NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 42 – HEALED

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

42

Healed

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is that possible?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could be so strong as to change that force?

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

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

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

How?” he breathes.

“Only through an equally powerful counterforce.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And exactly how I love it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, love, you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You first,” I tell him.

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

The breeze dances again, caressing his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 40 – CLOSE

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

40

Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJ Marshall Trust

In honor of a brother and his love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you say?” he breathes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E—li—sa . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but—”

“Did you threaten her fucking family?”

“No—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“FUCK!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I really love that one.”

“I’ll recite it to you later.”

Later? So more embargo? “Promise?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His breath seems to suspend again. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lieutenant?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not yet; they’re still at work.”

“And Elisa—how is she holding up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, I mouth to him.

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

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

“That makes two of us, General.”

“Is this some wizard’s idea?”

A wizard? What does that mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Umm, we keep them close, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure, Just Jack, what do you need?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I will. Bye, Just Jack.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us

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

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

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

“Should we try now?”

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

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

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

“Just in the kitchen. You’ll see.”

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

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

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

“Hi,” I breathe, smiling up at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only for me to stagger on the doorstep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow, us, somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m still working on that part.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And to leaving the past behind.”

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

“Let’s hear him out,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you feeling?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name even one. And mean it.”

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

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

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

“Exactly. So name another.”

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

“So basically lying and competitive sports?”

“Basically.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 39 – GLOW

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

39

Glow

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

“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The dream? What dream?”

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

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

“Elisa?” he shakes me again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I am. Because of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?” I squeak in surprise a second later.

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

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

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

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

“Does it seem that way?”

“Yes.”

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

“So . . . why is that?”

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

“Then don’t resist.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wait, trying to breathe.

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

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

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

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

“Did I say anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Naturally.”

“Is that all?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I promise.”

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

My blood thrills under his kiss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the look I see now in his eyes.

It stuns my mind, my heart, my lungs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mine too.”

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

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

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

“That part has not changed.”

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

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

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

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

He smiles. “Not many things are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod, speechless, leaning into his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fairytale has been waiting for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us,” he repeats.

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

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

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

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

“The us part is.”

“The best part.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m partial to the purple ones.”

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

“As can I.”

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

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

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

“What would they like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiles. “This was your idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I really like that word.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because today is not its turn.”

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

“For a very good reason.”

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

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

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

“Not this one,” I interrupt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do. Maybe even more.”

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

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

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

“Wow!” I breathe.

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

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

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

“It’s such a beautiful place to be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, it is. It’s everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I am.”

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

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

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

©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 38 – MASTERS

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

38

Masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That line . . .” he breathes.

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

“They were there!” he gasps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The DIA?” I interrupt, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stares at me, still stunned. “How could I have missed this?”

“Missed it? You didn’t miss it. You saw it all—every single detail even in moments of unspeakable horror. And your mind preserved it perfectly for over a decade. My God, Aiden, what human could have ever perceived more?”

He shakes his head. “Elisa, it has been four thousand four hundred seventy-seven days since that classroom. I have relived that morning at least fifteen thousand times. How could I not have seen this once?” Emotions fuse on his face like flames: dismay, pain, anger at himself.

“How could you have seen it even once?” I argue, pressing my other hand to his burning cheek. He doesn’t pull away. The feel of him seeps through my skin into the marrow of my bones. “You may have relieved it every day, but every single time you’ve been fighting it. You had never sat with it, trying to examine every angle, trying to find beautiful things. Who would? Tell me who could focus on songs and veggies when gunfire and bombs were blaring. Who would examine those details under torture?” My voice quivers. I don’t allow myself to remember the blistering image of his blood, the brunt of violence on the body that is my life. I couldn’t live through it without the protein. Even at the memory of the memory, I struggle to stay upright. “I’m not surprised at all it took you until now,” I add. “Until the moment you allowed yourself to see and feel all of it.”

“Because of you,” he murmurs, and the emotional flow changes, becomes wonderment when the real wonder is him.

“No, love.” My hand trembles from his cheek to his scar. From the heat, it shimmers as if it has become alive. “You did this all on your own. It’s okay to give yourself credit for that.”

“But had I not taken the protein, had you not guided me—”

“You still would have found it. I have no doubts about that. You would have seen it all in the end. I know you would have.” And I wouldn’t have rested until that day.

He doesn’t answer, but the tectonic plates shift deeply in the sapphire depths as though reaching seismically to his very core. I hope he believes me. I hope he finds this faith. And above all, I hope he finally frees himself.

“The only thing that matters now,” I tell him. “Is what you do with this knowledge. With what it means.”

He looks at me like a man finally finding the holy grail, the Moby Dick, the elixir of life—seeing that elusive treasure at last, yet too afraid to stretch out his hand and grasp it. Too afraid of losing it again. Too afraid that it is only a dream.

“It means it was not your fault, love.” I put all my conviction in my voice to make it real. “Your decision to stay in the schoolyard and help those little boys didn’t cause Marshall’s torture or Jazz’s scars or anyone else’s loss. The insurgents were already there, waiting. They would have gone after you even if you had gone back. Except in the pipes, it would have been even worse, without light and barely any air. None of you would have survived.” I try to fight the shudder that rattles my teeth at the idea and take both his hands again to anchor me here.

He has listened to every syllable entranced, his eyes liquid. Even his breath has stopped, as though the lightest puff of air might blow my words away. I scoot closer to his warmth, breathing gently on his lips as he does with me. He inhales sharply, the way my lungs open up to his fragrance. But still he doesn’t speak.

“You know it’s true. You know if you hadn’t listened to your heart, you would have gone back to camp through the pipes. The monsters probably hoped for that because they would have had the upper hand inside, with their knowledge of their own homeland.”

Another trembling breath of mine, another shallow gasp of his—two life threads entwined to the end. Strangle one, and you choke the other.

“You saved your brothers, Aiden. You didn’t hurt them. You’re the reason they’re still here, even if Marshall is gone. Because of you, they are safe, secure, and alive.”

Still no answer. Only that sentient gaze, so deep it would take a lifetime to reach the turquoise light. A lifetime I would gladly give.

“Listen to my words. Listen to the truth. You have waited for four thousand four hundred seventy-seven days to hear it. It has been living inside you under all the pain and the guilt and the fear. It’s okay to free it. It’s okay to accept it. This—was—never—your—fault.”

No words, no breaths, no blinks. Just torn gasps, snagging on the jagged teeth of agony, trying to break free.

“I will never stop telling you this. Not even after you’re gone. It was not your fault. It was your merit. You saved them. You brought them home. It’s time for you to come home too, love. Not in Burford or Portland—come home to yourself. To the man you truly are.”

He looks at me like no other time in our love. Utterly lost, with those shocking newborn eyes I saw in Stella’s photos—eyes trying to find their way in this reformed world.

“I know you’re afraid.” I keep going because if I stop, he will not hear the words his heart needs more than blood. “Afraid to believe it, afraid to lay down this guilt. It has been a part of you for so long. It has been your fight, your mourning, and your grief. You feel that if you let it go now, you are betraying him. You fear you won’t recognize who you are without it. But you will. I promise you that. You will still be just as loyal, just as honorable, just as selfless and brave as you’ve always been. Because all those things are in here.” I lift our joined hands to his heart like I did in my old apartment in Portland when he came back after our embargo, when he told me the truth about his startle reflex. His heart hammers back as if clamoring to be heard. I’m here, I’m here. “Listen to your heart. This was not your fault. Say it with me. Say it with Marshall.”

His chest thrashes like a broken eagle wing. Tension strains his jaw as though his body is tearing apart with war. I don’t need to ask if he could hear Marshall’s words, if he could read his lips. I know. I know from the ancient grief in Aiden’s eyes that he couldn’t. It was too low, too far, too stifled with the laughing monsters for Aiden to hear it, lost in his own torture. Fiery tongues start licking up my eyes. How will I give him that truth without breaking his heart?

“You know he would say it,” I tell him as I did after the reel. “‘Not your fault, my brother.’ These are Marshall’s words, not just mine. Say them with us.”

His throat constricts as though the words are suffocating him, stuck there, unable to get out. A single tear glimmers in the sapphire gaze like a lone star. At the sight, I forget everything—all the closure and our end and our own pain—and take him in my arms.

“Oh, my love,” I whisper, kissing his scar.

And Aiden breaks. His steel body wraps around mine, contorting with pain. A vicious shudder radiates through him, as if tearing him into pieces. I clutch him harder and tuck his head in my neck, like I did the only other time he has broken like this. When he attacked me. And like then, I give him everything: my smell, my touch, my breath, my strength, my voice. His fever consumes us both, flame after flame.

“It was not your fault,” I repeat in his ear. “Not as a brother, a friend, a commander, or a man. This was never your fault . . .”  Over and over and over until his silent, absent breath splinters into three ravaged words.

“Not—my—fault.”

They’re barely a gasp in the breeze, barely a note in the piano melody, but I hear them louder than I have ever heard anything. My eyes simmer with tears, but I fight them back for him and kiss his temple. His pulse kisses me back, rapid and deep.

“That’s right, love. Say it again, so you know how the truth sounds in your own voice.”

Another strangled breath. “Not—my—fault.”

“Please believe it. Believe every word because it’s true.” I cover him with all of me, body like a second skin, murmuring in his ear until he can utter the words on his own, without me.

“Not my fault . . . not my fault . . . not my fault.”

Sometimes, big bangs are neither big, nor loud. Sometimes, they are fractured kernels of soul, imploding and reforming breathlessly without a sound. Just a gasp, a shattered heartbeat, three words in the breeze. But that doesn’t mean they are small. It means they are deeper than our eye can see.

When the words fade, we shudder here on the bed, holding each other like no other time in our lives. Like a beginning in the middle of our end. But if we had to end, let it be so he can start to heal. Let it be so he can believe these words. Let it be so Fallujah ends with me. So when that airplane carries him across the skies, it is not just a goodbye. Let it be a hello to Aiden Liber—Aiden the Free.

Outside our heat bubble, the skylark starts to sing for the first time in eleven mornings, harmonizing its warble to Für Elise. My throat blisters as I finally realize why the lark had stopped coming. Because the music stopped inside the cottage when Aiden left at night. But the piano is playing again now. Once more, twice, until his usual wake-up time. Six o’clock. Our embargo is almost over. The melody stops like the breath between our lungs. Then there is only the lonely lark and the willows whispering, he’s free, he’s free.

And even though I vowed he would not see me crying, the tears spill down my cheeks and soak through his T-shirt, misting his wrought shoulder before I can stop them.

He leans back, his grip softening around me. My body shifts reflexively with him trying to prolong the contact. But he doesn’t let me go. One arm stays around my waist as his finger tingles under my chin. Mothlike, I lift my face to the flame of his gaze, afraid to see our closure in his eyes. But there is no goodbye there yet. Nor a hello. Just a crystal droplet at the corner like a question mark.

“Hey, no tears,” he murmurs, his voice rough. “No tears for me.”

I smile so he has it in his first memories for this other side. “They’re proud tears. And hopeful and awed and loving.” And painful and soul-slaying and scalding . . .

He brushes the moisture with his fingertips as if he heard all the unspoken words. “I still don’t like them.”

A cloud of warmth engulfs me as though the teardrops are evaporating from his touch. “What about this?” I ask, wiping the solitaire sparkling on his lashes. “What kind of tear is this?”

“Oh, don’t worry. That’s not a tear.”

“It’s not?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not.”

“Then what is it?”

Lightly, his blazing finger glides down my cheek. “It’s a closed door.” His fingertip comes to a stop at the corner of my lips. “A different life flashing before my eyes. That’s what that drop is.”

I try to live through his words, his touch. My heart almost stops from it, from everything. I fight to keep it beating for him. “A closed door on the past?”

He nods. “It has to be.”

“What about the future? Is there something from the future in that non-tear too?”

A look passes in his eyes—a gaze I have no name for. It’s thoughtful, all-consuming, like a held breath or a stare in the horizon. Here, yet waiting for air or a beacon to lighten. “I hope so,” he answers.

H-o-p-e. “And what does that future look like?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“But you believe it now?”

He knows this one immediately. “A part of me will always feel some guilt. It’s the reality of being a survivor, a commanding officer whose men died on my watch. And I will always wonder if I could have done more, better, faster, smarter. But I won’t lie. That weight feels . . . less crushing. More livable knowing my decision didn’t force him—Marshall—to his death. And it’s all because of you and the protein you made for me.”

I don’t miss the way his voice drops on the name, but he still says it out loud. I see the haunted look that flickers in his gaze, though his eyes stay focused on me. And I feel the intense relief, more overwhelming than even when he returned from the reel. But abruptly there is something else that suddenly matters more than anything. Something so vital that instinctively I know we both need it to breathe.

“Aiden.” My voice trembles around his name, the way it caresses my tongue on the way out. I clutch his hand for strength, for bravery to ask the question. His fingers wind with mine like arteries. “If you had never seen those trucks or heard that song in Fallujah in the first place, if you had nothing at all to clear your decision, do you think you would have always carried that guilt?”

He must hear the gravity of the question because he seems to think about it, his eyes deepening as if looking inside himself. “I don’t think so,” he answers after a moment. “And not just because that’s what you were hoping to hear. There was something different about this reel. I couldn’t reconcile it then—the past and the present were merging so fast—but as I look back at the whole, it didn’t feel the same.”

My heart starts hammering in triple tempo like his mind. “Different how?”

“At first, it was worse. The worst agony of my life, even compared to that day itself. Because the classroom started blending with your father’s library the night Edison attacked you. I don’t know why but the images were melding together in the worst possible way. Your blood with Marshall’s blood. His screams with yours when Edison slapped you—” Fury chokes him off and locks his muscles. His eyes become black tunnels of horror again, exactly like the reel, exactly like that night.

“Hey, it’s okay. I’m safe, love.” I swirl my fingers in his beard, hating Edison’s every atom and all my own molecules for adding to this agony.

He draws a deep, steadying breath. “I couldn’t breathe through it, Elisa.” His voice is more tormented than I’ve ever heard it. “I know you think I would, but I know my mind, my limits. And I know I could not have come back from that reel. I could not have left you there in his hands, even if only in a memory.” He shudders, and I shudder with him.

So this is why this reel took so long. Why nothing I tried was bringing him back. He was trying to save me again. Reliving two tortures at once—his worst terror and worst pain—both tearing him apart and burying him alive. Doctor Helen’s text blares in my vision, blinding me with its black and white letters: Aiden’s memory can stay in the past forever. I shiver as I realize how right she was, how close he came to being lost.

“Hey, don’t say that.” I whisper, unable to breathe myself through the agony that starts scalding my throat. “It’s gone now. I’m safe because of you. And you’re here. Right here, back and freer than you’ve been in a long time.”

His arm tightens around my waist, pulling me into his warmth as he sees the dread I can’t hide. “Yes, I am, because of you. Because you made a protein that gave me the strength to endure. And because somehow, against all rules and reason, you decided to come after me. You joined me in that hellhole, in the last possible place I would ever want you to be. My mind couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t accept it. This illusion of you—so beautiful, so full of love, the most perfect miracle to ever exist—walking through the flames with me . . . I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t tolerate one single second. For a moment, I wondered if I had in fact died and this was what my version of hell looked like.”

Another shudder ripples through us both. And more puzzle pieces fall together. Why he was shaking his head no when I first entered that moment with him, why it seemed the torment got worse. Because it did. Because I added to his agony instead of lessening it. I should be quarantined.

“But then your calming effect started to seep even through those flames, like it always does,” he continues. “And I was able to breathe again. I was able to see something other than Marshall’s body and yours on the floor. I was able to recall there was a reason to live through it, to come back even if we’re not together. Because the real you was worried and waiting. Because I had given you my word. That’s when the change started, I think. Having you there became strength, not weakness. It must have boosted the strength of the protein. Everything felt new. Like I was seeing it for the first time—just as painful, but there was also your calm, your love. And I was able to follow your voice. I could hear you telling me it was not my fault. Even in the end, in that classroom, with Marshall so . . . gone—” A convulsion tears along his shoulders like a ghost blasting through him. The turquoise gaze becomes speckled with darker stars, like Marshall passed and became a constellation in his eyes. “I was able to repeat your words to him. To say goodbye.”

He says it quietly, like a breath. My own breath stops with it. “You did?” I whisper in wonder.

He nods. “As much as I could.”

I want to ask what Marshall would have said back, if there was a final word he would have wanted to hear from his best friend, but somehow, I know this will always have to stay between them. “How do you feel?”

“Like he died all over again, except a better death this time. More human. And I could say a few last words.”

I caress his scar again, lightly so I don’t add a different kind pain. “They don’t have to be last words. I’m learning that. I randomly catch myself talking to mum and dad in my head. Maybe that makes me crazy, but it feels healthier. With a lot less pain. Maybe it will be the same for you.”

“Maybe.”

Neither of us says what I am sure we are both thinking: can his memory ever let him do that?

I remember my idea then—an idea that started brewing during the protein, building after the reel, honing into the night after Doctor Helen and science gave up. “How about we try something together?” I suggest.

“Try what?”

“Well, first, I made you a little something. Do you want to see it?”

He doesn’t miss the new lightness in my voice because a shadow-smile plays automatically at the corner of his lips. “Will it make me cry? Apparently I do that now.”

It’s an obvious joke, but abruptly I hesitate. Will it hurt him? Is it too early for this? Or too late? “I don’t think so, but you don’t have to do anything with it,” I answer, remembering the way he handled the chess set with me. “Or say anything. You don’t even have to touch it if you don’t want to. It’s just a . . . a reminder of something you love.”

He recognizes his own words immediately. “Well now, I’m extremely curious. What did you make that needs a warning?”

I stretch over the edge of the bed, reaching down into the mess of arts and crafts on the floor for my creation. His arm curves around my waist in case I topple and fall.

“This,” I whisper, losing my voice completely as I resurface and open my hand so he can see it in my palm. It’s not beautiful at all, nothing like the gifts he has given me, but his eyes rivet on the tangled coil with eagerness. “It’s a bracelet,” I explain. “Not as precious as the one you gave me—” The diamond initials chime musically on my wrist in agreement. “—But I tried to make it masculine.”

He fishes it from my hand, unraveling the thin, black leather plait and the wooden letters strung on it: M-I-R-A-J.

“All our initials,” he murmurs in wonder, gazing at the letters for the names of his brothers. From the first sunrays, the ordinary wood glows almost like antiqued bronze.

“I kept Marshall’s with an M, instead of his first name—Jacob—because that’s how you refer to him. But for the rest of you, I used the first initial.”

“Life with life,” he mouths in understanding. His eyes deepen with the vision I tried to create for him.

“Yes, but I tried to braid the leather cord like a double helix, like the bracelet you gave me. Because the five of you will always be family. Nothing can ever take that away, not even death. This kind of love does conquer everything.”

He looks up at me, and that nameless look floods his eyes again. Pensive, yet dreamlike, as though hitting pause on everything. I still can’t find the right words for it.

“You don’t have to wear it,” I remind him uselessly in case there is pain underneath. “I just thought—”

“You thought perfectly.”

“You still don’t have to wear it. Or even look at it if it causes you pain.”

“It doesn’t. It causes other things, but not pain.”

“What does it cause?”

He flicks through the wooden letters until he stops at his. “Faith,” he answers, brushing my cheek with the A like he did with the chess queen. “Hope that maybe all love can conquer everything even if not the way we think.”

His initial leaves behind a comet of heat. I open my mouth to speak, but all that comes out is a sigh. Can cheap, non-flame-resistant wood combust from breath? From touch?

As if he wonders the same thing, he smiles his after smile and drops his hand, holding out his wrist. “Thank you. It’s a very meaningful gift. But did you really think I wouldn’t wear it if you made it for me?”

I shake my head to rattle some brain cells back to life. “What if I had made you a dress?” is my genius response. “Would you have worn that?”

He chuckles—the first chuckle on this other side, more beautiful than the lark song. “Well, how far is a dress from a friendship bracelet really?”

“It’s more of a cuff,” I correct, taking the leather cord and tying it around his wrist. Little flames kindle on my skin at the contact and, for a blink, I see stars again even if they’re only the twinkly lights. But the fire must catch in his blood because the bands of muscle in his arm tense as if resisting a great force.

He clears his throat. “Did, ah, Cal tell you Jazz’s first name is Indy?”

“Yes, I texted him last night. They’re all so worried, Aiden. Maybe we should let them come when . . .”

I can’t finish the sentence, and he can’t seem to be able to hear it. “You said ‘first’ earlier, when you asked if we could try something,” he reminds me. “Does that mean there is a second part?”

“Oh! Right!” I remember, grateful for the change in direction. “Yes, but you can say no, like with the bracelet. It’s only if you feel up to it.”

Curiosity flashes in his eyes again, but he smiles. “Duly warned. What is it?”

A frisson of life thrums in my chest. Or is it nerves? I caress the A on his wrist, wishing I had one on mine. “Well, I was thinking, perhaps we could do something to celebrate Marshall today. Maybe as an early birthday or the Christmas he wanted?”

But in my focus on his heart, I have slipped. A big slip. I watch in horror as my words float from my mouth and land on his brain. He stares at me in disbelief. “The Christmas he wanted?” he repeats in a low voice. “How do you know he was looking forward to Christmas? I never told you that.”

Ice whips my cheeks. A wave of nausea heaves to my mouth as I see my blanched face reflected in his unerring eyes. “D-don’t all s-soldiers want to be home for C-Christmas?” I scramble. “B-but it doesn’t have to be Christmas either.” I change tracks frantically. “I just—I think it’s important we give you and him both a good day, like we did with mum and dad. It really helped me.”

He has seen all my reactions, the initial surprise fading and the V deepening between his brows on each word. “It sounds incredibly thoughtful, but why do you look so . . . scared?”

I try to stay focused only on the ultimate truth. The smallest lie and his eyes will catch it. “Because I don’t want you to hurt even more.”

The frown intensifies, and he brushes my arm as if he senses the goosebumps that have erupted there. “I’m not hurting more,” he tries to assure me. “I’m touched—that’s different.”

I manage a slight breath of relief, feeling guilty for letting him misunderstand, but not guilty enough to tell him about the video. Right now he only thinks I’m scared. If he knew the truth . . . I fight back a shudder because he is still watching me, worry creasing his forehead.

“Elisa?” He traces a circle under my eye, thawing the ice. “Your idea is as meaningful as your gift, but you’re obviously upset and exhausted. You’ve been up all night, taking care of me, making me presents, planning birthdays, Christmas, and God knows what else. So, no, sweetheart. We’re not doing anything—no celebrating, talking, or even thinking—until you finally get some sleep.”

“Sleep?” I cry out in panic. On one hand, he’s not pushing me about my Christmas slip. On the other, he has obviously concluded it must be from exhaustion, which is even worse. I’d rather move to Fallujah for the rest of my life than miss one second left of the embargo. “Not now, Aiden, please!” I beg. “This is more important to me—more important than anything else left. It won’t be much, I promise. We’re not supposed to do anything strenuous today anyway, according to Doctor Helen. She wants to check on us tomorrow morning.”

“Exactly—rest is the most important thing right now. We can talk about your idea when you wake up.”

“But then we’ll have to go see Doctor Helen and—and—” My voice breaks at what is coming, at the way her tone sounded last night. So final, so terminal. I can’t tell him any of that. Let him have just one day with h-o-p-e.

But he wraps his arms around me like a shield. “Elisa, you don’t think I know the words you cannot say? I know there is nothing more she can do and tomorrow is just a formality. But it doesn’t change a thing. You still need to rest. Come on, bed.” His arms flex as if to scoop me up.

“No!” I choke, my fingers gripping his T-shirt like hooks. All my resolve to be strong for him shatters, and the full truth spills out. “No, Aiden, please! There’s so little embargo left. I don’t want to miss any of it!”

That look I have no words for deepens his eyes again. Lightening them like skies, softening them like velvet, then morphing into almost palpable tenderness. “Hey, hey, shh,” he murmurs, almost crooning as he pulls me closer. “Forget about the embargo, all right? We can have more time when you wake up. Don’t worry about any of that. Breathe, Elisa!” He blows on my lips like always, slowly until my lungs restart. But I can’t even blink from his beautiful face. Did he really say what I think he said?

“More embargo?” I whisper, still grasping his T-shirt. “Really?”

“I promise you,” he vows, his arms tightening around me. “If you go to sleep, I’ll be right here, and we can celebrate or do whatever else you had in mind when you wake up. Just, please, Elisa.”

I can hear the truth and desperation in his voice even through the blood pounding in my ears. And as swiftly as it struck, panic recedes. Because this is all I want—more t-i-m-e with him. All except one thing: his health, his peace.

“But what about your fever?” I force out the words against every cell that wants me to shut up and curl in his arms for as long as he will let me.

“Elisa, I don’t give a fuck about my fever. I don’t give a fuck about my feelings, my memories, or whatever other worry you’re spinning in your head right now. The only thing I care about is you. Just you. So if you want me to relax, then do it for me.”

How can I argue with his words or his eyes when I feel the same about him? When all my resistance crumbled to stardust at the promise of another day together?

He sees my surrender in my eyes. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that the waterworks almost start again. And before I can breathe, anytime, he lies down with me, wrapping me in his arms. Electricity jolts everywhere the second our bodies touch. Tingles on my skin, trembles in my limbs, stars in my vision, earthquakes in my heart. And he is the force that makes them all run. Fire in the blood, titanium in his body, gravity in his hold, my entire universe in his eyes.

“Aiden, love, if—”

“Shh, you’re staying right here.” He throws a light sheet over me, but then seems to remember something. “Unless you’re hungry. Do you want something to eat first?”

“No, I’m fine.” It’s not even a lie. There are other hungers in me, but not the food kind.

“Not even a scone with clotted cream and rose jam?”

“No, not even that.”

He sighs, pressing his lips in my hair. “All right, but when you wake up, you’re eating a Marine-sized meal. Now sleep.”

I want to answer that when I wake up, I only to make happy memories for him. I want to ask what he would like, I want to tell him so many things.  Like the way his fragrance is blending with the rose mist into the stuff of heavens, the way the skylark stops singing every time he speaks, the tiny new bud leaf on Hope because of his warmth, the willows crooning he’s free, he’s free. Do they still sing Elisa, Elisa for him? I want to say all these little nothings that are my everything, but I can’t find the words. So I curl in his chest, closing my eyes, feeling oddly whole with everything in shreds. I try not to think of tomorrow when we meet Doctor Helen, the finality in her voice last night, the startle we couldn’t beat, the last goodbye. I concentrate only on his body heat, counting the times his heart beats in my ear—fast and vital and mine.

But abruptly, on heartbeat eight hundred and five, a change startles me. Subtle yet fast. Like a cool breath on my cheek.

“Oh!” I gasp.

“Elisa, what’s wrong?” Aiden sits up alarm, scanning my face.

“Nothing is wrong!” I cry out, my hand flying to his forehead. “Aiden, I think your fever might be dropping!”

“Christ, Elisa, relax!”

“Never mind that! Here, let’s measure it!” I twist in his arms to grab the thermometer from the nightstand.

“I can do that. Lie down—” he growls, but I stick the tip in his mouth before he can finish. He gives me a beautiful glare.

“Mmmm.”

“I know you’re saying fuck, not this again, and terrorizing the roses.”

No answer, except maybe the glower becomes darker.

“That bad, huh?” I trace his scar with my fingertip—it’s still hot, but not scorching. “I promise I’ll sleep after this, except it will be so much better if I know the fever is breaking.”

He sighs in a give-me-strength way, but the glare softens. The first rays of sun fracture on his thick beard, filtering into a prism of light entirely his own. Obsidian, midnight, garnet, bronze. Shimmering like the halo of my bravery visions.

“Then again being awake does have its advantages.” I grin at him, running my fingers through the lustrous bristles. “This, for example, would be difficult while sleeping.”

He sighs again, but above the dark horizon of his beard, the sky of his gaze deepens with that held, indescribable look. It lightens on my face, so hypnotic, I can’t even blink. But then the thermometer beeps, jolting me back to reality. I pull it out quickly, my hands shaking.

“You were really off this time,” he says, but my squeal drowns his voice as soon as I see the numbers blinking on the window.

“Yes! Ninety-nine-point-eight! It’s dropping, it really is!” I throw my arms around his neck, almost strangling him in relief.

He hugs me closer, kissing my hair. “That is, indeed, what I was trying to tell you.”

I sob-laugh in his neck. “Thank God! It’s still a little high, but I’ll take any difference. You’re almost normal temperature for a dragon now.”

He chuckles. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it will keep dropping. My memory started slowing after the connections were made. I think they were related.”

I pull back to look at him. “Really? It’s completely back to normal?”

“Well, normal for me. It had to have been the effect of bravery. Now, bed. You got what you wanted, you made a promise, and there are no more excuses left, no matter how much you want to argue with me that I should give all credit to myself.”

I sigh. He knows me too well. “Okay, I’ll argue with you when I wake up.”

He smirks and tucks me in, cradling me in his arms. “Sleep now, love. Sleep and dream beautiful dreams.”

L-o-v-e. The skylark chirps as if it hears the beauty in his voice and knows it cannot compete. “And what will you do while I dream?”

“I’ll be right here, dreaming too.”

“What will you dream?”

“The only dream I see, awake or asleep.”

“It’s Mrs. Willoughby, right?”

“Right.” He chuckles again.

A laugh bubbles on my own lips. And why shouldn’t it? When he is still mine for another day, one step closer to himself? Finally free from a heavy fault that was never his. What is my loss and pain compared to that?

“That is exactly the sound I dream about,” he says, pressing his lips in my hair.

I listen to his piano voice, trying to memorize its music. In secret, I wish I could remember like him. So the years that will sweep my mind can never touch a single note of his melody. “We have a very similar dream then.”

His breath pauses staccato for a second, then bridges fluidly into my lullaby. Not Für Elise, but his letters to me like I did for him. “My all,” he murmurs, as though he heard my thoughts. “Another night, just you, me, and the desert. I don’t know which of us has more heat . . .”

I kiss his heart again and snuggle in his chest, listening. That brave Everestian love surges omnipotently inside me. Inexplicably as strong as during the protein, as immutable as it will always be.

“The desert, you might say, but here is a secret that you don’t know. The desert can never burn the soul. And you are the mirage at the end of the fire. Shimmering like cold water, pouring over this pyre. No, the one burning is me . . .”

Slowly, with each word, a tension I did not know was wringing my muscles starts to drain out of me. His fever softens into the sultry warmth of home, and I start to drift. The last thing I sense is a featherlight pressure on my lips, like a whisper in the breeze.

What a beautiful dream.

©2022 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 37 – STOP

Happy Palindrome Day (22-02-2022) and happy Twosday!  Palindromes are one of my favorite random things and I gave that to Elisa, so it made sense to post today to celebrate. Plus, posting as soon as I finish. Hope you enjoy this chapter and that, if there are tears, they are bittersweet. xo, Ani (P.S. bit of trivia: I found this photo of a wild rose many years ago when I was first thinking of this scene. It feels good to be able to finally use it–you’ll see why it’s a perfect fit.).

37

Stop

The cottage waits for us, back to its fairytale wonder. The limestone walls catch the moon, now silver, now childhood white. Starlight flows over the garden as a molten river, weaving around the roses like freshwater pearls. And the feeling of home swaddles me again. This sense of being complete exactly with what I have, as long as Aiden is next to me.

And for now, he is. Towering here at the garden hedge in his cargo pants and Byron boots, his heavy arm around me, shoulders still rippling with torture, his beauty more dreamlike than even during the protein. The luster of his fevered skin is almost opaline. His soaked hair and lashes glint black, and his bare chest shimmers as though sculpted in the rarest moonstone. He is staring at the cottage with the same longing as me, drawing the first deep breath since the reel.

“I was looking forward to seeing it with bravery,” he murmurs.

I tighten my hold around his waist. “You’re always brave.”

“You know what I mean.”

I risk a kiss on his bicep—the band of muscle twitches back but he doesn’t pull away. “Trust me, it looks a lot more beautiful with all our emotions. It’s perfect exactly as you see it.”

“Yes, it is.” His eyes linger on our open bedroom window where the light is always on for him, like in his war letters.

I drop the evil monitor and the blanket by his waders, keeping them out of our bubble, and hook my arm in his. “Come, let’s go in. The roses have missed you.”

“I’ve missed them too.”

“They say you look good in your new beard, but they really miss the dimple.”

“Tell them they look good in their new dew, but I really miss their blush.”

“They like your pun.”

“I like their everything.”

His fingers brush the Elisas as we pass by them. How am I going to walk in this garden without his hand in mine? Will it hurt worse than watching the video? Will every rose in this cottage wither and die with me? But none of my pain matters now. All that matters is easing the pain for him.

On our front step, Hope the Hybrid is almost invisible with its single leaf. I hope it grows another before September eighteen.

“Hi, Hope,” I greet it. “Look who is here to see you.” I pick up its tiny pot and give it to Aiden. “Hope wants to stay by your side tonight. She says she will be very safe and not touch you at all.”

He takes it from me, his eyes soft even in the dark. “Tell Hope she can stay with me for a while, but then she has to get some sleep. The embargo applies to her as well.”

As if there is a chance of that when he is like this. Still I flutter Hope’s leaf like a nod since my ability to lie to him even while impersonating a rose is now completely null and void.

“Very convincing,” he answers as I open the door.

As soon as we step in the glow of our tiny foyer, the shudders skip a beat over Aiden’s shoulders. His eyes consume the space with famine—the photos on the wall, the Clares blooming on the console as always, the Rose Cup, dad’s scarf on the peg. Gone is the vigilance of checking for intrusion; his memory now gives him the bliss of that first time he walked through this door, so full of hope. I watch with a clenched heart as his gaze lightens when it falls on my childhood photographs, and another deep breath flows through his lungs.

“See? I told you your mind needs this,” I gloat, hanging up mum’s parka.

“I never questioned that.”

No, he didn’t. He stays away only to prepare me for his absence. Except it’s so easy to pretend—as we stand here, our arms around each other, still shaking and burning, looking at our little home—that we are still us, that there wasn’t an end, that there won’t be a goodbye. Even if it’s a lie. But maybe we all need to pretend sometimes to survive. Maybe that’s what bravery is: pretending until you believe. Or until you can accept the truth.

So that’s what I do now: pretend.

I reach up for his burning cheek, swirling my fingers in the thick beard. “Come, the cottage has been missing you too.”

The shiver that runs through him now seems different—less horror, more desire. But the agony hasn’t released his eyes despite the faint light. He takes my hand off his face, still holding my icy fingertips. “I’ll go wash this off,” he says as always after the reel. “I don’t want to drag any of it here.”

Maybe he is pretending too. Whatever it takes for this pain to relent even for an hour, or a minute. “Good idea, but try to keep the shower cold. It’s better for the fever. I’ll go get your pajamas.”

“I can—” he starts but I’m already sprinting down the foyer to the linen cupboard where most of his clothes live now. As soon as I’m away from his body heat, chills erupt everywhere, and my chest starts throbbing. I race back before he has finished slipping off his wading boots.

“You know, I can walk, Elisa.”

“Yes, but I know what calms you so much better. Your favorite boxers are there too.”

His eyes when I say that. Half the bad fire, half the kind that ignites my blood. My knees almost give out. He takes the clothes from me, his fingers brushing mine. Then something catches his attention. He sniffs the air around the soft cotton. “Did you spray your perfume all over these?” he asks, perplexed.

“Exactly.”

He shakes his head, but his lips lift in the war-torn smile. “You’re unbelievable.”

“It helps you with the calm.”

“Not just with the calm.” He brings the fabric to his face, inhaling in the same way he breathes me in when we would curl up in bed. “Is this the second part of my surprise?” His voice is huskier beneath the slow timbre of pain. “I like it.”

“No, that’s later. This is just one of our embargo weapons.”

“Powerful.” His chest rises in another deep breath. “Put on something warm. You’re still freezing.” He brushes the goosebumps on my arm with Hope’s leaf and climbs the stairs. His favorite fifth stair where we used to make love squeaks under his feet.

Did the cottage just get brighter? Are the walls breathing? Is every grain of wood and stone coming to life even if just for one night? I’m unable to blink and check until I hear the loo door close behind him. And then I’m a tornado of chills, updating Doctor Helen and whirling around the rooms to prepare for our embargo night. Without the super-mind of the protein, I’m left with whatever brain cells have survived the scorching agony, terror, and sheer magnitude of the last six hours and ten days. It’s not many. My thoughts feel like mulch, decomposing under the strain of fear and anguish.

But the rainy sound of the shower keeps me moving on my shaky legs. By the time I hear it turn off ten minutes later, I’m already in the guestroom upstairs, throwing open the window to let in the rose breeze and the willow song. It has changed again in my normal ears. Not ephemeral anymore, but more beautiful, homier like a lullaby.

“New song?” Aiden guesses from the doorway. I spin around and there he is in his pajamas and white T-shirt, with Hope still in his hand. The droplets of water glimmer on him like the surreal halo of my bravery visions. But I can tell immediately the fever has not dropped a Celsius from the heaviness in his gaze, which means his mind must still be on fire. And the tension is still wringing his shoulders.

“Yes,” I whisper, my voice evaporating at the sight of him.

“What do they sing now?”

He’s here, he’s here.” I’m afraid again to ask about what he hears. Is it still safe, safe, safe like before the reel?

His eyes stroll around the guestroom, capturing each happy memory I managed to infuse here in the last few minutes. The vase of Elisas on the nightstand, two microwaved bowls of his favorite chicken soup leftovers, two Baci chocolates even though neither of us can eat them anymore, my chess set, the Chatsworth picnic basket hiding the medicine kit, the Christmas lights strung along the headboard, the old record player from our happy bedroom, playing Für Elise. His gaze quiets at last on the full bed. Except now it has our pillows, sheets, and quilt.

Instantly, all tension blows out of Aiden’s muscles like a gust of wind. Light floods his eyes back to their sapphire flames. Not my brilliant turquoise—only our bedroom can do that—but at least it’s no longer midnight. Another deep breath swells in his chest. He sets Hope on the dresser without a word and walks toward me where I’m still frozen at the window in his favorite sweatshirt and my leggings.

“I—” I start and try again because no voice comes out. “Since we can’t go back to our happy bedroom, I thought maybe I could bring some of its happiness to you. Like a Room of Happies compared to our Room of Firsts. I know it’s not the same, but—” I stop babbling because he reaches me. His body is so close I can feel his fever on my lips.

“It’s everything,” he finishes.

I topple headfirst into him, but his arms catch me. I lock mine around his waist before he can pull away, and melt in his blazing chest, inhaling his freshly showered scent. Sandalwood and Aiden and me. My head swirls with it, with the feel of him in my arms again. An old fear slithers up my spine, and I scrape my nail against my wrist to test reality. But I’m awake. He is truly here in the cottage, even if only for a few hours.

And he doesn’t pull away. His arms fold around me too, as he murmurs, “Elisa.”

“Yes?” I clutch him tighter. How is he still able to stand?

“That’s what the willows are singing for me. Elisa, Elisa, Elisa. Isn’t that what you wanted to know?”

How could he tell in just one glance? I press my lips above his heart—it’s thudding faster than the earlier death toll. “Well, I think mine just changed to sleep, sleep, sleep and soup, soup, soup. The willows want you to lie down and eat something.”

His long fingers caress the fabric of my sweatshirt lightly as if anything more or less might end us both. I can only tell because the heat permeates the thick cotton. “In a minute, but first, thank you. You were right. I do love this surprise even if I shouldn’t.”

“You should, but this isn’t your surprise either. You can see it after you get in bed.”

“Hmm . . .” His body sways, whether from the fever or the piano I don’t have time to understand because he abruptly tenses. I freeze automatically in response.

“What is it?” I ask, looking up at his face. My heart almost drops through the floorboards when I see his eyes drifting beyond the room, but he blinks back at me, frowning in confusion.

“Did you try to dance with me at some point when I was under? Or is that a memory?”

“Oh!” I breathe in relief. Not the worst of what he has seen, but his mind is not slowing down at all if he is still trying to parse out the past from the present. “No, you’re right. I did try, when I started playing Für Elise.”

He eyes change again, tender despite the pain. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting, ma’am.” And he lifts me slowly by my waist, sliding his bare feet under mine. We shudder in tandem at the touch.

“Aiden, love, you need to lie down,” I protest feebly. “You’re breaking the embargo rules already.”

“Am I?” He tucks my face back in his chest. “I think the rule was ‘rest and nothing else,’ and this is restful for me. The scientists say so.”

How can I say no to that? Especially when I want him to hold me so much?

As if he hears my thoughts, he pulls me tight against his body—summer and winter—yet it’s not close enough for me. I wish I could be air and float inside his lungs. Or blood so I can flow in his arteries. I want to slip under his skin and become a shield. I grip him back, and we dance through our steps that have become as instinctual as the breath hitching from our lips. I can feel his desire against every line of me—the way it ripples out of him as potent as the fever. I want more than anything to lift my face to his, to tangle my fingers in his wet hair, to taste him now that he is awake. But I cannot fathom the strength it’s taking for him to restrain his need. To deny himself everything he wants only to make the end easier for me. So I have to be good. I have to do the same for him.

He twirls me on the final bridge as always but doesn’t dip me over his arm. That’s good too—I couldn’t control myself if he did.

“Thank you for the dance. Earlier and now.” His voice has a poignant note to it like the last note of Für Elise. I’m too terrified to linger on the sound.

“Always. Now on with you, Adam, get in bed before I call every doctor in Oxfordshire.”

He doesn’t fight me this time—perhaps he can’t. He lies down, propping the pillow against the headboard, the twinkly lights above him casting a shimmering aura. His long legs dangle off the bed as he eyes the small space anxiously.

“Elisa—”

“I know,” I interrupt, throwing only a light sheet up to his waist. “It’s a small bed and you won’t let me in it. I’ll be careful.”

His finger hovers under my chin without contact, jolting me the same as his touch. “More than careful. You’ll go to sleep in your room after we’ve eaten, okay? I’ll be fine. It’s just a little fever.”

“Just a lot of fever. Aiden, I’m not arguing about this. We have a deal that tonight is about your health, with embargo on all else, including arguments. I’ll take care of you, and you’ll have to trust me that I’ll be safe. I wouldn’t endanger myself knowing what it would do to you. Haven’t I earned that trust?”

He opens his mouth to speak, but I stick in the thermometer, envious of its mercury tip under his tongue. “Mmmm,” he answers.

“That’s right. I interpret that to mean, ‘Yes, Elisa, darling, you have earned my trust, and I will not argue again tonight. Instead, I will take the paracetamol, eat the soup, see my surprise, and sleep, knowing that I’m loved.’ Is that what you’re trying to say?”

He looks at me like I’m his life and his worst enemy at the same time. “Mmmm.”

“Exactly. And if you don’t cooperate, I’ll call Doctor Gramercy, Doctor Helen, Doctor Corbin, your brothers, and your parents—they can be here tomorrow, they’re all packed. Oh, and Benson to hold you down while I force feed you.”

“Mmm—” he responds, but the thermometer beeps then, like my heart at the lab. I pull it out and almost collapse.

“Bloody hell, Aiden! It’s a hundred and two! How on earth are you coherent? I’m calling Doctor Gramercy right now.” I turn for my phone, but his hand closes at my hip.

“Elisa, darling, can I get in a word first?”

“Depends on the word.”

“How about these words? You’re right. You have earned my trust. More than anyone ever has or ever will. I’ve had an awful habit of questioning it, and I’m sorry. I’ll change it now even if I’m too late. I will trust you to be safe tonight and I’ll let you take care of me even though it should be the other way around. And if the fever doesn’t drop by tomorrow morning despite your magic, I’ll see a doctor. But tonight, I cannot handle anyone else but you. Can you give this to me?”

I just stare. How can I argue with his words, the pleading eyes, his simple wish, or his rare request for something he needs? How can I not give him everything?

“You’re not too late,” I recover, perching on the edge of the bed, afraid if I get any closer, I will throw myself at him. “And it shouldn’t be the other way around. You can’t always be the one saving me. I want to save you too.”

His lips lift into the worn half-smile, but he does the same, scooting to the middle of the mattress. “You save me every day, Elisa.”

But will it be enough?

He keeps his promise then. He takes the paracetamol tablets without argument, drinks a full glass of ice water, eats the soup, and even lets me take care of his hands no matter how much he hates anyone fussing over him. I disinfect the gnarly blisters with ethanol and cover them with honey balm, avoiding the heated gaze I sense on my face so I can concentrate. If the alcohol stings him, he doesn’t flinch. Instead, his fingertips curl instinctly toward mine. Every time they brush me, my heart hammers so loudly I think he can hear it. Being so close to him after ten days is more overwhelming to my system than even the protein. My emotions are a snarl. Everything possible to feel, I feel to the nth degree. From desire to the most absurd anger that his golden skin is hurt. Now I finally understand the mystery of how Aiden could be so furious at my sandals for giving me blisters. I loathe every shovel in the world at this moment.

“There.” I tape the strips of gauze around his hands gently. “They’ll be better tomorrow. But no shovels or hard labor for at least a week.”

He doesn’t like that—who knows what else he is planning to fix for me—but he concedes. “You really missed your calling as a military nurse.”

“Of course I didn’t. I’m taking care of a soldier right now. Here, let me put this compress on you. I even sprinkled some rose oil on it so it smells good. See?”

He stares at me in that you’re-unbelievable look but recovers. “Well, thank God for that. I wouldn’t want an ordinary compress.”

The note of dry humor under the hoarseness of agony sounds like a symphony to me. I press the damp tea towel over his burning forehead and eyes before he can see my eyes fill with tears. I try to avoid touching his skin—sure that any more contact, no matter how faint, will kill us both—but as soon as the wet cloth drapes over his face, he gasps as he did when he touched the evil monitor. As though something shocked him.

“Aiden?” I remove the towel immediately, but his eyes are focused on the labyrinth of his memory, tracing images I cannot see.

“You were there!” he whispers.

The words turn to chills on my spine. What is this? Is the reel trying to reclaim him? Or is this guilt? “Of course I was. I told you I’ll always be on the other side, just as you would for me.”

He shakes his head, his mind clearly processing with that surreal velocity he mentioned earlier. Here, in the light, I can finally see the stunning speed of thought in his far-away gaze.

“That’s not it,” he murmurs.

“Then what is it? What are you remembering?”

He looks between my face and the invisible mirage before him, his focus a laser beam, yet something seems to elude him. “Not remembering, exactly. Or maybe I am . . . It makes no sense.” His voice tenses with frustration.

“What makes no sense?”

The sentient eyes blink and return home. Meeting mine, torn between awe and puzzlement. “I have this very vivid image of you and me on the riverbank of Euphrates in Fallujah. Your hand is in my hair, and I’m splashing cold water on my face. I can hear your voice so clearly, telling me to do that. The vision is so vibrant, yet I know it’s impossible. I know you weren’t actually there. And I sure as fuck would never imagine you anywhere near that hellhole. But the texture of it—so rich and detailed. I can smell you with the gunpowder. I can see you through the smoke. I can feel your little hand around mine. It’s as if it really happened. As precise as any other memory.” He squints again, trying to reconcile the images.

I flap uselessly around my head. Obviously, a part of him heard me, though I don’t know how or in what order the memories are flowing back. Why this last image and not anything that came before it? Is it just a matter of the compress trigger or something else? But at least I can explain some of it. That way he can relax. “Actually, I think I might know why.”

He frowns. “Why?”

“Because I did tell you to go to the river and splash water on your face. You were so feverish, and Doctor Helen said to keep you as cool as I could, so I thought it would help if I gave you some images of cold water. Don’t worry about this part. Or any part at all. You really need to give your mind a break.” I pull the cold compress over his eyes again, stroking his forehead through the fabric. I can almost feel his thoughts racing inside his brain.

“Elisa?” His voice is unnaturally hard all of a sudden.

“Hmm?”

“How did you know there was a river close enough for me to go to?”

My mouth dries like the Fallujah desert. The only thing that saves me is that his eyes are covered. How could I have made such a blunder? Because the protein was fading, that’s why. My super-mind would have never floundered idiotically like this. “Well, ah, because I have studied Fallujah,” I scramble, sticking only to technical truths like the protein taught me. “I saw the Euphrates River runs through it.”

I would be proud of myself if I wasn’t liquifying into a blob of panic on the mattress. I didn’t tell a single lie, except by omission. Still, I force air in and out in case he can feel my choppy breathing through the mattress.

A few moments drag, stretching like the entire video, while I pray frantically to every angel and polygraph inventor to save me, Doctor Helen, Aiden himself, and Planet Earth. Then he sighs in a way that makes me think the entire galaxy will not, right this minute, scorch to ash by dragon fire. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you would have researched it but I hate that any part of that evil is in your head at all. Is it really so hard not to investigate every single thing that crosses your path, Elisa?”

My breath flows naturally again, and I almost slump on the bed in relief. Would he ever have accepted my explanation this easily if he wasn’t blindfolded with a tea towel, sleep-deprived for ten days, agonized, traumatized, assaulted by thousands of memories at stratospheric speed, and running a fever of a hundred and two degrees? No, not in a million years.

I dab another cold compress on his cheek. “It’s impossible. Snooping where I don’t belong is my specialty.”

Another sigh. “I’m aware . . . But it still doesn’t explain why the image feels so vivid even though it never happened. It’s as though my mind took your fantasy and flipped it into reality.”

The momentary relief disappears. Because for this, I have no answer. Nothing but a mounting terror expanding like an imploded universe. Terror that something has broken. Terror that I violated some fundamental principle of memory and nature by crossing the boundaries of time dimensions when I entered the reel with him. Terror that I made it worse instead of helping. Terror that I may not be able to save him at all. Terror for his pain. And terror that the fever is not relenting. My fingers tremble as I stroke his scar over the damp cloth.

“I wish I knew why, my love. I wish I could make it stop.”

His fingers caress the sweatshirt gathered at my hip, as if hears the unspoken dread. “Don’t worry,” he assures me. “I’ll figure it out.”

“I know you will, but not tonight, Aiden, please. We really need to give your mind a break, something else to work through that’s not burning or painful.”

“Alright,” he agrees, but I hear what he is not saying. What thought is left that doesn’t carry pain?

“How about a riddle so you can guess your surprise and keep your brain busy?” I splutter ridiculously, as if any childish game can tame terrors like these.

But it brings back the ravaged smile. “Very embargoish.”

“Okay, let me think. What would be hard enough for you?” I remove the compress to refresh it with more ice and rose oil. His eyes find mine immediately, lightening, softening, which doesn’t help me at all with the thinking process. I have to look at the soggy towel so I can string together some clues. “Alright, here it is.” I wrap the compress back over his eyes and forehead, wishing it could blind him from the images in his head. “Solve it and you’ll know what your surprise is. I start with love and end with riches. Within me, only mirror images. I am fragile, thin, and very light. Yet I can carry great loads inside. I can be a thought or a feeling. And if you lose me, you might lose meaning. But anyone who’s seen me will agree. There’s no greater suspense than me.”

A low gasp like a chuckle flows from his lips—the first since the end. My heart almost stops at the sound. So beautiful, even if only a ghost of the joyful music it used to be. What I wouldn’t give to hear it again.

“How do you come up with things like this?” he demands. “Do you have a section in your prefrontal cortex reserved for puzzles only?”

“No, but I do have a big part of my brain dedicated to you.” Okay, that’s an understatement. My entire brain is dedicated to him.

He shakes his head as if he doesn’t think a single neuron should be his. “And this is something you’re giving me?”

“Yes, and I’m very late at it.”

“Okay, my turn to think.” And underneath the willow song, I can almost hear the sudden silence in his mind, the ceasefire as he tries to focus only on the riddle.  Let it help, please. Let it cool the fever.

“Is it health?” he guesses, but then answers his own question, “No, it can’t be.”

“A good guess but keep trying.”

“Peace?”

“No, but it could have been.”

“Air?”

“No.”

“Coming home?”

The way home sounds in his voice—so warm, like it was made for him. “That’s your best so far but keep thinking.”

And he does. He keeps guessing answers that are a lot better than mine as I change the compress over and over again. But the fever isn’t dropping. His body is still a furnace, raging next to me. From the heat, the room feels sultry, the rose breeze like a tropical zephyr. And his voice becomes slower, his eyelids heavier as they struggle to open whenever he can see me. I try to fight back my rising panic so I can breathe for him.

“You really missed your calling to be an intelligence code writer, Elisa. Are you sure there is an answer?”

“Of course I didn’t miss it. I’m giving codes to a CIA analyst right now. And, yes, there is an answer.”

“Well, I’ll be Harold Plemmons’ age if I ever solve it.”

My breath rolls out into a faint whisper before I can stop it. “Promise?”

Even burning, he hears it. His hand clambers up to his face and he pulls down the compress. His eyes are abruptly fierce underneath the fever.

“Elisa.” He pours all his strength into his commanding voice. It rings with power, fortifying me as he must intend it to do. His other hand grabs a fistful of the sweatshirt at my hip. “For as long as your heart is beating, so will mine. You are not allowed to ever worry about that. Do you understand me?”

Except I want his heart to beat forever. I shove down the dark thought and put all my strength in my voice. “I do. I’ll keep my heart beating for a lot longer than Mr. Plemmons, I promise. And so will you. You will heal from this. You are not allowed to ever worry about that. Do you understand me?”

He sees my faith, my fear even with his hooded gaze. “I do. That’s why I’m still fighting. Now, is it lavender? Because it starts with an L and ends with R, even though nothing else fits. Or did I just commit a cardinal sin mentioning another flower’s name around here?” His lips force a valiant smile, and I grin naturally in response.

“You’ll have to grovel to the roses first thing in the morning—they’re very jealous flora, but I’ll give this to you because you guessed a flower and that’s close enough. Look under the other pillow and you’ll find your surprise.”

His smile lingers. “Really? You’re giving me a pass?”

“I can fail you if it would make you happier?”

“No, no, I’ll take it.” And his long fingers reach under the spare pillow immediately. For a a split second, a shadow of the seven-year-old boy flits in his eyes, not carefree, but alive. I swallow hard against the lump in my throat as he fishes out the origami rose I folded out of lab paper. “A white rose,” he muses, but as soon as his eyes lock on it, his memory strikes again, impossibly fast. “There was a rose!” he breathes in shock. “In the classroom, on the blackboard, there was a flower drawn in chalk like a rose!”

I hear my gasp of dread and relief. Because he saw it. He heard me, he trusted me, he found the rose as I had hoped. But I’ve triggered another flashback. And we’re getting closer to the torture, to the deepest circle of the fiery inferno.

His eyes flash to my face in awe. “You were there too. Just like with the river. You led me straight to it. How did you do that?”

I feel the blood drain from my skin. There is no compress over his eyes now, nothing to hide behind, except the only truths I can tell him. “I didn’t say anything about a flower,” I whisper, mouth dry like chalk, skin white hot like the desert. “I only told you to look for familiar things.”

“Yes, I know, but what gave you the idea? It’s so different than what you’ve done in the past.”

“I—I was just trying to bring you back, and I couldn’t think of another way.” My voice shatters under his gaze. “Aiden, please let it go. Don’t dwell on the horror now. Please!

My panic must derail him. He lifts his hand to my face, brushing my cheek with the paper rose as though he, too, can’t survive touching my skin. “Hey, hey, shh, not horror. At least not this part. That rose kept me breathing today. It was the one thing of beauty in all that hell. Once I saw it, I kept my eyes on it instead of . . .”

My own breath stops entirely—with the origami touch, with his words, with the tenderness in his gaze. Even the anxiety about the video disappears for the moment at this revelation. Because I’d watch it a million times over withoutthe protein if it gave him one bubble of oxygen. “It really helped?” I whisper. “But I—I broke all of Doctor Helen’s rules!”

He nods, caressing my cheekbone with the paper petals. “I’m glad you did. If you hadn’t, I would have never found the rose, even though I obviously glimpsed it when I stepped inside the classroom that day.”

I press the cold compress over his cheek like a caress too. Of course he hadn’t registered it since that accursed moment. Who would think of roses with all the torture that followed? “I’m glad you saw it in the first place. Thank God for your mind and for whomever drew the rose there.”

His eyes travel, and I’m certain he is seeing the image that I know so well: the simple petals, so obviously drawn by a child’s hand. Was it one of the broken hands Aiden had to pick up and match to the rest? Or is that child still alive somewhere in the desert—an adult now, unaware he just helped a man breathe thousands of miles away? Will that chalk rose be enough to help Aiden in the future when I’m not there?

“Thank God for you.” His eyes focus on me with feeling. “I still can’t access most of it, but I know I’d still be in that classroom if it weren’t for you.”

A shiver runs through me at the haunted look that mars his beautiful face. “No, you wouldn’t,” I say quickly, patting his brow with the damp cloth. “You’d be right here, except you’d be opening your surprise instead of trying to comfort me.”

It works. The ghostly look fades and, for now, we seem to leave the classroom—and my detailed knowledge of it—behind. “Open it? The paper rose you folded so carefully?”

I nod. “Oh yes, the surprise is inside. You didn’t think the answer is ‘rose,’ did you?”

“No, but it seems sacrilegious to unravel this. Haven’t I committed enough sins against the roses tonight?”

“No, the roses like this part. And I’ll fold it again for you if you want.”

He trails the origami rose down my cheek to the corner of my jaw. “I want.”

He opens the rose carefully while I try to find the real rose breeze for air. Abruptly I’m nervous. Will he like it? Or will it cause more flashbacks? It seemed like a good idea when I was brave, but now my decisions during the protein seem downright insane. But it’s too late—he flattens the scrap of lab paper and his breath catches. The weary smile sparks again. “Ah, I see. The answer to the riddle is a letter. Of course it is. Clever.” He looks up at me through his long lashes, heavy with fever. “Now what could you have written to me?”

“I don’t know, I was high.”

“All the better.”

I watch without air as his eyes turn to the words I wrote. The words I remember as clearly as if they were still in front of me.

My love, he is reading,

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write you back. After all, we’re still fighting a war—a war like no other. With hearts instead of shields, memories instead of bombs, dreams instead of missions. It’s the war to end all our other wars. The war to save you. Because you deserve it, and we will fight for as long as we have breath left. Even when we’re an ocean apart.

And one day—whether now or when we’re as old as the Plemmonses—I know you will win. I know I will wobble on my cane to my postbox, and I will see an envelope there with just my address and an international stamp. I will know your handwriting even blind. I will know what the letter says before I open it. Just one four-letter word: F-R-E-E. And I will dance right there by the rose hedge—cane, titanium hip, knee braces, and all. Then I will scribble you back one word. The only one I will know. L-O-V-E.

But until then, maybe we’ll keep writing to each other. Just like this—never goodbyes, only “my” and “yours.” Even you cannot find anything unsafe with that. And I will tell you all the things I haven’t had a chance to tell you. There are only a billion. This time, I will start with how it feels to love you with absolutely no fear. Love you for love’s sake only, just like your first Baci quote said.

I wish I had your talent for writing—perhaps then I could do justice to the feeling. It’s compulsive, instinctual, like every right and wrong has ceased to exist. All my worries and what-ifs no longer matter. Every other purpose in life has become secondary to this one simplicity: I love you. From the A of your name to the Zs of your sleep. I love the totality of the man you are, without a single care of what was or what will be.

I don’t love you safely, tucked between a dream and a fairytale. I love you violently, torn between wars and nightmares. I don’t love you with pasts or time. I love you the way stars are meant to be loved. Forever, in darkness and light.

Yet it still doesn’t seem enough, because I know it can’t last. Fear will return soon and, with it, reason and reality. I know there isn’t a world where you would ever risk my life. And I know bravery changes nothing between us. So when I’m awake from this spell, don’t give me anything but whatever you can. From however far.

Yours,

Elisa

He finishes before me even though these are my words rhyming in my brain more fluently than my own name. But he doesn’t blink away from them. He gazes at every period and every comma the way he looks at me sometimes. As though they’re his reason for living. And for the third time in our love, I see the glimmer of a tear at the corner of his eye. But it’s not a tear of pain. For once tonight, there is no trace of agony in his expression.

A whiff of rose breeze floats by, and I realize I had been barely breathing until now.

At the sound of my breath, Aiden looks at me. And before I can figure out how to blink, he sits up, coming so close with his surreal face, his body heat, his sky gaze full of dreams. His fragrance washes over my lips, and I have to wring the tea towel to stay upright. But the room starts to spin. And the tropical air crackles on my skin like melting ice.

“Elisa,” he murmurs, and the deep emotion is in his voice, too. “I—what can I ever say to a letter like this? There are no words for it.”

I dab the single tear sparkling at the edge of his scar. “I don’t want you to say anything. I only wanted you to know how brave love felt for me.” But as I hear the past tense, oddly, it doesn’t feel in the past at all. It feels viscerally present.

He looks at me with the whole world in his eyes. “I know it. I feel it. But that’s not all you want, is it?” He flutters the paper along my cheek—it billows with our breath. “You want more. So much more than that.”

M-o-r-e. Except what I want no longer matters compared to him. “I want you to be at peace most of all. So I’ll take whatever you can give me safely, even if just in letters.”

It would never be enough. To have the words of our love story tucked in the library right next to Dante, Austen, and Tolstoy . . . in the empty spot left by Romeo and Juliet.

His eyes turn to the letter as if he is considering that other world. The world where we speak only in paintings and scribbles. The paper trembles from his touch. “I don’t know how to be with you half-way,” he admits, seeming lost. “I did it in war, but now that you’re real . . .”

This morning I would have told him to be with me in every way, but that won’t help him now. Not when he needs to hope I will have a life beyond him. The hope that will keep him alive. “That’s okay. Then be with me only in here,” I answer, hovering my hand above his heart. His fever burns my skin even without contact. “Just promise you will send me that letter when you heal. Because you will, Aiden. One day, you will.”

He looks again at the words I wrote, his eyes deepening, and I wonder where his thoughts are taking him. To that dream? That day in his future? I don’t know but my mind flashes to the past. To us. To every maddening, beautiful, surreal moment of being his. They roll by in a memory reel of my own: the first time I saw his exquisite face at Feign’s gallery . . . touching the miracle of his hand at the presentation for my supplement . . . coming alive under his gaze on our coffee date . . . his first kiss and every single one that followed it . . . that first night together and every night since . . . the war we fought . . . the way he healed me . . . his gifts . . . the games of chess . . . the dances . . . the sleeps . . . his waterfall laughter . . . every minute of his impossible, forever love.

The wound in my chest rips wide open, almost curling me over in a torture of loss. I barely have a second to whip around and pretend to soak the compress so I can hide from his quick eyes. But I’m not fast enough. His finger comes under my chin, skin on skin without any fabric between us. The small touch jolts through me like electric current.

“Elisa, love?” He turns my face to him immediately. “What is it? What hurt you just now?”

L-o-v-e. I commit the way it sounds in his voice to memory, wishing I could remember like him so not a single note of his music ever fades from my mind. Even his panic for me right now. But it knocks me to my senses, overruling my own pain. What the bloody hell am I doing? How can I add even a second to the burden he is carrying?

I take a deep breath and press the compress back to his cheek. “Your fever isn’t dropping at all,” I answer, choosing the most urgent of the thousands of flames because it’s the one that will worry him the least.

He doesn’t release my eyes or my chin, still studying me. The light contact grows, sinking through my skin to my very bones. “I’m sure it will. Is that all that’s upsetting you?”

“Isn’t it enough?”

“No, nothing is worth this pain.”

“Well, it is to me,” I say truthfully, because nothing else compares to his health. “Aiden, please, I’m worried about you. Maybe we should try something stronger to break your thoughts. How about blind chess against me and your laptop? That ought to distract even your mind for a few minutes.”

He sighs, no doubt seeing the earnest dread, and relents. His finger drops from my chin, leaving behind the chill of his absence. “I have a better idea instead.”

“What idea? It had better not involve worrying about me, Aiden, I swear.”

“It doesn’t. At least as much as I’m capable of doing that.”

“Then what is it?”

He holds my eyes in that way that makes it impossible to blink. “How about you read your letter to me?”

The sheet of paper quivers in his hand from my surprised gasp. “Really? But you already remember it by now—it won’t be enough to hold your focus.”

“I promise you it will hold it more than anything else. And I haven’t heard it in your voice. Or with you in my arms.”

My mouth pops open. Because I realize what he wants. Didn’t I try and fail to imagine his piano voice when I was reading his war letters alone? How alive did his words feel when I finally heard them in his music, curled in his chest? But did he really mean in bed with him?

He nods as though he is in my head. “Elisa, you’ve been up since four—assuming you slept at all, made breakfast, went to work, solved the protein, tested it, watched me in agony for three hours, revived me all on your own, found a way to save my sanity, prepared my surprise, and now you’ve been taking care of me all evening, refusing to leave me alone, hurting deeply, and putting on a brave face for my benefit. The embargo applies to you too. I’m not going to lie here all pampered with you on your feet, and I don’t think I’ll fall asleep tonight. So if calming me is your goal, nothing else will calm my mind more than your rest.”

And before I can find my breath or blinks or tell him none of that compares to what he’s done for me, he pulls the compress from my frozen hands, tosses it on the floor, and takes me in his arms. His scorching hold zings me back to life. Tingles explode everywhere until I see stars. My arms fly around his waist and my lungs restart, inhaling his delicious fragrance. A shiver runs through me at the same time as it ripples over him.

He sighs in my hair and lies back down, pulling me across his chest. I snuggle frantically into his heat, breath racing, heart pounding, pulse almost breaking through my skin. He is so close, the bed so small, this doesn’t bring us back together, yet it’s so much more than I ever thought I would get again. The feeling is overpowering. Like coming home, air, health, peace—like all his answers to my riddle because he is my answer to everything.

Through the flammable haze in my brain, I realize Aiden has forged into titanium around me as though the fire that’s turning me to vapor has petrified him. Every single muscle is flexed into a blade of restraint. Even his lungs seem to have stopped. But his heart thunders like mortar fire under my cheek. And his hold—so tight, so desperate, like a last breath. Yet even now, he turns his strength against himself so I don’t bruise under his hands.

Only his need can break through my frenzy in this moment. I loosen my stranglehold around his neck and untangle my leg from his.

“Aiden, love, if this is too hard, I can—”

“Shh, it’s harder without this.” His voice is husky, the way he sounded when we would make love.

I want so much to look up at his face, but I know there is no way either of us can survive that right now. One blink, and we will end. On our tomb, it will say Amor Finit Omnia. So I lie very still in his arms, head on his chest, listening to his heart.

“Do you want me to tell you about Rostóv?” I ask, trying to remember War and Peace. “Will that help?”

A quiet exhale flurries in my hair like his lost chuckle again while I liquify at the sound. “No, I’d much rather hear your letter.”

I take it from his hand where it’s shuddering like us. “Okay, whatever you want. After all, you’ve slept on the ground—assuming you slept at all, you didn’t have breakfast or lunch, you lifted a whole quarry of stone, reinforced the riverbank, have fixed the roof and the plumbing and the shutters, cleaned the gutters, built the garden beds, fertilized and mulched the garden, pruned the shrubs and the trees, hacked the thornbushes, chopped wood, established a grant for my job, set up my trust fund, lined up my security, hired me lawyers, attacked the boulder that almost killed me, God knows what else, watched the reel, were stuck in torture for three hours all alone, you’ve been running a fever of one hundred and two all evening while fighting the triple-force of your  memory, and now you’re worrying about me. Did I forget anything?”

Another low chuckle blows warm tingles over my skin. “Yes.”

“What?”

“I finished the entire War and Peace.”

Astoundingly, laughter finds me in this moment. It bursts from my lips as it did the first time he told me about his trick.

“There, much better. I love the sound of your laugh, Elisa,” he tells me as he did then too—if I’m remembering that moment, he certainly is, which means he is not thinking about the reel. And like then, my laugh seems to work better at distraction than Tolstoy. He takes a deep breath and tucks the sheet between us like an extra shield. It’s too warm with his fever, but I’d rather burn to cinder right now than move one inch. I hold up my letter to busy my eyes and begin, voice trembling without the confidence of the protein.

“My love, I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write you back. . .”

He listens with his heated lips in my hair, the thud-thud-thud of his heart to the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of mine. And when I finish, he is quiet. Only our heartbeats and the sounds of the night. The rustle of the beech trees, the willow song, a gentle creak as the breeze kisses the shutters. But the fever still isn’t dropping.

“Do you miss it?” he asks after an immeasurable moment—I’m avoiding the wall clock.

“Miss what?”

“Loving me that way. Without fear.”

When he phrases it like that—in the past too—that visceral sense of presence engulfs me. A familiar force gushes in my veins, just as potent as during the protein. Not scorching or icy, but healing. Like glacial spring water, washing away all the debris of fear and agony. With a startle, I recognize what it is. L-o-v-e.

“Oh!” I gasp, trying to breathe through it with my unfortified lungs. I thought once fear reentered my world, it would normalize everything, but I was wrong. Somehow, through facing our worst terrors, that Himalayan super-love survived. How could that be?

“Elisa?” Aiden props himself up so he can look at me, the V of worry between his brows. And for a second, his face seems to shimmer again with the lovely aura of my bravery visions—but it’s just the twinkly lights.

It takes me a moment to remember his question, to find my voice through the potent emotion. “No,” I answer in wonder. “I don’t miss it at all. I still love you the exact same way.”

The V deepens. “How is that possible without the protein?”

I try to think past his closeness, his fragrance, his gaze, his body heat, the sheer existence of him. “I don’t know but I’m glad it is.”

“Do you think some of the protein’s effects might still be lingering?”

“No, I think it’s because my love for you has always been the same, just as strong with or without fear. Bravery only allowed me to feel all of it. And now that I have, I can’t unfeel its power. I can’t unknow its depth.” Again, the words bring a vivid sense of recognition. Silently, I thank my lucky stars. If I had to keep one thing from the protein, I’m grateful it’s this one.

He watches me intently, his eyes deepening with an unfathomable storm of their own. The rose breeze blows back and forth between our lips.

“Do you wish I didn’t love you like this?” I ask and regret the terrifying question immediately. Or rather the answer he might give.

His gaze softens on mine. “A part of me will always wish that.”

Fire torches my throat, almost as scalding as during the video. It seems some types of super-agony have survived too—why is that? I can’t find enough strength to analyze it through the flames.

“Shh, let me explain!” He shakes my shoulder gently. “A part of me will always wish that for your happiness. Our end would certainly have been easier for you if you didn’t love me like this. But a bigger part of me—the most selfish part—wouldn’t change a single thing about your love. How can I when it keeps me alive? When it’s the greatest happiness of my existence?”

The fire vanishes as quickly as it erupted, as if he doused it with his words. A sense of peace rushes through me in its place. Not because we won or because it will change our end. I feel peace for a victory that matters more than my wants: Aiden has finally accepted love, even if only in a letter, even if only from a distance. The man who wouldn’t even let me tell him I loved him at first, who did everything he could to make me hate him, just heard four hundred forty-four words of my reckless and unconditional love for him and wouldn’t change a thing. If that’s not worth every minute of the reel, every flame of agony, every stab of terror, every empty minute of my future existence, I don’t know what is.

I feel my own lips lift into a true, straight-from-the-heart smile.

“What is it?” He smiles in response, clearly unaware of his own transformation—so subtle, yet so bold.

“Nothing. Only that selfish is such a beautiful word.”

He taps the brave letter at the corner of my grin. “And me being selfish makes you happy?”

When he asks me that, abruptly, happiness shifts. It hasn’t taken any forms in so long. I thought it would always look like the past from now on. But it shimmers again, looking exactly like this present moment: Aiden, even if feverish and worn, cherishing my love.

“Very happy,” I tell him. “I want you to be the most selfish man in the world.”

I know he sees the truth. I can tell from the way his eyes lighten on mine. “In that case, can I hear that letter again?”

“You can hear it as many times as you want.”

His gaze lingers on my smile until a different kind of fever starts to burn my skin. He shuts his eyes with a pained sigh. Hard, harder than I’ve ever seen him fight anything, he leashes back his body and lies back down, hands in fists on the sheets. And I know he made right choice for both of us. Because if he kissed me now, I would not survive losing it again—faith or no faith, protein or no protein. And if I kissed him, I would cool his fire only to finish him in the end.

“Do you have a favorite part of the letter?” I ask for distraction.

He seems to think about it for a second, eyes still closed. “Every word, but maybe the part about the stars.”

“Why that one?”

“Because it’s almost as strong as the way I love you.”

Almost? Don’t you mean equal?”

“No, I mean almost. The protein doesn’t seem to have changed the way I feel about you either. I love you as indescribably now as I did before it. Maybe even more. Though, of course, I have no idea what happened during—”

“Shh, don’t go there.” I tighten my hold to keep him present. “Just think about the good parts you know: that you love me like this because you’ve always been extremely brave and your emotions are naturally much more heightened already.”

“Precisely. So almost is the right word. But surprisingly I like hearing about this other love that comes close.”

What’s the point in racing the stars? You will never catch them. That’s why they are stars. Shining outside your window every night, more beautiful than any dream—forever yours, yet forever out of reach.

“My love,” I start reading again even though I don’t need the letter. But he seems to like looking at my handwriting, and I’d rather his eyes stay here than drift back to Fallujah.

He strains me closer with each word, molding me to his blazing body. And this time, when I finish, I start over without pause like we do with Für Elise. Every now and then, I feel his body tense with flashbacks, but each time, I raise my voice a little and he comes back. Listening to the words of my love with his nose in my hair, fever on his skin, and shudders in his heart.

“I love you the way stars are meant to be loved. Forever. In darkness and in light . . .”

Abruptly, his steely arms become heavy around me, and his hold softens with a sigh. I panic that the reel is dragging him back, but when I peek up at his face, I see he has miraculously fallen asleep. So heroic, I can hardly breathe. His beauty is war-torn with deep shadows under his eyes and hollowed cheeks. The V is still etched between his brows like a peace sign. And the fever is still flushing his pale skin. I watch every flutter of his eyelids and every bristle of his beard, memorizing all of it. Because I know I’ll never have another chance like this. The clock is ticking away every minute of our last embargo. And when it’s over, he will be gone. Aiden and I will be the past.

My chest rips open again, and I let it now. I let agony claw my throat, tearing out huge chunks of my heart. There is no sense in fighting back—it will have all of me in the end. The only thing I stop are the tears boiling in my eyes. Because they would blur Aiden’s face, and I don’t want to miss a blink of it tonight.

But right as he finds a cradle of rest, terror breaks through. The reel snakes inside his dreams and steals him. I can tell from the tension that seizes his body, from the way his breath twists into shallow gasps. How much is his mind reliving? Has it reached the schoolyard? Can it see that vital clue buried in the smoke clouds? Will his memory slow down enough for him to find it like a second chalk rose? And will that clue be enough to give him some peace at last?

A shudder ripples over Aiden—not one of mine, one from the desert. Deadly, with its tentacles deep in the chambers of his heart. And even though I’d give up every rose in this cottage to stay here in his arms, I know the only thing he would want right now is for me to be safe. So I start slipping carefully out of his hold, feeling as though with each centimeter away, a chip of my soul rips apart and stays behind. By the time I climb out of bed, my heart, mind, and breath are still in his arms.

I tiptoe to the nightstand for his iPhone to turn on Für Elise, but something next to it catches my attention: Aiden’s anti-nightmare pill. He didn’t take it; didn’t fathom he would fall asleep. My stomach churns in dread. Because whatever horror is scorching him now, he will be facing it alone without any anesthetic against the poisonous flames. I shudder and swipe up his phone for the only weapon we have left. His screensaver is still the same from our very beginning: me fast asleep in his Portland bed.

“Here you go, my love,” I whisper, tapping the pre-programmed playlist. And the piano starts floating around the room with the breeze. I fold my letter back into the origami rose and set it next to his pillow. “Sleep safe, I’m right here.”

But he doesn’t sleep safely tonight. Because this isn’t sleep. It’s war. Raiding his brain, strafing his heart, bombarding his memories with IEDs. His body revs up, muscles glinting like knives. Deep creases trench his forehead like chains around his mind. I curl on the armchair in the corner and try to count his breaths like always, but they’re not puffs of happiness anymore; they’re heated gasps of torment. And his fever starts radiating out of him in blast waves. I can taste it on my tongue. Even the air in the room changes—no longer tropical; it’s a desert heat dome. Fallujah is here. With its blood-soaked sands, dark shadows, hellfire, and bombs.

I bolt to my feet, searching for anything to stop the torture from drifting closer. The ice bowl and compresses are on the floor, but I know I cannot touch Aiden now in any way. It would kill us both. But what else is left? Old cottages like this were not built with air conditioning or ceiling fans. I dash to the window and tie back the curtains so the breeze can blow in more freely. Then I turn up the volume on Für Elise.

Help him, Dad. Break the fever, Mum. Let him go, Marshall, please.

But the heavens aren’t listening. For the first time, I hear Aiden speak in his sleep. Not the soft moans of love I’ve heard before. These are the guttural, soul-wrenching words in fluent Arabic. They fire from his lips like bullets, sharp and rapid under the staggering processes of his memory. I can barely catch them, and the ones I do, I don’t understand, yet I can remember each inflection, each fierce vowel, each strangled consonant from the video with razor clarity. I can recite them with him right now, as though his pleas for Marshall are branded with hot iron in my own memory.

“Khidhni, aqtilni . . .” His breath slashes the rosy air in agony.

At the sight, my own agony explodes—not the wound in my chest, the flesh-tearing pain, or the intangible torture of loss. This is the blistering kind, the brave torment of the protein, searing me alive. Except I have no superhero endurance anymore. I wrap my arms around my torso, trying to breathe through the scalding smoke in my lungs. Why isn’t this gone? Why now and not before? How did I live through it then? Where are my limbs, my heart, my spine? I can’t find anything in my body—there is only fire even though I know it’s all in my mind. In my normal, limited mind that gives me no answers now.

But there is one thing the flames don’t torch even as they incinerate everything else: Aiden himself. His love, his agony so much vaster than mine. His voice turns into that inhuman sound for which no language exists. And he needs me.

I wrench myself upright and stumble to the nightstand for my phone. It flickers on with my own screensaver: Aiden peacefully asleep in our happy bedroom. The time glares neon white across his smooth, unlined forehead. Five minutes past midnight. Another day gone. So few left to save him. I pull up Doctor Helen’s number, too terrified to care if she is wake or asleep. But she picks up on the first ring.

“Elisa, there you are. How is he?”

I sprint out in the hallway, still keeping my eyes on Aiden, and tell her everything. “What do I do?” I choke. “How do I help him?”

Silence on the other side as she must be taking in the deluge of information I just unloaded.  I expect her to admonish me for breaching her directives but she doesn’t say anything. For once, I will the seconds to tick faster, but they seem to stop as they did during Edison’s attack: only on moments of unspeakable terror.

At last, she sighs. “I’m not sure there is much more you can do, child. From what you’re describing, Aiden’s mind is processing at an unfathomable rate. As excruciating as this is, we must allow it time to do that.”

“But the fever?” I whimper. “I can almost feel it out here in the hallway!”

She doesn’t miss a single second now. “Elisa, you cannot touch him under any circumstances, you know that. Even for a compress. And no medicine or doctor can lower the fever because this is not illness—it’s trauma. We will need to endure as best we can. Do you think a second dose of the protein would help you do that?”

As if I’m worried about myself. “No,” I answer firmly. “I understand the protein a lot better now. It’s not meant for this. I’ll save it for Aiden. For bigger things.” Like September eighteen or that very last breath when he is finally at peace.

“That’s probably wise in any event,” she agrees. “Two doses in one day would be ill-advised with its emotional extremes.”

A shudder pins me against the wall at the idea. For a second, I consider telling her about the super-emotions but this isn’t about me.

“In that case, would you like me to come stay with you tonight so you’re not alone?” she offers.

Except Aiden cannot handle anyone else here tonight. And if I’m honest, neither can I. “No, I’ll be okay. If I need to wake him, I’ll call Benson. But thank you for all your help, for picking up at this hour.”

“Of course. Call me anytime. But tomorrow, you both need to rest. No reel or protein or strenuous activity of any kind.”

“We will,” I promise, even though I have no idea how Aiden will be when the embargo is over. Maybe I can buy another day Scheherazade-style, like I did on our first night.

“Meanwhile, I’ll connect with Doctor Corbin and we can reconvene at my lab the day after—I suppose that will be Saturday now—to see how you both of you are feeling.”

A second shudder almost knocks me to my knees. “You’re not going to show Aiden more awful images, are you?” I croak in horror.

“Of course not. In fact I’m not sure it would help anymore given this reaction . . .”

In her rarely hesitant voice, I think I hear what she is holding back now that my bravery has worn off. She is protecting me from another truth, but I know. This is it. There is nothing more she can do to save Aiden. Science has tried it all.

I feel the doorframe against my back as my body wobbles for balance. An odd blankness tugs at the edges of my mind as if to shut it off, but I fight to stay in the present second only.

“Then we’ll find another way,” I tell her.

“You will never give up on him, will you?”

“Never.”

“Then follow your instincts, child. They’re Aiden’s best hope.”

H-o-p-e. The hybrid trembles on the dresser from the breeze.

When Doctor Helen is gone, I search every crevice of my frantic mind for anything that might help. But without the protein, all genius is gone. All that’s left are slivers of instincts and bursts of faith. It has been enough to survive until now. It will have to be enough tonight.

“I’ll be right back, love,” I murmur.

I race around the cottage, throwing open all the shutters, grabbing the old fan from the living room, mum’s crafts basket, and anything that occurs to my composted brain. As I run, I text, stumbling into furniture in a way that would give Aiden a stroke if he saw it.

“James, can you help me with something?”

His response is almost instant. “Name it, Trouble.”

And he does—in fifteen minutes, I have what I need. Or at least what I believe might help tomorrow. But Aiden has deserts to cross, chains to break, clues to find, and torture to survive before then.

I hurry back upstairs, hauling everything in my arms. On the bed, Aiden is still burning in every way, from his mind to his skin. I set the fan by his side, fill its reservoir with rose water, and train it on him so the mist and ventilation blow straight on his body, amplifying the breeze. Then I spray my perfume in the air and curl on the floor by his side, reciting my letter out loud. It helped him fall asleep. Perhaps it will help again now. I time my words to the notes of Für Elise, rifling through mum’s crafts and trinkets to keep my hands busy so they don’t fly on their own to touch him.

I snip, string, tie, and knot, hands shaking, voice trembling, heart shattering, burning with him. And though it all, Fallujah wins. Torching his body with fire, irrigating his lungs with smoke, retrenching his heart with bombs. And his words change again, back to English, contorting into dry sobs.

“Take me. Kill me, not him . . . it’s my fault . . . my fault . . . my fault . . .”

There are some moments in life—moments drenched in storms, with volcanoes of agony forging ravines of fury, waterfalls of love drenching the crags of fear, torrents of desire flooding mountains of longing, thunders of guilt shattering the skies of freedom—when we are simply small. Just leaflets in the wind, hoping to land somewhere we know. This is one of those moments. A moment when I can only tremble and hope.

Outside the window, the night deepens, then lightens into another dawn. On the dresser, perhaps from the desert heat, a tiny, new bud leaf is peeking on the stem of Hope. And Aiden’s torment changes, ringing out with a different tenor, less desolate, more commanding, until it becomes a single word.

“Stop!”©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 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 w