolling down my pajamas. “You were both very fortunate tonight. I’m glad—this cottage has seen enough heartbreak.”

“I was lucky Aiden came when he did,” I say, looking up at the face I love. It’s still pale, not even the faintest flush of blood in it. “He saved my life.”

“Oh, without a doubt,” Doctor Gramercy agrees. “Now, take these painkillers. You should both get some rest. I’ll call tomorrow after you have visited your own doctor.” He starts to rise, and Aiden helps him on his feet.

“Thank you, Doctor,” I mumble, wishing he would stay. Aiden wouldn’t leave or make final decisions with him still here, would he? But as always, when I beg t-i-m-e to stop, it races ahead. Everything fasts forward at blinding speed. PC Dockery and PC Clarkson download the camera’s footage, sequester the microscope and Edison’s anorak where it is still hanging by mum’s parka, and fingerprint the doorknob, his key, and the photo frame he touched last time. By the time they are done, their old evidence bags are full. Then they finish with Benson and formally arrest Edison, who looks like a mummy swaddled in gauze. The medics load him on a stretcher, and the six of them file down the garden path, lit up by lanterns, flashlights, and the distant sirens. Edison doesn’t look at me when they pass by, perhaps because Aiden—now fully dressed—and Benson are both towering at my sides. Only as the medics carry him by the Clares does his head turn slightly toward the roses. I watch him disappear into the darkness, out of my life. At least my parents are not alive to see his betrayal. At least they never witnessed his full capacity for evil, even if Dad realized his greed in the end.

“Sir, everything okay?” Benson breaks the silence when the responders’ voices fade out of earshot.

I look up at Aiden, but his eyes are on the sirens. Their red and blue beams flash over his skin. I blink away, shivering under my blanket, unable to watch them color the face I love. He doesn’t speak until the ambulance and the coppers drive off. Instantly, we are plunged in darkness. For the first time, I register how much the clouds have thickened. Not a single star or speck of moon filters through their dense canopy.

“Are you able to stay here tonight?” Aiden asks Benson, his voice without any intonation. “The doctor wanted someone around.”

I shouldn’t be surprised he is following Doctor Gramercy’s orders. It’s the right thing to do, it’s for my safety. So why is my stomach spasming with fear again?

“Sure, no problem,” Benson agrees without hesitation.

“Thank you. You know your way up. I don’t want Elisa walking around on her feet.” Finally, Aiden looks at me. In the moonless night, I cannot see his eyes, but my skin erupts in goosebumps as if missing the warmth of his gaze.

“My feet don’t hurt at all anymore,” I say, not having to lie this time. “Come in, Benson, I’ll show you upstairs. Do you want some tea or something to eat first?”

“No, I’m good. I’ll just grab some water.” He steps inside the foyer sideways, stealing a quick glance at his impassive boss.

“You too, Elisa,” Aiden says. “It’s time for bed. I’ll clean up the library.”

“I’ll stay with you,” I insist. “Besides, you’re not supposed to do anything strenuous.”

“Moving a broom around isn’t strenuous. Go on, get some sleep.”

“But—”

“I’ll be up in a minute.”

Even without inflection, there is an undercurrent in his voice. Something I have only heard once before—on our second embargo night when I woke him from his nightmare. It tells me what he is really asking for: a moment alone. Except this time, everything in me recoils from the idea. I don’t want him pondering right and wrong again as he did then, but how can I not give him everything he needs now?

Next to us, Benson ambles from the kitchen with a glass of water, hovering uncertainly.

“I’ll get you set up, Benson,” I mumble, stepping inside. Every string of muscle aches in protest as I twist away from Aiden. He doesn’t follow us. I listen for any sign of him while I lead Benson up the stairs. But there is nothing—only silence.

“Here you go,” I tell Benson, turning on the light to the guest room. “It’s not king-sized, I’m afraid, but it will be more comfortable than the sofa.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

I fluff the pillows that haven’t lulled a guest to sleep since Javier. What would Javi and Reg say now? They would probably be boarding a plane already. How can I tell them about this without worrying them out of their minds? Can I uproot them across the globe again when they are still catching their breath from the last time?

“You ok?” Benson whispers, setting his glass of water on the side table.

I shake my head. “He’s very upset,” I mouth back.

“Yes, he is. This is his worst nightmare. You getting hurt because of him.”

“But it wasn’t his fault at all. This one was all me. I couldn’t rest until he got rid of Max and the whole security bit.”

Benson smiles but his gentle brown eyes crinkle with worry. “It’s not your fault either. You know him inside out. I’m sure you had your reasons.”

I look at his kind face, unable to agree. Yet in some ways, he knows our relationship better than anyone. He has been there with us every step of the way, even the blackest hour of them all—not Aiden’s attack on me, but our break-up.

“I’ll still back you,” he murmurs, sensing my unspoken question.

“You will?”

He extends his enormous hand, the size of a tea kettle. It swallows mine, but he squeezes very gently. “You’re his only hope, Elisa. I’ll back you until the very end.”

The end. What kind of end? When? How? Romeo and Juliet flit in my vision like sirens.

“Thank you,” I whisper, throwing my arms around his vast waist. “I know he loves you, as do I.”

He pats my back lightly, making my knees buckle. “Anytime. Now get some sleep. I heard the doctor. I’ll set my alarm for every two hours and check on him.” He ruffles my hair and pushes me out of his room with a gruff, emotional expression.

The hall becomes dark and empty as Benson closes the door behind me. The light of our happy bedroom glows faintly at the other end. I don’t need to look to know Aiden is not there. I tiptoe to the stairs’ landing, straining to listen. The unmistakable chime of broken glass floats up from the library. I sit at the top stair, huddling in my blanket, waiting. I know instinctively Aiden doesn’t want anyone with him right now. And I don’t want to make anything worse. Maybe he needs this present moment to breathe through his own terror. Maybe he will realize nothing actually happened to me, except being saved once and for all from a lifelong enemy, all because of Aiden. Without him, I would be dead right now, soon joining my parents under marble.

But as I sit here, searching for h-o-p-e, something else finds me. Agony. Creeping at first, only around the festering wound in my chest, then radiating through the rest of my body in wracking waves of hurt. The kind of pain I used to think belongs only beside a grave. I clutch my torso to hold it together, wondering how it is not imploding like the torn ribcages in Aiden’s reel. Lungs and heart and arteries—what is the point of air and blood if the very essence of life ceases to exist?

Downstairs, the jingle of glass gets louder. Or perhaps it’s my senses. Somehow, everything feels magnified, closer. The wind, the broom’s swipes, the willows. Wishes, wishes . . . Or is it ashes, ashes now?

I cover my ears against the sounds, trying to focus on any detail in the present moment that doesn’t hurt. A strategy, a plan. What do we do now? Call Doctor Helen and Corbin at first light—that goes without saying. What about the rest of our allies? The Marines, Aiden’s parents, Reagan, Javier? Would that trigger more flashbacks for Aiden or help? I can’t be sure about that; we’ll have to hear what Doctor Helen says. Yet as I sort through the questions, I realize why they don’t calm me. Because I’m asking the wrong ones: it’s not what we do now. It’s what Aiden will accept for himself. And I have no answer for that.

At last, the glass stops tinkling downstairs. There is only a deafening silence, laced at the edges with willows and wind. I fold my arms around my knees so I don’t run to the library. But t-i-m-e stops again, as it did during Edison’s attack. For the first time since my visa was denied, I look at the clock willingly, longingly even, urging it to move faster. It doesn’t. The minutes stretch, endless and quiet. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-five. Finally, I hear Aiden’s footsteps. I breathe in what feels like hours. He doesn’t take the stairs though; he is striding toward the living room. But he spots me here before I can speak.

“Elisa?” He stops immediately. “What are you doing there? Do your feet hurt?” His eyes meet mine, yet in the time we were apart, they seem to have travelled even further away. Distant and remote—I could search their depths forever and never discover what they are holding. His face is unreadable too, wrong somehow. Too smooth, too blank. My heart lurches to my mouth.

“No, I don’t even feel them,” I answer a fraction too late.

“Then why aren’t you in bed?”

“I’ve been waiting for you.”

He watches me for a long moment from the foot of the stairs. With the soft light of the chandelier behind him, he looks like an apparition. The most beautiful, heart-wrenching kind. Finally, he sighs and starts taking the stairs toward me. The fifth stair that usually squeaks with our love is almost silent at the supple motion of his bare feet. He doesn’t smile when he steps on it, like always. I stand as soon as he is three stairs down, folding my arms around his waist. At this height, my face is almost level with his. It doesn’t help me decipher his expression any better. I lean in to kiss him but he climbs the other steps, towering out of my reach.

“Come on, let’s get you to bed,” he murmurs. “The lidocaine will wear off soon.”

“I’m not going to bed without you.” I take his hand in both of mine—it’s still closed into a tight fist—and try to lead him to our bedroom. But he stops.

“I don’t want to risk falling asleep next to you when I’m supposed to wake up every two hours. I’ll read in your old room if it will make you feel better. Go on, get some rest.”

In the dark hall, his face is shadowed. Terrified, I wobble closer, reaching for his cheek—perhaps my fingers will read something my eyes cannot. The sculpted planes are hard. His jaw flexes once under my palm.

“Maybe being in our happy bedroom will help,” I suggest, knowing how peaceful he becomes as soon as he crosses the golden threshold. “You’re supposed to rest too.”

He leans away from my touch. “No, I’m not bringing in there everything we’ve always kept out of those four walls.”

I think about that—I wouldn’t want to taint that space for him either. “Then I’ll stay with you in my old room,” I insist. “If I fall asleep, I do, but I’m not—under any circumstances—staying away from you right now. I can’t, Aiden. Please, don’t ask me that.”

Another long moment passes in the hallway. Ashes, ashes, ashes . . . Then he sighs again, perhaps realizing I won’t give up. I take it as a yes and take his hand. He lets me hold it as I tow him behind me to my old bedroom.

The room is exactly as it was during my childhood and adolescence. The same white linen curtains drape over the window, the same cream desk, the same full bed lined with rose-printed sheets. Abruptly, the story Aiden’s parents told me about how they discovered Für Elise rings in my ears. Aiden returned to his own childhood home the night I left him. I can’t be anywhere else, he told his long-lost parents. I almost trip as I pad to my own old bed. What will happen this time if we lose each other? There would be no place in the world to hold him or me. Will we be ash then, not even stardust?

I turn on the side lamp and pull back the covers with frozen hands. “Come on, lie down with me,” I tell him, trying to shake off the memory of Stella’s voice.

He takes a deep breath and strides reluctantly my way. His face is still void of any expression, but I will take that over the physical distance. He picks me up carefully, but I know it’s only for my feet because he checks the gauze on them as he sets me down on the bed. I would protest that my legs fine, but I want his hands on me too much, so I let him fuss and examine my knees. Only when he is satisfied that there is no hint of bleeding, he climbs in. I snuggle to his side, much closer than in our big bed, which suits me just fine. His body is statue-like, carved in stone again. I mold myself to his shape like a second skin. He reaches deftly around me to switch off the bedside lamp.

“Sleep, Elisa.”

“Wait, not yet.” I stop his hand. “Can’t we talk for a bit?”

“What would you like to talk about?” he asks in that same detached tone.

I prop myself up so I can look at his face. It’s still unfathomable. “How are you feeling? Does your head hurt?”

“I’ve seen a lot worse than a blow to the head. I really wish you would stop worrying and go to sleep.”

“How can I possibly not worry with everything that happened tonight? Will you really see Doctor Helen tomorrow like you told Doctor Gramercy?”

“Yes, I already emailed her from the library.”

It’s astonishing how much this small initiative relieves me. I feel my lips lift in a smile. “That’s great. What about Corbin?”

His eyes tighten at the corners at Corbin’s name. “I’m sure he’ll call in, too.”

I don’t understand the abrupt edge in his voice, and I’m not sure I want to. But I still can’t help asking. “What is it? Why do you get that look?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t want to get into psychoanalysis now, Elisa. It’s late. Can we give it a rest for tonight?”

I caress his tense jaw, back and forth, hoping it will soften. No matter how much I want to talk, his rest is more important. But I want him to rest with the right thoughts. “Okay, but can I at least apologize first?”

The control slips in his composed face. His raven eyebrows fold in obvious confusion. “Apologize? What did you do that needs forgiveness?”

“If I had believed you about the break-in, we wouldn’t be here tonight. And if I hadn’t woken you up, Edison wouldn’t have triggered you. I placed us in this position, I hurt you, and I endangered myself. I’m so sorry, Aiden. You were right about everything. This was all my fault, and I don’t want you to spend a single minute blaming yourself.”

I have managed to break through the hollow eyes. Something glints there, dark and furious.

Your fault?” He sits up, staring lividly for a brief second. Then the floodgates burst. “It was your fault that you couldn’t keep quiet when a man slapped you hard enough to knock you off your feet? Your fault that I’m so fucked up you didn’t feel you could wake me even to save your own life? Your fault because you questioned someone who is living in several realities at the same time? Or was it your fault because you had to save me from the window I broke by blinding yourself in the process and stepping on the same broken glass you were trying to spare me from?”

“Aiden, no—” I try to interrupt, but he continues in full flow.

“Or maybe it was your fault because you had to lift a heavy desk all by yourself far enough so I wouldn’t crack my skull? Or perhaps I should fault you for saving my life when you were alone and terrified? Which of these crimes deserves the death penalty that I almost delivered to you tonight? Hmm? Tell me, Elisa, because I’m failing to see which of these you want me to forgive.”

He stops talking abruptly, breathing hard. He glares beyond me, while I gaze at him in horror. Even knocked unconscious, he has missed nothing. And he has found a way to blame himself for everything, as I knew he would. I sit up, trying to take his face in my hands, but he tears himself from me and bolts out of bed. In the time it takes me to blink and focus, he is standing at the window, glowering into the black night.

“Aiden, please, don’t do this again,” I beg, climbing out of bed and shuffling to his side. “I know it’s in your character to take the blame, but you have it wrong this time. This one was all on me.”

“No, it wasn’t. There is only one fault you have here as far as I’m concerned: that you fell in love with me. In a world full of Graham Knightleys and Felix Plemmonses, you insist on staying with the absolute worst option for you alive—”

“Aiden—”

“No, strike that. Even that I can’t blame you for. You actually managed to leave me. You found the strength to get on a plane and start again, but I couldn’t leave you well the fuck alone. Oh no, I had to chase you all way around the world because I want you too fucking much. God forbid I should be miserable for a chance that you stay safe and alive.”

“Alive?” I hiss back, losing the grip on my own temper. “What kind of life do you think I would have if you hadn’t chased me around the world? Edison would have turned me into a tombstone on the hilltop by now if it weren’t for you. You’re the reason I’m alive at all. Even you can’t deny that.”

He winces as if I struck him with my words about tombstones. “Yes, I can deny it, because anyone else could have saved you tonight—Cal, Max, any trained bodyguard without you ever knowing. It didn’t have to be me.”

“You’re not serious! What, you would have planted security outside my cottage forever?”

“That’s exactly right!”

“That’s exactly mad! Edison would have found a way—”

“This is not about Edison! Edison is out of the picture now and he will stay that way until he dies. Does that mean you’re less in danger with me, Elisa? Does that mean you can wake me up at night whenever you need? Does that mean you’re safe with the person from whom you are most entitled to expect protection? When you are constantly one startle away from a violent death, more painful than a dose of midazolam? No, it doesn’t. Because I am the most lethal danger that could have possibly crossed your path.”

His words are coming at me fast and gusty like a hurricane. Blowing back all my cells, stripping away everything that gives me meaning. What can I say to convince him? What argument would ever make him accept that I don’t want any kind of life without him no matter how safe or long it might be?

He turns to the window again, his muscles flexing with anger like a churning ocean, keeping us apart. I reach a trembling hand for his granite forearm. “Aiden, you know I could never want anyone else. Why can’t you see how happy you make me? Why can’t you accept that I belong with you exactly as you are?”

He doesn’t hesitate. “Because I refuse to believe in any fate that dooms you to me, that’s why.”

I step in front of him, squeezing myself between his tense body and the window. He doesn’t look at me even when I rest my hands on his chest, but his heart is thundering. “Stop this, please. This thinking isn’t good for you, especially tonight. We’re supposed to rest and do the opposite, not an exact carbon copy of last time.”

He stares into the night for so long, I start thinking he will not answer. But then he speaks slowly. “We can’t do the opposite when the problem is still the same, Elisa.”

His voice has lost all its fight—it’s almost a whisper. The deep eyes break through his control. And for a moment, I’m a child again, like I am during the reel—the same little girl who used to sleep in this white, rosy room with an enchanted life filled with blooms. Because I would have to live through a thousand more fatal accidents, funerals, betrayals, ICE trials and jails, goodbyes, and deaths before I can grasp even a fraction of the agony in Aiden’s eyes. They burn in their sockets, ravaged with despair. His body shudders under my palms and, for a split second, I think his knees will give out. I almost fall on mine, but he flexes and stands taller, as if in front of a firing squad that is not executing him fast enough.

That’s when I realize what I’m seeing, what the searing torture is in his eyes. His hope is gone. And it has taken everything, leaving him only biologically alive.

I don’t know how I breathe through the pain that seems to crush my very bones, how I don’t gasp from the way my body feels ripped inside out at this realization. But I manage, for him. I reach on my tiptoes, ignoring the way the cuts stretch with the movement—it feels like soft petals compared to the mangled mess within—and take his face in my hands.

“Love, we don’t know that the problem is the same. Don’t think that. We still have five weeks left.”

He still doesn’t meet my eyes. He is motionless, as though tied to a flaming stake. “I know exactly how many weeks, days, hours, and minutes are left.”

“Please look at me.” His eyes meet mine, torn and unwilling. My own hurt doubles with the hopeless anguish he is trying very hard to hide. “And we will fight during each one of those minutes. We will fight for the entire time we have left.”

“We have been fighting. I have been exposing you to trauma and danger for fifty-three days. It hasn’t made the smallest difference—not even a moment’s delay in the reflex. I felt it. You saw it yourself.”

I wish I could argue with him. I wish I could say he is wrong. I think back furiously through the sequence, trying to identify any change that will give him life or at least some faith. But how can I dispute something Aiden knows better than anyone? I better stick to facts. “I won’t lie and say it looked different. But I also can’t say it looked the same. It started the same way, but then you were knocked out. I don’t know how it would have ended. Let’s see what Doctor Helen thinks.”

“But I know, Elisa. There’s no one on Earth that knows it like I do. It was the same trigger, the same flashback, the same speed. Of course, it would have been the same end. We have the proof now. Five weeks early, but there it is. All that torture you’ve had to witness, all the pain I put you through every morning, all the risk, everything it costs you to bring me back from the reel—all of it has done nothing. It—didn’t—work. Every additional minute you spend with me now is indefensible and places you in more danger.”

And there it is. Our poison and dagger. The way our love story always races to same end: killing our hearts to save my life. As if I could want any life after that.

He is still looking at me with those same tortured eyes, daring me to disagree. I use the only option, the only h-o-p-e I have left. “Aiden . . .” I clutch his face harder, needing it to be able to stand. “We promised we would fight until the ninetieth day. You will not finish us early this time. Because if you leave before then, you might save my body, but you would kill my heart, not to mention yours.”

With each word I speak, a new inferno seems to burn him. But what else can I say? How else can I buy us more time to try, to find another way? He is still burning at the stake: face a thousand years old, jaw clenched as if against a silent scream, eyes out of focus in agony.

“Aiden, promise me,” I press, my tone bordering on hysteria. “Promise me you won’t leave before the ninety days.” Or ever, I add silently, but I cannot push that tonight.

He closes his eyes, cutting off my only access to his emotions. Seconds tick away, each a new tear through my chest.

“Please,” I implore him again. “Don’t take these last days from us.”

He opens his eyes. Somehow, he has reigned back the agony into a semblance of composure, no doubt for my benefit. I know because when he gazes at me, he looks resigned, as though my words have lashed at his will.

“I will stay until September eighteen,” he breathes at last. “But I need to think about what that will look like.”

Living apart, maybe worse—and he will not stay a single minute more. He doesn’t say it but it’s there in the silence that follows, in his unflinching gaze. Every part of me wants to argue with him, but tonight is absolutely not the right time. I’ll need all our allies and science for that.

I wind my arms around his waist for support. “That’s a good place to leave it for tonight. We can think together what it will look like. Now come to bed. I’ll go get our phones and some ice.”

“I’ll do that—get off your feet.”

Except I need a minute. “No, I need to use the restroom anyway. I’ll be right back.”

Perhaps he needs a minute too because he nods, watching me leave. As soon as I’m out of his sight, I run to our bedroom and grab our phones, trying to think only of a plan for the rest of the night until we see Doctor Helen. Something that will calm him, a way to do the opposite of the last time. But as I search our bedroom for ideas, I find nothing: talking, making love, playing chess, dancing—none of those happy activities will reach him now. Inspiration doesn’t strike until I’m leaving the kitchen with an ice pack and glimpse the light still on in the library. Please let this work, please let us win, please keep him with me.

The library is spotless. There isn’t a glimmer of broken glass or droplet of blood anywhere. Everything is back in its precise place. Aiden has secured the broken shutters together with wire so they don’t slam. The willows’ lament is louder on this side of the cottage: ashes, ashes, ashes… I find what I’m looking for and dash back upstairs.

Aiden is sitting on the bed, toying idly with one of my Rubik cubes—he has already solved it. But his eyes are back in their hollow setting, empty and far away. He raises an eyebrow at his war letters in my hand.

“What are you up to, Elisa?”

“Well, Corbin says we have to do the opposite of last time, and you mentioned reading. So I was thinking of my favorite thing to read: your letters. Last time in Portland, I read only one, all alone. This time, I think we should read them all together.”

His perfect eyebrow arches higher in his forehead. “Elisa, you’ve had a hell of a night. I’d very much prefer it if you got some sleep.”

“And I will, but I’m sure it will be easier to fall asleep to the sound of your voice.” I use the only argument that stands a chance and hand him his phone and ice pack. He checks my knees and feet again as I curl to his side. “They’re warm and cozy,” I lie even though the lidocaine is starting to wear off. I hold my treasure in my hands, stroking the coarse paper that to me feels like my own skin now. “You know when Benson gave these to me, he wrote that he was breaking your rules. What rules did you give him?”

He gazes at the yellowed envelopes for a moment. “He wasn’t supposed to do anything that stopped you from leaving me,” he answers. “No information about Javier, no interference of any kind. Of course, neither of us was prepared for your decision to come back to England. And I should have known in the end he would have been on your side.” He frowns at some thought, glancing at the closed bedroom door.

A shiver runs through me as he confirms my worst fear. I turn his face to me, cupping his cheek. “You will not do anything like that again. No forcing my hand or secret plots for me to hate you, all right?”

His eyes burn on mine, deep and unfathomable. “If only there were such a way, but you seem to be incapable of hating me no matter how hard I try. So there is no point to that strategy now.”

His voice is low with an ancient sadness, but there seems to be only truth in it. Our separation will be different this time. He will make sure Javier and Reagan are here. He will see that Edison is gone away for life. He will set me up with permanent security and trust funds. He will take care of every detail the way only Aiden knows how. And then he will say goodbye. Honestly, truly, forever. The fault lines in my chest tear open. It feels as though everything is cleaving in half, from my body to my life. I have five weeks to stop him. Five weeks to win with almost all of our weapons obliterated in one fell swoop tonight. And I have to start right now.

“You’re right,” I say, knowing he must hear the emotions playing in my voice. “I could never hate you anymore than you could hate me. So stop wishing for it and let’s read. We can start with this.” I pick the most worn envelope from the stack—even undated, I know it by heart. “It’s my favorite.”

A flash of curiosity touches his eyes. “This is?”

“Yes, by a wide margin.”

He frowns, and I can understand why. After all, I was in tears the first time I read, and the second, and the third. But I still couldn’t stop reading it over and over again.

“Why is it your favorite?”

“I’ll tell you after we read it.”

I wrap myself around him, resting my head on his chest. His heart is thudding with its firm, assertive rhythm, slower than during our argument—probably from the memory of writing these letters. The letters that were the genesis of my calming effect. He takes the envelope from me and fishes out the beloved sheet of commissary paper, taking care to keep the red desert sand inside. I know he doesn’t need to read it to remember, but he still begins in his piano voice.

“My all,

This is the day. The day I thought I would stop writing to you. I knew it would come. Despite my romantic notions, I am fighting in a war. I spend my days and nights surrounded by IEDs, artillery, and homemade bombs. But I didn’t know how it would come. I imagined perhaps a grenade on my side of the road, a bullet in the right place, at the right time. The how didn’t really matter—you would know. Because you live inside me, there would never be a need for goodbye with us. I go, you go. In the same last breath.

But as with all perfect things, there is a catch: I love you. Fictional and mythical as you are.

I know that too, I can hear you say. But did you know how deep that love runs? You couldn’t, because until now that I am scribbling these words, I didn’t know it myself. It’s so profound that I cannot bear the thought of you not existing. Even if only inside my head.

And that is why today is not that day. That is why I am still writing to you even though I shouldn’t be here, even though I should join my best man. But if I end, you end with me. And apparently, I cannot tolerate that fact.

How did this happen? How did an imaginary woman become a reason for living when a bullet in the mouth would be the better choice? How did you manage to make me love a part of myself on the day I hate all the rest?

They will say my strength saved my life tonight. They will credit faith, hope, or even angels. But they will be wrong. It was you. I picked up a pen instead of my pistol because of you. There is ink on my fingers instead of blood because of you. I am still breathing so you can continue, even if only as a dream. I am still writing because, in a day when everything feels surreal, I believe you exist.

So we go on, you and I, halves of the whole. You the wind, and I the cloud. You the current, I the ocean. You the fire, I the burn. We go on, like air and lungs, hearts and beats, light and dark.

We go on together because we love.

Yours,

Aiden.”

His voice drifts off, more beautiful than any of the pale imitations I would hear in my head when I read these words alone. I barely breathe so I don’t interfere with the aftersound. Even when he is no longer talking, it echoes in my ears like a lullaby. We go on . . .

“So why this is your favorite?” Aiden reminds me while I commit every tilt of his cadence to my imperfect memory.

“Because in all the other letters, you write about your love for me. This is the only one where you write about loving yourself. When you said, ‘how did you manage to make me love a part of myself,’ it made me happy even though I know this was one of your darkest days. See, there is some self-love in you after all.” I press my lips above his heart, crushing myself closer to him. “And of course I love that you didn’t give up on us even on that day.”

“That day I didn’t know I had developed a deadly reflex, Elisa.”

“I know but, still, you kept some hope.”

He doesn’t answer but his arm winds around me for the first time since Edison’s attack. He looks at the aged letter with a thousand-miles stare, seeing all the images and memories that must be layered underneath each word. His long fingers trail absentmindedly down my arm.

“Hey,” I call him back, suddenly worried I’ve unleashed more terror than comfort.

“Hmm?” He blinks at me. The fingers stop their caress.

“Are these too hard to read? We can find another way to do the opposite.”

“No, not hard,” he corrects. “It’s . . . fitting, I suppose, to read these with you now.” There is a tone of finality in his words, like the sound a full circle might make if it could produce sound. He feels my goosebumps and tucks the quilt around me. “It was a good idea. In a way, they still bring me calm.”

I shudder under the covers. “Let’s go on, then,” I whisper, wondering if he hears my double-meaning. “Read another one. Do you have a favorite?”

I feel his head shake against my hair. “No, each of them felt different and yet the same.”

“Let’s start from the beginning then.”

And he does. “My all,” he murmurs, his voice a quiet sonata. I listen to him read the words that saved him, pretending they can save him again now, can save us both. And despite my efforts to stay awake, slowly, his rhythmic poetry soothes me, too, and I start drifting. Yet, I feel no sense of closure or relief. Because I know darker, more terrifying days are still ahead. Change is coming. I can feel it in the space between my cells, in each breath Aiden takes, in the throbbing of the open wound in my heart. Change is coming. I just hope it’s not the end.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 29 – DEATH

Hello, everyone, and hope you are all having a good Sunday.  It’s been rainy and a bit tearful here with this chapter. Okay, not a bit. I’m a mess, but this is the way of this story and these characters. And that’s all I can say for this. The music of this chapter says it all: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture.  Hang in there, I’ll be back soon with more.  Only very few chapters left now. Thank you for continuing to read this story to its ultimate conclusion. Lots of love, xo – Ani

29

Death

In my dream, our bedroom is very dark. The only light is radiating from Aiden’s skin. I know it’s a dream because there is no Für Elise. The melody has become so deeply embedded in my subconscience that I recognize its absence even asleep. But I sink deeper into the quiet because in dreams I can always touch him. He is sleeping on his side, facing me. The candlelit shimmer of his body triggers a flashback, like a dream within a dream. No, not a dream—my worst night terror: Aiden as Romeo, cold and lifeless next to me. Choking with panic, my hand flies to his chest. But his skin is supple and warm, his heart is beating under my palm, evenly and reassuringly alive. I blow out a gusty sigh of relief. From my breath, a lock of his hair flutters above his scar. He moans lightly and rolls over. And the golden expanse of his back glows before me as it never would in real life. Exposed, vulnerable, and not dangerous. Eagerly, I take full advantage of the fantasy. I wrap my arm around him, safe and sound, and press my lips on his relaxed shoulder blade. The sculpted angles give to the pressure of my mouth. I caress them with my fingers, taste them on my tongue. My body molds itself to his shape. For the first time, in life or dreams, I feel the steel of his back against my bare breasts. I tremble like a shiver on his spine.

“Ah, Elisa,” he murmurs.

In the silence, his whisper sounds clear like a symphony.  “Yes?” I breathe, unwilling to let my voice interfere with his music.

“It’s a dream, love.”

“Then let me dream.”

I kiss the tip of his shoulder, waiting for the sound of his reply. A willowy rustle whooshes in the distance. I press into his back, quivering again, and hold my breath for his voice. But all I hear is a wooden creak. The edge of the dream roils.

“No,” I grumble, burying my nose between Aiden’s shoulders. His scent is so pure here—no rosewood or me, just him—like a new home, counterpoint to my spot above his heart on his chest. But the dream is slipping away. The light of Aiden’s body twists into conscience, turning dark where my fingers touch it. Another creak, and he vanishes.

Irritated with the cottage, I blink awake. The moonlit bedroom takes the place of the candlelit dream. The most beautiful dream—my body is thrumming with it, my breath fluttering. The true Aiden is fast asleep next to me, more surreal than the fantasy. Surreal because my mind can never replicate his beauty. Real because tension strains his shoulders despite the low lullaby of Für Elise. I can never touch him now, nor startle him awake in any way.

I scoot closer to his warmth, trying to go back to dreaming. One puff of happiness, two, three . . . But the shutters creak again with the wind that woke me in the first place. I glower into the starlit darkness. They’ll wake Aiden this way. I steal out of bed carefully inch by inch. Even with the slow movement, my body groans like the cottage. How can it not after three games of real and body chess, all of which I lost spectacularly to the dark king? My ego is obviously not the only sore part. Aiden will have to carry me along River Eden tomorrow. Or is it today? The alarm clock on my nightstand gleams four minutes to midnight.

I teeter to the window to tighten the latch, but it’s still locked as Aiden secured it in his safety obsession. Another creak from downstairs—one of the kitchen shutters must have come loose. Not entirely sure I can make it that far, I start tiptoeing across the bedroom, feeling blindly for my robe on the floor and stubbing my toe on the dresser.

“Ouch!” I hiss, and then freeze. I must look comical, crouching here, one arm in my robe, another hand around my foot, but Aiden doesn’t move. His deep breaths flow rhythmically without a hitch. Mine, on the other hand, have stopped completely. I don’t draw a wisp of air until I slip out of the door.

The wind must have become a near-gale outside because a shutter slams against the cottage with force.

“Bloody hell,” I mutter, padding down the stairs in the dark, knotting the sash of my robe. A metallic jingle chimes nearby. My body freezes on the squeaky step, heart lurching to the soles of my feet. Abruptly I cannot move or breathe. What is that sound? I’m not wearing my new charm bracelet or my locket; I’m not carrying a single thing that tinkles.

The foyer light flicks on, though not from my fingers.

I blink into the sudden glow in terror, my throat closing around a scream. I wasn’t hearing the shutters slam; I was hearing the front door. Aiden has been right from the beginning. It was never the reel or his PTSD. There is no more logic or gravity to argue against his theory.

Someone is here for me.

Pale, thinner somehow in the foyer’s dim light, with an odd glint in the familiar eyes, the real intruder stands motionless, except a bundle of keys dangling in his hand. Confusion and surprise blend in the narrow face when he spots me. Then the wafery lips stretch up in a closed smile.

I choke back my building scream, my stomach heaving with horror. It’s very strange for I know the fear should be for myself. There is no good reason for a visit at this hour, in my home, with a key I’ve never given out. Yet in this moment I feel only one dread: Aiden sleeping upstairs. How do I keep him safe?

No one knows what would happen to Aiden’s memories if he is wrenched awake while they are reconsolidating, but we do know what happens when he is triggered. Doctor Helen’s severe voice reverberates in my pounding ears as if she is towering right next to me: you must guard against the startle reflex during this time . . . it is imperative . . . imperative . . . imperative.

Somehow, someway, I will have to be quiet for this. For Aiden. It’s my choices, my mistakes that have placed him in danger, that have brought us here, all alone and unprotected.

“Elisa?” Professor Edison recovers first as my brain scrambles frantically for a plan. “My apologies, I didn’t realize you were here. I thought you went away for the weekend.”

The normally measured voice has a jolted edge to it, but otherwise is casual, as if we are bumping into each other on the street. But it’s also quieter than Reagan’s on Skype, which doesn’t wake Aiden. And that’s a good thing. Keep Aiden asleep please, keep him away from this.

“I think I’m the one entitled to surprise, Professor,” I whisper, taking the last few steps down the stairs, further away from the bedroom, my legs shaking so much I have to grip the rail. “What are you doing in my home and how do you have a key?”

The smile opens his mouth, revealing an unnaturally red gumline between his lips that I haven’t seen before. The crimson hue lingers like a filter over my eyes. Beneath my terror, I feel a burn of anger. This man who has stood in this foyer more times than I can count—laughing with my father, hugging my mum, ruffling my hair—who is he? How dare he stand where my parents stood as if he owns the life they left behind? As if he owns me.

He takes off his anorak and hangs it next to mum’s red parka with easy, at-home manners. He is wearing the same tweed suit as he was at dad’s bench ceremony this afternoon. The anger seeps through my skin like tonic, fortifying me a little. His greyish eyes don’t seem to fall on Aiden’s trainers in the corner; instead they flatten, as if with an inner decision.

“Oh, I can imagine your surprise,” he answers, comfortable now, back to his professor persona. “It’s quite understandable, of course. But no matter, no matter. It’s better like this.”

“I’m not following you.” I take another step closer to him. On the console, by the Rose Cup and the perpetual vase of Clares, is the skunk spray and the strobe flashlight that Aiden planted to protect me from himself. Both of them out of reach. “Better how, Professor?”

“Better for the truth, of course. Isn’t that the goal of science? Shall we go in to discuss, Elisa?” He smiles the scarlet smile again and gestures toward the library.

On one hand, it’s farther away from the stairs and the bedroom. But it’s also the farthest room from the front door, and I need him out of here immediately. I try to think quickly through the raw panic. Should I tell Edison I’m not alone? But what if he goes upstairs and startles Aiden? Is there any chance Benson is awake at this hour, looking at the foyer camera feed?

“Actually, I’d like to talk when I return from River Eden,” I suggest as quietly as possible. “I still have to pack and my boyfriend will be here shortly for an early start. Please set the key on the console and leave.”

He sighs and shakes his head. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. I’m here for answers that cannot wait and, since you’re here too, I’m certain you can give them to me faster. But you have no reason to fear and invent a boyfriend. I’ve known you since you were born. The library then.” He indicates with his hand down the corridor, with no room for opposition. Yet, for some reason, I don’t think he would hurt me, at least not yet. He is here for the protein—if there is anything I’m certain about, it’s that. The biggest danger is to Aiden and I cannot allow it in any way.

“I’m not inventing,” I answer, wishing I could speak loudly with conviction, instead of the necessary murmur which must make me sound exactly as afraid as I feel. “And frankly this is inappropriate, not to mention unlawful. Whatever answers you need, I will happily discuss at work.”

The red smile opens again, clearly unconvinced. “Oh, Elisa, there is no need for hostility. Such an American way. But I can assure you, I’ll be quick. I only have a couple of questions.” He gestures to the library again, blocking the front door. I can see from the flat eyes that he will not leave, at least not immediately. A chill slithers down my spine. Am I wrong? Would he hurt me? No, he needs me. I’ll have to go with that or I will not be able to stay calm for Aiden.

I try to scan my options swiftly. Everything else—continuing to argue here, disclosing Aiden’s presence, screaming, going upstairs for my cell phone on the charger—runs the risk of waking Aiden, of jeopardizing everything we’ve been fighting for. But if I talk to Edison quietly, closer to a desk phone and more skunk spray, hopefully he will leave. And I may get some answers—answers that I may only have tonight to receive.

Only seconds have passed. Edison is waiting for me with a patient, academic mien. Used as I am to reading Aiden’s deep eyes, his flat concrete shallows keep me off balance. But his stance is casual, relaxed. Outside, the wind is whistling with the willows.

“Ten minutes,” I murmur, hoping I can somehow dial Benson before then if he doesn’t leave. The coppers are out of the question with their sirens and alarms.

I scurry down the corridor away from the bedroom, knees trembling, stomach churning to the point of nausea. The Oxfords click behind me, quieter than Skype’s dings. I tighten my robe, feeling exposed. Upstairs all sounds quiet. Keep Aiden asleep, please, keep him dreaming.

As soon as I switch on the library light, I swipe the blanket from the back of dad’s armchair, throw it around me, and march straight to his desk by the side wall. There are more sprays and strobe lights in the drawers here, there is the phone if I can manage to use it. But that leaves Edison with dad’s armchair across from me, and I see crimson again. That’s good, too; it makes it easier to look brave.

But Edison doesn’t sit right away. His eyes alight on the precious chessboard in the far corner, free of its glass case. “Ah, you finally finished the game! How poetic.” He presses his palms together, but a new bolt of dread strikes me.

“How did you know about the unfinished chess game, Professor?” I try to put strength behind my whisper, but it shudders in my mouth.

“Hmm?” He looks back at me, still casual, but something falters in his gaze. “Oh, I saw it the day of the funeral.”

It’s the only answer that makes sense, yet my stomach heaves again, recognizing the lie. Because in a flashback quick like Aiden’s, I remember the day I returned here from Portland, finding this desk messier than usual, thinking dad had run late the morning before the accident.

“You have been here before, haven’t you?” Of course he has—Aiden discovered one time—but this suggests more break-ins. Why? What am I dealing with here? Have I misjudged again?

He doesn’t speak until I reach carbon, trying not to vomit. The flat eyes are mesmerizing in an odd, chilling way. I cannot look away from them. Eventually, he seems to make a decision and takes dad’s armchair.

“Very well, Elisa.” He tents his hands, his voice quiet and pleasant. “It’s quite natural that you should be curious. And if I expect honesty from you, which I do, I should extend you the same courtesy. I’ll start first. Yes, I’ve been here before.”

“When?”

“The night after the funeral.”

Of all the nights in my life, that’s the blurriest, even foggier than the night of the accident itself. I only know that I was at my grandparents’ home in London at the time, medicated, while my cottage was being raided. Abruptly, I have to concentrate on breathing through the growing rage to control my reactions for Aiden.

“You look so very much like Clare when you’re displeased.” Edison cocks his head to the side, and the glassy eyes take on some semblance of expression. “But you must understand, the work had to go on.” He shrugs as if this one end justifies all the means. And if it justifies this, what else can it excuse for him?

“How did you get a key?”

He takes the cottage key out of the bundle and sets it on the desk in front of me like he is simply returning a borrowed book. “I’ll give this back. I suppose I no longer will have need for it after tonight.”

“Why did you need it at all?”

“Why?” He shakes his head as if in disbelief at my question. “My dear girl, because I had no other option. You were incapacitated with grief, and Peter was gone. I needed access to his work to continue with the protein. I wasn’t going to bother you in the hospital or at the Snows, was I?”

He smiles the gummy red smile as if he truly believes he has done me a kindness. “I asked how you got a key, Professor. I’m certain neither mum nor dad gave it to you.”

“Ah, the Clare passion again. But there’s no need for censure when I quite regret it myself.” There is no remorse in his eyes whatsoever despite the solicitous tone. “I made a copy of the key you gave to the Plemmonses during the funeral reception. Without their knowledge, naturally. I took it from Harold’s coat pocket when he slipped it in. There was no other choice that wouldn’t have inconvenienced you or forced you to comb through your dead father’s papers in such a fragile state.”

Dead father. How easily it rolls off his tongue. How quickly that ease negates the veneer of concern from his explanation. I focus all my mental power on keeping my voice quiet for Aiden. “Why not simply ask the Plemmonses or my grandparents for permission?”

“Because they were elderly and had also been through a tremendous loss, obviously.”

The lie is so fluid, it would be impossible to detect if I didn’t know what Aiden discovered despite my resistance. “There is no need to invent compassion, Professor. Because I know that’s not the only time you’ve broken in here.”

His eyes widen with evident interest or perhaps it’s feigned innocence. As they do, I notice a faint pink tint in their whites. “How curious. Why do you believe that?”

“Because you left marks.” Like a reel on rewind, the last two months flash before my eyes. “Marks that I now realize fit only you.”

The sliver of gumline glints again and the blank gaze becomes eager, acquisitive as it is in Bia. “Ah, you’re analyzing like a scientist. I’m so very interested to hear your hypothesis.”

“It’s not hypothesis. It’s fact. You have a habit of slamming doors and storming in, Professor. You should know that in an old, creaky cottage, picture frames move, scarves and parkas slip. You were careful not to move anything on June thirtieth because I was back, unlike the first time you broke in when you left this desk a mess. But you didn’t realize the unintentional signs you left behind the second time.”

As I talk, Edison’s expression folds from curiosity to incredulity and now in a friendly, indulgent mask. He chuckles. “These are not facts, Elisa. That’s only a theory at best, and a creative one. But proof?” He shakes his head again. “No, my dear girl, it is not.”

“No, but this is. You have a penchant for After-Eight mints. I smelled them on you earlier this morning at Bia but thought nothing of it until now. You ate one on June thirtieth, the night you broke in here for a second time. And you dropped the wrapper in front of the garage, perhaps even smoked a cigarette. I’m certain now that a simple nitrate and ninhydrin powder would immediately reveal your fingerprints. As they would show on my doodles you stole from this library and tossed out of your car window down the road when you realized they held no information about anything. Isn’t that right, Professor?”

The flat façade has vanished from Edison’s face. He is staring at me with the same wide, astonished eyes as he was during my speech, but there is calculation underneath. “Well, well, Elisa, how impressive. You really are Peter’s daughter.”

Except this is all from Aiden, and I didn’t believe him. I made him question his sanity and have now placed him in grave danger. I will deal with myself later. “Why do you come here, Professor? The truth now, so we can be done with this and you can leave.”

The scarlet smile doesn’t waver from Edison’s dry lips, but his eyes flatten again. Why do they do that? “As you wish.” He nods. “I said we will talk openly, and so we shall. I have a hypothesis, too, Elisa. I believe Peter left you the formula for the protein or at least a hint of it. And you have been pursuing it ever since you returned, finally succeeding today before your speech.”

At least I don’t have to pretend to look surprised now. “What?” I breathe, gobsmacked. How on earth did he reach that last conclusion? Not that he isn’t absolutely correct about the rest.

He squints as he did earlier today, hesitating at my genuine shock, but then recovers with another thin smile. “Ah, like a good chemist, you won’t give up your conclusions first either, I see. But not to worry. You gave me your evidence, and I will give you mine.” He knots his bony fingers. “I shall start at the beginning, so you can understand—a professor’s habit, no doubt you know it.”

And he begins in a slow, quiet voice that holds me prisoner even as I will each second to tick faster for the first time in months. “You see, you came back to England right on time, though you didn’t know it. Graham and I had hit a dead end, and I had lost all hope for my protein. Even the funding for it is quite precarious; you cannot fathom the cost of such a project. But here you were, against all probabilities, although just as weak as the day you left.

“I thought immediately I was gaining an asset. Not your experience, of course. There are thousands more qualified than you. But your mind. Ah, yes, it works just like his—Peter used to say so himself.” He nods as if he is praising me instead of confirming that the only reason he gave me a chance was my last name. S-n-o-w.

“But I admit that initial thrill quickly faded into disappointment those first couple of weeks,” he continues. “You moved your hands like him but didn’t think like him. Determined and methodical, yes, but limited in ways he was not.”

He speaks factually as though he is reporting the qualities of a chemical component instead of stirring all my inadequacies with a very sharp, precise pipette.

“Oh, I mean no offense,” he adds quickly, perhaps seeing it on my face. I need to control my expressions better. “And as it turned out, I was wrong in that assessment. Very wrong indeed.  You are not limited, just discreet. I realized all that on Saturday, June thirtieth, the night I came here.”

Whatever breaths I was managing stop. “What did you realize?” I ask, keeping my voice quiet so he doesn’t catch the emotion. Because that’s the day I discovered the right oxytocin, the day the vials stopped breaking, the day Aiden’s parents came to visit.

“That you were using oxytocin, of course.” He watches my reactions carefully. It takes all my concentration not to move an eyelash while my heart is pummeling my throat. He knows. Then why is he here?

“You lost me,” I hedge.

“Did I? The fault lies with the teacher then. You see, Graham mentioned you were working earlier that day, which in itself was unusual for you on a Saturday. But he also observed you were so absorbed, you didn’t even jump when he came in—a habit of yours, that is. And that made me ever so curious. Why would a fidgety young intern who hadn’t been working a single hour on weekends suddenly not flinch? Especially a young intern who happens to be the only living descendant of the only chemist in the world who may have discovered organic bravery right before his untimely demise? Could you have seen something in his notes I had missed? Did he leave a clue for you in a place I wouldn’t know, his briefcase perhaps that you had taken to Portland with you? Most understandably, I had to find out.” He nods again as if to give me time to respond. I say nothing so he can speed up, but my hammering heartbeat might awake Aiden. Keep me calm, please, keep me strong for him.

“I went to Bia after Graham left for supper, searching for any sign or hint,” Edison continues when I don’t acknowledge his theory in any way. “And there it was, in the broken glass container: an empty, cracked ampule of oxytocin.

“I admit I was puzzled. There is no place for it in the formula. I tested some doses right away myself, in fact. Of course, nothing. But I was intrigued, so very enraptured. Like I hadn’t been in four long years. Yet I couldn’t find any notes of yours anywhere. Not one scribble. How could that be? It left the cottage as the only alternative. I already heard from Graham you were dining with friends that evening, so I came in just around eight.” He pauses, his eyes following every blink of mine. Under the blanket, my hands ball up into fists to absorb all fury from my expression. I hold my breath as the wind rattles the closed shutters.

“You might be wondering, why not ask you directly,” Edison prompts without any qualms. “I admit I was not certain you would be honest. After all, you hadn’t shared the oxytocin idea with me.”

“That doesn’t entitle you to break into my home, Professor.”

“Of course not. But your misuse of my lab, chemicals, grant funds, and trust certainly allows me some . . . liberties. And in any event, I feel so very at home here, as if it is my cottage too, in a way.”

The crimson of his smile flares into a haze in my vision, into a fierce loathing. I don’t recall ever hating anyone quite like this: so instantly, so venomously. Not even Feign. “But it is not, Professor. It is mine as it always has been.”

“Ah, Elisa.” His voice lowers with rebuke. “You abandoned it for four years. Don’t tell me you suddenly care for it.”

How deeply he cuts. Does he do it intentionally? Or does he truly believe it? And what did I expect people to think? “I’m not surprised you would think so, but I am disgusted that, after pretending to be a friend to my father, you would use my grief to your advantage.”

My advantage?” His eyes widen in perfect approximation of shock, not that I can trust anything in them. “Certainly, but I think Peter’s dream benefits from this, too, and more importantly, so does science. And in any event, I assure you, I was respectful,” he adds as if this makes everything okay. “I didn’t sneak or pry that night. Indeed, I came only here in the library, but everything was spotless. You had obviously cleaned for your guests. I couldn’t find a single note except the crumpled doodles in the corner of your reading nook. Naturally, I had to study the concentric circles—so unique a pattern. What if they were the code? Perhaps as many circles as numbers on the atomic mass of a new element? But nothing added up.

“You’re right, of course. I stopped by the garage and had a mint and a cigarette while studying it. I so rarely smoke, but I admit you had disappointed me that day, too. But I still watched you in the lab the following week. More oxytocin went missing from the cooler, yet nothing seemed to fit. You certainly didn’t act as though you were braver. But how to be sure? Can you venture a theory on what I did, Elisa?”

My face feels frozen with the effort of composing my expressions, but another chill whips through me. A man able to rationalize every wrong deed like this cannot be harmless even to me. I shift my chair a little closer to the phone. Could I lift the receiver and press Benson’s number one digit at a time? No, I can’t. Edison’s eyes are zoomed on me like a microscope.

“I’m still trying to comprehend your audacity, Professor, so I admit, nothing will surprise me. But your ten minutes are up. Get to the point and leave.”

I expect the flat stare to continue, but he chuckles. “There’s the Clare glare.” Then the eyes empty again. “Very well, the point is that I had to see how you would act in a moment of fear or anxiety. I knew you hated public performances—you always have. So I decided to pay you a visit at the Rose Festival. After all, if you had made a break-through with the protein, surely you would use it then.”

I feel blood draining from my face. In a flash of intuition, all the elements fall together, and I have to fight back a gasp. “It was you!” I hiss, gripping the desk so I don’t shout or hit him. “You made my palms pink!” Aiden was right about this, too. He was right about everything. Remorse stabs my chest exactly where the wound burns at Aiden’s absence. And I deserve it. I deserve a lot worse if I didn’t know it would destroy Aiden.

Edison looks almost elated. “Ah, very good, Elisa. How quickly you see. Yes, I have an anti-theft solution of my own invention to protect the protein. You didn’t think I’d leave one of the most expensive substances in the world unguarded, did you? This solution, when it comes into contact with the skin of someone who has ingested the 2-AG, that patch of skin will turn pale blue, then fade quickly before anyone thinks of seeking medical attention. If you had not consumed the protein, your skin would simply turn pink. It’s entirely harmless, I promise you,” he explains as if this justifies the violation, as if he didn’t invade me and literally stain me without consent. “I just brewed some more tonight, in fact. You might notice the reddish hue in my gums and eyes. I always taste it myself for efficacy.” He taps the corner of his mouth, flashing his gruesome smile while I stare in horrified understanding. “There’s no need to worry.” He waves his hand, missing or dismissing the true horror of his own self. “I only placed a very light coating of the solution on the rose pot I handed to you. And immediately, I noticed your palms blush.” He opens his own palms with something like pride. “In the words of our continental neighbors, voila! I knew then that you hadn’t made a break-through or you would have taken the protein before the festival. But then today changed everything.”

He tilts his head to the side, training his unblinking eyes on me. Rage and fear congeal into their own formula in my head, scorching through my tissues, bolting me to my feet.

“Professor Edison.” The words slice through my clenched teeth, and now I know exactly the kind of effort it takes for Aiden to speak quietly when he feels fury like this. Only the thought of him keeps my voice from exploding. “You have violated me and my home, and I would like you to leave immediately. If you do not, I’m afraid I will have to call the coppers.”

He doesn’t move an inch, perhaps sensing my bluff. He simply sighs, brushing an invisible piece of lint from his tweed-clad knee. “I regret it has come to this. I have clearly lost your good opinion. Pity. But there is no need for the police. Simply tell me what changed today that made you go from a terrified little girl on the verge of crying right before the ceremony to a lioness during your speech, and I will leave.”

Nothing changes in his flat eyes, but his voice becomes softer, almost coaxing. In that change, I finally sense danger to myself. Of course he will leave, but what will he do before then? Can I stay silent through whatever he has planned? The instinct to run or scream is nearly uncontrollable. But I do it for Aiden—I would suffer in silence through Fallujah-level torture for him. “My boyfriend happened, Professor” I answer. “He was in the back and gave me the confidence I needed. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I will dial him. I really must pack.”

I grab the receiver but Edison jumps to his feet and his finger presses down on the phone switch, blocking the signal. Everything changes in his expression in one blink. The red smile starts twisting into a sneer. The eyes flash with malice. Like the mask has been ripped off him, and here stands the true man. The change is so staggering, I stifle a gasp. Yet, when he speaks, his voice is still low and genteel.

“Ah, this boyfriend again. Let’s call him together shortly. I’d quite like to meet him after knowing you all your life. But first, what do oxytocin and serotonin have to do with the protein?”

Now that he is close, a faint whiff of alcohol lingers in his breath with the After-Eight mint. Bile rises in my throat. “Absolutely nothing,” I mutter. “I have been experimenting with an anti-depression solution on the side. I’m sorry I used Bia for that, but it has nothing to do with the protein. If you want, I can give you the formula for the one I’ve been mixing and reimburse the cost of wasted hormones.”

He leans closer. The saccharine odor washes over my face, making me gag. “You are lying, E-li-sa.” His slithery voice makes me shudder. “Peter left you something, I know he did.”

“Why do you think that?” I probe not just to distract him, but because this is the question that has haunted me from the moment I found the code. And this may be the only chance I have to find out. “Why are you so convinced dad kept a secret from you even though you were working together?”

The sneer stretches higher, pulling up into a horrific grimace. “Ah, I see, you will pretend you don’t know. Or perhaps you really don’t. Perhaps he died before having a chance to tell you.” He slurps the word as if he relishes it. “No matter, I’ll tell you the truth. Because we had a row about our goals for the protein three days before he was crushed to death in his cheap Beetle. He wanted to restrict the use of bravery only for medical reasons—patients, the terminally ill, classic Peter.” He smirks again. “All heart, no ambition. That’s why he left you with nothing, living off internship quid and rose dirt, without a single protection. I wanted to sell it to the military. Imagine the value, the profit, the importance in that. What more powerful weapon is there than a man without fear?”

“A man with a conscience,” I answer automatically even though it’s clear he meant the question to be rhetorical. But at last, I know. I know the truth. Dad would have never used the protein as a weapon of war. Dad would have seen that Edison wouldn’t have stopped there. What next? Terrorists? Organized crime? Anyone who would pay a filthy lucre for it? I feel my lips lift in a smile despite Edison’s cutting words. “You should have known dad better, Professor. But I don’t have anything to tell you. And after you betrayed my father in every way, we have nothing further to say to each other. Now, let’s call my boyfriend together, shall we? You should know, he was in the U.S. military and knows about you and your break-in. If anything happens to me, he will know it was you and you will see exactly what a powerful weapon he is.”

I grab the phone and try to yank it away from him, but his hand whips down on my wrist. His fingers are like cold shale, his grip stronger than I imagined.

“Let go of me.” I pull back my hand without success; he crushes my wrist to the point of pain. There will be bruises tomorrow. Aiden will finish him when he awakes. “You are in danger here, Professor. You need to leave. Now.”

The horrific grimace opens further showing a contortion of red-rimmed teeth. The pink-hued eyes widen. He looks almost deranged. “I in danger? Oh, I don’t think so. There is only one danger here, and it’s to the reputation of your foolish dead father. Because if you don’t give me the code, I will be the one calling the police and the Honour Council at Oxford to report you for stealing restricted substances like my 2-AG. Trust me, the prison sentence is severe. Imagine the infamy of Peter and Clare’s daughter caught thieving. I’m quite certain you will do anything to protect their legacy. So tell me the code, and you can go on with your fantasy boyfriend and your beloved father’s untarnished memory.”

It takes me a few thundering heartbeats to remember how to breathe. I don’t even feel his grip on my hand, or the floor, or fear for myself as if anger is its own twisted, courage protein. Only Aiden’s safety hushes my voice. Only he is more important than any of this. “There is no code, Professor, and you can report me to whoever you wish,” I whisper. “But I will tell you this. You can keep dressing like my dad in tweed, eating his favorite mints, using his office, his lectern, his favorite student, even his daughter. But you will never be like him. Now, leave for your safety.”

His eyes mirror my loathing, but his is deeper somehow now that it’s unleashed. And I see more truth in that unhinged stare. His hatred is not new; it’s ancient with spite and jealousy. And I think I know why. It may even be the only quiet way out.

His fingernails are digging into my skin. “You know nothing of what I want to be, Elisa.”

“I know you want to be him. You even wanted his wife. That’s when this hatred of my father started, isn’t it?”

For the second time tonight, his face transforms. Shock slashes his features. “You think I wanted Clare?” he whispers through taut lips, but his voice wraps differently around her name.

“You still do. You hang your coat by hers when you come in despite all the other free pegs. Your show emotion only when you speak of her. When I look angry, it’s hard for you to look at me. You came to her rose stand. You touched the sleeve of her parka last time you were here and her roses on the console, causing their petals to fall. You wanted her, but she only ever loved him.”

Shock is still distorting Edison’s face, but his grip loosens on my wrist. His head dips to the side, and his eyes change again. Distant now, human, they sweep over my face and rest on my eyes. My mother’s eyes. I try not to blink, but shiver after shiver courses through me. Help me, Mum, get him out of here.

“Go, Professor. Do it for my mother. She would have wanted you to let me be.”

A long moment passes. Can he hear my heart jackhammering? Can Aiden? It takes all my strength to stand on my feet. Edison’s head bends toward me. “You look exactly like her,” he mouths, raising the hand that’s not gripping my wrist and stroking my cheek.

“Don’t touch me!” I recoil automatically, cringing away from his fingers.

His eyes empty again so suddenly I cannot control my gasp this time. “But you are exactly like him.” And his raised hand slices through the air and slaps me hard across my cheek.

From the blow, I fall backwards and smash against the wooden chair. It screeches and crashes into the wall at the same time that I hear a high-pitched cry. With horror, I realize it’s my own. I snap my teeth immediately and bury my face into my sleeve to smother the sound. How loud was it? Did it break through stone walls and Für Elise? Please keep Aiden asleep, please, please, please. I scramble up on my elbows, clutching my robe around me, not daring to breathe. But Edison has rounded the desk and wrenches me up by my throat. That’s good—it’s harder to make noise this way.

“Peter’s heart,” he spits, raising his hand again.

I close my eyes, tensing so I don’t let out even a breath, but a deep roar I know to my atoms reverberates through the walls to my very bones, shaking the cottage and me with it. My eyelids fling open as my heart plunges through the floorboards. Before I can blink my frozen, horrified eyes, a massive force rips Edison off me and hurls him away like a rag doll. There’s a split second of Edison’s cry, then two powerful arms swoop me up, giving the sensation of flight.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s voice is strangled with terror as he runs his hands frantically over me. “Can you hear me? Elisa, please, please, please.”

“Aiden!” I croak as soon as I can breathe, unsure whether I can touch him. “Oh, no, Aiden, oh, no! I woke you up. Did I startle you? Are you alright?”

No, he is not alright. As my eyes focus, I see his beautiful face twisted in agony. A violent tremor rips over his naked body, rattling me in his hold. Murder fills his eyes. The very air around him is vibrating with danger. I try to hold very still. At first, I cannot tell if he is locked in a flashback. But then his thumb wipes the corner of my mouth very gently, and I see a smear of my blood. Relief washes through me at the same time as horror strikes again.

Relief—he is present and awake.

Horror—what does it mean for his memories to be woken to this?

Another tremor ripples over him as he dabs a second droplet of blood. I take his face in my hands immediately. “Aiden, I’m okay. I’m fine, I promise, it’s just a small cut.” Only now I taste some blood on my tongue. I stroke his cheeks, but his face is smoldering with fury like black embers. He wipes my lips again with the corner of my blanket.

“Did he hurt you anywhere else?” His voice is icy as he rights up the chair.

“Not at all. I don’t even feel this.” This is actually not true. My back is throbbing where I hit the chair, but he doesn’t need to know that. His muscles are straining as he sets me on it gently, his gaze locked on my bloodied lip. “Aiden, look at my eyes, love. Stay calm, please.”

But a groan drifts from the other side of the desk and Edison rocks back up on his feet. Aiden’s body snaps like armor, and a growl of rage whirs in his chest. Horror and confusion mangle Edison’s expression.

“Ah, so there is a boyfriend,” he starts, his voice a strange mixture of shock and manners.

Almost blurry with speed, Aiden’s arm whips out and backhands Edison on the face so hard that Edison flies across the library and hits the bookshelves with a crunching sound. A gush of blood spurts from his mouth.

“Nice to meet you, Professor,” Aiden snarls.

“Aiden, no!” I cry out, trying to stop him, but he’s already in motion, dragging the desk like a barricade around me and prowling toward Edison. Somehow, he grows larger, taller. Every band of muscle becomes a glinting, golden blade. Tension rolls off of his naked body, almost visible in the air. I can feel the all-consuming fury that shimmers out of him as if it were alive. With his back to me, I can no longer see his face, but it must be something else because Edison cowers back against the shelves, blood dripping from his lip on his tweed jacket. His eyes flit wildly around the library for an escape. There is none. Even the closed window to his right would be too far. He cringes into the bookcase, eyes stuck wide.

“So it was you,” Aiden hisses in a dark, hypnotic voice, tensing up to the professor, glorious and terrible. His head is bent so close to his prey from his towering height that Edison shuts his no longer flat eyes, clearly unable to handle whatever death is coiling to spring from Aiden’s gaze. I can almost feel the fiery breath that is scorching Edison’s clammy forehead now. “You are the fool who thought you could hurt her. I have been waiting to meet you.”

The sibilance of his smoky voice echoes in my ears louder than his roar. Chills erupt from the roots of my hair to my toes. I realize now every other time I’ve seen Aiden furious—every Dragon fire, every battle with ICE—was cuddly puppies compared to this.

The only sound from Edison is a gurgle as another rivulet of blood trickles down his chin. Aiden shifts slightly as if to hide the gore from me.

“Open your eyes, Professor. Open so you can see what happens to anyone who touches a hair in her head.”

“Aiden, please!” I beg him, not for Edison, but for himself. He was startled from sleep, he needs safety and peace until we know what it’s done to him.

Edison whimpers and crunches his eyes tighter.

“Open them!” Aiden orders, clawing his hand around Edison’s jaws. Edison’s eyelids fling wide open. The pink whites are huge around the pale, dilated irises. He tries to jerk out of the iron fingers in vain. “Ah, yes, that’s better. You’ll have to do this without a bravery protein, Professor. You will have to face me, man to man. I’ll introduce myself this time so you know exactly who you’re fighting. Aiden Hale: Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, Honorably Discharged, adult male, not a young woman half your size.”

“Listen, mate—” Edison splutters, but Aiden slaps him hard again across the cheek. There is something debasing about the action, as if intended to humiliate him. Under the terror, Edison’s eyes spark at the insult.

“What’s the matter, Professor?” Aiden still hasn’t released his jaw. “You don’t like being slapped by someone bigger than you?” He slaps him again. Edison’s cheek is crimson like his gumline, like his blood. “What would you prefer instead?” Another ringing slap. “I promise, the menu is long. Perhaps this?” His fingers must crush into some pain point in Edison’s facial nerves because a keening sound of agony tears from the flaky, thin lips.

“Aiden, don’t!” I call, jumping to my feet in my desk prison, wishing I could get near him but I can never stalk his back, let alone when he has just woken, enraged, with me under threat. “Please, love, for me.”

He doesn’t answer but Edison stops wailing instantly and casts a frantic glance at my direction over Aiden’s lethal shoulder. With a slight flex of his wrist, Aiden twists the bloody face away from me.

“You’re right to look at her, Professor, because right now she’s the only reason I’m not reading you the menu. I had hoped to find you alone.” I can hear the disappointment in his chilling voice. “But you’re a lucky motherfucker. Now, let’s see what you brought with you tonight. Cowards never come without reinforcements.”

Edison blanches despite the blazing cheek, and I blanch with him. What is this? What did he bring? Will he live through whatever it is?

“Ah, you don’t like being searched either, but you have no problem breaking into your friend’s cottage and terrorizing his daughter.” Aiden breathes fire into the ashen face. “Maybe I should search all of you, so you know how it feels when someone uninvited breaks into your every orifice. Shall I start with your mouth?” The long, steel fingers pull down Edison’s jaw until his mouth yawns open.

Edison writhes futilely in the unbreakable grip with an aghhhhhh sound, but another slap silences him. “That was just the front door. Let’s see what you’re hiding elsewhere, Professor.”

Aiden starts patting him down, searching his pockets, tossing out everything. Keys (“you stole a copy from the old man, didn’t you?”), wallet (“not enough money for your bail here.”), phone (“I’ll guess your passcode is ME2-AG because you’re that kind of egotistical fuck. And look, I’m right.”), After-Eight mints (“I call these fingerprints.”), a pack of Marlboro cigarettes (“you shouldn’t litter, Professor.”)—and last, from the inside pocket of Edison’s jacket—a small, brown glass bottle. From here I cannot read its label, but my heart plummets to my feet again as the muscles of Aiden’s back rise ominously. A grisly snarl rolls out from between his teeth, rumbling across the library while I shudder, wanting to duck under the desk.

“Oral midazolam,” Aiden hisses, his voice contorted with dread.

My knees almost give out. I know this drug. It represses the formation of future memories when injected. Like Versed, the sedative that neutralized Aiden after he attacked me. But oral midazolam can kill if not in precise, miniscule doses. Suddenly, I can’t breathe.

“Aiden!” I gasp. “Take it and come here. Stay away from him.”

But I have lost him. Another hiss tears from his lips, blowing back Edison’s sparse hair like the wind outside. His free hand flies around Edison’s throat and slams him against the bookcase, while his knee stabs into the tweed-clad stomach. Even dad’s heavy metal microscope wobbles on the lab bench next to them from the forceful impact. Edison lets out a guttural cry.

“This was meant for Elisa, wasn’t it?” Aiden roars, lifting Edison by his throat as if he will rip it out. “You were about to force it down her throat when I came in, you cowardly piece of shit.”

“N-n-no—” Edison chokes. “Didn’—know—”

Aiden lifts him higher until they’re face-to-face, blocking his windpipe. “You didn’t know she was going to be here tonight, but you were saving it for another day. Was that the plan, motherfucker? Drug her to get the formula, then kill her and make it look like suicide? Who was going to question it without any parents or family around? Who would ever suspect the good friend who threw ceremonies for her father? You get the glory, she gets the epitaph, is that it?”

I need a second to shake off my horror. My stomach heaves at the perfect crime, at how close I came to being under marble with my parents. I fight back the sob growing in my chest to be here for Aiden.

“Aiden, be careful, love,” I plea, but he doesn’t answer.

Edison is turning purple, dangling in Aiden’s grip, heaving and spluttering. “N-n-no—tha—diffren—”

Another kick to the stomach cuts him off, then Aiden brings the midazolam bottle to Edison’s lips that instantly press into a tight line. “I will kill you myself,” he says in a low, deadly voice. “I’ll do it now and carve your epitaph with my bare hands.”

“Aiden, no!” I cry out, clambering the desk in panic. Perhaps if I circle widely, I can be in his peripheral vision to calm him. “He’s not worth it, love, think of us. Let’s call Benson and the coppers and let them deal with him. Please, come back to me. Please!”

“Elisa, stay where you are.” His hard command freezes me on top of the desk. How can he see? A ripple flows over his back like a warning. “Professor Edison and I are almost finished.”

I search frantically until I spot my reflection on the black window to the side. But I can’t make out Aiden face on it. Perhaps I’m too far, perhaps his face is too dark for the night to mirror it.

No, I cannot see Aiden’s face, but Edison can. And something must change on it because Edison’s frenzied eyes blink once at me then back at Aiden. “Lis-ten—to—her,” he wheezes, pleading frantically. “Wasn’—gonna—kill—her.” More droplets of blood spatter his chin. “Jus—to hear—about—the protein—she’s been hidin—from me—that’s—all.”

His gasp has barely finished before Aiden chokes him again. The bloodied lips are turning blue. “She’s hiding nothing. And there is no protein in the world that will make a brave man out of you, Professor. Trust me, I have known and killed thousands like you. One way or another, they always died in fear. And I promise, so will you. It won’t be by my hand because she is watching and I want to deserve her. But when your time comes—whether you are in prison or in a hospital because there is no third option left for you—I will be there to watch you die.”

With a final choke, Aiden drops the professor on the floor. The gasping heap of tweed neither moves nor speaks as Aiden strides backwards, eyes always Edison until he reaches me, still frozen on top of the desk.

As soon as my fingertips can touch his skin, I throw myself at Aiden, clinging and kissing every part of him I can find even though I know Edison didn’t touch a hair in his head. Fury is still raging out of him, but my turquoise is starting to flicker in his eyes.

“Are you okay?” I blubber between kisses. “With the waking and this?”

“Don’t worry about me.” He buries the midazolam bottle in the farthest desk drawer. “We’ll take care of your lip. You’ll be okay, thank God.”

We will be okay.” I sob some more, clutching his face in my hands. “I’m so sorry, Aiden. I was so stupid and naïve. You were right all along—”

“Shh.” His finger comes to my lips. So quick I almost miss it, his eyelids flutter once as if to close, but he snaps them open. “Shh, Elisa. You did nothing wrong.”

“Aiden?” I shake his beautiful head. Is it feeling heavier in my hands? “Aiden, love?”

“I’m fine,” he answers, but his voice is abruptly slower, as it sounds when he drifts off to sleep.

“Love? Look at me.” I grip him tighter, but he doesn’t flinch. He just crunches his eyes and opens them, his gaze bold and steady again.

“Elisa, I’m fine. It’s just the—the adrenaline. I’ll call Benson and the cops. Can you . . . bring me my, ah, sweatpants, and we can get rid of him?”

“I’m not leaving you,” I whimper even though his arm around me is strong. But the voice, the words . . .

He smiles—the smile is worn as it is when he returns from the reel. “You may not mind seeing me in nothing but dick, but it would probably scare PC Dockery.” He brushes my cheek and reaches behind me for the phone.

That’s when I see him. Edison must have crawled and is now standing behind Aiden, his frenzied, unhinged eyes on me. The red smile opens like a wound.

“Aiden, watch out!” I scream, but I should have known he would always put me first. Before the cry has torn through my lips, he swoops me up and flings me behind the desk, losing the split-second warning to protect me. In the blur of movement, I glimpse Edison lift both shaky arms. Only now I realize he is heaving dad’s microscope.

“No!” I shriek, trying to launch myself at him around Aiden, but it’s too late. Edison brings down the microscope onto the back of Aiden’s skull with a sickening thud.

T-i-m-e stops. How often have I begged it to pause on moments of beauty, but it halts now on terror? The nanosecond stretches like death as the blow reverberates off Aiden’s head. I can see each ripple of collision on the face I love, each billow of force striking the body I call home, each speck of dread filling the eyes that are my light. I can hear the silent groan trapped between Aiden’s teeth. It feels like my own skull is cleaving in half. My scream dies in my throat and becomes his name, echoing off the book spines.

“Aiden! Aiden! Aiden!”

A puff of cinnamon air slips from his mouth and washes over mine, like a final breath. Then time restarts, ending everything else. I stare in horror as the light goes out in Aiden’s eyes and the startle begins, seeming unchanged by the reel or our fight.

Aiden’s elbow slams into Edison’s chest like a wrecking ball. From the impact, the microscope tumbles on the floor and Edison soars back. In the same movement, Aiden whistles around and his foot plunges into Edison’s gut mid-flight. Edison shrieks and shoots through the air like an arrow from a bow, his tweed body all but invisible with speed. He crashes into the window, blowing apart the glass and shutters, and disappears into the black night. His howl of agony pierces my ears until it fades into a splintering thump as he must wallop the beech tree before all the shards of glass have rained on the library floor.

But only six feet for me, on the other side of the desk, Aiden is locked in a flashback deadlier than any gash or blow on Edison. How differently the scene looks now that I’m not the trigger, now that his lethal startle somehow became my savior. But not for Aiden—his torture is exactly the same. I can tell even though, this time, he is turned away. I can tell from his wounded, shallow breathing as his body enters the violent stance of combat. But without anyone to fight, his immense strength is turning against the self. Wringing his muscles until they’re convulsing in pain. The little library erupts into the unforgettable snarl ripping from the very depths of Aiden’s heart. It’s nothing like his growl of fury or hiss of anger. It’s the most soul-ripping sound I have heard in my life.

I need a second to think; I need it, but I don’t have it.

“Aiden!” I cry on instinct, trying to bring him back to the present moment while punching the phone for Benson’s number. It’s the only thing I can do. I cannot get near Aiden—it would kill us both if I got hurt again. “Aiden, we’re in the cottage, in dad’s library, we’re safe.”

But we are not safe. His memories are tearing him violently apart. His neck is straining against the invisible cable chains that he cannot break, his entire body shuddering on the spot with the torture he is living now.

Somewhere below the deafening thunder of my blood, I hear Benson’s voice calling my name. I don’t know what I say or sob, or what Benson says back; I don’t even know if I hang up. All my senses are on Aiden from the prison of the desk where he would want me confined.

“Aiden,” I scream again, even though I don’t know if he can hear me now. “I love you, you didn’t hurt me, you saved me, you saved my life . . .” But the present moment is slipping away from my own mind. How do I stay in the present when the present becomes the past? When our future just ended? When each second might be our last?

But something changes in Aiden’s posture. His body breaks from the fluid formation with his mind, tilting away from the violent stance. At first, my breath stops with hope, and then with dread. Because I realize it’s not a change we fought for. It’s a new mortal danger. Aiden is not only locked in horror; he is losing his balance from Edison’s blow.

“Aiden, don’t move,” I wail, trying to think through the terror clotting my brain. We have no plan for this—no contingency where Aiden was hurt before the startle began. We always planned for him being the attacker and me the victim.

From outside the window comes another howl. A gust of wind rips the curtains away. And on the rug of planets, Aiden sways on his feet. To his right, only hardwood shelves and thick mahogany beams. To his left, broken glass and jagged windowpanes. In front of him, stone wall and dad’s lab bench that could crush a human skull. Behind him is me at the heavy desk. He is trapped. One more step in any direction, and his body will break as surely as his heart and mind are shattering now. And Benson is still minutes away.

A barbed idea tears through my brain. Am I brave enough? Strong enough to hurt Aiden if it might help him? But what would it do to him? Save him or terrify him more? And then what? What happens to his memories that in the course of minutes have shifted from dreams to violence and now to his deepest terror?

I have no time to think through the answers. Aiden staggers closer to the shattered window with spiked, serrated edges.

I wrench open the desk drawer and yank out the strobe flashlight. I know exactly how this will blind him, how deeply it will burn his eyes. I know pain will split his skull like a second microscope, a second rifle blow straight from Fallujah’s schoolyard. Through the tears, praying I have my calculations right, I crouch and grip the bottom edge of the desk, pulling with all my weight. I cannot possibly be the one that’s moving it back. It must be mum and dad. It must be the God element. Whoever does it, it buys me six inches. I climb over the desk and jump on the other side—only four feet from Aiden’s back now. His long, naked body leans to the left, inches from the jagged window. If he falls, the glass will plunge straight into his heart and stomach, piercing the vital organs that are keeping us both alive.

“Keep standing, love,” I whisper and rip the cushion off dad’s chair, tossing it on the floor. Aiden staggers another step toward the window. I scurry to the bookcase wall, shaking so hard, I stumble twice. The library feels endless as I scramble on my hands and knees to reach the other end, the corner that will allow me to face Aiden and blind him awayfrom the knives of glass, hoping he will lean exactly at the only angle that will not stab him, crack his skull, or crush his spine.

His feet tread on the first glass splinters.

“Aiden, they’re just petals. I’m here, I’m waiting on the other side.”

But even though I scuttle as fast as my limbs will carry me, I feel slow. As if I’m wading through blobs of the failed protein. Help me with the numbers, Dad; keep Aiden standing, Mum.

I round the library at last. I can finally see his beautiful face. I don’t have time to die from the agony in it. I wish I did. I wish I had never seen his horror-struck eyes. But Aiden sways again, careening toward the sawtooth glass.

“Aiden, we love each other!” I shout my best hope to the heavens and aim the strobe light at the love of my life.

One switch, and the beam of light bursts out of the reflector, blasting Aiden’s frozen eyes with its powerful flash. I squint through the blinding rays with ice in my heart, not breathing, only praying. And there, as if I’m looking straight into the sun, I watch Aiden’s silhouette drop backwards on the floor, only inches away from the jagged window. His head falls at the edge of dad’s cushion.

“Aiden,” I choke, the strobe light falling through my hands and going out. Black dots explode in my vision, spreading over my retinas until I’m blind. “Aiden?” I start stumbling in his direction, feeling around with my hands and feet, unable to blink even though I can’t see. The first splinters of glass prick the soles of my feet, so I must be getting closer. “Aiden, I’m coming, love.” A thousand cuts tear through my skin, between my toes, on my heels. Strangely I think of stardust, and the pricks don’t hurt. But wherever I tiptoe, I feel only crystal spikes, not the silk of his skin. I search in a frenzy, crunching and opening my eyes for sight. But it’s full of dark inkblots like the reel’s tattoo on Elysium. “Aiden?”

No answer. He must still be coming to. Or maybe he is answering but I can’t hear from the machine gun of my heart. “Aiden, I’m close. Hold on to my voice, love.”

I find him at last. Or rather my toes find his heel, at the same time that the black smudges become sparkles. “Aiden, I’m here, love!” I blink once and the darkness disappears. Just in time for me to wish I was blind. Because through the stars twinkling in my vision, Aiden’s golden body lies on the floor—motionless, eyes closed, mouth parted, facing me like Romeo. Spikes of glass glint next to him like daggers. I feel the spiney floor against my shins.

“Aiden!” I scream, but I cannot hear my shredded voice, exactly like in my nightmare. “Aiden!” From the force of my cry, my lungs give out, but I know I’m making no sound. I know because Aiden doesn’t answer. Because if he heard me like this, Aiden would open his eyes and spring on his feet. My hands blow like wind over his chest—it’s warmer than the dream, there is a heartbeat, but it’s slow, slower than when he is asleep. Frantic, my lips find his—they’re warm too, but his breath is weak. Not a puff of happiness anymore, just the faintest, fading breeze. “Aiden!” I breathe inside his mouth as I do during the reel. “Aiden, love? Come back to me.” My fingers fly to his wrist, pressing against his pulse. Its rhythm is languid, too—so slow I can barely register it over the mortar blood fire blasting my ears. “No, no, no, love, you’re just resting—your mind is just protecting itself, that’s all. You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.”

Am I standing, moving? It seems I am. More glass is crunching under my feet. The bookshelves are whirling past me. The curtain’s ripped hem brushes my cheek like a broken angel’s wing. Dad’s desk slams its edge into my stomach like an arm. There’s a phone in my hand like a clutch. Buttons at my fingertips—9-9-9. Help Aiden, Dad. Save him, Mum. Whatever life you gave me, let it go to him.

“Hello?” A voice is speaking in my ear. I speak back, I think. Somewhere outside the window, someone is wailing. Forcefully, I want to soar through the jagged glass and choke off the keening howl with my hands, but the calm, methodic voice is asking where I am. In hell. This is what Dante’s nine concentric circles are for us—nightmare, terror, fury, violence, torture, war, wounds, blackout, loss—not doodles stolen from a library nook.

“Is he breathing?” The voice is asking. He was. One puff of dread, two, three. Aiden is still unmoving on the floor.

“Someone is coming, Miss.” And then voice is gone.

Has a minute passed? I don’t know, but the library blurs past me again, more glass under my feet as I drop next to Aiden like I do after each reel, like I did after he attacked me. It helped then, maybe it will help again. I untie my robe and press my chest to his, my heart on his heart, my thighs to his thighs, my bloody shins to his knees. All of me to him, so he can only feel my skin, my smell, my voice. Gasping, I search for the rose breeze; I can’t find it, but it finds me. It slips inside my lungs, giving me enough air so I can speak. I press my lips to his and blow it all inside.

“Aiden,” I call him, my voice muted like Juliet in the dream. I know he may not hear me. I can’t even hear myself, but I don’t stop. “I’m here, my love. We’re together, in our cottage, with the roses outside.” The warmth is seeping from his skin. I caress the cold, ashen face, warming his cheeks, kissing his lips, giving him more air. “We’re still fighting, love, because you’re worth it. Every part of you, from this one hair—” I tug at a lock of it on his chilled forehead “—to every one of your breaths. You are worth it.” I massage the sharp blades of his jaw, gulping more rose breeze and breathing it inside him. “You didn’t hurt me—don’t worry. You saved my life with your startle. I’m safe. If you open your eyes, you’ll see me like always, waiting on the other side.” My breath hitches and stops. What will happen to Aiden when he realizes he was triggered again despite giving this fight his all? When he sees all our efforts have been for nothing? Will he leave right away or stay the five weeks to finish our ninety days? And after that? Abruptly, I’m shaking violently like I’m standing on the edge of the open hilltop grave again. My stomach twists painfully as if full of splinters. A hot wave of nausea rolls up in my throat. With all my might, I shove everything down and gasp another rose breath, blowing it back inside Aiden’s mouth. The air shudders as it passes between our lips. “I’m still here, love.” My voice breaks too, but I try to control it for him. “Come back to me.” There is no movement from him whatsoever, no sound, even his breath is almost silent. I glance at the clock on the wall for the first time. How long has he been out? Two minutes now, three? I rest my palm above his heart—it’s still beating, but much slower than mine. I breathe again with him, kissing his lips. “Aiden? Come back . . . you promised. You promised you’d always come back to me. Come back and stay . . .”  But Aiden doesn’t kiss me back. His warm breath doesn’t wash over my lips. Without any conscious decision, a humming sound builds from my throat: Für Elise. I start kissing him in time with the melody as he does with me, swallowing back panic and tears. “I love you,” I whisper between each humming kiss. “Aiden, I love you. Come back to me, please . . .”

Blood roses have blossomed around us with shards of glass for dew. Under my palm, Aiden’s heartbeat is fading. His body rests on the rug of planets, the sun at his shoulders, finally tension free. And his angel’s face is glowing with peace. My tears splash on his golden cheeks—they sparkle there like lost, skyless stars. A veil of black is falling over my own eyes. I blink in vain, raining more tears on his glistening lids. But my lungs can no longer find the rose breeze. Between our breathless mouths, there is no more Für Elise.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 28 – RIGHT

Hello, hello! After a three-week break, spent most working on the final chapters as the story starts winding toward the end, here is Chapter 28. For those of you on Facebook, the answer to the riddle is here. Read on for a wink at some of your guesses and thank you for playing, reading, commenting, and following along. On a personal note, this chapter was dear to me, like the calm before the storm. If you’re looking for a song for it, I was listening to The Ashokan Farewell.  xo, Ani

 

28

Right

T-i-m-e is an enemy again. It devoured the rest of July—the most beautiful July there has ever been, even with saying goodbye to Aiden’s parents and the Marines. It steals each day in our reel of brilliancy like a silent thief. And it has brought August tenth in a blink.

I know the date even at the edge of sleep. I know it from the way my heart is thundering and the static of my nerves. Because there are only five weeks left in our ninety days, only five weeks to win or lose. And because dad’s bench ceremony is this afternoon. Honoring dad is the easy part—natural like his love. Speaking in front of his two hundred colleagues without a bravery protein is another matter.

My eyes fling open. But immediately the panic subsides. Aiden’s messy head is resting on the white pillow next to me, lips parted, still dreaming to Für Elise. No matter how many mornings we wake up together, the same joy inflates my chest until I can barely breathe. I try to pace my lungs to his puffs of happiness for the rest of the melody, watching him like this—his beauty shimmering with the first light, his feet dangling off the bed, his shoulders tense even asleep.

Outside the window the skylark that lives in the beech tree is harmonizing her song to the piano. And the reel’s soundless bugle blows in with the breeze. It’s getting bloodier and bloodier each day. But at least t-i-m-e is consuming it too—there only 35 reels left. And then it will be the end. I shudder under the quilt. There is not enough bravery protein in the world for that. Because t-i-m-e has not changed the most fundamental law of our relationship: if Aiden doesn’t win against the reel, I will lose him forever and, even worse, he will lose himself. We will both perish then. There is no middle alternative, no compromise for this. When life gives you a love more beautiful than any dream, more powerful than any purpose, more irrevocable than t-i-m-e itself, you cannot reasonably expect a different choice in the end.

I swerve around the thoughts, trying to stay only in this present moment. I rest my fingertips on Aiden’s warm pillow, counting his comforting puffs of breath until the shudders disappear. One, two, ten, fifteen . . .

The piano stops, and the impossible eyes open.

“Good morning,” he smiles, drawing me immediately in his arms, breathing me in. Everything heals then. I bury my face in his chest, never tiring of those two words in his husky, after-sleep voice.

“Good morning.” I kiss his fragrant skin. A trace of rosewood lingers there from last night’s game of body chess.

He tips up my face. “So how long have you been up fretting about your speech?”

“Only a bit. Mostly, I just like watching you sleep.”

His chuckle fills the room, more beautiful than the lark’s song. “What else is left to see? Surely there are better things to do with your time than watch me snore.”

“You don’t snore. And there’s nothing better than this.” I trail my fingers over his stubble, feeling the warmth of his sculpted cheek like my personal sun. He takes my hand and kisses it, checking my palm as he does every morning, even though the pink faded within twenty-four hours and has not returned.

“I know of something better,” he answers, tapping my nose. “Do you want to practice your speech again? I think you’ll be brilliant.”

I laugh despite my stomach starting to turn. He says it as though Pericles himself will descend from ancient Athenian temples onto the Chemistry quad in my image and astonish Oxford’s scientists with eloquence and oratory. “Of course you think that. But we don’t need another rehearsal—you’ve heard it a million times. Besides, I’ve been waiting for this.” I knot my fingers in his hair and pull myself up to his mouth.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, ma’am.” His hands vise my face, and then I’m lost in his kiss. Because t-i-m-e has changed this routine too: we add pleasure—one of our strongest weapons—like bookends on each side of the reel. We need it now to be able to breathe from the minute we leave this bed until he comes back on Elysium. He doesn’t admit that it’s getting harder, that it’s wearing on him. But it’s there in his deep kiss. In the strength of his arms as they strain me closer as if to slip me under his skin. Yet it’s never close enough for me.

“More, Aiden,” I whisper, crushing myself against him. He moans and rolls us across the sheets so quickly that we skate to the foot of the bed.

“All,” he corrects, hitching my legs over his shoulders. And then he gives me everything.

If t-i-m-e ever becomes a friend again, if it gifts us a century together in flesh and millennia in stardust, I still will never be able to describe the way Aiden makes love. Some are gentle and sweet, some stormy and furious, most are utterly obscene. But in these final moments before the reel, our love is desperate, almost violent like war. He moves with abandon inside me, hands like steel manacles around my wrists, teeth sunk in my lower lip, thrusts fast and hard like bullets. I absorb all of them like a shield, holding on to him with my everything. In minutes, my body is building, begging him, for what I don’t know. But he does because he gives me exactly what I want until we both explode, me chanting his name as usual, him with his throaty growl that almost sends me over the edge again.

It takes us less than ten minutes. Our bodies know by now exactly what our minds need for the reel: ten-minute segments of pleasure for the ten-minute segments of torture.

“Elisa?” Aiden chuckles in my neck as we gasp here, tangled and shaking.

“Hmm?”

“How the fuck did I get through the reel that first month without this? I don’t remember.”

I chuckle too, kissing the top of his head. “Because you’re the strongest person I know.”

He pulls up to look at me. “Maybe but being inside you beforehand certainly makes it more livable.”

I pinch the dimple in his flushed cheek. In a few minutes, it will disappear. “Do you think Doctor Helen would let us program into the reel pictures of us like this? Fallujah wouldn’t stand a chance then.”

He laughs as I meant for him to do because laughter is our weapon, too. “Hmm, that would be interesting.” He kisses my lips. “But there’s no universe in which I’d allow Doctor Helen or anyone else to see you like this.” His lips are gentle and velvet on my bitten ones. “And nothing stands a chance against me if you’re on the other side.”

I grip him harder, pull him closer. Because t-i-m-e does stand a chance, as does his p-a-s-t.

“First . . .” I kiss him back, feeling his lips turn up into another smile. More smiles, please, more laughter just for him. “I’ll definitely be on the other side.” I taste him on my tongue and almost forget my train of thought. “Second, I’ve already had sex with thirty-one chess pieces, and have a date with the dark king tonight. You’ve created a monster, and you only have yourself to blame.”

His last laugh washes over my lips. I inhale it, hold it in, unwilling to let it go. “My dear Loch Nelisa, you’re mymonster. Exactly how I want you to be.”

He rolls on his back, holding me a moment longer. Outside the window, the skylark stops warbling. The willows’ whisper wafts in, it’s here, it’s here. Inside, Aiden’s skin is glowing with the last warmth, his eyes holding on to my turquoise like the last slivers of sky before the blackest night. I curl myself around him, wishing I was the protein. This would be the moment for him to take it. The reel couldn’t touch a single cranny of his mind then. But t-i-m-e is looting our weapons too. One month of testing and I still can’t get the fluid to congeal, no matter how many hours Aiden and I spent together at Bia every night. The d-o-s-e for serotonin and oxytocin is becoming its own four-letter word.

He sighs. “I’d ask you for the three hundredth time to stay but I know I would lose.”

“You’re right.”

“Come on then, let’s get this over with.”

I nod, keeping my smile on as long as he does. “Yes, and then we only have a speech to live through and we can start our weekend at River Eden and River Liza to celebrate.”

The dimple holds on a little longer—the names of dad’s favorite rivers never cease to amuse Aiden. “I have a feeling River Liza will be the better catch. Did you decide if you want to leave tonight or tomorrow morning?”

I think about that as I throw on my sweatpants. An idea has been seeding in my head for a month. A fourteenth weapon of sorts, combining love and calm and other things.

“Let’s play it by ear,” I suggest. “See how incapacitated I am after my historic speech.”

“It will be historic.” Aiden kisses my forehead, clasping my locket around my neck. “Maybe not for Oxford, but for you and your father.”

He takes my hand and, with one last gaze around our happy bedroom—him at our messy bed, me at the picture of his brainwaves—we leave to fight.

But the fifty-fourth reel is the darkest one yet even though it’s now in daylight for my safety. Not just because Aiden’s agony during it has reached a depth I can no longer endure with open eyes while I curl on the grass useless. But because it holds him prisoner for a record one hour and ten minutes, twenty-five extra minutes of torture even after the images stop. I have to give him everything—my mouth, breath, voice, smell, touch, mind, every ounce of my strength, even my song playing on my iPhone—before he comes back. Ashen, shuddering, suffocating on my name. And even though he springs up on his feet as soon as he can, he is worn. His skin stays like sheets of ice, he moves slower, his shoulders ripple with aftershocks, and there are deep, dark shadows under his eyes. I cling to him as we get ready so my calm can permeate his skin, while dose calculations drum in my head. Just one gram for him, just a morsel, please.

But t-i-m-e does give us one gift. It steals our days, but it also separates us from the reel each morning. By the time Benson pulls into Bia’s street to drop me off, Aiden is back to his protective, commanding self, even if the color has not returned to his drawn cheeks. He scans the area with sniper vigilance, but this search is for my safety. The car park is fuller today than other mornings at this hour. Graham’s white Fiat is already in its usual spot, as is Edison’s black Alpha Romeo. To the side of the building, the grassy quad stretches empty except the elderly groundskeeper weeding the flowerbeds. But my eyes are rivetted by dad’s bench. It’s draped with Oxford’s blue flag, hidden from view. The nerves—all but forgotten during the reel—return in full force. How can I talk about dad to his colleagues without tears? What can I say that captures him in words and sentences?

“I’ll sweep around building, sir,” Benson announces and steps out as he does every morning before I go inside, even though the two of them sit at Café Vault during the day, at Max’s old spot, to guard me.

As soon as the door closes behind Benson, Aiden takes me in his arms and brings me on his lap. “You’ll do amazing today.” He pinches my chin as he does when making an important point. “You have prepared for this not just last month, but the last four years. You’re ready.”

I nod, not wanting him to spend any energy on me. He needs it to recover.

“Trust me,” he insists. “None of them know your father as you did. Today, you are the expert and they are your students. Teach them your father’s life.”

How does he know to always say what I need to hear even when I don’t know it myself, even when I don’t ask?

“I will. Don’t worry about me.” I trace the lavender circle under his eye. “And will you do me a favor?”

“Anything unless it threatens your safety.”

“It doesn’t. Please try to get some rest today. You know I’m not in danger with this. Leave Benson with me, go back to the cottage, and sleep. Science orders.”

The first dimple since the torture flashes in his cheek. “That sounds like the opposite of restful to me. Being close to you is my best rest, and that’s a scientific fact. But I can promise I will resist negative thoughts and try to focus on good things. And I’ll talk to Doctor Helen. How is that?”

I examine the tranquil turquoise depths when he looks at me, as if the reel never scorched his retinas, and know he is right.  “Okay, revised orders then: sit at Vault with rose tea and chicken soup, read Byron, and text me if you need calm.”

The second dimple sparks. “Deal.”

“And if you’re drifting, try to solve this riddle.”

Third dimple—he can never resist clues and codes. “What’s the riddle?”

“I am the ruler and the servant. I am the war and the peace. I eat time but it doesn’t eat me. I can move for miles and miles while staying still. What am I?”

Fourth dimple. The tectonic plates jolt with curiosity, but he stills them, and his gaze becomes as tender as his touch. “Elisa Cecilia Snow, I adore you.” And he bends his mouth to mine.

It’s a gentle kiss, so different than our earlier desperation. His lips move slowly as though trying to prolong each final second. I wrap myself closer, moaning at the feel of him, but he pulls back with a chuckle. “If you make noises like that, I won’t be able to stop, let alone solve your riddle. Now, do you have your paperclips for the speech?”

I laugh for the first time since the reel—of course he remembers that. “Right here, with my skunk spray.” I pat my purse.

“And your snacks?”

“Yes, I have everything.”

“Hmm,” he hesitates, tilting his head side to side, eyes smoldering at me in a way that makes every muscle in my stomach tighten in response. “I think something is missing.”

I look down to check if my jeans spontaneously melted off on their own. No, they’re still there. “What’s wrong? Do I have something on my face?” I twist in his arms to check the mirror, but he laughs, too, and turns me back to him.

“Your face is perfect but maybe this?” He is dangling an exquisite golden bracelet in his long fingers.

“Oh!” I gasp, starting at the three charms sparkling on the delicate chain. P. E. C. Exactly like the initials dad and I carved under the bench so long ago. “Aiden!” I whisper, tears welling in my eyes.

He takes my hand and clasps the bracelet around my wrist. The fine chain is woven like a DNA double helix. I’ve never seen anything like it. I caress the three brilliant letters, wishing so much there was also an A. Maybe I can snoop wherever he got this and borrow, steal, and save enough money to buy one.

“The letters are made from your and your father’s favorite chemical elements,” he explains. “Phosphorus for his.” He cups his hands around the letters, forming a dark dome. I peek inside and see the three letters glowing a luminescent green. “And carbon for yours.” He removes his hands and the rows of small diamonds glimmer even in the cloudy morning.

“It’s so beautiful,” I murmur, fluttering my hand. The gems throw rainbows across my skin. “And what’s yourfavorite element?”

His fifth dimple dazzles me more than the diamonds. “I guess I better pick titanium. That way you have us all in your hand today.” He circles the bracelet, and I realize he didn’t leave himself out of this gift. The helix chain is his favorite element: strong and stunning, plated in gold, like his skin.

I throw my arms around his neck, kissing him again. “Thank you! It’s perfect now.” Will every one of his gifts make me feel like this? No, they’re not gifts. As warmth radiates from my wrist to my very nerve endings, I grasp a very simple truth: Aiden has never given me just a present. He gives me back pieces of me.

Benson knocks on our window then, bursting the bubble. “All clear, sir. Looks like they’re already starting to set up.”

“Thanks, Benson.” Aiden turns to me. “Don’t worry about this either. It won’t be a repeat of the festival. It’s only an hour, in a small area, and we’ve vetted the entire science faculty. There will be no accidents this time.”

I nod because I believe him. He has been assuring me nonstop over the last month, and I’m less scared with only him and Benson as my bodyguards. Even Aiden has been hard-pressed to come up with scenarios of someone hurting me in broad daylight, in the heart of Oxford, in front of all of my dad’s colleagues. “And where will you be?” I ask the only detail that matters to me.

“We’ll be close by. I’ll have to see how the crowd flows, but I’m not going to miss the best speech in the Chemistry Department’s history, am I?”

My heart swells until I can’t speak. Two months ago when I first heard about the ceremony, I never dreamed he would come anywhere near it. But here he is, no matter how much it will cost him.

I manage to tear myself away from his arms, thinking only of the protein, so I can make this easier on him. So he doesn’t have to live through more reels without it.

Dad’s bronze bust greets me as always in the building lobby, the “ah!” expression in his face like a good morning. The familiar face, wise even in metal, gazes back in his reassuring way. Ah, Eliser, it will be all right. My hand flies to his carved cheek. It has none of his clean-shaven softness, but it centers me. This is his day. I’m finally here to honor him, and not alone for a change. I hope you like it, Dad. The PEC diamonds sparkle against the bronze like a smile. I stroke his cheek and shuffle to Bia as fast as my legs will carry me.

But as soon as I burst through its doors, my knees almost give out. Edison and Graham are there already, each of them wearing a yellow rose bud on the lapels of their pristine lab coats. Another yellow rose is in a vial at my workstation.

“There you are, Eliser!” Graham smiles. “What do you think, eh?” He points at his rose. The bright blooms look like golden stars against the sterile, white space.

“They’re beautiful,” I answer, my voice hushed with emotion. “I—I wasn’t expecting . . .”

“Not expecting this?” Edison chuckles. “My dear girl, you didn’t think we would leave roses out of Peter’s day, did you? Not at all up to your genetic intelligence, Elisa.”

They laugh together while I manage a breath. The crisp air has a faint trace of rose under the ethanol. I swallow hard against the tears threatening to rise up to my eyes again.

“What do you think of the yellow?” Graham asks with so much enthusiasm, it’s clear this was his idea. “We picked it because of that wee sunny one Professor Snow had in his office.”

“I love it.” I smile, wishing Aiden was here to see this. “And dad would have loved it, too. Thank you for doing this.”

“Not at all, not at all.” Edison waves his hand dismissively. “The bench is the star today. I peeked, of course. It looks quite fitting.”

“Tell me you’ve at least written your speech by now,” Graham teases. “Everyone reckons it’ll be better than Professor Snow’s lectures.”

My anxiety ignites like a Bunson burner away from Aiden’s presence. How can I keep up with dad? What was I thinking not rehearsing with Aiden one more time?

“Of course, I have. I’m ready.” I nod fervently.

“Hah! Ready as our protein.”

“Kindly now, Graham,” says Edison, not missing my pretense even through his goggles. “I’m sure Elisa will do very well.”

I plaster on a smile while he removes said goggles and gloves. If I’m like this with Graham and Edison, what will I do in front of the entire science faculty?

“I have a few lectures this morning.” Edison walks my way where I’m still leaning against the door for balance. “I’ll see you both this afternoon.”

As he walks out, a whiff of the yellow rose wafts by with a scent of mint. Oddly, I think of both dad and Javier. Of course, Javier and Reagan have demanded that my speech be recorded so they can watch it later with the Hales, the Marines, and the Solises. Because Oxford’s science departments were not enough for my nerves. I can already hear James’s jokes and Javier’s rumbling voice: “it’s not worse than posing in a sheet for my paintings, is it?”

Except it is. The worst that could happen in a sheet is I would embarrass myself. Today, I could embarrass dad.

I throw on his lab coat and wobble to my workstation. But as I take out a rack of vials, I catch Graham’s expression. He is glancing at my fingers with quivering eyebrows, and I realize immediately what is making him look like he wants to crawl inside the cryogenic freezer, where I wish I could be.

“Graham, relax. I won’t spill anything, but if it saves you an aneurysm, I can handle the peptides today,” I offer, although it’s not an entirely altruistic deed. Because I would have more time to calculate doses and run through my speech while handling the mindless task.

His shoulders deflate with visible relief. “Thank you! I’m really sorry. I’ll make it up to you by doing the peptides next week.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. I don’t want to waste the 2-AG either.”

We spend the next few hours working in easy silence with my brain scattered like the vial shards that keep combusting. A few minutes for the rote work of the peptides, a lot more on serotonin and oxytocin, while the speech plays in the background like a soundtrack.

But around it all, there is something else. A closeness to dad. He is always in my thoughts when I am in this building, but it’s different today. What would he think about this idea that has been percolating for me? Would he like it? I think he would, as would Aiden. But do I? Through the nerves, I sense a trickle of warmth—like a microscopic river washing away questions and uncertainties. I try to hold on to the rare feeling of clarity, but as hours race toward the ceremony, nerves become a snarl. Why couldn’t I have unscrambled the formula already? I’d never take it from Aiden, but maybe just a scrap for today. And why isn’t it working? The bracelet jingles with our favorite elements. I crunch more numbers, trying to listen only to its sound.

Edison storms in around three with his typical hurried pace. He spots me at the peptide bench but doesn’t seem to need explanations this time. “Graham, could you come to the quad? We need to set up.”

I stand to help too but Edison stops me, waving his hand. “Not to worry, Elisa. We’re just arranging chairs. You continue on here. We’ll come by when ready.”

As if I can argue against having the lab to myself. “Okay, let me know if you need muscle for heavy lifting.”

They leave Bia with a laugh, closing the door with a reassuring thud. As soon as their footsteps fade, I toss on my goggles and gloves, sprint to the oxytocin and serotonin coolers, grab the ampules, and race back to the sink for some testing. I don’t risk my workstation during breaks like this. If someone walks in, they will only see my back, and I can flush everything down the drain.

“Be safe,” Aiden texts, no doubt seeing Graham and Edison exit the building from Vault. I don’t even have a second to reply. I flex my fingers for steadiness and start piping the different doses of love, reciting the speech under my breath. Hello, my name is Elisa Snow . . . But no matter how precisely I inject each microliter, the mixture in the vial remains the tepid lilac liquid it has stayed since the day Aiden’s parents arrived, the day Aiden thought there was a break-in. Not the solid candy consistency it should be. The only progress I have made this entire summer is that the vial is no longer exploding. But I’m no closer to saving the man I love. The only thing I’m closer to is the end, and Aiden and I have nothing to face it with. All the endless calculations, the relentless research, the sleepless nights reading next to Aiden under the light of my phone, the constant analysis playing in my head have been for nothing.

Abruptly, I feel angry. More than angry, I’m furious. The speech vanishes from my head entirely. A reddish haze blurs my vision, and I glare at the carefully proportioned pipette, wanting to hurl it straight across the lab. My hands shake with the urge, dripping love on the molecule of fear carelessly. In my madness, laughter rips from my throat. All that effort to save every drop, think like dad, act like him, and now all I want to do is the opposite. Spill, stop measuring, scream. It’s ironic that an hour before dad’s ceremony, I’m standing here questioning the very same methods he taught me. My fingers tremble again, and more oxytocin spills. The waste feels good, liberating.

I know I shouldn’t do it. Never in anger, dad would say, but fury hijacks my hand and I squirt the entire pipette in the vial. The bracelet rolls under my glove like a warning, but nothing happens. The liquid doesn’t thicken or change in any way. It simply swishes around in the vial, lilac and useless. That “nothing” only makes me more enraged. Saliva pools hot and metallic on my tongue. Isn’t there anything I can do to make a difference? Nothing at all I can do to help my love?

I fling the pipette into the sink where it shatters with a satisfying BANG!  Step back, dad would tell me now. Leave the lab and walk away.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” I mutter. “I can’t.” A single brain cell registers déjà vu: the last time I ignored dad’s instructions, I mixed a sleeping aid that almost drowned me if it hadn’t been for James. But I’m not sleepwalking now; I’m wide awake. I grab a second ampule of oxytocin and dump all of it into the vial of 2-AG.

Elisa, stop this! Dad splutters, but I barely hear the echo of his voice in my memory. Because in the vial, the liquid reverts from lilac to bluish water—it too is going in the opposite direction, but at least it’s doing something. My heart starts pummeling my ribs. Am I undoing my miniscule progress or am I having a break-through here? How much more love does it take to drown fear? Impulsively or perhaps desperately, I yank a third ampule.

Elisa, enough! The beloved voice rebukes me now, but I’m already pouring the clear fluid into the vial. Instantly, the mess starts fizzing and smoking. The sight is ominous but the more the haphazard concoction evaporates, the lighter I feel. As if the mixture is drawing the fury away from me to it. A crack of reason opens in my head the way my vials used to break. Then ideas start to billow like the blue smoke. Fifth time, dad’s code said. Did that too have a second meaning? Like December, the twelfth element and the twelfth oxytocin? I already have three ampules of love and one ampule of fear in. On instinct, I grab an entire ampule of serotonin. It seems a far-fetched interpretation, but what else do I have to follow?

“Is this it, Dad? Or something else?” My voice is muted by the thump-thump-thump clamoring of my heart.

But the only answer is the one I know: his strict instruction. Stop this hodgepotchery, Elisa. Be a scientist. Measure first, step by step.

“I’m sorry, Dad, but there isn’t enough time. I have to help Aiden.”

I rip off the lid from the serotonin ampule. The fluid of self-love is not clear like oxytocin; it’s cloudy and opaque. This is a lot more serotonin than I would have ever thought to use, but isn’t that what Doctor Helen said when she described my effect on Aiden’s brain? A powerful injection, she called it.

And what do I have to lose? Without another thought, I flood the vial with the milky liquid.

It’s instant. The jumble snarls with violence. It spews out gusts of blue vapor and starts hissing in my hand. Throw it in the fume hood! Dad would be shouting now, but I grip it tightly, transfixed. So this is what happens when you break the rules? You feel better? Or do you get hurt?

Another blast of fumes roils from the vial, engulfing it in a blue cloud. A curious sensation of warmth spreads to my fingertips. Finally fear finds me. I’m about to hurl the vial as dad would, but with a faint pop, the blue smog dissipates. Poof! And I can finally see through it. I stare wide-eyed, shaking head to toe, expecting a charred mess. But there, in the crystal depth, is a syrupy sap. Light indigo, not the purple it’s supposed to be. And most certainly not a solid protein.

Defeat bolts me here, staggering and deep. But what else was I expecting with this idiocy? At least it’s something different, something new. Because, despite the blow, I know without question I just catapulted further into this journey. What I don’t know is how far I still have to go. And there is only one way to find out.

I inhale a gulp of sterile, cold air and raise the vial to my lips.

Absolutely not! Dad thunders, but his apoplectic rage is drowned by Aiden’s vicious roar in my head. He would be murderous if he saw this. I swear the titanium on my wrist feels like his steely grip, stopping my hand. Which is why I’ll never tell him.

“I’ll be fine,” I assure them both, not bothered at all that I’m talking to myself. After all, I’m doing a lot more mentally unstable things. “There’s nothing toxic here, we know that by now.”

And I drip a glob of the treacle into my mouth. Every cell of my tongue recoils in protest. Gone is the lemony taste; this concoction is bitter and cloying like Novocain. I don’t know what kind of love tastes like this, but it’s definitely not mine. In that, I know again I have failed. Dad would never have brewed a disgusting sludge like this. I spit it out, tears burning my eyes. Whatever progress I made today, it’s still not enough. And it might never be.

My phone vibrates by the sink. “Incoming,” the real Aiden alerts me, mercifully unaware of my lunacy.

I jerk into motion, whirling like a tornado to destroy all evidence, including the moisture on my cheeks. I cannot cry now; the only thing I can do is breathe even if Bia’s air feels more like acid than oxygen in my clenched throat. I don’t even have time to rinse the vile taste out of my mouth. I toss the shards into the broken glass receptor and flush the sink. By the time Edison and Graham come in, the only trace of my insane and indefensible experiment is inside me, coating my tongue and blistering my mind.

“Hey, Eliser, you’ll love the quad when you see it. People are already gathering.”

“Elisa, is something the matter?” Edison frowns, probably at whatever expression is still glued on my face.

I bring out a smile. “Nothing, professor. I just finished running through my notes. I only wish dad was here to see it.” As I say the words, however, they don’t sound like the excuse I meant them to be. They ring loud and true. A wave of guilt crashes over me in addition to my misery. On the day I’m supposed to honor dad, I broke all his principles.

Edison is still watching me, eyes crinkling at the corners. “That’s natural, of course. We all wish that. Do you need a minute?”

“No, I’m all right,” I answer, smoothing down my father’s coat. Suddenly, the white cotton fibers feel like chainmail, crushing my shoulders under their weight.

“Very well. After you.” Edison gestures for me to lead, and we head out. I brace myself for the nerves but they are drowned by remorse. What would dad think of me now? Would he be disappointed as well as furious? Or would he understand the desperation behind my actions? Would he forgive it? I know the answer to that one: yes, he would. Love is never a mistake, he would say. There is nothing to forgive, only to learn.

The air has picked up a breeze outside. Clouds are floating by, turning the sun silver. The quad is lined with white chairs like half-atomic orbits facing the draped bench at the corner. Oxford’s banner waves behind it with its sigil: Dominus Illuminatio Mea. But my breath stops from the object next to it. Dad’s lectern. I would know it anywhere by the polished cherry wood and the small chemical element carved in the corner. P for Peter and Phosphorus, like the initials on my wrist. A yellow rose blooms next to the microphone.

Despite the overwhelming guilt, a soft tenderness drapes over me. This is exactly what dad would have liked: simplicity, knowledge, love. And love hangs in the air like its own emblem. It’s at the long banquet table in the back, laden with dad’s favorite bubbles, canapes, and his ubiquitous After-Eight mints. And above all, it’s in the faces of the white coats already gathered in the quad, each wearing a yellow rose. The dignified scientists laugh together in clusters.

As I watch the growing crowd, I sense eyes on me. Not the academic eyes, but the sapphire eyes that heat my skin. I turn on the spot, searching the woods boxing the quad but I don’t see Aiden there or even Benson. I’m sure I’m under strict observation, yet nothing is infringing on dad’s moment. The exact opposite of the festival, just as Aiden promised. Except I want to see his face now more than anything, especially after the last thirty minutes. I want to see the love in his gaze that makes this all worth it. The love for which I would break every rule, swallow every bitter drop. On cue, my phone vibrates once in my pocket. I yank it out, knowing it’s him.

“You’ll do beautifully,” he texts.

I give up the search. I know I will never find him if he doesn’t want to be seen.

“Where are you?” I write back, but before his answer blinks on the screen, Graham nudges me.

“So, what do you think?”

“It’s brilliant. It’s exactly what dad would have liked.”

Edison chuckles a few steps ahead but clearly listening. “I should hope so. We knew him well enough. Come along now, they’re all waiting to greet you.” His ever-curious eyes squint at me as he leads me into the quad. My phone buzzes again: “I’m with you. Love.”

I don’t know how he does it, but I feel lighter even with him invisibly close. As if those tiny four letters, l-o-v-e, can lift the atomic weight of all my toxic emotions. They carry me as I start weaving with Graham and Edison through the crowd of scientists that is swelling. I recognize almost everyone either by sight or introduction. Like Burford at the Rose Festival, Oxford is rolling out its own remembrance. There are warm handshakes despite the cold, laboratory fingers. There are favorite memories of dad and his lectures. There are questions about me: How am I doing? Am I enjoying my internship? What is next for me? And the constant, “you’re so very much like Peter.”

I smile and answer as best I can, but shivers whip my skin when dad’s friends ask about my future without a single doubt that it’s there, that it will be bright, that life is waiting for me rather than me for it. Because they don’t know our deadline in five weeks, the end that will decide everything. Not tangentials like doctoral programs or dreams, but the very threshold question of my existence: will Aiden and I win or will we vanish?

“Elisa?” Edison calls behind me as the wine almost spills from my trembling hands. “It’s time. Are you ready?”

The question rings like a shotgun in the air. I glance at the quad’s borders, still unable to see Aiden but knowing he is here with me. In the background, Oxford’s spires rise to the sky like hands in prayer. My hand flies to my locket. Make me calm, make me brave.

“Yes, I’m ready,” I manage because dad deserves the best from me.

Edison’s eyes widen slightly in surprise—he was probably expecting a nervous meltdown, which may still happen—but he nods. “Very well. I’ll announce you shortly.”

By the lectern, the violinist starts playing The Lark Ascending, one of dad’s favorites.

“Thank you for organizing this,” I tell Edison while I can still string words together. “And for remembering so much about dad.”

“It was the full faculty. Go ahead take your seat. You’re on the front row with me.”

And then I’m alone in a quad crammed with two hundred brilliant scientists peeking at me. I squeeze through the chairs and find my seat next to Edison’s empty one, only inches from the bench. If I reach, I could touch the flag-clothed arm where dad’s elbow used to rest. But I know that would push me over the brink. It’s a small, Aiden-made marvel I’m upright and breathing, or mostly breathing. Quiet gasping is more appropriate. The periodic table starts clanging with the speech in my head, words and elements jumbling together. I check my paperclip in my pocket and finger my titanium bracelet as the violin ends and Edison takes dad’s lectern. I’m done trying to understand my emotions at this point, but somewhere in the chaos, I bristle with possessiveness like I did when I saw him in dad’s office. The feeling is absurd—where else is the poor man supposed to speak?

Edison starts his remarks so eloquently that I’m torn between listening to him and trying not to hear a word lest I lose whatever composure I’m managing. Too soon, my cue booms from the microphone.

“We were very fortunate two months ago,” says Edison. “To welcome back Peter’s very heart. Friends, colleagues, and competitors—you know who you are—” he points his finger and the audience laughs in his thrall. “Please welcome Elisa Snow.”

Applause echoes through the quad, but it sounds wrong to me. I’m not the Snow they should be clapping for. My phone buzzes at my hip like a nudge. Somehow, I’m on my feet and moving. I teeter to the lectern, fingers tight around my paperclip, keeping my eyes on my Byron sneakers so I don’t trip. Aiden is close, he is with me. As soon as I reach the podium, Edison wishes me good luck and takes his seat. I step behind dad’s lectern, grasping the wooden ledges where he used to, draw a quiet breath, and finally lift my eyes to the scientists sitting in front of me.

For a second, I’m blinded by the brightness of white coats gleaming like a mirror dotted with yellow roses. Rays of smiles beam at me from every direction, but I blink past them and search the fringe of trees behind the audience for Aiden. I find him at last, directly in my line of sight. He is leaning against an oak tree with unconscious grace, Benson holding up a phone at his side. An exultant smile glows over Aiden’s flawless face. His eyes—smoldering even from here—burn on me with unrestrained pride. A sense of wonder floods my chest instead of the wound. Wonder that he is here, wonder that he is mine. And suddenly, I don’t feel nerves anymore or panic or fear. I only feel the miracle of sharing dad’s moment with him. He nods once, and the words start easily like a familiar childhood rhyme.

“Hello and thank you for being here today. As you know, my name is Elisa Snow. S-n-o-w. I have thought a lot lately about what that name means. To you all, of course, it means a colleague—” I skim over their rapt expressions and spot Doctor Helen in the last row, giving me a regal smile. “A professor—” I nod at Graham who is grinning. “And a friend.” I smile at Edison who is watching me with astonishment. “But to me, the name has carried many meanings. For the first eighteen years of my life, it meant family; for the next four, it meant pain; and now, it means love.” I find Aiden’s eyes again. His smile is so breathtaking that I have to look away to be able to speak. “It means ‘love’ because that’s what my father is to me. At every point of my life, he had a lesson: play chess and carry on; let your brain lead the experiment, but the heart steer its application; don’t try to know, try to understand. But the best lesson he taught me was how to love. Not how to love without fear, but how to love despite of it.” I continue through my speech, rarely needing to check my notes or pinch my paperclip. I just find Aiden’s eyes when I need to, and the words flow more naturally than I could have ever dreamed. It seems unbelievable that only three months ago, I was falling apart speaking in front of him with Denton at Reed. Right now, he is my bravery. But will I be able to brew courage for him? I’m closer after my madness today, but how far away still?

“I ask myself often when I am afraid,” I tell my audience or perhaps myself. “What would dad say if he were here?” I pause, searching for my own answer now that my head is clear—what would he tell me so close to the end? “He would probably say, have faith in science when you don’t know, in your heart when you do, and in yourself to be able to tell the difference.

“Thank you for honoring him and for allowing me to share his example with you today.”

I barely finish my words when the crowd erupts in applause and, to my shock, the scientists rise to their feet. I hear Graham’s cheer, I see Edison’s wide eyes, I catch Doctor Helen’s dignified bow of the head. But I skip frantically over them for Aiden in the back. I wouldn’t have been able to see him above the standing bodies if he weren’t so tall. But his beautiful head towers enough for me to meet his shining eyes. He smiles triumphantly with the purest look of adoration on his angel face as he is clapping. I love you, he mouths. I almost climb over the lectern to sprint headlong to him but, abruptly, there is a line forming around me and I’m passed handshake to handshake through the crowd.

“Well done, Elisa.” Edison finds me with Graham, and they start leading me toward the bench to unveil the plaque. “That was a very heartfelt tribute to Peter.”

“And here I was, thinking you were nervous.” Graham laughs and gives me an awkward, one-armed hug. “But then you pull a blinder. Not a dry eye in the audience, mind. Except me, I’m unshakable.”

“Indeed.” Edison nods, unable to hide puzzlement from his pensive voice.

I don’t know how to tell them about the surreal man who is my courage, so I mumble about practicing for an entire month, which is true and also irrelevant.

The mass of scientists gathers around the bench dad so loved. I try to squint through the wall of white coats to keep Aiden in my sight for this moment, wishing so much it was his hands touching the Oxford flag with me. But there is no open crack to glimpse him anymore. My chest flares even as I grasp the blue cotton fabric that always brought a look of pride to dad’s face.

Edison, Graham, and I fold Oxford’s flag together away from the bench. As the simple bronze plaque engraved with dad’s name comes into view exactly where his shoulders used to rest, my own reel flashes before my eyes: dad reading here, his laugh when I solved my first Rubik’s cube; our heads under the bench as he carved P.E.C., so many moments that made me, me. Through the tunnel of my imagination, dad looks up from the pages, saying ah! Ah, you did it, Eliser!

And though I hear the applause of his two hundred friends and colleagues, I only want one person here with me. I squint reflexively again over the white mirror and the flashes of phones and cameras, even though I know I won’t be able to see him. Maybe we can come back here at night and sit together, read dad’s favorite poem, share his favorite wine, kiss. Dad wouldn’t have minded. He would have laughed and lectured us about oxytocin. I brace for the sense of loss that usually fills me when I have such thoughts, but it doesn’t come. The only thing I feel is anticipation. With a low gasp that confuses Professor Ricci who is chattering at me, I realize something else has changed in the last month as well: I’m celebrating more and mourning less. I know it’s all because of the man watching the quad to protect me.

At last, the crowd loosens as the scientists shuffle around for drinks and canapes. As soon as I see an opening, I slip through it and scan the border of the quad urgently. But Benson and Aiden’s unmistakable frames are not visible there. The wound erupts in my chest. I dart through the bodies, greeting and thanking, trying to linger at the crowd perimeter. Around me, the chatter swells with memories of dad. “One of a kind, your father.” “Was very proud of you.” “Brought you to our lecture when you turned one.”

I nod with a full throat by the banquet table. The idea that has been percolating in my head fizzes with rightness. The first moment I have alone, I inch my fingers carefully toward an After-Eight mint. Unlike Baci, they’re not my favorite, but they were dad’s. I haven’t touched one since serving his last few at the funeral.

A caress I know in every cell brushes my trembling fingertips.

“Oh!” I gasp, spinning around and here he is! Standing right in front of me at the edge of the crowd, braving his worst nightmare, more beautiful than any mirage. The gold has returned to his skin, but his long body is vibrating with tension even with Benson at his back and trees behind him. I know there are panes of granite underneath his blue shirt and navy slacks. But despite that incomprehensible strain, his eyes are molten as he gazes at me.

“Aiden!” I choke as soon as I can breathe. “Aiden, you’re—you’re right here-here!”

“Congratulations, Miss Snow.” His voice is subdued with emotion. A smile lifts his lips into a curve; no half-moon or cupid bow could ever compare to it. “You were phenomenal. Even better than I imagined, and that’s saying something.”

“Great job, Elisa,” Benson winks.

“Th-thank you,” I stammer, unable to blink away from Aiden only inches from me. “It was because of you.”

“No, love. You did it yourself.”

I almost launch myself at him. Only a fading sense that I’m at a memorial event with two hundred professors around stops my feet. I have to cross them like a torniquet to stay put. He chuckles, but his eyes fall on my mouth like the kiss I want so desperately. His fingers brush mine again and he picks up the After-Eight mint.

“I think you were reaching for this?” He holds it on his open palm between us, as he did with the chess queen. His eyes do not release my awed gaze.

My hand flies up to his without hesitation, eager to touch any part of him. He could be holding a flame, and I would stick my fingers straight into the embers. I swirl my fingers around the mint, feeling the warm perfection of his skin before touching the little square.

“Cheers,” I whisper.

He smiles victoriously again and his hand closes around mine. I reach on my tiptoes—no longer caring about the professors anymore—but a regal, disapproving voice I would recognize even asleep rings right next to us, shattering the spell.

“Aiden?”

“Doctor Helen!” I squeak, yanking back my hand and almost dropping into a curtsy. She is standing imperiously in her gleaming crown of silver hair and white coat, looking most displeased.

“Hello, Elisa,” she greets me but her arctic stare is not directed at me. It’s trying to pierce through Aiden. Trying and failing. He doesn’t even look at her; his eyes are still caressing my face.

“Not now, Doctor Helen,” he answers, his mouth twitching in humor. “I’m having a very important conversation.”

“Aiden, this is an irresponsible idea,” she decrees. In her commanding voice, the words sound unquestionable and incontrovertible.

“Is it?” he questions her. “I believe I recall an instruction from you to live the life we want to live as fully as possible and stay in the present moment. That’s exactly what this is.”

I can’t look away from his amused eyes to see her expression, but I can hear the censure in her tone. “I also instructed you unequivocally to guard against the startle reflex at this time.”

His shoulders snap like armor but his gaze sweeps over my jawline that calms him. “And I am. I have only Benson and trees behind me. There is no one within fifteen feet except him, you, and the woman I love who just gave a beautiful homage to her father after four long years. I think she deserves this present moment, don’t you?”

Heat burns my cheeks, but Doctor Helen’s reminder makes me shudder. Because I see exactly how much this is costing him, what he is risking. “Aiden, love, Doctor Helen is right. Don’t worry about me—just having you close by is all I need.”

“I am only partially right,” Doctor Helen corrects in a gentler tone, surprising me. The disapproval vanishes from her face, and she gives me one of her stately smiles. “Aiden is correct about the rest. You did splendidly. I know Peter and Clare would have been very proud.”

I remember mum’s journal—how these two women rallied together to save Aiden—and I believe her. “Thank you, Doctor,” I whisper. “And thank you for coming.”

“I wouldn’t miss it. And if I may, I am proud of you, too, for your remarks and the way you’re supporting Aiden. I know it’s getting harder in this final run. But you are both doing incredibly well, this momentary lapse in judgement aside.”

She says this in her usual gravitas that leaves no room for doubt. And I realize that Aiden must have talked to her already, that this assurance is his other gift to me today.

“That’s a much better present moment, Doctor Helen,” Aiden chuckles. “And now I will leave. I have a riddle to solve.” He kisses me with his eyes, and I know he wants to do and say so much more. As do I. “We’ll be close. Don’t rush unless you want to.”

He caresses my fingertips again and strides away with Benson, almost blurry with tension. I stare after him as he wrestles his formidable reflex for the sole purpose of helping me lift a mint, of being here in this one moment with me.

I feel a warm clasp on my shoulder. Doctor Helen has rested her ivory lace hand on it from her great height. That rare maternal edge softens her face. “Keep the hope, Elisa child. I will see you in five weeks for the final test. Try to make the most of your time together until then.” And she glides away.

T-e-s-t. Hope trembles like a candle in the wind of her majestic passage. Because even in her assuring tone, it’s impossible not to miss the note of finality in her words. The beginning of the end.

I wheel around and race back across the quad, my only goal now to make my excuses and leave so I can be with Aiden. Edison and Graham are up front by the bench, sipping champagne. The violinist is playing the Ashokan Farewell.

“Ah, Elisa,” Edison greets me. “Right on time. A few of us are heading to King’s Arms to toast Peter. Will you join us?”

“I would love to, but I’m leaving for River Eden tonight to celebrate dad. But please have a tipple for me.”

Graham laughs. “Eliser, you’re doing something fun for a change. That’s what we should raise a pint to.”

Edison’s eyebrows rise, but he seems pleased. “River Eden is perfect, of course, but you had better leave now. Lake District is almost five hours away. Take Monday off if you wish.”

“Thank you both,” I nearly blurt out and sprint back inside the building for my purse, texting Aiden that I’ll be out in two minutes.

Bia seems exactly as I left it: bright with the soft fluorescents and the yellow rose at the desk. I hang up dad’s coat, eyes on the coolers of serotonin and oxytocin. Why didn’t it work? I’ll try again, dad, as you would, but safely this time.

Aiden and Benson are waiting for me of course, walking parallel back to the car park lest I take three steps out of sight. As soon as I round the corner, I bound straight to Aiden and leap into his arms. He catches me in his iron embrace, holding me against him so my feet are above ground. And I’m home. My fingers hook in his soft hair, and I bring him to my mouth, not caring if I’m making Benson nauseous. I drown myself in his taste after an entire century of not kissing him. He kisses me back softly, adoringly. I forget where I am, I even forget t-i-m-e. The only thing I know is that I love him. Dangerously, irrevocably, no matter what Doctor Helen’s t-e-s-t will say. And I want to spend every minute left celebrating, making every single part of mine his.

I tangle myself closer, but his hand restrains my face and he pulls back with a chuckle.

“Hi there,” he says, eyes gleaming with amusement at my exuberance.

“Hi,” I breathe.

He chuckles again, setting me on the ground without releasing my waist. “That must have been some mint.” He tilts his head to the side as if to remind me that we are not, indeed, alone like my body thinks we are, and I finally remember Benson. Our poor Big Ben is standing there, back to us, looking up at the clouds. I flush to my curled toes.

“Hi, Benson. Sorry about the—umm—this.”

He laughs and turns around. “I didn’t see anything. I’ll check out those mints, though.”

“I’ll buy you a box,” I promise because I can.

“So now that you aced your speech to no one’s surprise but your own,” Aiden turns me to him. “Are we leaving tonight?”

“Actually, there’s something I want to do first. Can we leave tomorrow? Edison gave me Monday off.”

He looks as though he heard I just made progress on the protein, but there will be time to tell him about that. “That was kind of him, but I’m curious now, though. What is it you want to do?”

My heart starts pounding. “You’ll see.”

The breeze has become a gusty wind when Benson drops us off at home. Fluffy clouds are hurtling across the sky like silver puffs of breaths from the sleepy sun. And the cottage is standing in a globe of petals. Thousands of them are flying everywhere, swirling like welcome hugs around our feet. Everything is rippling, including my heartstrings.

“A lot of change,” Aiden notes, eyes sweeping the garden as always. “But it all seems to be from the wind.”

The black shutters creak in agreement.

As soon as we’re inside, Aiden scans the foyer while I try to breathe, even though the state-of-the-art camera in the chandelier feeds live images to his phone and Benson’s all day. An entire month without incident has still not convinced him I’m safe. He remains as sure of my danger as that first night.

“Nothing out of camera’s range.” He sighs and pulls me in his arms. “I promise you, I will solve this. I don’t know how or when, but I will.”

Hopefully, it will take him a lifetime so he can stay with me. I reach on my tiptoes to kiss him. “I don’t mind now that you’re my bodyguard. But speaking of solving things, how long did it take you to solve the riddle?”

He smiles. “You sound certain that I have, in fact, solved it.”

I almost trip while standing perfectly frozen. “Y-you haven’t?”

“I have an answer,” he qualifies. “But I’m not certain it’s the right one.”

“What’s your answer?”

His hand curves around my face. He gazes down at me with tenderness. “Is it love?”

L-o-v-e! Apparently, it’s the answer to everything. “I didn’t even think about that!” I stare at him, gobsmacked.

His eyebrows arch with amusement. “You didn’t? So I missed it?” The excitement in his expression makes me laugh. Only Aiden would love being able to do something so normal as missing a puzzle.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you didn’t. I did.”

“Oh, no.” He laughs, too. “I lost this fair and square. You have to give it to me.”

“But you didn’t lose. The answer could be love.”

“It could, but it doesn’t fit your instructions. Love can survive distance, but it can’t move. And it’s debatable whether time does not affect love. It may not destroy true love, but it can change it, grow it. Not everyone loves as immediately and irrevocably as I do.”

“Or I.”

“Precisely. So I lost.” The dimple is brighter than if he had actually won. “Now, tell me the correct answer.”

Rightness washes over me again. “Come.” I take his hand, dragging him behind me. In the few short steps, I have whirlwinds everywhere. A twister in my throat, a vortex in my chest, tornadoes in my feet.

“The library?” Aiden muses, searching the cozy room with its paneled walls. “Ah, is the answer a book?”

I suppose it could be. I look up at his sublime face—it could be him. My king and protector, warrior and healer, with a memory that transcends time and place at any moment. Except when he looks at me with the same love that is burning in me. The only love that could make me do this.

“Close your eyes,” I whisper, my voice breathy like the willows.

He doesn’t miss my emotion. “Are you alright?”

“Never healthier.”

He holds my eyes for a moment in that way that sees straight through my skin, then closes his glistening lids. I lead him across the woven rug where dad and I built my first planetary model. Aiden is stepping where Venus was now, then Jupiter, then Mars.

“Wait here and don’t peek.” I stop him on the sun and open the window. The wind blows in, flipping the pages of the book Aiden has been reading in his promise to absorb Dad’s entire library; of course, he is almost finished. A column of silver light pours on the spot where he is standing.

“All right, now come with me.”

I take his hand again with conviction. His fingers weave with mine. He is quiet as if he senses the change breezing in. I stop us on the path of light at the tiny table in the corner. With his eyes closed, he looks as though he was forged out of some mystical metal just to tower here in this moment.

“Okay, you can look now.”

The brilliant eyes fling open and widen at the object between us. “Elisa!” he murmurs in shock, understanding in a blink.

“The answer to the riddle is chess.” I rest my hand on the treasured glass case that holds the unfinished chess game that dad and I started the morning before the accident. The last rays of sun are refracting on it. The pieces rest within, untouched by hand or time in four years and eight months. I look up at Aiden’s face. The deep emotion in his eyes echoes my own.

“Will you finish this with me?” I invite him.

His strong hands cover mine around the glass box. The deep V folds between his raven brows. “Elisa, are you sure?” he breathes.

“I am.” My voice rings clear. “There isn’t anyone else in the world I’d want to do this with.”

Neither his hands, nor his eyes release me. “Tell me why, love. Not why with me, but why you want to finish it after all this time.”

“Because I’m ready. I want to celebrate dad. I don’t want to spend one more minute mourning. That’s what he and mum would have wanted for me: to heal and live. And I want to live it all with you.”

Because there will be no life left if we lose in the end.

His fingers trail up my arms, leaving tingles in their wake, and frame my face. I have never seen his eyes deeper or more mine. Under his gaze, I feel like a glass case myself: open, see-through, and entirely breakable. But he leans across the tiny table and kisses me. It’s a tender kiss as if he knows the fragility of the moment. “I love you,” he whispers against my lips. “Every time I think you couldn’t make me prouder, you do.”

When he pulls back, his smile is glorious. It fills my vision and floods my mind. “Well then,” he quotes me. “Let’s play.”

I laugh breathlessly. The sound bounces off the book spines, a chuckle on Dante, a giggle on Byron. He comes around the table and pulls back my chair. “Do you want to be black or white this time?”

I know what he is really asking. “Black, for dad. I want to finish his part.”

He kisses of my temple. “Perfect, because I want to close for you.”

We take the old, rickety chairs that squeak like the shutters: I in dad’s, Aiden in mine. The board waits between us at last. It doesn’t have the magnificent gleam of mine upstairs, but it has a comforting, Christmassy sheen. How many times have I stared at it, preserving it in its glass tomb instead of letting it glow free?  I dig up the After-Eight from the ceremony and set it on the side.

The jubilant smile has not left Aiden’s lips. His face is a light prism of its own. He doesn’t need to have eyes on the board, of course; they’re only on me.

“You really like this, don’t you?” I ask him.

“I think ‘like’ is an understatement.” He laughs, but an emotion smolders under the humor. As I gaze back at him, the laugh suddenly softens. His beauty intensifies in that hypnotic way that knocks me breathless. “I love it,” he admits. “Until you came along, this game was as close to calm as I could get. I’ve waited all my life to play it with you. Even when neither of us knew it.”

But I know it now. That’s why this is not just a happy memory in our reel of brilliancy; it’s a new weapon. A weapon that will hopefully bring Aiden some peace of mind between reels, that will double my calm in case the protein—I shut down the thought and smile at him.

“Me too. I wish I could have gotten to it sooner.”

“You’re right on time, love.” He inclines his head to me. “Your move, I believe.”

There is no question about it. When it comes to this game, I might as well be eidetic like him. I remember exactly the last piece I played; I know by heart the only six moves left. He doesn’t rush me. He waits patiently as my hands claw into fists on my lap, digging into the denim of my jeans, despite my conviction. But I know how to release them now after thirty-one nights of touching chess pieces with and on him: I look at his face. His hair is ruffled from the wind as when I run my fingers through it. I visualize weaving my hands through the soft waves, and bam! The fists open. Then slowly, I raise my right hand—it’s trembling like the beech leaves—and hover it above dad’s knight. The move I know he would have made.

Aiden nods again as he did before my speech. The faith in his gaze is unwavering. Easily, like the words of my eulogy, my fingers wrap around the carved mane.

The familiar wood warms my fingertips like a hello. Does dad’s touch still linger there? Did t-i-m-e preserve that? At the window, the Clares are swaying, as if mum is watching like she used to. I draw a gulp of their air, keeping my eyes on Aiden, and then I move.

From my concentration, I underestimate the strength of my grip and almost knock over the rest of the pieces as I whip past them.

“Oops!” I gasp, but my hand adjusts automatically on its own, the synapses firing without any conscious instruction from me. The moves are reflexive like heartbeats, easy like breathing. Not like I’m coming back to them, but like they never left me. It’s an electrifying feeling—it shoots from my fingertips straight to my lips. Pure laughter bursts from me as the knight twirls between my fingers in an old habit.

Aiden throws back his head, laughing too. The waterfall sound cascades down the wood-paneled walls and their perpetual After-Eight scent. He could finish this game in ten seconds, but he doesn’t. He plays at my pace, making the moves I would have made.

“So the ruler and the servant are the king and the pawn,” he solves the riddle as he picks up my old pawn and sets it in the direct line of dad’s king.

“Yes.” I caress dad’s bishop and execute the rook. “And the war is obviously the game.”

His Queen reads my bishop’s last rites. “But there’s also peace in every piece since they rest together between battles.”

“Exactly.” I check his Queen with mine. “And we can play on repeat and kill time itself.”

“Yet time cannot erode the wood or ever touch rules of chess.” He sacrifices his Queen so I can also lose my own.

“And we can travel for miles,” I answer, picking up my Knight and riding across the chessboard as I have countless times. How many miles have I galloped and glided on this chessboard? How many has Aiden on his? How many miles will we be able to play together?

“All while staying perfectly still.” He checks my King with his Knight and looks up at me through his long lashes. His smile blinds me again.

“Check, Elisa.”

“Check, Aiden,” I counter, resting my own Knight across from his.

And then it ends. In a stalemate exactly as it would have ended then. A ten-minute segment of love completing the last four years. I stare at the finally finished game. Does the board feel the same waft of peace blowing through me? The two kings face each other as equals. It was a good game, Dad. I hope you’re laughing. I hope you’re saying, “ah, Eliser, play again!” Tears rise up in my eyes, blurring the board.

Aiden comes to my side, sliding on his knee. He traps the teardrop on his finger.

“Is this a happy tear or a sad tear?”

“Happy,” I sniffle, throwing my arms around his neck, inhaling the smell of him. “There’s nothing adjacent about it.”

His laughter reverberates in my chest. He takes my face in his hands and kisses me, his lips fierce and exultant against mine. I melt in his arms, pressing myself closer, but he stops abruptly.

“Rematch of our own?” he asks with an eager expression: eyes wide, smile huge.

“Yes, please,” I answer, free and clear.

He springs to his feet and scoops me up in his arms.  “I’m black this time,” he stakes his claim. His eyes are on fire. I ignite everywhere, from my skin to my blood. We leave the finished game by the window, the white curtains billowing toward it like angel’s wings. Then we fly together to our chess set in our bedroom. Now it’s the turn of my king.

©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 26 – ROSE THIEF

Hey gang and happy Fourth of July to all my U.S. peeps! I hope you’re all having a great long weekend with family, friends, or just a good book, however you want it to be. And to help with the weekend feel, here is a chapter for you. I took two weeks because it’s an important one, IMHO. And for those of you who read the snippet on Facebook, you might guess why. Hope you enjoy it. Lots of love, xo, Ani

26

Rose Thief

Everything is ready even though it’s only seven in the morning on a Saturday. But when you have an entire Rose Army at your disposal—as Stella has named Aiden, the Marines, and our security team—it takes only an hour compared to the ten it used to take mum, dad, and me to set up for the festival.

And now, after four years under a tarp behind the Plemmons’ shop, mum’s rose stand blooms in the heart of Priory Street as it did for the eighteen festivals our family blossomed together. I stare at it under the sunrise, resisting even a blink.

Dad built it in the shape of the cottage for mum. Just three lattice walls and a peaked roof with wooden slats, painted the same white as our home. Over the roof stretches a canvas of damask roses she bought on their honeymoon, their former pink now faded to the blush of the Clares. Woven baskets hang on the lattice like windows, brimming with roses from the garden: the Elisas in ivory, the Cecilias in cyclamen, the Reagans in magenta, the future Marias. But only the Clares are competing today. Their bouquet—forty-four stems, one for each year of mum’s life—bursts from her favorite vase on a beechwood plinth like a front door. And inside the trellis walls are eighteen rose wreaths with a photo of her from each summer she attended this festival, wearing the same rose-printed dress I’m wearing now and the same roses braided in her hair.

Her smile in the photos turns liquid in my vision.

“Is that a happy tear or a sad tear?” Aiden’s arms fold around my waist, and he kisses the droplet off my cheek as if we are entirely alone, not with a Rose Army around us or vendors throwing furtive looks at mum’s charm from a distance. Mrs. Willoughby seems to be weeping from her champion stand of speckled roses. I wrap my hands around his, eyes on the chime bells tinkling from the picket eave.

“Happy adjacent, I think.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Just because I miss her.” I shrug. “But also happy because I think she would have liked this.”

“Of course she would have. How else do you explain the pink clouds?” He turns me in his arms, his eyes caressing me in ways his hands cannot here. His fingers brush the roses woven in my hair as if the petals are my skin. “You look so beautiful,” he murmurs.

But how could anyone be called beautiful standing next to him? His surreal face eclipses everything, even if it’s still pale from the reel almost three hours later. The images hold him longer now—it takes a few extra minutes each week to bring him back. But he is still here for me, invincible and unwavering.

I trace the circle below his eyes with my fingertip. “How are you feeling?”

He smiles. “Happy adjacent.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Because I’ll miss you and your hair full of roses in a few minutes. But also happy because I have something that might help you with the adjacent part.” A glow falls over him, and the pallor disappears. His usual golden warmth infuses his skin. And even though the edges of the wound start burning at the countdown, I smile back.

“Does it involve a bomb shelter, a new security battalion, or body armor?”

He chuckles. “Not today.”

“All right, go on then. What is it?”

He nods once at someone behind me, and I look over my shoulder in time to see Benson turn the corner to Ivy Lane while the rest of my Rose Army spread out and occupy themselves in an apparent effort to give us privacy.

“So where will you be today while I’m showing off the roses?” I ask him, dreading the long day apart.

“Close enough to have my eyes on you in this dress and with this hair.” His heated gaze descends over me.

“That’s hardly fair,” I grumble. “You get to see me, but I don’t get to see you.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll leave breadcrumbs.”

“Breadcrumbs?”

“Something like that. Here comes Benson.”

Benson is striding toward us like our personal Big Ben, carrying a tall, thin cardboard box under his arm. “Here you go, sir.” He hands it to Aiden, winking at me before joining Max and Ferrars at our welcome table and promptly showing them a map—no doubt the battle plan. Aiden is still looking at me in that fiery way, a smile playing on his lips.

“Allow me?”

“You better. Papercuts are highly dangerous. Why didn’t you hire me a personal surgeon for this?”

“Don’t tempt me. I might throw in a second bodyguard and a bullet-proof vest. Although it would cover the best parts of this dress, I’m afraid.” His eyes linger on my décolleté. I’m about to suggest he builds us a private bunker where we don’t need clothes at all, but he opens the box with a pained sigh, and my snarky remark dies on my lips. Because he takes out a white sign with black letters like the cottage’s shutters:

Lady Clare’s Rose Gallery

“Oh!” I gasp, fingers flying to the painted words to caress the letters. Lady Clare—the name I gave the rose we planted together in mum’s honor at the Portland Rose Garden. “Aiden, did you do this yourself?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the best part. “YouTube and me.”

I throw my arms around him and the sign, hugging them both. “No, it’s just you!” I breathe him in through his T-shirt. “Thank you! I love it and I know mum would have loved it, too.”

He chuckles. “Well, I couldn’t very well leave you with a nameless rose stand. Mrs. Willoughby might have claimed it as her own.”

“And you with it.”

“Not me. I’m taken. I have a thing for Mrs. Plemmons.” He tips up my face, winking at our secret nicknames for each other. Will he always stun me like this? Or will there come a day, whether we win or lose, when I’ll get used to him? The answer might as well be a sign on my forehead: no, I never will.

He hangs the sign under roof, hammering the nails carefully into the slats. I try not to ogle at his arms flexing with the motion but fail quickly and absolutely. Thankfully he finishes before I do something obscene like drag him behind mum’s rose stand for a different kind of hammering with his parents six feet away. He rattles the sign to make sure it doesn’t move an inch.

“Perfect,” he says, regarding his handiwork and pulling me to his side.

I watch his profile, feeling his granite lines against me, inhaling his freshly showered scent.  “Yes, it truly is,” I agree.

He sets down the hammer and gazes down at me, but the familiar hesitancy before we part flickers in the turquoise depths. And the magic bubble pops. We’re back on Priory Street, surrounded by our army, the seconds ticking by. My chest starts to ache under my locket.

“Do you feel it still?” he whispers.

“Feel what?”

“The pain here.” His index finger taps the glowing sapphire.

I nod. “Only when you leave.”

“Me too. But do you remember what I think then?”

“What?”

He caresses a Clare in my braid. “This is just a petal,” he reminds me.

His love-making mantra makes smile despite the countdown. “That’s right, I forgot! The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“Exactly. Think about that with me, and before you know it, the day will be over. And we can celebrate your Rose Cup which I’m sure you’ll win.”

I can tell by the playfulness in his voice that he’s trying to cheer me up. But why is it harder to separate today? I go to work every day and I’m able to crawl out of the car without this kind of devastation. Is it because it’s mum’s favorite event and I want him here with me? Or because I know he’ll be close but stressed, trying to protect me? Whatever the reason, it seems to be harder for Aiden, too. His eyes don’t leave me for long, his body shifts closer every time I move.

“Celebrate how?” I ask to distract myself and him. “Just us?”

I know he hears the desperation in my voice because he smiles. “Oh, I never tell. But will you do something for me?”

“Anything you want.”

He plucks an Elisa from their basket and tucks it above my ear. “Wear something of yours today, too. Make this your day as well.”

He caresses my rose, lips parting, clearly wanting to do more. As do I. But things change quickly then. The horn of the Plemmonses flower cart blares at the end of the street, striking Aiden’s shoulders like a thunderbolt. His eyes harden as he scours the lane that starts bustling at the signal. People are already crowding at the gate. The street vendors start shouting final orders at their own armies. And the local band clangs their cymbals and tests the trumpets. Reflexively by now, our arms fly around each other’s waist—shield and talisman.

“You should go, love,” I say, each word a thorn in my throat. “I’ll be fine with your parents and Max and Ferrars. I wish you’d go fishing or hiking with the Marines, but I know there’s zero chance of that.”

He tenses as if ready to throw himself between the world and me at any moment. “Zero,” he agrees. “But don’t worry about that. Celebrate your mother and have fun.”

His words seem to act as a command to the Rose Army who have clearly been watching him. They spring into movement, even Robert and Stella, forming circle around us, awaiting his orders. Aiden shifts me against his side without releasing his hold on me.

“You relax and enjoy this, too,” he tells his parents. “It’s supposed to stay in the mid-seventies, but if you want to go back at the Inn for a break, Ferrars will take you.”

“Not a chance. We’re staying with Elisa. We have spots in the shade,” Robert assures him. Stella simply kisses him with her eyes. I can’t help but notice a trace of sadness in her smile. If I see it, Aiden certainly does because he bends to kiss her cheek before turning to Max and Ferrars.

“You know the drill. Stay close but inconspicuous. No mistakes. Elisa’s safety first.”

“Yes, sir.” They nod in their casual attire that blends in with the locals and start helping Robert and Stella heave the ice coolers of rose lemonade to our welcome table.

James, Hendrix, and Benson don’t seem to need orders. Like Aiden, they’re wearing more utilitarian clothes: jeans, breathable shirts, Timberland boots. They don earpieces in unison, already scanning the street, their expressions intense even behind their dark sunglasses. At their alert postures, my own spine becomes rigid with nerves.

“Is Jazz back at the cottage?” I guess.

“Yes, he’s betting someone will show up there, but you’re worrying again.” He pinches my chin as he does when making an important point. “Nothing will happen to you. All this is so we can find out what we’re dealing with, fix it, and get back to our life.”

I nod, but I still can’t calm the sudden shivers. Because it’s impossible to look at the lethal men around me and not feel that war is starting on Priory Street. And wars have casualties. What if someone gets hurt? Even worse, what if it’s not me? And what if mum’s day is tainted with this? I have no doubt there is no real danger here. I’m more afraid of what seven men trained to kill will do at Aiden’s direction if he perceives danger.

“Aiden, please be careful,” I beg him.

“Of course, I will. I told you, we’re built for this.”

I glance at the army quickly—hard, vigilant, destructive—and pull him aside by the bouquet of Clares. One of her roses brushes against his forearm like a kiss. “That’s my point love,” I whisper. “You’re trained for war, not this. We’re in Burford, not Fallujah.”

He is too tense to smile but he tries. “As stunning as you are, I still know where I am, Elisa.”

I take his hands in mine, caressing the jagged knuckles. “You know what I mean. It’s just a little country festival. Petals, not threats, love. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for danger. Please?”

He’s nodding before I’ve finished. “I will. Now go, play, let me worry about the rest.”

Before I can formulate a response, he arches me against his granite chest and presses his lips softly against mine. And then he is gone. Waving at his parents and bolting away from me after Hendrix and James, Benson at his side.

“Be safe,” I call after him, clasping my locket.

He looks over his shoulder with my favorite dimpled smile. “The breadcrumb is in the box.” His voice wraps around me, warm and velvet. I blink and they vanish into the rose-scented air as if they were only ever a dream.

The wound rips wide open, as livid as when I used to chase after him in my sleep. But my phone buzzes in my dress pocket instantly. I wrench it out, almost dropping it as I read his text:

“Breadcrumbs, not worries.”

Can he see me? I spin around, scanning the sidewalks and rooftops, even stupidly the sky. But I can’t see any of them. Not even our Big Ben or James’s tangle of red hair. Yet as much as I want Iraq’s ghosts away from Mum’s roses, my chest is burning. I almost tear the box that held the sign to search for my breadcrumb, but a folded piece of paper slides out easily in Aiden’s assertive handwriting:

First Time. December. Bring love.

I grin at the words, fighting the urge to kiss the note with his parents, Max, and Ferrars around. He didn’t make it hard for me to decode: Room of Firsts, at noon. A rush of heat flashes over my skin. It will be just us for lunch at least. I tuck the note in my dress and text him back immediately: “I can’t wait.”

But our date is four long hours away, and these hours belong only to mum. As she apparently still belongs in Burford’s heart. They haven’t forgotten her in the last four years. The moment the Song of Windrush kickstarts the festival, a long line of Cotswoldians forms at the end of the street, smiling and pointing excitedly at our stand with its brand-new sign. “Blimey, Clare’s roses are really back!” shouts someone. “I knew it!” answers another. “Mama, it’s the roses you liked!” squeals a little girl.

Everything else fades then as my throat closes abruptly with a different kind of tears. An acidic mix of grief and remorse. How did I erase Mum from this day? How could I have taken her away from them like she was taken away from me? I run my hands over her dress—so many sorry’s, I love you’s, and I miss you’s left unsaid. But that’s not what she would have wanted today. I skip at our welcome table with Robert and Stella by my side and wave at the crowd who cheers and shuffles forward as soon as the song ends.

“Good heavens,” Robert marvels, pouring mum’s rose lemonade frantically into paper cups. “There must be at least three hundred of them and it’s only the start.”

“She was so loved,” Stella croons, all thumbs and laughter.

But across the lane, Max and Ferrars are in a battle stance. They split up: Max moves between the incoming line and me, Ferrars strides parallel against it searching each kind face for danger behind his sunglasses. If I look closer, I can see their earpieces and quick lips coordinating with each other. A metallic taste builds on my tongue at their vicious expressions looking at the well-wishers who are waiting to welcome mum back and seeing nothing but threats.

“Max, please!” I hiss at him under my breath. “Let them enjoy this. They’ve waited a long time.”

He peers at me through his aviators. Or I think he does—only his furled eyebrows are visible above them. I have no idea what he is thinking but he nods once and crosses the street, strolling casually and looking more like a merry goer. Down the meandering lane, Ferrars starts doing the same. I take a deep breath and smile at the ribbon of faces winding through all the other rose stands for ours first. At the very front, Mr. Plemmons is leading the charge in his crocs and cane, wearing his straw fedora crowned with garden roses. Everyone slows for his hunched frame, tipping their hats at the festival’s official tsar for the last fifty years.

“Rose!” he rejoices when he reaches me, taking my hand in his knobbly fist and shaking it in the air like I have already won the Rose Cup. “Bless me soul! The stand looks beautiful—righ’ like yer mum did it. She’s proud up there, she is, I tell yeh.” He leans his head back, admiring the stand, a tear trickling in his mustache while I try to exhale. Other than me, the Plemmonses are the only two people alive who know exactly how much mum loved this. Over my parents’ hilltop, the pinkish clouds are floating like petals across the sky. Are you smiling, Mum?

“Ah, all the roses are perfect!” Mr. Plemmons declares. “An’ look at them in yer hair, Rosebud. Josephine will like this. She’s with Emma an’ Harry, they’ll stop by. Felix, Lavender, and Lily are here from London, too.” He grins under his bushy mustache at his grandchildren’s names.

“That’s wonderful, Mr. Plemmons,” I shout, handing him a cup of lemonade. “I’d love to see them again.”

He turns to Robert and Stella, whom he calls his good Yankee mates. “Good of yeh to be with Rosebud today, jolly good. Come by our stand for some nosh—Josephine has made canapes . . . but where is Adam?” He squints at the space between the three of us, his fluffy eyebrows furrowing like sheep’s wool at this new transgression committed by Aiden in addition to staying with me at the cottage albeit in the garden shed.

“He’s fixing a pipe at the cottage, Mr. Plemmons,” I scream, flushing as the whole line listens in about the mysterious, beautiful guest, while Robert and Stella nod fervently, their smiles too wide. “But he got me the sign for the stand, see? Isn’t it brilliant?”

That distracts him immediately. He totters closer to the stand, hitching up his spectacles as he squints to read it. “Adam did tha’?” His eyebrows and mustache wiggle with a smile—perhaps the first smile in the same sentence as Adam.

“Yes, he did! And he hung it himself,” I yell proudly as several necks crane up to see the sign too with admiring hums.

“Ah, tha’ is beautiful, tha’ is. Will save him a canape, Rose. See yeh three in wee bit. Stay out o’ this blasted sun and sprinkle the roses.” He waves and turns to face the line of cheery Burfordians, stomping his cane on the cobblestones for silence. They all fall quiet. “Today,” he wheezes with significance. “We welcome back one of Burford’s best roses. May she bloom like spring. Let the festival begin.” He blows his whistle and teeters back to his famous pony cart stand, harrumphing at all the clapping that follows him.

The whole line jolts forward with energy then, louder than the band. Max and Ferrars radiate waves of anxiety pacing across the lane, ready to hurl themselves at me as my hands get passed like coins handshake to handshake in a torrent of welcomes and cheers that gives me barely a second to breathe in between, let alone say anything other than “hello Mrs. So-and-So” and “thank you.”

“Elisa-pea! Welcome back! Happy Rose Day to beautiful Clare!” Mrs. Potts, the town’s grocer, cries as I hand her a cup of mum’s lemonade and a sachet of dried petals which she uses to dab her tears.

“Oh, how I’ve missed these wee baggies for me dressers. Voting for Clare’s roses, I will!” Mrs. Sterling, the stationer, cheers as she takes two sachets from my basket.

“No better-smelling roses in all of England.” Mr. Jenkins, the chemist, grasps my hand next. “Happy Rose Day, Elisa! Proper chuffed to meet you, Elisa’s friends.”

“Ah, to see Clare’s stand blooming again. Blimey, it’s like she’s here. Look, everyone, look at her pictures!” Mrs. Ashbrook, the milliner, claps her hands and grabs her lemonade cup.

“You look right like your mum in her dress, Elisa.” Mrs. Dawlish, the town’s hair stylist fixes a few roses in my braid. “Well-met, Sir. You have lovely hair, Ma’am. Dear me, I can see where your son gets his looks from—all the ladies bump their gums about him in my salon.” She laughs and shakes Stella’s hand, admiring her perfect chocolate waves. “But don’t worry, Elisa, I told them off. I said he already has the prettiest rose in town.”

Robert, Stella, and I are still laughing when Mr. Willoughby, the archnemesis competitor of Plemmons Blooms, steps up and takes a cup of lemonade. “Good luck, Elisa.” He gives me an icy smile and is the only one not looking at mum’s roses. From the corner of my eye, I see Max zip closer, pretending to admire the Elisas. “May the best rose win.” Willoughby nods curtly at the two beautiful souls next to me without waiting for an introduction and marches back to his champion stand where last year’s Rose Cup is gleaming in the shape of a silver rose stem. I clutch my locket at the sight. The Cup used to rest in our foyer, year after year. Let Mum’s roses win. Bring it back to the cottage for her, please. Above the hilltop, the pink clouds have burned off into a gossamer blue sky.

“There’s an oddball for you.” Robert frowns at Willoughby’s retreating figure with a stern gaze, which he obviously passed to his protective son.

“He’s an envious sort,” I explain. “But not dangerous. At most, he’d knock off a vase and mumble that it was an accident.”

It goes on like this for over three hours. Streams of Cotswoldians rush by the stand, babbling with their excitement about mum’s roses until her very name fills the air as if she were still here. Clare, Clare, Clare. Each time it’s uttered feels like her soft laugh tinkling in the breeze. By the time the torrent slows, we are long out of lemonade, sachets, breath, and tears, and Robert and Stella have met every single Burfordian except Willoughby, their families, and their guests, and have been invited to two weddings and four luncheons. Even Stella’s immaculate hair is fluffed Plemmons-style from the frantic greeting. My fingers hurt from all the hand-clasping. And Max and Ferrars look like they have aged at least ten years during the ordeal. A few stands down, I spot Hendrix who must have descended on Priory Street at some point for reinforcement. Flushed and dabbing their foreheads, they’re all reeling off something into their sleeves, no doubt reporting to Aiden and the others that not a single psychopath, pervert, stalker, or thief has managed to pluck one petal off a rose, let alone hurt me. Exactly as I said it would be. If they’re in this shape, I cannot imagine Aiden’s state. But at least he will be able to relax after this. As Hendrix and Jazz said, if someone was trying to hurt me, they would have shown up here today. Yet, the worst thing that has happened in three frenetic hours is Willoughby’s half-smile.

“That was something else!” Robert blows out a gust of air, folding down in his bistro chair and wiping a bead of sweat from his temple. “But I can’t say I saw anyone suspicious, did you?”

“Heavens, not one!” Stella laughs, plopping next to him in the shade and pinning up her hair. “We’ve made more friends in a week here than a year in the States.”

“They all love you.” I grin with pride, filling their cups with rose iced tea. “Except the Willoughbys, but that’s because she’s in love with Aiden, and he’s in love with the Rose Cup.”

“Well, good luck to her with Aiden.”

We burst out laughing while the object of the female obsession in town sends my phone buzzing next to my thigh.

“Are you plotting your security’s demise?” Aiden texts. I look around giggling, knowing I can’t see him, yet unable to help myself.

“Always,” I respond. “But I have a feeling I won’t have to plot long.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right.”

“I am. If anyone wanted to hurt me, I’d be mince by now.”

“Hilarious, Elisa.”

I can almost feel his glare through the pixels. I should know better. Nothing that suggests harm to me in any way is funny to Aiden. “I’m sorry, bad joke.” The three dots hesitate on the screen—sighing, I imagine. “I’m perfectly safe,” I assure him, wishing he were here so I could smooth the V away. “Except I miss you.”

He doesn’t hesitate now. “Miss you too.”

“I solved the breadcrumb.”

“Of course you did.”

“I’ll bring love.”

“I’ll take all of it.”

Am I imagining the sad tone in his text? “How are you feeling?”

“As I always do when I’m away from you.”

Yes, with a throbbing chest and a bitter mouth and a hollowness that erodes the flesh like acid. I know because all the smiles and warmth of the last three hours haven’t changed that. The wound still rages and burns. “Me too.”

“Just a petal, love. See you at noon.”

Noon feels too far away even if it’s only in forty minutes. I pluck an Elisa petal and tuck it in my pocket with the breadcrumb. “Love you.”

“Always.”

His text is immediate as his answer would be if he were right here, brushing my cheek. I stuff my phone next to the petal and duck inside the stand to prepare the love I’m bringing him. Across the lane, Max and Ferrars are relaxing on the sidewalk, but I’m sure their eyes don’t leave us. Hendrix seems to have disappeared. But soon we all will have their lives back. I can almost smell the freedom with the roses.

“Knock, knock.” A familiar voice wafts through the lattice walls. My head snaps up, gasping at my new guests. Edison and Graham are standing by the table—Graham no longer sickly green but still carrying the Encyclopedia and Edison holding the pot of miniature yellow roses that mum gave dad, which has sat in his office ever since.

“Professor Edison, I mean, Nigel! Graham!” I cheer, rushing out of the stand. “What a wonderful surprise!”

“Is it?” Edison smiles. “I used to stop by when Clare ran the stand. You don’t remember?”

“Of course, I do. You and dad played football once using the stand as goal posts.”

He laughs. “And what a lambasting we took from Clare. It never happened again.” He hands me the pot of roses. “I thought this little fellow might like to be at the festival, too. See some of its species for once instead of dusty textbooks and a dour professor.”

“Thank you.” My voice catches as I sniff the tiny rosette. “I’ll introduce it to some friends and bring it back on Monday.”

“No matter. You’re welcome to keep it—it was Peter’s after all.” His eyes fall on Robert and Stella sitting next to me, looking like patron angels of all roses. “Ah, these must be your guests visiting from the States?” Edison guesses.

“Yes, these are Robert and Stella Hale,” I introduce them, heart crashing against my ribs at a part of dad’s life connecting with Aiden’s parents like this. “And this is Professor Nigel Edison and his Chief Researcher, Graham Knightly. They’re my supervisors at Oxford.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.” Robert stands and shakes their hands. “We’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Uh oh, nothing confidential, I hope,” Graham half-jokes, half-panics.

“Not at all.” Stella smiles at him. “Only that you were close with Elisa’s father and how supportive you’ve been of her now that she’s back.”

“Oh, that’s not entirely selfless, I assure you.” Edison chuckles. “We’re hoping she stays this time.”

They all laugh while my heart rips in two as it always does when geography comes up. Especially with Aiden’s parents around. Because how can I take Aiden from them now that he’s back in their lives? But how can I ever abandon this festival again?

“How long are you staying?” Edison asks them.

“Only one more week, unfortunately,” Robert answers as Stella’s smile fades. I’m not the only one who detests the ticking clock.

“Ah, you’ll miss Peter’s bench ceremony then. Elisa is supposed to speak. I’m looking forward to her remarks.”

I feel blood drain from my face at the prospect. On the upside, it distracts me from the mangled ways in which my stomach is twisting at the thought of maps and transatlantic distance even if Aiden and I win. “Don’t worry, you won’t miss much,” I tell Robert and Stella, trying to force a smile. “My remarks will be: Hello. Thank you for coming. Here is Professor Edison for more.”

They laugh as I wanted them to, but I see earnest regret in their eyes. I know because it’s similar to mine. Like Reagan and Javier, they already feel so natural here. And because of that, my chest throbs faster. I usually lose those I love most. My hand flies to my locket. Make me strong, make me brave.

“Elisa, will you show us the roses that are competing this year?” Edison gestures to the stand.

“Of course. It’s only the Clares this time. The others are here for emotional support.”

“So everyone votes for their favorite rose and the one with the most votes wins?” Graham clarifies.

“Yes, but mostly they just walk around, eating, drinking, and smelling the roses.”

He looks utterly perplexed that anyone would want to spend a Saturday like this instead of in a lab. A lab where I desperately need to be without him. “Here, Graham, try it.” I give him a Cecilia to smell. “According to a recent study by the University of Freiburg, the smell of roses while learning and sleeping increases memory and learning skills by thirty percent.”

“That explains Professor Snow then.” He laughs but almost inhales the petals off the stem.

“Exactly. Keep this by your nightstand and sleep until Wednesday. I’ll bet you solve the protein by then.”

He tucks the Cecilia inside the Encyclopedia, while Edison laughs. “I better take one, too.” He chooses an Elisaand threads it in the loop of his tweed vest. “Bring the Rose Cup by the lab when you win it, like Peter used to.”

They cast their votes for Clares, drop them in the ballot box on the stage with the band, and leave shortly, wishing Robert and Stella a pleasant flight.

“How kind of them to come.” Stella looks at their figures as they melt in the crowd toward the car park.

“Very kind. Mum and dad would have been thrilled.”

She and Robert don’t mention Edison’s comment about me staying in England, and neither do I. But have their sharp eyes already seen the conflict in mine? If they have, they simply smile. Only when Stella turns to water the roses do I see a flicker of something in her face that I don’t think I’m supposed to see. It disappears before I find a name for it. But Robert must know it because he picks up the other spray hose and splashes her once.

“Bertie!” She squeals out of the way. “My hair!”

“Your hair is lovely—the town hairdresser said so,” he answers, reminding me of Aiden again.

They laugh together, but I’m no longer here. Because it’s almost noon, and my feet are already scrambling away. I grab the love I’m bringing Aiden and tuck it in a basket, covering it with my pashmina. “Stella, do you mind watching the stand for about an hour? I have to meet Aiden at the Inn.”

She is laughing at a drenched Robert. “Of course darling. Will Max be walking you?”

As if to answer her question, Max materializes at my side. “Looks like it,” I sigh. “Poor Max. You should be having a pint and enjoying the festival, not worrying about me.”

He laughs with a tired sound. “Worrying about you is my job, Elisa.”

“I know but it doesn’t have to be.” I grin at him as we set off. “Even you have to admit, there’s nothing and no one suspicious around.”

His smile is reluctant. “So far. But the day is only half over.”

“The other half will be just as safe, you’ll see.”

And Aiden and I will finally be alone again. I almost break into a run to the Inn. But as soon as we turn the corner onto Ivy Lane, I see him. Striding out of the Inn, hand through his hair, searching the quiet alley with urgency, no doubt for me.

“Aiden!” I sprint at him and launch myself into his open arms. He catches me in his iron grip, crushing me into his chest.

“Elisa! Thank God!” He murmurs in my hair, breathing me in as though he hasn’t drawn much air in the last four hours. Which is probably exactly the case.

“You haven’t been spending the last four hours imagining horribles, have you?” I kiss the spot above his heart, inhaling the scent of him, reveling in the feeling of air flowing in my lungs wound-free.

“That’s an understatement.” He sighs in profound relief, holding me closer and kissing the top of my head.

I wiggle in his steely hold to frown at him with disapproval. His turbulent eyes are clearing quickly as they roam my face. “Aiden, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re breaking Corbin’s rule. I was perfectly safe, even without the seven of you around.”

He chuckles. “I know you think that, but none of us expected the three hundred people that swarmed you. Not even me, and I know exactly how lovable you are.” He nods at Max behind me. “Well done, Max. Take a break. God knows you’ve earned it.”

He swoops me in his arms, basket and all, scanning every part of me as is his custom. But we don’t get far. His eyes widen when they reach my hands. “What the fuck happened here?” he snarls.

I see what he means. Sort of. My palms are as pink as the Reagans, but they make me laugh despite his obvious anxiety. “I think this is a combination of three hundred Cotswoldian handshakes and working in the dirt with roses. Don’t worry, they don’t hurt at all.”

He doesn’t look convinced. He carries me inside the Inn with speed, blowing up the stairs to the Room of Firsts, the creaky lift obviously too slow for him. The door must have been unlocked as he cradles me in one arm and opens it. I don’t even have time to register if anything has changed in our beloved room because he streaks to the domed restroom and sets me down on the counter.

“Now,” he breathes, and just his smell makes me more light-headed than his velocity. “Let me look at this.” He places my basket on the floor and takes my hands gently, blowing on my palms. The soft breeze of his breath makes my eyelids flutter. “Does that burn?”

“No.” I smile, caressing his tense jaw at my fingertips. “But it’s starting to burn in other places.”

He glares, still holding my hands like soap bubbles. “Be serious. Does it hurt when I do this?” He brushes my palm lightly with his pinky.

“Mmm,” I moan, and it’s not even fake.

His finger stops stroking mine. “Elisa, so help me God, answer or I’ll drive you to the hospital right now, festival or no festival.”

He is absolutely not joking. “All right, all right, calm down. I told you, they don’t hurt all. They’re just a little pink.”

“Just a lot pink. What about prickling? Do you feel anything else at all?”

“Oh! Yes, actually.” I pull back one hand, leaving the other in his. “It really tingles here.” I point at my mouth. “And here.” I trace my fingers down my throat to the rose in my décolleté. “And here.” My hand skims down my waist between my hips. “What now, Doctor Hale?”

His eyes follow the trail of my hand with a fiery hunger that tightens the muscles at the bottom of my belly. A slow, heated smirk lifts the corner of his lips. When he looks back at my mouth, his bold gaze turns my entire skin pink. “I will deal with you in a minute,” he threatens, and just his dark, husky voice sends my blood hammering. “Now, please,behave or the hospital it is.”

I hold still, trying to calm my pulse as he opens the faucet and runs my hands under the cold water, washing them gently with the rose soap, massaging little slippery circles on my palms that make the tingles bloom into full trembles. “It’s not going away.” He frowns, rinsing my hands.

“I’m sure it will.” I pull them back and switch off the faucet. “Just leave them alone and touch some other parts of me as soon as possible and they will be good as new.”

He smirks again and takes a fluffy towel from the rack. “Is that so?” he asks, patting my hands dry.

“Absolutely.”

He tosses the towel on the counter. “I see. So you’re adamant this redness is from too many handshakes and playing with dirt?”

“Of course I am. What else would it be?”

He looks at my hands, eyes narrowing at the corners. It’s not until I see the way the tectonic plates shift in analysis like they did the night of the supposed break-in that I realize what he is thinking. What he is concluding. “Aiden?” I choke, the warm trembles turning instantly to chills. “You’re not thinking this was some intentional act by someone to hurt me, are you?”

He doesn’t answer. He just turns my hands this way and that.

“Are you?” I demand, yanking them back.

He takes a deep breath and meets my eyes. The turquoise depths are pensive underneath, clearly still locked in inner analysis. “I’m just considering all options.”

“And these options,” I press, my voice rising with panic. “They include a theory that someone did this to my hands?”

His jaw flexes while his mind continues to process with blinding speed. “They have to.”

I stare at him in horror. He is not seeing less danger after today as I had hoped, as I was just dreaming; he is seeing more. “Why?” I whisper, losing all volume. “Why would you think that?”

“I don’t like thinking it, but it’s probable.”

And I try. I try very hard to control the spew of emotions that erupts inside— dread for him, grief for our life, panic about the end, sorrow that this is happening on mum’s day, anger at him for refusing to see things any other way—but they spin out like Bia’s centrifuge, rattling my skull until they settle on anger with a mental clang. It hijacks my body, and I hop down from the counter, blood flooding my face. “Probable?” I hiss, glaring at his eyes that are seeing yet another baseless threat. “You mean hypothetical at this point, right? Because there is zero evidence to support this one. Not even a crooked frame or fallen petal this time.”

He shakes his head in his defiant way, and I know I’ve already lost. “Of course there is. You work with dirt every day, and I’ve never seen your hands do this. It has been at least twenty minutes now since your last handshake and the redness has not faded. Yes, it’s possible you have an allergy to something, but you have no burning, itching, pain, or other sensations that go with contact dermatitis or sunburn. Therefore, I have to consider other alternatives, including the option that someone did this in some way for some reason I obviously cannot explain but intend to find out.”

I break then. Every speck of this last week—the hours of dread chasing an intruder who doesn’t exist, the constant surveillance, the relentless rampage in the name of safety, the mental war that has erupted in our cottage, the theft of privacy, the invasion of every nook and cranny of the life my parents built, this shadow over mum’s day—combine, overwhelming me with their force. And I can’t form words. Not because I don’t know what to say. But because nothing I say will make a difference. All my counterarguments—no matter how logical and reasonable—will mean nothing in the end. Once we resolve a threat, his mind will find another, and another, and another, trapping him in war. And me with him. A wave of terror crashes over me.

“This is never going to end, is it?” I whisper.

He blinks at me, shock flickering over his face. “Of course it will. As soon as—”

“As soon as you solve this,” I finish for him.

“Yes.” His answer is resolute, his eyes unyielding. He will either destroy the reel or the reel will destroy him. But in three weeks, despite his strength, the reel has already claimed our new lives, our peace, our happy memories, and now stifling even the fragile tendril of h-o-p-e that blossomed by my parents’ grave. Abruptly, I want to leave. Go back to mum’s day with memories and pain I know how to live with.

“Elisa, I will fix this. I promise you that.” He tips up my face as if to reassure me, but nothing can do that right now. Not even his touch.

I manage a nod as I squeeze past him out of the restroom. The gallery of our firsts spans around me with all its beauty. Everything is as we left it a week ago, except the garland of roses is gone and a small table in the open balcony is set with lunch and a Clare for what would have been our date. In one look, the room transforms from a mosaic of our beautiful firsts to a museum of our happy lasts before the reel ruined everything.

He is behind me, so close I can feel his body heat. “Elisa, what are you doing?”

“Leaving.”

He is in front of me in one second, his arms out as if to stop me. “Why?”

“Because I want to go back to the festival.”

He takes my still-pink hand.  “Love, come on. Let’s not fight about this. We’ve been fighting all week. Let’s celebrate your mother today.”

The reference to my mum on the day when she saw only goodness is too much for me. I pull back my hand—it balls up like his fists. “Celebrate her with you? When you only see danger and threat in the people she loved? You must be joking.”

A bolt of agony strikes his face. “Yes, with me. Who else do we have to celebrate her with, but each other?”

“Everyone else apparently,” I spit out, tears gathering in my eyes. “There are at least three hundred people on that street who loved her who aren’t enemies or intruders or poisoners or psychopaths or perverts or whatever other label you want to slap on them. They just miss her like I do. And right now, I want to be with them, not here with you debating yet another life-threatening scenario because my hands are a little pink.”

His arms drop to his sides as if I just shot him. “Elisa, it’s not—”

“Please, stop. Just stop! I can’t do this on her day. I just want to go back to the festival and be with her in my heart. Can you at least give me that?”

All expression drains from his face, leaving nothing but a beautiful, ashen barren land behind. He watches me frozen, his eyes shifting and aging with an ancient sadness. But he nods at last and opens the door, as I knew he would. “I’ll walk you out,” he whispers as I pass through.

He follows me in silence down the stairs to the lobby where Max is already waiting by the door with Benson. Of course he would be.

“So security stays after today then? Despite all the proof that there’s nothing wrong?” I verify, looking at their intense expressions as they dissect the ivy-covered lane.

Aiden’s hand curves gently around my elbow, turning me to him. I look up at his face reluctantly. I don’t want to see the staggering sadness in his eyes that still won’t change his determined gaze. “Love, it has to, until—”

“Don’t!” I interrupt him, pulling back my elbow. The point of contact shivers as though it wants to stay in his touch. “I don’t want to hear your reasons because they’re not reasonable anymore. This will hurt us, Aiden. I promise you that.”

I march past him to the door. He watches me leave with unfathomable eyes.

But with each step away from the Inn, my anger softens even with Max by my side. This is not how I wanted to say goodbye. Because the wound is festering, the clock is ticking, our lives are still entwined, and I already miss him. I almost go back then, but Hendrix and James are ducking into the Inn, talking to Benson, their faces set with warlike intention. Yes, I want to go back, but it wouldn’t change anything. We are now prisoners to the reel.

Priory Street is feverish when Max and I get there. Band clamoring, couples dancing, children giggling, and swells of people flooding the lane like River Windrush. Yet, I feel cold, as though the sun that’s glazing the stones no longer beams on me. From a distance, I see mum’s stand, glimmering like snow. The new sign pops with its black-and-white elegance against the bright colors of the roses thronging the lane. And the Hales are sitting at the table with the Plemmonses and the Jenkinses, laughing and eating canapes under Ferrars’ watchful eye. I change treks, unable to face them in my current state.

“Max, I need to walk around for a while. Just up and down the street.”

His eyebrows knit above his sunglasses. He has been quiet since we left the Inn, obviously seeing the jungle of emotion on my face. “No problem, whatever you need.”

I watch the jigsaw of rose stands, as familiar as the freckles on my hip or the lines in my pink palms. “The thing is . . .” I hesitate. “I’m not sure how to do that with a bodyguard around all of mum’s friends. They’ve known me since I was in nappies. They’ll think it’s mad.”

“Ah.” Max nods in understanding. “Why don’t you start ahead, and I’ll follow from a distance? Will that help?”

I nod woodenly, even my joints feeling stuck at the idea. But what else can I do? I start treading down the lane, stiff with opposition, half of me stuck back at the Inn, the other half here for mum. But this hour after lunch was the hour I had alone with her. She used to take my hand and say, “ice cream and roses, love,” and we would weave through the rose stands, picking our favorites and eating ice cream, just the two of us. Above the hilltop, the sun is glowing like a halo. Ice cream and roses, Mum.

The first few steps down the lane are hard with the pain in my chest and without her sandals on the cobblestones next to mine. But as I stop by our favorite stands to say hello like she would or buy a candle she liked, it gets easier. Each vendor gives me their signature rose for her—a cheery yellow, a fiery orange, a pure white, a bold cyclamen, a shy pink, a hearty crimson, a pensive lilac—until by the middle of the lane, my arms are overflowing, my hands are sore from all the clasps, and the tears have dried before they spilled. But my heart throbs exactly as it did when I left the Inn. How can a street with hundreds of bodies feel empty? How can the stones miss the heavy Timberland boots that never walked on them as much as they miss mum’s kitten heels? Perhaps the phrase “heart of stone” has a different meaning. Perhaps it doesn’t mean a hard, cold heart. Perhaps it means a heart that loves so much, it has become petrified. Frozen with terror of losing its love.

I buy mum’s favorite gelato—honey and rose—from Mr. Flaubert and weave my way through the crowd back to the stand. Only Aiden’s parents are there now, sipping chilled rosé.

“Sweetheart, look at all your roses!” Stella laughs, rushing to take some of them from my arms, but her smile falls when she sees my face. The walk must not have masked the snarl inside. “Oh no, is Aiden being a bear?”

I wish. Bears and dragons, I know how to deal with. The reel I do not. “Not at all,” I answer, forcing a wide grin and dropping the roses in a pail of water. “He’s just worrying about me when he’s supposed to stay in the present moment and not imagine awful things.”

“Ah.” She relaxes, smiling again. “It’s because he loves you, darling, and he doesn’t know what to do with it.”

“That, and it’s a bit of a Hale trait, Elisa.” Robert chuckles. “He gets it from me.”

Stella laughs again, taking me by the arm back at the table and pouring me wine. “It’s true. When I was pregnant, Robert didn’t get a full night’s sleep for nine months. Even the few hours he managed, he slept on the floor in case I’d roll off the bed.”

“Is he worried about your hands?” Robert guesses with genetic accuracy, gesturing at my palms.

I nod even though that’s not exactly true. Aiden is worrying about someone intentionally hurting me. And that’s why the stories about the Hale gene do not calm me. Because there is a difference between l-o-v-e and the r-e-e-l. Aiden’s love does things like move across the world and mobilize the CIA and the entire U.S. Congress to save my family. Aiden’s mind creates danger that robs us of our very life.

“I saw them too but thought maybe the dirt, the sun, and all the handshakes,” Robert reasons. And here is another difference: the Hale gene notices, understands, and protects. The reel notices, terrorizes, and destroys.

“Here, try some aloe vera,” Stella suggests, digging a small tube from her purse. “Save yourself a headache and Aiden a coronary.”

I rub the cool gel on my painless hands, trying and failing to see anything there that could make Aiden dream up a nefarious act. Who would do such a thing? Why? How when I’ve been surrounded by security? And more importantly, if someone was trying to harm me, why would they make my palms blush but not hurt, tickle, or burn in any way? When I think of it, why my palms at all and not some other part of me? I shake my head to dispel the dark, paranoid thoughts. Because today is mum’s, and she saw good—not evil—in everything.

The endless stream of people flowing by the stand don’t let me forget it. Some familiar, some strangers I’ve never met. Most with their favorite story of her, all different, yet all the same. All about her kindness and the way she made them feel. I string their memories of her like a lei, jotting them down in her old guest book, letting my mind get lost in her world. The rose oil she gave that girl to clear her skin, the hybrid she helped that old man cultivate after his wife passed. Story after story, until for a while it’s just mum and me, even with Max and Ferrars pacing, the countless guests filing through, and the sniper gazes I sense on me. Above the hilltop, the sun is starting to dip like a fervent kiss.

The church clock tower booms with a deep knell then, making me jump. In the same chime, from the stage at the top of the street, a line of trumpets pierces the air with their bright jingle.

“Is this it?” Stella shouts over the din as trombones and drums join the carol.

“Yes,” I yell back, bolting to my feet. “It means the votes have been counted and now they announce the winner.”

On cue, the crowd bursts into song, bellowing Rose, Rose on the Wall, Who Is the Fairest of Them All. But before the second toll clangs again, Max and Ferrars streak to my side with blinding speed, forming a wall of muscle in front of me as the throng starts to jostle along the narrow street. So much for being inconspicuous. I grit my teeth, trying to squeeze through the crevices of their backs to watch Mr. Plemmons who will be carrying the Rose Cup up to the stage, but it’s impossible.

“Max,” I scream over the clangor, tapping his shoulder as the clock peals again. “I can’t see!”

“What?” he roars back, pressing his fingers to his earpiece.

“I—can’t—see,” I cry again, and he finally hears me, pulling me in front of him as Ferrars, Stella, and Robert line next to us. But at least I can see Mr. Plemmons now, wobbling with the sparkling trophy in his hand, his mustache quivering as he laughs, his cane teetering on the stones, and his beloved Josephine at his side. The gate of bodies thunders with applause as they pass. My throat catches at the sight—how many festivals do they have left? As if to echo my question, the clock tolls again. I clap as hard as I can, not caring if my hands will throb or blister after this.

The crowd swells, following behind the Plemmonses, tugging me along. Max’s hands grip my shoulders to keep me from falling while Ferrars looms large next to Robert and Stella. The clock tolls again and, with a suddenness that knocks me breathless, I miss a different set of iron hands on me. But even though the horde is swarming the street like Aiden’s worst nightmare, my phone doesn’t buzz in my dress pocket. I cannot imagine the sheer life it’s costing him to give me the space I need. Except I don’t want space from him—I only want space from the effects of the reel. The idea of him in terror sends my hands flying for my phone despite my anger and our fight. I have to lean against Max to be able to thumb a text with the juddering horde around us:

“I’m perfectly safe. Max is right next to me.”

The clock’s bell reverberates in the stones under my sandals at the same time the phone vibrates in my cyclamen palms. “Don’t worry about me. Try to enjoy this.”

When the clock tolls again, it throbs through my chest, pulsing inside my ribcage like the wound.

“Roses and friends!” Mr. Plemmons shouts into the microphone from the stage when the pealing stops. I look up, startled that I missed the last minutes of his parade. I force myself to focus only on him and Josephine now, and their bushels of white hair above the podium covered with rose garlands. Mr. Plemmons sets the Rose Cup on it with a firm thud. It gleams exactly as it used to on our console where mum would tap it on her way out. My hand claws around my locket. Let mum win, please, bring the Cup back to the cottage for her.

“Can yeh hear me?” Mr. Plemmons wheezes and the crowd sings back, “Yes, we can.”

“Jolly good, because I can’t.” He waves at the throng that titters. “Another festival—gone! ‘Twas our biggest ‘un yet, and very special ‘t was too. ‘Un hundred and twenty more votes, we had. Five more competin’ roses. And two thousand tickets sold fer our school. Well done, Burford, well done!” The crowd whoops while my throat roils with emotion. “And now, before we’re sloshed an’ knackered at the pubs . . .” Mr. Plemmons splays his hands in the air with significance. “As me wooly ‘ead remembers it, the Rose Cup needs rewardin’. Like all me years of doin’ this, our rosebuds counted the votes thrice. But this year wasn’ close like other times. And yeh voted with yer hearts and yer eyes and yer noses, as yeh should. Makes me heart happy to say tha’ this year, the Rose Cup—” Mr. Plemmons pauses, his whiskery voice catching and starting again while I stop breathing. “The Rose Cup goes back home tonigh’ with Elisa Snow fer her mother’s rose, our kind and beautiful Clare.”

The crowd explodes in cheers, while I stare open-mouthed at Mr. Plemmons stomping his cane in applause and Josephine clapping and searching the crowd. I heard it right, I know I have, because Max taps my shoulder with a whoop, the horde starts chanting, “Clare, Clare, Clare,” and Stella and Robert pull me into a double hug. “You did it, dear. You brought the cup back to your mom.” Stella cries, kissing my cheek.

“She did it herself,” I whisper, eyes on the silver rose. Am I imagining the sunbeam shining directly on it? Abruptly the scene transforms for me. I see mum climbing the stage, beaming, a tear like a diamond in her eye, hugging Mr. Plemmons, waving the Cup, looking straight at dad and me and blowing us a kiss. This is for Elisa and Peter, she used to say. Behind the curtain of my tears, she dances off the stage and disappears with a faint pop in my heart.

“Rosebud?” Mr. Plemmons calls into the microphone. “Where are yeh? I can’ see yeh. Open up fer her, yeh lot.”

Stella gives me another peck, fixing up the roses in my braid. “You look beautiful. Go, get your Cup, darling.” She places her warm hand on my shoulder, nudging me gently as the crowd parts grinning at me, clapping like castanets, singing Clare, Clare, Clare. But suddenly the lane empties in my vision despite the hordes of bodies flooding it. And the hollow tunnel of homesickness blows through me like cold wind through a vacant crypt. Not homesickness for mum—she feels closer than any other time since she’s been gone. Homesickness for Aiden, to have him next to me even if angry and worried and terrified.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!”

Fragments of hundreds of voices rejoice, yet I don’t feel their cheers. And I know why. Because Aiden was right. Cheer is not cheer if I don’t celebrate with him. Nothing fills the void the way he does. I swallow all kinds of tears now—happy, sad, in the middle and adjacent to everything—and shuffle toward the stage, feeling more ghost than human. Max and Ferrars walk parallel on each side of me, Hendrix appears ahead. But at least there are no nerves. I know everyone, and country festivals don’t require speeches.

“There she is!” Mr. Plemmons claps as I climb the stage stairs to the chorus of Clare, Clare, Clare. They both teeter to me, glowing and sparkling with tears, carrying the Rose Cup. “Finally,” Josephine lullabies as she pulls me into her canape-and-roses hug. “The Cup goes home after such a long time.”

“Keep it there, Rose, keep it righ’.” Mr. Plemmons rasps gruffly. “Don’ go leavin’ the roses again.”

What can I say? That I love this little village so much I would bleed for it if it meant my blood could grow the roses forever? Or that I love a man so much my heart couldn’t even pump blood without him? “Thank you.” I hug them both—they’re so tiny, it only takes one arm. “I know she is giving you all her love.”

Their white heads turn up to the sky in unison, grinning at it. I turn to the crowd as mum would, waving the silver rose as she did, skimming over the faces because the three dearest ones are not here. And that’s when I see him.

He would be hard to miss even in the shade of the elm tree behind the crowd, flanked by Benson and James. Leaning against the trunk like a sculptural Adonis carved in golden marble. Every angle of him is hard with tension as he thrashes with his most violent demon to be here, but his eyes beam on me as if we are utterly alone. Even from this distance, his gaze heats my skin. I’ve never seen anything more life-affirming. And right now I don’t care that I am supposed to be angry with him. I don’t care that I’m terrified. Because I can feel the cheer now, I can feel the joy for mum, and every part of me is brimming with life, not pain. He’s here, he’s here.

The corner of his lip lifts in a knowing smile as my cheeks flush. He mouths something I can’t decipher from this far, but then he tilts his head at the crowd as if to remind me I’m gawking at him on a stage. But I still can’t blink away from him—here, despite his deepest fear, to share this moment with me, knowing exactly how much it means. He winks now, pointing at the crowd with urgency.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!” They are apparently still singing, breaching just enough through the spell to release my voice.

“Hello!” I speak in the microphone, startled by my magnified voice. Is that me? It sounds like mum. They all fall quiet, perhaps hearing the same note. “Thank you for remembering my mother and choosing her roses after such a long time.” I smile at the sea of faces, spotting Stella and Robert filming with their phones and Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix rippling around the stage. Nerves start to prickle but I know my only line—I heard it for eighteen years. “This is for Mum who loved this day so much.” I clutch the Rose Cup to my chest that feels full but well. “And for Aiden who made it possible for me to enjoy it again.”

A low ahh flitters over the crowd and they burst in applause as if I just gave the most riveting of TED talks, not utter exactly four sentences. Under the elm tree, Aiden shakes his head with a private smile and claps in a this-is-Churchill-the-orator way. And for the first time today, I feel like we got this right, like mum would have liked this festival as much as all the eighteen others before.

I almost run across the stage, trying to get to him as fast as possible but the moment I hop back on the street, a deluge of clasps and pats rains on me. The faces are a haze of grins as I sweep through, Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix storming around on all sides. Yet nothing happens to me, as I knew it wouldn’t—just a chorus of Clare, Clare, Clareblaring in my ears along with the festival’s closing jingle. I shake Mr. Flaubert’s hand last and clear the crowd, heading straight for Aiden under the elm tree. But as I pass our rose stand, a gusty hug from behind almost knocks me off my feet.

“Rosebud!” a familiar voice shouts, and that’s all I grasp. Because as I blink back at Felix—the Plemmonses’ grandson who went to high school with me—a massive shape whooshes past the corner of my eye, rams into him, and his arms tear away from my shoulders with a loud grunt. I whirl around, watching in horror as Felix plunges onto the stones under Ferrars’s body weight, and they skate together in an unstoppable collision course with the rose stand.

“Felix!” I shriek, launching myself into their path as Aiden’s voice reverberates under the clamor, “Elisa, don’t!” and Max yanks me out of the way. And I can’t stop it. Felix and Ferrars crash into the vase of Clares, shattering it into a million pieces and slamming against the rose stand with such force that the wooden slats shake to their bolts and the rose baskets and wreaths plummet to the ground in a mulch of petals, bark, moss, and leaves.

It’s utterly silent for one blink then a throng snaps around us with panicked cries. In the chaos, I’m vividly aware of Aiden’s terror for me as he must be trying frantically to break through the horde to get to me without triggering the startle. But of more immediate urgency are Felix and Ferrars still on the ground.

“Aiden, I’m fine,” I scream even though he can’t hear me in the bedlam, and rip out of Max’s hands, kneeling on the stones next to Felix as Ferrars jolts away from him with frenzied apologies. “Felix, Felix! Are you okay?” I splutter, checking to see if he hit his head. But he didn’t. He fell on his side, there is a gash by his elbow, but the rest of him seems all right. He blinks around, shocked and startled, and scrambles to his feet while I almost collapse on the ground sobbing in relief.

“What the bloody hell was that?” Felix blurts out, clearly not connecting Ferrars to me. Despite my remorse, I let him believe it because underneath my terror, something clicks with a silent roar. This was no accident, was it? It was intentional. Ferrars must have thought Felix—my sweet old classmate, born the same week as me—was about to hurt me.

“I’m so sorry, mate!” Ferrars blusters. “I tripped and crashed into you. Are you hurt? I can drive you to the surgery if you need.” He is checking Felix all over for injuries, proving my hypothesis. And dread turns instantly to anger, pulsing hot and livid, scorching all the joy until I taste iron on my tongue.

“No, I’m fine.” Felix swings his arm around as if to check its radius and turns to me with a smile. “Sorry about the stand, Rosebud. But it looks absolutely bangers still, only the roses fell.”

At his needless apology, the blistering rage blurs my vision with a reddish haze, making me dizzy with it. “It wasn’t your fault at all, Felix. Please, don’t even think it.” I manage to form words, wiping his cut with mum’s handkerchief. His blood stains the lacework, and I fight against my gnashing teeth so they don’t break through my tongue. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” And I am. How much worse could it have been? What if he had cracked his skull? And my frail Plemmonses, what would have happened to them then? I shudder. “Let me get you some bandages, Felix, come sit down. Want some water or iced tea?”

“No worries, it’s just a scrape. I’ll pop up at Gramps and change my shirt anyway. Congrats, Rose.” He gives me the hug he started so innocently, and the reddish blaze flares in my vision. “Chips and ale next week? We’re coming back at the weekend.”

“Absolutely, bring Lily, too. And be careful. Are you sure about the bandage?”

“Positive.” He chuckles, still breathless, and traipses through the lasso of people that loosens for him with angry glares and exclamations at Ferrars who turns to apologize to me. Has anyone connected him with me? And why should he apologize? Can I blame him when he’s only following strict orders to protect me from dangers no one else can see? No, there is only one man to blame for this, and he must be straining desperately to get to me. Was it only minutes ago that he righted my world back on its axis? Now it feels as though he’s razing it to the ground, turning each person into an insurgent and each place into a dessert of terror.

“I know you didn’t mean to, Ferrars,” I answer a little late. “I’m glad you’re not hurt either.”

He starts to mumble something, but his voice fades as does everything else when I finally dare to turn my eyes to the rose stand. The Elisas, Cecilias, Reagans, and future Marias have spilled everywhere like floral arteries on the cobblestoned hearts. The wreaths have survived, but some of Mum’s photos have cracked across her beloved smile. The shards of her vase glimmer on the ground like tears. And all the forty-four stems of her life are smeared on the stones, their blush petals like droplets of some magical blood.

Hot tears spring in my eyes. I start gathering the bruised blooms one by one, some thorns pricking my still-pink hands, some glass slivers nipping my skin. I wish they could lance my neurons instead so I couldn’t feel any of this. Nor the p-a-i-n, or the f-u-r-y, or the f-e-a-r—maybe not even the l-o-v-e.  None of the four-letter words that are wrecking our l-i-f-e. Tears splash like rain drops on the crushed petals as the sun starts to dive behind the hilltop, lighting it on fire, turning the street scarlet behind the reddish glare of my vision.

I sense him before I see him. I don’t know how he managed to cut through the crowd so fast, but the hum behind me falls quiet with the astonished silence that only he inspires. His scent blows in the breeze more beautiful than the dying gasps of my roses. And his tall, tense body crouches next to me on the stones. I don’t look at him.

“Elisa, love?” His murmur is breaking as he tries to take my hands away from the broken glass. “Let me do this, you’ll cut your hands.”

The reference to my hands—the trigger that started all this again—slices through whatever thread is keeping me together, and I start shaking with anger. A smashed Clare slips through my trembling fingers as if its first injury wasn’t bad enough. He sees it. He knows it, because his hand swoops down and catches it before it hits the stone. Then it wraps around both of mine. I wrench them back, blisteringly aware of all the eyes and ears around us. His parents squatting to save the blooms too, the Marines and Benson towering to guard Aiden’s back, and even worse, mum’s friends, admirers, and well-wishers muttering, “ah, that’s too bad,” “that bloke was bang out of order,” “poor Felix,” “poor Elisa,” “she’ll be all right, it’s just the roses,” “it’s lovely she has the Rose Cup again.”

I can’t look at any of them. I clench my teeth against the words I want to hurl at him and pluck all wisps of strength from all crevices of my mind so I don’t cause an even bigger scene.

“I’m fine,” I hear myself speak, but my voice doesn’t sound like mine. It’s just a sing-songy mask my mind must need right now. He hears it. He knows it, because he pulls back his hands that are reaching for mine again and his fingers reappear with a folded map as he starts sweeping the broken shards away from me.

“Sir, I’m very sorry,” Ferrars starts on Aiden too, sounding absolutely wretched, but I see peripherally Aiden’s hand fly up. I tense, expecting him to torch Ferrars alive right here, right now, but he surprises me even in my state.

“No need.” His voice is clipped and hard now that he’s speaking at normal volume. “This is on me.”

At least he knows it. Of course he does. Even without his brain, he could have decoded this one. I told him. I tried reason, logic, science, allies, heart, but he wouldn’t listen. He did this with his security and paranoia, not Ferrars. I move away from him, picking up mum’s broken photos, feeling his eyes on me constantly.

“It’ll be all right, sweetheart.” Stella is there, helping me tuck the frames in my basket. “I know your mom still would have loved this. I think she’s very proud of you up there.”

I nod because she is probably right. Mum found goodness in everything. She might have even laughed, but I can’t. The pressure inside my skull is becoming a cleaving headache. I am utterly unable to calm the gale of fury inside. All strength is going to keeping my face together for every set of eyes that are looking on with sorrow, pity, confusion, or any other expression I didn’t want for today.

The vendors start packing up their stalls now, and the crowd is waning toward the pubs. “Well done, Elisa!” “Stop by The Lambs Inn, Elisa-pea, we can toast your win.” “Ah, look at the Cup by Clare’s stand again, how brill.” I wave at them, a smile plastered on my lips, even for Willoughby who is watching me with a curious smirk that lifts his upper lip into a sneer. He seems even colder than this morning with the Rose Cup snatched away from him. I tuck it in my basket too in case he nicks it back.

As the horde thins, our guard all start helping pack up the stand. I see their hulking silhouettes from the corners of my eyes as I stack the wreaths. The broken glass is all gone.

“Where is the stand going tonight?” James asks as Aiden starts dismantling it himself.

“Elisa?” His body turns toward me, but I can’t look up. If I see his face or his tormented eyes, I will cry or scream or implode in some other way.

“Behind the garden shed at the cottage, please,” I answer, one brain cell wondering whether my voice will ever return back to normal. The rest of my mind is powering frantically to get me through the next few moments. But through to where? There isn’t a single place left in my world where I can just be. Every wedge of my life is under surveillance. The cottage, the garden, the garage, Elysium, Bia, Oxford, the open fields, the very people I respect and love, my very skin. Every single part of me. I grind my teeth against the sudden claustrophobia and start sweeping away the debris, trying to breathe petal to petal, trying to think.

But everywhere the broom turns, there is a muscular frame or a set of eyes or a question waiting. “Same for the table and the chairs?” “What about the sign?” “The coolers?” Aiden takes over, knowing everything, but abruptly, I can’t even breathe. Just one more smile, just one more nod, please. And then what? The stony lane tilts a fraction. Of course he doesn’t miss it. He is in front of me in a blink.

“Elisa?” His finger flies under my chin to tip up my face, but I step back automatically. I can’t handle his touch right now—the touch that makes me do anything. “Look at me please.”

It takes every last fiber of strength to resist his voice. I manage only by looking at the trashed Clares in the bin. “I’m fine,” I repeat, but even the strange voice is fading into a whisper. “I have to finish this.”

“I can do that. Why don’t you go sit?” He takes the broom from me. “Or do you want to go back to the cottage? I can finish up here—we’ll be very careful.”

The cottage? Our happy bubble that has been invaded by security more than any intruder? I start to shake my head, but a bubble of space opens up in my hermetic world as I try to look anywhere but at him so I don’t explode in the middle of mum’s favorite street.

“Actually . . . ” I grasp the bubble with all my mind, the contours of a plan forming. Because I need this, I need it for air. “I’ll go back to the Inn for a bit if you don’t mind.”

His answer is immediate. “I’ll walk you.”

“No,” I say quickly, knowing I don’t stand a chance if he comes with me. “I need you here.”

He doesn’t speak. His body is so close, his Timberlands are nudging my sandals. I try not to think of the way his bare toes look when they dance next to mine on the bedroom rug. Those moments no longer feel like our life. “Look at me,” he whispers at last, so quietly I’m not sure I really heard the words. I know he wants to say more. I know from the way his hand is closing in a fist that he wants to touch me. And for once I’m glad we’re not alone.

“Not now, Aiden,” I mouth back and turn away from him before he sees everything in my eyes.

I know he will never let me walk alone, especially now that it’s getting dark. I skim past all the faces around me—Stella tearful, Robert and Benson concerned, the Marines tense, Ferrars remorseful—for the only person I want to find. My choice surprises me as much as him. “Max, can you walk me to the Inn, please?”

“Of course!” He comes to my side immediately. “Do you need me to carry anything?”

“Just the Cup, mum’s photos, and dad’s plant, please.” I hand him the basket carrying it all.

“I’ll get the rest,” Aiden says behind me, and a look passes between Max and him. Max nods once, probably obeying whatever new order he just received.

“The hospital trolly will come for the wreaths and what is left of the roses,” I remind him needlessly and turn to thank the rest of them, even Ferrars, for helping today. Despite the way it ended, none of it is their fault. In a different universe, we could have gone to celebrate, I’d have given them my thank-you gifts that I prepared, but that’s simply beyond anything I have left.

“I’ll see you in a bit.” I wave at them, feeling guilty for the lie.

They all smile back in their own way—“Congrats, Pest, you kicked Willoughby’s shriveling ass.” “Don’t worry, Trouble, we got this.” “I’m sorry again, Elisa.” “Well done, kid.”—but Robert and Stella decide to return to the Inn with Max and me. Whether they’re tired themselves or worried or both, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter, they have their own room.

The Inn is empty and silent when we arrive, as I knew it would be. Stella gives me a silky hug in the lobby. “It was a beautiful day, sweetheart, even with this little fiasco in the end. Try to remember only the best parts because you can.”

“And the hard parts will pass, too,” adds Robert, patting my shoulder.

I think about that as the lift doors close behind them. I know they will pass—they always do—but what will survive? My parents’ favorite memories? Aiden and me? Our life? Or just the reel, not even stardust this time?

“Up to Mr. Hale’s room, Elisa?” Max prompts.

“No, Max. I’m staying in Javier’s old room tonight. I can take it from here.” His eyebrows arch in surprise, but it’s the only habitable place that holds a dear part of me and hasn’t been invaded. And the only room I know here that can give me what I need. Max still insists on walking me up, whether on Aiden’s orders or his own worry, I don’t know. As soon as we open the door to the familiar room, he sweeps it corner to corner, even the balcony despite the fact that we’re on the third floor. The room has been cleaned since Javier left. I manage the first deep breath, sniffing futilely for his homey peppermint and paint smell, but it’s long gone, like him.

“It all seems in order,” Max assures me, not knowing how wrong he is. Nothing is in order anymore, but for purposes of my physical safety, it’s true enough. He sets my basket on Javier’s dresser and leaves, asking me to lock my door even though he’ll be just down in the lobby and Ferrars with him. But I don’t argue. I thud the bolt home with a loud ding, listening to Max’s footsteps fade down the hall.

Finally alone now, I could cry or scream or curl on Javier’s pillow or call him and Reagan or work on the protein or just stare at the spot on the rug where Aiden held me a week ago as I was sobbing, telling me he would stay in England with me. But those are not the only reasons I came here, because this isn’t where I want to be. I grab the Rose Cup, and slide back the bolt quietly, millimeter by millimeter. When I crack open the door, the hallway is empty. I can hear Ferrars and Max’s indistinct voices from the lobby. I tiptoe down the corridor to the door behind the velvet curtains that leads down the old turret stairs where Felix, Lily, and I used to play hide-and-seek when mum and the Plemmonses would deliver roses to the Inn. As soon as I reach them, I leg it. Scurrying down the limestone steps, bursting through the back-alley door, leaping over the low hedge of briar roses, and darting around the corner to Swan Lane. Everything is quiet and empty—the whole town is in the pubs or lingering on Priory Street—but I still can’t help looking over my shoulder as I creep on the mossy cobblestones until I reach the riverbank and the protective canopy of oaks and willows. And then I break into a sprint. My heart is galloping at the same speed, but my lungs are pumping fresh air without effort. I glance back a few times, but there is no one behind me. I’m utterly alone. Bounding across the open fields that are turning inky with the early night, finally free.

Above the hilltop, the moon is glowing.   ©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 25 – SCAR

Hey friends, happy Sunday and woe begone to Sunday scaries.  If you’re feeling them, here’s a chapter to help with that. As always many thanks to those who are reading and commenting. I love hearing your theories about what is happening to Aiden. Wonder what you think after this? Lots of love to you.  xo, Ani

 

25

Scar

Chronology has stopped making sense again. The Friday before the Rose Festival comes only six days later, but it feels like another lifetime to me. Both familiar and foreign in the same week.

Familiar because some days look more like my old home movies. The cottage has parents around who cook and pack my lunch. The fridge has homemade leftovers of our favorite dishes. The phone rings, the doorbell jingles. Our constellation is expanding again tonight with all the Marines descending on Burford from River Spey. And Aiden and I are back to our rhythm, trying to live present moment to present moment, reel to reel.

Yet it doesn’t feel like my life. Because under the familiar is the strange—new elements more intrusive than the intruder they’re trying to protect me against, rubbing against our days like a blister in a shoe or an eyelash in the eye. We no longer have a security guard, we have a security team: Benson, Max, and Ferrars who is assigned to Aiden’s parents. One of them is always outside the cottage, which is a compromise for the cameras Aiden wanted to install in the rose-covered limestone straight into the cottage’s flesh (“Why don’t you just drill them in my heart and forehead, Aiden, because that’s how it would feel.” He didn’t argue with me after that). And Aiden still picks me up and drops me off at work, but Max remains stationed at Café Vault across the street during my workday, which is an improvement from Bia’s lobby as Aiden wanted (“I’ll quit before I have a bodyguard in my dad’s second home around his closest friends and colleagues, Aiden!” “That’s an overreaction, Elisa.” “This whole thing is an overreaction!” “Fine, the coffee shop!”)

But worse than all these, there is no more love-making in the garden; no more sunrises skin to skin; no more blissful moments of just Aiden and me without someone’s shadow always around; no more rose bubble at peace. They are gone before they truly settled in.

And I miss all of it. The festering wound has doubled in size—once when we’re apart, once for losing the way we were. But I’m not giving up. I’ll try again today, even if it will mean another fight.

“So, are you almost ready for Professor Snow’s bench ceremony?” Graham’s voice startles me out of my planning. He’s been poring through the third volume of the Encyclopedia for the last five hours and looks slightly cross-eyed.

“Ugh, don’t remind me or my hands will start shaking again. I haven’t even written my speech.”

“Your fossil mates been keeping you busy, have they?”

“Not at all. They’re the model for ideal visitors—homemade food, strolls, quiet nights.”

“Oh, I see, you’re a fossil yourself. Everything makes a lot more sense now.” Graham laughs, rubbing his eyes and the deep purple shadows underneath.

“Graham, you look exhausted. Have you left Bia at all in the last week? I’m worried about you.” This is true. As I am worried about time to test the protein if he continues to usurp the lab.

“Of course I’ve left. How do you reckon I’ve been getting lunch?”

I shake my head at him, starting the centrifuge, but sweat dews in the back of my neck. This would be my life if Aiden had not come to England. This might be my life still if we lose, assuming I survive at all. “Maybe you should take a break this weekend,” I suggest. “Come to the Rose Festival tomorrow, get some fresh air—”

Edison blasts in Bia then at his typical sprinting pace, making me jump as usual. “How is the afternoon?” he asks before the door has closed behind his billowing lab coat.

“Abysmal. Eliser is trying to convince me to abandon my post and attend the local rose soiree. The nerve!” Graham chuckles but an enormous yawn overtakes him. He looks nickel green.

“Ah, yes, the Rose Festival.” Edison smiles, but his eyes sweep over Graham and the lab. “Elisa is right, Graham. You need to leave stat. You’re no help to yourself or the protein in your state. Pip pip!” He knocks on Graham’s desk as if to prompt him to blink and turns to me.

“You too, Elisa. I can finish testing today.”

I stare at him, trying to think. I desperately need the lab alone, but I wouldn’t have it with Edison here. “Are you sure, Professor? I can work until six.”

“Nigel, please,” he corrects me for the nth time. “And I’m quite certain. I know the Rose Festival meant a lot to Clare. She would want you to have time to set up.”

I lose all argument then. Because he is right—this was mum’s favorite event and I abandoned it for four years. Not to mention two hours with Aiden before the Marines arrive, hopefully without Max or Benson around.

“Thank you, P—Nigel,” I answer, feet already shuffling toward the door.

“Not at all, not at all.” He waves me off and, without a second glance at anything else, turns to the molecule of fear.

Max is waiting at his usual table by the window at Café Vault when Graham and I traipse outside. He stands immediately when he sees me two hours early, but to his credit, he gives me time to say goodbye. His sharp eyes follow Graham as he shambles under the weight of three tomes to his white Fiat. And even after he drives off at Mr. Plemmons’ pace, Max waits until he disappears around the corner before escorting me to his newly leased bullet-proof Range Rover.

“Would you like Mr. Hale to know you’re out early?” Max smiles as I climb in the back seat. One week in, and he already knows what to ask. Still, it doesn’t make his presence easier.

“No, he’ll like the surprise.”

“I’m sure he will.”

I watch the familiar St. Giles Boulevard flash by behind the tinted windows. My parents’ bus stop, their favorite bakery, Oxford’s golden tones all turn dark under Rover’s filter, as though I’m looking at them through the black veil I wore at the funeral. I lean my head back and shut my eyes. The trip is easier if I don’t look at the charred, smoky colors of my new life.

“Did anyone give you trouble today?” Max checks as he does every day.

“Some vials broke. Does that count?” My sarcasm is ruined by the thick sound of my voice.

“I didn’t notice anything strange around the building either.”

“Maybe because there’s nothing to notice,” I mumble to myself, but Max must read lips in his wide-angle mirror.

“There could be. We don’t know that for a fact.”

I flush but don’t answer. Because what’s a fact in a situation like this? With trauma so vivid, it becomes real, and reality so beautiful, it becomes a fairytale? I clutch my locket for bravery, trying to guess which sheep-dotted field the Rover is darkening.

“Seven minutes out,” Max informs me, clearly knowing my routine by now.

“Thank you, Max.”

“Is there anything I can do to make this easier?”

“No, you’re exceptional. I’m sorry if I seem ungrateful. And I’m sorry you’re spending your vacation in a coffee shop, staring at a lab.”

“I truly don’t mind. Mr. Hale is being very generous.”

Yes, generous, protective, and stubborn to a fault. And the toll is costlier than the bill. The toll on him, on me, and on the beloved hallmarks of my parents’ life. I run through my arguments in my head, trying to pick a winner after two lost battles.

“One minute,” Max announces.

Immediately, I open my eyes and roll down my window, unwilling to see Elysium or the cottage in shades of black and gray. The brocade of wildflowers is brilliant under the July sun except the inkblot at the border, like a scar. Even from here, I can see Benson standing guard by the willows. I inhale deeply, finding the first whiff of rose breeze that no longer blows through the cottage at night. As soon as Max pulls over by the garage, I wrench open the armored door, probably giving myself a bruise, and hop out.

Yet as soon as I step on the flowery tapestry with Max’s boulder shadow next to me, the field of my childhood looks forlorn. I know nothing has changed on it—the daisies, orchids, poppies, and forget-me-nots don’t know the difference—but the change feels real to me. I break into a run down Elysium’s bowl, leaving Max’s shadow behind, craving nothing but Aiden and me alone. I have no hope of outrunning Max, but he lets me go. After all, how much danger can I be in with three trained fighters within hearing distance? I wave at Benson without stopping and dash through the rose hedge, heading straight for the door, but there he is!

Sitting at the garden bench, his back to me—the only place in the world where Aiden allows his shoulders exposed. He is flipping through a thick binder of documents at eye-watering speed. His waves flutter in the breeze, longer than when he first stood in this garden. His sculpted arms glisten under the short sleeves of his white Polo shirt. And immediately the wound shrinks. Yet I’ve never missed him more. I wish I could sneak up and truly surprise him, but I can never do that to him.

“You shouldn’t sit alone like this,” I call across the garden. “The intruder might be Mrs. Willoughby. Have you considered that?”

His head whirls around in alarm. “Elisa?” He bolts to his feet and flashes to my side, scooping me in his arms before I have taken three steps toward him. “Love, are you okay? Did something happen?” His hand flies to my forehead and he scans me head to Byron trainers.

“Of course I’m fine,” I assure him quickly, locking my arms around his neck. “Edison let me go early for the festival.”

Tension drains out of him immediately and he tucks me closer with a relieved sigh. A dazzling smile wipes the worry lines from his face. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have picked you up.”

I kiss his cheek—it’s warm from the sun. “Because I wanted to surprise you.”

“What a great surprise.”

He nods at Max who has arrived at the hedge and strides back to the bench, eyes glittering.

“How was your day?” he asks as he drapes me over his lap, one arm tight around my waist.

“Very long and gray. Yours?”

“Interminable and pitch black until now.” His hand curves around my face, and he brings me to his mouth. “Welcome home,” he murmurs against my lips.

“Mmm, that sounds nice.” I sigh, tangling my fingers in his soft hair, breathing in his sunshine-and-Aiden scent. My lips shape themselves around his possessive mouth, folding to its pressure, now gentle, now hard. His arm strains me to his chest, and a current of warmth surges through me. I know there are important things I need to say, but his smell and his feel and his tongue moving with mine . . . I crush myself closer, moaning at his taste. Then Benson’s deep laughter drums over the blood that’s hammering in my ears, and I remember.

“Aiden—” I whisper through the kiss.

“Our bedroom.” His husky voice reverberates inside my mouth. I almost moan yes, my breath is already too fast and loud, but Benson laughs again.

“Wait . . . please . . . talk.”

His lips pause on mine—wet and delicious—but he doesn’t release my face. “Talk?”

I nod, trying to settle my breathing.

“All right.” He leans back, still cradling my cheek, but the V forms between his brows, crumpling my resolve. Because I know it will deepen as soon as I start talking. The smoldering light in his eyes will fade. And friction will enter the warm, velvet space between us. “What is it, love?” he prompts. The anxiety in his voice only makes me waver more. But Max’s cough drifts from the willows now, and the words tumble out.

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. I wasn’t joking when I said my day is black without you.” His thumb strokes my cheek as he frowns in confusion. “Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Not exactly.”

“What is it then?”

“Will you keep an open mind?”

He tenses around me. “I’ll give it my best effort.”

I choose my words carefully. “I miss being with you—the way we were a week ago. We had just begun this new life, and now it feels like the old one, with rules and dangers everywhere we turn. We’re not doing the opposite, love, we’re doing more of the same, maybe worse.”

The light burns out in his eyes the second he realizes the topic of conversation, as I knew it would. His hand drops from my face and he takes a deep breath. “Elisa, this part won’t last forever. I’ll take care of the problem, and we can go back to our new life. I miss it, too.”

“But how long will it last? It’s been a week without any incident of any kind.”

“Until I’m convinced you’re safe. I won’t take any chances with your life—you know that.” His voice is resolute and unwavering.

“I know you wouldn’t, but what will it take to convince you? Max has been watching me every day. He admits he hasn’t seen anything odd at all. Neither has Benson or Ferrars. And you’ve been searching the area twice a day. There is nothing, love. You have to let this go now.”

He starts shaking his head before I’ve finished. “A week is too short a time to conclude that. If someone is intent on hurting you, he—because I don’t think it’s Mrs. Willoughby—may not return right away.”

“But Aiden, you heard Doctor Helen. She agrees with me. She said the reel is pushing your vigilance to the extreme, priming you to see and fight danger at all times. Corbin thinks so, too.”

He closes his eyes and pinches his nose for patience. “Elisa,” he begins slowly, no doubt trying to keep from roaring. “For the fifth time, Doctor Helen didn’t agree with you. She said your theory is more likely, but she didn’t say mine is impossible, either.”

I will never win with him if I start arguing probabilities with my safety. I change tracks instead. “Okay, let’s assume you’re right for the sake of argument . . .” I pause, waiting for him to open his eyes. He does with a deep sigh from the effort to stay calm. “Why do we need a security team and bullet-proof vehicles? Who could ever get past you and Benson? Please, let Max go home and give us our happy cottage back.”

Shock flashes over his face despite his calming measures. He stares at me like I belong to the padded corner room of Burford Dementia Centre. “With the festival tomorrow?” he demands in disbelief.  “With hordes of people around, in the only place where I cannot protect you myself? Have you lost your fucking mind?” He shudders with tension at the mere idea.

“All right, all right,” I say quickly, stroking his scar to calm him even though the thought of security shadows darkening mum’s roses burns my throat like acid. “Not tomorrow but Sunday then, assuming the worst that happens is dropped ice cream cones like every year.”

But he shakes his head again, unyielding. “This isn’t a joke, Elisa. I can’t do that. I don’t know what we’re dealing with—I’ll be the first to admit it. And until I do, Max stays.”

“But—”

“No, no more buts. It’s too soon. Later, when it’s safe, I promise I will let security go.”

Later. Tic toc, tic toc. When did s-a-f-e become a dangerous word? “But we may not have until later, Aiden!” My voice rises in panic even though seconds ago I was trying to calm him. “This may be the only time we have, and you’re wasting it with this.”

I’ve shredded the last vestige of his control. His jaw clenches as his eyes harden into blue slate. “Waste?” he hisses through his teeth, fury descending over his face like thunder. “Nothing is a waste to me if it keeps you safe. Absolutely nothing. I—will—not—take—more—risks—with—you. Full stop.”

There is no compromise in his voice, no room for any more arguments. He glowers at me in a way that only Aiden can. I try to glare back, but I can’t find my anger. It vanished somewhere between each second ticking away. Instead of anger, I feel something else. It takes me a moment to find the name for my throat closing, for the windy tunnel in my chest, for the strange hollowness in my stomach. Homesickness. It grips me now, like it did on my parents’ hilltop. Homesickness for us, for how we were, and how we could be. On their own, my fingers knot in his hair, pulling him closer.

“Please, Aiden?” I whisper, giving up on logic. “I miss us on the petals. I miss looking at the colors outside without bullet-proof windows. I miss having the cottage to ourselves at night without worrying who hears us. I miss making happy memories alone with you. I don’t ever want to lose that, and definitely not before our ninety days are up. I think that’s just as dangerous, if not more. Please?”

While I’ve been pleading, he’s been breaking. Ashen, mouth set in a grim line, rippling around me with tension. I hate the war I’m causing in his eyes, wounding a precious part of him whichever side he chooses: risk his peace or risk my safety, risk our happiness or risk our harmony?  R-i-s-k.  But I hate losing t-i-m-e with him even more. That will harm us more than any intruder, real or imagined. If I know anything down to my DNA’s double helix, it’s that.

He’s still strangled in conflict. With a deft movement, he slides me off his lap. “Give me a minute,” he says, his voice almost hoarse.

“Aiden, where—” But his fingers brush my cheek once and he streaks across the garden inside the cottage.

I stare after him, frozen on the sunny bench, heart in my throat. Did I win? Or did I make everything worse? Jittery with nerves, I jump to my feet and start pruning wilted petals from the Reagan, reciting the periodic table in my head. When I’ve run through it four times, he comes out—calmer now, no longer blanched, eyes clear, my rucksack on his back.

“Aiden, what are you doing?” I run to him immediately, crashing into him by the Clares. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry—”

He catches me and folds me in his arms, pulling me into his chest. “Of course you didn’t. You just reminded me that I can’t protect your safety at the cost of your heart. I have to figure out a way to do both.”

I should have known he’d find a way to make it harder on himself. I press my lips to his shirt over his heart. “You don’t need to do more, love. You need to do less.”

I feel him shake his head in my hair and he drops his arms but takes my hand. “Come with me.”

“Come with you where?”

“You’ll see.” The sparkle returns to his eyes and, with a gentle tug, he starts towing me down the stony path.

“Aiden, wait!” I pull on his arm, breathless from the abrupt change. “What about our conversation?”

One warm hand frames my face. “Elisa, I heard your arguments. The ones you made and the ones you didn’t. And right now, we need to do this.”

“But James and the others are coming in three hours. I have to get ready and—”

He places his finger over my lips. “We’ll be back by then. My mom has already marinated the steaks. And you’ll have me, Max, Benson, Ferrars, Cal, Hendrix, Jazz, and my parents to help you set up the rose stand exactly as you want. But until then, you are right. You need to be with me and I need to be with you. Just us and no one else in the world, making a happy memory. Will you come with me?”

And he unleashes the full force of his beauty on me. It grows in that surreal way, lighting him from within, until it stuns every thought and nerve into oblivion. He takes full advantage of my open mouth and closes it with his. The moment our lips touch, my resistance crumbles. Not because I’m giving up. But because this is exactly what I want right now too, what I’ve missed. To be alone with him.

He feels my change. “Perfect,” he smiles against my lips. With a gentle breeze over my face to restart my brain, he releases my mouth and takes my hand again, striding down the garden path while I wobble next to him trying to find things like feet and knees.

“Sir?” Max and Benson stand from the willow shade in unison when they see us.

Aiden raises his free hand. “Just us for now, gents. You have the cottage. We’ll be back by seven.”

I think they nod but I’m not sure. My eyes are fixed on Aiden as we set across Elysium just him and me with no shadows around. Can the daisies feel this difference? I think they can.

“So where are we going to make this happy memory?” I ask, not that it really matters to me. He could take me into a ditch on the side of the road at this point and I would be happy.

“I don’t have a name for it. That will be your job.” His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile.

He doesn’t take the bullet proof beast when we reach the garage. Instead he helps me in our Rover and sets the rucksack in the back seat.

“What’s in there?” I look at the overstuffed nylon that seems about to explode as he backs out of the garage, scanning the area around us.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” He winks as he repeats my own words to me from two weeks ago.

Then we’re off. Driving South down the country road slower than his usual speed. And my chest heals—as though the wound never existed. A sense of wellness floods my airways, and I breathe in the luxuriant feeling.

“Look at the colors, love,” Aiden says, rolling down our windows. Wind blows in, flinging around my hair and playing with his curls. But even though I griped about seeing the world through dark windows, now that they’re open, I turn on my seat and look only at him. How happy he looks right now—eyes on the open road, sunshine over his face, dimple in his cheek. He weaves his fingers with mine and brings my hand to his lips. “I’m sorry about the bullet-proof Rover. I didn’t think about the black windows. I can see why that would be depressing to you. I’ll check if they have one with clear glass. If not, I’ll live with a regular one.”

My heart starts sprinting an exultant rhythm. “Thank you,” I breathe. “Does this mean you’ll give up on the other things, too?”

He chuckles and rests our joined hands on the console. “Things? I didn’t realize you had other objections besides armored cars and a security team. Please do tell.”

“Well, if there’s no reason for bullet-proof beasts, then there’s no reason for a guard outside the cottage when we’re home. It’s upsetting the roses. They’re not used to this.”

He laughs the first carefree laughter I’ve heard in a week and glances at me. “Please tell the roses the overnight guard and the daylight one for that matter are there to protect them from the rose thief. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

The victorious galloping of my heart slows. “I really doubt it. They’re highly logical plants. Shall I tell them anything else?”

“Yes, tell them I love them very much. So much in fact that I’m willing to be scratched by their angry thorns on a daily basis to keep them safe.”

I cup my ear, pretending to listen outside the open window. “They say thank you but they miss their happy bubble and will not compromise.”

“My, my, stubborn little plants, but neither will I. Do they have any other objections besides private security, bullet-proof beasts, and cottage guards?”

“Yes, they’re very offended by the closed windows at night. They think you no longer like the way they smell.”

“Oh, that is grave indeed. Do assure them I’m going to prove shortly how much I like their smell. In fact, I miss it right now.” He lifts our joined hands again and inhales my wrist. The bottom of my belly tightens, trying to imagine what proof he is planning. “Do they know some of the windows stay closed because a certain someone can’t be quiet during certain activities we can’t name for the roses’ ears?”

I flush. “Yes, but that certain someone wouldn’t have to be quiet if there wasn’t an overnight guard.”

“I see. Well maybe that certain someone’s mouth will need to be silenced somehow. Tell the roses I will consider it.”

A sense of buoyancy floats inside me like the rose breeze. “They say thank you and they love you too.”

He chuckles. “They’re very welcome. Do they have any other demands that don’t involve compromising their safety?”

“No, other than these they’re very happy little plants.”

“They’re perfect, which is why I have to protect them even if they don’t like it,” he answers with a dazzling smile and presses a button on the wheel. “In their honor.” Kiss from a Rose floods the car, as harmonic as his laughter. I watch him spellbound as his lips move to the lyrics in a low murmur. Neither of us will surrender today. But I tuck all that aside for now, sinking in this present moment of us alone. Beyond his profile, the shamrock hills rise and fall like an emerald heartline.

He kisses the back of my hand when the song is done and turns down the volume. “So how was your day aside from your grievances with me? Is Graham still occupying the lab?”

“He was, but Edison ordered him home. I hope he’ll stay away this weekend so I can test the new oxytocin dose after the festival.”

“Are you excited for the festival now that you’ve chosen the roses? I think you’ll win the Rose Cup.”

“More nervous than excited, I think.”

He glances at me with the worried V between his eyebrows. “Why nervous?”

“Because it was mum’s favorite event. I want it to be perfect for her.” My voice drops, but he still hears it. As he hears the words I didn’t say because his hand tightens around mine when he answers.

“Don’t worry, love. We’ll be discreet. No one will even know we’re there.”

“But I will know. And I’m worried it will feel like a war instead of the cheery, happy event she would have wanted it to be.”

He strokes my palm with his thumb in reassurance. “Elisa, I think your mother would have wanted you to be safe above anything else. I don’t owe this just to you, I owe it to her too for what she did for me.”

How can I argue with him when he says things like that no matter how much I hate the thought of deadly Marines stalking the festival? And even worse, how can I tell him that the wound will rage tomorrow no matter how well the festival goes because he can’t be with me? I can’t—he would hate himself even more for his startle reflex then. “Fine, but if a single rose stem breaks, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

“Very sensible.” He laughs and turns up the volume as another rose song starts. The Making of You.

It makes me laugh too, sliding tomorrow away. “Have you made a playlist for roses like you did for ICE in Portland?”

“Well, we can hardly have a rose festival without a rose soundtrack. What would the Plemmonses say?”

I curl up in my seat, listening to his compilation for me, perfectly content if this entire happy memory is just this drive of the two of us, hands knotted, wind in our hair, and that smile on his lips. But it only lasts for three more rose songs.

“Here we are.” Aiden veers to the side of the road at the border of a grassy expanse like a jade sky, with oak and beech families clustered together here and there in their own earthly constellations. River Windrush glimmers through them like a liquid Milky Way. There is no sound except the arias of skylarks and song thrushes. And not a human silhouette in sight.

“I love National Trust Land,” I inform him, hanging my head out of the window and breathing in the clover air. “Do you know they have about 1,600 wildflower species here?”

He chuckles. “Well, we’re not going into Trust Land right now, but I think you’ll like this, too.” He climbs out of the Rover and picks up the rucksack. I strain to listen for any clues to its contents but it’s utterly quiet. “Will you be okay walking for about ten minutes?” he asks as he opens my door. “Or shall I carry you?” He looks eager for the latter.

“Hmm, tempting, but I think I can handle it. Who knows what you might need to save your strength for?”

“Oh, all manner of activities, Elisa. Arguing about your safety, making you faint, silencing your mouth—these require every ounce of strength a man has.” He takes my hand, leading us across the swaying field.

There are some things I’ll never have proper words for. His beauty, for one. His kisses for another. The way he makes love. The whole totality of him, in fact. But somewhere in the list is the experience of walking with him in open space without a ripple of tension. It’s as though he never takes a single step for granted. Where the rest of us put one foot in front of the other without thinking, focused on where we’re arriving instead, Aiden seems to treat each stride as its own destination—flowing in his graceful way step by step through this elusive freedom. I shiver when I think of the reasons behind it and hook my arm in his as he strolls at my pace, lifting me over a shrub or branch and scanning the verdant grassland.

He stops as we approach a thicket of beechwoods, oaks, and yews, and tips up my face. “Will you humor me with something?”

“Anything you want.”

“Then wait here. You’ll be very safe.” And he lets me go, bounding toward the trees.

“Anything but that,” I call after him, but I only hear his carefree laughter as he plunges through the woods. While I wait, I run an experiment on time by setting the chronometer on dad’s watch as I search the ground for four-leaf clover. Aiden emerges from the thicket only three minutes later, but my hypothesis is correct. Emotionally, it felt like twenty minutes to me.

“What was that about?” I ask, trotting toward him.

“You’ll see.”

He lets me lead to the trees, following quietly. I hear the click of his iPhone as he takes a photo of me, but I ignore the chill that trickles down my neck when he does this because the lopsided smile on his lips is worth a million ice pricks. From the canopy of leaves ahead filters a spicy scent of wild roses and sweet water. It propels my feet faster and I zig-zag through the ancient trunks into the most beautiful tiny meadow I’ve ever seen, second only to Elysium. It’s a perfect circle, smaller than the cottage’s garden, wreathed with pink wild roses. In the very center is a spring of water in the exact shape of the bluest of eyes. A pair of Adonis butterflies—the male blue, the female brown—tango in the hazy sunshine. But all this beauty is not the reason why I feel moisture in my eyes. It’s our blanket and pillows spread under the shade of a sweetbriar rose, along with the empty rucksack. A silver Baci chocolate twinkles on my side.

“Aiden,” I whisper, spinning around for the blue eyes of the Adonis standing behind me. He is watching me in that way of his that absorbs every pixel from the moment.

“Like?” he smiles.

“Like? I love. However did you find this?”

“When I was searching the area yesterday. Even you can’t object entirely to my security regime if it led me to this.”

“Yes, this one part is tolerable . . . but only this one.”

He laughs and pulls me by the waist into the molten meadow. But as we reach the blue eye in the center, the laugh gentles away and his expression becomes intent.

“You wanted us on the petals.” He tilts his head toward the wild roses and our blanket. “You wanted to make love without worrying who hears us.” He gestures to the dense trees. “And you want us to keep making happy memories.” He waves at the crystal spring. “I know I can’t replace the cottage or the rose garden but for the next two hours, will you settle for this?”

I push aside the wisp of homesickness for our bubble and press myself closer to him. “Well, that depends.”

“On?”

“On what name we choose for this place so we can make it ours. That’s my job, remember?”

The lopsided smile turns up his lips. “Of course it is. Any ideas?”

I have to look away from his mirage face to think. I should fear engraving him all over England with our dwindling days, but I don’t. The less time we have, the more I want him spread like pollen on every blade of grass or moss-covered branch, as he already is in every molecule and cell of me. So he can live on here somehow even if we don’t.

The two Adonis lovers are fluttering over the wild roses. “Well . . .” My eyes fly to him again as I make my choice. “I have Elysium. And now you have Aidonis.”

His eyebrows arch—Aiden would never expect anything named after him—but the surprise turns quickly into a chuckle.

“For the myth of him being Aphrodite’s lover?”

“No, for the myth of his own beauty.”

His eyes smolder. “Let’s christen it then,” he murmurs, and his hands seize my face. But the meadow disappears as soon as his mouth touches mine. I feel only our hands ripping off our clothes. I see only the shimmering planes of his body in the gilded air. I hear only the free sounds of our love. And I taste only his incomparable flavor as he pulls us into the sapphire water.

 

He keeps his promises, I have to admit—whether to make our first swim a memory worthy of the Room of Firsts or to keep us on schedule when I forget my own name, let alone the time. We make it back to the cottage with exactly seven minutes to spare, hair dripping, my legs still shaking, while Aiden strides in his self-assured way as if he didn’t just transform an adult woman into a trembling mass of Adonis butterflies.

“Status?” he asks Benson and Max who are setting up a long table and chairs for dinner on Elysium. Professionals that they are, they don’t comment on our sodden state, although Benson’s lips press together in amusement.

“All quiet, sir. Max rounded twice. The Marines checked in at the Inn and should be on their way. And your parents are with the Plemmonses but will be over for dinner with Ferrars.”

“Thank you. See you both then.” Aiden wraps up quickly, feeling my fingers twitch with nerves. I cannot possibly face James dribbling again, not to mention Hendrix and Jazzman whom I’ve never met before. What was I thinking letting Aiden drag me into that spring a second time? I wasn’t, that’s the problem. His mouth—with its lips and tongue and taste and words—is the real danger, not any intruders.

I’ve barely finished toweling off my hair in our bedroom when the Marines’ raucous laughter clamors from Elysium.

“Bloody hell, Aiden!” I groan, scrambling into the first dress my hands touch—my blue maxi apparently. “Why did you have to go back into that water? I’m a mess.”

He laughs unrepentantly and helps me zip up despite the fact that he is still shirtless. “I recall no objections from you, Mrs. Plemmons. In fact, I’m certain I and the entire National Trust Land heard at least four Aiden-don’t-stop’s.” He kisses my cheekbone that’s blushing. “And you’re the opposite of a mess. You’ll devastate their brain cells for the next decade. I should know. I saw you in a painting once and now I need fMRIs.”

I shake my head at his absurd, Javier-filtered image of me.

Behind him, on my nightstand, the dried poppies tremble at the ponderous footsteps treading up to the cottage like a stampede. “STORM!” James thunders from what sounds like the willows, and it’s impossible not to think of Javier again. “DROP WHAT GOD GAVE YOU AND COME TO THE DOOR!”

“Hurry!” I whimper, throwing on my locket while Aiden continues to gaze at me in the same way that got me into that spring a second time. Another bass voice booms from the hedge.

“Are you sure he lives here, Cal? It smells too good to be his place.”

“Put on your shirt!” I hiss at Aiden. “Now!”

He laughs again but wisely obeys. Then he gives me a quick kiss— “Mrs. Plemmons, I adore you”—and swoops me in his arms, blowing down the stairs with me as James’s fist rattles the door, making all the frames dip. I raise my eyebrow at Aiden as he smirks and opens the door.

“Fuck, Cal, you’re breaking the cottage!” he growls, but they’re both laughing as they fist-bump each other. A familiar sense of wonder fills me as it does when I watch Aiden—so extraordinary, he’s feels magical to me—do normal things like this.

“Hey, pest!” James grins at me, or at least I think he does. He looks even wilder than when I last saw him. Only his hazel eyes are visible in the jungle of ginger hair that’s exploding out of him in every direction. His vast height is blocking Hendrix and Jazzman behind him.

“Hi, James, welcome back.” I hug his branch-like arm that saved me.

“Someone fucking with you?” Through the auburn tangles, his sniper eyes flash with danger.

“No, just your brother.”

He barks another laugh. “Oh, well, he can’t help it. It’s in his nature. Here, check this out.” He pulls out his iPhone and shows me his screensaver—it’s a photo of his massive hands holding a silver salmon the size of my leg. My dad’s fly is hooked inside its mouth. “Caught him on the first cast—made your pops proud, heh?”

“Yes, you did, James. Well done.” I smile at the fly, heart in hooks, wondering if dad didn’t send that salmon swimming up that stream once his fly was floating again.

“Cal, get the fuck out of the way, man! You’ve already met her.” The bass voice grumbles behind him while James ducks past me with another ringing laugh, revealing Hendrix—I recognize him from his photo in the reel. He is long and lean where James is bushy and hulking, with bristling chestnut hair and chocolate brown eyes. He locks hands vertically with Aiden in an alpha way and tilts his head toward me. “Is this the trouble?”

Aiden glows in the most embarrassing way possible. “Hendrix, this is Elisa. Elisa, this is Ryan Hendrix, but we haven’t used his first name since our Crucible when the drill sergeant unwisely started calling him Ry-cry.”

“Nice to meet you, Hendrix. Welcome to Burford.” I smile at him.

He regards me with amused deliberation. “How can something so small wreak so much havoc?” he demands of everyone.

“I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately.” I sigh only half-joking, and they all laugh in understanding.

“Don’t worry, Trouble. If anyone fucks with you, he’ll breathe his last.” Hendrix winks at me, and I don’t think he’s joking. But they seem to find the idea of taking down my supposed intruder hilarious and satisfying. It sounds like James is cracking his knuckles in anticipation as Hendrix squashes himself past Aiden and me. But my eyes are rivetted on the threshold where I finally see Jazzman—the Marine I have most wanted to meet. The one whose life Aiden saved in his final act before being knocked unconscious and changed forever.

Aiden tried to prepare me for this. But, like the reel, no amount of preparation could have immunized me to the sight before me. Lankier than the others, Jazzman is two entirely different men in one. Half of him is handsome in a Paul Newman way. The other half, from his bare scalp to his left calf visible below his shorts is covered in livid burn scars, ash-grey and raised above his skin as though he has been woven out of a macabre fabric into a living flag for what these four men lived through. But his marred beauty is not why I can’t blink despite my preparation. It’s the way his eyes lock on Aiden before anyone else, and Aiden’s eyes on him. For a long, quiet moment, memories flow between them. I know from the agony on Aiden’s face and the reverence in Jazzman’s expression that they’re both remembering the same moment: when Jazzman was burning in that Fallujah schoolyard under gun fire and Aiden saved him with his last shot.

Behind me in the foyer, James and Hendrix are silent too. They must be used to this wordless exchange that inevitably occurs when Aiden and Jazzman first set eyes on each other after a long separation. I take my cue from them and remain quiet but lean closer to Aiden so my arm touches his. At our contact, he blinks and his lips lift in a smile.

“Hey, Jazz.”

“My brother.” Jazzman steps up to Aiden and hugs him. Just one arm barely touching Aiden’s shoulders, but they still tense. Yet, Aiden doesn’t step away as he would with others. He lets Jazzman hug him like he does with Stella. And that’s when I see the depth of their unique bond. Two brothers—disfigured from their former selves in such different ways—who are willing to relieve their most excruciating moment over and over again for their friendship.

Gently, I rest my hand at the small of Aiden’s back to help him, and his tension drains away. Jazzman must feel it too because he releases his savior and his eyes—one bright blue, the other glass—flit to me with a smile. “Aha! You are obviously Elisa with the calming effect. I’m Jazz.” He holds out his scarred hand. I take it, both careful and curious to feel his skin. Its texture is like starched lace and very warm, as though he’s been resting his hand on a space heater.

“I’m glad to finally meet you, Jazz.” And I am—not just him, but all of them who have saved Aiden as much as he saved them. Exactly as Stella said.

“I gotta say, I thought Storm dreamt you up at first.”

“So did Storm,” Aiden agrees, and they all laugh together. When Jazz laughs, the terrifying scars seem to fade even if they pull the right corner of his mouth down into a vicious grimace.

“Can you calm other people too? Is it like a superpower?” Jazz holds out his hand again, fluttering his fingers in invitation.

“I don’t think so.” I laugh, meeting his fingertips. “But I can definitely put you to sleep with chemistry lectures if you want. Or rose tea.”

Aiden chuckles, swooping my hand in his. “Stop trying to touch my woman, Jazz. Get your own.”

“Right you are, brother. You found one, how hard can it be?” Jazz’s laughter reverberates through the foyer that’s about to collapse. He squeezes around Aiden and me, ruffling my hair in his passage, and follows Cal and Hendrix into the living room to give Aiden space.

As soon as their trainers vanish around the corner, Aiden’s hands close around my waist, pulling me to him. “Thank you,” he whispers even though his words would never carry through the boisterous baritones echoing from the living room.

“For what?”

“For calming me so quickly. It made it easier for both Jazz and me.”

“He seems very kind, Aiden. I love seeing you all together.”

He chuckles. “Why don’t you wait to decide until we’ve been up until midnight, drinking? You might change your mind after that.”

“I really doubt it.” I stroke the scar above his eye. Its toughened ridge presses against my fingertip, cool and smooth, so different from Jazz. Abruptly, my mind starts bartering with the universe again, like it does during the reel. What if it had been Aiden stuck in the fire and Jazz tortured in the classroom with Marshall instead? Would I rather that Aiden had livid scars on his skin? Or as he is now with the scars within, marring the peace of his mind?

“What are you thinking so hard about?” he murmurs.

“How glad I am that you made it. That you’re here.” I run my fingers down his flawless cheek.

I can see from his eyes that he knows what I mean. Not just here in my cottage, but here-here—a star on earth. “Me too,” he smiles.

Me too. Such big little words for him. Two months ago, Aiden would have never thought them. Two months ago, he wanted Marshall’s place, not this. I find an odd peace with the universe then—an acceptance I haven’t felt since before the reel, since Aiden told me about Marshall at the Portland Rose Garden. Because it doesn’t matter to me where his scars are. I’ll always want him exactly as he is. What matters is that he finally wants to live.

“Elisa, is Storm’s dick blocking your way?” James bellows from the living room right as Aiden lowers his head to kiss me, and I burst out laughing. “Stomp your foot if you need help.”

“You’re still never getting anywhere near my dick, Cal. No matter how much you want it,” Aiden calls back, kissing the corner of my mouth. “Come. With some luck, my dick will be blocking other things tonight and we can keep the window open.”

I follow him to the kitchen, flushing while he takes out dad’s whiskey glasses and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc for me. He knows scotch is like chess: too painful to sip.

The living room furniture is in danger again. James takes over half the sofa. Hendrix is hunched in one armchair, his knees almost to his chin. And Jazz—while the smallest star in their stellar quadrant—is still overflowing in the other. They have already opened a bottle of Glenlivet from Speyside and fill the glasses as Aiden takes the other half of the sofa, propping me exactly where I want to be: on his lap. I lean into his iron chest that feels more comfortable than a feather mattress to me, ready to enjoy the waterfall laughter that will spring once James starts to speak, but James chooses to destroy every tingle of warmth I’ve felt since Aidonis.

“So what’s happening with the perv? Any sign of him?”

Aiden’s fingers press gently on my hip—don’t scratch Cal, he’s saying—but he shakes his head quicky for my benefit. “No change from my first recon.”

“Sneaky fucker.” Hendrix sneers, his dark expression positively alarming. Like Benson and Max, they seem to accept Aiden’s theory without question. And why shouldn’t they? They have relied on his mind for decades in everything, whether to guide them through the fire maze of Fallujah and save their lives or to build an empire so vast that none of them ever has to work again if they choose. Who would question such a mind? But they don’t know about the reel. Doctor Helen, Corbin, and I are the ones who know and the only ones who remain unconvinced.

“So what’s the battle plan for tomorrow?” Jazz looks at Aiden for direction, but Aiden’s fingers draw soothing circles at the small of my back.

“Well, the festival was very special to Elisa’s mother and to her,” he answers. “So rule number one is non-interference. I’ll walk you through the strategy later.”

All of them nod once in unison with identical serious expressions as though they are receiving military orders. And tension wrings my insides. What strategy? What will they do to mum’s happy day? I open my mouth to ask, but Aiden turns to me, sensing my alarm. “Don’t worry, this just means we won’t intervene unless you’re in danger. Otherwise, we’ll simply watch and you won’t even know where we are, except Max and Ferrars who will stay closer but receive the same orders. That way you can enjoy the festival as if this didn’t exist. Or as close to that as possible under the circumstances.”

I nod as I finally realize why he is keeping the details from me. But how can I enjoy it without him? I force as big a smile as I can manage to stifle the question. Because no matter how much the wound will burn, fester, and throb at his absence, I know it will pale to his agony that he cannot be there next to me. And I’d rather give up some of our remaining days than cause him more pain.

He doesn’t buy my enthusiasm. “I won’t be far,” he comforts me, his voice controlled but I know it too well to miss his anguish underneath.

“Maybe if I know where you are, I can sneak away for a bit.” I try to cheer him up, keeping my smile on my face, but it no longer feels forced at the idea.

Something twinkles in his eyes but before I can ask, James rumbles. “I hope the fucker is dumb enough to show tomorrow.”

“Of course he will.” Hendrix is supremely confident. “Open, crowded space where no one can notice him lurk. He won’t be able to resist.”

“I agree. He has no way of knowing we’ll be waiting for him . . .” Jazz drifts off with a lethal smile that makes me shiver. As if missing Aiden tomorrow is not enough. As if his mental strain doesn’t already terrify me as much as the reel does. Now the festival is a military operation too, instead of the precious tradition that brought mum perennial joy.

And even though I barely know James, Hendrix, and Jazz, even though I already tried today with Aiden, abruptly I want to run through all my arguments again. One by one, right here, right now so that the festival can be how it was when mum loved it, so that Aiden can rest and we can get back to our reel of brilliancy for the time we have left.

But I can see from their faces—James’s determined eyes, Hendrix’s set jaw, Jazz’s grimaced smile, and Aiden’s steely arm around me—that no matter what I say will make a difference. Tomorrow, while roses bloom on the cobblestoned lanes of my childhood, seven lethal beings will find only danger. Make the festival happy for mum, please. Give Aiden peace. Bring us back to us.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 24 – CIRCLE

Happy Sunday, friends! It’s been a dreary, rainy weekend here in Portland, perfect for moods and writing. Wanted to thank all of you who read and wrote to me about the last chapter.  I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Real v. Reel? I can’t answer that, but I’m loving your comments and theories. Here is another chapter. Hope you like it. Lots of love, Ani

 

24 

Circle

Chronologically, a sunrise lasts only two minutes. Emotionally is another matter. Because right now, waiting for Aiden, the seconds between the first glow above the horizon and the first rays scattering across the sky ooze like congealed blood from an open wound. Each willow murmur sounds like footsteps, each lark song like a familiar melodic voice—but there is nothing. He’s not here, he’s not here.

I jump to my feet, unable to sit on the garden bench without him a second longer. Max’s alert eyes follow me from the hedge as I dash to the hybrid rose behind the shed. Chills prick my skin like thorns at the reel’s proximity. Does the evil inside know it hasn’t been unleashed today? Will it avenge itself on Aiden later? I shiver and force my mind to scour my work bench for any disturbance. But nothing is missing here either. My brain stutters to produce any differences—is that pot of dirt closer to the edge? Has the Elisa graft moved an inch? I stare without blinking, yet I can’t decide if I’m seeing differences or missing them.

Then things strike fast like the sun bursting over the hilltops. Max rumbles, “Good morning,” Benson’s voice booms through the air, “News?”, and I break into a sprint.

“Aiden!” I shriek, rounding the shed, jumping over a Clare, losing a slipper, and launching myself at him the moment he streaks through the garden hedge. His gasp whooshes in my ears as he swoops me in his arms and tucks me in his chest while I run my hands frantically over him to make sure he’s okay. He is—not a single scratch on his beautiful head.

“Hey, hey, I’m fine,” he assures me, but he’s doing the same with me, scanning me from my hair to my bare toes. His shoulders sink in relief when he sees everything is the exact mess he left it. “Elisa, what the hell are you doing up?” he chides, tracing the circle under my eye with his fingertip. “I thought I told you to go to bed.”

I lock my arms in a stranglehold around his neck, blubbering in his throat. “But you—not here—worried—I couldn’t—”

“I also told you not to worry.” His exasperated voice has never sounded more like music to me. “You don’t really think someone can hurt Benson and me, do you?”

“No, but—you’re tired—and stressed—and—”

“Shh, it takes a lot more than that to take me down.” He cradles me in his arms and kisses my hair, all anger seemingly forgotten—or vanished I should say, for him.

“I’m glad you’re home,” I sniffle, crushing myself closer to him and inhaling his scent.

“I’ve told you this, too.” He sighs again, but his lips stay in my hair. “I’ll always come back to you.”

The cottage door flies open then. “Aiden?” Stella cries and hurtles down the path, Robert on her heels.

“Oh, fuck, does no one listen to me?” Aiden mutters under his breath, setting me on my feet without releasing his hold around my waist as he turns to reassure his poor parents. I peek at Benson in his usual spot behind Aiden. He winks at me, but there is a shadow of worry in his brown eyes.

“Are you okay?” I mouth at him behind Aiden’s arm as Aiden keeps saying I’m fine to Stella.

Benson nods with a smile.

“And him?” I tilt my head slightly toward Aiden.

“Worried,” Benson mouths back and the smile disappears.

I tighten my grip on Aiden’s arm, resting my head against his stony bicep. It softens at the point of contact, but I still don’t let go of him or he of me as we troop back to the cottage. His eyes devour the garden corner to corner, and he crouches at the Clare to pick up my fuzzy slipper.

“Here you go, Cinderella.” He slides it back on my foot, his exhausted smile more dazzling to me than the new sun. Then he squints across the rose bush at the garden shed and the hybrid behind it.

“I checked,” I say immediately so he doesn’t have to wonder or spend any more time on his feet.

The V appears between his eyebrows. “And?”

I shake my head, aware of all the eyes and ears on us. “Everything is there, but I can’t tell if they moved an inch or two. I’m so sorry.” My last three words stun us both. Until they slipped out of my mouth under his gaze, I didn’t know I preferred a real intruder to giving Aiden this news.

As if he heard that thought, a trace of the same hurt flickers in the turquoise depths, and he stands, taking my hand. “Don’t be sorry. I’d rather be wrong than have you in more danger.”

And I’d rather be in danger than have him be wrong. But worse than that is that four-letter word—m-o-r-e. No doubt he used it because he believes the first and foremost danger is him. “I’m never in danger if you’re with me,” I answer, knowing he won’t argue with everyone around us.

And he doesn’t—the only sign of protest is his clenched jaw.

Inside the cottage, Stella has been busy while I was staring at empty fields and cluttered working benches. The smell of fried eggs is wafting from the kitchen, but she herds us into the living room, where she has set out coffee, rose water, scones, jam, cream, strawberries, and mum’s soup tureen full of scrambled eggs on the coffee table that’s creaking under the weight.

“Eat something, Aiden. Benson, Max—you too. Elisa, darling, I’ve got your tea right here, in this pretty cup. There you are!”

It’s not until I see the food that my body registers hunger. Or maybe it’s because Aiden is home, and I can feel something else other than my throbbing chest. We all load our plates and scatter on our old seats from the night, Aiden folding on the sofa next to me, except now our arms and legs are touching.

“So what happened, son?” Robert asks when Aiden finishes his scone. “Did you find anything either way?”

Aiden blows out a gust of breath, not touching his coffee, while a shiver whips over my skin. “Many and nothing,” he answers, his voice controlled. If I didn’t know it so well, I would have missed the faint hard edge underneath. “There are tire tracks on the roadside gravel by Elysium but, as Elisa is no doubt thinking this very second, that’s not surprising because it’s the main road to town.”

He nods at me, as if to say I’m considering your theory. I vow to do the same for him. “What else did you see?”

“This was by the garage,” he answers, taking something from the back pocket of his jeans and handing it to me. It’s an After Eight mint wrapper. “It wasn’t there this afternoon when we pulled out of the garage to go to the Inn,” he explains as I pass it around. “But it could have ended up there in any number of ways. Someone could have tossed it out of a car window for all we know.”

“Does it mean anything to you, Elisa?” Stella asks, sipping her tea.

“No, After Eights are popular around here. I’d wager every cottage in town has them. My dad used to love them, but I haven’t bought them since . . .”

Aiden takes my hand, hearing the unspoken day in my drift. There are shadows under his brilliant turquoise eyes, his skin shimmers less, and the ray of sun beaming through the window fractures over his drawn cheeks. Yet he is still here, caring for me.

“Aiden, love, why don’t you get some sleep?” I plead, clasping his fingers. “We can finish this later. You’ve been up all night.”

He shakes his head. “We’re almost done. Benson, show them what you found.”

Benson sets his clean plate on the floor and digs in the liner pocket of his jacket. His massive hand covers whatever it is, but he tosses it at me. I see as it somersaults through the air that it’s a tiny ball of crumpled paper. It lands in my open hand with uncanny accuracy. I smooth it out, looking at the random doodles like concentric circles.  Five necks crane to peek at it with me.

“Any thoughts about this one?” Aiden prompts.

“Umm, not really. It looks like scrap paper. Anyone can doodle like this.”

He nods with a deep sigh. “I had the same thought. I’ve seen you draw circles like this, and seventy-eight other people in my life. It’s in blue ink—also your usual choice—but blue pens are hardly unique. I can’t prove this came from the cottage or was meant for it. There’s nothing unusual about the paper either—just a generic lined notebook.”

I look at it again. I have notebooks like this. As does Reagan. As does the town’s stationer, Mrs. Sterling, and probably everyone who buys notepads there. The doodles are symmetric, it’s true, but I see nothing in them to link them only to me. “Where did you find this?”

“Down the road toward town.” Aiden gestures the direction with his thumb. “Why? What are you thinking?”

I shrug. “Just trying to consider your theory as fairly as mine. This does look like something I would draw but, as you said, so could anyone.”

Aiden runs his hand through his hair in frustration. His eyes zoom on the empty fireplace like last night, the tectonic plates shifting back and forth, back and forth as if he is looking at a chessboard.

“Did you see anything else?” Max wonders, gulping coffee.

“Random details, equally ambiguous,” Aiden answers, his eyes not breaking the inner analysis. “There’s a broken rose in the climber by the garage door, but that could have happened when the door closed behind the car. There’s a cigarette butt further down the road but it could be anyone’s. There are no footprints because, of course, it’s been dry.” Then his eyes flit to Max. “Did you check for footprints under the windows?

Max nods with vigor. “As soon as it got light out. There’s none in the dirt or the rose beds.”

The faithful V forms between Aiden’s eyebrows, and something quick passes between him and Benson.

“If there are no footprints where there should be, that means either they swept them or we’re left with the key theory,” Benson rumbles.

“Or mine,” I offer, looking only at Aiden, feeling like we’re stuck in a circle. I’m about to ask him to stop this now and go to sleep, but he takes my hand.

“Elisa, I know you have serious doubts about this, and if I only listen to logic, I have them too. But I can’t shake off this instinct that I’m right. So, I’ll ask you one more thing about this that you will hate, and then I promise I’ll be done for today. Will you please call the Plemmonses and ask them if they ever gave the cottage key to anyone else? They’re usually up by now, setting up the shop.”

I’m about to say “no bloody way” but the lines of worry on his beautiful face stop my tongue. How can I not give this to him if it helps him sleep and fight the reel later today? How can I not give him everything after the story his parents told me? Exactly as he would do for me.

“If I do this, will you go to sleep?” I ask, brushing his knuckles.

“I promise.”

“And you will stop worrying?”

“I can’t promise that, but I promise I will drop the subject for today.”

“What about security? If the Plemmonses say no, as I’m sure they will, can we let Max enjoy the rest of his vacation? He’ll get so bored guarding me from doodles, he’ll have to steal roses himself for entertainment.”

He shakes his head before I’m done. “I can’t do that—not until I figure out what we’re dealing with.”

I watch his set jaw, knowing this is the best he can give right now. As he must know from my eyes that this isn’t over. I nod, reserving all my arguments for when he’s rested, and pick up my phone from the sofa corner, where apparently it’s been sitting forgotten all night.

“Thank you,” Aiden says simply as I dial.

Mr. Plemmons answers on the seventh ring, and it takes several different shouting volumes to establish the right level of bellowing for him to hear.

“Is summat the matter with the roses, Rose?”

“No, Mr. Plemmons, but I have a quest—”

“Wha’ ‘bout the Festival?”

“I’m all set, Mr. Plemmons, but—”

“Did yeh like the garland, Rose?”

“It was beautiful, Mr. Plemmons, thank—”

“Is Adam being a gentleman? I told him, I said, ‘only because yer parents ‘ull be here, Adam, but yeh keep yer hands off our Rose! An’ we ‘spect to meet them, we do. Didn’ I tell him, Josephine?”

“Yes, you did, Harold. You scared him right off. The man promised he’s sleeping in the shed.”

The first chuckles of the day susurrate around me, Stella’s in a pillow, Benson’s on his knuckles, Max’s in his elbow, and Robert’s in his palm. Aiden is too stressed and tense to laugh or do anything but pinch the bridge of his nose and breathe deeply with his eyes closed for strength.

“Mr. Plemmons, I have a question,” I yell at the top of my lungs into the receiver to delay the stroke that is surely coming for Aiden.

“Wha’ is it, Rose?”

“Did anyone ever borrow the cottage key when I was in Portland?”

“The wha’?”

“The cottage key, Mr. Plemmons!”

“The key? I don’ think so, Rose. Josephine, do yeh remember anyone ask fer the rose key?”

Some silence on the other side presumably as Mrs. Plemmons scratches her head with her knitting needles. “No, I don’t remember anything like that,” she wheezes after a while then her voice rasps closer to the receiver. “Has something happened, Rosebud?”

“Nothing at all, Mrs. Plemmons. Not a thing. I’ll bring by some roses and Aiden’s parents later. They’re coming to the Festival.”

“Oh, how wonderful! On with you, Harold, on with you! I have biscuits to bake for Aiden’s parents.”

“Stop calling him Edmund, Josephine. His name is Adam.”

They are still arguing about Aiden’s name when Mr. Plemmons hangs up without saying goodbye.

“Feeling better?” I ask Aiden as his parents, Benson, and Max are catching their breath from laughing.

He runs his hand over his thick stubble with a deep sigh. “How much can we rely on their memories, Elisa, really? The man believes I’m sleeping in the shed.”

I caress his tense jaw. “And you might well end up sleeping in the shed if you don’t drop this right now like you promised. Now on with you, Adam, on with you. Go to bed and sleep this off.”

The first real smile since the Suite of Firsts lifts his lips. “Oh no, not the shed.” But he stands without further argument, and everyone stands with him.

Fifteen minutes later, after his parents leave with Benson while Max insists on staying guard outside until we wake up, Aiden and I finally climb the stairs to our happy bedroom. With each creak of the old boards, the terror of the night starts to dissipate. First as a wink of a smile at the corner of Aiden’s mouth when he steps on the fifth stair, then as a sigh in my throat when his hands curve around my hips, until the moment we cross the threshold of our room, we both transform. The glow returns to Aiden’s face, warming his ashen skin back to gold. His jaw relaxes, the V releases his eyebrows, and every wisp of tension floats away from him until his long, graceful body moves with his patent fluidity, half-water, half-man. And every debris of fear and anguish disappears from his eyes until they gleam the clearest shade of turquoise.

As for me, I’m back to the drooling state I started this night with.

“Are you having déjà vu?” Aiden smiles as he closes the bedroom door.

“How did you know?”

He flows to me and wraps his arms around my waist. “Because I’m having it, too.”

“Déjà vu to what?”

“To entering our Room of Firsts. You?”

“Me too.”

“Mmm.” He lowers his face to mine as he did last night, pausing an inch from my lips. “Can you make us a protein to turn back time?”

“I wish.” My voice turns to vapor under his heated breath.

“Let’s try to repeat it then.” His eyes become molten and descend over me like fire. I have exactly one second left for thought. Already my body is arching toward his.

“Oh, no!” I lean away, pushing against his chest. “Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Plemmons. There will be no female nudity of any kind. You’re here to sleep.”

He laughs with that waterfall sound as I quote his words to me from Oxford’s University Park but doesn’t release my waist. “But I sleep so much better with female nudity around, Elisa.”

“Well, maybe Mrs. Willoughby can oblige.” I push weakly against his chest again, but he brings his lips to my ear.

“I don’t want Mrs. Willoughby.” His hand trails up my spine. “I want your hair . . .” He sweeps aside my tangles. “And your skin . . .” His fingers trace my throat. “And your smell . . .” His nose skims along my jaw. “I want everything of yours on me.” He molds me to his shape as his lips brush mine. “If I have all that, Elisa, no one on this earth sleeps better than me.”

His words stop but it’s not silent. My heart is thundering, my blood is hammering, my breath is hitching. He blows gently over my lips to open my eyes I didn’t know I had closed. “Can you still give all that to me?” he asks as soon as I blink at him. “After everything I put you through last night?”

It only takes that change in his voice—from amused to tender to uncertain—to clear my mind. “They’re always yours.”

The dimpled smile sparkles on his cheek. “Then may I have this dance?”

We have danced together to Für Elise fourteen times now, once before each sleep. I know his steps by heart, yet each time feels new. He takes off my clothes and I take off his, and we sway together, skin on skin, each piano note as vital as a heartbeat now that I know how it became the soundtrack to our dreams.

“I’m sorry, love,” he murmurs, his voice more melodic than our lullaby. I look up at his incandescent eyes—there isn’t a single trace of fear, hurt, or anguish there now. Only peace.

“Why are you sorry?” I whisper back, letting the melody reign over us.

“For getting angry when you were only trying to reason with me. For worrying you. For making you lose sleep. For being unable to drop this like you wish I would.”

“Shh.” I press my finger on his lips—he kisses it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. I know everything you’re doing is to protect me. I’m the one who should apologize.”

His raven brows arch in shock, and he stops mid-turn. “What do you have to apologize for?”

“For hurting you when you were only trying to save me. For yelling at you. For not believing you like you wish I would.”

‘Shh.” He smiles, pressing his finger on my lips—I kiss it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. You did the right thing. I need you to challenge me. Always, but especially now.”

He picks up the dance, nose in my hair, as Für Elise plays on. I debate whether to tell him I know how he found it, but I don’t want any painful memories to enter this bubble. ‘I can’t be anywhere else,’ he told his parents the night I left him. I lean into his body before chills whip my skin. What happens this time if we lose? Or if the reel takes him from me before time does? Will there be any place left in this earth for him or me now that we are so deeply entwined together I no longer know where I end and where he starts? I press myself closer to him, inhaling his pure, vivid scent that keeps the goose bumps away.

Für Elise ends with its last poignant note and starts again. We curl into our cotton bed that smells like us, and he takes his anti-nightmare pill while I pray for the protein. Make him brave, keep him whole.

“How long should we set it for?” he asks, programming my song.

“Don’t—sleep as long as you need. We can do the r-e-e-l whenever you wake up this time.”

He doesn’t argue or flinch like I do. Still invincible, still braver than me. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me to his front, every curve of me to every angle of him. I can feel his desire, but he keeps his promise. He just buries his lips and nose in my hair, breathing me in. “Don’t worry, love.” His fingers trail down my arm. “I’m built for this.”

“But it’s different now, with all the trauma you’re revisiting.”

A deep sigh flows through him and washes over me. “I know . . . same answer.”

From the beech tree outside the window, a lark starts to warble, harmonizing its song to Für Elise. “Is there any part of you that thinks the r-e-e-l might be causing this?” I whisper, not wanting this question to interfere with either melody.

He caresses my arm, back and forth like piano keys. “Maybe I’m afraid to think it,” he whispers, too. “The idea of not being in control of my own mind . . .”

I turn in his arms, placing my hand over his heart. “You are in control. You’re just learning new ways of thinking. Don’t doubt your mind. Only your reactions to stress. I’m sure Doctor Helen will agree. You should talk to her about this.”

He nods, weaving his fingers with mine, looking at our joined hands. His lashes cast long shadows over his cheeks. “Will you answer something for me? The full truth, no diplomacy or sparing of feelings.”

“Of course,” I answer, surprised by the uncharacteristic request. His eyes usually see my truth before I even know it. But right now, they’re locked on our folded hands as he speaks in a slow, deliberate voice.

“If the reel fixes the startle but breaks my mind, would you still want to be with me?”

His question makes me gasp, but not only because of the heart-wrenching words. I stop breathing because I finally realize why he is afraid. It’s not fear of losing his mind, it’s fear of losing my heart.

“Aiden Hale.” I lift his chin as he does with me so I can see his eyes. They’re steady and bold, except that flicker of pure hurt that now I fully understand. “I will want you no matter what the reel does—whether it changes your mind or not and even if it doesn’t fix the startle. I know you don’t like hearing that, but you asked for the full truth. I’ll always love you, and no distance, or time, or reel can ever change that.”

He has inhaled every word, breathing them in like air. And I know he believes me. I know because the painful question clears from his eyes. “So, it’s not just my brain that you’re attracted to?” he smiles, gesturing to the photo of his brain and heart waves on my nightstand.

I grin back. “No, sorry. It doesn’t even make the top five.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he chuckles. “But I’m curious now, what are the top five?”

“Oh, that’s easy. Your heart, your character, your strength, your laugh, your mouth—”

I’m about to continue, but he kisses me with a low throaty sound. “Mmm, this mouth business seems to be important.”

“Very.”

His fingers braid into my hair and he strains me to his shape until I can feel his heartbeat on my skin. The moment I taste him on my tongue, I realize that until now my own mouth tasted bitter, but it wasn’t the night. It was the hours apart. His lips brush away the acrid residue until I only taste his honeyed flavor.

“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, freeing me for air, but his breathing is almost as uneven as mine. He turns me around—all iron and silk—and presses his lips in my hair. “Our top fives are the same, you know . . . except mine also include your faith in me and your patience and your humor and . . .”

I’m about to point out that this is more than five, but a deep breath of cinnamon air swirls in my hair and his weight becomes heavy around me. I peek around, and he is asleep, his lips parted in a soft smile.

“Like cookies, my love,” I whisper. I lie here as always, counting his breaths, and happiness shifts again despite the night. It becomes his puffs of sleep to my song in our humble bedroom with the dried poppies of our weapons in this fight: our love, his strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love, our families, the team of scientists, my calming effect, Für Elise, hope, laughter, and, if I can finish, the protein. I still don’t know if they’re enough to win against Aiden’s past. And after today, I no longer know if they will be enough to see us through the reel.

Abruptly, sleep vanishes, and I feel wide awake. More than awake—drumming with nervous energy and fear, making my feet and mind twitch. Instead of poppies, I can only see Bia and the protein’s formula in my head. It’s no longer just urgent—after last night, it’s imperative. I can’t afford to lie here when I can calculate Oxytocin Twelve doses instead. I finish counting the one hundred and fifty breaths that it takes for Aiden to drift into deep sleep, and inch out of bed, jittery and tense.

Dad’s library is filled with sunlight when I tiptoe there. The gauzy curtain billows with the rose breeze, and Max’s reflection plays on the windowpane, sipping his coffee by the hedge. Was it only five hours ago that I stumbled in this room shuddering in terror? Now the idea of an intruder sitting on Dad’s armchair or touching our unfinished chess game under the glass case feels fuzzy, like a distant nightmare that has left only its startle behind.

I switch on old Bod, wishing I could run to Bia instead, but there is no point in testing until I understand exactly how much O-12 I should add and why else the formula didn’t hold yesterday. I’m blurry eyed with calculations when Skype’s jingle dings loud enough for Max’s head to snap up toward my window. Reagan! I answer it immediately, not wanting to wake Aiden.

“Top o’ the morning, Rose.” Reagan’s curls explode on the screen and her feigned British accent chimes through the library. As soon as I see her sparkling smile in her pajamas, an urge to hug Bod overpowers me. I blow her a kiss on the screen.

“Hey, Reg—how was the flight? Did you find everything okay?”

“Oh yea, okay and empty and boring. I’ve decided rhododendrons are highly overrated compared to my rose.” She glares at her window where our old pink rhodie is blooming. “I miss England already.”

“And England misses you. How was Javi on the flight? Any progress?” Between meeting Aiden’s parents and dealing with real or reel intruders, I’ve been itching to ask her since Aiden found the sketch of her eyes at the Inn.

She blows a ringlet off her face, and her smile disappears. “Well, we fought for half of it so no—unless you define ‘progress’ as conversation in which case, yes, it was an improvement over the dour silence that filled the other half.”

“What did you fight about?” I ask even though it doesn’t matter. The real reason is Javier being invisible for all his formative life and now he is unable to see when he is seen.

“Everything—no matter what I say or do, I seem to aggravate him. I don’t know, Isa, but I’ve thought a lot about it. I have to let him be . . .” She wipes her eyes with her sleeve.

“No, Reg, don’t give up yet. Javi loves you—he just doesn’t know how.” I trap my tongue between my teeth, so I don’t mention the sketch. I can hear Aiden’s voice, even asleep, thundering through his synapses to tell me to keep my mouth shut. And as much as I hate to admit it, he is right.

Reagan just shakes her head, mopping up more tears.

“I’m serious,” I tell her, clutching the screen as if it were her shoulders. “Let Javi open the gallery and get some confidence, like Aiden said, and I think he’ll come around.”

She wipes her nose this time and nods. “He’s very excited about Solis Art—he’s named it already. But enough about me or I’ll cry all night. How did it go with Aiden’s parents?”

I want to keep talking about her and Javier, but I can tell she needs the space. And I can’t even berate her for not warning me about the fact that Aiden’s parents make the Beckhams look like garden compost. “They’re so sweet, Reg. I wasn’t prepared for how kind and supportive they are.”

“I know, right? They’re exactly who I would have picked for you. Stella already posted a picture of your roses on Facebook, quoting Shakespeare, ‘Of all the flowers, methinks a rose is best.’ Here, look.”

Reagan holds up her iPhone to show me Stella’s profile, but I stare at it without seeing as shivers scrape my skin at the mention of the charlatan. Does he creep up on other people’s lives like this or is he only haunting mine?

“I have to hit the pillow, Isa,” Reg says after I manage a nod. “I’m still jetlagged, but I have to go to work tomorrow. Who invented jobs? Horrible person.”

Probably Shakespeare. “Love you, Reg. Sleep well.”

“Love you, too. Say hi to our dragon. Tell him to prepare in advance because in September, I might even hug him.”

She hangs up with a laugh before she hears the whisper that hushes out of my lips of its own volition. If we have until September . . .

I listen for any sign of Aiden upstairs, but there is nothing. Hopefully he is dreaming of cookies while I stare at my lined notepad waiting for a stroke of brilliance. That odd sensation I felt in the Room of Firsts, like a tugged thought, flutters again now for some reason. What was I thinking about when I first felt it? Oh, yes, I had mumbled “orgasms are oxytocin but taste better” in my sex coma. And there it is—the same curious feeling, like a tip-of-the-tongue hesitancy . . . I try to analyze it but can’t find any clues in it. It must have been because I tasted the protein earlier at Bia and it didn’t taste as good as Aiden. But why did it fizz away?

Outside the library window, Max’s pacing shadow rolls over the roses. And on my notepad, my pen draws concentric circles over my calculations without a single answer.

©2021 Ani Keating

 

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 23 – BREAK

Hey gang, how is everyone? I hope your weekend is off to a good start and you all have some R&R planned. Here is a new chapter for you, a day early since I’m technically a couple of days late. Hope you enjoy. Things are changing…  lots of love and thanks for reading and writing to me. On a personal note, this blog is giving me a much needed respite from life, and for that, I’m grateful to all of you. xo, Ani

 

23

Break

“Goodnight, dear.” Stella kisses my cheeks as we leave their luxury suite at the Inn after dinner on their balcony. “Make sure you get some sleep. We’ve kept you late.”

“This is what happens when you get my mother started on baby stories, Elisa. I sincerely hope you’ve learned your lesson if you want any of us to sleep for the next two weeks.” Aiden’s voice is exasperated, but there is tenderness underneath. Something flows quickly between him and Stella, and he nods. Carefully, she steps into his arms on her tiptoes and kisses his cheek. He embraces her gently as though she is a soap bubble, but his shoulders turn to granite with memories. In that feather-rock hug, I see the difference between me and everyone else for Aiden: he softens under my touch and tenses with all others, even his mum. Yet he holds her for a while longer, despite the tension straining him, before releasing her with a chuckle. “All right, save some for tomorrow.”

She sparkles at him. “Sweet dreams, Aiden-bear.” That same swift exchange happens between them, and he smiles.

“Like cookies, Mom.”

Some private joke, no doubt, but one I have to know with a similar urgency as the oxytocin. Despite the deluge of details about his childhood, from his first word (“oh, dear, it wasn’t a word, it was a sentence: Mama, where is Daddy?”) to his favorite bedtime story (“he didn’t like baby stories, we had to read him poetry—he loved Byron and Keats”) to his favorite toy (“his chess set!”), I feel parched for more.

“Night, Dad,” Aiden nods at Robert who only hugs Aiden with his eyes.

“Night, son. Goodnight, Elisa.” He clasps my shoulder. “Be careful driving back to the cottage. It’s dark out.”

“We’ll be fine, Dad. Go to sleep.”

They wave together, their soft eyes following us down the hall.

“What does the cookies thing mean?” I ask as soon as I hear their door close, and Aiden presses the button for the lift.

He laughs. “All night you’ve heard all manner of trivia about me, and you still want more?”

“Of course.”

“Fine, that’s how I answered her the day I discovered cookies when I turned three, and it became our standard goodnight for a while. But I suspect it had nothing to do with that tonight, rather than the fact that she finally can wish me sweet dreams again now that I can finally have them. Because of you.”

The lift doors open, but I can’t move my feet—how can I when he says things like this? He pulls me into the tiny box, overwhelming the space, and presses me against the velvet-lined wall with his hips. There is nothing granite about his body now. It’s all steel, forged to every line of mine. The air becomes rare—I lose it and find it as he brings his heated lips to my ear. “At last,” he murmurs, his breath strumming against my skin. “Just you and me.” His nose skims the Aeternum spot. “We met the parents . . .” He kisses the corner of my jaw. “And there were no accidents or heart attacks . . .” His lips brush along my jawline. “Everyone adores everyone . . .” He presses his lips to the corner of my mouth. “Elisa?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you know what time it is?” His dark voice ignites my blood, my memories.

“It’s now!” I gasp as his mouth melds with mine. Every angle of us fuses together. One of his hands gathers in my hair, his other arm lifts me off the floor. I wrap my legs around him, tangling my fingers in his soft waves. He doesn’t tense—the shiver running through him is desire. His hips start grinding and rolling against me.

“This is where we left it, I believe,” he says against my lips. “When I so rudely said no.”

“Mmm . . . very rude.”

“Let me be rude some more.” His erection presses into me over the linen of my dress. Once, twice, and the point of contact becomes a rapid pulse. Then abruptly he swoops me in his arms.  He’s so quick, I gasp and blink around startled, registering that the lift was moving, and it has now stopped. The doors open on the top floor to his suite. “You said something about a Chatsworth bed?” His eyes blaze as he carries me out. “And maybe fainting?”

I bring him back to my mouth. “Hmm . . . I’ll need a reminder.”

“I might have a few.”

He kisses me down the empty hall, lips fluid, tongue alive. I taste him back as deeply as I can. How many times can you kiss a man before he becomes your taste? By the time he breaks the kiss and sets me down at the door to his suite, my head is whirling. He lowers his face to my height, blowing a gentle breeze over my lips. “Reminded?”

“Uh huh . . . fainting . . . you.”

“You take my breath away, too,” he translates. Then his beauty intensifies in that surreal way, as though lit from within. It does nothing to help my balance. “Ready for more reminders?” he dazzles and unlocks the door with the old brass key. “After you,” he whispers in my ear as he opens it, tickling an old memory.

I step inside . . . and gasp to a stop.

It’s the same suite where we had our big bang—the same four poster bed, the same ivory silk linens—but how different it looks. How new, yet how ours. A gentle fire is dancing in the fireplace to the low sultry melody of Amado Mio—the song we first danced together. A garland of the Plemmons’ apricot roses—similar to Aeternum in color—adorn the mantle. On the wall across the bed, taped over the Inn’s painting of roses is a photo of Javier’s first painting of me as it hangs in front of Aiden’s bed at his home. And on the nightstand is the first gift I gave him: the double-frame with my ticket to America and a photo of his home he bought that same day.

“Oh!” I breathe, gazing at the bedroom in a trance. No, not a bedroom anymore—a mosaic of some of our most beautiful moments. The firm thud of the door closing breaks through my spell. I turn to look at Aiden. He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. I take the one step between us, feeling unsteady on my heels. His hands curve around my waist.

“Enough reminders for you?”

“Explain it to me,” I say, knowing by now he never creates a memory without a purpose, a purpose worth remembering for life.

“I’m sure you can unravel this one.” He bends his face to mine as though to kiss me but stops an inch from my lips. “Try.”

And I do, I really do, but it’s almost impossible with a scent like this and eyes like that and beauty like nothing else. “Well, there’s our first night with the painting?”

“Yes, that’s there.” His lips hover so very close to mine. I try to reach on my tip toes, but his iron hands don’t let me. “Solve the next clue, and you get a kiss.”

“Ah, our first date at your Alone Place, with Amado Mio, the roses, and the silk pillows like the bed?”

“Beautiful,” he murmurs, his mouth touching mine. The warm tip of his tongue traces my lips, and tingles spread over my skin. He pulls away at my sigh. “Next?”

It takes me a moment with his lingering aftertaste. Amado Mio ends and starts again. “Something about the fire? Because it wasn’t on last time.”

“Very good. Now what do you think it means?” He inches his lips closer, his hold on my waist correspondingly tighter. His breath enflames my skin like the fire clue, scattering my thoughts.

“Umm, a little hint?”

“What could you burn in a fire, but you would never want to?” he helps me, and instantly I know.

“Your letters! In your homecoming letter, you wrote you would have no words for my face, for my smell, for the crackling fire in the fireplace.”

“And I still don’t.” He gives me his mouth for a while this time, his tongue like a flame crackling with mine. But he stops again when my legs start to shake. “Next?”

“How many clues are left?” I barely hear my voice from the drumbeat of my pulse. “I’m already close to fainting.”

He grins. “Don’t do that. I need you coherent for this last one.”

“Oh, good!” I shake my head to rattle some brain cells awake. “Something about my first gift to you, with the double-frame?”

“I have debated with myself what your first gift to me is but for purposes of tonight it’s true enough.” And then his mouth is on mine in a slow, potent kiss until I drape in his arms. He has to lift me off the floor to take me to the nightstand. “Now find your prize.”

“I thought you without latex invaders was my prize.”

He chuckles. “Okay, I’ll give you that. Find your second prize.”

He doesn’t release my waist as I search through the nightstand, opening the first drawer. Resting right under the double-frame is a rectangle package the same size, wrapped in parchment. I tear it carefully and lose whatever breath I was managing to draw. It’s another double-frame exactly like my gift, but even more precious. On one side is a photo of the cottage as it is blooming now and on the other a yellowed, old ticket bearing the name Aiden Hale and the date April 11, 1987.

“Oh my God, Aiden! Is this your ticket when you first flew to England for your meeting at Oxford?”

“The very same. I had my mother dig for it after we visited Chatsworth. Of course she had saved it. They brought it and your frame this morning.”

I caress the glass over his name, the date, the PDX and LHR airport initials, swallowing back tears before they drop on my prize. “I love it. It’s a real-life treasure.”

He takes the frame from my shaky hands and places it next to the one I gave him. “It’s our first ‘first’” he explains. “Our first connection. My first dream of you in Iraq. First sight of you in the gallery. First date. First dance. And first night.” He brushes my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Tonight is a first, too. Just you and me and nothing in between. It seemed like the right time to remember how far we’ve come.”

His voice turns our history into music, more harmonious than the song that is replaying. I crush myself against his steely lines, half-climbing his legs, throwing my arms around his neck, and pulling him to my lips. “I want my first prize now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he chuckles, and everything else disappears. I hear, see, and feel nothing but us. The riff of our first dance, the sound of our mouths, the pop of his shirt buttons, the tinkle of the locket as he takes it off, the unzipping of my dress. As soon as it pools into a linen cloud at my sandaled feet, he lifts me and wraps my legs around his waist. “Open Sesame,” he murmurs as though finding his own treasure.

I tighten my thighs around him, frantic for contact. His abs ripple in between as he strides to the bed, pulls back the duvet, and drops me on the silky sheets. And air becomes scarce again. I watch, teetering between shaky elbows and crumbling mind, as he peels off his clothes and his body materializes like a sentient sculpture under the muted glow of the chandelier. Then his snug briefs dash to the floor, and my elbows give out. I can’t blink away from the sight of him springing free. Carved steel wrapped in gold silk with a filigree of veins and bubbles like a diamond crown. C-o-c-k: how did I forget the good four-letter words? My skin bursts into flames, blazing hotter than the crackling fire next to the bed.

He grasps my ankle where it’s dangling off the bed and plants a soft kiss at the bridge of my foot as one might with a lady’s hand. “I like these.” he says, tracing the gold strap around my ankle with his fingers. “I think we’ll leave them on, like our first dance.” He climbs between my legs that are quivering like bowstrings to his arrow.  “As for these . . .” He trails his thumb along the wet lace of my knickers, making me moan. “I’m afraid they have to go.” And he grips the delicate fabric and tears it off. The brush of lace raises goosebumps on my feverish skin as he glides the shreds over my torso to my lips. They blow away from my gasp. “I think these are better than the Chatsworth veil, don’t you?” He flutters the cool lace over my mouth. It flurries with my breath.

“No,” I whimper as the lace floats back on my lips.

“No? Hmm, is something missing?”

“Your mouth,” I huff, and the lacy ribbons fly again.

“Ah, yes, how could I forget?” And his lips start racing the frilly scraps. They whirl over my throat, and his tongue chases them off. He sweeps them across my jawline, and his teeth graze my skin. The lace brushes over my mouth, and his tongue traces my lips. The lace flits back, and he sucks my lower lip until blood pools there, throbbing like the rest of me. From my moan, the ribbons fly off and disappear. Then Aiden’s lips and tongue seize mine, spilling kisses, strokes, words inside my mouth. I taste them all, feeling the tickle of my name when he sighs it, the way his I want yourolls off my tongue, until the world starts spinning behind my eyelids. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin.

“No fainting today,” he smiles against my throat as he snaps off my bra.

“Mmm,” is my answer, and the race begins again. He slides the straps off my shoulders, his tongue gliding down their path. His nose skims the lacy trim as he inches down the cups like a veil over my breasts. His mouth folds around me in a lacework of licks and nibbles. And frenzy strikes. My hips arch for contact, and my fingers sprint over every part of him I can reach. How many times can you touch a man before he becomes your fingerprint?

Finally the bra sweeps off and Aiden’s husky voice breaks through the pulse thundering in my ears. “There you are. Just as magnificent as that first time, and better still.” His eyes descend like fire over me, but unlike that first time, I don’t shy away from them. I tangle my fingers in his hair, writhing off the bed toward him.

“Aiden, please, I want to feel you,” I gasp, my voice breaking with need, not nerves.

He holds my eyes. “Then feel me.” And the length of him presses against the wettest part of me in nothing but flawless skin. Ah, the feel . . . My moan mingles with his deep, throaty sigh.

How many times have I longed for the faintest brush, and now his smooth, heavy weight rests on the blazing folds, sending shiver after shiver to my very bones. A sudden wave of emotion rises within me, and I tremble. But the delicious weight disappears. The sudden absence is excruciating.

“Aiden,” I whimper and raise my hips for more contact, but he pins them down on the silky sheets.

“Feel all of me.”

And hard—in this new first time—Aiden slides inside.  My cry drowns the music and the groaned oh-fuck that tears from his lips. Our bodies shudder in tandem, once, twice. A string of profanities in Russian hisses through Aiden’s teeth, but with a low snarl, he reins his body under control and becomes flexed steel above me, breathing hard. I don’t have such mastery. My body is flailing about at breaking point. I feel every ponderous spasm of him inside me as though magnified a thousand-fold, and I’m quivering inside out.

“Breathe, Elisa, breathe and flex,” he guides me urgently, remaining utterly still to help me. And I try. I grip his arms and lock my legs around his waist, but it’s impossible with him so real. I cannot slow a single tremble and he feels it.

“I got you, I got you,” he murmurs, and for a blinding second, his iron chest presses on mine, stunning my lungs.

“Oh!” I huff, and his weight lifts immediately.

“There. Now breathe with me.” He takes a deep breath and lets it wash over my lips. I match my lungs to his, inhaling his fragrant air, and the trembles recede. “Beautiful,” he praises me as if I did anything. “One more time.” And he restarts my mind again, easing me further away from the brink. “Perfect. Now feel with me.”

And I can now. I can feel him with perfect acuity—every angle of steel that manages to feel like velvet, his vibrant heat radiating through my core, the delicious bubbles now a liquid warmth lapping at my depths, and his weighty presence pulsing in sync with me. The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming that it surges all way to my eyes. I close them, drowning in the sensation of being with him like this. All those other times he felt divine pale in comparison, like my dreams paled to the real him.

“Ah you,” Aiden sighs. I fling my eyes open at the sound of his resonant voice rising over the music. He’s watching me with an aura of pure ecstasy. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful—even in my own euphoria I can appreciate that. The sight nearly restarts the tremors as I realize that, despite his masterful control, this is just as intense for him as it is for me. “You feel even better than I dreamed. And that’s saying something.”

“As do you.”

He brings his mouth to mine and for an immeasurable moment there is just this—his taste with my taste, his heat with my heat, most of him in every depth of me, exactly as we were made. Then he releases my lips.

“I have to move, love, or I will die. Please don’t faint on me.” His lopsided smile takes my breath away like his weight.

“No dying or fainting,” I promise. “But there will definitely be dancing.” I circle my hips in invitation. And Aiden starts to dance with me to our song, skin on skin—no veil between us. At first, a slow tango like our first dance. I wind my arms around his neck, undulating eagerly against his hips, following each bump-and-grind. Then his tempo grows, pounding a tribal beat at my core. I fall behind, and moans change to cries—a chorus of Aiden-Aiden silencing the music. And my body starts vibrating again in a pirouette of trembles and quivers. He feels them all. His rhythm becomes relentless, now punishing, now worshipful. I absorb his force, his possession, the feeling of our bodies fused together, flesh on flesh, liquid on liquid. How many times can a man be inside a woman like this before he becomes her heartbeat? A thousand? Once? Whatever the number, he feels like that to me.

And the finish starts. My vision sparkles, my ears ring, and convulsions start shimming inside me. An overpowering urgency builds at the bottom of my belly, and I spiral, palpitating around Aiden with violence, hauling him over the brink with me. A startling sensation surges in my depths in the final beats. Like two rivers breaching through their dams and flooding each other’s riverbeds to form a little ocean. We plummet in its depths and drown.

But eventually we float back to the surface again, gasping and shuddering, Aiden’s head rising and falling with my chest like waves. My senses lap at him like a shore—his warm weight on me, his messy hair brushing my cheek, his sharp breath on my neck.

“Elisa?” His low drawl thrums above my heart.

“Hmm.”

“Are you here?”

“Mmm.”

“Do you remember last night on the kitchen counter with the jam?”

“Mmm.”

“And all the other one hundred fourteen times before?”

“Mmm.”

“How convinced we were it couldn’t get better than that?”

“Mmm.”

“We might as well have been virgins compared to this.”

We laugh together, and he sways inside me with the motion of our laughter. So real and vibrant, exactly as if he’s new. My body, already shaped to his contours, grasps him with vivid detail—every flawless angle of him, the silkiness of his skin, the velvety texture of us together. And the more of him I feel, the more I want.

“So now that we know,” I muse in wonder. “How do we stop?”

He lifts his head to look at me, the panes of his face glowing. “We don’t.”

I’m about to tell him never, but my mouth is suddenly busy, as captive to him as the rest of me.

The next thing I notice outside of our bodies is the fading fire in the fireplace. The sky outside the window is the inky black before dawn. I’m sprawled on Aiden’s chest on the Chatsworth bed, a sash of the silky curtains still tangled around my wrist. It brings back a vision of my hands tied to the poster, and I flush—that was a first too, and what a first it was.

“You’re back.” Aiden’s chuckle rumbles under my cheek. “I worried you really fainted there for a moment.”

“Did I?”

“No, just your usual orgasm coma but deeper. You didn’t even snore this time. If it weren’t for the drooling, I’d have called the village paramedics, which would have been an awkward conversation.”

“Well, you only have yourself to blame and these new antics with the posters.” I press my lips on his chest, sniffing it surreptitiously. “What do you do when I’m oblivious, anyway?”

I feel him shrug. “Watch you. Some of my favorite memories are with you like that. One time you hummed the entire Für Elise. Just now you said, ‘orgasms are oxytocin, but taste better’ and smacked your lips.” He chuckles again, stroking my hair.

Heat burns my cheeks, half-embarrassed, half- irked at myself. “You’d think after one hundred eighteen times, my body would have learned some discipline. I wonder if I’ll ever stop reacting like this every time you make love to me.”

“I sincerely hope not,” he laughs, but brushes my flushed cheek. “And you have nothing to be embarrassed about. I have to talk to Rostov in Russian because of you. Objectively, we can agree that’s a lot more embarrassing than ‘orgasms are oxytocin.’”

“That’s true,” I giggle, something tugging at the edge of my mind like an unfinished thought. It vanishes the moment his fingers trail down my spine.

“Speaking of passing out, did you want to stay here tonight or go back to the cottage?”

“Hmm, what time is it?”

“Almost two.”

It takes me a while to subtract. Two and a half hours to the reel. His voice is quieter, and his fingers miss a step on their stroll over my skin. Is he thinking about it too? I wrap myself around him closer, covering as much of him with me as I can. “The cottage,” I decide. “The happiest place there is. Although this suite is now a very close second.”

His long fingers pick up their promenade on my back. “We’ll keep it like this for the summer—a gallery of our firsts. Maybe we’ll add more.”

The end of the summer. I swerve around the thought immediately, but even in that fleeting space, a shiver prickles my arms. “What other firsts should we add?” I ask to distract myself.

His voice is as soft as his caress when he answers, “A whole life of them, Elisa. If we’re lucky enough.”

 

Elysium is entirely silver when Aiden parks in the garage fifteen minutes later. Moonlight falls over the wildflowers like pollen and, if it weren’t for his arm around me supporting all my weight, I would curl up on the pearly daisies and say ‘like cookies’ here.

“Why don’t you sleep in today?” Aiden suggests, his voice already a lullaby. “You haven’t slept much in the last couple of nights.”

A huge yawn chooses this moment to overpower me. “Why don’t we both sleep in? Doctor Helen said a couple of hours off occasionally won’t make a difference.”

He looks toward the inkblot of the reel—visible to us even under starlight—and the bands of muscle at his waist petrify. For a breath, I think he’ll argue, but he answers quickly. “That sounds nice.”

And he sweeps me in his arms and picks up his pace as we pass by the spot. I watch his moonlit profile, resisting my drooping eyelids. Even two weeks later, there are moments like this—when he glides toward the cottage under starlight, dreamlike in his beauty—that I still test reality discreetly, nail into my thumb, retracing last steps. Not because I’m worried he is a dream. But because I’m terrified he will disappear—my entire being remembers the staggering agony of waking up without him. Reality hasn’t fixed that fear: it has only made it more intense, as it has done for the rest of him.

He is quiet too as we reach the willows. Wishes, somehow, he’s here. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, afraid he is already drifting into terrors.

“Just trying to stay in the present moment.”

“Are you feeling sad?”

He peers down at me, eyes puzzled. “Sad? I can’t recall a single day I’ve been less sad in my life.” His smile beams like the moonlight, lifting my own lips in automatic response. “Because there isn’t one. Today, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“Really?”

He nods, effervescent with bliss. “Elisa, the person I love most in the world just met my parents. I finally was able to give them a day of nothing but joy since I turned seven. And I’ve spent the last three hours inside a woman that seems to have been made exactly for me. I’ve never had more in my life than I do today.”

It is true for me too, in a sense. Despite the terror and unknowns ahead, in this one present moment—fighting together, with our families supporting us, and the cottage beaconing—my orbit is more complete than it’s been in a long time.

The cottage is amethyst with starlight when we cross the hedges, the roses lavender silver, filling the air with their little puffs of breath.

“Like cookies, roses,” I bid them goodnight as Aiden unlocks the front door and we step inside. But as soon as he turns on the foyer light, everything changes so fast, it strangles my cry.

Tension strikes through Aiden like a thunderbolt, and his arm whips around me, wedging me between his side and the corner behind the door as if he’s shielding me from something. A low growl rips through his teeth—nothing like his loving sounds this evening. It’s a terrifying snarl that wrenches me awake and has me cowering in my corner.

“Aiden, what—”

His finger flies to my lips as his eyes eviscerate the foyer with scalpel vigilance. I follow their beams wildly, but I can’t see anything that’s making him tense like a lion next to me. Then his hand curves around my face. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” His whisper is firm and urgent. I open my mouth to speak but he’s already gone. Streaking to the kitchen and living room then back in the foyer, checking on me frozen at the corner behind the door. “Stay,” he mouths and blows to the library, laundry closet, and up the stairs this time. Despite his speed, his footsteps are barely audible with practiced stealth. I crouch in my corner, wide awake, trying to periodic-table through the panic that’s closing my throat. I have barely managed a few gasps when Aiden is back, pulling me in his arms.

“Aiden, what is it? What’s wrong?” I choke.

“I think someone’s been here.” His volume is back to normal, but his voice is strained.

Blood drains from my face. The words are foreign, incomprehensible for Burford. “What? What do you mean?”

He’s impatient now, eyes darting everywhere. “I mean someone who isn’t us came here today or tonight when we were out. They’re not here now, and it doesn’t look like they took anything, but I want you to check to be sure.”

My knees almost give out. “Why do you think this?” I whisper in terror, but his phone flashes in his hand almost blurry with speed and he’s already pressing 2, tightening his hold around me.

“Sir?” I hear Benson’s gravelly voice on the other side after the second ring.

“Benson. Cottage. Thorn. Cold. Leave Max at my parents’ door,” Aiden reels off, his lips moving so fast I barely make out the nonsensical words, but Benson must understand them because he simply answers, “On my way,” and hangs up. Aiden is about to press another number, but I yank the phone from his hand.

“Bloody hell, Aiden! Tell me!”

He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, love. A couple of things have moved since I last saw them when we were leaving with my parents for dinner. That makes me think someone has been here.”

“What things? Where?”

“Here in the foyer, but I need you to check the safe first, then the library, your old bedroom, and the guestroom to see if anything looks different from when you last saw it. I hadn’t been there since you and Reagan cleaned so I can’t tell when the differences happened. Can you do that for me?”

I nod woodenly, and he tows me through the three rooms, his protective arms around me as though to break a fall. I check the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia first, but nothing is missing. Then I wobble through each room, staring at everything for signs of intrusion. Nausea wrings my stomach at the idea of a specter inside our bubble, touching our most precious memories, breaching mum’s magic shield that I thought impenetrable. But everything seems to be where it was—in its neat, orderly place from the deep-clean for Aiden’s parents—at least to my average eyes and memory.

“I wish I could remember like you,” I mutter, scanning every surface. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right, love. Maybe they didn’t come here.”

“What about our bedroom—did they move anything there?”

Fury jolts in his eyes at the idea. “Nothing. I was there last, changing for dinner. Even the door was still closed as I left it.”

“And the other rooms?”

“The only place things have moved is the foyer, as far as I can tell. Now I wish I had entered these other rooms before we headed out, but I never imagined I needed to for this.”

“What did they move in the foyer?”

“Come, I’ll show you.”

As we wade back down the stairs, I recall that fleeting sense of panic when I first entered the cottage a month ago, the guilty worry that someone had touched my parents’ things. How silly it feels now compared to this. Yet everything looks exactly the same to me, even in the foyer.

“Aiden, where—” I start to ask but he gestures to the foyer wall with his chin.

“Look at your picture with your parents in Italy.”

I squint at the photo of the three of us at the Trevi Fountain. “Umm, do you mean that it’s crooked?”

“Yes.”

Without conscious decision on my part, my lungs draw the first deep breath since we came in. “But Aiden, I could have done that when I was dust—”

“It wasn’t like that when we left with my parents,” he interrupts me, shaking his head. “That frame was straight.” There is no doubt in his voice, no room for argument. His memory is absolute, as I know it to be. Yet there is a lethal fervor about him. I watch his face carefully now: the panes are sharp with tension, eyes ferocious with intensity, fierceness emanating from him in destructive waves. Abruptly, a different fear starts spreading over me. Not just for the cottage now, but for him. Is there danger here? Or is this the effect of the reel—seeing danger everywhere, even in the most innocent things?

“But the frame could have moved when you closed the door or on its own,” I argue, trying to stick to logic for answers. “Why do you think someone did it?”

He is shaking his head again before I’m finished and strides to the front door. “Watch the frame,” he says, opening the door and then closing it. “Did it move?”

“No, but—”

“Watch again.” He opens and closes the door three more times, each time harder than the one before, and the frame dips on the third.

“There! There, it just moved!” I cry out, pointing at it. “See, it doesn’t mean anything, love. You’re just extra vigilant right now, that’s all.” I almost sink on the floor with relief, but something flashes in his eyes too quickly for me to understand it.

“I didn’t slam the door when we left, Elisa. I had to slam it now to get the same effect.”

“I know, but frames move all the time. These are just hanging on old nails. Is this the only thing you noticed?”

His jaw flexes once, and that same nameless emotion strikes his face once more. “No, it’s not. Look at your father’s scarf.” He tilts his head toward the coat rack that only has the scarf and parka in it.

A frisson of panic courses through me. “What about it?” I scan the scarf urgently, heart crashing against my ribs, but again I notice nothing.

“It’s slipped on the peg. When we left, both sides were hanging down almost equally. Now the left is a couple inches longer than the right.”

It would have been impossible for me to notice without him pointing it out. “Okay, yes, I see it. But why do you think someone moved it? It’s a piece of tweed on a peg. It can slip on its own. I have dresses that fall from hangers all the time.”

Something gives out at my words, and his eyes start to harden. “Because—” he speaks through his teeth now, but then pinches the bridge of his nose in what I assume is an effort to moderate his voice. “Because—” he tries again. “It’s too many coincidences all in the same six-square feet. That’s why.”

His eyes are boring into me, half-glaring half-imploring me to see things his way. But I no longer know what is worse: for him to be wrong or for him to right. And what is best: to support him or challenge him here? His acute tension decides it for me. “Aiden, love, there aren’t too many coincidences. There are exactly two.”

“You’re wrong!” His voice slips out of his control as it did in my dreams when I couldn’t see past the field of epiphanies.  “Look at your mother’s coat.” My eyes flit to it immediately. “The right sleeve is straight now; it was bent when we left.”

“But, Aiden, it probably relaxed on its own. It’s called gravity. Haven’t you ever heard of hanging up your clothes to release wrinkles?”

His jaw flexes. “I see. And the petals on the console?” I whirl to the console with split terror: dreading and wishing for him to be right. Two petals are under the vase of Clare roses I cut for his parents. “One wasn’t there when we left,” he explains. “The other fell when I slammed the door just now. From fresh roses, I might add.”

I stare at them, counting unnecessarily.

“Well?” he demands.

“I don’t know what answer you want me to give,” I admit, suddenly losing my patience. “If I argue, you’ll just get angrier. Do you want me to agree or disagree with you?”

“I want the truth,” he hisses.

I don’t know what does it—whether it’s that hiss, his refusal to consider a benign explanation, the last several minutes of apparently needless terror, or the emotions of the last forty-eight hours—but abruptly I feel exhausted and angry myself. “Fine, here’s the truth. Petals fall all the bloody time. That’s what they do. I see absolutely nothing about two petals from a bouquet of thirty roses to indicate someone was here, especially when there’s no sign of a break-in at all, in a town that hasn’t had a burglary in forty years, in a cottage that has zero riches of any kind except the roses which are all outside.”

His face becomes livid. “Zero riches?” he roars, hand in a fist around the doorknob still—the brass rose is shuddering from his strength. “It has you, Elisa! For the first time in four years. Maybe that’s why they didn’t steal anything—because who they really wanted wasn’t here tonight! And why would they need to break the door when all the windows stay open the whole fucking time?”

“Enough!” My voice fires off, too loud by my standards, too low by his, shocking us both. He’s breathing hard, watching me with that nameless emotion again. And everything becomes too much for me. I just want to go to bed with realities that, although excruciating, I can understand. Or at least trust. I take a deep breath, trying to lower my voice. “Aiden, it’s been a long day, we have to be up in a few hours for the reel. Let’s just go to sleep. We’re not solving anything tonight even if someone did come in and we can’t call PC Dockery with this kind of evidence.”

I turn for the stairs, but his voice stops my feet. It’s no longer loud or hard—it’s quiet, almost part of the night. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

I look back at him, still standing by door. “I believe you believe this.”

Fury strikes his face so staggering that it makes the livid look of a few moments ago seem like a smile. “Spare me the diplomacy bullshit, Elisa, and say it in plain English. Say, ‘Aiden, I don’t trust your judgment because you’re a madman who has to wear a fucking monitor over his eyes every morning and it’s making you see things.’ Say it!” He speaks in a guttural, arctic voice that rends the night more than his roar. But even worse is the nameless emotion now drowning him. It’s no longer nameless. It’s the purest compound of hurt and fear I’ve ever seen in my life. It knocks me breathless, and I have to grip the rail of the stairs for balance.

“Aiden, no,” I gasp. “I don’t think—” But the doorbell chimes with its Für Elise jingle followed by a battery of booming knocks. I jump up, but he doesn’t move. He is frozen at the door, watching me, anger and anguish in every pore.

Another volley of knocks shakes the door, and a panicked familiar voice shouts, “Aiden! Elisa!” It’s his father, not Benson.

“Fuck!” Aiden hisses, shutting his eyes and trying to rearrange his face, jaw clenching with the effort. But he’s still blanched and jagged when he yanks open the door. I watch, peripherally, as his parents storm in first both in their pajamas, Benson and his military mate, Max, towering behind them. I hear their frantic voices, muffled from my heart hammering in my ears, sputtering that they heard Benson and Max at their door talking about trouble at the cottage, and Benson apologizing for not being able to stop them. But my central focus is on Aiden—shocked, exhausted, worried, furious, surrounded with the people he loves most and vibrating with tension against the foyer wall in terror of hurting them, fuming for his parents to go back to bed right now. That unlocks me.

“Everyone!” I call from the staircase, not wanting to crowd Aiden more. “Let’s all go in the living room and give Aiden some space. We can talk there.”

They scramble and follow me immediately, Benson bending at the waist and Max, not as hulking but still broad, lumbering sideways. None of them even looks at the seats—they just scatter around in various poses of distress while Stella takes me in a hug where I’m hovering by the sofa, gesturing futilely at it. “Are you all right, darling? What’s happened? We were awake from jetlag and heard Benson tell Max something about a break-in.” Behind her, Benson looks almost as murderous as his boss.

“We’re both fine, Aiden’s just being careful,” I assure her but I’m really listening for any sign of him in the foyer. I hear nothing. “Why don’t I get us some tea?”

But before I can take a step, he strides in the room. His face is back under his control albeit ashen, his frame in its granite public setting. He scans the room, eyes landing on me first. They’re opaque under his tight leash, the hurt well-hidden in their depths.

“Everyone, have a seat.” His voice is back to its alpha timbre, too. They all thaw at his command and perch at the edge of everything—armchairs, floor, piano seat—leaving the sofa to us. I panic he won’t sit next to me, but he does. Not close enough for our arms to touch as usual, but I’ll take any closeness at this point. Then he steeples his fingers and starts with his parents. “I’d like for you to go back to bed. This is nothing Benson and I can’t handle—”

“Son, we’re staying.” Robert’s voice is calm but final. “Now tell us what happened.”

Aiden watches his father in exasperation for a moment, then summarizes the last fifteen minutes that feel like fifteen years in three sentences. “When we came in tonight, I noticed a few things had moved. Nothing seems to be missing, and there are no signs of a break-in. But I’m not convinced these changes are accidental, although Elisa has some rational reservations about my theory.”

My eyes fly to him, startled by his admission, but he’s looking at Benson sitting on the floor.

“What was out of place?” Benson asks in an efficient tone, taking notes as Aiden explains everything, including my objections. It’s impossible to miss how unquestionably Benson accepts Aiden’s theory. And how Max nods, clearly considering this possibility. Is that because Aiden is Benson’s employer? I watch Robert and Stella who know Aiden best. Their faces are folded in concern, but I can’t tell if they agree or disagree with him. And the earlier dread starts creeping over me again. Am I wrong? Was there someone really here? Did I hurt Aiden over nothing when he’s only trying to protect me?

“They must have had a key if they didn’t break the door,” Benson concludes. “Elisa, who has a key to the cottage?”

“Just Aiden and me. The Plemmonses had a copy when I lived in Portland, but they gave it back. That’s the copy Aiden has.”

“They don’t need a key,” Aiden disagrees. “They could have picked the lock or easily slip through any of the open windows. No one closes them around here, but that’s changing tonight.”

“Theories on who or why?” Benson prompts.

“Many, one as likely and unlikely as the next.”

“So, we can rule out burglary since nothing was taken,” Max interjects, drawing a line on a scratchpad he seems to have pulled from somewhere.

“I agree.” Aiden nods. “Which points to a more personal motive, but why?”

Benson turns to me. “Has anything like this happened here before?”

I shake my head. “Burford hasn’t had a break-in since 1976 and even then, it was Plemmons Blooms, not a home.”

“What did they steal?” Aiden looks at me again, and I meet his anxious eyes immediately.

“Roses.” A general gasp fills the room, and his eyebrows arch in disbelief. “But it never happened again,” I explain quickly. “It just became a local legend—the Rose Thief. The story goes that it was the ghost of Lady Tanfield who used to own Plemmons’s street hundreds of years ago or a desperately poor farmhand trying to impress his love.”

“So they never caught the Rose Thief?” Benson clarifies.

“No, but it was forty years ago. And they didn’t cause damage or hurt anyone.”

“They didn’t tonight either,” Max points out and ticks something on his notepad. “So maybe we have a motive. There are thousands of roses around here.”

“Yes, but they’re all outside,” I argue, feeling mental for considering legends as options instead of gravity. “Why would they need to come in if they were after roses? And just about every other cottage in town has them. Why this one?”

“Why indeed,” Robert muses, eyes on Aiden. Something quick passes between them, and Aiden’s jaw flinches in defiance.

“You have been working on that new rose hybrid you showed me,” Stella suggests. “Maybe something about it? And the Rose Festival is next weekend.”

I can see all their faces pondering her theory with seriousness, although Aiden shakes his head. “The timing with the festival is suspicious, I’ll grant you that. But the hybrid is out in the garden. As Elisa said, they wouldn’t need to come in. And whoever the intruder is wouldn’t know about it in the first place. But let’s keep it on the table for now. I’ll search the garden as soon as it’s light out.”

“What about a stalker?” Max throws out.

A muted snarl rumbles from Aiden and, for the first time since our argument, his arm flies around my shoulders. “It was my first thought,” he answers through his teeth. “Although Elisa’s things are untouched, which is inconsistent with their playbook.”

I should shudder at the idea as improbable as it sounds, but with his stony arm around me, I can’t feel that kind of fear. My only fear is for him.  I lean closer and he peers at me, eyes softer now. “Have you seen anyone follow you since you’ve been back or even before you moved to Portland?”

“No, never as far as I know,” I assure him. “I would tell you about something like that.”

He nods, but the phone screen flashes to his ear. Everyone is frozen as he waits for an answer from someone at two thirty in the morning. He doesn’t have to wait long. Whoever he’s calling picks up almost as quickly as Benson.

“Yeah, Cal, it’s me,” Aiden speaks into the receiver. I inhale every rapid-fire word he exchanges with James. “Sorry about the hour . . . when you were watching Elisa, did you ever see anyone around the cottage?” A quick answer. “What about anyone following her? Town, Oxford, anywhere?” Another quick answer. “I figured . . . Yes, she’s fine. I’ll fill you in later . . . Agreed . . . See you next weekend.”

“What did James say?” I ask as soon as he hangs up.

“He didn’t see anyone, and if there was someone to be seen, Cal wouldn’t have missed him. And I certainly haven’t seen anyone or they wouldn’t have come here tonight. Don’t worry about this. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” His voice is resolute, and his hand clutches my shoulder on the last words.

“I know you won’t—I’m not worried about that. I’m more worried about the stress this is causing you.”

He looks like he’s about to argue, but Robert jumps in with his idea. “What about anyone at work, Elisa, where Cal and Aiden couldn’t see?”

I shake my head, a smile pulling my lips without permission. “No, I’m working with one of my dad’s friends and his best former student who thinks my dad was a chemistry god and talks to him out loud. They quite literally are dedicating a bench to him like a shrine. I’d suspect Lady Tanfield over either of them.”

“Does anyone else know about the protein?” Aiden asks.

“Just the other Bia chemists, but they’re all screened and know everything already.”

“Not everything,” he reminds me.

“Yes, but no one alive knows about the code or the list except you and me. The code is in the you-know-what and the list is always you-know-where and we’ve left no evidence of our work here or there. Besides, if they had found out, why would they need to break in? They’d camp at Bia twenty-four seven, celebrating and testing.” I caress the locket for emphasis.

“I’m sorry, I’m not following,” Stella speaks for the first time in a while. All their eyes are on us, brows knitted in confusion.

“Elisa is working on a highly complex and confidential project,” Aiden explains and, even in his tension, a note of pride still enters his voice. “But we can’t discuss the details.”

“So what options are left? If this project, the roses, a stalker, or a burglar are out?” Robert looks straight at Aiden now and the room falls quiet. He gazes into the empty beehive fireplace, eyes squinting as they shift in analysis too quick for me to follow. Only in the end do I see a flicker of the hurt before he throttles it immediately.

“Well, first, I’m not ruling out any of those options until I have solid evidence to the contrary,” he answers in a tightly controlled tone, eyes still on the fireplace, but his hand on his knee has turned into a fist again. “But if it’s not any of them, the only other option left is that Elisa is right . . . that I’m seeing things.”

“Aiden, no!” I take his fist in both of mine, not caring of the four pairs of eyes on us. “I don’t think you’re seeing things, love. But I do think you might be seeing danger. I don’t question the frame has moved, or the scarf has slipped, or your judgment. I’m only worried you’re under incomprehensible stress and might be interpreting these things to mean something sinister in your heightened vigilance. Please believe me—there’s no one I trust more than you.”

I brush his white knuckles and let him see everything he can see in my eyes—the whole truth. A very, very small part of my brain registers how silent the room has remained around us. Eventually his fist opens, and he nods once. “Fair. We’ll keep that option on the table, too. But I can’t ignore the others. If you’re right, there’s nothing I can do about it. But if I’m right and someone was here, there’s a lot we need to do.” He pulls back his hand and his head snaps up at Benson. “We need to scout the area. It’s almost light out. Max, how long can you stay in England?”

“I have another week off work.”

“If I double your current salary, will you consider staying here as Elisa’s security until I find someone local?”

“My what?” I gasp, but he silences me with one look.

“I’m indulging your theory, now please indulge mine.” His eyes fly to Max again who jolts to his feet and almost salutes him while I watch my life transform in seconds.

“Absolutely, sir. I’ve been wanting to work for you since Benson first started. No one will get near her.”

“Agreed. And vet security for my parents while they’re here as well. Cal and the others will be here next weekend for the Rose Festival, so that’s three more hands. We’ll discuss surveillance and logistics when I get back.” His sniper gaze flashes to his parents who are still at the edge of their seats, faces in identical masks of stress. “Can you stay with Elisa until I get back?”

“Of course,” they answer in unison.

With a deep breath, Aiden turns to me and cups my cheek. “I know you think this is unnecessary and even insane, but I have to do this. I cannot take any risks—no matter how remote you believe them—with your safety, do you understand me?”

I manage a nod, too stunned to produce any words.

“Good. Now stay here and don’t worry—Max will guard the cottage. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

Translation: I’ll be up all night for you, then do the reel, then protect you from known and unknown dangers no matter what it costs me. That unlocks my tongue. “Why don’t you sleep first and go out later?” I plead with him. “Sleep is important for you right now.”

“I’ll sleep afterwards. It’ll be easier to notice any differences now before there’s more activity around or to check if anyone is still in the area. But the three of you should absolutely go to bed.”

“I will if you will,” I offer urgently. “Please?” But he presses his lips on mine quickly and bolts to his feet.

“Benson, let’s go.”

They’re out of the door before I can say or do anything else. I sprint to the window barely catching their shadows disappear over the rose hedges into the violet dawn.

The silence that follows their departure is deafening. I stand frozen, staring at the empty garden, the wound in my chest ripped wide open. What is happening to my love? How can he keep up with this stress? And what if he’s right against all reason, and someone is out there? What if Aiden gets hurt trying to protect me? I’ve been dreading losing him at the end of the summer if we don’t win. But what if we don’t have even that long? What if this experiment or something else claims Aiden before then? Abruptly a flashback of my Romeo nightmare blasts in my vision for the first time in over a week, blinding me with its force. I shudder at its clarity, seeing nothing but Aiden’s parted lips, feeling his cold skin on my fingertips, so much like Mum’s hand in the morgue or dad’s forehead in the casket. A gasping sound patters close by—my own. Distantly I feel a warm arm around my shoulders and Stella’s faraway voice snaps me out of my own terrifying reel.

“Elisa? Darling? Come sit, sweetheart.” She pulls me back on the sofa that no longer has Aiden’s warmth, and curls next to me, holding me in her gardenia hug—much like Reagan two weeks ago except Stella’s arms are wrought with her own terror for her son. That seeps through me. I should be comforting her, not the other way around. I breathe against my own fear, clutching my locket, and fold out of her embrace. Robert is sitting on the other side of her, face lined with worry. Max has taken my spot at the window, staring out into the garden.

“I’m sorry,” I croak, voice hoarse with unshed tears. “I’m being an awful hostess. I’ll start the kettle. Or do you want to rest for a bit? The guestroom is clean, and it would make Aiden happy if you tried.”

Stella chuckles with a forlorn sound. “Oh, sweet pea, you’re not our hostess. You might as well be a second child to me as much as my son loves you. And there’s no chance of us catching a wink. Come on, I’ll help you with the tea. I could use the busy work, too.”

In the kitchen, I don’t dare to touch mum’s tea set in my state. Just our old everyday cups that are almost as precious in their chipped way. I warm the leftover scones from our afternoon tea, fighting back tears at Aiden’s playfulness with the kettle. How blissful and proud he was just two hours ago. The happiest day of his life, he said, and it ended like this—with terror and hurt from me. I stifle back a sob and chase it with tea from his coffee mug to cover the sound. It doesn’t fool his mother.

“You know,” she says, shuffling the Twinnings tea packets in their wicker basket. “Aiden has always been very strong, even as a little boy. He’s like Robert that way. I’m worried about a lot of things tonight. But not about anyone hurting him and Benson together.”

I nod because it’s true—physically Aiden is a weapon of mass destruction—but I don’t feel comforted. Because the reel and he are destroying each other every dawn in other ways—and his parents don’t know that. Outside the kitchen window, the sky is turning sapphire. Max’s boulder shape is out there pacing the garden perimeter, and the roses are washing off their sleep with dew. Did you see anyone last night? I ask them in my head. I think you’d have found a way to rise from your roots and scratch their eyes out with your thorns if that was the case. They don’t answer.

“How has Aiden been sleeping, Elisa?” Robert’s quiet voice startles me from my monologue. It’s the first time he has spoken since Aiden left. He’s at the kitchen table in dad’s and Javier’s chair—his tea and scone untouched.

“Quite well actually, except tonight of course.” I take a sip of chamomile tea, blush prickling my hairline at discussing our sleep with his father.

“That’s good. At least Für Elise is holding.”

The mug shakes in my hand so much that hot tea spills on my fingers, but it’s still cooler than my cheeks. “You—you know about that?”

Stella is dabbing off my hands with a tea towel, looking as stunned as me. “Know about it? We were the ones who discovered it. Didn’t Aiden tell you?”

The kitchen goes blank, except their lined beautiful faces and the gasps of air on my lips. I shake my head, barely mouthing the words. “He said it was painful for him to talk about.”

“Oh, believe it.” Robert nods, exchanging a glance with Stella.

I look at his grave expression then at Stella’s sad smile then back at Robert then back at her again, thoughts a snarl. Can I ask? Should I ask? But Stella nods in encouragement. “Would you like us to tell you, dear?”

“Oh, please, will you?” I stammer, all breath gone. “I’d never make him relive it, but . . .”

“But you want to know. Of course, you do. Here, come sit, and we’ll tell you the story. I don’t want Aiden to have to revisit it either.”

I perch at the wooden edge of mum’s seat and wrap my hands around Aiden’s mug as Stella takes my old chair next to Robert and starts in a low sonata voice. “How to start? From the beginning, I suppose . . . The last night Aiden ever spent in our home was June eighth, 2003—the night he attacked me, about one week after he had returned from that unspeakable place. He was sleeping in the basement back then, although ‘sleeping’ is a generous word. He’d never been a good sleeper, but this was different. He would just lay on the hard floor, either in a nightmare or wide awake—nothing in between. Robert and I used to listen at the stairs . . . I still hear the screams . . . ‘let him go, let him go, let him go,’ he would say in Arabic . . . I was foolish that night. He had told me not to wake him, but I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer that way and . . . well, you know how it ended . . .” She shudders and tea splashes from her cup. I dab her hands, as Robert rubs her shoulder. He doesn’t seem to be breathing.

“He never returned after that night, no matter how much we pleaded with him,” she continues. “I would see him some nights—under the old cedar in our backyard or driving by, but he never crossed our threshold again. He felt so wretched for hurting me, he didn’t think he deserved to come in . . .” She drifts again, a tear sparkling in her eye.

“Where was he staying?” I whisper.

“Outside, camping with Cal and the other boys for a while. They were all in bad shape, although Aiden more so, of course. He was lost to us for a long time. As were they to their families. Only the four of them know how they lived through it. But they did somehow, they kept each other alive, I’m convinced of that . . .” She shudders again, and the cup slips through her hands, tea sloshing everywhere. “Oh, I’m sorry, Elisa. What a mess!” She apologizes frantically while I try to comfort her and mop up the tea, my own hands trembling. Robert shifts his chair so close to her that their arms are touching, like Aiden does with me.

“Anyway,” she sighs. “For the next few years, we’d hold our breath every time we heard tires on the driveway, or a knock on the door, or the doorbell. But it was never Aiden. He would only call or write. Once he started his company and could afford Benson, we’d visit him at home but the pain and guilt and fear in his eyes when he’d see us . . . I couldn’t stand for him to feel it. And so the distance grew year after year and we stopped holding our breath when the doorbell rang . . . But it all changed one night a month ago, the night you left.” Stella looks at me, eyes glimmering with tears and a smile lifting her lips. Robert seems to breathe for the first time I’ve noticed since the story began while my chest throbs at the reminder.

“He had called us earlier that evening to ask if the Solises could stay with us for a couple of weeks. He sounded upset; they’re very important to me, he said. Of course we agreed immediately—it’s so rare for him to ask anything of us. So they moved into the guest house only a couple hours later, and Berty and I had gone to bed.  Then around one in the morning, the doorbell woke us. I don’t know how long it had been ringing, and there he was—right on our doorstep as we had always dreamed but looking so destroyed, we almost fell to our knees. I thought a diagnosis or another Marine had been lost or another accident. But he just said, ‘Can I stay here tonight? I’m not in trouble, but I can’t be anywhere else.’ I don’t even remember what we said . . .

“I just remember he crossed the threshold, very carefully, and that’s when we saw Benson behind him, looking pale, but he didn’t come in. And then Aiden took the stairs to his old room where all his childhood things still are. We followed at a distance, expecting him to close the door, but he didn’t. He let us sit with him in total silence. For almost an hour, he just sat at the edge of his old bed, no words, no movement, staring at an old frame of the three of us at Oxford, for moments at a time he wasn’t even breathing. Then my heart started acting up and I needed my medication, and that’s when he came to. He looked at me and said, ‘I met someone.’

“At first, I didn’t think I heard him right, but he said it again. ‘I met someone, and I lost her.’ We didn’t know what to do, we were just . . .”

“Shocked,” Robert speaks for the first time since the story began. “Absolutely floored.”

“You see, ever since Aiden’s gifts became apparent, we had spent years worrying about the right girl for him, then years worrying about the wrong kind, and then years no longer hoping he’d find anyone at all. And now here it was, and we didn’t know what to say. My first worry was that you had been hurt, dear, but I knew with his memory the very first words we’d utter were the most important.

“So I just asked, ‘what’s her name?’

“‘Elisa,’ he answered and then sort of breathed.

“‘That’s beautiful,’ I said, ‘like the melody?’ And he nodded.

“I don’t know what made me do it, I don’t know why—maybe because I couldn’t find the words—but I went to his old record player and put on Für Elise. And almost immediately he started to breathe. Just regularly, in and out. I sat next to him on the bed—which would have been unthinkable for him to ever allow—and said, ‘tell me about Elisa.’ He lied down on his side, facing us, and said ‘I love her.’

“Neither of us was breathing at that point even though he was, were we, Berty?”

He shakes his head, eyes on his cold tea.

“Then the song ended, and Berty replayed it. ‘I love her,’ Aiden said again. ‘The Solises are her family, but she’s gone. And I don’t know how to be with her or without her . . .’ We waited for him to finish but he just fell asleep. Just like that. Poof! Our Aiden, our tortured, beautiful, kind boy just drifted. We couldn’t believe our eyes . . .”

For a while, they both gaze unseeingly at their cold cups, their faces folded in wonder, as I labor sick with worry to find my lungs or anything in my body to keep me here instead of running through the fields to search for my tortured, beautiful, kind love. To bring him home where he can sleep and dream sweet dreams, safe from everything outside and inside of him. I’ll stand guard while he rests, not Max or Benson—because I’m the one who calms him.

Robert comes back to the kitchen first. “We stayed up all night, just watching him, replaying your song. We figured out how to do it on our phones, so that one would start as the other ended.”

“And through it all, my baby slept,” Stella sniffles, wiping her nose with the wet tea towel. “I know it sounds odd to call him that, as big and hard as he is, but he’ll always be my baby. And that’s why for us, you could have been Medusa living in Hades and we’d still love you. But you’re not—you’re a loving, beautiful girl who is giving our boy sleep.” She caresses my cheek.

“Thank you,” Robert says with a deep emotion in his voice.

I watch their faces, blurring through tears, without knowing what to say or how to breathe or sit still.

“Oh, don’t cry, darling.” Stella wipes my cheeks even though hers are almost as soaked. “This is a good thing. He loves you so much. I know it’s difficult to deal with his . . . intensity, his protectiveness, not to mention his awful temper and stubbornness, but you’re the most important thing in his life. Please indulge him, like he said.”

“But stand up to him, too,” Robert urges. “Like you did today with this threat. I think it’s important you do that. Aiden wouldn’t accept it from anyone else, but he needs to hear it.”

My head is spinning with all the revelations, the different directions my emotions are pulling at me, the millions of needlepoints of panic for Aiden, and love so strong it feels it might crush me more than his startle blow. I try to squint through the gale of my thoughts for the most immediate. “Thank you for telling me,” I manage after a while. “And for being here.”

“Where else would we be, dear? We’ll help you through this and anything else you need. But don’t be afraid, if there is someone out there trying to hurt you, God save him when Aiden finds him, and he will.”

A shiver courses through me, and I gulp some tepid tea, placing my lips on the mug where Aiden wraps his. “I’m not afraid of that. I’m more afraid of what Aiden is going through.”

“You really don’t believe this threat is real then, Elisa?” Robert frowns.

I shake my head. Who would ever want to hurt this place? Or me? Why?

“You make some good points. On the other hand, I’ve never known Aiden to be wrong on matters of perception,” Robert argues. “Emotion is another issue. And this is a bit of both.”

“You agree with him then, Berty?”

“Hard to say.”

They start the same argument then—is it real? Is it not?—while outside, the early sunrise is filling the garden with a diffuse light. Abruptly I can’t sit here any longer. I mumble something about the roses and slip out in the garden. Max’s eyes follow me from the hedge as I pad to the bench where Aiden and I sit together at this hour after the reel, drinking coffee mouth to mouth. But his unmistakable silhouette is nowhere on the horizon. I clutch my locket, eyes flitting over the field of epiphanies. Bring him home. Keep him safe. Give him peace.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTERS 21 & 22 – ANSWER & THE HALES

Hello friends, and welcome to tea! Or rather to two chapters since I didn’t post on Sunday: Answer and The Hales.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them. I’m savoring these moments with our couple, you’ll see why.  More soon, and thank you as always for reading and writing to me. Hope the week wraps up well.  xo, Ani

21

Answer

Reagan and Javier’s last hour in Burford comes too soon. Where did two weeks go? How has it been only two weeks when they feel so permanent here, as natural as the roses? How can I watch them go? And what then? Continue living goodbye to goodbye?

“You know we’ll come right back if you need us, right?” Javier asks Aiden and me as we’re all sitting in the Inn’s terrace Friday evening for a final toast before they go to Heathrow Airport. Not that I can swallow anything. Aiden’s arm hasn’t left my waist since he picked me up from Bia four hours ago.

“We do, thank you,” he answers now for us both—my voice has disappeared.

Amorcita?” Javier takes my hand across the table. “I promise. You just say the word.”

“Absolutely, Isa.” Reagan takes my other hand. “As often as needed until you two figure this out and come back.”

At least my blanched face can be blamed on the goodbye this time. At least I don’t have to force a smile. I manage a nod.

“About that,” Aiden adds. “These are for you.” He hands them the two first-class tickets he has bought them. “They’re for . . . September.”

I know he chose the bare minimum words needed but a chill whips my skin anyway. September 18, when our ninety days are up. In case I need Javier and Reagan here then. In case we don’t win.  His hold on my waist could crush the boulder in the river but it’s still not tight enough for me.  He throws his jacket casually over my shoulders.

“That’s when you’ll find out if things have improved?” Javier confirms, his voice lower.

Even Aiden can’t form a verbal answer now—he simply nods, pulling me closer.

“And then what?” Reagan starts but Javier elbows her.

“Reg, don’t.”

“Why not?” she fires back at him, eyes flashing. “Why can’t we discuss the elephant in the room, Javi?”

For a moment I don’t know if she is talking about them or us—there has been no progress with them on that front—but Javier shakes his head. “Because it’s not our elephant to discuss.”

“What did you want to discuss, Reagan?” Aiden asks my question, no doubt for my benefit.

She glares at Javier and, hesitantly, takes Aiden’s hand too. I feel tension jolt through him. It strains him more now the longer he watches the reel. “I don’t care if I’m interfering, I have to say this part. I know you have serious things to deal with but I’ve also seen how much you love each other. And that kind of love is rare. Don’t throw it away.”

“Reg, for the love of God!” Javier explodes—very rare for him. “Isa could get hurt! And not just hurt, but really fucked up! Is that what you want?”

“Of course not!”

“Then what the fuck? Isn’t it hard enough without reminding them how much worse it can get?”

I barely hear Javier and Reagan’s loud voices over the shudder that rocks through Aiden and the snap of his teeth at the mere idea. Javier and Reagan notice it too, and stop mid-fight. Javier takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Aiden. I didn’t mean to—”

“There’s nothing to apologize for. You’re absolutely right.” Aiden’s voice is clipped, filled the terror and self-hatred twisting every band of muscle in his back. That snaps me out of my self-pity.

“No, you are not!” I yank back my hands from their hold, my voice a lot louder and sharper than I ever thought I could produce against Javier. “You don’t know Aiden like I do. He’s working hard at it every day—harder than you could ever know—and he will not hurt me!”

Anger burns my throat and my breath is coming out in hard gusts. I’ve never yelled at Javier before—this is not how I want to say goodbye. But even worse is saying goodbye with him thinking of Aiden this way.

“Elisa, love, it’s all right.” Aiden’s voice—so tender with me when seconds ago it was so vicious against himself—makes me even more furious.

“You stop it, too! You’re worse about it than Javier. Can’t we all just have some . . . some faith in you? In who you are?”

He raises his eyebrows, taken aback by the force of my anger. As we all are. I scowl at the veranda’s balustrade, hands in fists. I don’t understand my fury right now. The last minutes with Reagan and Javier are ticking, I’m more terrified of losing Aiden than ever, yet I’m fighting with them for worrying about me. But I do understand this: I’m not scared of Aiden hurting me physically. I know that’s mad given our history, but I just cannot feel that kind of fear. I’m terrified of what this fight will cost him, of losing him if he doesn’t beat this when I would want to be with him no matter what. Exactly as Reagan said.

She nods at me in understanding.

The two most self-loathing men on the planet heave a similar deep sigh. I don’t want to imagine the arguments Aiden is having with himself right now—they might as well be scrawled in blood across his forehead. At last Javier nods. “Okay, Isa, I can see your point. And I do have faith in you, Aiden. I don’t think you’d ever hurt her intentionally. It’s accidents I worry about.”

“As do I,” Aiden answers, ignoring my huff.

“But I also worry about you two all alone here with so much hanging in the balance. I’m glad your parents are coming tomorrow but after they leave . . . Isn’t there a way for you both to come back while you deal with this? We still have your million dollars. Come back to Portland where we can all be together and support you more.”

Javier looks straight at me now, and whatever blood boiled to the surface from anger drains off my face. Behind him, the moon glows over the hilltop with my parents’ grave. The cottage’s rooftop looms across the field of epiphanies. And in my chest, the locket with my father’s dream is pulsing next to my heart. Tears spring in my eyes, and I have nowhere to look, nowhere to hide.

I know they have seen everything under the veranda’s lanterns. I hear it in their silence, in Reagan’s sigh, and yet I cannot form a single word, I cannot gaze anywhere except at the mental image of a ribcage torn apart like the one in the reel of torture.

“The thing is, Javier,” Aiden breaks the silence in a measured tone as chill after chill flays my arms. “The scientists who are helping me are here. And this place is a bit easier for me right now, quieter, more open. So I’ll have to impose on you to be here for us this summer.”

He just took it all from me and put it on himself so I don’t have to choose or even answer right now. I don’t know if it works on Reagan and Javier, I can’t look because I finally can meet Aiden’s eyes when this topic comes up. They’re the softest blue—softer than the moonlight. Is this how they’ve looked at me every time I’ve hidden from them?

“In that case, we’ll come here as you need us,” Javier says without further argument. “We can revisit if—when—things work out.”

I know he corrected himself for me. I know because he smiles when I manage to look at him.  And then it’s time. Benson comes into the terrace, telling us the van is ready to take them away. All my anger and indecision disappears—the only thing left is anguish and goodbye. No, don’t go, I want to shout in front of that van, but they have their own troubles, their own lives.

“I’ll come with you to the airport,” I sniffle as they stand.

Dios, Isa, no. You wouldn’t get back here until midnight. Aiden’s parents are coming tomorrow.” Javier grins despite my earlier yelling.

And that does make me smile. I get to meet the two people who created the most beautiful force in my life tomorrow, just as Aiden planned it so I’d have something to get me through today.  But I still don’t know how I get through the next few minutes. Only Aiden’s hand in mine keeps me standing or walking as Benson and his mate, Max, start carrying out Reagan’s and Javier’s suitcases one after the other, double in number now because of Reagan’s new hats. Then Aiden’s hand squeezes mine.

“Have a few minutes with them,” he says, kissing my temple. “I’ll be in the lobby.” His eyes follow me as I shamble to Javier’s room in the quiet Inn.

Reagan and Javier are both there, double-checking Javier’s travel parole documents. As soon as they see me, they pull me in their arms in a three-way hug, as they did when they showed up on my doorstep exactly two weeks ago.

“We’ll call as soon as we land, and every day after that,” Reagan says. “I’ll be back before you know it. Take care of my rose until then.”

“I will.” I take their hands and put them together. “And you take care of each other, okay?”

“Don’t worry about us,” Javier answers while Reagan stares at her trainers.  “It’s you and Aiden you need to worry about.” They drop their hands at the same time.

“Love you,” I tell them both. “Love you so much. I’m so sorry I yelled at you, Javi.”

He laughs, mussing up my hair. “Don’t worry about it. That’s how I know we’re family.” Then his face becomes somber, and I know before he speaks that he’ll say something that will ring in my ears long after his plane takes off.  “You know we’re family, right?”

“I do.”

“We’re never going to replace your parents on that hill, sweetheart, but we’re here, flesh and blood. Life is long—you need family with you. Heal Aiden here but come back to us.”

He gives me another peppermint hug, Reagan kisses my cheek, and with a love you corazon y alma, they walk out.

I sink on the rug of Javier’s room as their footsteps fade, clutching my locket, trying to breathe, trying to see the present moment instead of the torn, unknown future ahead of me. But there is nothing visible through the tears that are gushing now. The whole world has become liquid like transatlantic oceans, drowning me in it.

It takes Aiden exactly two minutes to find me here, gasping and weeping on the floor. He folds down next to me, cradling me in his arms. And at first, it’s worse. Because that terrified part of me that’s drowning imagines another goodbye—his—and sobs wrack my lungs so violently that he tightens his hold and starts rocking me in place, murmuring words I cannot hear. I grip the collar of his shirt and another image—this one of gripping the marble grave when I first came back—flashes in my own reel of torture.  But wafts of cinnamon breath wash over my face one after another, and eventually I can find the present moment. I’m in Aiden’s chest, his shirt is soaked, his hand is cupping my cheek as he keeps murmuring, “I’m here, I’m right here, I love you, they love you.”

And though the tears are still trickling, I can breathe through them and it’s not the worst goodbye of my life. I take strength from that. And I’m not alone. Even though my mind dreads his goodbye, in the present moment, Aiden is with me, I’m in the fortress of his arms. And I’m able to lift my head, look up at his eyes.

Just in time to wish I hadn’t. Because the agony there is so staggering that it suffocates my lungs. I’m adding to his pain when the reel already brutalizes him each dawn. And its toll is getting higher each week, each day. The reel holds him longer; it takes a few extra minutes to bring him back; he is more vigilant, seeing more dangers; and his eyes lock in memories more often. Yet he’s here, trying to comfort me, absorbing my tears along with Fallujah’s bombs.

That’s when the tears stop. Immediately as though his anguish switched off my tear ducts and restarted my mind.

He notices. “Elisa?” His voice is panicked, as though he’s not sure if it’s over or about to start again. “Talk to me, please.”

“Hi,” I croak, wincing at the hoarse sound of my voice. He doesn’t speak, but his hand feels my forehead, my pulse. “I’m okay,” I assure him.

“No, love, you’re not. I’ve never seen you in so much pain.”

But I’ve known a lot worse pain. Losing him for one. Losing my parents for another. But he doesn’t need to hear that. “I’m just awful with goodbyes, Aiden, but I’m better now.”

He wipes the moisture off my cheeks, the V a deep canyon between his brows. “It’s not just goodbyes this time though, is it? It’s having to choose: half your heart here, half in Portland, and you don’t know how. That’s why you hide your face when it comes up, why you can’t look at me or anyone else.”

He has seen it all—I never fooled him for a second. I nod a weak yes, limp in his arms. “I didn’t think . . . I didn’t know I’d feel this way . . . until I came back.”

He watches every flicker of expression on me, and I let him, relieved for the truth to be out even if painful. “I’ll fly them over as often as possible,” he offers. “All of the Solises, not just Reagan and Javier. I can buy them a cottage here if you want. Would you like that?”

But they all eventually would leave. Unless I abandon everything I love here, we will always be apart. These are not burdens I can lay on Aiden’s tense shoulders. I stroke the worried V to smooth it—it doesn’t give. “I know you would, but they have their own lives in Portland. They’ve sacrificed so much to be there. I can’t uproot them. I’ll just have to choose which half of my heart I can give up. ”

“Tell me what to do, Elisa.  How do I help you with this?”

I rest my head on his chest, listening to his heart. “This is enough. Just be with me.” No matter what, even if we don’t win, I add in my head, because if I have him, I can live through anything. But that’s the one request that would be excruciating to him, the one thing in the world he would not give to me.

He shrugs as though he doesn’t think he’s enough. “I’m yours, you know that.”

I do know. I just don’t want him to be mine from a distance. I snuggle closer, like a second shirt over his soaked one. He strokes my arm, no doubt noticing the goose bumps. “Will you promise me something?” he asks.

“Anything. Unless it’s some self-loathing nonsense.”

“No, it’s not about my . . . renovations. Will you promise me you’ll talk to me about this next time? You won’t try to hide it like you’ve been.”

I nod, kissing the spot above his heart. “I promise. I don’t know why I try to hide anything from you. You see it all anyway.”

“I do, and the answer is yes.”

His heartbeat is even, calmer than mine that is abruptly galloping again. I look up at him, and his eyes are serene, the V is gone. “The answer to which question?”

“To whether I would consider living here if I become safe for you. Isn’t that what you’ve been wondering?”

I watch him stunned, unsure he spoke the words, but the small smile on his lips is evidence he said them. “You would?” I whisper.

He nods, brushing my cheek. “I can’t promise I will become safe, but I can promise that if I do, I will not make you choose. Whatever you decide, I would support you. Does that help?”

It takes several thundering heartbeats and another waft of cinnamon breath for me to form words. “More than you know,” I answer, the rush of gratitude muting my voice.

His smile widens. “There, you can take that off your list of worries.”

So many other things I want to ask—whether he would want to live here for himself, whether I could ever ask him to give up his life, his empire, his parents with whom he is trying to rebuild his relationship —but I don’t because they’re still just if’s. What matters in this present moment is the love behind them. I take his face in my hands and bring him to my mouth. His lips are willing but hesitant—probably wondering if I’m well enough to be kissed—so I crush myself against him, my lips leaving no room for doubt. Instantly, his body responds, and his mouth starts moving with mine in his possessive, healing way. One of his hands curls in my hair, his other arm tightens around my waist, straining me against the steel lines of him. And that’s when I remember.

“Aiden, oh my God!” I gasp.

“I prefer being your man.”

“No, I mean, do you know what time it is?”

His fiery eyes smolder in a way that sets my skin ablaze. “I’ve known what time it is since five fifteen.”

“Bloody hell, that’s four hours of no condoms! Why didn’t you remind me?”

“You were ups—” His answer fades in my mouth. I can’t kiss him deep enough, taste him long enough, touch him fast enough. My hands swoop down on his belt, snapping the buckle. His fist in my hair tightens as he tilts up my face, and his other hand closes like iron fetters around my wrists. It takes a few moments of rolling frantically on his lap to realize his strength is not possession now—it’s restraint.

“Elisa,” he says, his voice suede and warm—a direct counterpoint to every hardened angle of him. “Will you please stop grinding against my cock?”

“You don’t like that?” I gasp, unable to locate my hips, let alone stop them.

“Clearly I very much do, but not now.”

“What?” His words stop my hips wherever they are. As a rule, he never says no to this. He chuckles at my bewildered expression. “Why not now?” I ask, brain glitching.

His beauty transforms in that fluid way of his that leaves me breathless—or it would if I wasn’t already panting. “Because I’ve thought about feeling you that way hundreds of times, maybe thousands. And now that it’s here, I don’t want it to be right after you’ve been sobbing. Or on Javier’s floor for that matter.”

I try to think through the way his words make my pulse and other things race. “But I’m fine now. And we can go to your room here—we haven’t tried that bed yet. It looks a bit like the one at Chatsworth. Who knows what kind of fainting it would cause.” My body arches futilely against his restraints.

He smiles at my attempts to seduce him. “All painfully excellent points, but I still want my first memory of us together like that on a happier day.”

“Oh!” I breathe, brain finally reconnecting. His memory would always associate our most intimate moment with a day of tears. Perish the thought. “You’re right, definitely not today. I almost ended the world.”

He laughs and releases me now that he knows I won’t attack him. “Come on, my dear Mrs. Plemmons. If memory serves, there’s still one last condom hidden in garden shed to save our lives the old way.”

He starts to stand with me still soldered to him, but something catches his eye. He frowns at the floor under Javier’s dresser. “I think Javier forgot something.”

He reaches under the dresser and drags out a sketch. His low whistle mingles with my sharp inhale. Because there, in carbon pencil, vivid even in black and white, are Reagan’s eyes. Unmistakable and inquisitive as though they’re looking at the man who drew them, asking why not, Javi?

“Wow!” I marvel.

“Quite.”

“I have to talk to him. He has to tell her!” I reach for my purse but Aiden stops my hand.

“Don’t. Let him have this secret if he needs it—we’ve already won.”

“Won how?”

He taps my nose with the sketch. “If I recall, the goal was to make Javier see. Well, he very clearly sees. What he does with that is up to him. Besides, you and I have more urgent things to worry about right now.”

“We do?”

He rolls up the sketch and takes my hand with humor in his eyes. “Of course we do: we have a condom to ruin, scones to bake, that infernal silver tray to polish for the sixth time, parents to meet. These are heavy things, Elisa.”

I laugh as we leave Javier’s room and walk into the sultry night to the cottage. Because I’m with him.

***

Most goodbyes are followed by a hello—even the hard ones, even for me. Like a glistening morning after a night of squall to get us through storm to storm. And that’s exactly how Saturday’s sunrise is, even after the reel. As though all my stars have custom-ordered it for Aiden’s parents’ arrival. I gaze out of the open kitchen window, trying to see my nook of the world with visitors’ eyes. Loving, worried, overjoyed visitors who are finishing off five thousand miles right now to reconnect with their only son and meet his girlfriend for the first time.

The rose bubble around the cottage is shimmering with a golden mist. River Windrush seems more glass than liquid—a flecked mirror from the slow current underneath. On its bank, the willows sway like vermeil sirens in their hushed duet with the larks’ opera. And Elysium’s velvet of wildflowers is so dense it could be a tapestry worthy of Chatsworth’s gilded staircase. If I squint, I can see a thread of grass here and there in the brocade of daisies, forget-me-nots, poppies, wild orchids, and columbines. Even the sunrise is molten today—a dome of gold silk without a single cloud.

Yet despite the magnificent welcome nature has mounted, I feel utterly unprepared. How do people do this? Google was no help for my case. For one, Robert and Stella are the forces that created Aiden—enough said. For another, this is their first extended time with him since he hurt his mum and exiled himself from their life for their safety over a decade ago, as he did with me. There are no etiquette books about how to meet parents like these.

I wipe mum’s special tea set on the kitchen counter for the nth time—the gold rim and blush roses gleam like the rest of the cottage. What would you do, Mum? I laugh, thinking of her journal entry for meeting dad’s parents. The entire tea was an ordeal of epic proportions culminating with mum spilling hot earl grey on Grandpa Snow’s lap. “And we made it,” she wrote. “Just let them see your love, dearest. And bring roses.”

Outside the kitchen window, my million roses are sparkling with welcome, the blooms twinkling with dew, their perfume almost visible in the air.

“If you polish that teapot one more time, a genie will come out of it.” Aiden’s arms wind around my waist, making me jump. “Shh, just me,” he says in my ear. Just him—my entire universe. His freshly showered smell stuns all the roses. “What would you wish for?” He kisses the hollow spot below my ear.

“You.”

“Something you don’t already have.” His lips brush down my throat, blowing away my thoughts. “Wishes?” he murmurs again, like the willow song he hears.

“Umm, that I don’t spill tea on your father’s lap, that I solve the protein before your parents come, and that the plane is a little late, but not too much.”

He chuckles against my neck, sending tingles everywhere. “I will pour the tea, although it’s my lap you should worry about.” He nibbles my earlobe. “And you’re going to Bia this morning while I go to the airport so you might solve the protein.“ His lips flutter over my jaw. “As for the plane, it’s on time, but we’ll grab some coffee first and I’ll take the long way back.” His mouth presses at the corner of mine. “How is that?” He turns me in his arms, and all the other wishes disappear.

He is glowing before me more brilliant than the morning outside, in a white linen shirt and his staple jeans—a droplet water like a diamond in his still wet hair. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful, but I try to see him as his parents might. He looks playful, but his sculpted cheek is more drawn from the reel, and his eyes change more often. Although not now—his smile is as blinding as the sunrise.

“Will I do, Mrs. Plemmons?”

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” He sighs with exasperation as he does when I check on him like this. “They are my parents, Elisa. I’ve met them before. From the minute I was born I’m told although, thank God, that is a moment I don’t remember.”

“I know but it’s—”

“Complicated, yes, I’m aware. But today, it’s easy for once. They’re meeting the woman I love, and I couldn’t be prouder or happier about it. Can we leave it at that?”

As if I can resist him in anything, let alone for happiness that has shifted again and now looks exactly like him. “Whatever you want.”

“I have everything I want in my arms. Now why don’t you tell me what you’re feeling that’s making you polish that tea set for the twelfth time that I’ve counted?”

I shrug. He’d be late for the airport if we covered all my nerves. “Mostly I want it to be a special time for you and them. And I want them to see our love, not just the danger.”

A dozen emotions flash across his face, from disbelief to amusement, but he settles for tenderness. “Elisa, the fact that this is happening at all is special enough. None of us could imagine this happening a month ago. Or my whole life for that matter. As for the love, how could they not see it? What other sane reason would any woman have to be with me?”

I frown at his choice of words. “A million.”

“All right, maybe that’s true on paper, but physical safety seems to be a basic prerequisite in life. And you endanger yours every day to be with me. My parents, more than anyone else, understand the love it takes for that. And the love it takes for me to allow it. So—stop—worrying.” His eyes are piercing as though trying to tattoo this very elemental truth straight into my brain.

“Can I worry about one more thing?”

“No.”

“Please?”

He sighs in that give-me-strength way, but cannot resist. “Fine, what else is worrying you?”

“Do you think they’ll like the scones?”

“You’re impossible.” He brings me to his mouth, kissing me in a way that should be banned and illegal. By the time he releases me, I can’t even remember my name, let alone my worries. I just droop in his arms, the kitchen twirling. He chuckles, although I think his hand curved around my neck is feeling my pulse—checking to make sure I won’t faint no doubt. “That should do it,” he says, satisfied. “Now, please, for today, could we try to be just Aiden and Elisa doing this very normal thing and enjoying this present moment without worrying about what’s behind us and what’s ahead?” He unleashes the full force of his eyes on me, like he did with his mouth. It takes multiple heartbeats, blinks, gasps, and a whistle from the kettle for my brain to unscramble. Even then, I can only manage a breathy, “yes.”

His dimpled smile almost incapacitates me again. “Thank you,” he says softly. He holds me a moment longer until my legs can support me. “Benson is here. Shall I send him to the airport alone while I resuscitate you from my kiss?”

He sounds serious, except the eyes dancing with humor at my expense. “That little peck? I’ll survive. Besides, I have the rose petal jam to taste—much sweeter than you.”

He laughs and throws a tea towel over my head like a birdcage. “Relax!” He kisses me through the other side of it as if I cannot handle his bare lips a second time, which is absolutely true. By the time the towel slides off my face, he’s in the foyer. “The scones are delicious. And be safe at Bia,” he calls behind him as he closes the front door.

I watch him lope gracefully down the garden path to Benson who is standing like another beech tree at the garden hedge, waiving at me. The moment they’re out of sight, two things happen at the same time: the wound starts festering and the nerves start humming. If I stay here much longer, I’ll end up cleaning the cottage to the studs again. Bravery is more urgent. I turn off the stove, throw on my locket and dad’s lab coat, and dash across Elysium to our garage shed for the Rover. Far in the opposite direction of the country road, I think I see the dot of Benson’s van racing toward Heathrow Airport as Reagan and Javier are still charging toward PDX.

22

The Hales

Bia is empty when I bustle in. It’s only eight fifteen on a Saturday morning after all—perfect for under-cover work. I steady my hands and start testing the oxytocin options. Seven down so far, ninety more to go from Aiden’s list inside my locket. As though to contain my nerves, my hands move faster—like they did the day of Javier’s trial—and I eliminate an eighth, ninth, and tenth oxytocin formula within the first two hours, one eye on the combusting vials and the other on the clock. I have only one hour left before I have to go. Another oxytocin ampule explodes, a shard of glass nicking at dad’s initials on the coat. If all fails, I’ll talk about the weather. That’s a good, solid British philosophy. And if his parents ask me whether I’d ever return to Portland, I’ll say what? Have more tea? Do you like the scones? I’m an undecided mess and I couldn’t decide anyway until our terrifying experiment with your only son is over? Because if we lose, there will be no place in the world for me? And if we win, he promised he would support me if I choose England? The questions are so deafening that I almost miss a change in the lab’s atmosphere, almost like a creeping sensation. I look around startled, but there is nothing. And then I finally hear what I sensed: utter silence. The vial in my hands has not exploded.

The gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp of my breath shatters the precious quiet as I stare at the lilac liquid in disbelief. Could it be? Is it possible? What was I doing? Which oxytocin was it? The twelfth! Was this it, Dad? Did “December” have two meanings? Not magnesium the twelfth element, but add the twelfth formula of love? Trembling, with my heart in my throat, too afraid to move, I gently shake the vial. It doesn’t break; there isn’t a single crack on it. But the substance is also liquid, not solid as it should be. In an unforgivable, inexplicable, and utterly mad moment, I tip it to my lips for a tiny drop. I know there’s nothing toxic in it, but no serious chemist would ever do this. Only the desperate ones. I almost hear dad’s voice thundering down on me. Yet the liquid doesn’t sting or hurt in any way. I smack my lips—it’s a bit sour, like lemon. Certainly nothing like what my love tastes. Maybe one more drop? I lift the vial again, mumbling “Salud,” when BANG! It explodes in my gloved hand at the same time that the droplet fizzes on my tongue. I deflate on my lab stool, heart plummeting in my stomach with disappointment. The good news is my stomach doesn’t heave or expel its contents. The bad news is I still don’t have the protein. Or any time left to test more today. As soon as that thought reenters my consciousness, I’m forced to surrender with a groan. Of course this would happen today of all days—on the other hand, it’s better than the ninetieth day. I tuck the oxytocin ampules back in their fridge and start sweeping the shards into the glass disposal bin. Yet underneath it all, I feel a frisson of joy—at least we know which oxytocin it might be. But why on earth is it still falling apart?

“Oh, hey, Eliser!” Graham’s voice blasts behind me. “What are you doing here? I didn’t know you worked Saturdays.”

“Hi, Graham!” I turn to grin at him, saying a fervent and silent thank you to any angel up above, including to my furious father, that Graham didn’t arrive ten minutes ago. “I just came in for some testing, but I’m almost done.”

“You’re becoming as obsessed as me. That’s brilliant, that is. Any luck?” He stows his satchel and tosses on his immaculate coat while I scan my area for any evidence of my work. Luck is indeed on my side—the only sign left is the usual shards of glass.

“Look for yourself,” I answer, inclining my head toward the splinters.

“Oh, more broken vials—that’s novel!” He laughs as I sweep away the crystal fragments. “Well, I’m not giving up, I’ve had an idea.” Graham pulls up the first volume of the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology and plops on his lab stool. “I think we’re missing something. Edison is adamant this is the formula he developed with your dad, but it can’t be complete. So I’m going to sit here today, tomorrow, and the rest of the year if that’s what it takes, looking through each substance in this abomination and see if I can come up with anything. Interested? It’ll be most riveting.” He flips open the tome to letter A with another laugh.

I forget sometimes how much I like Graham and his uncomplicated single-mindedness. All he seems to want in life is chemistry—that’s it. With more strength than I realized I felt, I hope he succeeds. I hope he finds the oxytocin on his own, and we can be true partners again. “I’d help but I have to run. A couple of friends are visiting.”

He looks up with a frown. “More guests from the States?”

“Yes, but don’t worry,” I assure him. “They’re retirement age and they’re staying at the Inn so there will be no wild parties to make me late for work.”

His forehead relaxes. “Eliser, I never thought I’d say this to anyone but myself, but you need a life with people your age. What will you do with your fossil mates?”

I laugh, wiping down my counter with ethanol. “Plenty. Tea today, out to dinner tonight, the Rose Festival next weekend . . .” Graham pretends to fall asleep and snore. “Good luck with your abomination. See you Monday.” By the time I close Bia’s door behind me, he’s already absorbed in the Encyclopedia, seeming lost to the rest of the world.

The golden morning is even more brilliant when I park the Rover in the garage, but the nerves are prickling like thorns. I snap off a wilted bloom from the climbing clair-de-lune roses and scuttle across Elysium’s wildflower carpet. A shiver runs through me as I pass by the spot of the reel at the edge—it’s visible from here, the wildflowers are flattened to Aiden’s body shape like an inkblot on the vivid tapestry. I trot to it, fluffing up the daisies, poppies, and trefoils as much as possible. I don’t want Aiden to see his own imprint, although if I noticed, his eyes have certainly not missed it. I roll a Baci quote inside an orchid for him to find after tomorrow’s reel and dash through the field to the cottage.

The moment I reach the garden, the nerves soften a little. The roses have never looked more magical. They went through a rose spa this week, as Reagan called it. We pruned all the wilted blooms, withered petals, and dried leaves we could reach, and now the roses twinkle, draping like Chantilly lace from the rooftop to my feet.

“Well done, you,” I mutter, caressing the Clare rosettes. Whatever else Aiden’s parents will think about us, no one can resist mum’s magic.

Her spell flows inside the cottage too as I look for any speckle of dust with visitors’ eyes. But there is none left. The cottage sparkles—the dove gray velvet sofa, the blush pillows, the heather-plaid armchairs, the vases of roses everywhere. Even the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights are painted in rose tones to blend in—courtesy of Javier. All my wellies and Aiden’s shoes are hidden away, although mum’s parka and dad’s tweed scarf are still in the coat hanger where they will always remain. The sight of home is so overwhelming that it stops my blinks. Will Aiden’s parents like this? Not just in vacuum, but for their son? By Reagan’s account, their home is straight out of the pages of Architectural Digest, which makes sense since Robert is, indeed, an architect.

My phone vibrates against my behind with a text. Aiden: “Dropping off luggage at the Inn. 20 minutes. Good or detour?”

The nerves explode with full force like the vials. “Good,” I manage to text back as I sprint up the stairs, hair and heart everywhere. Because the hardest question that I’ve not dared to examine too close is now clamoring over the bright white walls: will they like me for their son?

Of course they’ll love you. Who doesn’t? said Aiden, the man with Javier’s filter over his eyes when it comes to me. I hope he doesn’t embarrass me with his this-is-the-only-woman-in-the-world nonsense. I scoff, pawing through mum’s dresses for the dusky rose linen dress that Reagan and I selected for the occasion. Then I busy myself with peeking through the lace curtain of the kitchen window, tasting jam and reciting the periodic table.

I hear them before I see them. A deep hearty laugh that has to be Aiden’s father, a soprano one that must be his mum, and my favorite sound in the world—Aiden’s waterfall laughter. Then the three of them emerge through the willow garlands, and my mouth falls open. If there has ever been a more attractive family, I’ll broadcast dad’s bravery formula on BBC. I don’t know how or when, but somehow, someday, Reagan Starr will pay for not warning me about this.

Aiden’s father is the Old Aiden of my visions, tall and leonine, with a full head of hair that glimmers snow-white, which makes his steel blue eyes brighter even from my sneaking spot. I absolutely must not spill tea on his taupe slacks or oyster shirt. Yet my eyes drift to Stella now standing with her mouth open like me as she takes in the roses.

“Oh, my stars!” she gasps—I like her already. Her hair falls in chocolate waves to her shoulders, and she has a heart-shaped face. But it’s her eyes that hold me. Although Aiden’s eyes have no parallel, it’s clear that his neutral sapphire came from her. She is petite, wearing black linen pants, a cream turtleneck, and a caramel purse like the one on Reagan’s dream wardrobe Pinterest account. “It’s like a fairytale,” she swoons, but her eyes never leave Aiden’s face for long. He stands a few steps behind her, and she looks over her shoulder at him with a shining love I’ve only ever seen in my mum’s face in our home movies.

“It does feel like that sometimes,” Aiden answers, and now I examine his face. There is a different beauty about him when he looks back at her. Softer, almost with longing, and something dawns on me that I should have realized by now: unlike most of us, Aiden has not forgotten those initial emotions in life, that first powerful bond between mother and child. That’s exactly what he must be feeling now. How has he been able to endure their separation?

“Come, meet Elisa,” he says, and his voice becomes suffused with pride and excitement. Yes, he’ll definitely embarrass me. They start walking up the path while I sprint to the front door, smoothing down my dress and hair and checking my lips for jam.

“How many roses are here do you think?” I hear Stella ask. According to Aiden, she loves gardening.

“Oh, I’ve estimated just under a million. Many of them have a story, some have names. Elisa can introduce you to them later, she does it better than me.”

“Names? How precious!”

I take a deep breath and open the door. The three exquisite creatures look at me with varying smiles: Robert’s dignified, Stella’s warm, and Aiden’s dazzling as his eyes lighten to my turquoise.

“There she is,” he says, stepping next to me and wrapping his arm around my waist. I hear a low gasp from his parents—perhaps seeing my calming effect on him for the first time?—and feel my face burn. “Elisa,” Aiden breaks the short silence. “These are my parents, Robert and Stella. Parents, this is Elisa.” If there was pride in his voice before, it’s nothing to how he sounds now.

“You’re very welcome,” I say, flushing. “I’m glad to meet you.” The words no longer feel rehearsed—they are true in every syllable because I’m meeting the two most influential people in Aiden’s life.

“It’s so wonderful to finally meet you, Elisa,” Stella says with feeling, reaching out her hand. I take it and, to my surprise, she pulls me into a gentle gardenia hug. “You’re even more darling than in Maria’s and Reagan’s pictures. Thank you for inviting us.”

“It was Aiden’s idea actually, but a good one as usual,” I answer, suddenly wanting her to know this. She beams at him behind me while Robert extends his hand.

“A pleasure to meet you, Elisa.” He doesn’t hug me, but his grasp is warm and firm.

“And these are the roses,” I add breathlessly, and they all laugh. “I can give you their names later. Please come in, you must be tired.”

“Oh, not at all, Aiden spoiled us,” says Stella, referring to the first-class flight he bought them, no doubt.

We make it to the living room despite the small foyer, Aiden’s arm never leaving my waist. They seem to anticipate his movements to the millimeter—much better than me, and only a degree below Benson—despite more than a decade of distance between them.

“Oh, this is lovely,” Stella enthuses as she looks around. “Exactly like a fairytale, I just telling Aiden.”

“Beautiful architecture,” Robert approves, his eyes tracing the ceiling beams.

“Thank you. It was falling to ruin when my parents bought it, but they restored it. Please take a seat. Would you like something to drink before tea?”

“No, no, we’re fine,” Stella chimes. “Come, sit with us for a while.”

They take the armchairs, insisting that we take the sofa. At first, I think they must like the squashy seats, but then I notice a sense of wonder flit through their faces each time they see Aiden touch me. Like right now as he winds his long fingers with mine.

“Do you play, Elisa?” Robert asks, inclining his head toward mum’s upright in the corner.

“Only a little. Not as well as my mum and definitely not as well as Aiden.”

“She’s being modest,” Aiden interjects in his this-is-Beethoven voice, his thumb drawing a half-moon on the back of my hand. “She’s an excellent player. We usually play after dinner together.”

“Speaking of music.” Stella looks at me with another smile, and I get the feeling she is trying to make me feel welcome even though she is in my home. “Aiden just had us play the willow game.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter while I melt. “Yes, mom, tell Elisa what you heard.”

“I swear they say ‘more shoes.’”

Robert chuckles too—maybe this is why they were laughing earlier. “Darling, you don’t need more shoes or willows to tell you that.”

She laughs. “Because yours was so much better? Fishing, fishing, fishing?”

I listen to the sound of their family—so new for the cottage, yet so familiar—trying to find nuances and similarities to what I know despite the different cultures and tragedies that have struck our families. They are there: the easy manner with which they show love, the way they tease each other. And the nerves fade. Aiden and I have something in common beyond our connection forged in the fires of Iraq and Javier’s brushstrokes. Our families do not seem that different. Yet could I ever take him away from this even if we win? When I know exactly how it feels to lose it?

“I’ll go set out the tea,” I say, standing. “Please make yourself at home. Or we could have it in the garden if you prefer?”

“Wherever is easiest for you, dear. I can come help.” Stella starts to rise from her armchair, but Aiden stops her.

“I’ll help Elisa, mom. You relax.”

He takes me be the waist to the kitchen, and I sense marveling eyes follow us there. As soon as we turn the kitchen corner, Aiden pulls me in his arms. “Hi, you,” he murmurs, his eyes doing that part-fire, part-adoring thing.

“Hi,” I breathe.

He arches me closer, lips at my ear. “You shouldn’t look this stunning. It’s excruciating with parents around.”

“Me? Have you seen the three of you? You make the rest of us look like wet tea bags.”

He chuckles, kissing the corner of my jaw, inhaling the Aeternum perfume. “Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush to the corner of my mouth. “They like you, you know.”

I push weakly against his chest—his mouth is already messing with my thought process. “Let’s wait for the verdict, shall we? I’ve barely said five words.”

He releases me with a sigh, his eyes still on fire. “I don’t need to wait. I know my parents.”

“They’re so sweet, Aiden. I’m so glad they came.”

“They’re absurdly over the moon. I’m certain every time I touch you, my mom’s heart has arrhythmia.”

He helps me arrange the infernal silver tray—or rather watches me as I do it, his gaze enflaming my skin even though I avoid looking at him so I don’t break mum’s china. “Aiden, behave.”

“What?”

“You know exactly what.”

He chuckles again and this time helps me fold the rose-embroidered napkins. The good news is his heated gaze leaves my skin. The bad news is his fingers brush against mine now and then, giving my own heart arrhythmia. But thankfully he takes over when it comes to the scorching kettle. “I believe I promised to do this for the sake of my father’s lap. Although there’s only one lap burning in that living room and it’s quite the safety hazard.”

A scone drops from my fingers on the silver tray. “Aiden, please!”

“All right, I’ll behave. Tell me about your second wish. How was Bia?” He starts filling the rose teapot, guarding my hands away from the blistering stream.

“Hopeful at first, then it fell apart again.”

“What happened?”

“The twelfth formula stuck for a minute and then exploded.” I decide he doesn’t need to know about my reckless taste test. He would have a dragon fit, parents or no parents around.

“Maybe a dosage issue?”

“That was my first thought, too. I’ll start recalibrating on Monday.”

“It does sound like the correct oxytocin though. It rings true with the December code.”

“Yes, it feels like the sort of thing dad would do: layer meanings in his clues.”

“Just as his daughter does.”

We end up in the garden for the tea under the deep shade of the beech trees in the bistro table and chairs that mum used for al fresco dinners. Stella is bubbling like the Bollinger champagne Aiden is now pouring. “Robert, look at this! There are rose petals in the bubbly.”

“And in the tea.” Robert chuckles with an indulgent sound.

Stella looks at me, her eyes soft—they change almost as quickly as Aiden’s. “You’ve gone to such trouble for us when you’re dealing with so much. We would have been happy with just toast and water, but I can’t deny I love this. Thank you.” There is an old ache hidden well in the velveteen folds of her voice.

“It was no trouble at all,” I assure her. “Besides, Aiden helped me with all of it.”

“Oh, yes,” he answers in a tone so uncharacteristically light, I think he’s trying to banish the ache in hers. “The rose petals in the Bollinger were definitely my idea. Not to mention taking the scones out of the oven and making sure the oven was off.”

Her bubbling laughter returns immediately and she picks up a scone. “I’m not surprised. You were always a helpful little boy.” She turns to me, spreading rose petal jam on her scone. “Would you like to see some pictures, Elisa?”

“Oh, dear God!” Aiden groans, sitting up in his chair and turning to his father. “I thought we discussed this.”

Robert chortles, raising his hands. “I’m sorry, son, I tried. At least she only brought one album. There were five packed in her suitcase before I discovered them.”

“Aiden, stop it,” I laugh. “I want to see them. You’ve seen mine.”

“That’s different—yours are hanging on the wall. I have to see them.”

“And I have to see these.” I scoot eagerly close to Stella, ignoring his resigned growl, as she takes a small album the size of her palm out of her purse.

“Here he is, a month old,” she croons, flipping through the pages, while I try to muster heart, tear ducts, lungs, and ovaries. Because baby Aiden was something entirely wondrous. Even in those early months, his eyes were shockingly aware for an infant under his mop of black hair—certainly more so than Anamelia, for example, when she was a baby. I watch him over the years in this different reel, shooting up and filling out, blowing out candles, riding the blue bike I saw during his MRI, and transforming out of the innocent baby to the somber child with the burden of his entire world imprinted on his mind. Yet his eyes do not change—they remain sentient in every way. I can tell exactly when Stella was the photographer and when it was Robert. Because the child’s gaze holds that undercurrent of longing for Stella and a strand of deference for Robert, until the last photos of pre-teen Aiden who never looks at the camera again.

“All right, that’s enough.” Adult Aiden’s long arm swoops across the table and takes the album over our protests. “I’m confiscating this for the next two weeks.”

“And you accused me of being the cutest kid,” I say, but my throat feels full—full of bubbles, full of his baby smile, full of his memories.

“And I was right.” His otherworldly gaze meets mine, and I wish we were alone so I could ask what he is thinking in this moment. Do I want to know? Under the table, his hand grasps mine, his thumb drawing an infinity loop on my palm.

“Stella, I think we’ve embarrassed our son enough for the rest of the year. Why don’t you show them what the Solises sent?” Robert interjects casually as if he senses exactly the wave of emotion that has suddenly swept the garden.

“Oh, yes, good idea.” Stella scrambles inside her purse again with a grin. “Here, Elisa, this is for you.” She hands me a small glass bottle full of dirt. On it, with sparkly craft paper letters that could only be the work of Javier’s sisters, it says: Isa’s Home. “Apparently, it has dirt from Casa Solis, your apartment with Reagan, and Aiden’s backyard,” Stella explains.

I smile at the dirt, trying to breathe, unable to meet their eyes. Of all our family, Robert and Stella are the ones who absolutely cannot see my conflict—not when they are only now getting their son back. “It’s brilliant,” I whisper, bringing the bottle to my lips and setting it at the center of the table.

“And Maria sent you this.” She takes out a floppy something wrapped in more sparkly paper. I unwrap it, and this time cannot stop my sigh. It’s a handkerchief crocheted with Maria’s lacework and all our family initials embroidered in icon blue. “She made it while Javier was . . . unavailable,” Stella adds softly.

“Of course she did.” I kiss the handkerchief too and set it on top of mum’s rose napkin before I need it for tears.

“And, Aiden, this is only for you.” Stella laughs, handing him an envelope with so many Hello Kitties on it, the paper is not visible. “It’s from Anamelia and she gave us strict instructions that no one else is to open it.”

He pulls me close as I lean in to see. Inside is a drawing and two words sprinkled with more sparkles. Aiden + Anamelia, she has scrawled in pink crayon. Below the words are two stick figures, a tall one with big black hair and a small one with pigtails. Around them, she has drawn a giant heart. Despite the emotion, it makes me laugh. She thinks Aiden is her special friend and the rest of us are allowed to borrow him on occasion.

“She has her brother’s talent,” Aiden chuckles, folding it carefully and setting it on top of my handkerchief. Then his hand grips mine under the table again. “I’ll have to draw something back, won’t I?” he asks me.

“Yes, and right away. She’s probably waiting by the mailbox.”

“Christ.”

“And this,” Stella says with a flourish. “Is from Cora.” She hands us a photo of Aiden’s backyard where the American Beauty roses we planted together before I left are bursting with crimson blooms. And my throat feels full of bubbles again. How can I miss that yard where I barely spent a month as much as I miss this where I’ve lived most of my life?

“Speaking of roses,” Aiden jumps in, no doubt seeing my torment. “Elisa, why don’t you introduce my mom to the ones here?” He strokes my hand under the table, and I know he picked this moment on purpose: to give me a breather and allow me a chance to showcase my life here.

Strolling the garden with Stella is like nothing I can compare it to. She is a bouquet of familiar blooms—kind like Mum, warm like Maria, perceptive like Aiden—yet with something entirely her own. She gives me time between roses, asking just enough questions to draw me out but not enough to push me, and I sense she is being careful, that this is as new to her as it is to me.

“It’s beautiful here,” she says after I finish telling her about the Clares. “I wish I could have met your parents. I’m very sorry you’ve been through that.”

“Thank you. It’s better now than it used to be.” Especially here, so close to them.

“I feel I can imagine some of the pain from losing that kind of love after losing Aiden for so long.” She looks over her shoulder at Aiden and Robert talking at the tea table, Aiden’s eyes checking on me every few minutes. “But he seems happier and calmer than we’ve ever seen him, except as a child of course. That’s why Robert and I are so happy he has found you, dear.” Her sincerity is etched in every line of her smile, in every softly spoken word. “We had stopped hoping he would ever allow himself any love.”

Her openness disarms me so much that my own truth comes out with ease. “I worry about that still,” I admit. “But you’re right that at least now he wants to.”

She nods as we stroll to the Elisas. “How well you know him already! But we must have faith, mustn’t we? For him and for ourselves?”

“Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.”

She smiles, fluffing an Elisa bloom. “Isn’t it funny how love works? We are the only two people in the world he has hurt, and the two who have the most faith in him. I prayed every day I would be the only one, but if it had to happen again, let it be to a good end. Let it be so he can overcome this.”

Yes, let it be. There is no other end that’s acceptable, no option where Aiden is lost not just to me and his parents, but to himself. Abruptly the garden seems darker despite the bright afternoon sun, as though Aiden’s star flickered with my thoughts. “He’s working very hard,” I say with force to silence the abstraction. “I’ve never seen more determination or strength.”

Her forehead is creased with worry as I lead her to the Reagans. “He has been vague about this experiment. I’m sure he’s keeping all sorts of horrifics from us, and I won’t ask you to tell me. But please tell us what we can do to help. His father and I are here for you both in every way. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can’t ask of us.”

“I think being here and spending time with him will help. I know he wants to rebuild his relationship with you very much.”

“But there must be something more we can do,” she presses. “Please.” Her voice catches with her breath, and her index finger presses against a thorn absentmindedly. She pulls it back quickly, but it was enough—enough to see the deep fear that must be scalding her insides like mine, even with the faith we’re trying to keep. And enough to see how desperately she needs to do something for him.

“Well, the most important things are to avoid the startle at all costs and stay in the present moment. And, hard as it seems, we’ve been trying to build as many happy memories as possible to counteract the trauma. It might help for you and Robert to do the same with him, especially while I’m at work.”

Her face brightens immediately. “Yes, yes, that’s perfect! We can do that. And I can cook or help with anything else you need—the garden, the cottage—so you can just be.” She sounds lighter, eager, as though she wants to get started right now. Her pace picks up, but then she seems to remember where she is. “We won’t interfere with your time,” she assures me quickly. “We’ll stay at the Inn and give you privacy. More than us, more than anyone else, we know Aiden wants time with you.”

We’re at the garden shed now where the reel lives, and I lead her around it into Elysium. “You and Robert . . .” I hesitate, unsure how to phrase this. She gives me time. “I don’t know how to ask this, except directly I suppose. You don’t mind that I’m here for now? That I have my own . . . baggage?”

She rests her arm on my shoulder with a smile like the daisies. “No. You’re whom Aiden wants. And maybe it’s exactly that . . . history—” she chooses a different word for me—“and this beautiful place that have enabled you to capture him so entirely when no one else ever did. You must understand, we’ve never seen Aiden chase a girl or even hold hands with one, and he chased you all the way across the world, learning rose breeds and drawing for Anamelia and hosting tea. He has completely lost his head. We love it.”

For the first time in this conversation, she laughs freely—the sound flitting through Elysium like a skylark’s song—as though the idea of Aiden losing his mind in such a fashion is her personal bravery protein. The bubbling sound is infectious, and for a while we’re both laughing. Then the laughter becomes an easy silence as we stroll around Elysium. She steps carefully around the forget-me-nots, like me, but seems to avoid the purple wild orchids too. A sense of comfort sweeps over me exactly as in my childhood memories in this meadow despite the newness of my companion. And the vivid tapestry seems as sparkly as it did then. Not like new stars have entered my constellation, but rather like I’m seeing a star that was always there, just on the other side.

I turn us around before we reach the inkblot of the reel. Carefully, asking permission with her eyes, Stella hooks her arm in mine. “It will work out,” she says, gazing at the willows. “Somehow. The willows said that right after the shoes, although I wouldn’t tell the boys.”

I laugh. “What else did you hear?”

“Just that: somehow.”

Aiden and Robert appear from the garden then, striding with a similar step toward us, although Aiden’s fluid grace is not something anyone can match.

“How many baby stories have you told, Mom?” he asks when they reach us.

“I was just about to start on the first time we visited Oxford.” She releases my arm to him immediately.

“Too late.” He grins, tucking my arm in his. “I beat you to that one.” And very chastely he kisses my lips.

“Oh!” Stella gasps, her hand over her heart, while Robert’s arm flies around her. Their eyes are liquid seeing for the first time their son kiss on the lips.

Aiden laughs with my favorite sound. “I picked a good one, Mom, just as you said.”

For once, his pride does not embarrass me. Because underneath, I finally see, it is also pride in himself.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 20 – GIFT

Happy Sunday, everyone! Hope you’ve had a great weekend. Here is a chapter close to my heart for a lot of reasons, including that it is one of the last times we see Reagan and Javier in the books. Thank you to all for reading, and especially to Wattle Ido, HN, Liz, Linda, Darla, and all the others who are writing to me. Your good cheer and love of this story means a lot. xo, Ani [credits: Chatsworth Estate; viator.com.]

20

Gift

I never used to give much thought to happiness. I either had it and took it for granted or I lost it so deeply that thinking about it wouldn’t help. But I think a lot about it now. Not about what it means, but rather about it is. And I notice how different it looks each day, each hour, even minute. An hour ago, happiness looked like two bodies wrapped together in twinkly lights, bursting like halos around each other’s sun. Then it looked like hunting condoms hidden under petals in a rose garden while drinking coffee mouth to mouth. And right now it looks like Aiden and me watering the roses together, waiting for Reagan and Javier for our overnight trip to Pemberley, or rather Chatsworth Estate that Jane Austen immortalized as Mr. Darcy’s abode. Of course to me, Chatsworth is happiness for an entirely different reason: my own Mr. Darcy and the surprise that awaits him.

Happiness is a shapeshifter.

“Well, I’m disappointed,” my Mr. Darcy says, watering the Cecilias in a fresh white shirt and grey jeans while I label the cyclamen floribunda rose I’m dedicating to Reagan. “The woman who breaks chemical protein codes while kissing only managed to find five of my hidden condoms fully caffeinated. That won’t cover us even for tonight.”

“We’re not all CIA-trained analysts, Aiden. Some of us need clues.”

A smile ignites his eyes until his face lights up with that surreal beauty it takes on at certain moments, like when he asked me to meet his parents. My brain couldn’t solve a clue right now even if he gave it to me. He drops the nozzle on the grass and takes the three steps between us, holding out his hand. “Fair point. Close your eyes.”

“That sounds even harder,” I grumble—why would I want him out of sight?

“Come on. I’m trying to be romantic. Don’t ruin it for me.”

“Fine,” I sigh, closing my eyes. “But if you’re being romantic with condoms, you better hurry before Javier comes. We’re really pushing his aneurism.”

He chuckles but cups his hand over my eyes. “No snooping this time.”

Whatever plans he must have for this condom must be hazardously good. He leads me down the path by my waist in the direction of the garden shed, his body brushing against the cerise summer dress he brought me back from Portland. He stops us a few steps later and frees my eyes. “Everything you need is here.”

We’re at the workbench behind the shed where I’ve been trying to cultivate a new rose—a hybrid between the Elisa and the American Beauty I bought from Mr. Plemmons. Not that I’d ever admit to Aiden I’m trying to breed our roses. My excuse is that I’m preparing for the Burford Rose Festival, which is technically true. But maybe he guesses anyway if he put a condom here. I search through the bench mortified, my face matching my dress. “Umm, I don’t see it,” I mumble, looking under my tools and in the plastic pots of dirt, but then something in the Elisa bloom I’m using for grafting catches my eye. “Oh, wait—what is that?”

It’s not a condom. Condoms do not sparkle. There, nestled in the heart of the ivory petals, something blue is shimmering. I inhale a low gasp, fishing it out. Dangling on a fine gold chain is a filigreed locket embedded with a brilliant sapphire the color of his eyes. “Oh my God, Aiden!” I whisper, looking up at him. The delight in his face dims even the radiant gem in my hand. “Is this . . . this is the surprise that will make my heart melt!”

He smiles casually, but I sense a strong emotion underneath. “In part. Open it.”

I stroke the engraved lid, noticing the filigree is an intricate rose vine. “It’s so beautiful,” I murmur, lifting the clasp. A small roll of paper is tucked inside in a message-in-a-bottle kind of way. I pick it up carefully so I don’t drop either it or the locket with my shaking hands.

“Allow me,” Aiden says. He takes the locket and clasps it around my neck, sweeping my hair to side. His fingers brush my collarbones, raising goose bumps in their wake. “Now you can read the note.”

I unroll the strip of paper—it’s longer than it seemed—and I lose my breath again. It’s his assertive handwriting, albeit much smaller—I’d know it anywhere after reading his war letters. But this is not a love note. It’s a list. A list of the oxytocin options that meet the CREB test for the protein. “Good heavens, Aiden! You already solved them?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the most astonishing part. “It’s still long, love, I’m sorry. No matter how many combinations I tried, we still end up with ninety-seven. But I’ve listed them in order of potency—hopefully that saves you some time. I’ll keep working on it if you have other id—”

He never gets to finish his sentence because I throw myself at him, dangling like a locket over his own heart. “Aiden, this is everything! I thought we’d end up in the two hundreds still. Do you realize what a huge leap we just made?”

His arms fold around my waist. “It’s still a lot to test on time. There must be something else I can do.” The V forms between his eyebrows, and abruptly I see how much he wants this now. Why is that? Is it still to help me sleep or is the torture draining more of him than he lets on? I hold him closer to fight a shiver.

“You just did in a week what would have taken me months. Let me worry about the rest. One way or another, I’ll make this for you, I promise.” I try to smooth away the V, but he shakes his head.

“I don’t want it for myself, Elisa. I want you to have it every morning since you insist on staying with me.”

And there it is, the reason why the protein has become just as vital to him as it is to me. I kiss him, unable to find words—they’ve melted away with my heart as he promised. The strong emotion in his eyes is in his mouth too, the way it moves with mine in ninety-seven different forms of love.

He has to break the kiss when I start hyperventilating—there’s no question of me being able to pull apart—and at last I find some words. “Maybe we can share the protein. Like we do with Baci or your coffee?”

He chuckles. “Well, if there’s anything that will convince me to take an ounce of it for myself, it would be your mouth.” He takes the long ribbon of paper, rolling it back into its papyrus form. “I have this memorized just in case, but I tried to think of a way for you to carry it around without anyone suspecting.” He tucks the list back inside my locket and secures the clasp.

“It’s perfect.” I pat the sapphire, not wanting to imagine how much it cost. “Wherever did you find it?”

“The antique shop you told Reagan you liked. Obviously jewelry is not my expertise, but I thought it was a good fit for this. A locket for a secret. And the roses for you.”

“And the sapphire for your eyes.”

He shrugs. “If you want.”

“You forgot the most important part.”

“What’s that?”

“It rests on my heart, like you.”

His eyes gaze at the spot like a caress. “What a great place to rest.”

There are a million other things I want to tell him. How the gold reminds me of his heart, how its strength reminds me of his character, how someday I want to give it to our daughter. Instead of embarrassing or terrifying him with any of that, I just rest my head on his chest and say, “Thank you. I’ll love it forever.”

Benson drops off Reagan and Javier only fifteen minutes later on his way to London to pick up his mate, Max, whom Aiden is flying over for a few days to keep Benson company. Reagan is wearing the most resplendent hat for Mr. Darcy’s home. It’s an ivory wide disc with a coral silk rose blooming underneath the brim. The rest of her glows in a matching linen dress as she practically runs up the garden path to me.

“Reg, you look like art,” I tell her, choosing the word for Javier.

“Never mind me. What’s that on your neck?” Her emerald eyes widen when she spies the locket.

I caress it as I’ve been doing every few seconds. “Aiden got it for me.” Even I hear the gloating in my voice. He shakes his head next to me with an indulgent smile.

“Well-done, Aiden,” she grins at him. “Very Mr. Darcy of you.”

“I’m assuming that’s a high honor.”

“The highest,” she says, lifting her chin. “Speaking of Mr. Darcy, where the hell is your hat, Isa? You promised you’d wear it for him.”

“He’s not real, Reg.” Javier laughs behind her. “It’s not like he’ll be there.”

“He’s real to us, Javi,” she retorts. “He’s gotten us through hell. And now Isa won’t even wear a hat for him! We’ve been waiting for this day for four years!”

“Reg, calm down,” I laugh. “I have my hat inside. But first I want to show you something.”

All indignation disappears from her face and she smiles. “Oh, whew, I thought you had lost your mind. What is it? Did Aiden get you a tiara, too? Because that would be even better than a hat.”

“No, this one is just for you.” I take her hand and nod at Aiden. He pulls out his phone to record the moment for me.

Reagan looks between us with a grin. “Oh, this must be good. Is it a present? Wait, how does my hat look?”

“Better than Duchess Kate,” I assure her and lead her up the path past the Cecilias, the Clares, and the Elisas to the magenta floribunda bush by the bench. And even though this is her moment, suddenly it feels like my own throat is full of petals. “Here it is,” I smile, holding out my hand toward her blooms.

She blinks at them confused, but then her eyes fall on the rosewood plant marker stuck in the dirt. Reagan Starr, it says in mum’s calligraphy. “No way!” Her hand flies up to her mouth, and she curls down on the petaled grass, stroking the bright blooms. “Isa, is this for real?”

I kneel next to her. “Of course it is. Every woman in my family has a rose in this garden. And now you do too.”

Her hug almost knocks me flat on the grass as Aiden and Javier chuckle above us, now both recording. “I love it so much!” she blubbers. “It’s my spirit plant.”

“And it’s the kind of rose my dad gave to my mum on their first date. It brought them nothing but luck in their love.”

A knowing smile sparkles in her teary emerald eyes—she understands why this is the rose I chose for her.

“You need luck in love, Reg?” Javier pipes up, still recording.

“Duh!” she answers without looking at him. “I’ve been in England for a week and I haven’t seen Gandy yet.” She gives me another hug, this one gentler like all the vulnerability she must be feeling. “Thank you,” she sniffles. “Do you think it will do well in Portland? What am I saying—your green thumbs can grow anything.”

“It will do beautiful in Portland,” I answer her question, unable to touch her assumption. But the petals in my throat just turned to shards of glass at the idea of leaving this garden or being away from any of my three stars. In a blink, their brilliant constellation goes dark. I feel Aiden’s unerring eyes on my face along with the phone cameras and smile the widest smile I can manage. “All right, here’s a Reagan to take with us.” I snip off a bloom and tuck it in her hat. “Now let’s get going. It’s a two-hour drive.”

If Aiden saw the way my heart just ripped in two, he says nothing. He just takes me by the waist as we climb up to our bedroom to pick up our suitcase—just one suitcase, my knickers with his boxers, our socks balled up with each other, our toothbrushes together for our first overnight trip.

“That was a beautiful thing you did for Reagan,” he says as he zips it up.

“She deserves it.” I shrug and pretend to make the bed, glancing at the picture of our kiss and the wilted poppies on my nightstand. Why is fear punching so hard now that I’m carrying the key to the bravery protein in a locket right next to my heart? Can fear sense its end is coming? Or is the end coming for me?

Aiden’s hand covers mine as I am smoothing the pillow, trying to fight the sudden shivers. How many times has he kissed me on this pillow by now? How many times are there left still? He pulls me around and tips up my face. “What’s wrong, love?”

The peaceful beauty that floods him in this room has a shadow of worry, like stubble over his dimple. But the moment his turquoise eyes meet mine, abruptly the shivers start to recede. “I broke Corbin’s rule,” I admit. “I looked ahead instead of at the present moment.”

His hand curves around my cheek. “It comes out of nowhere sometimes, doesn’t it?”

“Yes! For you too?” It’s a terrible thing to give me relief, but it still does—like we’re together even in fear.

“Oh, yes. Sometimes, the more beautiful the moment, the harder it hits.”

“That’s exactly it. I couldn’t understand why it happened just now until you said it. We had the most beautiful morning and then . . .”

“Here, try something with me,” he suggests, folding me in his arms. “You’re better at this than I am, but I’ll start. You’re in my arms, too beautiful for words, with your head on my chest, exactly where I want you to be. Now your turn.”

“Okay.” I smile as I realize what he is doing: bringing me to the present moment. “I’m wearing the locket you gave me, the dress you gave me, the knickers you gave me, and the perfume you gave me. I’m wrapped in you.”

“And we are in the happiest bedroom in the world.”

“And there are only six days and fourteen hours of condoms left.”

He chuckles with me, now continuing out of fun, not fear. “And there are three more condoms in the foyer for you to find on our way out.”

“And you still have your surprise to see.”

“And you still have yours.”

That derails me. “You already gave me mine.” I clutch my locket as evidence.

“I said I gave you part of it. The best part is still ahead.”

“The best part? What could be better than bravery?”

He presses his lips to mine. “Love, Elisa,” he whispers. “Love.”

And just like that, happiness shifts. It becomes this present moment in a tiny bedroom with a white bed, wilted flowers, and a worn rug where we dance.

“OI!” Javier hollers from the garden. “I’M BECOMING AN INSTAGRAM PHOTOGRAPHER DOWN HERE. CAN YOU HOLD IT IN FOR LATER?”

It never ceases to make Aiden laugh. He picks up the suitcase and glances around our bedroom. “You know, despite Chatsworth’s luxury, I’d still rather be here tonight.”

Abruptly I miss this room and we haven’t even left it. “Me too,” I say, grabbing our pillows on a whim.

***

Visiting Chatsworth is not something you are supposed to get used to, no matter how often you do it, and I have visited twice. The magnificent house glows in yellow stone surrounded by hundreds of acres of lush gardens and serene woods, with the Emperor Fountain like a liquid mirror reflecting the opulence of both nature and man. History flutters in every leaf, glimmers in each drop of dew, flows through River Derwent, and settles like pollen over the emerald expanse of the parkland.

But visiting Chatsworth with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier makes all that history feel new, the grand house a bit like home, and Mr. Darcy just a hero in a book. Not because Aiden has reserved the public part of the house for the afternoon and booked the exclusive Park Farm Estate for the night—I know now that, underneath the lavish expense, these are nonnegotiable safety measures and that, deep down, Aiden dreams of being able to visit such places in a crowd as much as a tourist might dream of being him. No, today is breathless for an entirely different reason: because today my life is better than the fairytale. And happiness has changed shapes again. Now it looks like Aiden, Javier, Reagan, and me plopped on a picnic blanket under an ancient alder tree at the farthest border of Salisbury Lawn. The park is quiet today despite the Saturday sunshine, perhaps because soon the house will be closed to the public for us.

“I just can’t get over it,” Reagan says, downing the last drop of her bubbles from a paper cup. “A week ago, Javi was in jail about to be deported, Isa was here in hell, Aiden—I don’t have the words, and I was visiting a jail. And now, we’re all here together, waiting to visit that palace in private, and I have a rose named after me. Anyone else think they’re dreaming?”

“I was, until Aiden started kicking my ass,” Javier answers, frowning at Aiden’s chessboard where is he ensnared in the Budapest Defense and his king will be mated in five moves.

I haven’t been able to look away from the hand-carved mahogany board since Aiden set it up, despite the plush gardens around us. It’s the same board I saw in his library on our first night together. A rich scent of musk and cigar wafts from it with the woodsy breeze. The chess pieces glow even under the alder’s shade.  How many times have Aiden’s fingers touched them? Hundreds, thousands from his seventh birthday when his parents gave the set to him until now.

I haven’t touched a chess piece since my father died, since that unfinished chess game that sits in the glass flower case in the cottage’s library. But even if I could move a finger to stroke the curves of Aiden’s queen or the sharp angles of his knight, I wouldn’t dare. Because Aiden playing his favorite game is formidable. He seems to play entirely in his head, gazing at the board only to see what mistake the mortal in front of him makes next. I’m certain he is letting Javier persevere out of chivalry—he could have ended this game on move six.

Every so often I sense his eyes on my face through the birdcage veil of the fuchsia fascinator I’m wearing for Reagan. Aiden knows what this game means to me. Yet he has never once asked me to explain my decision to lay it at rest. And for that, impossibly, I love him more.

“Some help?” he invites casually, raising a perfect raven eyebrow at me.

I shake my head. “If I help anyone, it would be Javier.”

“Perfect.” His voice is still casual but something warm filters through his eyes like the sun through the alder leaves. He controls it immediately but it was enough. Enough for me to see what he is doing. What he really wants but will never ask. A game with me, even if only through Javier.

I try to picture moving my hand for him, wrapping my fingers around Javier’s bishop to fall for his queen, so Javier’s king can die a dignified death. But I can’t. My hand closes into a fist. It will not open no matter how much I want to give Aiden everything. Apparently even though my body could give him the forehead kiss, it cannot overcome this.

“Sorry, Javier,” I say, straightening the veil over my cheeks. “May your king rest in peace. Reagan and I have to go see Darcy’s stairs.”

“Now you’re talking,” she hops up, arranging her hat.

I pick up my picnic basket—the other reason why I’m leaving, to set up Aiden’s surprise—but his hand wraps around my fist as I stand. He says nothing but presses it to his lips. One light quick kiss, but I know what it means. I saw you. I feel his eyes on me as Reagan and I stroll away toward the great house.

“So any progress with Javi?” I ask, pretending to look at a wild orchid by the rock I’ve been eying to hide a clue for Aiden.

Her delicate snort distracts me from my subterfuge. “As if. Sometimes I think he’s looking at me, but then I look at him and there’s just . . . nothing there.”

I tuck my arm in hers. “Maybe it’s not nothing. Maybe it’s something he’s too afraid to see.”

“Or maybe I’m not his kind of rose.” Her hand strokes the Reagan bloom still in her hat.

“That’s not true. This is an issue Javier has with himself. That’s what Aiden thinks, too. He thinks Javier needs to feel more secure before getting involved.”

“Oh hell, Aiden knows too?”

“He figured it out on his own, I didn’t say anything.”

“Of course he did. The only one who doesn’t want to see is Javier himself.”

“Just give him a bit more time,” I coax her. “It’s only been a week. And if he doesn’t wake up, Aiden said he’ll help us.”

She giggle-sniffles. “God help Javi if Aiden enters the ring.” Then she looks at my basket of roses. “What are you doing with that?”

“Oh, I’m setting up a scavenger hunt for Aiden and I’ve hidden the clues under the basket liner so he couldn’t see. Come, help me plant them.”

She giggles despite the melancholy in her eyes that seems to have become part of her. “Oh fun, what are you giving him?”

I caress the small gift under the liner—it doesn’t give but it’s hard and warm, like sunny marble. “It’s just something small. He’s impossible to buy anything for. It’s really more the game he’ll like.”

We curve around the grand palace where the last groups of public visitors are filing out for our private tour later this afternoon. The baroque facade is gleaming honey-gold under the molten sun.

“So, how are you doing with all of this?” Reagan asks as I tuck my next clue in the grass by the reclining statues of the Emperor Fountain. “I’m worried about you.”

I shrug, marking the clue with an American penny. “We’re just living moment to moment—it’s too hard otherwise.”

“And if . . .?”

Just two small words and the wound rips wide open so abruptly that it makes me gasp. “Oh, Isa! I’m sorry I brought it up. Take a deep breath, sweetie, I’m here.”

I clutch the locket, trying to stay in the present moment. The Darcy stairs are ahead, the bravery protein is literally in my grasp, Reagan’s arm is around my shoulders, Aiden and I are still together, there is beauty, there is love.

Reagan rubs my arm. “It’ll work out, Isa, you guys love each other. One way or another, love has to win, right?”

“Right.”

How can I tell her it’s a lie? How can I tell her about the Romeo nightmare at night even though Dante walks to me each dawn? She needs to believe love always wins for her own happiness right now. But love doesn’t always win. In some cases—some rare, once in a big bang cases—love even kills. Not with daggers and poisons and accidents and bullets. Love kills with beauty, with loss. I clutch my locket again, pressing it against the throbbing spot between my lungs. Make us brave, make us last.

“What a pair we are, huh?” Reagan says, her tone lighter as we stroll up the boardwalk and climb Darcy’s stairs to meet the housekeeper. “My Darcy just got out of jail and yours has a violent startle, and they’re determined to hate themselves while we’re determined to love them. Maybe I should just move here, and you and I adopt a pair of corgis instead.”

“They’re definitely more obedient.” I laugh, keeping my eyes on the gilded fairytale doors for the present moment, for reality. We have family and friends who love us. There is laughter, there is pleasure, there is hope still. For at least eighty-two more days.

The doors open, and the housekeeper comes out. “Miss Snow?” She looks at us both unsure who is the woman who pleaded with her on the phone for this.

“That’s me, Mrs. Redmond. Thank you so much for allowing this.”

“Oh, not at all. The public area of the house is yours for the afternoon.”

“Here, these are for you.” I give her the bouquet of roses. “I’ll be very careful, I promise.”

By the time we make it back to our Darcy’s, happiness looks like handwritten clues, each a quote from our happiest memories, for the man who forgets nothing.  I try not to run to Aiden but don’t do a great job of it. It’s more like a leap and a trot. He pulls me close with similar urgency as I curl next to him in a blanket.

“Oh, good, right on time to watch me beat Aiden.” Javier laughs, clearly dying another painful death on the chessboard, while Reagan folds by him, swallowing the last grape.

“Speaking of beating,” Aiden says as he executes Javier’s knight. “The IRS is auctioning off Feign’s properties to cover his tax bill.”

“Good. Fuck him.”

“Including Feign Art.”

Javier blinks and loses his bishop. “Really?” His voice softens as though unable to hate the only place in the world he was able to do what he loved, even in misery.

Aiden nods, looking at the chessboard as though he is studying it, which of course he isn’t. “I bought it,” he adds in a casual tone, advancing his queen.

Three gasps meet his announcement. “You did what?” I ask, while Javier and Reagan watch him with identical open mouths.

“Correction: I rescued it,” he says in that same casual tone, looking up at me.

“Why on earth did you that?”

“A few reasons, but the main one is that Feign Art is where I first saw you, where your painting hung. I wasn’t going to let it fall into the hands of some other asshole or become a soulless thing like a parking lot.” Through the rosy tint of my veil, his face takes on that surreal beauty it held this morning when he gave me the locket, and I recall his words. Is this the other part of his surprise? The glow in his eyes is a clear yes.

“So you own it now?” Javier’s voice is full of the same awe I feel, while Reagan still hasn’t closed her mouth.

“Technically we both do, if you’re interested,” Aiden answers, and I gasp again as I realize the full extent of his surprise—better than a gift to me, it’s a gift to Javier.

Javier is beyond blinking. “Come again?”

“Well, I can’t paint.” Aiden shrugs, advancing his knight. “But I’d like the gallery to stay what it was—a place of art, the place that brought Elisa to me. That’s where you come in.” Finally, the reason for his casual demeanor becomes obvious to me. It’s to entice Javier to say yes or to keep the significance of this gift modest so Javier doesn’t feel indebted.

Javier finally blinks. And that’s all he does while Reagan starts bouncing next to him, chanting, “OMG, OMG, OMG.”

“Aiden, I don’t know,” Javier hesitates but his voice is soft, almost like he’s in a dream as Reagan said earlier. “This is too much.”

“Is it? For a place that abused you and Elisa, that can finally allow you to do what you’re passionate about and makes everyone who loves you happy?” Aiden’s eyes flit to Reagan, and I register another layer in this gift. He’s giving Javier confidence, not just a dream. “It doesn’t seem like too much to me. But, if it makes this easier to accept, you have my word I bought it at a steal. The IRS doesn’t sell for profit.”

For the first time in this conversation, Javier’s eyes squint as they do when he is sketching the first lines, seeing the finished masterpiece in his mind long before his talent brings it on canvass. “How would it work?” he asks tentatively.

“You would run the place. Paint, commission, distribute—your prerogative.”

“And you?”

“My only interest in this endeavor is that it stays a gallery and you finish Elisa’s painting that you started. Other than that, you’re a majority owner.” Aiden’s voice is still casual but something about his words pulls at the edges of my memory. From the time he offered to be a passive investor in my supplement so I would be free of him. Is that what he’s doing now? Giving me distance if we don’t win? A chill whips through me, and I scoot closer to him, clasping my locket.

“Deal, partner?” Aiden asks Javier, holding out his hand.

Javier meets his eyes for a moment, then looks at Reagan and me. Her face is pure bliss; I can’t even feel mine. “Deal,” he answers, shaking Aiden’s hand.

Reagan loses it then and hugs Javier with her usual exuberance. “So happy for you, Javi.” I don’t realize I’m crying until Aiden’s finger wipes a tear with my veil. A single tear as happiness shifts in the shape of an eave above a door, saying Solis Gallery—Fine Art in elegant script. Still shocked, Javier takes me in his minty hug. “How about that, amorcita? We couldn’t even use the front door and now look at us.”

“No, look at you.”

“Can’t wait for you to come back, and we can all be together.” Javier speaks softly, but his voice rings like a gunshot over the gardens for me, cleaving me in two—one part by this pond of lilies, the other across the transatlantic pond. I can feel my blood draining out of my skin, filling the entire ocean with it. I hide my face behind his full beard.

“Love you, Javi.”

“Love you too, kiddo. Is everyone calling me Javi now?”

“Yep, it’s stuck.”

I stay in his hug a few seconds longer—all the years with him at Feign Art flashing like its own reel in front of my eyes. How can I not see Javi every day? How can I stay eight thousand miles from him? A camera clicks, and I meet Aiden’s gaze, his quiet strength fortifying me. I smile, willing the pixels not to show the chill that just whipped through me.

“Pip pip,” Reagan cheers, and a shower of Reagan petals sprinkles over us like confetti as she shreds her rose for the occasion. “Aiden, forget what I said earlier,” she laughs. “This is your most Darcian thing.”

“Darcy is overrated, Reagan. Elizabeth Bennett was the star.” He takes another photo of me, his eyes full of things too big for me to understand.

Mrs. Redmond emerges on the other end of the lawn then, beckoning us toward the great house. And the future—suddenly so bright for Javier, hopeful for Reagan, and utterly unknown for Aiden and me—disappears.  There is only this present moment of giving Aiden a beautiful memory.

“You guys go first,” I say, winking at Reagan. She drags Javier away faster than I can reach inside my picnic basket.

“Finally,” Aiden says, but he doesn’t stand. He pulls me onto his arms. “A minute just with you.”

He looks surreal again, in his white shirt as bright as the futures he creates. “Thank you for what you did for Javi. You were right, it’s better than even bravery. I’m afraid your surprise doesn’t compare to this.”

His lips lift into my favorite lopsided, dimpled smile. “Ah, yes, my surprise. I’m sure I’ll love it if you prepared it.”

“We have to walk around for a bit, but the grounds are almost empty.”

“Hmm . . .” he tilts his head side to side, pursing his lips, and my heart freefalls—did I miscalculate?

“It’s okay if you don’t want to.”

“Well, it depends.” I think I hear an undercurrent of humor in his voice, but his eyes are smoldering.

“On what?”

“Will you wear this hat?”

I giggle breathlessly in relief. “If you like.”

His lips brush along my jaw, following the trim of the veil to my ear. “I don’t like that it hides your face . . .” He kisses down my throat. “But I like the way it makes me feel.”

“How does it make you feel?” The veil flutters from my quick breath.

His nose skims my collarbone exposed over the neckline of my dress. “Forbidden.”

“You’re never forbidden for me.”

“Not even from making love to you right here, right now?” His mouth presses at the hollow of my throat.

“Oh, that.” My voice shakes. “Yes, nudity is strictly prohibited in the park.”

“Hmm.” His lips hunt up to my chin and stop on the other side of my veil as it wafts back and forth from our breath. “Then show me my surprise, Elisa, so we can go to the Park House where nudity is most certainly allowed, in fact required.” His mouth presses on mine over the veil. It takes all my power of concentration to form words.

“Okay then.” I push against his chest with difficulty—I can’t think with his lips on me. He chuckles and gives me space as I reach in my picnic basket and hand him the first folded clue. “Read it.”

He unfolds the scrap with that same boyish curiosity he had when he was solving the riddle for the twinkly lights. “What are men to rocks and mountains?” he reads, sounding perplexed.

“It’s your first clue. We’re doing a scavenger hunt. You have to guess each clue, until you find your surprise.”

Unrestrained joy breaks over his face as the tectonic plates shift. “I haven’t done one of these since I was ten,” he grins, looking back at the clue while I bounce on the spot—he loves it! “So this clue is obviously Elizabeth Bennett’s quote that we paraphrased when I was giving you a tour of my library on our embargo night.”

“Correct.”

“A very happy memory.”

“That’s the idea.”

The only times I’ve seen him move faster is when he picks me up to make love. He cleans up our picnic spot in seconds. Then we start our hunt, basket with the chessboard in my arm, folded blanket over his. The grounds of Chatsworth are so open and vast that Aiden’s ever-tense shoulders are not rippling, the bands of muscle at his waist are not straining. They’re in their permanent vigilant setting that doesn’t release him even asleep.

“So I’m looking for a rock,” he says, scanning the Salisbury lawn. I almost start skipping because now his vigilant eyes are searching for something fun, not threats.

“My lips are a locket.”

“Your lips are a magnet. Oh, Elisa, what is this? I believe it’s a rock with a purple flower on top.” He found it in two minutes despite the countless mossy boulders dotting the border of the lawn as it slopes into wilderness.

“That’s a wild orchid, and it brings luck.” He tucks the first clue in his shirt pocket and finds the folded note under the rock with an impatient sparkle in his eyes.

“‘We can’t mess with luck,’” he reads, and the plates shift as he summons his memory of this quote. It takes three seconds. “Another happy memory. The fountain at the rose garden in Portland on our first night. You wanted to make a wish to bring you luck, and you wished for another day with me.”

“This is too easy for you,” I grumble, but loving every bit of it.

He brushes my collarbone with the orchid. “That’s not the term I’d use.”

“What would you use?”

“Beautiful,” he answers, and his face beams with a most unAidenish playfulness. “So the fountain next then?”

I nod, but he doesn’t move. “Will you let me add something to the hunt?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Each clue I guess right, we hike this little veil an inch higher.”

“A millimeter”

“A centimeter.”

“Half.”

“Deal.”

He drops the orchid in my basket and lifts the veil half a centimeter, kissing the dip below my lower lip. Then drapes it back down, and we stroll to the Emperor Fountain although I am already wobbling. The spectacular jet stream shoots up three hundred feet in the air today. Aiden’s quick eyes scan the perimeter. This should be harder—the fountain’s lake is a water mirror of eight acres, framed with another lawn of blooms and grass. It would take me an hour to hunt around this. But Aiden knows the way my mind works better than my own. “I have a feeling this clue is hidden by the reclining statue, Elisa, because it looks like it’s lying on a bed, albeit a very uncomfortable one, and you love bed with me.”

I watch in awe as he searches around the sculpture and, in exactly fifteen seconds, he spots the clue on the grass in front it. “Well, well, well, what’s an American penny doing at Chatsworth?”

“Seeking asylum?”

He chuckles, tucking the rock clue in his shirt pocket, and picks up the folded note under the penny. “‘I’d like to discuss an unconventional proposal,’” he reads his own words to Kasia at Feign Art. “Ah, of course! You were eavesdropping.” He looks ridiculously happy about it. “Another good memory—commissioning my full painting of you. So next we go to the gallery in the Painted Hall?”

“Yes,” I smile, raising my face for him to lift the veil by another half a centimeter. He kisses the corner of my mouth with a sigh and drapes it back over. “I should have stayed strong at one inch. Can I throw the penny in the fountain and renegotiate?”

“No, they don’t allow that either.”

“Tyrants. No nudity, no coins in the fountain—how do they live?” I’ve never seen him more playful. He tosses the penny in my basket and tucks my arm in his as we climb the Darcy stairs that are now empty.

The Painted Hall of Chatsworth was built to take breaths away. And in both my prior visits it has stumped me, but not today. Today, the black and white marble floor gleams less than Aiden’s chessboard in my basket. The vivid demigods and nymphs adorning the staggering ceiling are dimmed by Aiden’s seraphic face flooded with the sunlight pouring from the high windows. We are all alone in this gallery of classical art, but the real masterpiece is framing me with his arms.

“It’s not my favorite painting,” he says, eyes on the frescoed ceiling. “But it’s certainly impressive. Now where would the next clue be?” He roams the hall, his footsteps ringing on the marble floor, gazing at each mural and antique. But the clue isn’t in the crimson settees, the delftware vases, or the marble busts. “Difficult,” he murmurs. “Very difficult—I like it.” His eyes absorb the scene with hunger, his mind focused on solving this happy clue, not reliving horrors.

I know exactly when he has found it because his eyes zero in on the spot in an almost audible way. “Aha!” He strides to the gilded staircase, lined with the burgundy velvet tapestry. “The fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“Yes!” I twirl as he jogs up the stairs and digs the clue from under the carpet, laughing his waterfall laughter. I skip to him and snap a picture with my iPhone as he unfolds the note.

“‘La Virgen. Are you sure you want to do this?’” His voice is soft as he reads the question he asked me in his bedroom before making love to me for the first time. But there’s nothing soft about the blue fire in his eyes as they meet mine. “My favorite painting, my favorite night.”

He lifts the veil another half centimeter, his teeth grazing my lower lip exactly as they did then. I hang in his arms, knees like air under me. Why did I hide so many clues? Why couldn’t I have ended it here so we could go back to the Park House and set fires there?

“The Sculpture Room next then,” he says, solving this clue. He tucks the stair note in his shirt pocket with the others—they’re starting to look like a paper boutonniere of happy memories—and sweeps me in his arms, the basket dangling from my elbow.

“Aiden, no! They’re not used to this here, we’re supposed to be modest and respectful.”

“We’re being both,” he answers, climbing the sweeping staircase. “This is modest compared to what I want to do. And it is respectful because there’s no one here and I have compensated them generously to give us privacy.”

What’s the point of arguing with him—I’m exactly where I want to be. He carries me down the splendid empty hall that he memorized from a map, his footsteps ringing in sync with my heartbeat.

“This is it, I believe.” He stops at the next gallery and sets me on my unsteady feet. We weave through the marble sculptures, Aiden more carved and graceful than any of them, until we reach the kneeling Vestal Virgin, her white veil flowing over her marble face as she guards the sacred flame of her temple.

“Do you think the flame she’s guarding represents her desire?” Aiden asks. “Or her life?”

“Both.”

“There is no difference sometimes, is there? When you want something so much it could kill you if you lose it.”

I grasp my locket, forcing myself to stay in this present moment as he picks up the clue on the floor before the virgin, his expression no longer playful. “‘She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies,’” he reads, and the Virgen’s flame is in his voice too. “A lot of happy memories there.”

He pulls me close and lifts the veil another half a centimeter to the part of my lips. His tongue traces it slowly, his breathing as rough as mine. “How many clues are left to burn me?”

“Umm . . . only two.” The tip of my tongue meets his.

He folds the veil back in place—it flutters and billows with my breath—and the playfulness returns to his face. “The library for Byron next?”

“Yes, but you have to behave there—we were told not to sit on the sofas.”

“What makes you think I would misbehave?”

“Your mouth.”

Shh, Elisa, you’re scandalizing the virgin,” he chuckles and leads me out of the room. As soon as we clear the delicate Sculpture Room, he lifts me in his arms again, basket and all. I’m sure the dignified portraits that adorn the corridor are as horrified as the virgin at our behavior, but I don’t see any of it. I only see the angles of his profile as we wind through the empty splendid halls. Briefly I wonder where Reagan and Javier are—I hope this gallery sparks something for them now that Javier owns his.

“The library,” Aiden announces, setting me down at the door.

The library is not part of the public tour but apparently at the right price, the exclusive doors open to a fortunate few. The stunning room has two floors, like Aiden’s in Portland. About thirty thousand leather-bound volumes line the walls with ladders leaning against the shelves. The precious emerald velvet sofas frame the marble fireplace.

Aiden glares at them as he strides to the carved pedestal on the corner for the library catalog. He flips through the pages quickly until he finds Byron. “Case six, shelf fourteen,” he grins, taking my hand. “Where will you lead me next?”

He finds the clue under the cover of the Venetian red leather volume only seconds later. “‘The most beautiful place in my life,’” he reads his words to me from a week ago when we were snuggled together at Oxford’s University Park. “Our bedroom,” he solves it without hesitation. “The happiest memory there is.”

“You’re impossible,” I laugh as the library clue joints the paper boutonniere and he tucks Byron’s volume back in the shelf.

He lifts the veil another half centimeter, exposing my upper lip, and presses his mouth on mine. The picnic basket feels suddenly heavy on my limp arms. He blows over my lips and folds back the veil with a pained sigh. “To the state bedroom, God help us,” he solves the clue.

As soon as we clear the library, he picks me up again, marching down the hall to the state bedchambers built for William and Mary. The bedroom is dominated by the bed, hung with curtains of crimson and gold and cordoned off in case there is any doubt whatsoever that we are not to lay on it.

“As I said, absolute tyrants,” Aiden says, but his arms wrap around my waist. He walks me backward to the wood-paneled wall until my back is against it and his body is pressed against every line of mine. My breathing is too fast, making the veil flutter as his lips take full advantage, kissing each sliver of exposed skin. I try to settle my lungs but it’s impossible with his mouth on me. The royal bedroom starts to spin.

“Aiden . . .” My picnic basket tumbles from my hand. “Be good . . .”

“Isn’t this good?” His mouth presses at the corner of mine as the veil blows open from my gasp. “I think it is.” Another huff, another fit of the veil, this one exposing my lower lip. He captures it with his teeth. “So good, Elisa.”

“Please?” I breathe. “They’ll make a fuss.”

“They’re not here . . .” His fingers skim my thigh lifting the hem of my dress and he plays hide-and-seek with my veil that doesn’t stand a chance against his mouth. His lips flutter over my jawline to my ear. He nips my ear lobe and trails his mouth down my throat and over my collarbones, kissing my skin as he would another part of me that is on fire. My head is whirling with his tongue. He dips it at the hollow of my throat, pressing into me through the thin fabric of my dress.

And I collapse.

“Elisa?” he asks alarmed, holding me up.

“Yes,” I gasp, shaking my head.

“Are you all right?”

“I think—your kissing—lightheaded.”

“Christ.” He pulls back a few inches to give me space but his arms don’t release me. He blows gently on my lips. “Hydrogen, 1.008, helium . . .” he starts. My giggle comes out shaky and weak.

“I’m okay,” I assure him, reaching a finger to smooth the worried V. “You’re just too good at this.”

He chuckles, still holding me up. “How can you nearly faint from kissing but handle everything else we’ve done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to sit? Or some water? Or fresh air?” He feels my forehead and I have to laugh.

“No, I’m fine. I get dizzy when you touch me all the time. Besides, we have your last clue.”

He watches me for a long moment as though to be sure I’ll live to tell the tale of his kissing. When my breathing finally evens out and my legs stop trembling, he chuckles again and releases me. “I think it’s this damn room. I better find this clue fast.”

He is probably right. There’s no telling what I would do if we stay in this room much longer—cordoned off bed or not. Besides the next part is guaranteed to cause more breathing problems. He scans the bedroom quickly, searching for anything resembling a clue. “Tricky,” he says, his eyes alighting on the off-limits bed, the dresser, the vanity, the porcelain vases, but there is nothing there. “Where would you have hidden—?” And then he smiles. “You wouldn’t have hidden this behind a painting, would you? Say, a painting of a river and grass and woods? A panting that looks a bit like the University Park where I told you our bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life?”

“You’ll have to find out.”

He strides across the room straight to the painting and peeks behind it at the small scrap of paper I wedged there. I hold my breath as he fishes it out because the happy memory he’s reading now is not ours. It’s his.

“‘When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.’” He reads his mother’s words from April 12, 1987—his first visit to Oxford—with a thick sound in his voice. A deep emotion enters his eyes and for a moment I worry I’ve triggered a horror. But he gazes at the scrap of paper with something like longing that I hadn’t seen in the dark park. “A happy memory from my life before you,” he murmurs.

I pick up my basket and teeter close to him, wanting to take a picture but not daring to ruin on the moment. “You’re done,” I say. “Kiss the first girl you’ve kissed, and you can see your surprise.”

He places the clue in his shirt pocket—the final scrap in the paper boutonniere—and pulls me against him, his eyes deep. “Can you handle this kiss?”

I nod even though I don’t know. I can barely handle his gaze. He hesitates a moment as though to prolong the memory and lifts the veil all the way this time, folding it over the rose on my fascinator. Then his hands curve around my face and he brings his mouth to mine.

I have lost count of how many times Aiden has kissed me—how each kiss feels both home and new, some slow, some urgent, some gentle, some hard, some deep, others light like air. But I’ll always remember this one. It’s like his mouth is combining all the kisses he has given me into this one, a boutonniere of lips imprinting everything he must be feeling on my tongue.  When he pulls away, too soon so I don’t faint again, I’m not the only one gasping.

“Thank you,” he says, each word sliced by his harsh breathing. “Whatever the surprise is, I will always remember the hunt.”

“You always remember everything.”

“Not by choice. But I choose this. If I could forget, I’d still never forget this.”

I reach under the liner of my basket, hands shaking, lungs in shreds, heart in my throat, and pull out the little journal. Its yellowed cream cover is embossed with roses.

“Here is something you remember but don’t know,” I say, handing it to him. As soon as it touches his skin, a wave of warmth spreads over me and I’d like to think it’s a hug.

He must see my emotion because he doesn’t ask anything even though curiosity raging in his eyes as he opens the aged notebook. “Clare Emilia Brighton,” he reads my mother’s maiden name quietly. “Is this your mother’s journal?”

I nod. “She kept a journal all her life. Go to the page I’ve marked.”

He lifts the silk tassel and inhales a sharp gust when he sees the date. “April 12, 1987.”

“Read it,” I whisper, leaning over to read with him even though I know it by now.

April 12, 1987

What a day today, dearest! Only six months at the Ashmolean, and I already wonder what on earth was I thinking! Had I listened to Mama, as you know, I would be gallivanting the world for a while before settling. And had I listened to Katherine I would be dating Fawkes—perish the thought. But instead I chose this. The job of a lifetime, the dream —you know all about that, of course. Oh, but how difficult it is! All day, I am squished in this cupboard of an office in the bowels of the museum with only pipes around me and not one window. My chair, I am convinced, used to be a torture implement under King Henry VIII. But I do not mind. It is the Old Beards who are difficult—the senior curators of the Grand Ash. They still will not entrust me with anything older than 1970. I knew as a fellow I would not be allowed to touch the artifacts—it should take years for me to do that. But can I not handle at least something more than gluing ripped textbooks or dusting the shelves? Must I be treated like a schoolgirl, not the scholar I am? Yet I despair that is all they see in me. For months, I have been wondering whether I am foolish to hope I will ever be allowed to restore anything of value. Why, it did not seem like that would ever happen, did it? Until today. It was quite brilliant, as you will see. A neuroscientist came to our dining hall before supper, Doctor Helen Brahms. She is quite respected at Oxford already although not forty yet. She marched straight to the Old Beards sitting together in their grandeur (I am not invited to sit with them, for which I count my blessings—Old Sturgis is positively medieval with his chewing). 

“I need Ashmole 611 restored by the end of the week,” she said. “I just took it out for a consult, and it’s in tatters, an absolute disgrace for the earliest study of human memory.” 

She seemed mortally offended. The entire hall was watching. But the Old Beards peered down their noses at her although she stands taller than six feet. “That cannot happen,” cackled Old Sturgis. 

“It can and it must,” she argued. “There’s a little boy who needs it.”

They ignored her, returned to their pea soup. 

“Did you hear me?” she raised her voice. “There is a seven-year old boy who cannot forget anything, and that manuscript might have something to explain it.”

Not one of them looked at her, dearest. Six feet tall and brilliant and still not good enough while a little boy needs help. I could not bear it. So I jumped up and said, “I’ll do it. I will restore Ashmole 611.”

The Old Beards were apoplectic, shouting and telling me off. “She hasn’t touched a page older than 1976,” yelled Old Sturgis. “She will not touch Ashmole 611.”

“Well obviously neither will you,” Doctor Brahms snapped at him. 

I admitted it was true, but said, “I’m good, and I will do it for you.”

More shouting—Old Sturgis spit his soup on his beard. But she smiled at me.

“I shall speak with the director. He is a close family friend,” she said loudly for them to hear, and they all fell quiet then. “You will restore Ashmole 611. What is your name?”

“Clare Brighton,” I answered, a bit church-moused now that I realized how well-connected she is.

“Well, Clare Brighton, let’s leave them to their pea soup, shall we?”

And that was it, dearest. She arranged with the director to move me to a proper office and I have been repairing Ashmole 611 until now. The little boy is here with his parents from the United States for the week. I must finish it by then. Can you imagine how that must feel? To never forget? A fearsome power to behold, I reckon. I do hope Doctor Brahms can help him. Meanwhile, she helped me. I have a window now and a director who agreed to mentor me. It was a good day. Goodnight, Diary! 

By the time I finish it, I know the seven-year old boy who grew up has read it multiple times. But when I look up at him, his eyes are still on the page despite having already memorized it. A tear gathers in my eye but I dash it off while Aiden still reads. I give him time until he is ready. When his eyes meet mine, they are unfathomable.

“I can’t believe it.” His voice is low and husky.

“I know. I’ve been searching through her journals ever since Doctor Helen told us the date, and I finally found it. I read through her other journal entries for that week. You can read them next if you want. They’re just about her gluing up Ashmole 611 and giving it to Doctor Brahms. Here, see?”

He flips through the pages, reading them in seconds. “She barely slept that week to help me.”

“Yes, but you helped her too.”

He watches me for another long moment. No words, eyes unfathomable still. “Good surprise?” I ask. He nods, still seeming unable to speak. “What are you feeling right now?”

“Happy . . . terrified . . . I don’t want to hurt her daughter . . . or lose you.”

I place my hand over his thundering heart. “You won’t. And you cannot lose me, I’m yours.” For as long as he will have me.

He closes the journal, and places it carefully in the basket. Then he takes my face in his hands and he brings his mouth to mine. So we add love, kiss after kiss— we have learned this trick now—until fear recedes. Because sometimes happiness can look like a monster but it never is. Right now, happiness morphs, looking like Aiden and me in a foreign bedroom with guardian angels above us in the frescoed ceilings and a locket of bravery beating by my heart.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 19 – DAWN

Hello all, and happy Tuesday instead of Sunday! Computer troubles are always a pain in the tonsils as a good friend here would say, but during a pandemic they’re more akin to strep throat. Hence my delay. Hope you enjoy this chapter, and thanks as always for reading and writing. Lots of love, Ani.

19

Dawn

One week of war. The most beautiful war there has ever been. Every day is a new reel of brilliancy—one blissful moment to another, all blending into a catalog of happy memories counteracting the reel of torture. Each night is a sheet of music—Aiden’s waterfall laughter, the sounds of our love, and Für Elise rebuilding his memories note after note. And Aiden and I have never been closer. Even our internal clocks have synchronized, melding together in a united front. How different love feels at war. It’s as though each cell dreads love’s absence and therefore magnifies its presence a million-fold. Each touch feels like a hundred touches before, each kiss like a thousand of the ones pre-war. Or maybe our cells have not changed—maybe we’re simply living more. Every day, every hour is a new life, even the darkest hour of them all: right now, at dawn.

Because this is the hour of the reel of torture. We tried other times for it—before supper, afterwards—but the waiting was its own torment, at least for me. Only this small hour wedged between the blissful moment of waking up together and the blissful moment of watching the sunrise in the garden has been survivable.

“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep in today?” Aiden asks as I throw on my pajamas. He is still in nothing but star-gold skin and midnight hair, glowing under the soft light of the bedroom chandelier. He pulls me into his chest. “It is Saturday after all. You deserve a day off.” His eyes are overwhelming, his voice a lullaby willing me to drift. I have to use all my strength to resist them.

“I’ll take a day off when you take a day off,” I answer, caressing his scar.

“It’s not the same, love.”

“You’re right. You have by far the hardest job.”

He brushes my cheek with whisper-light fingers. “I don’t think that’s true. I know I’d rather go back to that school in Fallujah every hour than watch you do it once, let alone every day as you’re doing with me.” The music of his voice misses a note at the mere thought, as it does every time we have this argument.

“But even worse than that is not being there at all.”

“You would still be there for the recovery part. You just don’t have to be there for the gore.”

I place my hand over his lips. In a few moments, their warmth will disappear, their vivid plum color will bleach away. “Aiden, we’ve been through this and through this. It’s the only option I can live with. I have to be there.”

He kisses my palm and moves it to his cheek. His eyes hold me for a moment, their depths unfathomable. “I love you,” he says. “It’s a selfish reason for you to deal with this, but it’s still the truest thing in my world.”

Before I can say I love you back, his mouth captures mine. His lips are gentle but his tongue is deep, as though he is trying to kiss me inside out. I give him back everything I have, drinking him like an elixir for strength. Because without his taste, I cannot live through the forty-five minutes ahead.

He breaks the kiss with a sigh. “Come on then. Let’s get this out of the way.” He looks around our happy bedroom one final time and takes my hand.

The moment the bedroom door closes behind us, Aiden transforms. The warm glow of his skin vanishes, and he expands—taller, Herculean in his stance. It’s as though the more this war takes from him, the stronger he grows. A flame is lit within him, finally unleashed to raze his past to the ground.

But every war exacts its toll, even the beautiful kind. Not like a big bang—this cost is insidious. It’s in the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights that Aiden has planted like landmines throughout the cottage for my safety—which are an improvement to the Tasers and bear spray he wanted. It’s is in the laundry cupboard where each morning after the reel Aiden washes and stores his battle uniform—the same dark jeans, blue shirt, and grey boxers he wore for the MRI because he will not taint any other item of clothing with his memories of terror or allow those memories to linger inside the cottage even if only on cotton fibers. He dons his uniform now, his eyes darkening except that flicker of turquoise that will continue to gleam as long as I’m in his sight. Because there are live landmines inside us, too. They’re in Aiden’s longer silences and the far-away stare at certain moments. They’re in his touch and mine—the way we hold each other as we pause in the foyer.

“What will you remember during this?” he asks, throwing my mum’s parka over my shoulders.

“This is just a petal.”

“And what does that mean?”

“That the worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“That’s right. And what is our reward today?”

I smile even here on the threshold of our bloodiest battle. “We’re going to Pemberley with Reagan and Javier, and you have a surprise for me that will make my heart melt.”

He traces my lips with his thumb. “I do. I want you to think about that for the next forty-five minutes. Think only of the good things ahead.”

“I have a surprise for you, too,” I tell him, kissing the pad of his finger.

His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile—his last true smile until I bring him back. “You do?”

I nod. “I know you can’t think about that in the next forty-five minutes, but just keep it here.” I rest my hand above his heart. The blade of muscle flexes under my fingers.

“I will.”

Abruptly, I wish we could skip the next hour, climb in the Rover, and drive so he can see it now, so the dimple can stay. It’s almost impossible to surprise Aiden, but I think I’ve managed it this time.

He sighs as though he is wishing the same thing and bends to slide my socked feet inside my Wellingtons. Then with a last glance at my childhood photos, he opens the front door. Because we both knew from the beginning we could never do this inside the cottage or even in the garden.

The sky is still dark when we step outside. The roses are fast asleep under the moonlight, but their fragrance is always awake, healing our lungs. I hear Aiden take a deep breath at the same time that I inhale until my ribcage hurts. Stay with us, Mum.

He is quiet as we cross the garden, and I give him the silence he needs to harvest his strength from every corner of his mind. I do the same but tuck my arm in his and rest my head on his stone bicep. The spot of contact is softer than the rest of him now entirely carved in granite. His knuckles brush the Elisa blooms as we pass them.

We stop at the largest landmine of them all. The garden shed where the headset of torture lives, pulsing with evil. I duck inside to pick it up, ignoring the snap of his teeth in wordless protest. He knows by now this is another argument he cannot win. I crave the pain it gives me to touch it so he doesn’t have to hold it a single second more than he needs. I wrap it inside the woolen blanket dad used for camping, drawing strength from mum’s gardening tools. I am steel like them. I’m the shears slicing off each cable that bound him. I’m the rake flaying the skin of everyone who touched him, the spade digging their graves. I tuck the other item in my pocket, having zero sense or science for it, and come out. “I have a good feeling this comeback will be easier,” I say, trying to make him smile again.

He does, but there is no dimple anymore, no light. “They’re all easier with you.”

As soon as we leave the garden, his stride picks up, tension snapping like armor over him, ready to demolish and be demolished. The opposite happens with me. Even though I battle to stay with him every dawn, suddenly I want to slow to a crawl or even better go back under the sheets with him and hide him in my hair for the next eighty-two days.

But the spot in Elysium where we do this comes too fast. It’s the spot where we sat together exactly a week ago after I had left him a second time. These are the only blades of grass in Burford that hold an initial painful memory for him. We spread out the blanket together while I straighten the corners, prolonging each last second. An ancient grief enters his eyes as he watches me and I know in this moment his only wish is for me to leave, to run away as far as possible from this. No matter how much he wants me.

“I’ll be right here,” I say, forcing my voice to remain steady.

“Only during the safe time.”

“I know.”

“After that, you’ll go straight to the safe zone until it’s over. Promise me.”

“I promise.” It’s the hardest promise to make, the hardest to keep, but the most vital one not to break. Because he needs to trust this to get through the rest. His eyes arrest me, burning intensely, but I don’t blink so he sees the truth in mine. He nods once and sits on the blanket, folding me with him in the fortress of his arms. I rest my head on his chest for a final moment, listening to his heartbeat, drawing his fragrance inside me like a tonic.

“Here,” he says, and I can tell the effort is costing him to keep his voice light. He pulls an Elisa petal out of his cuff and presses it into my palm, closing my fingers around it in a fist and bringing it to his lips. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

“I’ll be waiting,” I whisper so my voice doesn’t break. He reaches for the headset but I beat him to it for once. “Let me do it. I know how.”

His jaw clenches again but he doesn’t argue. He lies down for me even though how he sits doesn’t matter. The white headset is icy like my body heat or dad’s woolen blanket never touched it. I fight my shudder as I look into Aiden’s eyes. In the dark dawn, I feel more than see the turquoise flame go out.

“Think about your surprise and stay safe.” His final words are low, tension twisting the music of his voice into a hard command.

“I will.”

His hands cover mine, pulling the evil over his beautiful head. I secure the strap around his soft waves and snap the buckle at his temple, swallowing my tears. If Aiden doesn’t cry through this, neither will I. I kiss his lips—they’re cooling already. “I love you,” I tell him.

“Always.”

With more strength than it took to attend my parents’ funeral, or to board my flight back to England, or to visit their grave, I press the white button in the center. The sinister red dot gleams immediately like a sniper point at his forehead as the reel starts. Aiden’s body becomes motionless with a soft gasp. And I know even though he is here on the blanket with me, he is now gone. Traveling places, decades, years, days, even hours of the thirty-five years of his incredible life.

I know each minute of the reel by heart—Aiden walked me through them painstakingly second to second to prepare me now that I get to see him, even though we both know no amount of preparation will ever inure me to this. But the first fifteen minutes are the easy ones. Just neutral or positive images from Aiden’s life, including me. I use them to prepare for his arrival. It makes no sense to do this whatsoever—as soon as Aiden reenters the present time, we will want to leave this spot as soon as possible to start our life. But I still decided yesterday to make each comeback new, different somehow. Not because it will make any minute of this hour more livable. But maybe it will make his return easier. I take out the spool of fairy lights from my pocket and tiptoe around the blanket, unraveling it while drawing deep, slow breaths like Aiden taught me to conserve air for the hardest part. I flip on the battery switch and his still form is surrounded with a hundred bright little stars, twinkling under the indigo sky. His face below the headset looks warmer under their glow, like he is sleeping, even if soon it will turn to ice.

“You’ll like this,” I whisper and trot to the safety line he has marked in the grass for me some twenty feet away where I imagine the rose shield starts. The easy fifteen minutes are almost up. I sit on the meadow where I first crawled and wrap my arms around my knees, counting the seconds in my head, eyes never leaving Aiden’s form encircled with lights.

I know exactly when he enters that schoolyard in Fallujah. I know because his restful body becomes rigid, chest jolting upward as his shoulders press against the ground.

“Thirty minutes, love,” I mutter, clutching my petal. But what thirty minutes they will be. In Aiden’s world under the blistering Fallujah sun, the IED just exploded as his body shudders here on Elysium while the shock reverberates through his mind equally deafening as that fateful May morning, unmuted by time. Yet not a single sound escapes his lips. The picture of the little boy’s ruptured torso strikes him now, and Aiden’s throat bends like he is choking on bile. I breathe like he taught me, but the dust and the little boy’s blood are suffocating him. His breaths become gasps as he tries to find pieces of the boy while a helmet full of brains strafes his retinas. But despite Aiden’s gasping, I don’t want the next minute to come. I’d rather asphyxiate here and now for him than have him live through it, but come it does. Aiden’s chest heaves with another shattered breath as the image of the school flashes on his screen and the Marines become surrounded by insurgent fire. He retreats inside the school with Marshall for cover, his body taut on the woolen blanket.

“Twenty-five minutes, love.” I press the heels of my boots in the meadow.

The photo of a young Jazzman blasts Aiden now, as he reaches the second floor, crossing the classroom I wish they had never entered, to save Jazzman and the others who are under fire below. Go low, Aiden signs to Marshall. Cal and Hendrix are upstairs. I grip my own arms and lock all my muscles in place despite Aiden’s flat and alert body on the meadow, because his hand just closed in a victorious fist. He just fired his last shot, the shot that saved Jazzman’s life. Then Aiden’s head jerks violently and slumps to the side as the back of a rifle cracks his skull.

For the next ten minutes—the only minutes Aiden doesn’t remember—his body is inert on the blanket, his mind utterly dark. I should use these minutes to breathe for the horror ahead, I should use them to think of Aiden’s surprise and mine as I promised, but a different darkness enters my own mind. In thoughts of the worst kind. What if Aiden had never tried to save Jazzman and the children? What if he had gone to the third floor with Cal and Hendrix instead? Worse still, what if Aiden had not woken? What if he had never seen what happens next? I clutch mum’s sleeves, rocking in place, each what if pounding like a crack to the back of my own skull.

But no amount of bartering lives with the universe can stop time. Aiden’s mind reconnects with his body, and he comes to with a strangled gasp. And the torture begins.

No one touches Aiden here on Elysium, yet he starts writhing in silent agony. His head jerks side to side, and he cringes against the blanket, shoulders rounding forward then suddenly convulsing as he tries to tear through the steel cables that now bind him. But he can’t break though. His body contorts in pain right here before my eyes, but not a single scream tears through him, not one cry, as he is throttled from behind.

I jump to my feet then, clenching my jaw to stop my own screams, clutching my head to keep it from imploding like that schoolyard. If I could only get closer, if I could only touch him, hold his anguished face, bring him back now. But I couldn’t—I know that—he is locked in the darkest flashback of his life, his eyes seeing only his best friend being tortured alive. He will need the reel of my pictures before the danger passes for me to get close. I can never betray him now.

On and on Aiden strains in universal agony and I start pacing, shuddering up and down the safe half of my childhood meadow, eyes on him. Because for these ten minutes I am just a child, just a girl who has never once felt pain like this. My parents’ crushed Beetle, their broken bodies, their coffins in the grave together—although big bangs to me—they’re tragedies happening every day in life. They’re not the kind of horror that stuns history and stumps science. Their massacre of the soul does not compare to this.

“Six minutes,” I gasp through my teeth. “I’m coming, love, you just have to hang on for six more.” And he does. He burns in soundless agony, his fists shaking at his sides. “Five minutes. Five petals, Aiden, and we can be together.” Between my fingers, my own petal disintegrates, and I stifle my sob. Because the worst images are still ahead.

Abruptly, I’m furious. With a red-tinged haze over my eyes, Elysium looks different. Nothing has changed—Aiden is still burning on dad’s blanket inside the wreath of lights under the cobalt sky—yet the scene transforms for me. I’m no longer the orphaned girl, the muse in a painting, or the woman who waits for the letters at home. I’m not a warrior or a survivor. I am the war. I am his peace. I summon all our weapons like a shield over me. Because I cannot stop the next four minutes, but as soon as the reel ends, I will need to be as invincible as him.

I stop where I am, steadying my mind, quelling my lungs as the seconds tick away and the sky turns sapphire. “Three minutes, my love. Just three more, and I’ll bring you back. I won’t let anything touch you then.”

But the end does not come easy for him—it never does. If it were for myself, I’d shut my eyes and ears. But I’m here for him. I plant my feet, shove my hands in my pockets to warm them for him, and brace for his visceral low snarl that reaches me here. Chills run from the crown of my head to my heels, but I flex every muscle as Aiden taught me so I don’t move an inch. The torment on his face impossibly doubles, whether with his own agony or Marshall’s or both he will never tell me. Then suddenly he stills, he breathes, because in this image the insurgents have agreed to release Marshall in exchange for Aiden’s life. Go, pretty boy, they’re sneering at him because he is no longer the handsome, young Marine I saw in the photo. His face without lips, nose, or ears is scorching Aiden now. Strangled sounds are ripping from his teeth, as he begs Marshall to leave him behind.

And Marshall listens. Aiden’s ribcage rises and falls quickly as the picture of a blood trail sears his eyes. I watch without blinking as Marshall crawls to the classroom door in Aiden’s flashback. I know because, even drowning in pain, Aiden smiles. Just a small smile watching his best friend leave, no regret for having traded his own life for Marshall’s freedom.

Then with a sudden gasp, Aiden’s torso jolts and his smile dies. Because one of the insurgents fired the first bullet, ending Marshall’s life. Then another jolt and another—like a defibrillator shocking Aiden’s heart—seven times, one per each bullet riddling the corpse of Marshall that is flashing on the screen now. A guttural sound of agony rips from Aiden’s chest, and his lungs give out. It’s the single most harrowing thing I’ve ever heard. His body slumps seeming lifeless in the same position he was then—shoulders contorted and shuddering throat to fist. Under the warm glow of the fairy lights, his mouth is parted in a silent no.

And then it ends. The torture is over even if Aiden is still in its grip. Yet, the chills leave me as I stand here shaking and silent. Because in five seconds, my photo will caress his eyes. My sleeping face, my rose, the stave of my music, my favorite chocolate— the small things that calm him, that make him happy—will enter his mind.

“Almost home, love,” I whisper, swallowing more tears. “I’m coming, Aiden, coming right now.” I step over the safety line, timing my steps to each image.

I would know the second my photograph hits the screen even if I weren’t counting. I would know because he draws his first breath and his arms settle naturally on each side of him. My rose softens his throat. But he is still gasping, his shoulders are still convulsing, his fists are iron hammers at his sides. Then my face kisses his retinas again, over and over, breaking the steel cables and slowing the convulsions of his shoulders. By the time I cross the fairy lights, the tremors have become the familiar ripples that, until I witnessed his torment this week, I had thought were earthquakes. His seraphic face is ashen under the fairy glow, but no longer contorted. The red light on his forehead goes dark. I can touch him now, even if he is still locked away in the aftermath.

I sit next to him and wrap my warm hands around his fist as Doctor Helen taught me. “Aiden,” I call him, pouring all my love, faith, and pride in my voice. “You’re through, you brave, brave man. You’re right here on Elysium with me.” The fist skips a quiver but remains closed. His breathing is still harsh as strangleholds of tension strain him. “You’re safe, I’m safe, and we’re together. I’ll take off the headset so you can see when you’re ready. Feel my hands, love, I’m touching your face.” I tuck his fist between my knees so it stays warm and cradle his face. The sharp panes are cold. I shove back my Romeo vision—this is Dante, he just walked through hell for me—and massage his jawline gently in little circles. “Do you feel that? It’s my fingertips that you kiss each morning.” His jawline flexes, like a hello. “Hi, you,” I greet it back. “You’re strong, you’re loved.” I trail my fingers to his temples and release the small buckles that secure the evil thing. It’s warm now with all the life it has drained from him. I pull it off, immediately finding Aiden’s eyes. They’re closed as I expected them to be, his pupils still racing under the lids in flashbacks. I lower my face to his and kiss them like petals. “We’re on dad’s green blanket, my love, with wildflowers around us. Daisies and forget-me-nots and orchids and poppies.” I kiss his eyelids on each flower name, but there is no change in him. “The sky is lightening, almost lilac-sapphire like it’s mixing the color of your eyes and mine. And in a bit, we’ll watch the sunrise like every morning, just you and me. Can you hear the skylarks and the nightingales? They’re starting to trill.” The fist softens between my knees, but shudders are still running through him. “Do you know this present moment right here is probably the seven thousandth time I’ve sat on Elysium? I can’t remember most of them, but I’ll always remember this because this is when you come back to me. And I have a little something for you when you open your eyes. It will make you smile. What could it be, you might ask . . . ” The ripples are not slowing. “I’ll give you a clue: ‘love that moves the sun and other stars.’ How about that, Dante?” His eyes remain closed, and his breath is still ragged. I press my lips to his and blow inside his parted mouth as he does with me. “Let’s breathe together, love. Your air and my air and the rose breeze. We can smell the roses even from here. They’re awake, waiting for us.” For a moment I start to panic that it’s taking longer to bring him back, but then a familiar sigh warms my lips. His gasps slow as his lungs synchronize to mine, and Aiden kisses me back. Just a gentle brush of his lips, but he is here. “Hi!” My voice breaks in relief and I clutch his face so I don’t collapse on top of him. “Welcome back.”

His eyes open at the same time as his fist. They are dark and ravaged still, but the turquoise flame starts to flicker the moment he sees me. “I missed you.” I smile at him, ribcage swelling at his arrival.

He doesn’t speak but, slowly, lifts his head for my mouth. I mold mine to his, keeping him inside my hair bubble because he likes the way my hair smells. On clue, he inhales deeply. His fist leaves my lap and his arm winds around my waist—it feels weighty, as it does when he falls asleep. He holds me to him, breath to breath, mouth to mouth, as the last wave of ripples disappears. I feel him test his body for response, and I know exactly the moment when control reverts back to him. The weight of his arm eases but he doesn’t release me, and his lips fold with mine. “I missed you, too,” he says as soon as he can speak. His voice is worn and hoarse as though his silence under torture scrubbed it more than a scream would.

I pull back an inch to watch his now-clear eyes. As soon as they meet mine, he smiles. An I-crossed-the-desert-for-you smile, but it lifts up his cupid lips. I will never tire of this smile, ravaged and exhausted though it is. It’s as precious to me as his dimple—because this is the smile that brings him back to me.

He brings his hands to my face—they’re steady and warmer. “How are you?” he asks, searching my eyes, feeling my forehead.

“I’m fine, sweetheart. Safe and happy and so proud of you.”

“As I am of you,” he says. “You did beautifully.”

The word sounds backwards when he says it—like it was made only for him, no one else. “I worried it was taking a bit longer this time,” I admit.

“I’ll always come back to you.”

He pulls me back to his lips here inside my hair bubble and I kiss him back with hunger. Like his worn smile, this languid kiss has become life to me. Second only to his very first kiss because it vanquishes the last dregs of tension and brings him back to him. With each brush of his lips and stroke of his tongue, Aiden comes to life. His mouth takes on its brand of possession, seizing the present moment inside mine. Then abruptly he stops. “Love that moves the sun and other stars?” he asks as all his memories and synapses reconnect. His voice is gaining back its music.

I smile, suddenly feeling as girlish as I was when I first did cartwheels on this field. “Yep. Solve it and you get to see your present moment in full.”

The dimple puckers in his stubble more beautiful than the fairy lights outside my hair curtains. Not that I need their cover—he hasn’t looked away from my face once. “Is it Baci?” he guesses reasonably since that was the first quote Baci gave him in England.

“No, that was to trick you.”

I love watching his eyes shift with childish curiosity, not horror. “Is it one of Dante’s books?”

“No. You’re thinking too big.”

“Something small then . . . that you could fit in your pocket so I wouldn’t see . . . that has to do with love and the stars and the sun . . .” he muses while I almost bounce next to him because he is not thinking of Fallujah now. “A condom?” he asks, and I laugh at his boyish grin.

“No, sorry. But soon you won’t need those anymore.”

Apparently that thought works better at revival than riddles. Pure delight bursts over his face like the imminent sunrise. “In exactly six days—”

“And seventeen hours.”

I’ve never seen his eyes torn with better conflict: desire and curiosity splitting him in half. They both win and lose. He pulls me on top of him, rippling with a different kind of hardness. “I give up,” he says against my lips, pressing into me. I press back, sweeping my hair to the side.

“For you, Dante.”

He blinks in the sapphire dawn where the fairy lights are still twinkling. His grin becomes a soft, good gasp and that flicker of shyness gleams in his eyes, like an echo back from seven-year old Aiden. He sits up, holding me to him, and gazes around at the circle of lights speechless. “I did it during the safe time,” I assure him. “They were shining on you, like our bedroom chandelier.”

It’s a testament to how selfless he is—how little he accepts for himself from others—that even this smallest of gestures stuns him. If this is his reaction to some old lights, what is he going to do at Pemberley today? He feels my excitement in my bounce and looks at me, his eyes brighter than the twinkly lights. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that my chest tightens. “I love my surprise.”

“Oh, this isn’t your surprise. You’ll see that later. This is just our present moment.”

He smiles with a strong emotion in his eyes. “Leave it to you to find a way to make even this beautiful.” And he brings me back to his mouth.

By the time we reach the rose garden to catch the sunrise, the hour of torture feels far away, a different life. How can all the terror of the last hour fade so quickly? Add love, just the right kind. Aiden strips out of his clothes at the threshold immediately and leaves them in a pile with the blanket and the headset, but throws the twinkly lights over his neck—his mind already disassociating them from any pain. At the sight, even the sunrise doesn’t impress me anymore. A flash of heat whips my cheeks. He swoops me in his arms and strides in nothing but lights and golden skin to the garden bench.

“Are you warm or is it my male nudity à la Oxford?” Aiden teases as he sits on the bench with me across his lap.

“Oh, more of one and less of the other,” I answer, eyes on his erection pressing firmly against my thigh.

He chuckles and slips off my Wellingtons and parka, setting them carefully aside. Then he turns me on his steely thighs so we can both see across the river, past the field of epiphanies, and over the rolling hills where an orange flame very similar to the one on my skin is kindling the horizon. Magnificent and utterly ordinary compared to the face behind me. Or the erection now pushing against the small of my back.

“Maybe this will help with the male nudity part.” Aiden’s lips are at my ear, sending tingles down my spine.

“Definitely not helping.”

“No?” His lips press at the Aeternum spot below my ear and brush down my neck. “What about this? Does this help?”

“Not at all.” My voice quivers like the rest of me. A marigold halo bursts through the sky.

“And this?” His hands slip under my pajama top, peeling it off a step ahead of the sun. Wherever his fingers touch, my skin catches fire despite the sultry morning and the rose breeze.

“Huh-uh.”

“My, my, male nudity seems positively dangerous. How about this?” He cups my breasts, and I fall against his chest with a sigh, reaching behind me to grasp the male nudity in question. “Oh, this won’t do, Elisa.” He twines my arms over his neck with the twinkly lights. “Male nudity is distracting you from the sunrise. Maybe something stronger?” His fingers blaze their own fire-trails over my breasts, and his teeth graze my shoulder. My sigh turns into a moan. “Sounds like this is helping.”

“Hmmm . . .”

“And this?” A smooth glassy tip circles my breast, and my eyes fling open. Two twinkly lights are flickering around my nipples as sunrays scatter over us. Every nerve ending in my skin becomes a spark. “Does this help?”

“Mmm . . .”

“More help?”

“Please . . .” The sssss blends with the willows. He draws orbits with the lights on my breasts like they are his suns and his hands revolve around them. The lights gleam on my skin as streaks of heliotrope, saffron, gold, and honey flare across the sky. But the only color I crave is turquoise. The familiar ember in my depths starts pulsing with life. I press my thighs together for some relief and roll against him.

“Looks like we need reinforcements,” he murmurs, kissing the spot just under the corner of my jaw. Before I can think, before I can concentrate on his words over the blood thundering in my ears, he starts winding the string of lights over my breasts, across my ribs, and around my waist like a glimmering thread tying me to him.

“Oh!” I gasp, mesmerized by the little stars blinking on my skin as dazzling as the new sun, as bright as the heat within.

“Helpful oh?” Aiden’s lips brush along my cheek to the corner of my open mouth.

“Yes,” I breathe, turning my face for his kiss. I get lost in his mouth as his hands slip under the waistband of my pajamas. He slides them down my legs along with my knickers until they fall off my feet. Hot as a sunray, his tongue traces my lips at the same moment that he entwines his long legs with mine, spreading them apart as the full sun blazes across the sky. I gasp again, and he frees my mouth.

“Feel, love,” he murmurs, his arms and legs encircling me like the lights, his fragrant body heat engulfing me with the sun. But on the hottest, wettest part of me, I feel only the cool rose breeze. Breathless and trembling, I clutch his hand and press it between my legs.

“Here, please,” I beg shamelessly. It would only be embarrassing if I didn’t know with certainty that he wants me as much as I want him.

One warm finger traces the length of me. “This helps more than this?” he asks, thrusting into the small of my back.

“No . . . but . . . condom . . . far.”

His finger trails back up, making me hiss. “Oh, Elisa, you’re not the only one with tricks.” Before my moan fades, his hand leaves me and reaches under the bench. I’ve barely managed to focus my eyes when he taps the foil of a condom inside my thigh.

“Wha—how?”

He chuckles. “I’ve hidden these everywhere. You have six days, sixteen hours, and forty-five minutes to find them all and ruin them with me.”

He turns me around quickly so we face each other again. And for a moment the world stops for me, even the rapid pulsing inside. What are sunrises compared to him? The blue fire in his eyes smolders, his skin gleams, his lustrous hair like a black corona over his impossible face. Half of the twinkly lights are still draped around his neck, the other half sparkling all over my torso. He looks at me the same way—as though I am his sun.

Just one moment, and the world starts again. I launch myself at his mouth, starved for his taste, his feel, gripping his face, inhaling his scent. Over the rushing in my ears, I hear his moan and the foil tearing. Then he lifts my hips and pauses, waiting for me to open my eyes. I do—how could I miss a single fleck of him?

“Love that moves the sun and other stars, you said, Elisa?”

At my gasp, he lowers me onto him, twinkle after twinkle, inch after inch, moan after moan. Then he takes us both over the horizon until our bodies start to fracture like the sunrays on our skin and a new reel of brilliancy begins.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 18 – FIGHT

Happy Sunday, friends! Time for another chapter in Aiden’s and Elisa’s story. I hope it wraps up your weekend with a smile and that you are are all enjoying some rest and relaxation.  Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

18

Fight

By the time we drop off Reagan, Javier, and Benson at the Inn, it’s nine o’clock and the terror of the day is winning, settling like sediment in my brain crevices, my ears, my eyes. Each time I blink, Marshall gazes back at me. Each time the Rover purrs, I hear monitor beeps. Each time I wade through my thoughts, Aiden’s pain lances through me, sharper than my own.

“You’ve been quiet,” Aiden observes next to me as he turns left off Ivy Lane toward the open fields.

“Just thinking about it all.”

“It has been an interminable day.” He hits the gas as we zip through the only country road to the cottage. My day is only half-over, but I can’t bring myself to tell him I’m going back to Bia tonight to test the idea Doctor Helen just gave me. How can I add even one more grain of worry to the incomprehensible weight he will be carrying for us, for me?

We reach Elysium in two minutes. Across it, the cottage’s peaked roof rises like a beacon against the brilliant moon. Aiden parks the Rover in the shed at the edge of the field that dad converted into a garage when he and mum bought their Beetle.

“Almost home,” Aiden sighs. He tucks the box with the torture headset quickly under his arm, as if to hide it from me, but even in that glimpse a shudder jolts down my spine. I pat the polaroid of our kiss in my purse and get out of the Rover as quickly as I can. He takes my hand, pressing his lips at my wrist, and we set off across Elysium. In a few steps, mum’s rose shield will fall over us, over him. Guard him, Mum. Take everything from me and give it to him.

The perfume of the roses intensifies, as if they smell the arrival of a new kind among their own—the rare Aeternum oil that Aiden realized for me. Like he did all my other dreams, like he is trying to do for my ultimate dream of being with him. The cottage and the garden come in full view, silvery white. Aiden is quiet, too—perhaps he senses my urgency to get inside the rose bubble, perhaps he feels it too. But the second we reach the garden threshold, he stops, halting me with a gentle clasp of his fingers. I turn, unaware that for the first time I remember, I had been walking several steps ahead of him. He sets down the box of torture outside the garden threshold and takes my face in his hands.

“Please tell me what you’re thinking. Before I lose my mind.”

What can I tell him? That I’m afraid even as I believe in him more than I’ve ever believed in anyone? That the present moment is as terrifying as the future and as fearsome as the past? Or the hardest thought of them all?

His face gleams with moonlight. No wires in his hair—just soft onyx waves, swept with the breeze.

“Elisa, please!” Urgently now, and his eyes seize me the second I lapse and gaze into them. The secret thought blurts out with irrelevance.

“I don’t think I’m worth all this pain . . .”

His soft gasp washes over my face, rendering all roses redundant. But I can’t breathe it in because I see the flicker of agony my words caused him. “This is my fault,” he says. “You’re so extraordinary to me that I forget you’re still only human. You have your own doubts and insecurities just like me. I’m sorry, love. I won’t miss that again.”

I try to look away, shaking my head, but neither his eyes nor hands let me. “I’m not looking for compliments . . . It’s not just me who is not good enough. Nothing ever could be worth you living through this.”

“Ah, Elisa, my fault again.” He releases my face, but takes my hands. “I haven’t explained this right. You say I brought you to life, but it’s the other way around. If it weren’t for you, I’d be stuck in Portland but living in Fallujah still. There would be no brilliancy, no beauty, no love. Just guilt and self-hatred. But you came in—not just as a fantasy or a painting, but so real, you eclipsed everything. All my rules and pretenses and structure and control. And suddenly there was light; there was life. Then you were gone. You did exactly what I forced you to do, but you turned off my sky. There was no more light, no more reason for anything—I couldn’t even go back to my old rules. I didn’t want to because you had made me want to live. That’s why I’m going through all this, for a chance to live. If my life, my health, my dream—and you are all three—are not worth this, then tell me what is.”

My life, my health, my dream . . . listening to him is like hearing my own life in words—it sounds beautiful in his voice. So beautiful, I don’t want to ruin it with mine.

“Do you see, Elisa?” he asks intensely. I nod because when he puts it that way I agree. Only he himself is worth this. But what happens to him if we don’t win?  He sees my shudder even in the balmy night. “You’re scared,” he says, a statement, not a question.

“Yes, but not because I doubt you.”

“I’m scared, too, my love. Do you believe that?”

“You don’t seem scared of anything anymore.” I remember his strength and resolve today—the utter absence of fear when he learned the battle plan.

He smiles without the dimple. “Wrong again. I’m terrified of losing you. But you know what? I know from experience, the fights you’re the most afraid of tend to be the worthiest fights.”

He doesn’t promise me we will win. He cannot. All we can do is fight in every way we know, with every weapon we have left.

I reach on my tiptoes, pressing my hands against his face that still feels like a fairytale. “Make love to me then. Make us forget all this fear, and remember only why we’re doing this.”

His eyebrows arch at my sudden change in direction, but he smiles and the fire ignites in his eyes. “Now there’s the fight I’m talking about. Straight to the fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“No. Make love to me here, right now. Let’s not bring any of this inside the cottage.”

He doesn’t even blink. He sweeps me into his arms over the garden threshold as I knot my fingers in his hair. “Should the roses be watching this? I seem to recall being told not to say ‘fuck’ in front of the roses once.”

“Of course. Roses love love.” I pull him to my mouth. “They just don’t like dirty words. You’ll have to save those for the fifth stair.”

He chuckles, striding into the garden straight for the Elisa roses without breaking our kiss. He sets me down on the petal-blanketed grass, right at the spot he waited for me in my dreams, the spot where he stood when he came back to me.

“Stay,” I whisper, meaning so many things. He becomes utterly still except his hands clutching my waist. I start unbuttoning his shirt—not like he did at the lab, but the way we do together, slowly, eyes on each other—and slide it off his shoulders, down his arms, on the petaled ground. The gold of his skin is silver with the moon, free of the electrodes’ metal discs. I run my hands over his chest, kissing each spot where the discs were. Above his heart, on his sternum, at the pulse on his neck. “Kisses, not electrodes,” I say, reaching on my toes to kiss his temple. His heated gasp enflames my skin.

“You, not memories,” he answers and pulls me hard against him, molding his mouth to mine. His kiss is so overwhelming that I hang in his arms, fingers knotted in his hair. The fear shudders recede. A different kind of tremble starts at my knees, and he tightens his arm around my waist, knowing by this point I have trouble standing upright.  His lips flutter, soft as petals, over my jaw to the hollow below my ear where I dabbed the Aeternum oil. He inhales hungrily there, and good shivers flurry all over my skin. “God, the smell of you.” He sounds pained, like the ache gathering at the bottom of my belly. “It brought me back today, Elisa.” He kisses the Aeternum spot and kneels at my feet, taking off my Byron sneakers and socks. “And these wiggling toes.” He smiles, kissing the tips that curl. “They made me smile in hell—I couldn’t believe it. Just these tiny, itsy bitsy toes, able to lift all of me.” He nips my big toe but sets my foot back on the petals when he notices the wobble of my knees. “Strong, love, we’re just getting started,” he murmurs, running his hands up my legs, over the jeans. I wish I could speak, but I can barely breathe. Was I feeling afraid before? Now I can’t feel anything but the fires he is lighting everywhere with his touch, like fireflies in this garden. He unbuttons my jeans and unzips them with his teeth, peeling off the denim slowly, his lips following the trail of his fingers over my exposed thighs. The cool breeze tickles his hot, wet mouthprints.

“Aiden,” I sigh. His name has become synonymous with so many things. Help, save, love, live, home, kiss, hold—so many good four-letter words.

“I know, love.” He kisses the inside of my thigh. “But you wanted to forget. Forgetting is hard work, I ought to know.” He slips off the jeans completely and tosses them aside. The breeze whirls around my shaky legs as his nose skims back up. He clasps my hips as he inhales the lace of my knickers with the same hunger. I close my eyes, unable to watch when he does that, but I see fireflies even behind my closed lids. He does it again, pressing his nose firmly and I don’t know if this is my moan or his.  “This here,” he says buried in the lace. “This is the reason why the roses don’t like dirty words. Because they’re jealous.” The movement of his lips sends a tremor through me.

“Aiden—I can’t—” I breathe, tugging his hair.

“Yes, you can. You’ll see.” He kisses the lace again and slides off my blouse, lighting more fires with his fingers around my waist, over my ribs, tracing the cream lace of my bra. His mouth wraps around the nipple hidden underneath. “It was nippy there today, wasn’t it?” His tongue wets the lace, but it feels like liquid flame to me. “That made me smile, too, Elisa. Was that a pun?”

“Ah . . . I . . . can’t . . . remember.”

“Good.” Another wet circle of fire, then my bra melts off and I’m free only to realize I’m bound to his mouth closing on my breasts. Whoever said hell burns has never been to heaven. His lips, his tongue, his teeth—they strike like firebolts through me, and my knees give out, but he catches me and lays me on the petal blanket. The petals are cool against my feverish back. I sigh with some relief and am able to open my eyes. He is lying next to me, propped on his elbow, moon and stars and roses above him, one long, denim-clad leg between mine. His eyes cascade like molten silver over my breasts and he brushes them with his knuckles. Such a light caress but the effect on me is gravitational. My back arches toward his hands for the faintest touch.

“Yes, the roses are definitely envious . . .” He plucks an ivory Elisa petal and flutters it over my lips. “There’s no comparison.” And he kisses me over the petal. What a kiss this is. The redolent petal as a thin veil, molding like silk with the pressure of his lips. I kiss him back, feeling the warm tip of his tongue through it, caressing mine. From my sigh, the petal flits back to him. He blows gently, tapping it back against my lips. The petal flutters between our mouths, kissing us both, breath to breath, moan to moan. And the throbbing begins. Not slow and steady as usual, but heavy and fast from the start.

“Your jeans . . .” I murmur through the petal, reaching to unbutton him. His mouth never misses a volley but he grasps my wrists above my head. Fistfuls of petals tickle my fingers.

“Soon. But first you wanted to remember why we’re doing this.” He leaves the petal on my lips where it promptly blows off from my jagged breath, and plucks another one, this for the center my forehead. He kisses over it—his wet mouth sealing the petal on. Another petal at my temple, another kiss. More petals in my hair, weaving with his fingers through my strands as I realize he is placing petals on me wherever there were metal discs on him. “Roses, not electrodes,” he smiles his lopsided smile, now kissing a petal over my cheek, and another at the corner of my lips, a trail of them down my throat, each pasted with the wet heat of his mouth. Petals and kisses rain over my chest, around my breasts, fluttering over my nipples until every spot where his tongue seals a petal is quivering. I’m lost on my own skin—cool breeze, hot breath, soft petal, fire lips—but he doesn’t stop. He drops petals down my belly and over my waist, kissing them in. I try to press myself against him but he hovers just a breath out of touch—only his lips and tongue through the petals on my skin. And the throbbing becomes painful. Not a rapid pulse anymore, but an achy hook, reeling me to him with a flaming pang.

“Touch me,” I whimper, fireflies blinking here and there in my vision.

“Soon, love.” Another petal along the lacy band of my knickers, and then the garden starts spinning because he hooks his fingers into the lace and rips it off, his knuckles brushing my skin. My hips tilt toward him as always, but he drops more petals over my pubic bone, inside my thighs, and at last presses a single petal with his lips right on the center where I need him the most. Another jolt of my hips but he is ready—they drop straight into his hands and he pins them back down on the petal blanket. And then the torment starts with the petal in the center. He blows on it and it flutters against me; he taps it with his tongue and I flutter against it; he kisses it and the ache becomes a deep, radiating thing; he licks the petal and my breathing stops. “Aiden, now.” It’s more of a cry than a plea.

“Just a little longer,” he answers, his voice strained with the same tension that is wringing me.

“Why?” I gasp, a hand pulling his hair, another grabbing petals on the ground, legs coiling around him.

His lips press the petal against me again and again. “Because if we’re strong enough for this . . .” He wraps the petal around me with his mouth. “If I can live through one more minute of not tasting you and you can live through one more minute without my touch, we can live through anything.” The petal circles me driven by his tongue, and tears gather in my eyes. “That’s what you really wanted to know, Elisa, isn’t it?”

How did he know that’s what I wanted before I did? I try to say yes, I try to say I love you, but all that comes out is a garbled, agonized moan. The petal of torment is wet, sticking to the fieriest part of me, and the achy wavelets ripple everywhere.

“See, this is torture too, love, just a different kind.” He slides the petal up and down with his tongue, as I try to find the breeze, the sky, the ground. “Your taste, your feel, your orgasm, mine, all just on the other side of this petal, and we can’t have them yet.” His lips press the petal hard against me, making me hiss. “It hurts, it feels like one more minute will finish you, doesn’t it?”

If I answer yes, I don’t know. I hear nothing but him.

“Me too, love. Right now the need to be inside you is so painful, it could kill me right here on your namesake roses . . . but then I think . . . this petal will fall apart. Any second now it will disintegrate from my tongue, from my hatred of it, and on the other side is you. And on this side is me. Doesn’t that help, Elisa?”

A tear trickles in my hair—a tear of pain, a tear of pleasure—as my scattered mind finally catches up. I moan to agree, clutching more petals on the ground at the next nudge from his hidden lips.

“And that’s all this is, everything you’re scared of, love, is just a petal. Forget all else and remember this.”

“I will.” Somehow the words form—a breathless jumble, but still words—and I start fighting through the petal with him. His tongue presses it into me, I thrust gently back; his lips fold it over, I rub myself against it; his mouth wraps me with it, I grip his hair and push toward his mouth.

“Perfect,” he sighs, breathless like me. “Fight, Elisa. Because through this stubborn, cruel petal is the biggest pleasure there is.” His lips twist it around me one more time and his tongue rips through. His mouth swoops on me, free and clear, and I explode instantly. My cry drowns his pained groan. I writhe with his lips, his tongue, pushing into his mouth, his face, any part of him I can find as waves of release crash over me so violently that fireflies burst in my eyes and tears spill over, Aiden after Aiden, God after God. His mouth knows me by now—knows exactly when to pull, when to kiss—and it sees me through to the other side, sodden, shaky, a mass of limbs and moans and tears on the petals, but alive.

“My turn,” Aiden says immediately before the shakes have subsided. By the time I manage to open my eyes, he is ripping off his jeans. Every aspect of him is raw with need. He springs free, but I barely see the bubble glimmering like a diamond because it disappears behind the condom. Before I can register I forgot to arrange my pill, he kicks apart my legs and slams inside in a blinding exquisite thrust. For the first time, his cry drowns mine. He freezes for a moment, eyes shut, jaw strained, teeth clamped over his lower lip, shudder after shudder running through him as I try to muster my own shaking, my own lungs. I don’t know if it’s the aftershocks of my first orgasm or a new one but it sets off the deep ache again—as if it wasn’t healed, only numbed. He is pulsing everywhere—ponderous spasms that make my own insides contract with him. His deep moan mingles with my sigh. I kiss his lower lip, releasing it from his teeth so I can bite it myself. The moment our lips touch, he is unleashed. All of him, bubble to hilt, relentless with no blinks in between, each thrust harder than the one before, hitting the deep ache head on. And the harder he moves, the harder I want. I cling to him with everything—my teeth, my arms, my legs, every muscle tightening inside. But his thrusts leave all my grips behind. And each time he moves, the ache disappears. All that’s left is the delicious tension building, magnifying every cell waist down. I know exactly when the pain leaves him too because he smiles, melding his mouth to mine, locking our fingers together, whispering his words of love—now dirty, now sweet—so the roses don’t hear. And pleasure comes for both of us at once in waves of warm tingles surging over us in lockstep, seizing our bodies with its singular tension. We fly at the same time, mouth to mouth, skin to skin, moan to cry—it lasts forever, it lasts a blink, it doesn’t matter because we float back on the petals on the same heartbeat. Gasping, shaking, laughing, weightless and tangled like vines. From the earthquake of our battle, little hurricanes of petals are swirling above, raining down on us as though his thrusts shook the roses root to stem. Maybe they did, maybe it was my cries. Whatever it was, there is no pain or fear—only my own body teeming with life.

He rolls off me onto his back, chest rising and falling like mine. “We survived,” he chuckles, catching one of the petals before it lands on his cheek.

“Either that or we died and this is what our heaven looks like.”

He looks at me, heart-stoppingly beautiful, carved moonstone with sharp angles of silver and shadow, and white petals in his messy hair. “It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, Elisa.”

I turn to face him, more petals gamboling off my skin with the movement, and rest my hand on his cheek. It’s warm and flushed. Even in the moonlight, I can see his calm, blissful eyes.

“Did I complete the brief?” he asks, turning to face me too, and dropping a fistful of petals over my head.

“What brief?” I laugh, brushing the deluge off my face.

“You charged me with making us forget the fear and remembering only why we’re doing this.”

“Oh, yes, with flying petals, I might add.”

His eyes soften, but his face intensifies. “The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side. Will you remember this when it gets hard?”

I curl into his chest, breathing him in—covered in my roses, his own fragrance is even more impossible than the Aeternum. “I will.”

“I’ll remind you,” he says, and I sense something in his voice but I don’t know what it is. I try to look up at his eyes but he tucks me closer, trailing his fingers down my spine.

I could stay here in this present moment forever, just adding love each time either of us feels a frisson of fear. But the night is deepening, his memories need sleep, and dawn is coming with a fresh reel of terror waiting for him. I cannot let him live through that horror with only a twenty percent strong remedy even if it feels stronger to him. I need to fight at night in Bia so he can have an easier day.

“Come on, love. It’s past your new bedtime,” he says, no doubt seeing the prospect of the night dawning on me and attributing it to exhaustion. “I’ll make you my special scrambled eggs and we can sleep.”

“Tell me about these special scrambled eggs.”

“Oh, the secret is salt.” He grins and rises fluidly, lifting me with him. Torrents of petals pour from everywhere. His gasp draws my eyes up to his face, and I’m certain the wonder in his eyes is a mirror of my own. “You’re stunning,” he murmurs and, in this moment, I believe my effect on him. Or rather the effect of Mum’s roses. Who isn’t stunning when wrapped in magic? He picks up our clothes and takes my hand, heading straight for the cottage’s front door. Neither of us looks at the box of the headset of torture by the hedges at the garden threshold. I suppose it will spend the night there tonight—it’s certainly safe. Unfortunately no one will steal it around here.

Thirty minutes later, fed and exhausted, we make it to our bedroom. I walk straight to the bouquet of the twelve wilted poppies of our weapons on my nightstand, and rest the picture of our kiss against the vase. He smiles—all dimple and turquoise from the happy memories he has in this room. “Will you please explain to me what the deal is with the wise-not-dead poppies when you have about a million roses outside and probably as many petals in your hair still?”

I shrug, shaking off the petals and putting on my night oil so his eyes don’t see my insane plan on my face. “I like them. Now off to bed with you, Mr. Plemmons. You need sleep at your old age.