Happy fall, friends! New chapter for you, and probably one of my favorites. I have waited for so long to give Aiden and Elisa the gift that is here. I hope you love her secret as much as I loved it from the moment it first formed in my head. Thank you to everyone who is reading and writing to me. Love you all. After this, only one more secret left… Theme: healing. Song: A Thousand Years. Favorite line: We are not the big bang; we are stars that shine on. Enjoy!
“So what’s next?” I ask as Aiden carries me down the steps of Doctor Helen’s building.
“Come.” He tilts his head toward the meadow in the back. “Sit with me for a moment before we have to see anyone else.”
For a moment? Forever. “I will sit with you for as long as you want, unless you’re still planning on leaving now that you’re really free.” The reflexive crack in my voice ruins my bad joke.
He pulls me tighter in his chest, his gaze full of that my-all look that heals every pain. “I’m not going anywherewithout you. But it might be awkward for Benson to wait in the car for us for a thousand years.”
I laugh and reach up to kiss his dimple. “Even a thousand years wouldn’t be enough.”
He chuckles and kisses my temple. “Well, we have to start somewhere.”
Start . . . it’s really beginning for us, isn’t it? I scrape the pad of my thumb with my nail, abruptly needing to test reality myself. It’s real, it’s real, it’s real. Thank you, God. Thank you, Marshall. Thank you, Mum and Dad.
Aiden carries me and my picnic basket behind the building, toward the familiar oak of his childhood. The pink sunrise has turned into an opalescent haze, the sleepy grass still glistening with dew. There are no children in the quiet playground, except the seven-year-old boy of my imagination. He is flying down the slide in his grass-stained Levi’s and white T-shirt, laughing freely like he did the last time we sat here, when we thought we had lost everything.
As soon as we clear the building’s shadow, the last strains of tension leave Aiden’s body and a sense of fluidity flows gradually in its place. I cannot blink away from his beauty. He is even more impossible than the young, unharmed Aiden in the war tent or the Aiden of my dreams. Perhaps because this Aiden has risen above it all and healed.
He looks at the merry-go-round, too tall and leonine for the tiny seats. I cannot imagine what he must feel right now, striding past the childhood that was lost to him, treading to the same thick branches that sheltered him from a world both too small and too big. I give him the moment he needs. Besides, I need a few minutes of my own to collect my thoughts, to process the last secret between us, the full truth that has been waiting for him. What will it mean now that he is healed? More, surely—a lot more than I could ever have dreamed. Right?
At the oak’s canopy, we sit on the same muscular root as we did that dark Saturday morning two weeks ago. Except now Aiden wraps me up in his arms. I curl closer in his chest, listening to the thud-thud-thud of his heart. He kisses my hair, my temple, my cheek, the diamond E at my wrist.
“How are you feeling?” I ask, tracing the polaroid of his healed mind inside his shirt pocket.
He tips up my face to look at me. His eyes are the stillest turquoise. Not like the memories have stopped stirring underneath. But like has finally floated above them.
“It’s hard to find the words,” he answers. “Relieved, grateful, incredulous, happy, but most of all awed, I think.”
“You should feel awed. You just did the impossible.”
He cups my cheek. “I meant awed at you, not me. Elisa, you saved my life. And not just mine. You saved my parents, my brothers, and above all, you saved yourself and us. I have never been more amazed than I am in this moment.”
And here it is. Right here. Right now. I sit up a little so we are eye to eye and take his face in my hands. His skin touches me differently, more intensely somehow. Its warmth melts through my bones, like a melding. I have to use all my strength not to be distracted by the sensation or the effervescent glow that illuminates his skin like the candlelight of our happy bedroom.
“Remember yesterday when I said I would argue with you when the embargo was over?” I ask him.
My favorite dimpled smile curves up his lips—so vital, so beautiful I almost lose my train of thought. “It’s ringing a bell.”
“Well then . . .” The two familiar words that started us trill in the air between our mouths. “Let’s argue.”
His brows arch with amused surprise. “Argue? That’s the first thing you want to do with me?”
“Yes, it has to be.”
“Are you sure? I had some better ideas, not the least of which has to do with your tomorrow-now-today Christmas present that is waiting for you at home under the rose tree.”
His eyes smolder for some reason at the idea, but I don’t want to think about his goodbye present ever again. “I’m sure. Besides, it’s my present to you that we need to argue about.”
He picks up on the emotion on my voice. The smile turns into a frown of confusion. “We’re arguing about the present you gave me right before we met Helen?”
“Yes, your last post-reel surprise although hopefully there won’t be much arguing and you will finally see that you did this all on your own.”
The dimple flashes on his cheek again. “Well, I can’t imagine not arguing about that, but okay, I’m listening.”
I kiss his scar and let go off his face reluctantly so I can reach inside my picnic basket for the small box wrapped in the world map of dad’s old atlas. My fingers shake a little but the simple contact fortifies me through the paper as I hand it to Aiden. “Here, open it.”
He takes it from me, searching my face for a moment, no doubt trying to comprehend what is running inside my head. But I know he will never guess this, despite his ability to read me exactly like the map. He starts unwrapping the cardboard box, taking care not to rip the atlas page. Then I hear his breath catch when he lifts the lid. Because there, nestled deep in the flurry of every Baci quote we have read together this summer, except Shakespeare’s, is a crystal vial I know in every molecule of my body.
The lilac liquid shimmers mysteriously inside, with the seal intact.
Aiden whistles quietly, staring mesmerized at the luminous halo, part-liquid, part-mist. His fingers brush Dante’s quote as he takes out the warm, glimmering crystal. He shakes it gently but the fizzy aura does not give. Entranced, he sets down the box on the grass and holds up the vial against the cloudy sky, no doubt trying to understand the glow within that cannot be explained by the oak’s deep shadow. But there is no sunshine behind the fantastical sparkle. He turns the vial again, watching the glittering substance move fluidly with him.
“Elisa . . . what is this?” he whispers. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Even though I have been planning these words for a while, it still takes me a minute to form them from the sudden wave of emotion engulfing me.
“It’s the protein, love. The protein of bravery.”
His head whips up at me, the V folding between his brows. “What do you mean, ‘it’s the protein’”?
“I mean this is the protein that dad invented, the formula that erases fear.”
He frowns back at the strange, hypnotic mixture, as though trying to reconcile it with what he knows. “Have you made some changes to it?”
“No, it has always looked like this.”
He shakes his head, utterly perplexed. “It can’t be. This looks so different. The protein was less warm, more purple . . . like your eyes . . .” His voice trails off uncertainly, his eyes widening as an instinct of truth must seep through his ironclad perception. I watch that conviction start to waver into shock, perhaps the third biggest shock of his life. “Elisa, what . . .are . . . you . . . saying?”
I cradle his hand where it’s frozen around the distinctive warmth of the vial. “You’ve never taken the real protein, love.” I tell him the full truth. “You really did do this all on your own.”
His jaw falls open, his breath blows out with a gasp, and the vial slips softly on my palm as I knew it would. He doesn’t blink. He just stares at me, as stunned as he was when the startle turned into our dance to Für Elise.
“Never?” he mouths.
“Not a drop.”
I set the vial back on our Baci quotes and explain the secret I told only Doctor Helen after he fell asleep that night. “I gave you a placebo and made it look somewhat similar to the real protein, although as you can see now, that’s not really possible.”
He is still gaping at me, not a single eyelash fluttering out of his astonishment. “Why would you do that?”
“Because after I took the protein myself, I realized so many things, including the reasons why dad kept it hidden. For one, everything it makes us feel—all that courage—is already within us. The protein only allows us to feel it amplified. And it gives us this unbreakable faith in ourselves because, of course, it suppresses all doubt and fear. But there are side effects too, consequences I could have never anticipated.”
The shock twists with terror on his face, blanching his golden skin. “Side effects?” he chokes, his arms tightening protectively around me. “What—?”
“Shh, I’m perfectly healthy,” I interrupt quickly before he has a heart attack. “It didn’t harm me in anyway, just like I told you.”
“Then what is it? What side effects?”
I choose my words carefully because I know this part of the truth will still hurt him even now. “Well, the main one is that all emotions become very strong, very powerful. Every trauma, every pain you have ever felt in your life combine together without the numbing of fear, and you feel it all at once. As you feel all the good emotions: love, joy, desire, gratitude. They balance each other out, but it’s difficult. And that was only for me with my relatively normal life.”
“How difficult?” He picks out the most important word.
“More than I was willing to let you feel.”
He studies my face, eyes tortured like the idea of my pain is burning him. Then he folds me in his chest, as though he sees all the hurt left unsaid. “Oh, Elisa,” he sighs, kissing my hair.
“I really am okay, I promise.” I look up at him so he can see the truth in my eyes. “The brave love I wrote about in my letter softened all the pain. But once I saw how the protein works, I had no way of knowing how it would impact you with your memory and your past. And I realized why dad made it so difficult, why it tastes as awful as it does. Because we’re only meant to take it when there is absolutely nothing at all we can do about the situation. But I always knew you had it in you. I knew you could leave Fallujah behind if only you believed you could. So I decided to let you think you were under the influence of the protein, so you could feel your full potential. I was so high on bravery I couldn’t doubt at all that the plan might not have worked. But thankfully it did work, just as I thought. You did it—you found the truth about your innocence, you laid Marshall at rest all by yourself. And you destroyed the startle too, although I didn’t expect that. The protein would not have worked against it—Doctor Helen confirmed it with her test. This victory was your own strength. Everything we have right now—your freedom, your health, my dreams, our love, our very life—is not because of me. It’s because of the strong, brave, brilliant man you are.” I take his hand and place it above his own heart. Once he loves, he loves forever. He loves me, his brothers, Marshall, Benson, his parents . . . and at long last, hopefully himself.
He has breathed in every word, eyes still wide, but not in fear for me anymore now that he has seen I really am alright. He is staring in awe, the way we might look at ourselves in the mirror for the very first time.
“I really did this without the protein?” he breathes, as stunned as he was in Doctor Helen’s lab.
“Yes, love. Only you and your own bravery.”
He traces the crystal vial with his finger. The protein’s sparkle casts a rainbow over the wooden A at his wrist. As though Marshall Fortis is winking at him. “So what did you give me?” he asks. “It was purple, though not as beautiful as this.”
“Well, I sort of hinted at this part. It was grape juice with some pearlescent food additive to mimic the sparkle.”
He squints, as if watching the world through this new lens. “But what about what I felt physically? The heat, the odd taste, the rush of strength.”
“I added some capsicum oil—or chili oil—and a micro-drop of denatonium for bitterness to make it seem realistic. Then I boiled them together so the liquid would still be warm by the time I came home. As for the strength, it was all your own. I just asked you to let me calm you. And once you thought you were invincible, you finally felt the full extent of your natural power.”
He is still dazed. “And the sixty seconds it took for me to feel brave?” He asks but then catches up. “Ah, I see what you did. You told me casually before you gave me the fake protein that it took you sixty seconds to feel brave, which subliminally made me expect the same thing and, therefore, imagine I was feeling it too. And you told me to keep my eyes closed for focus, but that was also so I wouldn’t realize there was in fact no difference. Combine all that with telling me you knew it would work, and I stood no chance at doubting your word.”
“Exactly, although when I said I knew you could do it, I meant it. That part was all true.”
The oak leaves rustle as he watches me in amazement. “Brilliant,” he murmurs.
I shrug. “I got the idea during the protein. It allows you to see and plot things like that. Doctor Helen said my brain activity was similar to yours when I took it, although of course nothing can equal that.”
He ignores that last part. “So Helen and Corbin were in on this?”
“No, I only told her afterwards, while you were sleeping, and I assume she told Corbin from the way he was smiling today, but the idea to keep it from you was mine. I’m very sorry I lied to you about that. I wish I could have thought of a better way.”
The tectonic plates shift swiftly in his eyes, as they do when he is remembering something. “You didn’t lie,” he corrects. “Now that I think back to your words, you never told me explicitly that I was taking the protein. You called it ‘bravery’ or ‘our new tea.’ You said everything I needed to win was already inside me.” His voice quiets again—no note of anger or disappointment there. Only wonder, hopefully at himself. “And after the reel, when I thought my dose had run out, you said I was braver than even the protein.”
“Because you are. You never needed the protein, you only needed to believe in yourself.”
He nods in understanding. “So of course had to keep it from me. Although I am curious why you waited to tell me until now. You gave me this box to open after we met with Helen, but you didn’t know then that the startle was finished.”
“That’s true, but I thought both you and she were giving up, and I wasn’t. I still believed that you could heal from it someday. Not soon enough to save us, but eventually, if you kept trying, if you could only see your own strength. That’s why I wanted you to open this present afterwards. So it would give you hope when it seemed there was nothing else left, and faith in yourself so you would have a reason to keep fighting even without me.”
He winces at those last three words, pressing his index finger on my lips. “Shh, don’t say that.”
His touch sends tingles across my skin, suffusing his face with the star-kissed glow. I kiss the pad of his finger and take his hand in both of mine. “We don’t have to worry about that ever again. Because you destroyed the startle. You are the one who saved us. Not me, not the protein, not anyone else.”
He watches our joined hands, as though staring past the skin into a mirror deep within. I let him see his own strength at last, happy to just feel his warmth, to simply be with him.
It takes a while—I don’t know how long, time has stopped having meaning—for him to be able to speak again. Even when he does, he only asks, “This is real, too, right? Not a dream?”
“It’s real and the full truth. Now do you finally believe that you did this on your own?”
His eyes soften out of the shock, deepening into that look that gives me air, that has become my calm, my hope. “I believe I have the strength that I could have done it on my own,” he answers. “But in the end, I still think we did it together. Can we settle that without your faith, I would have never tried again, and without my strength, the reel would not have worked?”
We. I like that even better. “Yes, we can agree to that,” I smile, blinking back tears so I don’t miss a speck of his face.
He looks at me like I am his entire world, his face glowing, partly from my own mind, partly from his.
“Thank you,” he says, kissing a teardrop from my cheek. “For all of it, but especially for never giving up, even when I did.”
The word that has defined us from the very beginning chimes between our lips. But now it finally means what it should mean: always together, not always apart. And abruptly I see that vivid image I had in my apartment in Portland when Aiden first said always to me, the day after our embargo as he was explaining why I should not be with him. I pictured a young couple across the world then, tangled together, beaming, not ashen, warm, not cold, whispering “always.” In a blink, the couple transforms into us right now: brave, not afraid, healed, not in pain, wrapped tightly in each other’s arms—whole at last.
“Always.” The real Aiden murmurs back, bending his face to mine.
My hands fly in his hair eagerly but he freezes an inch from my lips and pulls back, suddenly intense again.
“You said side effects,” he recalls. “In plural. What other side effects did the protein give you besides the intense emotions?”
I have to use all my strength to concentrate on his question through the flammable fog in my brain. His lips are so close, his fragrant breath . . . But as soon as I squeeze in some focus, I remember the other part of my secret—the most beautiful, precious side effect I could never have imagined. The reason why some emotions will always remain potent at certain triggers. Abruptly, I am excited to tell him. I didn’t think I would—he would have never been able to move on in peace—but now I can. Now he can know it without any agony or fear . . . once he understands.
“Elisa?” Aiden prompts. “Is something wrong?”
“Not even the least bit. It’s just that this other side effect is more of a gift, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I only figured it out last night when you gave me the diamond A for my bracelet.”
My favorite letter glitters on my wrist like his relieved smile. “What did you figure out?”
I try to think of the best way to explain. “Well, I think it may be better if I show you. Will you humor me with something?”
“Whatever you need, you know that.”
“Okay, then pick one of your favorite days in life, whichever one you want, and tell me what it is.”
“Easy. May seventh of this year, the day I first saw you. Why?”
I nod at his choice because that day is one of my favorites too, no matter how dark it felt at the time. “And what did you do that day? Precisely, like you remember it.”
He frowns at my odd questions but answers anyway. “You know some of this. I woke up at four thirty in the morning, worked out, showered, ate an omelet with bacon and drank three cups of black coffee while reading the news, including about the UK national election. Then Benson drove me to the office, passing thirty-two cars, with license plates from KBA572 to SNT743. I responded to eighty-two emails, had six conference calls, and went to Feign Art to look for a birthday present for my mom, where I saw your face at last . . .” His speed slows, and his eyes lighten at the memory. “You looked like nothing else in my world. Like nothing I could have ever dreamed. Eyes like violets but red from tears, lips parted like rose petals, that white silky scarf over your head.” He brushes my cheek. “The most beautiful thing I had ever seen, yet so heartbreakingly sad. You leaned your head to the side as you looked at me, and instantly your skin glowed silver and ivory. It was so surreal, I couldn’t understand it. I hadn’t connected yet that it was the silver gloss from the painting I had just seen, because you were covered by the scarf, barely two inches of your real jawline were visible. But even if I could have seen all of you, I don’t think I could have comprehended anything at all in that moment. Not even my own name. Everything inside me fell stunned and silent, from my mind to my breath.”
Tenderness softens his face as he remembers, his eyes luminous with peace, yet smoldering underneath. He caresses my jaw, lingering on the path of calm and desire that bound us in this irrevocable way. And I forget everything.
“Is that enough or do you want more?” he asks, bringing me back to the now, to the reason why I needed him to tell me this.
I want every single second, I think, but he is waiting for me, anxious again. “It’s perfect. Now, ask me what I did on one of the most important days of my life.”
The V deepens in bewilderment, and he cups my face. “If I ask you, will you actually explain what’s going on?”
I nod, playing with his fingers.
“Okay, what did you do on one of the most important days of your life?”
“Easy.” I mirror his words, voice trembling a little with nerves as I try this out loud for the first time. “It was the day I took the protein—the first day you healed. You know most of it already so I’ll tell you what happened after I finished watching the video with Doctor Helen. I sprinted to Bia to make the placebo protein, passing by sixteen strangers, four professors, the elderly groundskeeper, five bicycles, and four cars with license plates OX5391, OX1034, OX9256, and OX768—”
“Elisa!” Aiden gasps in shock. “How? How are you doing that?”
I twine our fingers together as I tell him the very last secret between us. “It’s the protein, love. For those five hours that it was in my system, it gave me a memory similar to yours.”
My words don’t have the effect I had hoped—only the one I had feared. “What?” he breathes, his skin turning a pale, horrified green.
“No, please don’t be worried. This is the most beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me, other than your love.”
“Beautiful?” he rasps, staring at me like I have lost my mind.
“Yes, beautiful. Aiden, please! I would always wish in secret that I could remember you forever, like you will remember me. That time, age, and distance wouldn’t fade a single part of you from my memory. I just never dreamed such a thing was possible. But it is, at least just for those five hours.” My voice drops in wonder as I caress the miracle of his face.
He does not seem to agree. “Those five hours include the video, Elisa!” A shudder rocks through him. “You will remember everything that happened in there too!”
And there it is—the reason for his dread. “Yes, but I want to remember that with you. I want to remember every moment that made you who you are. Aiden, please! I wouldn’t change this for anything in the world. Relax, I’m completely fine.”
“But the pain!” He snarls, pulling me close as though to protect me even from the word. “I know how this works. You’ll feel it every time you remember, just as real and intense. Never recovering from that.”
Except I understand my memory better now—all those questions I had over the last two days. Why I feel the scalding agony only at some moments, but not others. Why my love for him remains as Everestian and potent.
I reach up and caress his scar. “Not exactly. My memory is still limited compared to yours. Only one pain will stay that intense for me, and only at one trigger: when I see you hurting, because that’s the kind of pain I saw during the video. The other types of pain are the same as they were before the protein, not amplified. But the good emotions— love, pride, joy, desire—are powerful all the time because I felt them throughout those five hours and because when I see you, those are the primary emotions I feel.”
He wavers at that, no doubt hearing the truth in my voice, but does not relax. “What about the triggers? How have they been?”
“Not bad at all. Except for seeing you in pain during the reel, the rest have been wonderful. Remember, I only have this memory for five short hours, most of which were filled with love and courage and hope. My triggers are a lot easier and fewer than yours.” I don’t tell him about the agony that his Arabic pleas triggered. He would be besides himself. That’s a pain better left behind with the reel, a pain we will hopefully never have to feel again.
He is still staring at me unconvinced. “And flashbacks? Have you had any?”
Of course he would ask about that. “Only a couple. Like when you said Marshall would have joked that you finally got your period, I heard Marshall’s voice so distinctly in my head, saying he would buy tampons at the Baharia Mart.”
He gasps at the realization. “So that’s why you slipped about the video! It wasn’t a lapse, it was a flashback.”
“Yes, exactly. Except it was so vivid, I didn’t realize I said his words out loud until after your reaction. I’m still getting used to it. But I love that we will both remember the best parts of Marshall together.”
He refuses to be sidetracked from my safety. “Any other flashbacks?”
“Mostly the beautiful emotions. Like the brave love—I feel it all the time.” I stroke the denim of his jeans over the pocket where I tucked the paper rose of my letter. “You asked how that was possible after you read my letter, and I didn’t realize why then, but I do know. Because even though bravery has faded, the love is still there like it always was—as deep and unchanged. I just cannot forget what it feels like without fear. Once I love, I love forever too.”
His eyes deepen as he hears his own words in my voice, except now they are about him. And he deserves them. He blinks a few times as if returning from a dream.
“What made you realize this last night?” he asks, his voice a little calmer but still focused only on me.
“When you gave me the diamond A and touched my lips. It was the first time you had done that since the monster, but my physical reaction to your touch was just as strong as it was during the protein. My body physically remembered too, like yours does. And I knew then what it meant. I wasn’t going to tell you right away, but it was the best gift I found under that rose tree, other than your initial on my wrist.”
His expression softens with the same memories as mine. “That’s right—you said it was such a beautiful place to be in my world . . .”
“It is, even if I only see a glimpse of it.”
I can see his eyes change at my words. Perhaps considering his memory under this new filter, as something to cherish, not fight. “You really like this, don’t you?” he asks, studying my face.
“Like? Aiden, I love it . . . I can’t even tell you. I love that we can remember the hours that saved us together. I love that even when we will be grey and old like the Plemmonses, neither of us will ever forget that day. I love that, for those moments, it’s like our minds are one. I love that I can finally see the world through your eyes, even for a blink in time. It makes me so happy.”
At last he smiles, unable to resist that last word for me. Happy. Slowly, he brushes my lips—the soft glow thrills again—and I see a strong emotion start brewing in his eyes.
“Is there a part of you that likes this too?” I ask.
“The important thing is that you’re happy and healthy,” he answers, staring into my eyes. But as I gaze back, trying to name the deep emotion swelling there, his selflessness slips. His eyes blaze with a new intensity. “Yes,” he whispers fervently. “Yes, I love it, and I had no idea. Can you show me again?”
It takes me a moment to catch my breath through the force of his gaze. He waits eagerly, and I finally understand what I’m seeing. Aiden has never seen anything like his memory. In this, he has always been alone in this world. But now, against all odds, he can finally see a reflection of his mind, even if it is only a faint echo of his true powers. He can share some of his heaviest burden and his greatest joy. He can have someone hold his hand and whisper, “I know. I see you and I love you even more.”
So that’s what I do now. I take his face in my hands, letting my memory free as I touch the wonder of his skin. And then I begin. “I’ll tell you the best part: the moment I first saw you with my new fearless eyes. I had only run about two thousand steps to find you, but I would have run ten million miles. And there you were, in the river, trying to remove the boulder that almost killed me. You looked like nothing else in my world,” I quote his words because they are even more true for him. “The most beautiful thing I had ever seen. You turned to look at me but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t find words for you. You frowned and bounded out of the river, frantic with worry. And I still couldn’t speak. You touched my neck then, your hand both warm and cold from the river, and my heart pounded—
“Thirty-two times,” we say together as our memories fuse with laser clarity.
“Yes, thirty-two times.” I smile, tears welling up in my eyes. “And as I looked at your face, it dazzled me with every moment of beauty I had ever seen on it: our first sight at the gallery, our first kiss, every caress, every touch. They sparkled on your skin with every light under which we have made love: the chandelier in our happy bedroom, the nightlight in your home in Portland, the fireplace in our Room of Firsts, the sunrise, the twinkly lights, the stars . . .” As I remember, the golden halo dances around his face again, wrapping it in the soft glow of our bedroom. So stunning I can barely breathe. “It was so surreal, I couldn’t understand it,” I repeat his words, stroking his cheek. “I didn’t realize it was the glow of all those other memories combined in one. But even if I could have understood, I couldn’t have found the words for the man you are. Everything inside me fell stunned and silent, even with my new mind.”
His breath catches at my words like they are an elixir entering his bloodstream. “You really do know,” he whispers, eyes wide with that deeper emotion I can finally name: belonging.
“Yes, I do. I still feel it. Even now that the protein is gone, the glow is there, just softer like candlelight. It flickers every time I want you. That’s why I saw it when you touched my lips last night, why I dreamt of a golden veil as you kissed me awake yesterday, why I thought it was the twinkly lights when we were up in the guestroom. . . Because the way I want you has stayed just as powerful, just as intense.”
He doesn’t speak—perhaps he can’t—but he takes my face between his hands. His eyes roam my skin, my jaw, my lips, just as spellbound by me as I am by him.
“And now you know,” I tell him. “You know what it feels like to be loved as deeply and irrevocably as you love me.”
“Forever,” he agrees, and then he kisses me, his lips fierce and dominant against mine.
Spiked with my memory, the sensations are overwhelming. Desire detonates in my veins, even more powerful than during the protein. My blood sings, I’m light, I’m fire. Every cell starts sparking like live wire. Because this is real. And I don’t care that we are out in broad daylight, right behind a building with large windows. I throw myself at him, crazed for his taste.
He responds with a rough moan that reverberates from his throat to mine, sending my body into a frenzy.
“Aiden!” I whimper.
“Fuck!” He pulls back a millimeter, looking agonized. “Your pill—did you keep taking it these last two weeks?”
“Every day,” I gasp, realizing only now how much secret hope my heart held, refusing to give up.
He blinks at me, eyes on fire, no need for questions—we both finally know the answer. The heart knows. Even when we don’t.
“Come here,” he growls but before I can touch his lips again, he springs to his feet, lifting me up and throwing my legs around his hips. That’s when I realize what he is doing, where he is taking me.
“Aiden, we’ll fall,” I squeak, barely sparing a blink for the oak’s dense canopy.
“Yes, but if we stay here, we will die,” he answers and jumps up.
There is no doubt about it. Already, I can’t breathe right. I grip him with all my strength, locking my arms and thighs around him as he starts to climb, but each time he moves between my legs, the motion almost sends my body into near convulsions. Even his breath, coming fast and hard in my hair, turns into electricity on my skin. I don’t know how I hold on with all my wild, riotous reactions or how he climbs as fast as he does with his thundering heartbeat. But he does. Somehow, we make it to our thick bough near the top, faster than the first time we climbed this ancient oak.
“Hold on tight,” Aiden warns, his voice rough, but not from the climb. It’s low with the same desire I can now finally grasp. He folds down on the branch and leans against the trunk, pulling me astride his lap.
“Aiden, hurry!” I almost burst into tears.
“I know, love. It’s a lot when it first hits.” He grabs my arms and locks them around his neck like fetters. “Right here, don’t let go.”
His own hands turn to manacles on my hips. “Be ready, Elisa. This will be the best sixty-second big bang of your life.”
“Yes!” I laugh shakily at the exact words he told me the first time we made love here in England. But it doesn’t take us sixty seconds this time. It takes nine.
A millisecond for his mouth to swoop on mine. Another for our tongues to entwine. Half a second more for his hands to slide under my dress. A full second for him to shred my knickers into scraps. I feel them slip away, somewhere in the breeze. Then barely a blink for him to unzip his jeans. He grasps himself, and my head starts to spin. I can’t breathe, I can’t hold still. With a gasp from us both, he breaks free. Still not enough time in the world to feel all of him. I try to touch him, but I’m too slow. He lifts me up by the waist and slams home. He is bewildering, more surreal than ever before. Harder, stronger, my all. Heavenly in every inch, in every throb.
And I come. Instantly. Every apex of pleasure I’ve ever felt, every flutter of desire, every tingle, every tremble, every brush of heat and rush of blood, every taste and every touch between us—all surge through my system at once, and I soar into the most intense orgasm of my life. Stars in my eyes, a sensation of flight, a scream through our lips, a curious, powerful river gush inside. My body shakes so much that for a wild second, I think I’m spiraling to the ground. But I’m not. Through the frantic, spasmodic delirium of my body, I sense Aiden’s iron grip, holding my up. And then the force of his orgasm ripples like a tornado through us, half in release, half in restraint, with a torn snarl.
His bruising control vibrates from his grasp into my bones as though the oak is shaking underneath. Maybe it is. I hold onto to him with everything I have as we shudder in each other’s arms, sodden, gasping, clutching every body part so we can stay upright. And then we both burst out laughing. Pure, shaky, true laughter—mine lost in his waterfall one that I have not heard in so long. The most beautiful music in my world, flowing straight from his heart. I gulp it in, taste it, listening to the free sound. It’s more fluid, more symphonic, as though all those other laughs before it had missed a new note—an eighth frequency on the scale, a new pitch you can hit only when you are fully healed.
“I think we made it,” Aiden rumbles, still pulsing inside me.
“No, I’d have lasted more than ten seconds,” he chuckles. “My cock reverted back to puberty on this tree.”
My giggle trembles with the throbbing of said cock. “S-speak—for—yourself. I—only one second—”
We laugh again, tangling closer even though there is no space left between us. I manage to lift my head from his shoulder and flutter open my eyelids. And there he is—his eyes still blue fire, lips bitten from my kiss, his skin glowing with that flush of orgasm, like an astral light is shining from within. Leaves are raining over us like petals in the garden. A dappled sunlight filters through them, trying to caress the sculpted angles of his face, then fading, utterly unable to compete. He is so glorious, the beauty knocks me breathless. An angel with his wings intact would pale in comparison.
“What’s that look?” He murmurs, smiling my favorite, dimply smile at whatever awe is showing on my face. “Do you need oxygen?” He blows over my lips, kissing them softly. The light touch flutters through my skin, blossoming into a quiver like the thousands of leaves. It trembles in the pit of my stomach, taking root, then rippling everywhere like a carnal breeze.
“Is this how orgasm feels like for you?” I marvel.
He searches my face in similar wonder. “Hmm, I can’t be sure in your case . . .” The blue depths blaze with the flame of his thoughts. “Does it feel like every orgasm you have ever had, and all the ones you could not possibly dream of, each potent on its own, yet still a fraction of the absolute whole, until every part of your body is both fire and ice, still and storm, and you no longer know if you will live or die or both? But it doesn’t matter because in that moment, you feel all the exquisite things you have ever known—every joy, every climax, every hope, every thing of beauty in your world and the most beautiful one of them all: the woman you love, trusting, trembling, all yours, not by chance but by choice, because you are the only one she wants. So why does it matter if you live or die, when you’re already in the only home you want?” His voice gentles and slows, and his eyes soften. “Is that what orgasm feels like for you now?”
It takes me a moment to be able to respond or even blink, lost as I am in his words, in the impossibility of him. Even then, I barely manage a chirp. “Ah . . . uh-huh . . . yes . . . like that.”
His fingers trail up my waist to my heart, around his dog tags and my locket against my skin, brushing my nipple. My eyes roll in the back of my head a little. “Now imagine adding thirty-five years to that and you will have some idea of how my orgasms feel with you.”
Thirty-five years! I cannot begin to fathom the potency of that. I am barely surviving the beauty of my short, five hours, yet I could never live without their vibrancy ever again. All the life before them seems almost pale grey. And now it’s dazzling like a perpetual sunrise over this new world. Especially because of those last words: with you.
“Wow,” I whisper. He smiles, giving me time or perhaps simply happy to look at me. I stroke his cheek for reality, feeling the soft, vernal glow of his post-orgasm bliss. “And the halo? Does it spark for you too?”
“The halo?” He frowns, and then laughs, low and gentle. “You mean the golden filter you see on my face when you want me?”
“Well, I already have a silver filter over your face from the painting. You always glow for me, not only when I want you, which of course, is all the time.”
“Oh!” I gasp, my brain finally connecting the dots, seeing the similarity that now seems so obvious I don’t know why I didn’t realize it before. Gold and silver, just two souls shimmering in the same spectrum of light. Even if his will always shine brighter. “I really love this part.” My voice trembles as I kiss the silver strand of hair gleaming at his temple. The thread that turned white overnight after his final battle for us. “I wish I could see the halo over your face all the time too.”
“Hmm,” he muses, and a speculative look falls over his eyes. Slowly, his hand gathers in my hair and tips my head to the side. Then he touches his lips under my jaw, kissing the hollow spot below my ear. “Are you seeing it now?” he murmurs against my skin.
The shimmer flickers like our happy bedroom chandelier. “Yes,” I breathe.
I feel his lips smile as they skim along my jawline to the corner of my mouth. “And now?”
His lips brush mine lightly, and the shimmer trembles with me. “What about now?”
“Mmm . . .”
“You know what the solution is then, don’t you?” he asks, his lips folding with mine.
“That I should always . . .” He kisses me between each word in that illegal way that obliterates every single thought, that makes the world whirl. “Always . . .” His tongue traces an infinity loop on my lip. “Every minute . . . of every hour . . . make love to you.”
“Oh!” I cry out as he comes alive inside me again like a second heartbeat. As hard and implacable as five minutes ago, probably with the shortest refractory period known in human history. “I love your mind, Aiden,” I gasp breathlessly, pulling him back to my lips.
“I do too.”
The answer is so easy, so automatic, that we both freeze as we hear the words out loud. The words I never thought I would hear from him. “Y-you do?” My voice breaks with both shock and need.
He stares at me for a moment, considering in similar astonishment. Whatever breaths I was managing stop. I hadn’t realized until now how important this one answer is, as though no victory can be complete without it. I keep my eyes on his, watching as surprise gentles into resolution and then in a slow, inward smile.
“Yes, apparently, I do,” he answers.
The oak rustles around us . . . healed, healed, healed. “Really?” I check again, pinching my wrist.
He brings his hand to my cheek. “Yes, really. How can I not love it when I see you like this? Eyes like violets, sparkling with desire, not tears, your skin flushed silver and ivory.” He turns around his words from earlier about the first time he laid eyes on me. “The most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I can never hate anything that makes you feel like this. Or anything that now is also a part of you. And I love every part.”
I try to say something, anything, but I can’t. My heart swells, filling up my chest as though my heartstrings alone could hold us up in the air, weightless against gravity. He loves every part of me. And now he loves every part of himself. Self-love . . . It really came down to that in the end. He may not realize it, but I certainly have.
I launch myself at his mouth, frenzy striking again.
This second time takes us a little longer than sixty seconds. One for our lips to fold together, another for our tongues to dance. Then a frantic race between my hips and his unstoppable hands. I still win on the moans, he wins everything else. My grip loosens on his shoulders, I want to touch him everywhere, but he pulls out and slaps me hard between my legs.
“Hold tight!” He reminds me and waits, suspending me right above his length.
We lose some seconds while I struggle to obey, feverish with need to the point of pain. But as soon I manage to clutch him back, he lowers me onto him with abandon. Up, down, fast, slow. But the deeper we go, the more we still want. Our bodies no longer just remember or absorb. They meld—live, incandescent extensions of each other. His mouth on mine is my taste, his hands on my hips are my flesh, every mind-blowing thrust is my heartbeat. Tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick. One thrust per second, two, three four. My body builds—even higher than before. Every muscle shakes, my gasps change to a language only Aiden knows.
“Elisa,” he moans, and I know the end is close. And the faster it comes, the more the world slows, spinning, whirling with gold, stillness in the air but inside us only storm, raging, both fire and flood. One more second, one more blow. Until with a final cry, we both explode.
That’s how we come, that’s how we go. With our names in our lips, blindingly and for each other alone. Just like he wrote to me so long ago. Just like we fought for.
We are not big bangs, we are stars that shine on.
In the aftermath, there is only music. Our gasps, our heartbeat, the leaves shushing and whispering. I sink into his chest, my cheek on his heart, on the photo of his mind, listening to the rustle that lulled him through life . . . And happiness shifts again. It becomes us, twined in his tree, two joined oaks of our own, hearts like roots, lips like leaves, minds like crowns, reaching up toward our own open skies, finally healed.
My lips start fluttering of their own volition, kissing every place they can reach—his heart, his neck, his jaw, his lips. He kisses me back too—his mouth whispering warm kisses on my throat, my temple, my mouth, my fingertips. And our bodies begin rising again, fire lighting up every cell like beacons of a new storm on the horizon. How can they not? And how on earth are we ever going to stop?
My stomach is the only one who seems to know that answer. It growls loudly as his teeth graze my lower lip. His chuckle washes over my skin, warm and delicious. “I think we may have found one part of our bodies that wants to leave this tree.”
“The least relevant part.” My body clamps tightly around his—an instinct of some kind.
He tips up my face, his eyes somehow both heated and soft. “We don’t have to go far,” he assures me as though he senses some subconscious emotion behind my reflexive grip before I can understand it myself. “And we have all the time in the world.”
That was it—the old fear behind the instinct. Time. Even if it is no longer racing against us, abruptly I want to hear the truth again in his voice, like he wants to hear it in mine.
“Promise?” I ask him. “That we have all the time in the world?”
He smiles the kind of smile that would stop any clock. “Do you think I’d ever be able to leave this tree if we didn’t?”
That will have to do for now. I will use all the strength I learned during the protein to control this insatiable, frantic desire just a little longer. And then we can be in our happy bedroom, lock the doors, and never stop touching him again until we both drop.
“Okay,” I decide. “Besides, Benson drives fast. We can be home in less than forty minutes.”
The waterfall laughter thrums inside me. “Thirty. I’m surprisingly attached to that number now.”
He has to help me out of my tangle, gently unloosening my stranglehold around him. Kissing my wrists, massaging my shoulders, zipping up my dress, sighing with all the memories it holds for him, from our first night to this first day. Then I help him with his jeans—the same ones as that night, except now they’re a mess from both of us. He laughs and leaves his shirt untucked. Then carefully, more slowly than the race up, with me dangling limply from his neck, he starts the climb down.
When we finally land back on the meadow, me still trembling, I am almost surprised to find the world exactly as we left it: the protein shimmering on its box of Baci quotes, my picnic basket with some fallen petals, the empty playground, the slow Saturday morning. Except it looks different now, brighter, more colorful. As though a dark veil has been ripped away from my eyes. Shakily, I tuck the protein back in its box while Aiden gathers the silky scraps of my knickers that have scattered all over the dewy grass. He kisses the last one and stuffs them in his jean pocket, making me flush.
“Come.” He takes my picnic basket and pulls me to his side. “Let’s get you home so you can eat. Besides, you too have to open your Christmas present. You’re not the only one that can keep secrets.”
That my-all look blazes in his eyes despite the smirk on his lips. Even if the goodbye present can wait forever as far as I am concerned. Maybe I’ll find a way to hide it from him and blame the rose thief.
“I already have everything I need,” I quip, reveling in the absence of tension around him.
“Not everything,” he insists and picks up his pace, abruptly urgent and eager.
As we stride past the playground, the beautiful seven-year-old boy of my imagination laughs and soars at the tiny swing. He looks up at me mid-flight like always and winks, his sapphire eyes shockingly brilliant. Then poof, he disappears.
“Are you alright?” Aiden asks.
I blink up at him startled, not sure I can explain, but then I see his dazzling, luminous eyes. Through all the layers of memories, deep below my turquoise, there is a new, yet familiar light. The purest, newborn sapphire. And I know then where the little boy has gone.
©2022 Ani Keating