NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 40 – CLOSE

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

40

Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJ Marshall Trust

In honor of a brother and his love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you say?” he breathes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E—li—sa . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but—”

“Did you threaten her fucking family?”

“No—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“FUCK!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I really love that one.”

“I’ll recite it to you later.”

Later? So more embargo? “Promise?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His breath seems to suspend again. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lieutenant?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not yet; they’re still at work.”

“And Elisa—how is she holding up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, I mouth to him.

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

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

“That makes two of us, General.”

“Is this some wizard’s idea?”

A wizard? What does that mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Umm, we keep them close, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure, Just Jack, what do you need?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I will. Bye, Just Jack.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us

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

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

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

“Should we try now?”

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

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

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

“Just in the kitchen. You’ll see.”

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

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

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

“Hi,” I breathe, smiling up at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only for me to stagger on the doorstep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow, us, somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m still working on that part.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And to leaving the past behind.”

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

“Let’s hear him out,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you feeling?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name even one. And mean it.”

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

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

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

“Exactly. So name another.”

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

“So basically lying and competitive sports?”

“Basically.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 38 – MASTERS

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

38

Masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That line . . .” he breathes.

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

“They were there!” he gasps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The DIA?” I interrupt, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not—my—fault.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, don’t worry. That’s not a tear.”

“It’s not?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not.”

“Then what is it?”

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

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

He nods. “It has to be.”

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

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

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

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“But you believe it now?”

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

I don’t miss the way his voice drops on the name, but he still says it out loud. I see the haunted look that flickers in his gaze, though his eyes stay focused on me. And I feel the intense relief, more overwhelming than even when he returned from the reel. But abruptly there is something else that suddenly matters more than anything. Something so vital that instinctively I know we both need it to breathe.

“Aiden.” My voice trembles around his name, the way it caresses my tongue on the way out. I clutch his hand for strength, for bravery to ask the question. His fingers wind with mine like arteries. “If you had never seen those trucks or heard that song in Fallujah in the first place, if you had nothing at all to clear your decision, do you think you would have always carried that guilt?”

He must hear the gravity of the question because he seems to think about it, his eyes deepening as if looking inside himself. “I don’t think so,” he answers after a moment. “And not just because that’s what you were hoping to hear. There was something different about this reel. I couldn’t reconcile it then—the past and the present were merging so fast—but as I look back at the whole, it didn’t feel the same.”

My heart starts hammering in triple tempo like his mind. “Different how?”

“At first, it was worse. The worst agony of my life, even compared to that day itself. Because the classroom started blending with your father’s library the night Edison attacked you. I don’t know why but the images were melding together in the worst possible way. Your blood with Marshall’s blood. His screams with yours when Edison slapped you—” Fury chokes him off and locks his muscles. His eyes become black tunnels of horror again, exactly like the reel, exactly like that night.

“Hey, it’s okay. I’m safe, love.” I swirl my fingers in his beard, hating Edison’s every atom and all my own molecules for adding to this agony.

He draws a deep, steadying breath. “I couldn’t breathe through it, Elisa.” His voice is more tormented than I’ve ever heard it. “I know you think I would, but I know my mind, my limits. And I know I could not have come back from that reel. I could not have left you there in his hands, even if only in a memory.” He shudders, and I shudder with him.

So this is why this reel took so long. Why nothing I tried was bringing him back. He was trying to save me again. Reliving two tortures at once—his worst terror and worst pain—both tearing him apart and burying him alive. Doctor Helen’s text blares in my vision, blinding me with its black and white letters: Aiden’s memory can stay in the past forever. I shiver as I realize how right she was, how close he came to being lost.

“Hey, don’t say that.” I whisper, unable to breathe myself through the agony that starts scalding my throat. “It’s gone now. I’m safe because of you. And you’re here. Right here, back and freer than you’ve been in a long time.”

His arm tightens around my waist, pulling me into his warmth as he sees the dread I can’t hide. “Yes, I am, because of you. Because you made a protein that gave me the strength to endure. And because somehow, against all rules and reason, you decided to come after me. You joined me in that hellhole, in the last possible place I would ever want you to be. My mind couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t accept it. This illusion of you—so beautiful, so full of love, the most perfect miracle to ever exist—walking through the flames with me . . . I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t tolerate one single second. For a moment, I wondered if I had in fact died and this was what my version of hell looked like.”

Another shudder ripples through us both. And more puzzle pieces fall together. Why he was shaking his head no when I first entered that moment with him, why it seemed the torment got worse. Because it did. Because I added to his agony instead of lessening it. I should be quarantined.

“But then your calming effect started to seep even through those flames, like it always does,” he continues. “And I was able to breathe again. I was able to see something other than Marshall’s body and yours on the floor. I was able to recall there was a reason to live through it, to come back even if we’re not together. Because the real you was worried and waiting. Because I had given you my word. That’s when the change started, I think. Having you there became strength, not weakness. It must have boosted the strength of the protein. Everything felt new. Like I was seeing it for the first time—just as painful, but there was also your calm, your love. And I was able to follow your voice. I could hear you telling me it was not my fault. Even in the end, in that classroom, with Marshall so . . . gone—” A convulsion tears along his shoulders like a ghost blasting through him. The turquoise gaze becomes speckled with darker stars, like Marshall passed and became a constellation in his eyes. “I was able to repeat your words to him. To say goodbye.”

He says it quietly, like a breath. My own breath stops with it. “You did?” I whisper in wonder.

He nods. “As much as I could.”

I want to ask what Marshall would have said back, if there was a final word he would have wanted to hear from his best friend, but somehow, I know this will always have to stay between them. “How do you feel?”

“Like he died all over again, except a better death this time. More human. And I could say a few last words.”

I caress his scar again, lightly so I don’t add a different kind pain. “They don’t have to be last words. I’m learning that. I randomly catch myself talking to mum and dad in my head. Maybe that makes me crazy, but it feels healthier. With a lot less pain. Maybe it will be the same for you.”

“Maybe.”

Neither of us says what I am sure we are both thinking: can his memory ever let him do that?

I remember my idea then—an idea that started brewing during the protein, building after the reel, honing into the night after Doctor Helen and science gave up. “How about we try something together?” I suggest.

“Try what?”

“Well, first, I made you a little something. Do you want to see it?”

He doesn’t miss the new lightness in my voice because a shadow-smile plays automatically at the corner of his lips. “Will it make me cry? Apparently I do that now.”

It’s an obvious joke, but abruptly I hesitate. Will it hurt him? Is it too early for this? Or too late? “I don’t think so, but you don’t have to do anything with it,” I answer, remembering the way he handled the chess set with me. “Or say anything. You don’t even have to touch it if you don’t want to. It’s just a . . . a reminder of something you love.”

He recognizes his own words immediately. “Well now, I’m extremely curious. What did you make that needs a warning?”

I stretch over the edge of the bed, reaching down into the mess of arts and crafts on the floor for my creation. His arm curves around my waist in case I topple and fall.

“This,” I whisper, losing my voice completely as I resurface and open my hand so he can see it in my palm. It’s not beautiful at all, nothing like the gifts he has given me, but his eyes rivet on the tangled coil with eagerness. “It’s a bracelet,” I explain. “Not as precious as the one you gave me—” The diamond initials chime musically on my wrist in agreement. “—But I tried to make it masculine.”

He fishes it from my hand, unraveling the thin, black leather plait and the wooden letters strung on it: M-I-R-A-J.

“All our initials,” he murmurs in wonder, gazing at the letters for the names of his brothers. From the first sunrays, the ordinary wood glows almost like antiqued bronze.

“I kept Marshall’s with an M, instead of his first name—Jacob—because that’s how you refer to him. But for the rest of you, I used the first initial.”

“Life with life,” he mouths in understanding. His eyes deepen with the vision I tried to create for him.

“Yes, but I tried to braid the leather cord like a double helix, like the bracelet you gave me. Because the five of you will always be family. Nothing can ever take that away, not even death. This kind of love does conquer everything.”

He looks up at me, and that nameless look floods his eyes again. Pensive, yet dreamlike, as though hitting pause on everything. I still can’t find the right words for it.

“You don’t have to wear it,” I remind him uselessly in case there is pain underneath. “I just thought—”

“You thought perfectly.”

“You still don’t have to wear it. Or even look at it if it causes you pain.”

“It doesn’t. It causes other things, but not pain.”

“What does it cause?”

He flicks through the wooden letters until he stops at his. “Faith,” he answers, brushing my cheek with the A like he did with the chess queen. “Hope that maybe all love can conquer everything even if not the way we think.”

His initial leaves behind a comet of heat. I open my mouth to speak, but all that comes out is a sigh. Can cheap, non-flame-resistant wood combust from breath? From touch?

As if he wonders the same thing, he smiles his after smile and drops his hand, holding out his wrist. “Thank you. It’s a very meaningful gift. But did you really think I wouldn’t wear it if you made it for me?”

I shake my head to rattle some brain cells back to life. “What if I had made you a dress?” is my genius response. “Would you have worn that?”

He chuckles—the first chuckle on this other side, more beautiful than the lark song. “Well, how far is a dress from a friendship bracelet really?”

“It’s more of a cuff,” I correct, taking the leather cord and tying it around his wrist. Little flames kindle on my skin at the contact and, for a blink, I see stars again even if they’re only the twinkly lights. But the fire must catch in his blood because the bands of muscle in his arm tense as if resisting a great force.

He clears his throat. “Did, ah, Cal tell you Jazz’s first name is Indy?”

“Yes, I texted him last night. They’re all so worried, Aiden. Maybe we should let them come when . . .”

I can’t finish the sentence, and he can’t seem to be able to hear it. “You said ‘first’ earlier, when you asked if we could try something,” he reminds me. “Does that mean there is a second part?”

“Oh! Right!” I remember, grateful for the change in direction. “Yes, but you can say no, like with the bracelet. It’s only if you feel up to it.”

Curiosity flashes in his eyes again, but he smiles. “Duly warned. What is it?”

A frisson of life thrums in my chest. Or is it nerves? I caress the A on his wrist, wishing I had one on mine. “Well, I was thinking, perhaps we could do something to celebrate Marshall today. Maybe as an early birthday or the Christmas he wanted?”

But in my focus on his heart, I have slipped. A big slip. I watch in horror as my words float from my mouth and land on his brain. He stares at me in disbelief. “The Christmas he wanted?” he repeats in a low voice. “How do you know he was looking forward to Christmas? I never told you that.”

Ice whips my cheeks. A wave of nausea heaves to my mouth as I see my blanched face reflected in his unerring eyes. “D-don’t all s-soldiers want to be home for C-Christmas?” I scramble. “B-but it doesn’t have to be Christmas either.” I change tracks frantically. “I just—I think it’s important we give you and him both a good day, like we did with mum and dad. It really helped me.”

He has seen all my reactions, the initial surprise fading and the V deepening between his brows on each word. “It sounds incredibly thoughtful, but why do you look so . . . scared?”

I try to stay focused only on the ultimate truth. The smallest lie and his eyes will catch it. “Because I don’t want you to hurt even more.”

The frown intensifies, and he brushes my arm as if he senses the goosebumps that have erupted there. “I’m not hurting more,” he tries to assure me. “I’m touched—that’s different.”

I manage a slight breath of relief, feeling guilty for letting him misunderstand, but not guilty enough to tell him about the video. Right now he only thinks I’m scared. If he knew the truth . . . I fight back a shudder because he is still watching me, worry creasing his forehead.

“Elisa?” He traces a circle under my eye, thawing the ice. “Your idea is as meaningful as your gift, but you’re obviously upset and exhausted. You’ve been up all night, taking care of me, making me presents, planning birthdays, Christmas, and God knows what else. So, no, sweetheart. We’re not doing anything—no celebrating, talking, or even thinking—until you finally get some sleep.”

“Sleep?” I cry out in panic. On one hand, he’s not pushing me about my Christmas slip. On the other, he has obviously concluded it must be from exhaustion, which is even worse. I’d rather move to Fallujah for the rest of my life than miss one second left of the embargo. “Not now, Aiden, please!” I beg. “This is more important to me—more important than anything else left. It won’t be much, I promise. We’re not supposed to do anything strenuous today anyway, according to Doctor Helen. She wants to check on us tomorrow morning.”

“Exactly—rest is the most important thing right now. We can talk about your idea when you wake up.”

“But then we’ll have to go see Doctor Helen and—and—” My voice breaks at what is coming, at the way her tone sounded last night. So final, so terminal. I can’t tell him any of that. Let him have just one day with h-o-p-e.

But he wraps his arms around me like a shield. “Elisa, you don’t think I know the words you cannot say? I know there is nothing more she can do and tomorrow is just a formality. But it doesn’t change a thing. You still need to rest. Come on, bed.” His arms flex as if to scoop me up.

“No!” I choke, my fingers gripping his T-shirt like hooks. All my resolve to be strong for him shatters, and the full truth spills out. “No, Aiden, please! There’s so little embargo left. I don’t want to miss any of it!”

That look I have no words for deepens his eyes again. Lightening them like skies, softening them like velvet, then morphing into almost palpable tenderness. “Hey, hey, shh,” he murmurs, almost crooning as he pulls me closer. “Forget about the embargo, all right? We can have more time when you wake up. Don’t worry about any of that. Breathe, Elisa!” He blows on my lips like always, slowly until my lungs restart. But I can’t even blink from his beautiful face. Did he really say what I think he said?

“More embargo?” I whisper, still grasping his T-shirt. “Really?”

“I promise you,” he vows, his arms tightening around me. “If you go to sleep, I’ll be right here, and we can celebrate or do whatever else you had in mind when you wake up. Just, please, Elisa.”

I can hear the truth and desperation in his voice even through the blood pounding in my ears. And as swiftly as it struck, panic recedes. Because this is all I want—more t-i-m-e with him. All except one thing: his health, his peace.

“But what about your fever?” I force out the words against every cell that wants me to shut up and curl in his arms for as long as he will let me.

“Elisa, I don’t give a fuck about my fever. I don’t give a fuck about my feelings, my memories, or whatever other worry you’re spinning in your head right now. The only thing I care about is you. Just you. So if you want me to relax, then do it for me.”

How can I argue with his words or his eyes when I feel the same about him? When all my resistance crumbled to stardust at the promise of another day together?

He sees my surrender in my eyes. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that the waterworks almost start again. And before I can breathe, anytime, he lies down with me, wrapping me in his arms. Electricity jolts everywhere the second our bodies touch. Tingles on my skin, trembles in my limbs, stars in my vision, earthquakes in my heart. And he is the force that makes them all run. Fire in the blood, titanium in his body, gravity in his hold, my entire universe in his eyes.

“Aiden, love, if—”

“Shh, you’re staying right here.” He throws a light sheet over me, but then seems to remember something. “Unless you’re hungry. Do you want something to eat first?”

“No, I’m fine.” It’s not even a lie. There are other hungers in me, but not the food kind.

“Not even a scone with clotted cream and rose jam?”

“No, not even that.”

He sighs, pressing his lips in my hair. “All right, but when you wake up, you’re eating a Marine-sized meal. Now sleep.”

I want to answer that when I wake up, I only to make happy memories for him. I want to ask what he would like, I want to tell him so many things.  Like the way his fragrance is blending with the rose mist into the stuff of heavens, the way the skylark stops singing every time he speaks, the tiny new bud leaf on Hope because of his warmth, the willows crooning he’s free, he’s free. Do they still sing Elisa, Elisa for him? I want to say all these little nothings that are my everything, but I can’t find the words. So I curl in his chest, closing my eyes, feeling oddly whole with everything in shreds. I try not to think of tomorrow when we meet Doctor Helen, the finality in her voice last night, the startle we couldn’t beat, the last goodbye. I concentrate only on his body heat, counting the times his heart beats in my ear—fast and vital and mine.

But abruptly, on heartbeat eight hundred and five, a change startles me. Subtle yet fast. Like a cool breath on my cheek.

“Oh!” I gasp.

“Elisa, what’s wrong?” Aiden sits up alarm, scanning my face.

“Nothing is wrong!” I cry out, my hand flying to his forehead. “Aiden, I think your fever might be dropping!”

“Christ, Elisa, relax!”

“Never mind that! Here, let’s measure it!” I twist in his arms to grab the thermometer from the nightstand.

“I can do that. Lie down—” he growls, but I stick the tip in his mouth before he can finish. He gives me a beautiful glare.

“Mmmm.”

“I know you’re saying fuck, not this again, and terrorizing the roses.”

No answer, except maybe the glower becomes darker.

“That bad, huh?” I trace his scar with my fingertip—it’s still hot, but not scorching. “I promise I’ll sleep after this, except it will be so much better if I know the fever is breaking.”

He sighs in a give-me-strength way, but the glare softens. The first rays of sun fracture on his thick beard, filtering into a prism of light entirely his own. Obsidian, midnight, garnet, bronze. Shimmering like the halo of my bravery visions.

“Then again being awake does have its advantages.” I grin at him, running my fingers through the lustrous bristles. “This, for example, would be difficult while sleeping.”

He sighs again, but above the dark horizon of his beard, the sky of his gaze deepens with that held, indescribable look. It lightens on my face, so hypnotic, I can’t even blink. But then the thermometer beeps, jolting me back to reality. I pull it out quickly, my hands shaking.

“You were really off this time,” he says, but my squeal drowns his voice as soon as I see the numbers blinking on the window.

“Yes! Ninety-nine-point-eight! It’s dropping, it really is!” I throw my arms around his neck, almost strangling him in relief.

He hugs me closer, kissing my hair. “That is, indeed, what I was trying to tell you.”

I sob-laugh in his neck. “Thank God! It’s still a little high, but I’ll take any difference. You’re almost normal temperature for a dragon now.”

He chuckles. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it will keep dropping. My memory started slowing after the connections were made. I think they were related.”

I pull back to look at him. “Really? It’s completely back to normal?”

“Well, normal for me. It had to have been the effect of bravery. Now, bed. You got what you wanted, you made a promise, and there are no more excuses left, no matter how much you want to argue with me that I should give all credit to myself.”

I sigh. He knows me too well. “Okay, I’ll argue with you when I wake up.”

He smirks and tucks me in, cradling me in his arms. “Sleep now, love. Sleep and dream beautiful dreams.”

L-o-v-e. The skylark chirps as if it hears the beauty in his voice and knows it cannot compete. “And what will you do while I dream?”

“I’ll be right here, dreaming too.”

“What will you dream?”

“The only dream I see, awake or asleep.”

“It’s Mrs. Willoughby, right?”

“Right.” He chuckles again.

A laugh bubbles on my own lips. And why shouldn’t it? When he is still mine for another day, one step closer to himself? Finally free from a heavy fault that was never his. What is my loss and pain compared to that?

“That is exactly the sound I dream about,” he says, pressing his lips in my hair.

I listen to his piano voice, trying to memorize its music. In secret, I wish I could remember like him. So the years that will sweep my mind can never touch a single note of his melody. “We have a very similar dream then.”

His breath pauses staccato for a second, then bridges fluidly into my lullaby. Not Für Elise, but his letters to me like I did for him. “My all,” he murmurs, as though he heard my thoughts. “Another night, just you, me, and the desert. I don’t know which of us has more heat . . .”

I kiss his heart again and snuggle in his chest, listening. That brave Everestian love surges omnipotently inside me. Inexplicably as strong as during the protein, as immutable as it will always be.

“The desert, you might say, but here is a secret that you don’t know. The desert can never burn the soul. And you are the mirage at the end of the fire. Shimmering like cold water, pouring over this pyre. No, the one burning is me . . .”

Slowly, with each word, a tension I did not know was wringing my muscles starts to drain out of me. His fever softens into the sultry warmth of home, and I start to drift. The last thing I sense is a featherlight pressure on my lips, like a whisper in the breeze.

What a beautiful dream.

©2022 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 37 – STOP

Happy Palindrome Day (22-02-2022) and happy Twosday!  Palindromes are one of my favorite random things and I gave that to Elisa, so it made sense to post today to celebrate. Plus, posting as soon as I finish. Hope you enjoy this chapter and that, if there are tears, they are bittersweet. xo, Ani (P.S. bit of trivia: I found this photo of a wild rose many years ago when I was first thinking of this scene. It feels good to be able to finally use it–you’ll see why it’s a perfect fit.).

37

Stop

The cottage waits for us, back to its fairytale wonder. The limestone walls catch the moon, now silver, now childhood white. Starlight flows over the garden as a molten river, weaving around the roses like freshwater pearls. And the feeling of home swaddles me again. This sense of being complete exactly with what I have, as long as Aiden is next to me.

And for now, he is. Towering here at the garden hedge in his cargo pants and Byron boots, his heavy arm around me, shoulders still rippling with torture, his beauty more dreamlike than even during the protein. The luster of his fevered skin is almost opaline. His soaked hair and lashes glint black, and his bare chest shimmers as though sculpted in the rarest moonstone. He is staring at the cottage with the same longing as me, drawing the first deep breath since the reel.

“I was looking forward to seeing it with bravery,” he murmurs.

I tighten my hold around his waist. “You’re always brave.”

“You know what I mean.”

I risk a kiss on his bicep—the band of muscle twitches back but he doesn’t pull away. “Trust me, it looks a lot more beautiful with all our emotions. It’s perfect exactly as you see it.”

“Yes, it is.” His eyes linger on our open bedroom window where the light is always on for him, like in his war letters.

I drop the evil monitor and the blanket by his waders, keeping them out of our bubble, and hook my arm in his. “Come, let’s go in. The roses have missed you.”

“I’ve missed them too.”

“They say you look good in your new beard, but they really miss the dimple.”

“Tell them they look good in their new dew, but I really miss their blush.”

“They like your pun.”

“I like their everything.”

His fingers brush the Elisas as we pass by them. How am I going to walk in this garden without his hand in mine? Will it hurt worse than watching the video? Will every rose in this cottage wither and die with me? But none of my pain matters now. All that matters is easing the pain for him.

On our front step, Hope the Hybrid is almost invisible with its single leaf. I hope it grows another before September eighteen.

“Hi, Hope,” I greet it. “Look who is here to see you.” I pick up its tiny pot and give it to Aiden. “Hope wants to stay by your side tonight. She says she will be very safe and not touch you at all.”

He takes it from me, his eyes soft even in the dark. “Tell Hope she can stay with me for a while, but then she has to get some sleep. The embargo applies to her as well.”

As if there is a chance of that when he is like this. Still I flutter Hope’s leaf like a nod since my ability to lie to him even while impersonating a rose is now completely null and void.

“Very convincing,” he answers as I open the door.

As soon as we step in the glow of our tiny foyer, the shudders skip a beat over Aiden’s shoulders. His eyes consume the space with famine—the photos on the wall, the Clares blooming on the console as always, the Rose Cup, dad’s scarf on the peg. Gone is the vigilance of checking for intrusion; his memory now gives him the bliss of that first time he walked through this door, so full of hope. I watch with a clenched heart as his gaze lightens when it falls on my childhood photographs, and another deep breath flows through his lungs.

“See? I told you your mind needs this,” I gloat, hanging up mum’s parka.

“I never questioned that.”

No, he didn’t. He stays away only to prepare me for his absence. Except it’s so easy to pretend—as we stand here, our arms around each other, still shaking and burning, looking at our little home—that we are still us, that there wasn’t an end, that there won’t be a goodbye. Even if it’s a lie. But maybe we all need to pretend sometimes to survive. Maybe that’s what bravery is: pretending until you believe. Or until you can accept the truth.

So that’s what I do now: pretend.

I reach up for his burning cheek, swirling my fingers in the thick beard. “Come, the cottage has been missing you too.”

The shiver that runs through him now seems different—less horror, more desire. But the agony hasn’t released his eyes despite the faint light. He takes my hand off his face, still holding my icy fingertips. “I’ll go wash this off,” he says as always after the reel. “I don’t want to drag any of it here.”

Maybe he is pretending too. Whatever it takes for this pain to relent even for an hour, or a minute. “Good idea, but try to keep the shower cold. It’s better for the fever. I’ll go get your pajamas.”

“I can—” he starts but I’m already sprinting down the foyer to the linen cupboard where most of his clothes live now. As soon as I’m away from his body heat, chills erupt everywhere, and my chest starts throbbing. I race back before he has finished slipping off his wading boots.

“You know, I can walk, Elisa.”

“Yes, but I know what calms you so much better. Your favorite boxers are there too.”

His eyes when I say that. Half the bad fire, half the kind that ignites my blood. My knees almost give out. He takes the clothes from me, his fingers brushing mine. Then something catches his attention. He sniffs the air around the soft cotton. “Did you spray your perfume all over these?” he asks, perplexed.

“Exactly.”

He shakes his head, but his lips lift in the war-torn smile. “You’re unbelievable.”

“It helps you with the calm.”

“Not just with the calm.” He brings the fabric to his face, inhaling in the same way he breathes me in when we would curl up in bed. “Is this the second part of my surprise?” His voice is huskier beneath the slow timbre of pain. “I like it.”

“No, that’s later. This is just one of our embargo weapons.”

“Powerful.” His chest rises in another deep breath. “Put on something warm. You’re still freezing.” He brushes the goosebumps on my arm with Hope’s leaf and climbs the stairs. His favorite fifth stair where we used to make love squeaks under his feet.

Did the cottage just get brighter? Are the walls breathing? Is every grain of wood and stone coming to life even if just for one night? I’m unable to blink and check until I hear the loo door close behind him. And then I’m a tornado of chills, updating Doctor Helen and whirling around the rooms to prepare for our embargo night. Without the super-mind of the protein, I’m left with whatever brain cells have survived the scorching agony, terror, and sheer magnitude of the last six hours and ten days. It’s not many. My thoughts feel like mulch, decomposing under the strain of fear and anguish.

But the rainy sound of the shower keeps me moving on my shaky legs. By the time I hear it turn off ten minutes later, I’m already in the guestroom upstairs, throwing open the window to let in the rose breeze and the willow song. It has changed again in my normal ears. Not ephemeral anymore, but more beautiful, homier like a lullaby.

“New song?” Aiden guesses from the doorway. I spin around and there he is in his pajamas and white T-shirt, with Hope still in his hand. The droplets of water glimmer on him like the surreal halo of my bravery visions. But I can tell immediately the fever has not dropped a Celsius from the heaviness in his gaze, which means his mind must still be on fire. And the tension is still wringing his shoulders.

“Yes,” I whisper, my voice evaporating at the sight of him.

“What do they sing now?”

He’s here, he’s here.” I’m afraid again to ask about what he hears. Is it still safe, safe, safe like before the reel?

His eyes stroll around the guestroom, capturing each happy memory I managed to infuse here in the last few minutes. The vase of Elisas on the nightstand, two microwaved bowls of his favorite chicken soup leftovers, two Baci chocolates even though neither of us can eat them anymore, my chess set, the Chatsworth picnic basket hiding the medicine kit, the Christmas lights strung along the headboard, the old record player from our happy bedroom, playing Für Elise. His gaze quiets at last on the full bed. Except now it has our pillows, sheets, and quilt.

Instantly, all tension blows out of Aiden’s muscles like a gust of wind. Light floods his eyes back to their sapphire flames. Not my brilliant turquoise—only our bedroom can do that—but at least it’s no longer midnight. Another deep breath swells in his chest. He sets Hope on the dresser without a word and walks toward me where I’m still frozen at the window in his favorite sweatshirt and my leggings.

“I—” I start and try again because no voice comes out. “Since we can’t go back to our happy bedroom, I thought maybe I could bring some of its happiness to you. Like a Room of Happies compared to our Room of Firsts. I know it’s not the same, but—” I stop babbling because he reaches me. His body is so close I can feel his fever on my lips.

“It’s everything,” he finishes.

I topple headfirst into him, but his arms catch me. I lock mine around his waist before he can pull away, and melt in his blazing chest, inhaling his freshly showered scent. Sandalwood and Aiden and me. My head swirls with it, with the feel of him in my arms again. An old fear slithers up my spine, and I scrape my nail against my wrist to test reality. But I’m awake. He is truly here in the cottage, even if only for a few hours.

And he doesn’t pull away. His arms fold around me too, as he murmurs, “Elisa.”

“Yes?” I clutch him tighter. How is he still able to stand?

“That’s what the willows are singing for me. Elisa, Elisa, Elisa. Isn’t that what you wanted to know?”

How could he tell in just one glance? I press my lips above his heart—it’s thudding faster than the earlier death toll. “Well, I think mine just changed to sleep, sleep, sleep and soup, soup, soup. The willows want you to lie down and eat something.”

His long fingers caress the fabric of my sweatshirt lightly as if anything more or less might end us both. I can only tell because the heat permeates the thick cotton. “In a minute, but first, thank you. You were right. I do love this surprise even if I shouldn’t.”

“You should, but this isn’t your surprise either. You can see it after you get in bed.”

“Hmm . . .” His body sways, whether from the fever or the piano I don’t have time to understand because he abruptly tenses. I freeze automatically in response.

“What is it?” I ask, looking up at his face. My heart almost drops through the floorboards when I see his eyes drifting beyond the room, but he blinks back at me, frowning in confusion.

“Did you try to dance with me at some point when I was under? Or is that a memory?”

“Oh!” I breathe in relief. Not the worst of what he has seen, but his mind is not slowing down at all if he is still trying to parse out the past from the present. “No, you’re right. I did try, when I started playing Für Elise.”

He eyes change again, tender despite the pain. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting, ma’am.” And he lifts me slowly by my waist, sliding his bare feet under mine. We shudder in tandem at the touch.

“Aiden, love, you need to lie down,” I protest feebly. “You’re breaking the embargo rules already.”

“Am I?” He tucks my face back in his chest. “I think the rule was ‘rest and nothing else,’ and this is restful for me. The scientists say so.”

How can I say no to that? Especially when I want him to hold me so much?

As if he hears my thoughts, he pulls me tight against his body—summer and winter—yet it’s not close enough for me. I wish I could be air and float inside his lungs. Or blood so I can flow in his arteries. I want to slip under his skin and become a shield. I grip him back, and we dance through our steps that have become as instinctual as the breath hitching from our lips. I can feel his desire against every line of me—the way it ripples out of him as potent as the fever. I want more than anything to lift my face to his, to tangle my fingers in his wet hair, to taste him now that he is awake. But I cannot fathom the strength it’s taking for him to restrain his need. To deny himself everything he wants only to make the end easier for me. So I have to be good. I have to do the same for him.

He twirls me on the final bridge as always but doesn’t dip me over his arm. That’s good too—I couldn’t control myself if he did.

“Thank you for the dance. Earlier and now.” His voice has a poignant note to it like the last note of Für Elise. I’m too terrified to linger on the sound.

“Always. Now on with you, Adam, get in bed before I call every doctor in Oxfordshire.”

He doesn’t fight me this time—perhaps he can’t. He lies down, propping the pillow against the headboard, the twinkly lights above him casting a shimmering aura. His long legs dangle off the bed as he eyes the small space anxiously.

“Elisa—”

“I know,” I interrupt, throwing only a light sheet up to his waist. “It’s a small bed and you won’t let me in it. I’ll be careful.”

His finger hovers under my chin without contact, jolting me the same as his touch. “More than careful. You’ll go to sleep in your room after we’ve eaten, okay? I’ll be fine. It’s just a little fever.”

“Just a lot of fever. Aiden, I’m not arguing about this. We have a deal that tonight is about your health, with embargo on all else, including arguments. I’ll take care of you, and you’ll have to trust me that I’ll be safe. I wouldn’t endanger myself knowing what it would do to you. Haven’t I earned that trust?”

He opens his mouth to speak, but I stick in the thermometer, envious of its mercury tip under his tongue. “Mmmm,” he answers.

“That’s right. I interpret that to mean, ‘Yes, Elisa, darling, you have earned my trust, and I will not argue again tonight. Instead, I will take the paracetamol, eat the soup, see my surprise, and sleep, knowing that I’m loved.’ Is that what you’re trying to say?”

He looks at me like I’m his life and his worst enemy at the same time. “Mmmm.”

“Exactly. And if you don’t cooperate, I’ll call Doctor Gramercy, Doctor Helen, Doctor Corbin, your brothers, and your parents—they can be here tomorrow, they’re all packed. Oh, and Benson to hold you down while I force feed you.”

“Mmm—” he responds, but the thermometer beeps then, like my heart at the lab. I pull it out and almost collapse.

“Bloody hell, Aiden! It’s a hundred and two! How on earth are you coherent? I’m calling Doctor Gramercy right now.” I turn for my phone, but his hand closes at my hip.

“Elisa, darling, can I get in a word first?”

“Depends on the word.”

“How about these words? You’re right. You have earned my trust. More than anyone ever has or ever will. I’ve had an awful habit of questioning it, and I’m sorry. I’ll change it now even if I’m too late. I will trust you to be safe tonight and I’ll let you take care of me even though it should be the other way around. And if the fever doesn’t drop by tomorrow morning despite your magic, I’ll see a doctor. But tonight, I cannot handle anyone else but you. Can you give this to me?”

I just stare. How can I argue with his words, the pleading eyes, his simple wish, or his rare request for something he needs? How can I not give him everything?

“You’re not too late,” I recover, perching on the edge of the bed, afraid if I get any closer, I will throw myself at him. “And it shouldn’t be the other way around. You can’t always be the one saving me. I want to save you too.”

His lips lift into the worn half-smile, but he does the same, scooting to the middle of the mattress. “You save me every day, Elisa.”

But will it be enough?

He keeps his promise then. He takes the paracetamol tablets without argument, drinks a full glass of ice water, eats the soup, and even lets me take care of his hands no matter how much he hates anyone fussing over him. I disinfect the gnarly blisters with ethanol and cover them with honey balm, avoiding the heated gaze I sense on my face so I can concentrate. If the alcohol stings him, he doesn’t flinch. Instead, his fingertips curl instinctly toward mine. Every time they brush me, my heart hammers so loudly I think he can hear it. Being so close to him after ten days is more overwhelming to my system than even the protein. My emotions are a snarl. Everything possible to feel, I feel to the nth degree. From desire to the most absurd anger that his golden skin is hurt. Now I finally understand the mystery of how Aiden could be so furious at my sandals for giving me blisters. I loathe every shovel in the world at this moment.

“There.” I tape the strips of gauze around his hands gently. “They’ll be better tomorrow. But no shovels or hard labor for at least a week.”

He doesn’t like that—who knows what else he is planning to fix for me—but he concedes. “You really missed your calling as a military nurse.”

“Of course I didn’t. I’m taking care of a soldier right now. Here, let me put this compress on you. I even sprinkled some rose oil on it so it smells good. See?”

He stares at me in that you’re-unbelievable look but recovers. “Well, thank God for that. I wouldn’t want an ordinary compress.”

The note of dry humor under the hoarseness of agony sounds like a symphony to me. I press the damp tea towel over his burning forehead and eyes before he can see my eyes fill with tears. I try to avoid touching his skin—sure that any more contact, no matter how faint, will kill us both—but as soon as the wet cloth drapes over his face, he gasps as he did when he touched the evil monitor. As though something shocked him.

“Aiden?” I remove the towel immediately, but his eyes are focused on the labyrinth of his memory, tracing images I cannot see.

“You were there!” he whispers.

The words turn to chills on my spine. What is this? Is the reel trying to reclaim him? Or is this guilt? “Of course I was. I told you I’ll always be on the other side, just as you would for me.”

He shakes his head, his mind clearly processing with that surreal velocity he mentioned earlier. Here, in the light, I can finally see the stunning speed of thought in his far-away gaze.

“That’s not it,” he murmurs.

“Then what is it? What are you remembering?”

He looks between my face and the invisible mirage before him, his focus a laser beam, yet something seems to elude him. “Not remembering, exactly. Or maybe I am . . . It makes no sense.” His voice tenses with frustration.

“What makes no sense?”

The sentient eyes blink and return home. Meeting mine, torn between awe and puzzlement. “I have this very vivid image of you and me on the riverbank of Euphrates in Fallujah. Your hand is in my hair, and I’m splashing cold water on my face. I can hear your voice so clearly, telling me to do that. The vision is so vibrant, yet I know it’s impossible. I know you weren’t actually there. And I sure as fuck would never imagine you anywhere near that hellhole. But the texture of it—so rich and detailed. I can smell you with the gunpowder. I can see you through the smoke. I can feel your little hand around mine. It’s as if it really happened. As precise as any other memory.” He squints again, trying to reconcile the images.

I flap uselessly around my head. Obviously, a part of him heard me, though I don’t know how or in what order the memories are flowing back. Why this last image and not anything that came before it? Is it just a matter of the compress trigger or something else? But at least I can explain some of it. That way he can relax. “Actually, I think I might know why.”

He frowns. “Why?”

“Because I did tell you to go to the river and splash water on your face. You were so feverish, and Doctor Helen said to keep you as cool as I could, so I thought it would help if I gave you some images of cold water. Don’t worry about this part. Or any part at all. You really need to give your mind a break.” I pull the cold compress over his eyes again, stroking his forehead through the fabric. I can almost feel his thoughts racing inside his brain.

“Elisa?” His voice is unnaturally hard all of a sudden.

“Hmm?”

“How did you know there was a river close enough for me to go to?”

My mouth dries like the Fallujah desert. The only thing that saves me is that his eyes are covered. How could I have made such a blunder? Because the protein was fading, that’s why. My super-mind would have never floundered idiotically like this. “Well, ah, because I have studied Fallujah,” I scramble, sticking only to technical truths like the protein taught me. “I saw the Euphrates River runs through it.”

I would be proud of myself if I wasn’t liquifying into a blob of panic on the mattress. I didn’t tell a single lie, except by omission. Still, I force air in and out in case he can feel my choppy breathing through the mattress.

A few moments drag, stretching like the entire video, while I pray frantically to every angel and polygraph inventor to save me, Doctor Helen, Aiden himself, and Planet Earth. Then he sighs in a way that makes me think the entire galaxy will not, right this minute, scorch to ash by dragon fire. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you would have researched it but I hate that any part of that evil is in your head at all. Is it really so hard not to investigate every single thing that crosses your path, Elisa?”

My breath flows naturally again, and I almost slump on the bed in relief. Would he ever have accepted my explanation this easily if he wasn’t blindfolded with a tea towel, sleep-deprived for ten days, agonized, traumatized, assaulted by thousands of memories at stratospheric speed, and running a fever of a hundred and two degrees? No, not in a million years.

I dab another cold compress on his cheek. “It’s impossible. Snooping where I don’t belong is my specialty.”

Another sigh. “I’m aware . . . But it still doesn’t explain why the image feels so vivid even though it never happened. It’s as though my mind took your fantasy and flipped it into reality.”

The momentary relief disappears. Because for this, I have no answer. Nothing but a mounting terror expanding like an imploded universe. Terror that something has broken. Terror that I violated some fundamental principle of memory and nature by crossing the boundaries of time dimensions when I entered the reel with him. Terror that I made it worse instead of helping. Terror that I may not be able to save him at all. Terror for his pain. And terror that the fever is not relenting. My fingers tremble as I stroke his scar over the damp cloth.

“I wish I knew why, my love. I wish I could make it stop.”

His fingers caress the sweatshirt gathered at my hip, as if hears the unspoken dread. “Don’t worry,” he assures me. “I’ll figure it out.”

“I know you will, but not tonight, Aiden, please. We really need to give your mind a break, something else to work through that’s not burning or painful.”

“Alright,” he agrees, but I hear what he is not saying. What thought is left that doesn’t carry pain?

“How about a riddle so you can guess your surprise and keep your brain busy?” I splutter ridiculously, as if any childish game can tame terrors like these.

But it brings back the ravaged smile. “Very embargoish.”

“Okay, let me think. What would be hard enough for you?” I remove the compress to refresh it with more ice and rose oil. His eyes find mine immediately, lightening, softening, which doesn’t help me at all with the thinking process. I have to look at the soggy towel so I can string together some clues. “Alright, here it is.” I wrap the compress back over his eyes and forehead, wishing it could blind him from the images in his head. “Solve it and you’ll know what your surprise is. I start with love and end with riches. Within me, only mirror images. I am fragile, thin, and very light. Yet I can carry great loads inside. I can be a thought or a feeling. And if you lose me, you might lose meaning. But anyone who’s seen me will agree. There’s no greater suspense than me.”

A low gasp like a chuckle flows from his lips—the first since the end. My heart almost stops at the sound. So beautiful, even if only a ghost of the joyful music it used to be. What I wouldn’t give to hear it again.

“How do you come up with things like this?” he demands. “Do you have a section in your prefrontal cortex reserved for puzzles only?”

“No, but I do have a big part of my brain dedicated to you.” Okay, that’s an understatement. My entire brain is dedicated to him.

He shakes his head as if he doesn’t think a single neuron should be his. “And this is something you’re giving me?”

“Yes, and I’m very late at it.”

“Okay, my turn to think.” And underneath the willow song, I can almost hear the sudden silence in his mind, the ceasefire as he tries to focus only on the riddle.  Let it help, please. Let it cool the fever.

“Is it health?” he guesses, but then answers his own question, “No, it can’t be.”

“A good guess but keep trying.”

“Peace?”

“No, but it could have been.”

“Air?”

“No.”

“Coming home?”

The way home sounds in his voice—so warm, like it was made for him. “That’s your best so far but keep thinking.”

And he does. He keeps guessing answers that are a lot better than mine as I change the compress over and over again. But the fever isn’t dropping. His body is still a furnace, raging next to me. From the heat, the room feels sultry, the rose breeze like a tropical zephyr. And his voice becomes slower, his eyelids heavier as they struggle to open whenever he can see me. I try to fight back my rising panic so I can breathe for him.

“You really missed your calling to be an intelligence code writer, Elisa. Are you sure there is an answer?”

“Of course I didn’t miss it. I’m giving codes to a CIA analyst right now. And, yes, there is an answer.”

“Well, I’ll be Harold Plemmons’ age if I ever solve it.”

My breath rolls out into a faint whisper before I can stop it. “Promise?”

Even burning, he hears it. His hand clambers up to his face and he pulls down the compress. His eyes are abruptly fierce underneath the fever.

“Elisa.” He pours all his strength into his commanding voice. It rings with power, fortifying me as he must intend it to do. His other hand grabs a fistful of the sweatshirt at my hip. “For as long as your heart is beating, so will mine. You are not allowed to ever worry about that. Do you understand me?”

Except I want his heart to beat forever. I shove down the dark thought and put all my strength in my voice. “I do. I’ll keep my heart beating for a lot longer than Mr. Plemmons, I promise. And so will you. You will heal from this. You are not allowed to ever worry about that. Do you understand me?”

He sees my faith, my fear even with his hooded gaze. “I do. That’s why I’m still fighting. Now, is it lavender? Because it starts with an L and ends with R, even though nothing else fits. Or did I just commit a cardinal sin mentioning another flower’s name around here?” His lips force a valiant smile, and I grin naturally in response.

“You’ll have to grovel to the roses first thing in the morning—they’re very jealous flora, but I’ll give this to you because you guessed a flower and that’s close enough. Look under the other pillow and you’ll find your surprise.”

His smile lingers. “Really? You’re giving me a pass?”

“I can fail you if it would make you happier?”

“No, no, I’ll take it.” And his long fingers reach under the spare pillow immediately. For a a split second, a shadow of the seven-year-old boy flits in his eyes, not carefree, but alive. I swallow hard against the lump in my throat as he fishes out the origami rose I folded out of lab paper. “A white rose,” he muses, but as soon as his eyes lock on it, his memory strikes again, impossibly fast. “There was a rose!” he breathes in shock. “In the classroom, on the blackboard, there was a flower drawn in chalk like a rose!”

I hear my gasp of dread and relief. Because he saw it. He heard me, he trusted me, he found the rose as I had hoped. But I’ve triggered another flashback. And we’re getting closer to the torture, to the deepest circle of the fiery inferno.

His eyes flash to my face in awe. “You were there too. Just like with the river. You led me straight to it. How did you do that?”

I feel the blood drain from my skin. There is no compress over his eyes now, nothing to hide behind, except the only truths I can tell him. “I didn’t say anything about a flower,” I whisper, mouth dry like chalk, skin white hot like the desert. “I only told you to look for familiar things.”

“Yes, I know, but what gave you the idea? It’s so different than what you’ve done in the past.”

“I—I was just trying to bring you back, and I couldn’t think of another way.” My voice shatters under his gaze. “Aiden, please let it go. Don’t dwell on the horror now. Please!

My panic must derail him. He lifts his hand to my face, brushing my cheek with the paper rose as though he, too, can’t survive touching my skin. “Hey, hey, shh, not horror. At least not this part. That rose kept me breathing today. It was the one thing of beauty in all that hell. Once I saw it, I kept my eyes on it instead of . . .”

My own breath stops entirely—with the origami touch, with his words, with the tenderness in his gaze. Even the anxiety about the video disappears for the moment at this revelation. Because I’d watch it a million times over withoutthe protein if it gave him one bubble of oxygen. “It really helped?” I whisper. “But I—I broke all of Doctor Helen’s rules!”

He nods, caressing my cheekbone with the paper petals. “I’m glad you did. If you hadn’t, I would have never found the rose, even though I obviously glimpsed it when I stepped inside the classroom that day.”

I press the cold compress over his cheek like a caress too. Of course he hadn’t registered it since that accursed moment. Who would think of roses with all the torture that followed? “I’m glad you saw it in the first place. Thank God for your mind and for whomever drew the rose there.”

His eyes travel, and I’m certain he is seeing the image that I know so well: the simple petals, so obviously drawn by a child’s hand. Was it one of the broken hands Aiden had to pick up and match to the rest? Or is that child still alive somewhere in the desert—an adult now, unaware he just helped a man breathe thousands of miles away? Will that chalk rose be enough to help Aiden in the future when I’m not there?

“Thank God for you.” His eyes focus on me with feeling. “I still can’t access most of it, but I know I’d still be in that classroom if it weren’t for you.”

A shiver runs through me at the haunted look that mars his beautiful face. “No, you wouldn’t,” I say quickly, patting his brow with the damp cloth. “You’d be right here, except you’d be opening your surprise instead of trying to comfort me.”

It works. The ghostly look fades and, for now, we seem to leave the classroom—and my detailed knowledge of it—behind. “Open it? The paper rose you folded so carefully?”

I nod. “Oh yes, the surprise is inside. You didn’t think the answer is ‘rose,’ did you?”

“No, but it seems sacrilegious to unravel this. Haven’t I committed enough sins against the roses tonight?”

“No, the roses like this part. And I’ll fold it again for you if you want.”

He trails the origami rose down my cheek to the corner of my jaw. “I want.”

He opens the rose carefully while I try to find the real rose breeze for air. Abruptly I’m nervous. Will he like it? Or will it cause more flashbacks? It seemed like a good idea when I was brave, but now my decisions during the protein seem downright insane. But it’s too late—he flattens the scrap of lab paper and his breath catches. The weary smile sparks again. “Ah, I see. The answer to the riddle is a letter. Of course it is. Clever.” He looks up at me through his long lashes, heavy with fever. “Now what could you have written to me?”

“I don’t know, I was high.”

“All the better.”

I watch without air as his eyes turn to the words I wrote. The words I remember as clearly as if they were still in front of me.

My love, he is reading,

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write you back. After all, we’re still fighting a war—a war like no other. With hearts instead of shields, memories instead of bombs, dreams instead of missions. It’s the war to end all our other wars. The war to save you. Because you deserve it, and we will fight for as long as we have breath left. Even when we’re an ocean apart.

And one day—whether now or when we’re as old as the Plemmonses—I know you will win. I know I will wobble on my cane to my postbox, and I will see an envelope there with just my address and an international stamp. I will know your handwriting even blind. I will know what the letter says before I open it. Just one four-letter word: F-R-E-E. And I will dance right there by the rose hedge—cane, titanium hip, knee braces, and all. Then I will scribble you back one word. The only one I will know. L-O-V-E.

But until then, maybe we’ll keep writing to each other. Just like this—never goodbyes, only “my” and “yours.” Even you cannot find anything unsafe with that. And I will tell you all the things I haven’t had a chance to tell you. There are only a billion. This time, I will start with how it feels to love you with absolutely no fear. Love you for love’s sake only, just like your first Baci quote said.

I wish I had your talent for writing—perhaps then I could do justice to the feeling. It’s compulsive, instinctual, like every right and wrong has ceased to exist. All my worries and what-ifs no longer matter. Every other purpose in life has become secondary to this one simplicity: I love you. From the A of your name to the Zs of your sleep. I love the totality of the man you are, without a single care of what was or what will be.

I don’t love you safely, tucked between a dream and a fairytale. I love you violently, torn between wars and nightmares. I don’t love you with pasts or time. I love you the way stars are meant to be loved. Forever, in darkness and light.

Yet it still doesn’t seem enough, because I know it can’t last. Fear will return soon and, with it, reason and reality. I know there isn’t a world where you would ever risk my life. And I know bravery changes nothing between us. So when I’m awake from this spell, don’t give me anything but whatever you can. From however far.

Yours,

Elisa

He finishes before me even though these are my words rhyming in my brain more fluently than my own name. But he doesn’t blink away from them. He gazes at every period and every comma the way he looks at me sometimes. As though they’re his reason for living. And for the third time in our love, I see the glimmer of a tear at the corner of his eye. But it’s not a tear of pain. For once tonight, there is no trace of agony in his expression.

A whiff of rose breeze floats by, and I realize I had been barely breathing until now.

At the sound of my breath, Aiden looks at me. And before I can figure out how to blink, he sits up, coming so close with his surreal face, his body heat, his sky gaze full of dreams. His fragrance washes over my lips, and I have to wring the tea towel to stay upright. But the room starts to spin. And the tropical air crackles on my skin like melting ice.

“Elisa,” he murmurs, and the deep emotion is in his voice, too. “I—what can I ever say to a letter like this? There are no words for it.”

I dab the single tear sparkling at the edge of his scar. “I don’t want you to say anything. I only wanted you to know how brave love felt for me.” But as I hear the past tense, oddly, it doesn’t feel in the past at all. It feels viscerally present.

He looks at me with the whole world in his eyes. “I know it. I feel it. But that’s not all you want, is it?” He flutters the paper along my cheek—it billows with our breath. “You want more. So much more than that.”

M-o-r-e. Except what I want no longer matters compared to him. “I want you to be at peace most of all. So I’ll take whatever you can give me safely, even if just in letters.”

It would never be enough. To have the words of our love story tucked in the library right next to Dante, Austen, and Tolstoy . . . in the empty spot left by Romeo and Juliet.

His eyes turn to the letter as if he is considering that other world. The world where we speak only in paintings and scribbles. The paper trembles from his touch. “I don’t know how to be with you half-way,” he admits, seeming lost. “I did it in war, but now that you’re real . . .”

This morning I would have told him to be with me in every way, but that won’t help him now. Not when he needs to hope I will have a life beyond him. The hope that will keep him alive. “That’s okay. Then be with me only in here,” I answer, hovering my hand above his heart. His fever burns my skin even without contact. “Just promise you will send me that letter when you heal. Because you will, Aiden. One day, you will.”

He looks again at the words I wrote, his eyes deepening, and I wonder where his thoughts are taking him. To that dream? That day in his future? I don’t know but my mind flashes to the past. To us. To every maddening, beautiful, surreal moment of being his. They roll by in a memory reel of my own: the first time I saw his exquisite face at Feign’s gallery . . . touching the miracle of his hand at the presentation for my supplement . . . coming alive under his gaze on our coffee date . . . his first kiss and every single one that followed it . . . that first night together and every night since . . . the war we fought . . . the way he healed me . . . his gifts . . . the games of chess . . . the dances . . . the sleeps . . . his waterfall laughter . . . every minute of his impossible, forever love.

The wound in my chest rips wide open, almost curling me over in a torture of loss. I barely have a second to whip around and pretend to soak the compress so I can hide from his quick eyes. But I’m not fast enough. His finger comes under my chin, skin on skin without any fabric between us. The small touch jolts through me like electric current.

“Elisa, love?” He turns my face to him immediately. “What is it? What hurt you just now?”

L-o-v-e. I commit the way it sounds in his voice to memory, wishing I could remember like him so not a single note of his music ever fades from my mind. Even his panic for me right now. But it knocks me to my senses, overruling my own pain. What the bloody hell am I doing? How can I add even a second to the burden he is carrying?

I take a deep breath and press the compress back to his cheek. “Your fever isn’t dropping at all,” I answer, choosing the most urgent of the thousands of flames because it’s the one that will worry him the least.

He doesn’t release my eyes or my chin, still studying me. The light contact grows, sinking through my skin to my very bones. “I’m sure it will. Is that all that’s upsetting you?”

“Isn’t it enough?”

“No, nothing is worth this pain.”

“Well, it is to me,” I say truthfully, because nothing else compares to his health. “Aiden, please, I’m worried about you. Maybe we should try something stronger to break your thoughts. How about blind chess against me and your laptop? That ought to distract even your mind for a few minutes.”

He sighs, no doubt seeing the earnest dread, and relents. His finger drops from my chin, leaving behind the chill of his absence. “I have a better idea instead.”

“What idea? It had better not involve worrying about me, Aiden, I swear.”

“It doesn’t. At least as much as I’m capable of doing that.”

“Then what is it?”

He holds my eyes in that way that makes it impossible to blink. “How about you read your letter to me?”

The sheet of paper quivers in his hand from my surprised gasp. “Really? But you already remember it by now—it won’t be enough to hold your focus.”

“I promise you it will hold it more than anything else. And I haven’t heard it in your voice. Or with you in my arms.”

My mouth pops open. Because I realize what he wants. Didn’t I try and fail to imagine his piano voice when I was reading his war letters alone? How alive did his words feel when I finally heard them in his music, curled in his chest? But did he really mean in bed with him?

He nods as though he is in my head. “Elisa, you’ve been up since four—assuming you slept at all, made breakfast, went to work, solved the protein, tested it, watched me in agony for three hours, revived me all on your own, found a way to save my sanity, prepared my surprise, and now you’ve been taking care of me all evening, refusing to leave me alone, hurting deeply, and putting on a brave face for my benefit. The embargo applies to you too. I’m not going to lie here all pampered with you on your feet, and I don’t think I’ll fall asleep tonight. So if calming me is your goal, nothing else will calm my mind more than your rest.”

And before I can find my breath or blinks or tell him none of that compares to what he’s done for me, he pulls the compress from my frozen hands, tosses it on the floor, and takes me in his arms. His scorching hold zings me back to life. Tingles explode everywhere until I see stars. My arms fly around his waist and my lungs restart, inhaling his delicious fragrance. A shiver runs through me at the same time as it ripples over him.

He sighs in my hair and lies back down, pulling me across his chest. I snuggle frantically into his heat, breath racing, heart pounding, pulse almost breaking through my skin. He is so close, the bed so small, this doesn’t bring us back together, yet it’s so much more than I ever thought I would get again. The feeling is overpowering. Like coming home, air, health, peace—like all his answers to my riddle because he is my answer to everything.

Through the flammable haze in my brain, I realize Aiden has forged into titanium around me as though the fire that’s turning me to vapor has petrified him. Every single muscle is flexed into a blade of restraint. Even his lungs seem to have stopped. But his heart thunders like mortar fire under my cheek. And his hold—so tight, so desperate, like a last breath. Yet even now, he turns his strength against himself so I don’t bruise under his hands.

Only his need can break through my frenzy in this moment. I loosen my stranglehold around his neck and untangle my leg from his.

“Aiden, love, if this is too hard, I can—”

“Shh, it’s harder without this.” His voice is husky, the way he sounded when we would make love.

I want so much to look up at his face, but I know there is no way either of us can survive that right now. One blink, and we will end. On our tomb, it will say Amor Finit Omnia. So I lie very still in his arms, head on his chest, listening to his heart.

“Do you want me to tell you about Rostóv?” I ask, trying to remember War and Peace. “Will that help?”

A quiet exhale flurries in my hair like his lost chuckle again while I liquify at the sound. “No, I’d much rather hear your letter.”

I take it from his hand where it’s shuddering like us. “Okay, whatever you want. After all, you’ve slept on the ground—assuming you slept at all, you didn’t have breakfast or lunch, you lifted a whole quarry of stone, reinforced the riverbank, have fixed the roof and the plumbing and the shutters, cleaned the gutters, built the garden beds, fertilized and mulched the garden, pruned the shrubs and the trees, hacked the thornbushes, chopped wood, established a grant for my job, set up my trust fund, lined up my security, hired me lawyers, attacked the boulder that almost killed me, God knows what else, watched the reel, were stuck in torture for three hours all alone, you’ve been running a fever of one hundred and two all evening while fighting the triple-force of your  memory, and now you’re worrying about me. Did I forget anything?”

Another low chuckle blows warm tingles over my skin. “Yes.”

“What?”

“I finished the entire War and Peace.”

Astoundingly, laughter finds me in this moment. It bursts from my lips as it did the first time he told me about his trick.

“There, much better. I love the sound of your laugh, Elisa,” he tells me as he did then too—if I’m remembering that moment, he certainly is, which means he is not thinking about the reel. And like then, my laugh seems to work better at distraction than Tolstoy. He takes a deep breath and tucks the sheet between us like an extra shield. It’s too warm with his fever, but I’d rather burn to cinder right now than move one inch. I hold up my letter to busy my eyes and begin, voice trembling without the confidence of the protein.

“My love, I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write you back. . .”

He listens with his heated lips in my hair, the thud-thud-thud of his heart to the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of mine. And when I finish, he is quiet. Only our heartbeats and the sounds of the night. The rustle of the beech trees, the willow song, a gentle creak as the breeze kisses the shutters. But the fever still isn’t dropping.

“Do you miss it?” he asks after an immeasurable moment—I’m avoiding the wall clock.

“Miss what?”

“Loving me that way. Without fear.”

When he phrases it like that—in the past too—that visceral sense of presence engulfs me. A familiar force gushes in my veins, just as potent as during the protein. Not scorching or icy, but healing. Like glacial spring water, washing away all the debris of fear and agony. With a startle, I recognize what it is. L-o-v-e.

“Oh!” I gasp, trying to breathe through it with my unfortified lungs. I thought once fear reentered my world, it would normalize everything, but I was wrong. Somehow, through facing our worst terrors, that Himalayan super-love survived. How could that be?

“Elisa?” Aiden props himself up so he can look at me, the V of worry between his brows. And for a second, his face seems to shimmer again with the lovely aura of my bravery visions—but it’s just the twinkly lights.

It takes me a moment to remember his question, to find my voice through the potent emotion. “No,” I answer in wonder. “I don’t miss it at all. I still love you the exact same way.”

The V deepens. “How is that possible without the protein?”

I try to think past his closeness, his fragrance, his gaze, his body heat, the sheer existence of him. “I don’t know but I’m glad it is.”

“Do you think some of the protein’s effects might still be lingering?”

“No, I think it’s because my love for you has always been the same, just as strong with or without fear. Bravery only allowed me to feel all of it. And now that I have, I can’t unfeel its power. I can’t unknow its depth.” Again, the words bring a vivid sense of recognition. Silently, I thank my lucky stars. If I had to keep one thing from the protein, I’m grateful it’s this one.

He watches me intently, his eyes deepening with an unfathomable storm of their own. The rose breeze blows back and forth between our lips.

“Do you wish I didn’t love you like this?” I ask and regret the terrifying question immediately. Or rather the answer he might give.

His gaze softens on mine. “A part of me will always wish that.”

Fire torches my throat, almost as scalding as during the video. It seems some types of super-agony have survived too—why is that? I can’t find enough strength to analyze it through the flames.

“Shh, let me explain!” He shakes my shoulder gently. “A part of me will always wish that for your happiness. Our end would certainly have been easier for you if you didn’t love me like this. But a bigger part of me—the most selfish part—wouldn’t change a single thing about your love. How can I when it keeps me alive? When it’s the greatest happiness of my existence?”

The fire vanishes as quickly as it erupted, as if he doused it with his words. A sense of peace rushes through me in its place. Not because we won or because it will change our end. I feel peace for a victory that matters more than my wants: Aiden has finally accepted love, even if only in a letter, even if only from a distance. The man who wouldn’t even let me tell him I loved him at first, who did everything he could to make me hate him, just heard four hundred forty-four words of my reckless and unconditional love for him and wouldn’t change a thing. If that’s not worth every minute of the reel, every flame of agony, every stab of terror, every empty minute of my future existence, I don’t know what is.

I feel my own lips lift into a true, straight-from-the-heart smile.

“What is it?” He smiles in response, clearly unaware of his own transformation—so subtle, yet so bold.

“Nothing. Only that selfish is such a beautiful word.”

He taps the brave letter at the corner of my grin. “And me being selfish makes you happy?”

When he asks me that, abruptly, happiness shifts. It hasn’t taken any forms in so long. I thought it would always look like the past from now on. But it shimmers again, looking exactly like this present moment: Aiden, even if feverish and worn, cherishing my love.

“Very happy,” I tell him. “I want you to be the most selfish man in the world.”

I know he sees the truth. I can tell from the way his eyes lighten on mine. “In that case, can I hear that letter again?”

“You can hear it as many times as you want.”

His gaze lingers on my smile until a different kind of fever starts to burn my skin. He shuts his eyes with a pained sigh. Hard, harder than I’ve ever seen him fight anything, he leashes back his body and lies back down, hands in fists on the sheets. And I know he made right choice for both of us. Because if he kissed me now, I would not survive losing it again—faith or no faith, protein or no protein. And if I kissed him, I would cool his fire only to finish him in the end.

“Do you have a favorite part of the letter?” I ask for distraction.

He seems to think about it for a second, eyes still closed. “Every word, but maybe the part about the stars.”

“Why that one?”

“Because it’s almost as strong as the way I love you.”

Almost? Don’t you mean equal?”

“No, I mean almost. The protein doesn’t seem to have changed the way I feel about you either. I love you as indescribably now as I did before it. Maybe even more. Though, of course, I have no idea what happened during—”

“Shh, don’t go there.” I tighten my hold to keep him present. “Just think about the good parts you know: that you love me like this because you’ve always been extremely brave and your emotions are naturally much more heightened already.”

“Precisely. So almost is the right word. But surprisingly I like hearing about this other love that comes close.”

What’s the point in racing the stars? You will never catch them. That’s why they are stars. Shining outside your window every night, more beautiful than any dream—forever yours, yet forever out of reach.

“My love,” I start reading again even though I don’t need the letter. But he seems to like looking at my handwriting, and I’d rather his eyes stay here than drift back to Fallujah.

He strains me closer with each word, molding me to his blazing body. And this time, when I finish, I start over without pause like we do with Für Elise. Every now and then, I feel his body tense with flashbacks, but each time, I raise my voice a little and he comes back. Listening to the words of my love with his nose in my hair, fever on his skin, and shudders in his heart.

“I love you the way stars are meant to be loved. Forever. In darkness and in light . . .”

Abruptly, his steely arms become heavy around me, and his hold softens with a sigh. I panic that the reel is dragging him back, but when I peek up at his face, I see he has miraculously fallen asleep. So heroic, I can hardly breathe. His beauty is war-torn with deep shadows under his eyes and hollowed cheeks. The V is still etched between his brows like a peace sign. And the fever is still flushing his pale skin. I watch every flutter of his eyelids and every bristle of his beard, memorizing all of it. Because I know I’ll never have another chance like this. The clock is ticking away every minute of our last embargo. And when it’s over, he will be gone. Aiden and I will be the past.

My chest rips open again, and I let it now. I let agony claw my throat, tearing out huge chunks of my heart. There is no sense in fighting back—it will have all of me in the end. The only thing I stop are the tears boiling in my eyes. Because they would blur Aiden’s face, and I don’t want to miss a blink of it tonight.

But right as he finds a cradle of rest, terror breaks through. The reel snakes inside his dreams and steals him. I can tell from the tension that seizes his body, from the way his breath twists into shallow gasps. How much is his mind reliving? Has it reached the schoolyard? Can it see that vital clue buried in the smoke clouds? Will his memory slow down enough for him to find it like a second chalk rose? And will that clue be enough to give him some peace at last?

A shudder ripples over Aiden—not one of mine, one from the desert. Deadly, with its tentacles deep in the chambers of his heart. And even though I’d give up every rose in this cottage to stay here in his arms, I know the only thing he would want right now is for me to be safe. So I start slipping carefully out of his hold, feeling as though with each centimeter away, a chip of my soul rips apart and stays behind. By the time I climb out of bed, my heart, mind, and breath are still in his arms.

I tiptoe to the nightstand for his iPhone to turn on Für Elise, but something next to it catches my attention: Aiden’s anti-nightmare pill. He didn’t take it; didn’t fathom he would fall asleep. My stomach churns in dread. Because whatever horror is scorching him now, he will be facing it alone without any anesthetic against the poisonous flames. I shudder and swipe up his phone for the only weapon we have left. His screensaver is still the same from our very beginning: me fast asleep in his Portland bed.

“Here you go, my love,” I whisper, tapping the pre-programmed playlist. And the piano starts floating around the room with the breeze. I fold my letter back into the origami rose and set it next to his pillow. “Sleep safe, I’m right here.”

But he doesn’t sleep safely tonight. Because this isn’t sleep. It’s war. Raiding his brain, strafing his heart, bombarding his memories with IEDs. His body revs up, muscles glinting like knives. Deep creases trench his forehead like chains around his mind. I curl on the armchair in the corner and try to count his breaths like always, but they’re not puffs of happiness anymore; they’re heated gasps of torment. And his fever starts radiating out of him in blast waves. I can taste it on my tongue. Even the air in the room changes—no longer tropical; it’s a desert heat dome. Fallujah is here. With its blood-soaked sands, dark shadows, hellfire, and bombs.

I bolt to my feet, searching for anything to stop the torture from drifting closer. The ice bowl and compresses are on the floor, but I know I cannot touch Aiden now in any way. It would kill us both. But what else is left? Old cottages like this were not built with air conditioning or ceiling fans. I dash to the window and tie back the curtains so the breeze can blow in more freely. Then I turn up the volume on Für Elise.

Help him, Dad. Break the fever, Mum. Let him go, Marshall, please.

But the heavens aren’t listening. For the first time, I hear Aiden speak in his sleep. Not the soft moans of love I’ve heard before. These are the guttural, soul-wrenching words in fluent Arabic. They fire from his lips like bullets, sharp and rapid under the staggering processes of his memory. I can barely catch them, and the ones I do, I don’t understand, yet I can remember each inflection, each fierce vowel, each strangled consonant from the video with razor clarity. I can recite them with him right now, as though his pleas for Marshall are branded with hot iron in my own memory.

“Khidhni, aqtilni . . .” His breath slashes the rosy air in agony.

At the sight, my own agony explodes—not the wound in my chest, the flesh-tearing pain, or the intangible torture of loss. This is the blistering kind, the brave torment of the protein, searing me alive. Except I have no superhero endurance anymore. I wrap my arms around my torso, trying to breathe through the scalding smoke in my lungs. Why isn’t this gone? Why now and not before? How did I live through it then? Where are my limbs, my heart, my spine? I can’t find anything in my body—there is only fire even though I know it’s all in my mind. In my normal, limited mind that gives me no answers now.

But there is one thing the flames don’t torch even as they incinerate everything else: Aiden himself. His love, his agony so much vaster than mine. His voice turns into that inhuman sound for which no language exists. And he needs me.

I wrench myself upright and stumble to the nightstand for my phone. It flickers on with my own screensaver: Aiden peacefully asleep in our happy bedroom. The time glares neon white across his smooth, unlined forehead. Five minutes past midnight. Another day gone. So few left to save him. I pull up Doctor Helen’s number, too terrified to care if she is wake or asleep. But she picks up on the first ring.

“Elisa, there you are. How is he?”

I sprint out in the hallway, still keeping my eyes on Aiden, and tell her everything. “What do I do?” I choke. “How do I help him?”

Silence on the other side as she must be taking in the deluge of information I just unloaded.  I expect her to admonish me for breaching her directives but she doesn’t say anything. For once, I will the seconds to tick faster, but they seem to stop as they did during Edison’s attack: only on moments of unspeakable terror.

At last, she sighs. “I’m not sure there is much more you can do, child. From what you’re describing, Aiden’s mind is processing at an unfathomable rate. As excruciating as this is, we must allow it time to do that.”

“But the fever?” I whimper. “I can almost feel it out here in the hallway!”

She doesn’t miss a single second now. “Elisa, you cannot touch him under any circumstances, you know that. Even for a compress. And no medicine or doctor can lower the fever because this is not illness—it’s trauma. We will need to endure as best we can. Do you think a second dose of the protein would help you do that?”

As if I’m worried about myself. “No,” I answer firmly. “I understand the protein a lot better now. It’s not meant for this. I’ll save it for Aiden. For bigger things.” Like September eighteen or that very last breath when he is finally at peace.

“That’s probably wise in any event,” she agrees. “Two doses in one day would be ill-advised with its emotional extremes.”

A shudder pins me against the wall at the idea. For a second, I consider telling her about the super-emotions but this isn’t about me.

“In that case, would you like me to come stay with you tonight so you’re not alone?” she offers.

Except Aiden cannot handle anyone else here tonight. And if I’m honest, neither can I. “No, I’ll be okay. If I need to wake him, I’ll call Benson. But thank you for all your help, for picking up at this hour.”

“Of course. Call me anytime. But tomorrow, you both need to rest. No reel or protein or strenuous activity of any kind.”

“We will,” I promise, even though I have no idea how Aiden will be when the embargo is over. Maybe I can buy another day Scheherazade-style, like I did on our first night.

“Meanwhile, I’ll connect with Doctor Corbin and we can reconvene at my lab the day after—I suppose that will be Saturday now—to see how you both of you are feeling.”

A second shudder almost knocks me to my knees. “You’re not going to show Aiden more awful images, are you?” I croak in horror.

“Of course not. In fact I’m not sure it would help anymore given this reaction . . .”

In her rarely hesitant voice, I think I hear what she is holding back now that my bravery has worn off. She is protecting me from another truth, but I know. This is it. There is nothing more she can do to save Aiden. Science has tried it all.

I feel the doorframe against my back as my body wobbles for balance. An odd blankness tugs at the edges of my mind as if to shut it off, but I fight to stay in the present second only.

“Then we’ll find another way,” I tell her.

“You will never give up on him, will you?”

“Never.”

“Then follow your instincts, child. They’re Aiden’s best hope.”

H-o-p-e. The hybrid trembles on the dresser from the breeze.

When Doctor Helen is gone, I search every crevice of my frantic mind for anything that might help. But without the protein, all genius is gone. All that’s left are slivers of instincts and bursts of faith. It has been enough to survive until now. It will have to be enough tonight.

“I’ll be right back, love,” I murmur.

I race around the cottage, throwing open all the shutters, grabbing the old fan from the living room, mum’s crafts basket, and anything that occurs to my composted brain. As I run, I text, stumbling into furniture in a way that would give Aiden a stroke if he saw it.

“James, can you help me with something?”

His response is almost instant. “Name it, Trouble.”

And he does—in fifteen minutes, I have what I need. Or at least what I believe might help tomorrow. But Aiden has deserts to cross, chains to break, clues to find, and torture to survive before then.

I hurry back upstairs, hauling everything in my arms. On the bed, Aiden is still burning in every way, from his mind to his skin. I set the fan by his side, fill its reservoir with rose water, and train it on him so the mist and ventilation blow straight on his body, amplifying the breeze. Then I spray my perfume in the air and curl on the floor by his side, reciting my letter out loud. It helped him fall asleep. Perhaps it will help again now. I time my words to the notes of Für Elise, rifling through mum’s crafts and trinkets to keep my hands busy so they don’t fly on their own to touch him.

I snip, string, tie, and knot, hands shaking, voice trembling, heart shattering, burning with him. And though it all, Fallujah wins. Torching his body with fire, irrigating his lungs with smoke, retrenching his heart with bombs. And his words change again, back to English, contorting into dry sobs.

“Take me. Kill me, not him . . . it’s my fault . . . my fault . . . my fault . . .”

There are some moments in life—moments drenched in storms, with volcanoes of agony forging ravines of fury, waterfalls of love drenching the crags of fear, torrents of desire flooding mountains of longing, thunders of guilt shattering the skies of freedom—when we are simply small. Just leaflets in the wind, hoping to land somewhere we know. This is one of those moments. A moment when I can only tremble and hope.

Outside the window, the night deepens, then lightens into another dawn. On the dresser, perhaps from the desert heat, a tiny, new bud leaf is peeking on the stem of Hope. And Aiden’s torment changes, ringing out with a different tenor, less desolate, more commanding, until it becomes a single word.

“Stop!”©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 36 – FORTIS

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

36

Fortis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take me upstairs with you, step by step, like Für Elise before bed. This is just another dance.” The ice starts biting my heels, frosting up my legs. “Here we are. Marshall is already there. You still have time together, fight again. Save Jazz. He’s stuck in the fires below, you know that. Search through the smoke. What do you see? Something old? Something new? You remember it. Now see it, hear it all—not just the horror.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dr. Helen, you there?”

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

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

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

No, but I want the truth. “Yes.”

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

Just my frozen body. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

On the screen blinks another text: “Elisa?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like that, bravery is gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are two parts?”

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

“He walks in beauty.”

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

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

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

“Especially Shakespeare?”

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

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

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

“Yes . . . it does.”

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

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

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

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

He doesn’t answer, still breathless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what is it?”

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

“Different how?”

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

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

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

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

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 35 – BRAVE

Hey, hey friends,

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

35

Brave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marshall, Marshall, Marshall . . .

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

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

But it takes only five minutes to find him.

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

. . . !!!  . . . !!!  . . . !!! . . .

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

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

I had been blind with fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We did it together.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very dad.”

“Very you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, it’s ours. Please tell me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I took my dose. This is for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod, reshuffling them quickly with the crystalline thoughts.

“What do they sing now?”

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

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

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

“What do they say?”

“Safe, safe, safe.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Something to look forward to.”

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

Suddenly, even another second feels too long to wait.

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

“No, I’m set.”

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

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

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

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

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

“About three hours ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll see you on the other side,” I tell him.

“I still see you now.”

“See me well.”

“I will.”

My fingers hover above his lips. They are still shimmering in my vision, full and bitten-crimson. I’ve never wanted anything more than to taste them. Not even air while drowning in the river. Maybe just a little? But his warm breath washes over my fingertips, bringing me back. Reminding me of everything. I tremble in my purse for my rose oil and dab it on the flawless curve of his lips exactly where the monsters smeared Marshall’s blood. Even at that slight touch, the orgasmic current shocks my fingers. From his low gasp, it must jolt him, too.

“Ah, you,” he sighs. His teeth graze his bottom lip lightly, tasting the oil. I manage to stay upright only by the strength of the protein.

“I love you,” I whisper.

“Always.” His voice is husky. “Whatever else has changed, that never will.”

I bend to kiss his heart where the steel cables crossed, tracing the path of the vanished chains. Then, with a smoky breath through my charred lungs, I press the power button. And the fifty-fifth reel starts. Our fight to save him, not us. Aiden stills as the headset highjacks him, yanking his mind through the portals of his powerful memory into a different place, a different time. And even though he is still here next to me, I know he has left me far behind.

For the first peaceful fifteen minutes, I can’t move despite the raw energy spiking in my muscles. I just burn next to him, feeling like both iron and ash, watching the golden aura that still frames his face. My body echoes with the lack of the physical reactions I would now feel: short breaths, shaking, chills, nausea. They are all absent. In their place are all the mega-emotions. A Himalayan waterfall of love, a volcano of pain, a hurricane of desire, an abyss of longing. I remember when I used to believe that strong emotions last only ninety seconds. But science didn’t know about the protein then. I don’t know how long these emotions will rage either, but I know it will be a lifetime in itself.

Yet it would never be long enough. I would scorch here forever just watching the hypnotic halo, but my mind doesn’t let me. Somehow, while I’ve been in his spell, it has found new horizons of space to think and keep track of time. And Aiden’s peaceful minutes are almost up.

I try to think of a surprise I can do from here so he doesn’t come back to nothing. There isn’t much. I improvise with the contents of my purse, set my phone on Für Elise by his ear, and, in two minutes, I’m coiled back to my safe circle even though I could tango through the seven circles of hell, carrying Dante in my arms.

The second I sit on the wildflowers, Aiden’s agony starts. And mine. Unfathomably more vicious than during the video. Because I am no longer sheltered by a camera lens or a smoky screen—this is real, this is live. I can see every facet of the torment I had missed, each blow of anguish on the face I love. I can hear each gasp from his lips. I can feel each cable slicing his shoulders, each minute of torture ravaging the body that is my home more than any cottage will ever be. And all the words disappear again, there isn’t a human language brutal enough.

!!!

The more I see, the more the emotions scald, flay, tear, rip, saw, and stab. I want to simultaneously sob, thrash, shriek, and die. Yet not a single scream passes Aiden’s lips as he relives the torture the camera didn’t film—the torture no one alive knows except him. But the deeper he sinks, the more his agony changes before my cruelly clear eyes. A sheen of moisture is gathering on his skin like fever. His breathing becomes rapid and shallow as if he is drowning—not steady like mine. And his body is contorting a different way. As though the ripples over his muscles are coming from a vital organ that’s tearing apart.

The vacuum of horror sucks the air out of my lungs, filling them with fire. “No!” I choke as the defense instinct thrusts me to my feet. I will end this. I was wrong. It’s not working—it’s hurting him even more. But as I strike one step in Aiden’s direction, a sound reverberates through my head, more deafening than any IED. Because this sound is coming from inside me. Aiden’s voice is thundering in my own memory, amplified by the protein:

“PROMISE ME, ELISA.”

It locks down every burning muscle, from my fists to my thighs. I cannot move a single inch, imprisoned by my own mind. My thoughts become my steel cables, chaining me down with my vow. Because my mind is right. If I touch Aiden now, I will surely die. And although I can’t care about that in this moment, it will destroy him. The only thing that will help him now is if I sit here and wait. Wait and love him more than anyone has ever loved.

At the excruciating realization, the binds melt off my body. Aiden’s voice fades in an echo. Promise me, Elisa. The ember tears singe my eyes. So this is why he insisted on that promise. He knew even before I did that, without fear, I might not be able to stay away. And he agreed only because of his trust in me.

I drop back on the grass, burning. Across from me, on the blanket, Aiden’s torment reaches a level that almost blinds my new eyes. His body is arching off Elysium, sweat sparkling on his body like diamonds. The blisters on his palms are bleeding. Ten more, minutes, love. Just ten more, and I’ll bring you back. But back where? To a present that hurts just as much? Did I choose wrong? Should we have lived the last days in closure, hoping for the best? Should I have gone the other way? But faith is still firing incontrovertible in my system. No, Aiden can do this, I know he can. I knot my legs against the unreleased reflex, flipping through the raging flames like pages in a book, pulling up a blank one. And then I find the gushing waterfall behind the inferno and fill the blank page with love. Until it’s done. With a final, silent no! Aiden’s body arcs as if dragged up by his very heart. Then it slumps back on the blanket, breathless and unmoving as he was on the broken tiles of that classroom floor.

“Aiden!” I cry instantly, bursting to his side in a flash. But the horror of the sight might break through the protein.

Moisture has soaked his skin like the river water. Even without a single touch, I can feel the fever blowing out of him in waves. His breath is shallow spurts of air through his parted lips. The halo around him is fading in my vision. And the shudders are different, more sinister. Like the cracking earth of that schoolyard after the IEDs. And I know that without the protein, I would have never breathed through this.

But I do now. “Aiden, love,” I call him again in my calm, singing voice that would have been a scream this morning. I kneel next to him, one hand to his feverish face, one to his heart. It’s pummeling his ribs like nothing I’ve ever heard, not even mine. “I’m here, sweetheart. Right here by your side. We’re both safe in Elysium. Safe and strong and loved. Listen to my voice, to Für Elise. It’s over, love, it’s done.”

But his heartbeat is faltering under my hand. Like the crack of bones on Marshall’s chest, like the grenades. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Blowing us up, limb by limb—tiny bodies on this grass like in that Fallujah schoolyard. Because we are both just children now. Children before the vast, black abyss of the past. Reborn violently to that first held breath that we must either take or die.

My body strains for the dulling terror that my mind won’t give me. I claw for my phone to call Doctor Helen but, under my hand, there is a new beat. A relentless pounding, a vital sprint.

It’s the sound of a brave, fighting heart.©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 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 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 25 – SCAR

Hey friends, happy Sunday and woe begone to Sunday scaries.  If you’re feeling them, here’s a chapter to help with that. As always many thanks to those who are reading and commenting. I love hearing your theories about what is happening to Aiden. Wonder what you think after this? Lots of love to you.  xo, Ani

 

25

Scar

Chronology has stopped making sense again. The Friday before the Rose Festival comes only six days later, but it feels like another lifetime to me. Both familiar and foreign in the same week.

Familiar because some days look more like my old home movies. The cottage has parents around who cook and pack my lunch. The fridge has homemade leftovers of our favorite dishes. The phone rings, the doorbell jingles. Our constellation is expanding again tonight with all the Marines descending on Burford from River Spey. And Aiden and I are back to our rhythm, trying to live present moment to present moment, reel to reel.

Yet it doesn’t feel like my life. Because under the familiar is the strange—new elements more intrusive than the intruder they’re trying to protect me against, rubbing against our days like a blister in a shoe or an eyelash in the eye. We no longer have a security guard, we have a security team: Benson, Max, and Ferrars who is assigned to Aiden’s parents. One of them is always outside the cottage, which is a compromise for the cameras Aiden wanted to install in the rose-covered limestone straight into the cottage’s flesh (“Why don’t you just drill them in my heart and forehead, Aiden, because that’s how it would feel.” He didn’t argue with me after that). And Aiden still picks me up and drops me off at work, but Max remains stationed at Café Vault across the street during my workday, which is an improvement from Bia’s lobby as Aiden wanted (“I’ll quit before I have a bodyguard in my dad’s second home around his closest friends and colleagues, Aiden!” “That’s an overreaction, Elisa.” “This whole thing is an overreaction!” “Fine, the coffee shop!”)

But worse than all these, there is no more love-making in the garden; no more sunrises skin to skin; no more blissful moments of just Aiden and me without someone’s shadow always around; no more rose bubble at peace. They are gone before they truly settled in.

And I miss all of it. The festering wound has doubled in size—once when we’re apart, once for losing the way we were. But I’m not giving up. I’ll try again today, even if it will mean another fight.

“So, are you almost ready for Professor Snow’s bench ceremony?” Graham’s voice startles me out of my planning. He’s been poring through the third volume of the Encyclopedia for the last five hours and looks slightly cross-eyed.

“Ugh, don’t remind me or my hands will start shaking again. I haven’t even written my speech.”

“Your fossil mates been keeping you busy, have they?”

“Not at all. They’re the model for ideal visitors—homemade food, strolls, quiet nights.”

“Oh, I see, you’re a fossil yourself. Everything makes a lot more sense now.” Graham laughs, rubbing his eyes and the deep purple shadows underneath.

“Graham, you look exhausted. Have you left Bia at all in the last week? I’m worried about you.” This is true. As I am worried about time to test the protein if he continues to usurp the lab.

“Of course I’ve left. How do you reckon I’ve been getting lunch?”

I shake my head at him, starting the centrifuge, but sweat dews in the back of my neck. This would be my life if Aiden had not come to England. This might be my life still if we lose, assuming I survive at all. “Maybe you should take a break this weekend,” I suggest. “Come to the Rose Festival tomorrow, get some fresh air—”

Edison blasts in Bia then at his typical sprinting pace, making me jump as usual. “How is the afternoon?” he asks before the door has closed behind his billowing lab coat.

“Abysmal. Eliser is trying to convince me to abandon my post and attend the local rose soiree. The nerve!” Graham chuckles but an enormous yawn overtakes him. He looks nickel green.

“Ah, yes, the Rose Festival.” Edison smiles, but his eyes sweep over Graham and the lab. “Elisa is right, Graham. You need to leave stat. You’re no help to yourself or the protein in your state. Pip pip!” He knocks on Graham’s desk as if to prompt him to blink and turns to me.

“You too, Elisa. I can finish testing today.”

I stare at him, trying to think. I desperately need the lab alone, but I wouldn’t have it with Edison here. “Are you sure, Professor? I can work until six.”

“Nigel, please,” he corrects me for the nth time. “And I’m quite certain. I know the Rose Festival meant a lot to Clare. She would want you to have time to set up.”

I lose all argument then. Because he is right—this was mum’s favorite event and I abandoned it for four years. Not to mention two hours with Aiden before the Marines arrive, hopefully without Max or Benson around.

“Thank you, P—Nigel,” I answer, feet already shuffling toward the door.

“Not at all, not at all.” He waves me off and, without a second glance at anything else, turns to the molecule of fear.

Max is waiting at his usual table by the window at Café Vault when Graham and I traipse outside. He stands immediately when he sees me two hours early, but to his credit, he gives me time to say goodbye. His sharp eyes follow Graham as he shambles under the weight of three tomes to his white Fiat. And even after he drives off at Mr. Plemmons’ pace, Max waits until he disappears around the corner before escorting me to his newly leased bullet-proof Range Rover.

“Would you like Mr. Hale to know you’re out early?” Max smiles as I climb in the back seat. One week in, and he already knows what to ask. Still, it doesn’t make his presence easier.

“No, he’ll like the surprise.”

“I’m sure he will.”

I watch the familiar St. Giles Boulevard flash by behind the tinted windows. My parents’ bus stop, their favorite bakery, Oxford’s golden tones all turn dark under Rover’s filter, as though I’m looking at them through the black veil I wore at the funeral. I lean my head back and shut my eyes. The trip is easier if I don’t look at the charred, smoky colors of my new life.

“Did anyone give you trouble today?” Max checks as he does every day.

“Some vials broke. Does that count?” My sarcasm is ruined by the thick sound of my voice.

“I didn’t notice anything strange around the building either.”

“Maybe because there’s nothing to notice,” I mumble to myself, but Max must read lips in his wide-angle mirror.

“There could be. We don’t know that for a fact.”

I flush but don’t answer. Because what’s a fact in a situation like this? With trauma so vivid, it becomes real, and reality so beautiful, it becomes a fairytale? I clutch my locket for bravery, trying to guess which sheep-dotted field the Rover is darkening.

“Seven minutes out,” Max informs me, clearly knowing my routine by now.

“Thank you, Max.”

“Is there anything I can do to make this easier?”

“No, you’re exceptional. I’m sorry if I seem ungrateful. And I’m sorry you’re spending your vacation in a coffee shop, staring at a lab.”

“I truly don’t mind. Mr. Hale is being very generous.”

Yes, generous, protective, and stubborn to a fault. And the toll is costlier than the bill. The toll on him, on me, and on the beloved hallmarks of my parents’ life. I run through my arguments in my head, trying to pick a winner after two lost battles.

“One minute,” Max announces.

Immediately, I open my eyes and roll down my window, unwilling to see Elysium or the cottage in shades of black and gray. The brocade of wildflowers is brilliant under the July sun except the inkblot at the border, like a scar. Even from here, I can see Benson standing guard by the willows. I inhale deeply, finding the first whiff of rose breeze that no longer blows through the cottage at night. As soon as Max pulls over by the garage, I wrench open the armored door, probably giving myself a bruise, and hop out.

Yet as soon as I step on the flowery tapestry with Max’s boulder shadow next to me, the field of my childhood looks forlorn. I know nothing has changed on it—the daisies, orchids, poppies, and forget-me-nots don’t know the difference—but the change feels real to me. I break into a run down Elysium’s bowl, leaving Max’s shadow behind, craving nothing but Aiden and me alone. I have no hope of outrunning Max, but he lets me go. After all, how much danger can I be in with three trained fighters within hearing distance? I wave at Benson without stopping and dash through the rose hedge, heading straight for the door, but there he is!

Sitting at the garden bench, his back to me—the only place in the world where Aiden allows his shoulders exposed. He is flipping through a thick binder of documents at eye-watering speed. His waves flutter in the breeze, longer than when he first stood in this garden. His sculpted arms glisten under the short sleeves of his white Polo shirt. And immediately the wound shrinks. Yet I’ve never missed him more. I wish I could sneak up and truly surprise him, but I can never do that to him.

“You shouldn’t sit alone like this,” I call across the garden. “The intruder might be Mrs. Willoughby. Have you considered that?”

His head whirls around in alarm. “Elisa?” He bolts to his feet and flashes to my side, scooping me in his arms before I have taken three steps toward him. “Love, are you okay? Did something happen?” His hand flies to my forehead and he scans me head to Byron trainers.

“Of course I’m fine,” I assure him quickly, locking my arms around his neck. “Edison let me go early for the festival.”

Tension drains out of him immediately and he tucks me closer with a relieved sigh. A dazzling smile wipes the worry lines from his face. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have picked you up.”

I kiss his cheek—it’s warm from the sun. “Because I wanted to surprise you.”

“What a great surprise.”

He nods at Max who has arrived at the hedge and strides back to the bench, eyes glittering.

“How was your day?” he asks as he drapes me over his lap, one arm tight around my waist.

“Very long and gray. Yours?”

“Interminable and pitch black until now.” His hand curves around my face, and he brings me to his mouth. “Welcome home,” he murmurs against my lips.

“Mmm, that sounds nice.” I sigh, tangling my fingers in his soft hair, breathing in his sunshine-and-Aiden scent. My lips shape themselves around his possessive mouth, folding to its pressure, now gentle, now hard. His arm strains me to his chest, and a current of warmth surges through me. I know there are important things I need to say, but his smell and his feel and his tongue moving with mine . . . I crush myself closer, moaning at his taste. Then Benson’s deep laughter drums over the blood that’s hammering in my ears, and I remember.

“Aiden—” I whisper through the kiss.

“Our bedroom.” His husky voice reverberates inside my mouth. I almost moan yes, my breath is already too fast and loud, but Benson laughs again.

“Wait . . . please . . . talk.”

His lips pause on mine—wet and delicious—but he doesn’t release my face. “Talk?”

I nod, trying to settle my breathing.

“All right.” He leans back, still cradling my cheek, but the V forms between his brows, crumpling my resolve. Because I know it will deepen as soon as I start talking. The smoldering light in his eyes will fade. And friction will enter the warm, velvet space between us. “What is it, love?” he prompts. The anxiety in his voice only makes me waver more. But Max’s cough drifts from the willows now, and the words tumble out.

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. I wasn’t joking when I said my day is black without you.” His thumb strokes my cheek as he frowns in confusion. “Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Not exactly.”

“What is it then?”

“Will you keep an open mind?”

He tenses around me. “I’ll give it my best effort.”

I choose my words carefully. “I miss being with you—the way we were a week ago. We had just begun this new life, and now it feels like the old one, with rules and dangers everywhere we turn. We’re not doing the opposite, love, we’re doing more of the same, maybe worse.”

The light burns out in his eyes the second he realizes the topic of conversation, as I knew it would. His hand drops from my face and he takes a deep breath. “Elisa, this part won’t last forever. I’ll take care of the problem, and we can go back to our new life. I miss it, too.”

“But how long will it last? It’s been a week without any incident of any kind.”

“Until I’m convinced you’re safe. I won’t take any chances with your life—you know that.” His voice is resolute and unwavering.

“I know you wouldn’t, but what will it take to convince you? Max has been watching me every day. He admits he hasn’t seen anything odd at all. Neither has Benson or Ferrars. And you’ve been searching the area twice a day. There is nothing, love. You have to let this go now.”

He starts shaking his head before I’ve finished. “A week is too short a time to conclude that. If someone is intent on hurting you, he—because I don’t think it’s Mrs. Willoughby—may not return right away.”

“But Aiden, you heard Doctor Helen. She agrees with me. She said the reel is pushing your vigilance to the extreme, priming you to see and fight danger at all times. Corbin thinks so, too.”

He closes his eyes and pinches his nose for patience. “Elisa,” he begins slowly, no doubt trying to keep from roaring. “For the fifth time, Doctor Helen didn’t agree with you. She said your theory is more likely, but she didn’t say mine is impossible, either.”

I will never win with him if I start arguing probabilities with my safety. I change tracks instead. “Okay, let’s assume you’re right for the sake of argument . . .” I pause, waiting for him to open his eyes. He does with a deep sigh from the effort to stay calm. “Why do we need a security team and bullet-proof vehicles? Who could ever get past you and Benson? Please, let Max go home and give us our happy cottage back.”

Shock flashes over his face despite his calming measures. He stares at me like I belong to the padded corner room of Burford Dementia Centre. “With the festival tomorrow?” he demands in disbelief.  “With hordes of people around, in the only place where I cannot protect you myself? Have you lost your fucking mind?” He shudders with tension at the mere idea.

“All right, all right,” I say quickly, stroking his scar to calm him even though the thought of security shadows darkening mum’s roses burns my throat like acid. “Not tomorrow but Sunday then, assuming the worst that happens is dropped ice cream cones like every year.”

But he shakes his head again, unyielding. “This isn’t a joke, Elisa. I can’t do that. I don’t know what we’re dealing with—I’ll be the first to admit it. And until I do, Max stays.”

“But—”

“No, no more buts. It’s too soon. Later, when it’s safe, I promise I will let security go.”

Later. Tic toc, tic toc. When did s-a-f-e become a dangerous word? “But we may not have until later, Aiden!” My voice rises in panic even though seconds ago I was trying to calm him. “This may be the only time we have, and you’re wasting it with this.”

I’ve shredded the last vestige of his control. His jaw clenches as his eyes harden into blue slate. “Waste?” he hisses through his teeth, fury descending over his face like thunder. “Nothing is a waste to me if it keeps you safe. Absolutely nothing. I—will—not—take—more—risks—with—you. Full stop.”

There is no compromise in his voice, no room for any more arguments. He glowers at me in a way that only Aiden can. I try to glare back, but I can’t find my anger. It vanished somewhere between each second ticking away. Instead of anger, I feel something else. It takes me a moment to find the name for my throat closing, for the windy tunnel in my chest, for the strange hollowness in my stomach. Homesickness. It grips me now, like it did on my parents’ hilltop. Homesickness for us, for how we were, and how we could be. On their own, my fingers knot in his hair, pulling him closer.

“Please, Aiden?” I whisper, giving up on logic. “I miss us on the petals. I miss looking at the colors outside without bullet-proof windows. I miss having the cottage to ourselves at night without worrying who hears us. I miss making happy memories alone with you. I don’t ever want to lose that, and definitely not before our ninety days are up. I think that’s just as dangerous, if not more. Please?”

While I’ve been pleading, he’s been breaking. Ashen, mouth set in a grim line, rippling around me with tension. I hate the war I’m causing in his eyes, wounding a precious part of him whichever side he chooses: risk his peace or risk my safety, risk our happiness or risk our harmony?  R-i-s-k.  But I hate losing t-i-m-e with him even more. That will harm us more than any intruder, real or imagined. If I know anything down to my DNA’s double helix, it’s that.

He’s still strangled in conflict. With a deft movement, he slides me off his lap. “Give me a minute,” he says, his voice almost hoarse.

“Aiden, where—” But his fingers brush my cheek once and he streaks across the garden inside the cottage.

I stare after him, frozen on the sunny bench, heart in my throat. Did I win? Or did I make everything worse? Jittery with nerves, I jump to my feet and start pruning wilted petals from the Reagan, reciting the periodic table in my head. When I’ve run through it four times, he comes out—calmer now, no longer blanched, eyes clear, my rucksack on his back.

“Aiden, what are you doing?” I run to him immediately, crashing into him by the Clares. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry—”

He catches me and folds me in his arms, pulling me into his chest. “Of course you didn’t. You just reminded me that I can’t protect your safety at the cost of your heart. I have to figure out a way to do both.”

I should have known he’d find a way to make it harder on himself. I press my lips to his shirt over his heart. “You don’t need to do more, love. You need to do less.”

I feel him shake his head in my hair and he drops his arms but takes my hand. “Come with me.”

“Come with you where?”

“You’ll see.” The sparkle returns to his eyes and, with a gentle tug, he starts towing me down the stony path.

“Aiden, wait!” I pull on his arm, breathless from the abrupt change. “What about our conversation?”

One warm hand frames my face. “Elisa, I heard your arguments. The ones you made and the ones you didn’t. And right now, we need to do this.”

“But James and the others are coming in three hours. I have to get ready and—”

He places his finger over my lips. “We’ll be back by then. My mom has already marinated the steaks. And you’ll have me, Max, Benson, Ferrars, Cal, Hendrix, Jazz, and my parents to help you set up the rose stand exactly as you want. But until then, you are right. You need to be with me and I need to be with you. Just us and no one else in the world, making a happy memory. Will you come with me?”

And he unleashes the full force of his beauty on me. It grows in that surreal way, lighting him from within, until it stuns every thought and nerve into oblivion. He takes full advantage of my open mouth and closes it with his. The moment our lips touch, my resistance crumbles. Not because I’m giving up. But because this is exactly what I want right now too, what I’ve missed. To be alone with him.

He feels my change. “Perfect,” he smiles against my lips. With a gentle breeze over my face to restart my brain, he releases my mouth and takes my hand again, striding down the garden path while I wobble next to him trying to find things like feet and knees.

“Sir?” Max and Benson stand from the willow shade in unison when they see us.

Aiden raises his free hand. “Just us for now, gents. You have the cottage. We’ll be back by seven.”

I think they nod but I’m not sure. My eyes are fixed on Aiden as we set across Elysium just him and me with no shadows around. Can the daisies feel this difference? I think they can.

“So where are we going to make this happy memory?” I ask, not that it really matters to me. He could take me into a ditch on the side of the road at this point and I would be happy.

“I don’t have a name for it. That will be your job.” His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile.

He doesn’t take the bullet proof beast when we reach the garage. Instead he helps me in our Rover and sets the rucksack in the back seat.

“What’s in there?” I look at the overstuffed nylon that seems about to explode as he backs out of the garage, scanning the area around us.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” He winks as he repeats my own words to me from two weeks ago.

Then we’re off. Driving South down the country road slower than his usual speed. And my chest heals—as though the wound never existed. A sense of wellness floods my airways, and I breathe in the luxuriant feeling.

“Look at the colors, love,” Aiden says, rolling down our windows. Wind blows in, flinging around my hair and playing with his curls. But even though I griped about seeing the world through dark windows, now that they’re open, I turn on my seat and look only at him. How happy he looks right now—eyes on the open road, sunshine over his face, dimple in his cheek. He weaves his fingers with mine and brings my hand to his lips. “I’m sorry about the bullet-proof Rover. I didn’t think about the black windows. I can see why that would be depressing to you. I’ll check if they have one with clear glass. If not, I’ll live with a regular one.”

My heart starts sprinting an exultant rhythm. “Thank you,” I breathe. “Does this mean you’ll give up on the other things, too?”

He chuckles and rests our joined hands on the console. “Things? I didn’t realize you had other objections besides armored cars and a security team. Please do tell.”

“Well, if there’s no reason for bullet-proof beasts, then there’s no reason for a guard outside the cottage when we’re home. It’s upsetting the roses. They’re not used to this.”

He laughs the first carefree laughter I’ve heard in a week and glances at me. “Please tell the roses the overnight guard and the daylight one for that matter are there to protect them from the rose thief. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

The victorious galloping of my heart slows. “I really doubt it. They’re highly logical plants. Shall I tell them anything else?”

“Yes, tell them I love them very much. So much in fact that I’m willing to be scratched by their angry thorns on a daily basis to keep them safe.”

I cup my ear, pretending to listen outside the open window. “They say thank you but they miss their happy bubble and will not compromise.”

“My, my, stubborn little plants, but neither will I. Do they have any other objections besides private security, bullet-proof beasts, and cottage guards?”

“Yes, they’re very offended by the closed windows at night. They think you no longer like the way they smell.”

“Oh, that is grave indeed. Do assure them I’m going to prove shortly how much I like their smell. In fact, I miss it right now.” He lifts our joined hands again and inhales my wrist. The bottom of my belly tightens, trying to imagine what proof he is planning. “Do they know some of the windows stay closed because a certain someone can’t be quiet during certain activities we can’t name for the roses’ ears?”

I flush. “Yes, but that certain someone wouldn’t have to be quiet if there wasn’t an overnight guard.”

“I see. Well maybe that certain someone’s mouth will need to be silenced somehow. Tell the roses I will consider it.”

A sense of buoyancy floats inside me like the rose breeze. “They say thank you and they love you too.”

He chuckles. “They’re very welcome. Do they have any other demands that don’t involve compromising their safety?”

“No, other than these they’re very happy little plants.”

“They’re perfect, which is why I have to protect them even if they don’t like it,” he answers with a dazzling smile and presses a button on the wheel. “In their honor.” Kiss from a Rose floods the car, as harmonic as his laughter. I watch him spellbound as his lips move to the lyrics in a low murmur. Neither of us will surrender today. But I tuck all that aside for now, sinking in this present moment of us alone. Beyond his profile, the shamrock hills rise and fall like an emerald heartline.

He kisses the back of my hand when the song is done and turns down the volume. “So how was your day aside from your grievances with me? Is Graham still occupying the lab?”

“He was, but Edison ordered him home. I hope he’ll stay away this weekend so I can test the new oxytocin dose after the festival.”

“Are you excited for the festival now that you’ve chosen the roses? I think you’ll win the Rose Cup.”

“More nervous than excited, I think.”

He glances at me with the worried V between his eyebrows. “Why nervous?”

“Because it was mum’s favorite event. I want it to be perfect for her.” My voice drops, but he still hears it. As he hears the words I didn’t say because his hand tightens around mine when he answers.

“Don’t worry, love. We’ll be discreet. No one will even know we’re there.”

“But I will know. And I’m worried it will feel like a war instead of the cheery, happy event she would have wanted it to be.”

He strokes my palm with his thumb in reassurance. “Elisa, I think your mother would have wanted you to be safe above anything else. I don’t owe this just to you, I owe it to her too for what she did for me.”

How can I argue with him when he says things like that no matter how much I hate the thought of deadly Marines stalking the festival? And even worse, how can I tell him that the wound will rage tomorrow no matter how well the festival goes because he can’t be with me? I can’t—he would hate himself even more for his startle reflex then. “Fine, but if a single rose stem breaks, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

“Very sensible.” He laughs and turns up the volume as another rose song starts. The Making of You.

It makes me laugh too, sliding tomorrow away. “Have you made a playlist for roses like you did for ICE in Portland?”

“Well, we can hardly have a rose festival without a rose soundtrack. What would the Plemmonses say?”

I curl up in my seat, listening to his compilation for me, perfectly content if this entire happy memory is just this drive of the two of us, hands knotted, wind in our hair, and that smile on his lips. But it only lasts for three more rose songs.

“Here we are.” Aiden veers to the side of the road at the border of a grassy expanse like a jade sky, with oak and beech families clustered together here and there in their own earthly constellations. River Windrush glimmers through them like a liquid Milky Way. There is no sound except the arias of skylarks and song thrushes. And not a human silhouette in sight.

“I love National Trust Land,” I inform him, hanging my head out of the window and breathing in the clover air. “Do you know they have about 1,600 wildflower species here?”

He chuckles. “Well, we’re not going into Trust Land right now, but I think you’ll like this, too.” He climbs out of the Rover and picks up the rucksack. I strain to listen for any clues to its contents but it’s utterly quiet. “Will you be okay walking for about ten minutes?” he asks as he opens my door. “Or shall I carry you?” He looks eager for the latter.

“Hmm, tempting, but I think I can handle it. Who knows what you might need to save your strength for?”

“Oh, all manner of activities, Elisa. Arguing about your safety, making you faint, silencing your mouth—these require every ounce of strength a man has.” He takes my hand, leading us across the swaying field.

There are some things I’ll never have proper words for. His beauty, for one. His kisses for another. The way he makes love. The whole totality of him, in fact. But somewhere in the list is the experience of walking with him in open space without a ripple of tension. It’s as though he never takes a single step for granted. Where the rest of us put one foot in front of the other without thinking, focused on where we’re arriving instead, Aiden seems to treat each stride as its own destination—flowing in his graceful way step by step through this elusive freedom. I shiver when I think of the reasons behind it and hook my arm in his as he strolls at my pace, lifting me over a shrub or branch and scanning the verdant grassland.

He stops as we approach a thicket of beechwoods, oaks, and yews, and tips up my face. “Will you humor me with something?”

“Anything you want.”

“Then wait here. You’ll be very safe.” And he lets me go, bounding toward the trees.

“Anything but that,” I call after him, but I only hear his carefree laughter as he plunges through the woods. While I wait, I run an experiment on time by setting the chronometer on dad’s watch as I search the ground for four-leaf clover. Aiden emerges from the thicket only three minutes later, but my hypothesis is correct. Emotionally, it felt like twenty minutes to me.

“What was that about?” I ask, trotting toward him.

“You’ll see.”

He lets me lead to the trees, following quietly. I hear the click of his iPhone as he takes a photo of me, but I ignore the chill that trickles down my neck when he does this because the lopsided smile on his lips is worth a million ice pricks. From the canopy of leaves ahead filters a spicy scent of wild roses and sweet water. It propels my feet faster and I zig-zag through the ancient trunks into the most beautiful tiny meadow I’ve ever seen, second only to Elysium. It’s a perfect circle, smaller than the cottage’s garden, wreathed with pink wild roses. In the very center is a spring of water in the exact shape of the bluest of eyes. A pair of Adonis butterflies—the male blue, the female brown—tango in the hazy sunshine. But all this beauty is not the reason why I feel moisture in my eyes. It’s our blanket and pillows spread under the shade of a sweetbriar rose, along with the empty rucksack. A silver Baci chocolate twinkles on my side.

“Aiden,” I whisper, spinning around for the blue eyes of the Adonis standing behind me. He is watching me in that way of his that absorbs every pixel from the moment.

“Like?” he smiles.

“Like? I love. However did you find this?”

“When I was searching the area yesterday. Even you can’t object entirely to my security regime if it led me to this.”

“Yes, this one part is tolerable . . . but only this one.”

He laughs and pulls me by the waist into the molten meadow. But as we reach the blue eye in the center, the laugh gentles away and his expression becomes intent.

“You wanted us on the petals.” He tilts his head toward the wild roses and our blanket. “You wanted to make love without worrying who hears us.” He gestures to the dense trees. “And you want us to keep making happy memories.” He waves at the crystal spring. “I know I can’t replace the cottage or the rose garden but for the next two hours, will you settle for this?”

I push aside the wisp of homesickness for our bubble and press myself closer to him. “Well, that depends.”

“On?”

“On what name we choose for this place so we can make it ours. That’s my job, remember?”

The lopsided smile turns up his lips. “Of course it is. Any ideas?”

I have to look away from his mirage face to think. I should fear engraving him all over England with our dwindling days, but I don’t. The less time we have, the more I want him spread like pollen on every blade of grass or moss-covered branch, as he already is in every molecule and cell of me. So he can live on here somehow even if we don’t.

The two Adonis lovers are fluttering over the wild roses. “Well . . .” My eyes fly to him again as I make my choice. “I have Elysium. And now you have Aidonis.”

His eyebrows arch—Aiden would never expect anything named after him—but the surprise turns quickly into a chuckle.

“For the myth of him being Aphrodite’s lover?”

“No, for the myth of his own beauty.”

His eyes smolder. “Let’s christen it then,” he murmurs, and his hands seize my face. But the meadow disappears as soon as his mouth touches mine. I feel only our hands ripping off our clothes. I see only the shimmering planes of his body in the gilded air. I hear only the free sounds of our love. And I taste only his incomparable flavor as he pulls us into the sapphire water.

 

He keeps his promises, I have to admit—whether to make our first swim a memory worthy of the Room of Firsts or to keep us on schedule when I forget my own name, let alone the time. We make it back to the cottage with exactly seven minutes to spare, hair dripping, my legs still shaking, while Aiden strides in his self-assured way as if he didn’t just transform an adult woman into a trembling mass of Adonis butterflies.

“Status?” he asks Benson and Max who are setting up a long table and chairs for dinner on Elysium. Professionals that they are, they don’t comment on our sodden state, although Benson’s lips press together in amusement.

“All quiet, sir. Max rounded twice. The Marines checked in at the Inn and should be on their way. And your parents are with the Plemmonses but will be over for dinner with Ferrars.”

“Thank you. See you both then.” Aiden wraps up quickly, feeling my fingers twitch with nerves. I cannot possibly face James dribbling again, not to mention Hendrix and Jazzman whom I’ve never met before. What was I thinking letting Aiden drag me into that spring a second time? I wasn’t, that’s the problem. His mouth—with its lips and tongue and taste and words—is the real danger, not any intruders.

I’ve barely finished toweling off my hair in our bedroom when the Marines’ raucous laughter clamors from Elysium.

“Bloody hell, Aiden!” I groan, scrambling into the first dress my hands touch—my blue maxi apparently. “Why did you have to go back into that water? I’m a mess.”

He laughs unrepentantly and helps me zip up despite the fact that he is still shirtless. “I recall no objections from you, Mrs. Plemmons. In fact, I’m certain I and the entire National Trust Land heard at least four Aiden-don’t-stop’s.” He kisses my cheekbone that’s blushing. “And you’re the opposite of a mess. You’ll devastate their brain cells for the next decade. I should know. I saw you in a painting once and now I need fMRIs.”

I shake my head at his absurd, Javier-filtered image of me.

Behind him, on my nightstand, the dried poppies tremble at the ponderous footsteps treading up to the cottage like a stampede. “STORM!” James thunders from what sounds like the willows, and it’s impossible not to think of Javier again. “DROP WHAT GOD GAVE YOU AND COME TO THE DOOR!”

“Hurry!” I whimper, throwing on my locket while Aiden continues to gaze at me in the same way that got me into that spring a second time. Another bass voice booms from the hedge.

“Are you sure he lives here, Cal? It smells too good to be his place.”

“Put on your shirt!” I hiss at Aiden. “Now!”

He laughs again but wisely obeys. Then he gives me a quick kiss— “Mrs. Plemmons, I adore you”—and swoops me in his arms, blowing down the stairs with me as James’s fist rattles the door, making all the frames dip. I raise my eyebrow at Aiden as he smirks and opens the door.

“Fuck, Cal, you’re breaking the cottage!” he growls, but they’re both laughing as they fist-bump each other. A familiar sense of wonder fills me as it does when I watch Aiden—so extraordinary, he’s feels magical to me—do normal things like this.

“Hey, pest!” James grins at me, or at least I think he does. He looks even wilder than when I last saw him. Only his hazel eyes are visible in the jungle of ginger hair that’s exploding out of him in every direction. His vast height is blocking Hendrix and Jazzman behind him.

“Hi, James, welcome back.” I hug his branch-like arm that saved me.

“Someone fucking with you?” Through the auburn tangles, his sniper eyes flash with danger.

“No, just your brother.”

He barks another laugh. “Oh, well, he can’t help it. It’s in his nature. Here, check this out.” He pulls out his iPhone and shows me his screensaver—it’s a photo of his massive hands holding a silver salmon the size of my leg. My dad’s fly is hooked inside its mouth. “Caught him on the first cast—made your pops proud, heh?”

“Yes, you did, James. Well done.” I smile at the fly, heart in hooks, wondering if dad didn’t send that salmon swimming up that stream once his fly was floating again.

“Cal, get the fuck out of the way, man! You’ve already met her.” The bass voice grumbles behind him while James ducks past me with another ringing laugh, revealing Hendrix—I recognize him from his photo in the reel. He is long and lean where James is bushy and hulking, with bristling chestnut hair and chocolate brown eyes. He locks hands vertically with Aiden in an alpha way and tilts his head toward me. “Is this the trouble?”

Aiden glows in the most embarrassing way possible. “Hendrix, this is Elisa. Elisa, this is Ryan Hendrix, but we haven’t used his first name since our Crucible when the drill sergeant unwisely started calling him Ry-cry.”

“Nice to meet you, Hendrix. Welcome to Burford.” I smile at him.

He regards me with amused deliberation. “How can something so small wreak so much havoc?” he demands of everyone.

“I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately.” I sigh only half-joking, and they all laugh in understanding.

“Don’t worry, Trouble. If anyone fucks with you, he’ll breathe his last.” Hendrix winks at me, and I don’t think he’s joking. But they seem to find the idea of taking down my supposed intruder hilarious and satisfying. It sounds like James is cracking his knuckles in anticipation as Hendrix squashes himself past Aiden and me. But my eyes are rivetted on the threshold where I finally see Jazzman—the Marine I have most wanted to meet. The one whose life Aiden saved in his final act before being knocked unconscious and changed forever.

Aiden tried to prepare me for this. But, like the reel, no amount of preparation could have immunized me to the sight before me. Lankier than the others, Jazzman is two entirely different men in one. Half of him is handsome in a Paul Newman way. The other half, from his bare scalp to his left calf visible below his shorts is covered in livid burn scars, ash-grey and raised above his skin as though he has been woven out of a macabre fabric into a living flag for what these four men lived through. But his marred beauty is not why I can’t blink despite my preparation. It’s the way his eyes lock on Aiden before anyone else, and Aiden’s eyes on him. For a long, quiet moment, memories flow between them. I know from the agony on Aiden’s face and the reverence in Jazzman’s expression that they’re both remembering the same moment: when Jazzman was burning in that Fallujah schoolyard under gun fire and Aiden saved him with his last shot.

Behind me in the foyer, James and Hendrix are silent too. They must be used to this wordless exchange that inevitably occurs when Aiden and Jazzman first set eyes on each other after a long separation. I take my cue from them and remain quiet but lean closer to Aiden so my arm touches his. At our contact, he blinks and his lips lift in a smile.

“Hey, Jazz.”

“My brother.” Jazzman steps up to Aiden and hugs him. Just one arm barely touching Aiden’s shoulders, but they still tense. Yet, Aiden doesn’t step away as he would with others. He lets Jazzman hug him like he does with Stella. And that’s when I see the depth of their unique bond. Two brothers—disfigured from their former selves in such different ways—who are willing to relieve their most excruciating moment over and over again for their friendship.

Gently, I rest my hand at the small of Aiden’s back to help him, and his tension drains away. Jazzman must feel it too because he releases his savior and his eyes—one bright blue, the other glass—flit to me with a smile. “Aha! You are obviously Elisa with the calming effect. I’m Jazz.” He holds out his scarred hand. I take it, both careful and curious to feel his skin. Its texture is like starched lace and very warm, as though he’s been resting his hand on a space heater.

“I’m glad to finally meet you, Jazz.” And I am—not just him, but all of them who have saved Aiden as much as he saved them. Exactly as Stella said.

“I gotta say, I thought Storm dreamt you up at first.”

“So did Storm,” Aiden agrees, and they all laugh together. When Jazz laughs, the terrifying scars seem to fade even if they pull the right corner of his mouth down into a vicious grimace.

“Can you calm other people too? Is it like a superpower?” Jazz holds out his hand again, fluttering his fingers in invitation.

“I don’t think so.” I laugh, meeting his fingertips. “But I can definitely put you to sleep with chemistry lectures if you want. Or rose tea.”

Aiden chuckles, swooping my hand in his. “Stop trying to touch my woman, Jazz. Get your own.”

“Right you are, brother. You found one, how hard can it be?” Jazz’s laughter reverberates through the foyer that’s about to collapse. He squeezes around Aiden and me, ruffling my hair in his passage, and follows Cal and Hendrix into the living room to give Aiden space.

As soon as their trainers vanish around the corner, Aiden’s hands close around my waist, pulling me to him. “Thank you,” he whispers even though his words would never carry through the boisterous baritones echoing from the living room.

“For what?”

“For calming me so quickly. It made it easier for both Jazz and me.”

“He seems very kind, Aiden. I love seeing you all together.”

He chuckles. “Why don’t you wait to decide until we’ve been up until midnight, drinking? You might change your mind after that.”

“I really doubt it.” I stroke the scar above his eye. Its toughened ridge presses against my fingertip, cool and smooth, so different from Jazz. Abruptly, my mind starts bartering with the universe again, like it does during the reel. What if it had been Aiden stuck in the fire and Jazz tortured in the classroom with Marshall instead? Would I rather that Aiden had livid scars on his skin? Or as he is now with the scars within, marring the peace of his mind?

“What are you thinking so hard about?” he murmurs.

“How glad I am that you made it. That you’re here.” I run my fingers down his flawless cheek.

I can see from his eyes that he knows what I mean. Not just here in my cottage, but here-here—a star on earth. “Me too,” he smiles.

Me too. Such big little words for him. Two months ago, Aiden would have never thought them. Two months ago, he wanted Marshall’s place, not this. I find an odd peace with the universe then—an acceptance I haven’t felt since before the reel, since Aiden told me about Marshall at the Portland Rose Garden. Because it doesn’t matter to me where his scars are. I’ll always want him exactly as he is. What matters is that he finally wants to live.

“Elisa, is Storm’s dick blocking your way?” James bellows from the living room right as Aiden lowers his head to kiss me, and I burst out laughing. “Stomp your foot if you need help.”

“You’re still never getting anywhere near my dick, Cal. No matter how much you want it,” Aiden calls back, kissing the corner of my mouth. “Come. With some luck, my dick will be blocking other things tonight and we can keep the window open.”

I follow him to the kitchen, flushing while he takes out dad’s whiskey glasses and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc for me. He knows scotch is like chess: too painful to sip.

The living room furniture is in danger again. James takes over half the sofa. Hendrix is hunched in one armchair, his knees almost to his chin. And Jazz—while the smallest star in their stellar quadrant—is still overflowing in the other. They have already opened a bottle of Glenlivet from Speyside and fill the glasses as Aiden takes the other half of the sofa, propping me exactly where I want to be: on his lap. I lean into his iron chest that feels more comfortable than a feather mattress to me, ready to enjoy the waterfall laughter that will spring once James starts to speak, but James chooses to destroy every tingle of warmth I’ve felt since Aidonis.

“So what’s happening with the perv? Any sign of him?”

Aiden’s fingers press gently on my hip—don’t scratch Cal, he’s saying—but he shakes his head quicky for my benefit. “No change from my first recon.”

“Sneaky fucker.” Hendrix sneers, his dark expression positively alarming. Like Benson and Max, they seem to accept Aiden’s theory without question. And why shouldn’t they? They have relied on his mind for decades in everything, whether to guide them through the fire maze of Fallujah and save their lives or to build an empire so vast that none of them ever has to work again if they choose. Who would question such a mind? But they don’t know about the reel. Doctor Helen, Corbin, and I are the ones who know and the only ones who remain unconvinced.

“So what’s the battle plan for tomorrow?” Jazz looks at Aiden for direction, but Aiden’s fingers draw soothing circles at the small of my back.

“Well, the festival was very special to Elisa’s mother and to her,” he answers. “So rule number one is non-interference. I’ll walk you through the strategy later.”

All of them nod once in unison with identical serious expressions as though they are receiving military orders. And tension wrings my insides. What strategy? What will they do to mum’s happy day? I open my mouth to ask, but Aiden turns to me, sensing my alarm. “Don’t worry, this just means we won’t intervene unless you’re in danger. Otherwise, we’ll simply watch and you won’t even know where we are, except Max and Ferrars who will stay closer but receive the same orders. That way you can enjoy the festival as if this didn’t exist. Or as close to that as possible under the circumstances.”

I nod as I finally realize why he is keeping the details from me. But how can I enjoy it without him? I force as big a smile as I can manage to stifle the question. Because no matter how much the wound will burn, fester, and throb at his absence, I know it will pale to his agony that he cannot be there next to me. And I’d rather give up some of our remaining days than cause him more pain.

He doesn’t buy my enthusiasm. “I won’t be far,” he comforts me, his voice controlled but I know it too well to miss his anguish underneath.

“Maybe if I know where you are, I can sneak away for a bit.” I try to cheer him up, keeping my smile on my face, but it no longer feels forced at the idea.

Something twinkles in his eyes but before I can ask, James rumbles. “I hope the fucker is dumb enough to show tomorrow.”

“Of course he will.” Hendrix is supremely confident. “Open, crowded space where no one can notice him lurk. He won’t be able to resist.”

“I agree. He has no way of knowing we’ll be waiting for him . . .” Jazz drifts off with a lethal smile that makes me shiver. As if missing Aiden tomorrow is not enough. As if his mental strain doesn’t already terrify me as much as the reel does. Now the festival is a military operation too, instead of the precious tradition that brought mum perennial joy.

And even though I barely know James, Hendrix, and Jazz, even though I already tried today with Aiden, abruptly I want to run through all my arguments again. One by one, right here, right now so that the festival can be how it was when mum loved it, so that Aiden can rest and we can get back to our reel of brilliancy for the time we have left.

But I can see from their faces—James’s determined eyes, Hendrix’s set jaw, Jazz’s grimaced smile, and Aiden’s steely arm around me—that no matter what I say will make a difference. Tomorrow, while roses bloom on the cobblestoned lanes of my childhood, seven lethal beings will find only danger. Make the festival happy for mum, please. Give Aiden peace. Bring us back to us.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 24 – CIRCLE

Happy Sunday, friends! It’s been a dreary, rainy weekend here in Portland, perfect for moods and writing. Wanted to thank all of you who read and wrote to me about the last chapter.  I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Real v. Reel? I can’t answer that, but I’m loving your comments and theories. Here is another chapter. Hope you like it. Lots of love, Ani

 

24 

Circle

Chronologically, a sunrise lasts only two minutes. Emotionally is another matter. Because right now, waiting for Aiden, the seconds between the first glow above the horizon and the first rays scattering across the sky ooze like congealed blood from an open wound. Each willow murmur sounds like footsteps, each lark song like a familiar melodic voice—but there is nothing. He’s not here, he’s not here.

I jump to my feet, unable to sit on the garden bench without him a second longer. Max’s alert eyes follow me from the hedge as I dash to the hybrid rose behind the shed. Chills prick my skin like thorns at the reel’s proximity. Does the evil inside know it hasn’t been unleashed today? Will it avenge itself on Aiden later? I shiver and force my mind to scour my work bench for any disturbance. But nothing is missing here either. My brain stutters to produce any differences—is that pot of dirt closer to the edge? Has the Elisa graft moved an inch? I stare without blinking, yet I can’t decide if I’m seeing differences or missing them.

Then things strike fast like the sun bursting over the hilltops. Max rumbles, “Good morning,” Benson’s voice booms through the air, “News?”, and I break into a sprint.

“Aiden!” I shriek, rounding the shed, jumping over a Clare, losing a slipper, and launching myself at him the moment he streaks through the garden hedge. His gasp whooshes in my ears as he swoops me in his arms and tucks me in his chest while I run my hands frantically over him to make sure he’s okay. He is—not a single scratch on his beautiful head.

“Hey, hey, I’m fine,” he assures me, but he’s doing the same with me, scanning me from my hair to my bare toes. His shoulders sink in relief when he sees everything is the exact mess he left it. “Elisa, what the hell are you doing up?” he chides, tracing the circle under my eye with his fingertip. “I thought I told you to go to bed.”

I lock my arms in a stranglehold around his neck, blubbering in his throat. “But you—not here—worried—I couldn’t—”

“I also told you not to worry.” His exasperated voice has never sounded more like music to me. “You don’t really think someone can hurt Benson and me, do you?”

“No, but—you’re tired—and stressed—and—”

“Shh, it takes a lot more than that to take me down.” He cradles me in his arms and kisses my hair, all anger seemingly forgotten—or vanished I should say, for him.

“I’m glad you’re home,” I sniffle, crushing myself closer to him and inhaling his scent.

“I’ve told you this, too.” He sighs again, but his lips stay in my hair. “I’ll always come back to you.”

The cottage door flies open then. “Aiden?” Stella cries and hurtles down the path, Robert on her heels.

“Oh, fuck, does no one listen to me?” Aiden mutters under his breath, setting me on my feet without releasing his hold around my waist as he turns to reassure his poor parents. I peek at Benson in his usual spot behind Aiden. He winks at me, but there is a shadow of worry in his brown eyes.

“Are you okay?” I mouth at him behind Aiden’s arm as Aiden keeps saying I’m fine to Stella.

Benson nods with a smile.

“And him?” I tilt my head slightly toward Aiden.

“Worried,” Benson mouths back and the smile disappears.

I tighten my grip on Aiden’s arm, resting my head against his stony bicep. It softens at the point of contact, but I still don’t let go of him or he of me as we troop back to the cottage. His eyes devour the garden corner to corner, and he crouches at the Clare to pick up my fuzzy slipper.

“Here you go, Cinderella.” He slides it back on my foot, his exhausted smile more dazzling to me than the new sun. Then he squints across the rose bush at the garden shed and the hybrid behind it.

“I checked,” I say immediately so he doesn’t have to wonder or spend any more time on his feet.

The V appears between his eyebrows. “And?”

I shake my head, aware of all the eyes and ears on us. “Everything is there, but I can’t tell if they moved an inch or two. I’m so sorry.” My last three words stun us both. Until they slipped out of my mouth under his gaze, I didn’t know I preferred a real intruder to giving Aiden this news.

As if he heard that thought, a trace of the same hurt flickers in the turquoise depths, and he stands, taking my hand. “Don’t be sorry. I’d rather be wrong than have you in more danger.”

And I’d rather be in danger than have him be wrong. But worse than that is that four-letter word—m-o-r-e. No doubt he used it because he believes the first and foremost danger is him. “I’m never in danger if you’re with me,” I answer, knowing he won’t argue with everyone around us.

And he doesn’t—the only sign of protest is his clenched jaw.

Inside the cottage, Stella has been busy while I was staring at empty fields and cluttered working benches. The smell of fried eggs is wafting from the kitchen, but she herds us into the living room, where she has set out coffee, rose water, scones, jam, cream, strawberries, and mum’s soup tureen full of scrambled eggs on the coffee table that’s creaking under the weight.

“Eat something, Aiden. Benson, Max—you too. Elisa, darling, I’ve got your tea right here, in this pretty cup. There you are!”

It’s not until I see the food that my body registers hunger. Or maybe it’s because Aiden is home, and I can feel something else other than my throbbing chest. We all load our plates and scatter on our old seats from the night, Aiden folding on the sofa next to me, except now our arms and legs are touching.

“So what happened, son?” Robert asks when Aiden finishes his scone. “Did you find anything either way?”

Aiden blows out a gust of breath, not touching his coffee, while a shiver whips over my skin. “Many and nothing,” he answers, his voice controlled. If I didn’t know it so well, I would have missed the faint hard edge underneath. “There are tire tracks on the roadside gravel by Elysium but, as Elisa is no doubt thinking this very second, that’s not surprising because it’s the main road to town.”

He nods at me, as if to say I’m considering your theory. I vow to do the same for him. “What else did you see?”

“This was by the garage,” he answers, taking something from the back pocket of his jeans and handing it to me. It’s an After Eight mint wrapper. “It wasn’t there this afternoon when we pulled out of the garage to go to the Inn,” he explains as I pass it around. “But it could have ended up there in any number of ways. Someone could have tossed it out of a car window for all we know.”

“Does it mean anything to you, Elisa?” Stella asks, sipping her tea.

“No, After Eights are popular around here. I’d wager every cottage in town has them. My dad used to love them, but I haven’t bought them since . . .”

Aiden takes my hand, hearing the unspoken day in my drift. There are shadows under his brilliant turquoise eyes, his skin shimmers less, and the ray of sun beaming through the window fractures over his drawn cheeks. Yet he is still here, caring for me.

“Aiden, love, why don’t you get some sleep?” I plead, clasping his fingers. “We can finish this later. You’ve been up all night.”

He shakes his head. “We’re almost done. Benson, show them what you found.”

Benson sets his clean plate on the floor and digs in the liner pocket of his jacket. His massive hand covers whatever it is, but he tosses it at me. I see as it somersaults through the air that it’s a tiny ball of crumpled paper. It lands in my open hand with uncanny accuracy. I smooth it out, looking at the random doodles like concentric circles.  Five necks crane to peek at it with me.

“Any thoughts about this one?” Aiden prompts.

“Umm, not really. It looks like scrap paper. Anyone can doodle like this.”

He nods with a deep sigh. “I had the same thought. I’ve seen you draw circles like this, and seventy-eight other people in my life. It’s in blue ink—also your usual choice—but blue pens are hardly unique. I can’t prove this came from the cottage or was meant for it. There’s nothing unusual about the paper either—just a generic lined notebook.”

I look at it again. I have notebooks like this. As does Reagan. As does the town’s stationer, Mrs. Sterling, and probably everyone who buys notepads there. The doodles are symmetric, it’s true, but I see nothing in them to link them only to me. “Where did you find this?”

“Down the road toward town.” Aiden gestures the direction with his thumb. “Why? What are you thinking?”

I shrug. “Just trying to consider your theory as fairly as mine. This does look like something I would draw but, as you said, so could anyone.”

Aiden runs his hand through his hair in frustration. His eyes zoom on the empty fireplace like last night, the tectonic plates shifting back and forth, back and forth as if he is looking at a chessboard.

“Did you see anything else?” Max wonders, gulping coffee.

“Random details, equally ambiguous,” Aiden answers, his eyes not breaking the inner analysis. “There’s a broken rose in the climber by the garage door, but that could have happened when the door closed behind the car. There’s a cigarette butt further down the road but it could be anyone’s. There are no footprints because, of course, it’s been dry.” Then his eyes flit to Max. “Did you check for footprints under the windows?

Max nods with vigor. “As soon as it got light out. There’s none in the dirt or the rose beds.”

The faithful V forms between Aiden’s eyebrows, and something quick passes between him and Benson.

“If there are no footprints where there should be, that means either they swept them or we’re left with the key theory,” Benson rumbles.

“Or mine,” I offer, looking only at Aiden, feeling like we’re stuck in a circle. I’m about to ask him to stop this now and go to sleep, but he takes my hand.

“Elisa, I know you have serious doubts about this, and if I only listen to logic, I have them too. But I can’t shake off this instinct that I’m right. So, I’ll ask you one more thing about this that you will hate, and then I promise I’ll be done for today. Will you please call the Plemmonses and ask them if they ever gave the cottage key to anyone else? They’re usually up by now, setting up the shop.”

I’m about to say “no bloody way” but the lines of worry on his beautiful face stop my tongue. How can I not give this to him if it helps him sleep and fight the reel later today? How can I not give him everything after the story his parents told me? Exactly as he would do for me.

“If I do this, will you go to sleep?” I ask, brushing his knuckles.

“I promise.”

“And you will stop worrying?”

“I can’t promise that, but I promise I will drop the subject for today.”

“What about security? If the Plemmonses say no, as I’m sure they will, can we let Max enjoy the rest of his vacation? He’ll get so bored guarding me from doodles, he’ll have to steal roses himself for entertainment.”

He shakes his head before I’m done. “I can’t do that—not until I figure out what we’re dealing with.”

I watch his set jaw, knowing this is the best he can give right now. As he must know from my eyes that this isn’t over. I nod, reserving all my arguments for when he’s rested, and pick up my phone from the sofa corner, where apparently it’s been sitting forgotten all night.

“Thank you,” Aiden says simply as I dial.

Mr. Plemmons answers on the seventh ring, and it takes several different shouting volumes to establish the right level of bellowing for him to hear.

“Is summat the matter with the roses, Rose?”

“No, Mr. Plemmons, but I have a quest—”

“Wha’ ‘bout the Festival?”

“I’m all set, Mr. Plemmons, but—”

“Did yeh like the garland, Rose?”

“It was beautiful, Mr. Plemmons, thank—”

“Is Adam being a gentleman? I told him, I said, ‘only because yer parents ‘ull be here, Adam, but yeh keep yer hands off our Rose! An’ we ‘spect to meet them, we do. Didn’ I tell him, Josephine?”

“Yes, you did, Harold. You scared him right off. The man promised he’s sleeping in the shed.”

The first chuckles of the day susurrate around me, Stella’s in a pillow, Benson’s on his knuckles, Max’s in his elbow, and Robert’s in his palm. Aiden is too stressed and tense to laugh or do anything but pinch the bridge of his nose and breathe deeply with his eyes closed for strength.

“Mr. Plemmons, I have a question,” I yell at the top of my lungs into the receiver to delay the stroke that is surely coming for Aiden.

“Wha’ is it, Rose?”

“Did anyone ever borrow the cottage key when I was in Portland?”

“The wha’?”

“The cottage key, Mr. Plemmons!”

“The key? I don’ think so, Rose. Josephine, do yeh remember anyone ask fer the rose key?”

Some silence on the other side presumably as Mrs. Plemmons scratches her head with her knitting needles. “No, I don’t remember anything like that,” she wheezes after a while then her voice rasps closer to the receiver. “Has something happened, Rosebud?”

“Nothing at all, Mrs. Plemmons. Not a thing. I’ll bring by some roses and Aiden’s parents later. They’re coming to the Festival.”

“Oh, how wonderful! On with you, Harold, on with you! I have biscuits to bake for Aiden’s parents.”

“Stop calling him Edmund, Josephine. His name is Adam.”

They are still arguing about Aiden’s name when Mr. Plemmons hangs up without saying goodbye.

“Feeling better?” I ask Aiden as his parents, Benson, and Max are catching their breath from laughing.

He runs his hand over his thick stubble with a deep sigh. “How much can we rely on their memories, Elisa, really? The man believes I’m sleeping in the shed.”

I caress his tense jaw. “And you might well end up sleeping in the shed if you don’t drop this right now like you promised. Now on with you, Adam, on with you. Go to bed and sleep this off.”

The first real smile since the Suite of Firsts lifts his lips. “Oh no, not the shed.” But he stands without further argument, and everyone stands with him.

Fifteen minutes later, after his parents leave with Benson while Max insists on staying guard outside until we wake up, Aiden and I finally climb the stairs to our happy bedroom. With each creak of the old boards, the terror of the night starts to dissipate. First as a wink of a smile at the corner of Aiden’s mouth when he steps on the fifth stair, then as a sigh in my throat when his hands curve around my hips, until the moment we cross the threshold of our room, we both transform. The glow returns to Aiden’s face, warming his ashen skin back to gold. His jaw relaxes, the V releases his eyebrows, and every wisp of tension floats away from him until his long, graceful body moves with his patent fluidity, half-water, half-man. And every debris of fear and anguish disappears from his eyes until they gleam the clearest shade of turquoise.

As for me, I’m back to the drooling state I started this night with.

“Are you having déjà vu?” Aiden smiles as he closes the bedroom door.

“How did you know?”

He flows to me and wraps his arms around my waist. “Because I’m having it, too.”

“Déjà vu to what?”

“To entering our Room of Firsts. You?”

“Me too.”

“Mmm.” He lowers his face to mine as he did last night, pausing an inch from my lips. “Can you make us a protein to turn back time?”

“I wish.” My voice turns to vapor under his heated breath.

“Let’s try to repeat it then.” His eyes become molten and descend over me like fire. I have exactly one second left for thought. Already my body is arching toward his.

“Oh, no!” I lean away, pushing against his chest. “Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Plemmons. There will be no female nudity of any kind. You’re here to sleep.”

He laughs with that waterfall sound as I quote his words to me from Oxford’s University Park but doesn’t release my waist. “But I sleep so much better with female nudity around, Elisa.”

“Well, maybe Mrs. Willoughby can oblige.” I push weakly against his chest again, but he brings his lips to my ear.

“I don’t want Mrs. Willoughby.” His hand trails up my spine. “I want your hair . . .” He sweeps aside my tangles. “And your skin . . .” His fingers trace my throat. “And your smell . . .” His nose skims along my jaw. “I want everything of yours on me.” He molds me to his shape as his lips brush mine. “If I have all that, Elisa, no one on this earth sleeps better than me.”

His words stop but it’s not silent. My heart is thundering, my blood is hammering, my breath is hitching. He blows gently over my lips to open my eyes I didn’t know I had closed. “Can you still give all that to me?” he asks as soon as I blink at him. “After everything I put you through last night?”

It only takes that change in his voice—from amused to tender to uncertain—to clear my mind. “They’re always yours.”

The dimpled smile sparkles on his cheek. “Then may I have this dance?”

We have danced together to Für Elise fourteen times now, once before each sleep. I know his steps by heart, yet each time feels new. He takes off my clothes and I take off his, and we sway together, skin on skin, each piano note as vital as a heartbeat now that I know how it became the soundtrack to our dreams.

“I’m sorry, love,” he murmurs, his voice more melodic than our lullaby. I look up at his incandescent eyes—there isn’t a single trace of fear, hurt, or anguish there now. Only peace.

“Why are you sorry?” I whisper back, letting the melody reign over us.

“For getting angry when you were only trying to reason with me. For worrying you. For making you lose sleep. For being unable to drop this like you wish I would.”

“Shh.” I press my finger on his lips—he kisses it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. I know everything you’re doing is to protect me. I’m the one who should apologize.”

His raven brows arch in shock, and he stops mid-turn. “What do you have to apologize for?”

“For hurting you when you were only trying to save me. For yelling at you. For not believing you like you wish I would.”

‘Shh.” He smiles, pressing his finger on my lips—I kiss it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. You did the right thing. I need you to challenge me. Always, but especially now.”

He picks up the dance, nose in my hair, as Für Elise plays on. I debate whether to tell him I know how he found it, but I don’t want any painful memories to enter this bubble. ‘I can’t be anywhere else,’ he told his parents the night I left him. I lean into his body before chills whip my skin. What happens this time if we lose? Or if the reel takes him from me before time does? Will there be any place left in this earth for him or me now that we are so deeply entwined together I no longer know where I end and where he starts? I press myself closer to him, inhaling his pure, vivid scent that keeps the goose bumps away.

Für Elise ends with its last poignant note and starts again. We curl into our cotton bed that smells like us, and he takes his anti-nightmare pill while I pray for the protein. Make him brave, keep him whole.

“How long should we set it for?” he asks, programming my song.

“Don’t—sleep as long as you need. We can do the r-e-e-l whenever you wake up this time.”

He doesn’t argue or flinch like I do. Still invincible, still braver than me. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me to his front, every curve of me to every angle of him. I can feel his desire, but he keeps his promise. He just buries his lips and nose in my hair, breathing me in. “Don’t worry, love.” His fingers trail down my arm. “I’m built for this.”

“But it’s different now, with all the trauma you’re revisiting.”

A deep sigh flows through him and washes over me. “I know . . . same answer.”

From the beech tree outside the window, a lark starts to warble, harmonizing its song to Für Elise. “Is there any part of you that thinks the r-e-e-l might be causing this?” I whisper, not wanting this question to interfere with either melody.

He caresses my arm, back and forth like piano keys. “Maybe I’m afraid to think it,” he whispers, too. “The idea of not being in control of my own mind . . .”

I turn in his arms, placing my hand over his heart. “You are in control. You’re just learning new ways of thinking. Don’t doubt your mind. Only your reactions to stress. I’m sure Doctor Helen will agree. You should talk to her about this.”

He nods, weaving his fingers with mine, looking at our joined hands. His lashes cast long shadows over his cheeks. “Will you answer something for me? The full truth, no diplomacy or sparing of feelings.”

“Of course,” I answer, surprised by the uncharacteristic request. His eyes usually see my truth before I even know it. But right now, they’re locked on our folded hands as he speaks in a slow, deliberate voice.

“If the reel fixes the startle but breaks my mind, would you still want to be with me?”

His question makes me gasp, but not only because of the heart-wrenching words. I stop breathing because I finally realize why he is afraid. It’s not fear of losing his mind, it’s fear of losing my heart.

“Aiden Hale.” I lift his chin as he does with me so I can see his eyes. They’re steady and bold, except that flicker of pure hurt that now I fully understand. “I will want you no matter what the reel does—whether it changes your mind or not and even if it doesn’t fix the startle. I know you don’t like hearing that, but you asked for the full truth. I’ll always love you, and no distance, or time, or reel can ever change that.”

He has inhaled every word, breathing them in like air. And I know he believes me. I know because the painful question clears from his eyes. “So, it’s not just my brain that you’re attracted to?” he smiles, gesturing to the photo of his brain and heart waves on my nightstand.

I grin back. “No, sorry. It doesn’t even make the top five.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he chuckles. “But I’m curious now, what are the top five?”

“Oh, that’s easy. Your heart, your character, your strength, your laugh, your mouth—”

I’m about to continue, but he kisses me with a low throaty sound. “Mmm, this mouth business seems to be important.”

“Very.”

His fingers braid into my hair and he strains me to his shape until I can feel his heartbeat on my skin. The moment I taste him on my tongue, I realize that until now my own mouth tasted bitter, but it wasn’t the night. It was the hours apart. His lips brush away the acrid residue until I only taste his honeyed flavor.

“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, freeing me for air, but his breathing is almost as uneven as mine. He turns me around—all iron and silk—and presses his lips in my hair. “Our top fives are the same, you know . . . except mine also include your faith in me and your patience and your humor and . . .”

I’m about to point out that this is more than five, but a deep breath of cinnamon air swirls in my hair and his weight becomes heavy around me. I peek around, and he is asleep, his lips parted in a soft smile.

“Like cookies, my love,” I whisper. I lie here as always, counting his breaths, and happiness shifts again despite the night. It becomes his puffs of sleep to my song in our humble bedroom with the dried poppies of our weapons in this fight: our love, his strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love, our families, the team of scientists, my calming effect, Für Elise, hope, laughter, and, if I can finish, the protein. I still don’t know if they’re enough to win against Aiden’s past. And after today, I no longer know if they will be enough to see us through the reel.

Abruptly, sleep vanishes, and I feel wide awake. More than awake—drumming with nervous energy and fear, making my feet and mind twitch. Instead of poppies, I can only see Bia and the protein’s formula in my head. It’s no longer just urgent—after last night, it’s imperative. I can’t afford to lie here when I can calculate Oxytocin Twelve doses instead. I finish counting the one hundred and fifty breaths that it takes for Aiden to drift into deep sleep, and inch out of bed, jittery and tense.

Dad’s library is filled with sunlight when I tiptoe there. The gauzy curtain billows with the rose breeze, and Max’s reflection plays on the windowpane, sipping his coffee by the hedge. Was it only five hours ago that I stumbled in this room shuddering in terror? Now the idea of an intruder sitting on Dad’s armchair or touching our unfinished chess game under the glass case feels fuzzy, like a distant nightmare that has left only its startle behind.

I switch on old Bod, wishing I could run to Bia instead, but there is no point in testing until I understand exactly how much O-12 I should add and why else the formula didn’t hold yesterday. I’m blurry eyed with calculations when Skype’s jingle dings loud enough for Max’s head to snap up toward my window. Reagan! I answer it immediately, not wanting to wake Aiden.

“Top o’ the morning, Rose.” Reagan’s curls explode on the screen and her feigned British accent chimes through the library. As soon as I see her sparkling smile in her pajamas, an urge to hug Bod overpowers me. I blow her a kiss on the screen.

“Hey, Reg—how was the flight? Did you find everything okay?”

“Oh yea, okay and empty and boring. I’ve decided rhododendrons are highly overrated compared to my rose.” She glares at her window where our old pink rhodie is blooming. “I miss England already.”

“And England misses you. How was Javi on the flight? Any progress?” Between meeting Aiden’s parents and dealing with real or reel intruders, I’ve been itching to ask her since Aiden found the sketch of her eyes at the Inn.

She blows a ringlet off her face, and her smile disappears. “Well, we fought for half of it so no—unless you define ‘progress’ as conversation in which case, yes, it was an improvement over the dour silence that filled the other half.”

“What did you fight about?” I ask even though it doesn’t matter. The real reason is Javier being invisible for all his formative life and now he is unable to see when he is seen.

“Everything—no matter what I say or do, I seem to aggravate him. I don’t know, Isa, but I’ve thought a lot about it. I have to let him be . . .” She wipes her eyes with her sleeve.

“No, Reg, don’t give up yet. Javi loves you—he just doesn’t know how.” I trap my tongue between my teeth, so I don’t mention the sketch. I can hear Aiden’s voice, even asleep, thundering through his synapses to tell me to keep my mouth shut. And as much as I hate to admit it, he is right.

Reagan just shakes her head, mopping up more tears.

“I’m serious,” I tell her, clutching the screen as if it were her shoulders. “Let Javi open the gallery and get some confidence, like Aiden said, and I think he’ll come around.”

She wipes her nose this time and nods. “He’s very excited about Solis Art—he’s named it already. But enough about me or I’ll cry all night. How did it go with Aiden’s parents?”

I want to keep talking about her and Javier, but I can tell she needs the space. And I can’t even berate her for not warning me about the fact that Aiden’s parents make the Beckhams look like garden compost. “They’re so sweet, Reg. I wasn’t prepared for how kind and supportive they are.”

“I know, right? They’re exactly who I would have picked for you. Stella already posted a picture of your roses on Facebook, quoting Shakespeare, ‘Of all the flowers, methinks a rose is best.’ Here, look.”

Reagan holds up her iPhone to show me Stella’s profile, but I stare at it without seeing as shivers scrape my skin at the mention of the charlatan. Does he creep up on other people’s lives like this or is he only haunting mine?

“I have to hit the pillow, Isa,” Reg says after I manage a nod. “I’m still jetlagged, but I have to go to work tomorrow. Who invented jobs? Horrible person.”

Probably Shakespeare. “Love you, Reg. Sleep well.”

“Love you, too. Say hi to our dragon. Tell him to prepare in advance because in September, I might even hug him.”

She hangs up with a laugh before she hears the whisper that hushes out of my lips of its own volition. If we have until September . . .

I listen for any sign of Aiden upstairs, but there is nothing. Hopefully he is dreaming of cookies while I stare at my lined notepad waiting for a stroke of brilliance. That odd sensation I felt in the Room of Firsts, like a tugged thought, flutters again now for some reason. What was I thinking about when I first felt it? Oh, yes, I had mumbled “orgasms are oxytocin but taste better” in my sex coma. And there it is—the same curious feeling, like a tip-of-the-tongue hesitancy . . . I try to analyze it but can’t find any clues in it. It must have been because I tasted the protein earlier at Bia and it didn’t taste as good as Aiden. But why did it fizz away?

Outside the library window, Max’s pacing shadow rolls over the roses. And on my notepad, my pen draws concentric circles over my calculations without a single answer.

©2021 Ani Keating

 

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 23 – BREAK

Hey gang, how is everyone? I hope your weekend is off to a good start and you all have some R&R planned. Here is a new chapter for you, a day early since I’m technically a couple of days late. Hope you enjoy. Things are changing…  lots of love and thanks for reading and writing to me. On a personal note, this blog is giving me a much needed respite from life, and for that, I’m grateful to all of you. xo, Ani

 

23

Break

“Goodnight, dear.” Stella kisses my cheeks as we leave their luxury suite at the Inn after dinner on their balcony. “Make sure you get some sleep. We’ve kept you late.”

“This is what happens when you get my mother started on baby stories, Elisa. I sincerely hope you’ve learned your lesson if you want any of us to sleep for the next two weeks.” Aiden’s voice is exasperated, but there is tenderness underneath. Something flows quickly between him and Stella, and he nods. Carefully, she steps into his arms on her tiptoes and kisses his cheek. He embraces her gently as though she is a soap bubble, but his shoulders turn to granite with memories. In that feather-rock hug, I see the difference between me and everyone else for Aiden: he softens under my touch and tenses with all others, even his mum. Yet he holds her for a while longer, despite the tension straining him, before releasing her with a chuckle. “All right, save some for tomorrow.”

She sparkles at him. “Sweet dreams, Aiden-bear.” That same swift exchange happens between them, and he smiles.

“Like cookies, Mom.”

Some private joke, no doubt, but one I have to know with a similar urgency as the oxytocin. Despite the deluge of details about his childhood, from his first word (“oh, dear, it wasn’t a word, it was a sentence: Mama, where is Daddy?”) to his favorite bedtime story (“he didn’t like baby stories, we had to read him poetry—he loved Byron and Keats”) to his favorite toy (“his chess set!”), I feel parched for more.

“Night, Dad,” Aiden nods at Robert who only hugs Aiden with his eyes.

“Night, son. Goodnight, Elisa.” He clasps my shoulder. “Be careful driving back to the cottage. It’s dark out.”

“We’ll be fine, Dad. Go to sleep.”

They wave together, their soft eyes following us down the hall.

“What does the cookies thing mean?” I ask as soon as I hear their door close, and Aiden presses the button for the lift.

He laughs. “All night you’ve heard all manner of trivia about me, and you still want more?”

“Of course.”

“Fine, that’s how I answered her the day I discovered cookies when I turned three, and it became our standard goodnight for a while. But I suspect it had nothing to do with that tonight, rather than the fact that she finally can wish me sweet dreams again now that I can finally have them. Because of you.”

The lift doors open, but I can’t move my feet—how can I when he says things like this? He pulls me into the tiny box, overwhelming the space, and presses me against the velvet-lined wall with his hips. There is nothing granite about his body now. It’s all steel, forged to every line of mine. The air becomes rare—I lose it and find it as he brings his heated lips to my ear. “At last,” he murmurs, his breath strumming against my skin. “Just you and me.” His nose skims the Aeternum spot. “We met the parents . . .” He kisses the corner of my jaw. “And there were no accidents or heart attacks . . .” His lips brush along my jawline. “Everyone adores everyone . . .” He presses his lips to the corner of my mouth. “Elisa?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you know what time it is?” His dark voice ignites my blood, my memories.

“It’s now!” I gasp as his mouth melds with mine. Every angle of us fuses together. One of his hands gathers in my hair, his other arm lifts me off the floor. I wrap my legs around him, tangling my fingers in his soft waves. He doesn’t tense—the shiver running through him is desire. His hips start grinding and rolling against me.

“This is where we left it, I believe,” he says against my lips. “When I so rudely said no.”

“Mmm . . . very rude.”

“Let me be rude some more.” His erection presses into me over the linen of my dress. Once, twice, and the point of contact becomes a rapid pulse. Then abruptly he swoops me in his arms.  He’s so quick, I gasp and blink around startled, registering that the lift was moving, and it has now stopped. The doors open on the top floor to his suite. “You said something about a Chatsworth bed?” His eyes blaze as he carries me out. “And maybe fainting?”

I bring him back to my mouth. “Hmm . . . I’ll need a reminder.”

“I might have a few.”

He kisses me down the empty hall, lips fluid, tongue alive. I taste him back as deeply as I can. How many times can you kiss a man before he becomes your taste? By the time he breaks the kiss and sets me down at the door to his suite, my head is whirling. He lowers his face to my height, blowing a gentle breeze over my lips. “Reminded?”

“Uh huh . . . fainting . . . you.”

“You take my breath away, too,” he translates. Then his beauty intensifies in that surreal way, as though lit from within. It does nothing to help my balance. “Ready for more reminders?” he dazzles and unlocks the door with the old brass key. “After you,” he whispers in my ear as he opens it, tickling an old memory.

I step inside . . . and gasp to a stop.

It’s the same suite where we had our big bang—the same four poster bed, the same ivory silk linens—but how different it looks. How new, yet how ours. A gentle fire is dancing in the fireplace to the low sultry melody of Amado Mio—the song we first danced together. A garland of the Plemmons’ apricot roses—similar to Aeternum in color—adorn the mantle. On the wall across the bed, taped over the Inn’s painting of roses is a photo of Javier’s first painting of me as it hangs in front of Aiden’s bed at his home. And on the nightstand is the first gift I gave him: the double-frame with my ticket to America and a photo of his home he bought that same day.

“Oh!” I breathe, gazing at the bedroom in a trance. No, not a bedroom anymore—a mosaic of some of our most beautiful moments. The firm thud of the door closing breaks through my spell. I turn to look at Aiden. He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. I take the one step between us, feeling unsteady on my heels. His hands curve around my waist.

“Enough reminders for you?”

“Explain it to me,” I say, knowing by now he never creates a memory without a purpose, a purpose worth remembering for life.

“I’m sure you can unravel this one.” He bends his face to mine as though to kiss me but stops an inch from my lips. “Try.”

And I do, I really do, but it’s almost impossible with a scent like this and eyes like that and beauty like nothing else. “Well, there’s our first night with the painting?”

“Yes, that’s there.” His lips hover so very close to mine. I try to reach on my tip toes, but his iron hands don’t let me. “Solve the next clue, and you get a kiss.”

“Ah, our first date at your Alone Place, with Amado Mio, the roses, and the silk pillows like the bed?”

“Beautiful,” he murmurs, his mouth touching mine. The warm tip of his tongue traces my lips, and tingles spread over my skin. He pulls away at my sigh. “Next?”

It takes me a moment with his lingering aftertaste. Amado Mio ends and starts again. “Something about the fire? Because it wasn’t on last time.”

“Very good. Now what do you think it means?” He inches his lips closer, his hold on my waist correspondingly tighter. His breath enflames my skin like the fire clue, scattering my thoughts.

“Umm, a little hint?”

“What could you burn in a fire, but you would never want to?” he helps me, and instantly I know.

“Your letters! In your homecoming letter, you wrote you would have no words for my face, for my smell, for the crackling fire in the fireplace.”

“And I still don’t.” He gives me his mouth for a while this time, his tongue like a flame crackling with mine. But he stops again when my legs start to shake. “Next?”

“How many clues are left?” I barely hear my voice from the drumbeat of my pulse. “I’m already close to fainting.”

He grins. “Don’t do that. I need you coherent for this last one.”

“Oh, good!” I shake my head to rattle some brain cells awake. “Something about my first gift to you, with the double-frame?”

“I have debated with myself what your first gift to me is but for purposes of tonight it’s true enough.” And then his mouth is on mine in a slow, potent kiss until I drape in his arms. He has to lift me off the floor to take me to the nightstand. “Now find your prize.”

“I thought you without latex invaders was my prize.”

He chuckles. “Okay, I’ll give you that. Find your second prize.”

He doesn’t release my waist as I search through the nightstand, opening the first drawer. Resting right under the double-frame is a rectangle package the same size, wrapped in parchment. I tear it carefully and lose whatever breath I was managing to draw. It’s another double-frame exactly like my gift, but even more precious. On one side is a photo of the cottage as it is blooming now and on the other a yellowed, old ticket bearing the name Aiden Hale and the date April 11, 1987.

“Oh my God, Aiden! Is this your ticket when you first flew to England for your meeting at Oxford?”

“The very same. I had my mother dig for it after we visited Chatsworth. Of course she had saved it. They brought it and your frame this morning.”

I caress the glass over his name, the date, the PDX and LHR airport initials, swallowing back tears before they drop on my prize. “I love it. It’s a real-life treasure.”

He takes the frame from my shaky hands and places it next to the one I gave him. “It’s our first ‘first’” he explains. “Our first connection. My first dream of you in Iraq. First sight of you in the gallery. First date. First dance. And first night.” He brushes my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Tonight is a first, too. Just you and me and nothing in between. It seemed like the right time to remember how far we’ve come.”

His voice turns our history into music, more harmonious than the song that is replaying. I crush myself against his steely lines, half-climbing his legs, throwing my arms around his neck, and pulling him to my lips. “I want my first prize now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he chuckles, and everything else disappears. I hear, see, and feel nothing but us. The riff of our first dance, the sound of our mouths, the pop of his shirt buttons, the tinkle of the locket as he takes it off, the unzipping of my dress. As soon as it pools into a linen cloud at my sandaled feet, he lifts me and wraps my legs around his waist. “Open Sesame,” he murmurs as though finding his own treasure.

I tighten my thighs around him, frantic for contact. His abs ripple in between as he strides to the bed, pulls back the duvet, and drops me on the silky sheets. And air becomes scarce again. I watch, teetering between shaky elbows and crumbling mind, as he peels off his clothes and his body materializes like a sentient sculpture under the muted glow of the chandelier. Then his snug briefs dash to the floor, and my elbows give out. I can’t blink away from the sight of him springing free. Carved steel wrapped in gold silk with a filigree of veins and bubbles like a diamond crown. C-o-c-k: how did I forget the good four-letter words? My skin bursts into flames, blazing hotter than the crackling fire next to the bed.

He grasps my ankle where it’s dangling off the bed and plants a soft kiss at the bridge of my foot as one might with a lady’s hand. “I like these.” he says, tracing the gold strap around my ankle with his fingers. “I think we’ll leave them on, like our first dance.” He climbs between my legs that are quivering like bowstrings to his arrow.  “As for these . . .” He trails his thumb along the wet lace of my knickers, making me moan. “I’m afraid they have to go.” And he grips the delicate fabric and tears it off. The brush of lace raises goosebumps on my feverish skin as he glides the shreds over my torso to my lips. They blow away from my gasp. “I think these are better than the Chatsworth veil, don’t you?” He flutters the cool lace over my mouth. It flurries with my breath.

“No,” I whimper as the lace floats back on my lips.

“No? Hmm, is something missing?”

“Your mouth,” I huff, and the lacy ribbons fly again.

“Ah, yes, how could I forget?” And his lips start racing the frilly scraps. They whirl over my throat, and his tongue chases them off. He sweeps them across my jawline, and his teeth graze my skin. The lace brushes over my mouth, and his tongue traces my lips. The lace flits back, and he sucks my lower lip until blood pools there, throbbing like the rest of me. From my moan, the ribbons fly off and disappear. Then Aiden’s lips and tongue seize mine, spilling kisses, strokes, words inside my mouth. I taste them all, feeling the tickle of my name when he sighs it, the way his I want yourolls off my tongue, until the world starts spinning behind my eyelids. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin.

“No fainting today,” he smiles against my throat as he snaps off my bra.

“Mmm,” is my answer, and the race begins again. He slides the straps off my shoulders, his tongue gliding down their path. His nose skims the lacy trim as he inches down the cups like a veil over my breasts. His mouth folds around me in a lacework of licks and nibbles. And frenzy strikes. My hips arch for contact, and my fingers sprint over every part of him I can reach. How many times can you touch a man before he becomes your fingerprint?

Finally the bra sweeps off and Aiden’s husky voice breaks through the pulse thundering in my ears. “There you are. Just as magnificent as that first time, and better still.” His eyes descend like fire over me, but unlike that first time, I don’t shy away from them. I tangle my fingers in his hair, writhing off the bed toward him.

“Aiden, please, I want to feel you,” I gasp, my voice breaking with need, not nerves.

He holds my eyes. “Then feel me.” And the length of him presses against the wettest part of me in nothing but flawless skin. Ah, the feel . . . My moan mingles with his deep, throaty sigh.

How many times have I longed for the faintest brush, and now his smooth, heavy weight rests on the blazing folds, sending shiver after shiver to my very bones. A sudden wave of emotion rises within me, and I tremble. But the delicious weight disappears. The sudden absence is excruciating.

“Aiden,” I whimper and raise my hips for more contact, but he pins them down on the silky sheets.

“Feel all of me.”

And hard—in this new first time—Aiden slides inside.  My cry drowns the music and the groaned oh-fuck that tears from his lips. Our bodies shudder in tandem, once, twice. A string of profanities in Russian hisses through Aiden’s teeth, but with a low snarl, he reins his body under control and becomes flexed steel above me, breathing hard. I don’t have such mastery. My body is flailing about at breaking point. I feel every ponderous spasm of him inside me as though magnified a thousand-fold, and I’m quivering inside out.

“Breathe, Elisa, breathe and flex,” he guides me urgently, remaining utterly still to help me. And I try. I grip his arms and lock my legs around his waist, but it’s impossible with him so real. I cannot slow a single tremble and he feels it.

“I got you, I got you,” he murmurs, and for a blinding second, his iron chest presses on mine, stunning my lungs.

“Oh!” I huff, and his weight lifts immediately.

“There. Now breathe with me.” He takes a deep breath and lets it wash over my lips. I match my lungs to his, inhaling his fragrant air, and the trembles recede. “Beautiful,” he praises me as if I did anything. “One more time.” And he restarts my mind again, easing me further away from the brink. “Perfect. Now feel with me.”

And I can now. I can feel him with perfect acuity—every angle of steel that manages to feel like velvet, his vibrant heat radiating through my core, the delicious bubbles now a liquid warmth lapping at my depths, and his weighty presence pulsing in sync with me. The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming that it surges all way to my eyes. I close them, drowning in the sensation of being with him like this. All those other times he felt divine pale in comparison, like my dreams paled to the real him.

“Ah you,” Aiden sighs. I fling my eyes open at the sound of his resonant voice rising over the music. He’s watching me with an aura of pure ecstasy. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful—even in my own euphoria I can appreciate that. The sight nearly restarts the tremors as I realize that, despite his masterful control, this is just as intense for him as it is for me. “You feel even better than I dreamed. And that’s saying something.”

“As do you.”

He brings his mouth to mine and for an immeasurable moment there is just this—his taste with my taste, his heat with my heat, most of him in every depth of me, exactly as we were made. Then he releases my lips.

“I have to move, love, or I will die. Please don’t faint on me.” His lopsided smile takes my breath away like his weight.

“No dying or fainting,” I promise. “But there will definitely be dancing.” I circle my hips in invitation. And Aiden starts to dance with me to our song, skin on skin—no veil between us. At first, a slow tango like our first dance. I wind my arms around his neck, undulating eagerly against his hips, following each bump-and-grind. Then his tempo grows, pounding a tribal beat at my core. I fall behind, and moans change to cries—a chorus of Aiden-Aiden silencing the music. And my body starts vibrating again in a pirouette of trembles and quivers. He feels them all. His rhythm becomes relentless, now punishing, now worshipful. I absorb his force, his possession, the feeling of our bodies fused together, flesh on flesh, liquid on liquid. How many times can a man be inside a woman like this before he becomes her heartbeat? A thousand? Once? Whatever the number, he feels like that to me.

And the finish starts. My vision sparkles, my ears ring, and convulsions start shimming inside me. An overpowering urgency builds at the bottom of my belly, and I spiral, palpitating around Aiden with violence, hauling him over the brink with me. A startling sensation surges in my depths in the final beats. Like two rivers breaching through their dams and flooding each other’s riverbeds to form a little ocean. We plummet in its depths and drown.

But eventually we float back to the surface again, gasping and shuddering, Aiden’s head rising and falling with my chest like waves. My senses lap at him like a shore—his warm weight on me, his messy hair brushing my cheek, his sharp breath on my neck.

“Elisa?” His low drawl thrums above my heart.

“Hmm.”

“Are you here?”

“Mmm.”

“Do you remember last night on the kitchen counter with the jam?”

“Mmm.”

“And all the other one hundred fourteen times before?”

“Mmm.”

“How convinced we were it couldn’t get better than that?”

“Mmm.”

“We might as well have been virgins compared to this.”

We laugh together, and he sways inside me with the motion of our laughter. So real and vibrant, exactly as if he’s new. My body, already shaped to his contours, grasps him with vivid detail—every flawless angle of him, the silkiness of his skin, the velvety texture of us together. And the more of him I feel, the more I want.

“So now that we know,” I muse in wonder. “How do we stop?”

He lifts his head to look at me, the panes of his face glowing. “We don’t.”

I’m about to tell him never, but my mouth is suddenly busy, as captive to him as the rest of me.

The next thing I notice outside of our bodies is the fading fire in the fireplace. The sky outside the window is the inky black before dawn. I’m sprawled on Aiden’s chest on the Chatsworth bed, a sash of the silky curtains still tangled around my wrist. It brings back a vision of my hands tied to the poster, and I flush—that was a first too, and what a first it was.

“You’re back.” Aiden’s chuckle rumbles under my cheek. “I worried you really fainted there for a moment.”

“Did I?”

“No, just your usual orgasm coma but deeper. You didn’t even snore this time. If it weren’t for the drooling, I’d have called the village paramedics, which would have been an awkward conversation.”

“Well, you only have yourself to blame and these new antics with the posters.” I press my lips on his chest, sniffing it surreptitiously. “What do you do when I’m oblivious, anyway?”

I feel him shrug. “Watch you. Some of my favorite memories are with you like that. One time you hummed the entire Für Elise. Just now you said, ‘orgasms are oxytocin, but taste better’ and smacked your lips.” He chuckles again, stroking my hair.

Heat burns my cheeks, half-embarrassed, half- irked at myself. “You’d think after one hundred eighteen times, my body would have learned some discipline. I wonder if I’ll ever stop reacting like this every time you make love to me.”

“I sincerely hope not,” he laughs, but brushes my flushed cheek. “And you have nothing to be embarrassed about. I have to talk to Rostov in Russian because of you. Objectively, we can agree that’s a lot more embarrassing than ‘orgasms are oxytocin.’”

“That’s true,” I giggle, something tugging at the edge of my mind like an unfinished thought. It vanishes the moment his fingers trail down my spine.

“Speaking of passing out, did you want to stay here tonight or go back to the cottage?”

“Hmm, what time is it?”

“Almost two.”

It takes me a while to subtract. Two and a half hours to the reel. His voice is quieter, and his fingers miss a step on their stroll over my skin. Is he thinking about it too? I wrap myself around him closer, covering as much of him with me as I can. “The cottage,” I decide. “The happiest place there is. Although this suite is now a very close second.”

His long fingers pick up their promenade on my back. “We’ll keep it like this for the summer—a gallery of our firsts. Maybe we’ll add more.”

The end of the summer. I swerve around the thought immediately, but even in that fleeting space, a shiver prickles my arms. “What other firsts should we add?” I ask to distract myself.

His voice is as soft as his caress when he answers, “A whole life of them, Elisa. If we’re lucky enough.”

 

Elysium is entirely silver when Aiden parks in the garage fifteen minutes later. Moonlight falls over the wildflowers like pollen and, if it weren’t for his arm around me supporting all my weight, I would curl up on the pearly daisies and say ‘like cookies’ here.

“Why don’t you sleep in today?” Aiden suggests, his voice already a lullaby. “You haven’t slept much in the last couple of nights.”

A huge yawn chooses this moment to overpower me. “Why don’t we both sleep in? Doctor Helen said a couple of hours off occasionally won’t make a difference.”

He looks toward the inkblot of the reel—visible to us even under starlight—and the bands of muscle at his waist petrify. For a breath, I think he’ll argue, but he answers quickly. “That sounds nice.”

And he sweeps me in his arms and picks up his pace as we pass by the spot. I watch his moonlit profile, resisting my drooping eyelids. Even two weeks later, there are moments like this—when he glides toward the cottage under starlight, dreamlike in his beauty—that I still test reality discreetly, nail into my thumb, retracing last steps. Not because I’m worried he is a dream. But because I’m terrified he will disappear—my entire being remembers the staggering agony of waking up without him. Reality hasn’t fixed that fear: it has only made it more intense, as it has done for the rest of him.

He is quiet too as we reach the willows. Wishes, somehow, he’s here. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, afraid he is already drifting into terrors.

“Just trying to stay in the present moment.”

“Are you feeling sad?”

He peers down at me, eyes puzzled. “Sad? I can’t recall a single day I’ve been less sad in my life.” His smile beams like the moonlight, lifting my own lips in automatic response. “Because there isn’t one. Today, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“Really?”

He nods, effervescent with bliss. “Elisa, the person I love most in the world just met my parents. I finally was able to give them a day of nothing but joy since I turned seven. And I’ve spent the last three hours inside a woman that seems to have been made exactly for me. I’ve never had more in my life than I do today.”

It is true for me too, in a sense. Despite the terror and unknowns ahead, in this one present moment—fighting together, with our families supporting us, and the cottage beaconing—my orbit is more complete than it’s been in a long time.

The cottage is amethyst with starlight when we cross the hedges, the roses lavender silver, filling the air with their little puffs of breath.

“Like cookies, roses,” I bid them goodnight as Aiden unlocks the front door and we step inside. But as soon as he turns on the foyer light, everything changes so fast, it strangles my cry.

Tension strikes through Aiden like a thunderbolt, and his arm whips around me, wedging me between his side and the corner behind the door as if he’s shielding me from something. A low growl rips through his teeth—nothing like his loving sounds this evening. It’s a terrifying snarl that wrenches me awake and has me cowering in my corner.

“Aiden, what—”

His finger flies to my lips as his eyes eviscerate the foyer with scalpel vigilance. I follow their beams wildly, but I can’t see anything that’s making him tense like a lion next to me. Then his hand curves around my face. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” His whisper is firm and urgent. I open my mouth to speak but he’s already gone. Streaking to the kitchen and living room then back in the foyer, checking on me frozen at the corner behind the door. “Stay,” he mouths and blows to the library, laundry closet, and up the stairs this time. Despite his speed, his footsteps are barely audible with practiced stealth. I crouch in my corner, wide awake, trying to periodic-table through the panic that’s closing my throat. I have barely managed a few gasps when Aiden is back, pulling me in his arms.

“Aiden, what is it? What’s wrong?” I choke.

“I think someone’s been here.” His volume is back to normal, but his voice is strained.

Blood drains from my face. The words are foreign, incomprehensible for Burford. “What? What do you mean?”

He’s impatient now, eyes darting everywhere. “I mean someone who isn’t us came here today or tonight when we were out. They’re not here now, and it doesn’t look like they took anything, but I want you to check to be sure.”

My knees almost give out. “Why do you think this?” I whisper in terror, but his phone flashes in his hand almost blurry with speed and he’s already pressing 2, tightening his hold around me.

“Sir?” I hear Benson’s gravelly voice on the other side after the second ring.

“Benson. Cottage. Thorn. Cold. Leave Max at my parents’ door,” Aiden reels off, his lips moving so fast I barely make out the nonsensical words, but Benson must understand them because he simply answers, “On my way,” and hangs up. Aiden is about to press another number, but I yank the phone from his hand.

“Bloody hell, Aiden! Tell me!”

He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, love. A couple of things have moved since I last saw them when we were leaving with my parents for dinner. That makes me think someone has been here.”

“What things? Where?”

“Here in the foyer, but I need you to check the safe first, then the library, your old bedroom, and the guestroom to see if anything looks different from when you last saw it. I hadn’t been there since you and Reagan cleaned so I can’t tell when the differences happened. Can you do that for me?”

I nod woodenly, and he tows me through the three rooms, his protective arms around me as though to break a fall. I check the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia first, but nothing is missing. Then I wobble through each room, staring at everything for signs of intrusion. Nausea wrings my stomach at the idea of a specter inside our bubble, touching our most precious memories, breaching mum’s magic shield that I thought impenetrable. But everything seems to be where it was—in its neat, orderly place from the deep-clean for Aiden’s parents—at least to my average eyes and memory.

“I wish I could remember like you,” I mutter, scanning every surface. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right, love. Maybe they didn’t come here.”

“What about our bedroom—did they move anything there?”

Fury jolts in his eyes at the idea. “Nothing. I was there last, changing for dinner. Even the door was still closed as I left it.”

“And the other rooms?”

“The only place things have moved is the foyer, as far as I can tell. Now I wish I had entered these other rooms before we headed out, but I never imagined I needed to for this.”

“What did they move in the foyer?”

“Come, I’ll show you.”

As we wade back down the stairs, I recall that fleeting sense of panic when I first entered the cottage a month ago, the guilty worry that someone had touched my parents’ things. How silly it feels now compared to this. Yet everything looks exactly the same to me, even in the foyer.

“Aiden, where—” I start to ask but he gestures to the foyer wall with his chin.

“Look at your picture with your parents in Italy.”

I squint at the photo of the three of us at the Trevi Fountain. “Umm, do you mean that it’s crooked?”

“Yes.”

Without conscious decision on my part, my lungs draw the first deep breath since we came in. “But Aiden, I could have done that when I was dust—”

“It wasn’t like that when we left with my parents,” he interrupts me, shaking his head. “That frame was straight.” There is no doubt in his voice, no room for argument. His memory is absolute, as I know it to be. Yet there is a lethal fervor about him. I watch his face carefully now: the panes are sharp with tension, eyes ferocious with intensity, fierceness emanating from him in destructive waves. Abruptly, a different fear starts spreading over me. Not just for the cottage now, but for him. Is there danger here? Or is this the effect of the reel—seeing danger everywhere, even in the most innocent things?

“But the frame could have moved when you closed the door or on its own,” I argue, trying to stick to logic for answers. “Why do you think someone did it?”

He is shaking his head again before I’m finished and strides to the front door. “Watch the frame,” he says, opening the door and then closing it. “Did it move?”

“No, but—”

“Watch again.” He opens and closes the door three more times, each time harder than the one before, and the frame dips on the third.

“There! There, it just moved!” I cry out, pointing at it. “See, it doesn’t mean anything, love. You’re just extra vigilant right now, that’s all.” I almost sink on the floor with relief, but something flashes in his eyes too quickly for me to understand it.

“I didn’t slam the door when we left, Elisa. I had to slam it now to get the same effect.”

“I know, but frames move all the time. These are just hanging on old nails. Is this the only thing you noticed?”

His jaw flexes once, and that same nameless emotion strikes his face once more. “No, it’s not. Look at your father’s scarf.” He tilts his head toward the coat rack that only has the scarf and parka in it.

A frisson of panic courses through me. “What about it?” I scan the scarf urgently, heart crashing against my ribs, but again I notice nothing.

“It’s slipped on the peg. When we left, both sides were hanging down almost equally. Now the left is a couple inches longer than the right.”

It would have been impossible for me to notice without him pointing it out. “Okay, yes, I see it. But why do you think someone moved it? It’s a piece of tweed on a peg. It can slip on its own. I have dresses that fall from hangers all the time.”

Something gives out at my words, and his eyes start to harden. “Because—” he speaks through his teeth now, but then pinches the bridge of his nose in what I assume is an effort to moderate his voice. “Because—” he tries again. “It’s too many coincidences all in the same six-square feet. That’s why.”

His eyes are boring into me, half-glaring half-imploring me to see things his way. But I no longer know what is worse: for him to be wrong or for him to right. And what is best: to support him or challenge him here? His acute tension decides it for me. “Aiden, love, there aren’t too many coincidences. There are exactly two.”

“You’re wrong!” His voice slips out of his control as it did in my dreams when I couldn’t see past the field of epiphanies.  “Look at your mother’s coat.” My eyes flit to it immediately. “The right sleeve is straight now; it was bent when we left.”

“But, Aiden, it probably relaxed on its own. It’s called gravity. Haven’t you ever heard of hanging up your clothes to release wrinkles?”

His jaw flexes. “I see. And the petals on the console?” I whirl to the console with split terror: dreading and wishing for him to be right. Two petals are under the vase of Clare roses I cut for his parents. “One wasn’t there when we left,” he explains. “The other fell when I slammed the door just now. From fresh roses, I might add.”

I stare at them, counting unnecessarily.

“Well?” he demands.

“I don’t know what answer you want me to give,” I admit, suddenly losing my patience. “If I argue, you’ll just get angrier. Do you want me to agree or disagree with you?”

“I want the truth,” he hisses.

I don’t know what does it—whether it’s that hiss, his refusal to consider a benign explanation, the last several minutes of apparently needless terror, or the emotions of the last forty-eight hours—but abruptly I feel exhausted and angry myself. “Fine, here’s the truth. Petals fall all the bloody time. That’s what they do. I see absolutely nothing about two petals from a bouquet of thirty roses to indicate someone was here, especially when there’s no sign of a break-in at all, in a town that hasn’t had a burglary in forty years, in a cottage that has zero riches of any kind except the roses which are all outside.”

His face becomes livid. “Zero riches?” he roars, hand in a fist around the doorknob still—the brass rose is shuddering from his strength. “It has you, Elisa! For the first time in four years. Maybe that’s why they didn’t steal anything—because who they really wanted wasn’t here tonight! And why would they need to break the door when all the windows stay open the whole fucking time?”

“Enough!” My voice fires off, too loud by my standards, too low by his, shocking us both. He’s breathing hard, watching me with that nameless emotion again. And everything becomes too much for me. I just want to go to bed with realities that, although excruciating, I can understand. Or at least trust. I take a deep breath, trying to lower my voice. “Aiden, it’s been a long day, we have to be up in a few hours for the reel. Let’s just go to sleep. We’re not solving anything tonight even if someone did come in and we can’t call PC Dockery with this kind of evidence.”

I turn for the stairs, but his voice stops my feet. It’s no longer loud or hard—it’s quiet, almost part of the night. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

I look back at him, still standing by door. “I believe you believe this.”

Fury strikes his face so staggering that it makes the livid look of a few moments ago seem like a smile. “Spare me the diplomacy bullshit, Elisa, and say it in plain English. Say, ‘Aiden, I don’t trust your judgment because you’re a madman who has to wear a fucking monitor over his eyes every morning and it’s making you see things.’ Say it!” He speaks in a guttural, arctic voice that rends the night more than his roar. But even worse is the nameless emotion now drowning him. It’s no longer nameless. It’s the purest compound of hurt and fear I’ve ever seen in my life. It knocks me breathless, and I have to grip the rail of the stairs for balance.

“Aiden, no,” I gasp. “I don’t think—” But the doorbell chimes with its Für Elise jingle followed by a battery of booming knocks. I jump up, but he doesn’t move. He is frozen at the door, watching me, anger and anguish in every pore.

Another volley of knocks shakes the door, and a panicked familiar voice shouts, “Aiden! Elisa!” It’s his father, not Benson.

“Fuck!” Aiden hisses, shutting his eyes and trying to rearrange his face, jaw clenching with the effort. But he’s still blanched and jagged when he yanks open the door. I watch, peripherally, as his parents storm in first both in their pajamas, Benson and his military mate, Max, towering behind them. I hear their frantic voices, muffled from my heart hammering in my ears, sputtering that they heard Benson and Max at their door talking about trouble at the cottage, and Benson apologizing for not being able to stop them. But my central focus is on Aiden—shocked, exhausted, worried, furious, surrounded with the people he loves most and vibrating with tension against the foyer wall in terror of hurting them, fuming for his parents to go back to bed right now. That unlocks me.

“Everyone!” I call from the staircase, not wanting to crowd Aiden more. “Let’s all go in the living room and give Aiden some space. We can talk there.”

They scramble and follow me immediately, Benson bending at the waist and Max, not as hulking but still broad, lumbering sideways. None of them even looks at the seats—they just scatter around in various poses of distress while Stella takes me in a hug where I’m hovering by the sofa, gesturing futilely at it. “Are you all right, darling? What’s happened? We were awake from jetlag and heard Benson tell Max something about a break-in.” Behind her, Benson looks almost as murderous as his boss.

“We’re both fine, Aiden’s just being careful,” I assure her but I’m really listening for any sign of him in the foyer. I hear nothing. “Why don’t I get us some tea?”

But before I can take a step, he strides in the room. His face is back under his control albeit ashen, his frame in its granite public setting. He scans the room, eyes landing on me first. They’re opaque under his tight leash, the hurt well-hidden in their depths.

“Everyone, have a seat.” His voice is back to its alpha timbre, too. They all thaw at his command and perch at the edge of everything—armchairs, floor, piano seat—leaving the sofa to us. I panic he won’t sit next to me, but he does. Not close enough for our arms to touch as usual, but I’ll take any closeness at this point. Then he steeples his fingers and starts with his parents. “I’d like for you to go back to bed. This is nothing Benson and I can’t handle—”

“Son, we’re staying.” Robert’s voice is calm but final. “Now tell us what happened.”

Aiden watches his father in exasperation for a moment, then summarizes the last fifteen minutes that feel like fifteen years in three sentences. “When we came in tonight, I noticed a few things had moved. Nothing seems to be missing, and there are no signs of a break-in. But I’m not convinced these changes are accidental, although Elisa has some rational reservations about my theory.”

My eyes fly to him, startled by his admission, but he’s looking at Benson sitting on the floor.

“What was out of place?” Benson asks in an efficient tone, taking notes as Aiden explains everything, including my objections. It’s impossible to miss how unquestionably Benson accepts Aiden’s theory. And how Max nods, clearly considering this possibility. Is that because Aiden is Benson’s employer? I watch Robert and Stella who know Aiden best. Their faces are folded in concern, but I can’t tell if they agree or disagree with him. And the earlier dread starts creeping over me again. Am I wrong? Was there someone really here? Did I hurt Aiden over nothing when he’s only trying to protect me?

“They must have had a key if they didn’t break the door,” Benson concludes. “Elisa, who has a key to the cottage?”

“Just Aiden and me. The Plemmonses had a copy when I lived in Portland, but they gave it back. That’s the copy Aiden has.”

“They don’t need a key,” Aiden disagrees. “They could have picked the lock or easily slip through any of the open windows. No one closes them around here, but that’s changing tonight.”

“Theories on who or why?” Benson prompts.

“Many, one as likely and unlikely as the next.”

“So, we can rule out burglary since nothing was taken,” Max interjects, drawing a line on a scratchpad he seems to have pulled from somewhere.

“I agree.” Aiden nods. “Which points to a more personal motive, but why?”

Benson turns to me. “Has anything like this happened here before?”

I shake my head. “Burford hasn’t had a break-in since 1976 and even then, it was Plemmons Blooms, not a home.”

“What did they steal?” Aiden looks at me again, and I meet his anxious eyes immediately.

“Roses.” A general gasp fills the room, and his eyebrows arch in disbelief. “But it never happened again,” I explain quickly. “It just became a local legend—the Rose Thief. The story goes that it was the ghost of Lady Tanfield who used to own Plemmons’s street hundreds of years ago or a desperately poor farmhand trying to impress his love.”

“So they never caught the Rose Thief?” Benson clarifies.

“No, but it was forty years ago. And they didn’t cause damage or hurt anyone.”

“They didn’t tonight either,” Max points out and ticks something on his notepad. “So maybe we have a motive. There are thousands of roses around here.”

“Yes, but they’re all outside,” I argue, feeling mental for considering legends as options instead of gravity. “Why would they need to come in if they were after roses? And just about every other cottage in town has them. Why this one?”

“Why indeed,” Robert muses, eyes on Aiden. Something quick passes between them, and Aiden’s jaw flinches in defiance.

“You have been working on that new rose hybrid you showed me,” Stella suggests. “Maybe something about it? And the Rose Festival is next weekend.”

I can see all their faces pondering her theory with seriousness, although Aiden shakes his head. “The timing with the festival is suspicious, I’ll grant you that. But the hybrid is out in the garden. As Elisa said, they wouldn’t need to come in. And whoever the intruder is wouldn’t know about it in the first place. But let’s keep it on the table for now. I’ll search the garden as soon as it’s light out.”

“What about a stalker?” Max throws out.

A muted snarl rumbles from Aiden and, for the first time since our argument, his arm flies around my shoulders. “It was my first thought,” he answers through his teeth. “Although Elisa’s things are untouched, which is inconsistent with their playbook.”

I should shudder at the idea as improbable as it sounds, but with his stony arm around me, I can’t feel that kind of fear. My only fear is for him.  I lean closer and he peers at me, eyes softer now. “Have you seen anyone follow you since you’ve been back or even before you moved to Portland?”

“No, never as far as I know,” I assure him. “I would tell you about something like that.”

He nods, but the phone screen flashes to his ear. Everyone is frozen as he waits for an answer from someone at two thirty in the morning. He doesn’t have to wait long. Whoever he’s calling picks up almost as quickly as Benson.

“Yeah, Cal, it’s me,” Aiden speaks into the receiver. I inhale every rapid-fire word he exchanges with James. “Sorry about the hour . . . when you were watching Elisa, did you ever see anyone around the cottage?” A quick answer. “What about anyone following her? Town, Oxford, anywhere?” Another quick answer. “I figured . . . Yes, she’s fine. I’ll fill you in later . . . Agreed . . . See you next weekend.”

“What did James say?” I ask as soon as he hangs up.

“He didn’t see anyone, and if there was someone to be seen, Cal wouldn’t have missed him. And I certainly haven’t seen anyone or they wouldn’t have come here tonight. Don’t worry about this. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” His voice is resolute, and his hand clutches my shoulder on the last words.

“I know you won’t—I’m not worried about that. I’m more worried about the stress this is causing you.”

He looks like he’s about to argue, but Robert jumps in with his idea. “What about anyone at work, Elisa, where Cal and Aiden couldn’t see?”

I shake my head, a smile pulling my lips without permission. “No, I’m working with one of my dad’s friends and his best former student who thinks my dad was a chemistry god and talks to him out loud. They quite literally are dedicating a bench to him like a shrine. I’d suspect Lady Tanfield over either of them.”

“Does anyone else know about the protein?” Aiden asks.

“Just the other Bia chemists, but they’re all screened and know everything already.”

“Not everything,” he reminds me.

“Yes, but no one alive knows about the code or the list except you and me. The code is in the you-know-what and the list is always you-know-where and we’ve left no evidence of our work here or there. Besides, if they had found out, why would they need to break in? They’d camp at Bia twenty-four seven, celebrating and testing.” I caress the locket for emphasis.

“I’m sorry, I’m not following,” Stella speaks for the first time in a while. All their eyes are on us, brows knitted in confusion.

“Elisa is working on a highly complex and confidential project,” Aiden explains and, even in his tension, a note of pride still enters his voice. “But we can’t discuss the details.”

“So what options are left? If this project, the roses, a stalker, or a burglar are out?” Robert looks straight at Aiden now and the room falls quiet. He gazes into the empty beehive fireplace, eyes squinting as they shift in analysis too quick for me to follow. Only in the end do I see a flicker of the hurt before he throttles it immediately.

“Well, first, I’m not ruling out any of those options until I have solid evidence to the contrary,” he answers in a tightly controlled tone, eyes still on the fireplace, but his hand on his knee has turned into a fist again. “But if it’s not any of them, the only other option left is that Elisa is right . . . that I’m seeing things.”

“Aiden, no!” I take his fist in both of mine, not caring of the four pairs of eyes on us. “I don’t think you’re seeing things, love. But I do think you might be seeing danger. I don’t question the frame has moved, or the scarf has slipped, or your judgment. I’m only worried you’re under incomprehensible stress and might be interpreting these things to mean something sinister in your heightened vigilance. Please believe me—there’s no one I trust more than you.”

I brush his white knuckles and let him see everything he can see in my eyes—the whole truth. A very, very small part of my brain registers how silent the room has remained around us. Eventually his fist opens, and he nods once. “Fair. We’ll keep that option on the table, too. But I can’t ignore the others. If you’re right, there’s nothing I can do about it. But if I’m right and someone was here, there’s a lot we need to do.” He pulls back his hand and his head snaps up at Benson. “We need to scout the area. It’s almost light out. Max, how long can you stay in England?”

“I have another week off work.”

“If I double your current salary, will you consider staying here as Elisa’s security until I find someone local?”

“My what?” I gasp, but he silences me with one look.

“I’m indulging your theory, now please indulge mine.” His eyes fly to Max again who jolts to his feet and almost salutes him while I watch my life transform in seconds.

“Absolutely, sir. I’ve been wanting to work for you since Benson first started. No one will get near her.”

“Agreed. And vet security for my parents while they’re here as well. Cal and the others will be here next weekend for the Rose Festival, so that’s three more hands. We’ll discuss surveillance and logistics when I get back.” His sniper gaze flashes to his parents who are still at the edge of their seats, faces in identical masks of stress. “Can you stay with Elisa until I get back?”

“Of course,” they answer in unison.

With a deep breath, Aiden turns to me and cups my cheek. “I know you think this is unnecessary and even insane, but I have to do this. I cannot take any risks—no matter how remote you believe them—with your safety, do you understand me?”

I manage a nod, too stunned to produce any words.

“Good. Now stay here and don’t worry—Max will guard the cottage. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

Translation: I’ll be up all night for you, then do the reel, then protect you from known and unknown dangers no matter what it costs me. That unlocks my tongue. “Why don’t you sleep first and go out later?” I plead with him. “Sleep is important for you right now.”

“I’ll sleep afterwards. It’ll be easier to notice any differences now before there’s more activity around or to check if anyone is still in the area. But the three of you should absolutely go to bed.”

“I will if you will,” I offer urgently. “Please?” But he presses his lips on mine quickly and bolts to his feet.

“Benson, let’s go.”

They’re out of the door before I can say or do anything else. I sprint to the window barely catching their shadows disappear over the rose hedges into the violet dawn.

The silence that follows their departure is deafening. I stand frozen, staring at the empty garden, the wound in my chest ripped wide open. What is happening to my love? How can he keep up with this stress? And what if he’s right against all reason, and someone is out there? What if Aiden gets hurt trying to protect me? I’ve been dreading losing him at the end of the summer if we don’t win. But what if we don’t have even that long? What if this experiment or something else claims Aiden before then? Abruptly a flashback of my Romeo nightmare blasts in my vision for the first time in over a week, blinding me with its force. I shudder at its clarity, seeing nothing but Aiden’s parted lips, feeling his cold skin on my fingertips, so much like Mum’s hand in the morgue or dad’s forehead in the casket. A gasping sound patters close by—my own. Distantly I feel a warm arm around my shoulders and Stella’s faraway voice snaps me out of my own terrifying reel.

“Elisa? Darling? Come sit, sweetheart.” She pulls me back on the sofa that no longer has Aiden’s warmth, and curls next to me, holding me in her gardenia hug—much like Reagan two weeks ago except Stella’s arms are wrought with her own terror for her son. That seeps through me. I should be comforting her, not the other way around. I breathe against my own fear, clutching my locket, and fold out of her embrace. Robert is sitting on the other side of her, face lined with worry. Max has taken my spot at the window, staring out into the garden.

“I’m sorry,” I croak, voice hoarse with unshed tears. “I’m being an awful hostess. I’ll start the kettle. Or do you want to rest for a bit? The guestroom is clean, and it would make Aiden happy if you tried.”

Stella chuckles with a forlorn sound. “Oh, sweet pea, you’re not our hostess. You might as well be a second child to me as much as my son loves you. And there’s no chance of us catching a wink. Come on, I’ll help you with the tea. I could use the busy work, too.”

In the kitchen, I don’t dare to touch mum’s tea set in my state. Just our old everyday cups that are almost as precious in their chipped way. I warm the leftover scones from our afternoon tea, fighting back tears at Aiden’s playfulness with the kettle. How blissful and proud he was just two hours ago. The happiest day of his life, he said, and it ended like this—with terror and hurt from me. I stifle back a sob and chase it with tea from his coffee mug to cover the sound. It doesn’t fool his mother.

“You know,” she says, shuffling the Twinnings tea packets in their wicker basket. “Aiden has always been very strong, even as a little boy. He’s like Robert that way. I’m worried about a lot of things tonight. But not about anyone hurting him and Benson together.”

I nod because it’s true—physically Aiden is a weapon of mass destruction—but I don’t feel comforted. Because the reel and he are destroying each other every dawn in other ways—and his parents don’t know that. Outside the kitchen window, the sky is turning sapphire. Max’s boulder shape is out there pacing the garden perimeter, and the roses are washing off their sleep with dew. Did you see anyone last night? I ask them in my head. I think you’d have found a way to rise from your roots and scratch their eyes out with your thorns if that was the case. They don’t answer.

“How has Aiden been sleeping, Elisa?” Robert’s quiet voice startles me from my monologue. It’s the first time he has spoken since Aiden left. He’s at the kitchen table in dad’s and Javier’s chair—his tea and scone untouched.

“Quite well actually, except tonight of course.” I take a sip of chamomile tea, blush prickling my hairline at discussing our sleep with his father.

“That’s good. At least Für Elise is holding.”

The mug shakes in my hand so much that hot tea spills on my fingers, but it’s still cooler than my cheeks. “You—you know about that?”

Stella is dabbing off my hands with a tea towel, looking as stunned as me. “Know about it? We were the ones who discovered it. Didn’t Aiden tell you?”

The kitchen goes blank, except their lined beautiful faces and the gasps of air on my lips. I shake my head, barely mouthing the words. “He said it was painful for him to talk about.”

“Oh, believe it.” Robert nods, exchanging a glance with Stella.

I look at his grave expression then at Stella’s sad smile then back at Robert then back at her again, thoughts a snarl. Can I ask? Should I ask? But Stella nods in encouragement. “Would you like us to tell you, dear?”

“Oh, please, will you?” I stammer, all breath gone. “I’d never make him relive it, but . . .”

“But you want to know. Of course, you do. Here, come sit, and we’ll tell you the story. I don’t want Aiden to have to revisit it either.”

I perch at the wooden edge of mum’s seat and wrap my hands around Aiden’s mug as Stella takes my old chair next to Robert and starts in a low sonata voice. “How to start? From the beginning, I suppose . . . The last night Aiden ever spent in our home was June eighth, 2003—the night he attacked me, about one week after he had returned from that unspeakable place. He was sleeping in the basement back then, although ‘sleeping’ is a generous word. He’d never been a good sleeper, but this was different. He would just lay on the hard floor, either in a nightmare or wide awake—nothing in between. Robert and I used to listen at the stairs . . . I still hear the screams . . . ‘let him go, let him go, let him go,’ he would say in Arabic . . . I was foolish that night. He had told me not to wake him, but I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer that way and . . . well, you know how it ended . . .” She shudders and tea splashes from her cup. I dab her hands, as Robert rubs her shoulder. He doesn’t seem to be breathing.

“He never returned after that night, no matter how much we pleaded with him,” she continues. “I would see him some nights—under the old cedar in our backyard or driving by, but he never crossed our threshold again. He felt so wretched for hurting me, he didn’t think he deserved to come in . . .” She drifts again, a tear sparkling in her eye.

“Where was he staying?” I whisper.

“Outside, camping with Cal and the other boys for a while. They were all in bad shape, although Aiden more so, of course. He was lost to us for a long time. As were they to their families. Only the four of them know how they lived through it. But they did somehow, they kept each other alive, I’m convinced of that . . .” She shudders again, and the cup slips through her hands, tea sloshing everywhere. “Oh, I’m sorry, Elisa. What a mess!” She apologizes frantically while I try to comfort her and mop up the tea, my own hands trembling. Robert shifts his chair so close to her that their arms are touching, like Aiden does with me.

“Anyway,” she sighs. “For the next few years, we’d hold our breath every time we heard tires on the driveway, or a knock on the door, or the doorbell. But it was never Aiden. He would only call or write. Once he started his company and could afford Benson, we’d visit him at home but the pain and guilt and fear in his eyes when he’d see us . . . I couldn’t stand for him to feel it. And so the distance grew year after year and we stopped holding our breath when the doorbell rang . . . But it all changed one night a month ago, the night you left.” Stella looks at me, eyes glimmering with tears and a smile lifting her lips. Robert seems to breathe for the first time I’ve noticed since the story began while my chest throbs at the reminder.

“He had called us earlier that evening to ask if the Solises could stay with us for a couple of weeks. He sounded upset; they’re very important to me, he said. Of course we agreed immediately—it’s so rare for him to ask anything of us. So they moved into the guest house only a couple hours later, and Berty and I had gone to bed.  Then around one in the morning, the doorbell woke us. I don’t know how long it had been ringing, and there he was—right on our doorstep as we had always dreamed but looking so destroyed, we almost fell to our knees. I thought a diagnosis or another Marine had been lost or another accident. But he just said, ‘Can I stay here tonight? I’m not in trouble, but I can’t be anywhere else.’ I don’t even remember what we said . . .

“I just remember he crossed the threshold, very carefully, and that’s when we saw Benson behind him, looking pale, but he didn’t come in. And then Aiden took the stairs to his old room where all his childhood things still are. We followed at a distance, expecting him to close the door, but he didn’t. He let us sit with him in total silence. For almost an hour, he just sat at the edge of his old bed, no words, no movement, staring at an old frame of the three of us at Oxford, for moments at a time he wasn’t even breathing. Then my heart started acting up and I needed my medication, and that’s when he came to. He looked at me and said, ‘I met someone.’

“At first, I didn’t think I heard him right, but he said it again. ‘I met someone, and I lost her.’ We didn’t know what to do, we were just . . .”

“Shocked,” Robert speaks for the first time since the story began. “Absolutely floored.”

“You see, ever since Aiden’s gifts became apparent, we had spent years worrying about the right girl for him, then years worrying about the wrong kind, and then years no longer hoping he’d find anyone at all. And now here it was, and we didn’t know what to say. My first worry was that you had been hurt, dear, but I knew with his memory the very first words we’d utter were the most important.

“So I just asked, ‘what’s her name?’

“‘Elisa,’ he answered and then sort of breathed.

“‘That’s beautiful,’ I said, ‘like the melody?’ And he nodded.

“I don’t know what made me do it, I don’t know why—maybe because I couldn’t find the words—but I went to his old record player and put on Für Elise. And almost immediately he started to breathe. Just regularly, in and out. I sat next to him on the bed—which would have been unthinkable for him to ever allow—and said, ‘tell me about Elisa.’ He lied down on his side, facing us, and said ‘I love her.’

“Neither of us was breathing at that point even though he was, were we, Berty?”

He shakes his head, eyes on his cold tea.

“Then the song ended, and Berty replayed it. ‘I love her,’ Aiden said again. ‘The Solises are her family, but she’s gone. And I don’t know how to be with her or without her . . .’ We waited for him to finish but he just fell asleep. Just like that. Poof! Our Aiden, our tortured, beautiful, kind boy just drifted. We couldn’t believe our eyes . . .”

For a while, they both gaze unseeingly at their cold cups, their faces folded in wonder, as I labor sick with worry to find my lungs or anything in my body to keep me here instead of running through the fields to search for my tortured, beautiful, kind love. To bring him home where he can sleep and dream sweet dreams, safe from everything outside and inside of him. I’ll stand guard while he rests, not Max or Benson—because I’m the one who calms him.

Robert comes back to the kitchen first. “We stayed up all night, just watching him, replaying your song. We figured out how to do it on our phones, so that one would start as the other ended.”

“And through it all, my baby slept,” Stella sniffles, wiping her nose with the wet tea towel. “I know it sounds odd to call him that, as big and hard as he is, but he’ll always be my baby. And that’s why for us, you could have been Medusa living in Hades and we’d still love you. But you’re not—you’re a loving, beautiful girl who is giving our boy sleep.” She caresses my cheek.

“Thank you,” Robert says with a deep emotion in his voice.

I watch their faces, blurring through tears, without knowing what to say or how to breathe or sit still.

“Oh, don’t cry, darling.” Stella wipes my cheeks even though hers are almost as soaked. “This is a good thing. He loves you so much. I know it’s difficult to deal with his . . . intensity, his protectiveness, not to mention his awful temper and stubbornness, but you’re the most important thing in his life. Please indulge him, like he said.”

“But stand up to him, too,” Robert urges. “Like you did today with this threat. I think it’s important you do that. Aiden wouldn’t accept it from anyone else, but he needs to hear it.”

My head is spinning with all the revelations, the different directions my emotions are pulling at me, the millions of needlepoints of panic for Aiden, and love so strong it feels it might crush me more than his startle blow. I try to squint through the gale of my thoughts for the most immediate. “Thank you for telling me,” I manage after a while. “And for being here.”

“Where else would we be, dear? We’ll help you through this and anything else you need. But don’t be afraid, if there is someone out there trying to hurt you, God save him when Aiden finds him, and he will.”

A shiver courses through me, and I gulp some tepid tea, placing my lips on the mug where Aiden wraps his. “I’m not afraid of that. I’m more afraid of what Aiden is going through.”

“You really don’t believe this threat is real then, Elisa?” Robert frowns.

I shake my head. Who would ever want to hurt this place? Or me? Why?

“You make some good points. On the other hand, I’ve never known Aiden to be wrong on matters of perception,” Robert argues. “Emotion is another issue. And this is a bit of both.”

“You agree with him then, Berty?”

“Hard to say.”

They start the same argument then—is it real? Is it not?—while outside, the early sunrise is filling the garden with a diffuse light. Abruptly I can’t sit here any longer. I mumble something about the roses and slip out in the garden. Max’s eyes follow me from the hedge as I pad to the bench where Aiden and I sit together at this hour after the reel, drinking coffee mouth to mouth. But his unmistakable silhouette is nowhere on the horizon. I clutch my locket, eyes flitting over the field of epiphanies. Bring him home. Keep him safe. Give him peace.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTERS 21 & 22 – ANSWER & THE HALES

Hello friends, and welcome to tea! Or rather to two chapters since I didn’t post on Sunday: Answer and The Hales.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them. I’m savoring these moments with our couple, you’ll see why.  More soon, and thank you as always for reading and writing to me. Hope the week wraps up well.  xo, Ani

21

Answer

Reagan and Javier’s last hour in Burford comes too soon. Where did two weeks go? How has it been only two weeks when they feel so permanent here, as natural as the roses? How can I watch them go? And what then? Continue living goodbye to goodbye?

“You know we’ll come right back if you need us, right?” Javier asks Aiden and me as we’re all sitting in the Inn’s terrace Friday evening for a final toast before they go to Heathrow Airport. Not that I can swallow anything. Aiden’s arm hasn’t left my waist since he picked me up from Bia four hours ago.

“We do, thank you,” he answers now for us both—my voice has disappeared.

Amorcita?” Javier takes my hand across the table. “I promise. You just say the word.”

“Absolutely, Isa.” Reagan takes my other hand. “As often as needed until you two figure this out and come back.”

At least my blanched face can be blamed on the goodbye this time. At least I don’t have to force a smile. I manage a nod.

“About that,” Aiden adds. “These are for you.” He hands them the two first-class tickets he has bought them. “They’re for . . . September.”

I know he chose the bare minimum words needed but a chill whips my skin anyway. September 18, when our ninety days are up. In case I need Javier and Reagan here then. In case we don’t win.  His hold on my waist could crush the boulder in the river but it’s still not tight enough for me.  He throws his jacket casually over my shoulders.

“That’s when you’ll find out if things have improved?” Javier confirms, his voice lower.

Even Aiden can’t form a verbal answer now—he simply nods, pulling me closer.

“And then what?” Reagan starts but Javier elbows her.

“Reg, don’t.”

“Why not?” she fires back at him, eyes flashing. “Why can’t we discuss the elephant in the room, Javi?”

For a moment I don’t know if she is talking about them or us—there has been no progress with them on that front—but Javier shakes his head. “Because it’s not our elephant to discuss.”

“What did you want to discuss, Reagan?” Aiden asks my question, no doubt for my benefit.

She glares at Javier and, hesitantly, takes Aiden’s hand too. I feel tension jolt through him. It strains him more now the longer he watches the reel. “I don’t care if I’m interfering, I have to say this part. I know you have serious things to deal with but I’ve also seen how much you love each other. And that kind of love is rare. Don’t throw it away.”

“Reg, for the love of God!” Javier explodes—very rare for him. “Isa could get hurt! And not just hurt, but really fucked up! Is that what you want?”

“Of course not!”

“Then what the fuck? Isn’t it hard enough without reminding them how much worse it can get?”

I barely hear Javier and Reagan’s loud voices over the shudder that rocks through Aiden and the snap of his teeth at the mere idea. Javier and Reagan notice it too, and stop mid-fight. Javier takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Aiden. I didn’t mean to—”

“There’s nothing to apologize for. You’re absolutely right.” Aiden’s voice is clipped, filled the terror and self-hatred twisting every band of muscle in his back. That snaps me out of my self-pity.

“No, you are not!” I yank back my hands from their hold, my voice a lot louder and sharper than I ever thought I could produce against Javier. “You don’t know Aiden like I do. He’s working hard at it every day—harder than you could ever know—and he will not hurt me!”

Anger burns my throat and my breath is coming out in hard gusts. I’ve never yelled at Javier before—this is not how I want to say goodbye. But even worse is saying goodbye with him thinking of Aiden this way.

“Elisa, love, it’s all right.” Aiden’s voice—so tender with me when seconds ago it was so vicious against himself—makes me even more furious.

“You stop it, too! You’re worse about it than Javier. Can’t we all just have some . . . some faith in you? In who you are?”

He raises his eyebrows, taken aback by the force of my anger. As we all are. I scowl at the veranda’s balustrade, hands in fists. I don’t understand my fury right now. The last minutes with Reagan and Javier are ticking, I’m more terrified of losing Aiden than ever, yet I’m fighting with them for worrying about me. But I do understand this: I’m not scared of Aiden hurting me physically. I know that’s mad given our history, but I just cannot feel that kind of fear. I’m terrified of what this fight will cost him, of losing him if he doesn’t beat this when I would want to be with him no matter what. Exactly as Reagan said.

She nods at me in understanding.

The two most self-loathing men on the planet heave a similar deep sigh. I don’t want to imagine the arguments Aiden is having with himself right now—they might as well be scrawled in blood across his forehead. At last Javier nods. “Okay, Isa, I can see your point. And I do have faith in you, Aiden. I don’t think you’d ever hurt her intentionally. It’s accidents I worry about.”

“As do I,” Aiden answers, ignoring my huff.

“But I also worry about you two all alone here with so much hanging in the balance. I’m glad your parents are coming tomorrow but after they leave . . . Isn’t there a way for you both to come back while you deal with this? We still have your million dollars. Come back to Portland where we can all be together and support you more.”

Javier looks straight at me now, and whatever blood boiled to the surface from anger drains off my face. Behind him, the moon glows over the hilltop with my parents’ grave. The cottage’s rooftop looms across the field of epiphanies. And in my chest, the locket with my father’s dream is pulsing next to my heart. Tears spring in my eyes, and I have nowhere to look, nowhere to hide.

I know they have seen everything under the veranda’s lanterns. I hear it in their silence, in Reagan’s sigh, and yet I cannot form a single word, I cannot gaze anywhere except at the mental image of a ribcage torn apart like the one in the reel of torture.

“The thing is, Javier,” Aiden breaks the silence in a measured tone as chill after chill flays my arms. “The scientists who are helping me are here. And this place is a bit easier for me right now, quieter, more open. So I’ll have to impose on you to be here for us this summer.”

He just took it all from me and put it on himself so I don’t have to choose or even answer right now. I don’t know if it works on Reagan and Javier, I can’t look because I finally can meet Aiden’s eyes when this topic comes up. They’re the softest blue—softer than the moonlight. Is this how they’ve looked at me every time I’ve hidden from them?

“In that case, we’ll come here as you need us,” Javier says without further argument. “We can revisit if—when—things work out.”

I know he corrected himself for me. I know because he smiles when I manage to look at him.  And then it’s time. Benson comes into the terrace, telling us the van is ready to take them away. All my anger and indecision disappears—the only thing left is anguish and goodbye. No, don’t go, I want to shout in front of that van, but they have their own troubles, their own lives.

“I’ll come with you to the airport,” I sniffle as they stand.

Dios, Isa, no. You wouldn’t get back here until midnight. Aiden’s parents are coming tomorrow.” Javier grins despite my earlier yelling.

And that does make me smile. I get to meet the two people who created the most beautiful force in my life tomorrow, just as Aiden planned it so I’d have something to get me through today.  But I still don’t know how I get through the next few minutes. Only Aiden’s hand in mine keeps me standing or walking as Benson and his mate, Max, start carrying out Reagan’s and Javier’s suitcases one after the other, double in number now because of Reagan’s new hats. Then Aiden’s hand squeezes mine.

“Have a few minutes with them,” he says, kissing my temple. “I’ll be in the lobby.” His eyes follow me as I shamble to Javier’s room in the quiet Inn.

Reagan and Javier are both there, double-checking Javier’s travel parole documents. As soon as they see me, they pull me in their arms in a three-way hug, as they did when they showed up on my doorstep exactly two weeks ago.

“We’ll call as soon as we land, and every day after that,” Reagan says. “I’ll be back before you know it. Take care of my rose until then.”

“I will.” I take their hands and put them together. “And you take care of each other, okay?”

“Don’t worry about us,” Javier answers while Reagan stares at her trainers.  “It’s you and Aiden you need to worry about.” They drop their hands at the same time.

“Love you,” I tell them both. “Love you so much. I’m so sorry I yelled at you, Javi.”

He laughs, mussing up my hair. “Don’t worry about it. That’s how I know we’re family.” Then his face becomes somber, and I know before he speaks that he’ll say something that will ring in my ears long after his plane takes off.  “You know we’re family, right?”

“I do.”

“We’re never going to replace your parents on that hill, sweetheart, but we’re here, flesh and blood. Life is long—you need family with you. Heal Aiden here but come back to us.”

He gives me another peppermint hug, Reagan kisses my cheek, and with a love you corazon y alma, they walk out.

I sink on the rug of Javier’s room as their footsteps fade, clutching my locket, trying to breathe, trying to see the present moment instead of the torn, unknown future ahead of me. But there is nothing visible through the tears that are gushing now. The whole world has become liquid like transatlantic oceans, drowning me in it.

It takes Aiden exactly two minutes to find me here, gasping and weeping on the floor. He folds down next to me, cradling me in his arms. And at first, it’s worse. Because that terrified part of me that’s drowning imagines another goodbye—his—and sobs wrack my lungs so violently that he tightens his hold and starts rocking me in place, murmuring words I cannot hear. I grip the collar of his shirt and another image—this one of gripping the marble grave when I first came back—flashes in my own reel of torture.  But wafts of cinnamon breath wash over my face one after another, and eventually I can find the present moment. I’m in Aiden’s chest, his shirt is soaked, his hand is cupping my cheek as he keeps murmuring, “I’m here, I’m right here, I love you, they love you.”

And though the tears are still trickling, I can breathe through them and it’s not the worst goodbye of my life. I take strength from that. And I’m not alone. Even though my mind dreads his goodbye, in the present moment, Aiden is with me, I’m in the fortress of his arms. And I’m able to lift my head, look up at his eyes.

Just in time to wish I hadn’t. Because the agony there is so staggering that it suffocates my lungs. I’m adding to his pain when the reel already brutalizes him each dawn. And its toll is getting higher each week, each day. The reel holds him longer; it takes a few extra minutes to bring him back; he is more vigilant, seeing more dangers; and his eyes lock in memories more often. Yet he’s here, trying to comfort me, absorbing my tears along with Fallujah’s bombs.

That’s when the tears stop. Immediately as though his anguish switched off my tear ducts and restarted my mind.

He notices. “Elisa?” His voice is panicked, as though he’s not sure if it’s over or about to start again. “Talk to me, please.”

“Hi,” I croak, wincing at the hoarse sound of my voice. He doesn’t speak, but his hand feels my forehead, my pulse. “I’m okay,” I assure him.

“No, love, you’re not. I’ve never seen you in so much pain.”

But I’ve known a lot worse pain. Losing him for one. Losing my parents for another. But he doesn’t need to hear that. “I’m just awful with goodbyes, Aiden, but I’m better now.”

He wipes the moisture off my cheeks, the V a deep canyon between his brows. “It’s not just goodbyes this time though, is it? It’s having to choose: half your heart here, half in Portland, and you don’t know how. That’s why you hide your face when it comes up, why you can’t look at me or anyone else.”

He has seen it all—I never fooled him for a second. I nod a weak yes, limp in his arms. “I didn’t think . . . I didn’t know I’d feel this way . . . until I came back.”

He watches every flicker of expression on me, and I let him, relieved for the truth to be out even if painful. “I’ll fly them over as often as possible,” he offers. “All of the Solises, not just Reagan and Javier. I can buy them a cottage here if you want. Would you like that?”

But they all eventually would leave. Unless I abandon everything I love here, we will always be apart. These are not burdens I can lay on Aiden’s tense shoulders. I stroke the worried V to smooth it—it doesn’t give. “I know you would, but they have their own lives in Portland. They’ve sacrificed so much to be there. I can’t uproot them. I’ll just have to choose which half of my heart I can give up. ”

“Tell me what to do, Elisa.  How do I help you with this?”

I rest my head on his chest, listening to his heart. “This is enough. Just be with me.” No matter what, even if we don’t win, I add in my head, because if I have him, I can live through anything. But that’s the one request that would be excruciating to him, the one thing in the world he would not give to me.

He shrugs as though he doesn’t think he’s enough. “I’m yours, you know that.”

I do know. I just don’t want him to be mine from a distance. I snuggle closer, like a second shirt over his soaked one. He strokes my arm, no doubt noticing the goose bumps. “Will you promise me something?” he asks.

“Anything. Unless it’s some self-loathing nonsense.”

“No, it’s not about my . . . renovations. Will you promise me you’ll talk to me about this next time? You won’t try to hide it like you’ve been.”

I nod, kissing the spot above his heart. “I promise. I don’t know why I try to hide anything from you. You see it all anyway.”

“I do, and the answer is yes.”

His heartbeat is even, calmer than mine that is abruptly galloping again. I look up at him, and his eyes are serene, the V is gone. “The answer to which question?”

“To whether I would consider living here if I become safe for you. Isn’t that what you’ve been wondering?”

I watch him stunned, unsure he spoke the words, but the small smile on his lips is evidence he said them. “You would?” I whisper.

He nods, brushing my cheek. “I can’t promise I will become safe, but I can promise that if I do, I will not make you choose. Whatever you decide, I would support you. Does that help?”

It takes several thundering heartbeats and another waft of cinnamon breath for me to form words. “More than you know,” I answer, the rush of gratitude muting my voice.

His smile widens. “There, you can take that off your list of worries.”

So many other things I want to ask—whether he would want to live here for himself, whether I could ever ask him to give up his life, his empire, his parents with whom he is trying to rebuild his relationship —but I don’t because they’re still just if’s. What matters in this present moment is the love behind them. I take his face in my hands and bring him to my mouth. His lips are willing but hesitant—probably wondering if I’m well enough to be kissed—so I crush myself against him, my lips leaving no room for doubt. Instantly, his body responds, and his mouth starts moving with mine in his possessive, healing way. One of his hands curls in my hair, his other arm tightens around my waist, straining me against the steel lines of him. And that’s when I remember.

“Aiden, oh my God!” I gasp.

“I prefer being your man.”

“No, I mean, do you know what time it is?”

His fiery eyes smolder in a way that sets my skin ablaze. “I’ve known what time it is since five fifteen.”

“Bloody hell, that’s four hours of no condoms! Why didn’t you remind me?”

“You were ups—” His answer fades in my mouth. I can’t kiss him deep enough, taste him long enough, touch him fast enough. My hands swoop down on his belt, snapping the buckle. His fist in my hair tightens as he tilts up my face, and his other hand closes like iron fetters around my wrists. It takes a few moments of rolling frantically on his lap to realize his strength is not possession now—it’s restraint.

“Elisa,” he says, his voice suede and warm—a direct counterpoint to every hardened angle of him. “Will you please stop grinding against my cock?”

“You don’t like that?” I gasp, unable to locate my hips, let alone stop them.

“Clearly I very much do, but not now.”

“What?” His words stop my hips wherever they are. As a rule, he never says no to this. He chuckles at my bewildered expression. “Why not now?” I ask, brain glitching.

His beauty transforms in that fluid way of his that leaves me breathless—or it would if I wasn’t already panting. “Because I’ve thought about feeling you that way hundreds of times, maybe thousands. And now that it’s here, I don’t want it to be right after you’ve been sobbing. Or on Javier’s floor for that matter.”

I try to think through the way his words make my pulse and other things race. “But I’m fine now. And we can go to your room here—we haven’t tried that bed yet. It looks a bit like the one at Chatsworth. Who knows what kind of fainting it would cause.” My body arches futilely against his restraints.

He smiles at my attempts to seduce him. “All painfully excellent points, but I still want my first memory of us together like that on a happier day.”

“Oh!” I breathe, brain finally reconnecting. His memory would always associate our most intimate moment with a day of tears. Perish the thought. “You’re right, definitely not today. I almost ended the world.”

He laughs and releases me now that he knows I won’t attack him. “Come on, my dear Mrs. Plemmons. If memory serves, there’s still one last condom hidden in garden shed to save our lives the old way.”

He starts to stand with me still soldered to him, but something catches his eye. He frowns at the floor under Javier’s dresser. “I think Javier forgot something.”

He reaches under the dresser and drags out a sketch. His low whistle mingles with my sharp inhale. Because there, in carbon pencil, vivid even in black and white, are Reagan’s eyes. Unmistakable and inquisitive as though they’re looking at the man who drew them, asking why not, Javi?

“Wow!” I marvel.

“Quite.”

“I have to talk to him. He has to tell her!” I reach for my purse but Aiden stops my hand.

“Don’t. Let him have this secret if he needs it—we’ve already won.”

“Won how?”

He taps my nose with the sketch. “If I recall, the goal was to make Javier see. Well, he very clearly sees. What he does with that is up to him. Besides, you and I have more urgent things to worry about right now.”

“We do?”

He rolls up the sketch and takes my hand with humor in his eyes. “Of course we do: we have a condom to ruin, scones to bake, that infernal silver tray to polish for the sixth time, parents to meet. These are heavy things, Elisa.”

I laugh as we leave Javier’s room and walk into the sultry night to the cottage. Because I’m with him.

***

Most goodbyes are followed by a hello—even the hard ones, even for me. Like a glistening morning after a night of squall to get us through storm to storm. And that’s exactly how Saturday’s sunrise is, even after the reel. As though all my stars have custom-ordered it for Aiden’s parents’ arrival. I gaze out of the open kitchen window, trying to see my nook of the world with visitors’ eyes. Loving, worried, overjoyed visitors who are finishing off five thousand miles right now to reconnect with their only son and meet his girlfriend for the first time.

The rose bubble around the cottage is shimmering with a golden mist. River Windrush seems more glass than liquid—a flecked mirror from the slow current underneath. On its bank, the willows sway like vermeil sirens in their hushed duet with the larks’ opera. And Elysium’s velvet of wildflowers is so dense it could be a tapestry worthy of Chatsworth’s gilded staircase. If I squint, I can see a thread of grass here and there in the brocade of daisies, forget-me-nots, poppies, wild orchids, and columbines. Even the sunrise is molten today—a dome of gold silk without a single cloud.

Yet despite the magnificent welcome nature has mounted, I feel utterly unprepared. How do people do this? Google was no help for my case. For one, Robert and Stella are the forces that created Aiden—enough said. For another, this is their first extended time with him since he hurt his mum and exiled himself from their life for their safety over a decade ago, as he did with me. There are no etiquette books about how to meet parents like these.

I wipe mum’s special tea set on the kitchen counter for the nth time—the gold rim and blush roses gleam like the rest of the cottage. What would you do, Mum? I laugh, thinking of her journal entry for meeting dad’s parents. The entire tea was an ordeal of epic proportions culminating with mum spilling hot earl grey on Grandpa Snow’s lap. “And we made it,” she wrote. “Just let them see your love, dearest. And bring roses.”

Outside the kitchen window, my million roses are sparkling with welcome, the blooms twinkling with dew, their perfume almost visible in the air.

“If you polish that teapot one more time, a genie will come out of it.” Aiden’s arms wind around my waist, making me jump. “Shh, just me,” he says in my ear. Just him—my entire universe. His freshly showered smell stuns all the roses. “What would you wish for?” He kisses the hollow spot below my ear.

“You.”

“Something you don’t already have.” His lips brush down my throat, blowing away my thoughts. “Wishes?” he murmurs again, like the willow song he hears.

“Umm, that I don’t spill tea on your father’s lap, that I solve the protein before your parents come, and that the plane is a little late, but not too much.”

He chuckles against my neck, sending tingles everywhere. “I will pour the tea, although it’s my lap you should worry about.” He nibbles my earlobe. “And you’re going to Bia this morning while I go to the airport so you might solve the protein.“ His lips flutter over my jaw. “As for the plane, it’s on time, but we’ll grab some coffee first and I’ll take the long way back.” His mouth presses at the corner of mine. “How is that?” He turns me in his arms, and all the other wishes disappear.

He is glowing before me more brilliant than the morning outside, in a white linen shirt and his staple jeans—a droplet water like a diamond in his still wet hair. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful, but I try to see him as his parents might. He looks playful, but his sculpted cheek is more drawn from the reel, and his eyes change more often. Although not now—his smile is as blinding as the sunrise.

“Will I do, Mrs. Plemmons?”

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” He sighs with exasperation as he does when I check on him like this. “They are my parents, Elisa. I’ve met them before. From the minute I was born I’m told although, thank God, that is a moment I don’t remember.”

“I know but it’s—”

“Complicated, yes, I’m aware. But today, it’s easy for once. They’re meeting the woman I love, and I couldn’t be prouder or happier about it. Can we leave it at that?”

As if I can resist him in anything, let alone for happiness that has shifted again and now looks exactly like him. “Whatever you want.”

“I have everything I want in my arms. Now why don’t you tell me what you’re feeling that’s making you polish that tea set for the twelfth time that I’ve counted?”

I shrug. He’d be late for the airport if we covered all my nerves. “Mostly I want it to be a special time for you and them. And I want them to see our love, not just the danger.”

A dozen emotions flash across his face, from disbelief to amusement, but he settles for tenderness. “Elisa, the fact that this is happening at all is special enough. None of us could imagine this happening a month ago. Or my whole life for that matter. As for the love, how could they not see it? What other sane reason would any woman have to be with me?”

I frown at his choice of words. “A million.”

“All right, maybe that’s true on paper, but physical safety seems to be a basic prerequisite in life. And you endanger yours every day to be with me. My parents, more than anyone else, understand the love it takes for that. And the love it takes for me to allow it. So—stop—worrying.” His eyes are piercing as though trying to tattoo this very elemental truth straight into my brain.

“Can I worry about one more thing?”

“No.”

“Please?”

He sighs in that give-me-strength way, but cannot resist. “Fine, what else is worrying you?”

“Do you think they’ll like the scones?”

“You’re impossible.” He brings me to his mouth, kissing me in a way that should be banned and illegal. By the time he releases me, I can’t even remember my name, let alone my worries. I just droop in his arms, the kitchen twirling. He chuckles, although I think his hand curved around my neck is feeling my pulse—checking to make sure I won’t faint no doubt. “That should do it,” he says, satisfied. “Now, please, for today, could we try to be just Aiden and Elisa doing this very normal thing and enjoying this present moment without worrying about what’s behind us and what’s ahead?” He unleashes the full force of his eyes on me, like he did with his mouth. It takes multiple heartbeats, blinks, gasps, and a whistle from the kettle for my brain to unscramble. Even then, I can only manage a breathy, “yes.”

His dimpled smile almost incapacitates me again. “Thank you,” he says softly. He holds me a moment longer until my legs can support me. “Benson is here. Shall I send him to the airport alone while I resuscitate you from my kiss?”

He sounds serious, except the eyes dancing with humor at my expense. “That little peck? I’ll survive. Besides, I have the rose petal jam to taste—much sweeter than you.”

He laughs and throws a tea towel over my head like a birdcage. “Relax!” He kisses me through the other side of it as if I cannot handle his bare lips a second time, which is absolutely true. By the time the towel slides off my face, he’s in the foyer. “The scones are delicious. And be safe at Bia,” he calls behind him as he closes the front door.

I watch him lope gracefully down the garden path to Benson who is standing like another beech tree at the garden hedge, waiving at me. The moment they’re out of sight, two things happen at the same time: the wound starts festering and the nerves start humming. If I stay here much longer, I’ll end up cleaning the cottage to the studs again. Bravery is more urgent. I turn off the stove, throw on my locket and dad’s lab coat, and dash across Elysium to our garage shed for the Rover. Far in the opposite direction of the country road, I think I see the dot of Benson’s van racing toward Heathrow Airport as Reagan and Javier are still charging toward PDX.

22

The Hales

Bia is empty when I bustle in. It’s only eight fifteen on a Saturday morning after all—perfect for under-cover work. I steady my hands and start testing the oxytocin options. Seven down so far, ninety more to go from Aiden’s list inside my locket. As though to contain my nerves, my hands move faster—like they did the day of Javier’s trial—and I eliminate an eighth, ninth, and tenth oxytocin formula within the first two hours, one eye on the combusting vials and the other on the clock. I have only one hour left before I have to go. Another oxytocin ampule explodes, a shard of glass nicking at dad’s initials on the coat. If all fails, I’ll talk about the weather. That’s a good, solid British philosophy. And if his parents ask me whether I’d ever return to Portland, I’ll say what? Have more tea? Do you like the scones? I’m an undecided mess and I couldn’t decide anyway until our terrifying experiment with your only son is over? Because if we lose, there will be no place in the world for me? And if we win, he promised he would support me if I choose England? The questions are so deafening that I almost miss a change in the lab’s atmosphere, almost like a creeping sensation. I look around startled, but there is nothing. And then I finally hear what I sensed: utter silence. The vial in my hands has not exploded.

The gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp of my breath shatters the precious quiet as I stare at the lilac liquid in disbelief. Could it be? Is it possible? What was I doing? Which oxytocin was it? The twelfth! Was this it, Dad? Did “December” have two meanings? Not magnesium the twelfth element, but add the twelfth formula of love? Trembling, with my heart in my throat, too afraid to move, I gently shake the vial. It doesn’t break; there isn’t a single crack on it. But the substance is also liquid, not solid as it should be. In an unforgivable, inexplicable, and utterly mad moment, I tip it to my lips for a tiny drop. I know there’s nothing toxic in it, but no serious chemist would ever do this. Only the desperate ones. I almost hear dad’s voice thundering down on me. Yet the liquid doesn’t sting or hurt in any way. I smack my lips—it’s a bit sour, like lemon. Certainly nothing like what my love tastes. Maybe one more drop? I lift the vial again, mumbling “Salud,” when BANG! It explodes in my gloved hand at the same time that the droplet fizzes on my tongue. I deflate on my lab stool, heart plummeting in my stomach with disappointment. The good news is my stomach doesn’t heave or expel its contents. The bad news is I still don’t have the protein. Or any time left to test more today. As soon as that thought reenters my consciousness, I’m forced to surrender with a groan. Of course this would happen today of all days—on the other hand, it’s better than the ninetieth day. I tuck the oxytocin ampules back in their fridge and start sweeping the shards into the glass disposal bin. Yet underneath it all, I feel a frisson of joy—at least we know which oxytocin it might be. But why on earth is it still falling apart?

“Oh, hey, Eliser!” Graham’s voice blasts behind me. “What are you doing here? I didn’t know you worked Saturdays.”

“Hi, Graham!” I turn to grin at him, saying a fervent and silent thank you to any angel up above, including to my furious father, that Graham didn’t arrive ten minutes ago. “I just came in for some testing, but I’m almost done.”

“You’re becoming as obsessed as me. That’s brilliant, that is. Any luck?” He stows his satchel and tosses on his immaculate coat while I scan my area for any evidence of my work. Luck is indeed on my side—the only sign left is the usual shards of glass.

“Look for yourself,” I answer, inclining my head toward the splinters.

“Oh, more broken vials—that’s novel!” He laughs as I sweep away the crystal fragments. “Well, I’m not giving up, I’ve had an idea.” Graham pulls up the first volume of the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology and plops on his lab stool. “I think we’re missing something. Edison is adamant this is the formula he developed with your dad, but it can’t be complete. So I’m going to sit here today, tomorrow, and the rest of the year if that’s what it takes, looking through each substance in this abomination and see if I can come up with anything. Interested? It’ll be most riveting.” He flips open the tome to letter A with another laugh.

I forget sometimes how much I like Graham and his uncomplicated single-mindedness. All he seems to want in life is chemistry—that’s it. With more strength than I realized I felt, I hope he succeeds. I hope he finds the oxytocin on his own, and we can be true partners again. “I’d help but I have to run. A couple of friends are visiting.”

He looks up with a frown. “More guests from the States?”

“Yes, but don’t worry,” I assure him. “They’re retirement age and they’re staying at the Inn so there will be no wild parties to make me late for work.”

His forehead relaxes. “Eliser, I never thought I’d say this to anyone but myself, but you need a life with people your age. What will you do with your fossil mates?”

I laugh, wiping down my counter with ethanol. “Plenty. Tea today, out to dinner tonight, the Rose Festival next weekend . . .” Graham pretends to fall asleep and snore. “Good luck with your abomination. See you Monday.” By the time I close Bia’s door behind me, he’s already absorbed in the Encyclopedia, seeming lost to the rest of the world.

The golden morning is even more brilliant when I park the Rover in the garage, but the nerves are prickling like thorns. I snap off a wilted bloom from the climbing clair-de-lune roses and scuttle across Elysium’s wildflower carpet. A shiver runs through me as I pass by the spot of the reel at the edge—it’s visible from here, the wildflowers are flattened to Aiden’s body shape like an inkblot on the vivid tapestry. I trot to it, fluffing up the daisies, poppies, and trefoils as much as possible. I don’t want Aiden to see his own imprint, although if I noticed, his eyes have certainly not missed it. I roll a Baci quote inside an orchid for him to find after tomorrow’s reel and dash through the field to the cottage.

The moment I reach the garden, the nerves soften a little. The roses have never looked more magical. They went through a rose spa this week, as Reagan called it. We pruned all the wilted blooms, withered petals, and dried leaves we could reach, and now the roses twinkle, draping like Chantilly lace from the rooftop to my feet.

“Well done, you,” I mutter, caressing the Clare rosettes. Whatever else Aiden’s parents will think about us, no one can resist mum’s magic.

Her spell flows inside the cottage too as I look for any speckle of dust with visitors’ eyes. But there is none left. The cottage sparkles—the dove gray velvet sofa, the blush pillows, the heather-plaid armchairs, the vases of roses everywhere. Even the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights are painted in rose tones to blend in—courtesy of Javier. All my wellies and Aiden’s shoes are hidden away, although mum’s parka and dad’s tweed scarf are still in the coat hanger where they will always remain. The sight of home is so overwhelming that it stops my blinks. Will Aiden’s parents like this? Not just in vacuum, but for their son? By Reagan’s account, their home is straight out of the pages of Architectural Digest, which makes sense since Robert is, indeed, an architect.

My phone vibrates against my behind with a text. Aiden: “Dropping off luggage at the Inn. 20 minutes. Good or detour?”

The nerves explode with full force like the vials. “Good,” I manage to text back as I sprint up the stairs, hair and heart everywhere. Because the hardest question that I’ve not dared to examine too close is now clamoring over the bright white walls: will they like me for their son?

Of course they’ll love you. Who doesn’t? said Aiden, the man with Javier’s filter over his eyes when it comes to me. I hope he doesn’t embarrass me with his this-is-the-only-woman-in-the-world nonsense. I scoff, pawing through mum’s dresses for the dusky rose linen dress that Reagan and I selected for the occasion. Then I busy myself with peeking through the lace curtain of the kitchen window, tasting jam and reciting the periodic table.

I hear them before I see them. A deep hearty laugh that has to be Aiden’s father, a soprano one that must be his mum, and my favorite sound in the world—Aiden’s waterfall laughter. Then the three of them emerge through the willow garlands, and my mouth falls open. If there has ever been a more attractive family, I’ll broadcast dad’s bravery formula on BBC. I don’t know how or when, but somehow, someday, Reagan Starr will pay for not warning me about this.

Aiden’s father is the Old Aiden of my visions, tall and leonine, with a full head of hair that glimmers snow-white, which makes his steel blue eyes brighter even from my sneaking spot. I absolutely must not spill tea on his taupe slacks or oyster shirt. Yet my eyes drift to Stella now standing with her mouth open like me as she takes in the roses.

“Oh, my stars!” she gasps—I like her already. Her hair falls in chocolate waves to her shoulders, and she has a heart-shaped face. But it’s her eyes that hold me. Although Aiden’s eyes have no parallel, it’s clear that his neutral sapphire came from her. She is petite, wearing black linen pants, a cream turtleneck, and a caramel purse like the one on Reagan’s dream wardrobe Pinterest account. “It’s like a fairytale,” she swoons, but her eyes never leave Aiden’s face for long. He stands a few steps behind her, and she looks over her shoulder at him with a shining love I’ve only ever seen in my mum’s face in our home movies.

“It does feel like that sometimes,” Aiden answers, and now I examine his face. There is a different beauty about him when he looks back at her. Softer, almost with longing, and something dawns on me that I should have realized by now: unlike most of us, Aiden has not forgotten those initial emotions in life, that first powerful bond between mother and child. That’s exactly what he must be feeling now. How has he been able to endure their separation?

“Come, meet Elisa,” he says, and his voice becomes suffused with pride and excitement. Yes, he’ll definitely embarrass me. They start walking up the path while I sprint to the front door, smoothing down my dress and hair and checking my lips for jam.

“How many roses are here do you think?” I hear Stella ask. According to Aiden, she loves gardening.

“Oh, I’ve estimated just under a million. Many of them have a story, some have names. Elisa can introduce you to them later, she does it better than me.”

“Names? How precious!”

I take a deep breath and open the door. The three exquisite creatures look at me with varying smiles: Robert’s dignified, Stella’s warm, and Aiden’s dazzling as his eyes lighten to my turquoise.

“There she is,” he says, stepping next to me and wrapping his arm around my waist. I hear a low gasp from his parents—perhaps seeing my calming effect on him for the first time?—and feel my face burn. “Elisa,” Aiden breaks the short silence. “These are my parents, Robert and Stella. Parents, this is Elisa.” If there was pride in his voice before, it’s nothing to how he sounds now.

“You’re very welcome,” I say, flushing. “I’m glad to meet you.” The words no longer feel rehearsed—they are true in every syllable because I’m meeting the two most influential people in Aiden’s life.

“It’s so wonderful to finally meet you, Elisa,” Stella says with feeling, reaching out her hand. I take it and, to my surprise, she pulls me into a gentle gardenia hug. “You’re even more darling than in Maria’s and Reagan’s pictures. Thank you for inviting us.”

“It was Aiden’s idea actually, but a good one as usual,” I answer, suddenly wanting her to know this. She beams at him behind me while Robert extends his hand.

“A pleasure to meet you, Elisa.” He doesn’t hug me, but his grasp is warm and firm.

“And these are the roses,” I add breathlessly, and they all laugh. “I can give you their names later. Please come in, you must be tired.”

“Oh, not at all, Aiden spoiled us,” says Stella, referring to the first-class flight he bought them, no doubt.

We make it to the living room despite the small foyer, Aiden’s arm never leaving my waist. They seem to anticipate his movements to the millimeter—much better than me, and only a degree below Benson—despite more than a decade of distance between them.

“Oh, this is lovely,” Stella enthuses as she looks around. “Exactly like a fairytale, I just telling Aiden.”

“Beautiful architecture,” Robert approves, his eyes tracing the ceiling beams.

“Thank you. It was falling to ruin when my parents bought it, but they restored it. Please take a seat. Would you like something to drink before tea?”

“No, no, we’re fine,” Stella chimes. “Come, sit with us for a while.”

They take the armchairs, insisting that we take the sofa. At first, I think they must like the squashy seats, but then I notice a sense of wonder flit through their faces each time they see Aiden touch me. Like right now as he winds his long fingers with mine.

“Do you play, Elisa?” Robert asks, inclining his head toward mum’s upright in the corner.

“Only a little. Not as well as my mum and definitely not as well as Aiden.”

“She’s being modest,” Aiden interjects in his this-is-Beethoven voice, his thumb drawing a half-moon on the back of my hand. “She’s an excellent player. We usually play after dinner together.”

“Speaking of music.” Stella looks at me with another smile, and I get the feeling she is trying to make me feel welcome even though she is in my home. “Aiden just had us play the willow game.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter while I melt. “Yes, mom, tell Elisa what you heard.”

“I swear they say ‘more shoes.’”

Robert chuckles too—maybe this is why they were laughing earlier. “Darling, you don’t need more shoes or willows to tell you that.”

She laughs. “Because yours was so much better? Fishing, fishing, fishing?”

I listen to the sound of their family—so new for the cottage, yet so familiar—trying to find nuances and similarities to what I know despite the different cultures and tragedies that have struck our families. They are there: the easy manner with which they show love, the way they tease each other. And the nerves fade. Aiden and I have something in common beyond our connection forged in the fires of Iraq and Javier’s brushstrokes. Our families do not seem that different. Yet could I ever take him away from this even if we win? When I know exactly how it feels to lose it?

“I’ll go set out the tea,” I say, standing. “Please make yourself at home. Or we could have it in the garden if you prefer?”

“Wherever is easiest for you, dear. I can come help.” Stella starts to rise from her armchair, but Aiden stops her.

“I’ll help Elisa, mom. You relax.”

He takes me be the waist to the kitchen, and I sense marveling eyes follow us there. As soon as we turn the kitchen corner, Aiden pulls me in his arms. “Hi, you,” he murmurs, his eyes doing that part-fire, part-adoring thing.

“Hi,” I breathe.

He arches me closer, lips at my ear. “You shouldn’t look this stunning. It’s excruciating with parents around.”

“Me? Have you seen the three of you? You make the rest of us look like wet tea bags.”

He chuckles, kissing the corner of my jaw, inhaling the Aeternum perfume. “Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush to the corner of my mouth. “They like you, you know.”

I push weakly against his chest—his mouth is already messing with my thought process. “Let’s wait for the verdict, shall we? I’ve barely said five words.”

He releases me with a sigh, his eyes still on fire. “I don’t need to wait. I know my parents.”

“They’re so sweet, Aiden. I’m so glad they came.”

“They’re absurdly over the moon. I’m certain every time I touch you, my mom’s heart has arrhythmia.”

He helps me arrange the infernal silver tray—or rather watches me as I do it, his gaze enflaming my skin even though I avoid looking at him so I don’t break mum’s china. “Aiden, behave.”

“What?”

“You know exactly what.”

He chuckles again and this time helps me fold the rose-embroidered napkins. The good news is his heated gaze leaves my skin. The bad news is his fingers brush against mine now and then, giving my own heart arrhythmia. But thankfully he takes over when it comes to the scorching kettle. “I believe I promised to do this for the sake of my father’s lap. Although there’s only one lap burning in that living room and it’s quite the safety hazard.”

A scone drops from my fingers on the silver tray. “Aiden, please!”

“All right, I’ll behave. Tell me about your second wish. How was Bia?” He starts filling the rose teapot, guarding my hands away from the blistering stream.

“Hopeful at first, then it fell apart again.”

“What happened?”

“The twelfth formula stuck for a minute and then exploded.” I decide he doesn’t need to know about my reckless taste test. He would have a dragon fit, parents or no parents around.

“Maybe a dosage issue?”

“That was my first thought, too. I’ll start recalibrating on Monday.”

“It does sound like the correct oxytocin though. It rings true with the December code.”

“Yes, it feels like the sort of thing dad would do: layer meanings in his clues.”

“Just as his daughter does.”

We end up in the garden for the tea under the deep shade of the beech trees in the bistro table and chairs that mum used for al fresco dinners. Stella is bubbling like the Bollinger champagne Aiden is now pouring. “Robert, look at this! There are rose petals in the bubbly.”

“And in the tea.” Robert chuckles with an indulgent sound.

Stella looks at me, her eyes soft—they change almost as quickly as Aiden’s. “You’ve gone to such trouble for us when you’re dealing with so much. We would have been happy with just toast and water, but I can’t deny I love this. Thank you.” There is an old ache hidden well in the velveteen folds of her voice.

“It was no trouble at all,” I assure her. “Besides, Aiden helped me with all of it.”

“Oh, yes,” he answers in a tone so uncharacteristically light, I think he’s trying to banish the ache in hers. “The rose petals in the Bollinger were definitely my idea. Not to mention taking the scones out of the oven and making sure the oven was off.”

Her bubbling laughter returns immediately and she picks up a scone. “I’m not surprised. You were always a helpful little boy.” She turns to me, spreading rose petal jam on her scone. “Would you like to see some pictures, Elisa?”

“Oh, dear God!” Aiden groans, sitting up in his chair and turning to his father. “I thought we discussed this.”

Robert chortles, raising his hands. “I’m sorry, son, I tried. At least she only brought one album. There were five packed in her suitcase before I discovered them.”

“Aiden, stop it,” I laugh. “I want to see them. You’ve seen mine.”

“That’s different—yours are hanging on the wall. I have to see them.”

“And I have to see these.” I scoot eagerly close to Stella, ignoring his resigned growl, as she takes a small album the size of her palm out of her purse.

“Here he is, a month old,” she croons, flipping through the pages, while I try to muster heart, tear ducts, lungs, and ovaries. Because baby Aiden was something entirely wondrous. Even in those early months, his eyes were shockingly aware for an infant under his mop of black hair—certainly more so than Anamelia, for example, when she was a baby. I watch him over the years in this different reel, shooting up and filling out, blowing out candles, riding the blue bike I saw during his MRI, and transforming out of the innocent baby to the somber child with the burden of his entire world imprinted on his mind. Yet his eyes do not change—they remain sentient in every way. I can tell exactly when Stella was the photographer and when it was Robert. Because the child’s gaze holds that undercurrent of longing for Stella and a strand of deference for Robert, until the last photos of pre-teen Aiden who never looks at the camera again.

“All right, that’s enough.” Adult Aiden’s long arm swoops across the table and takes the album over our protests. “I’m confiscating this for the next two weeks.”

“And you accused me of being the cutest kid,” I say, but my throat feels full—full of bubbles, full of his baby smile, full of his memories.

“And I was right.” His otherworldly gaze meets mine, and I wish we were alone so I could ask what he is thinking in this moment. Do I want to know? Under the table, his hand grasps mine, his thumb drawing an infinity loop on my palm.

“Stella, I think we’ve embarrassed our son enough for the rest of the year. Why don’t you show them what the Solises sent?” Robert interjects casually as if he senses exactly the wave of emotion that has suddenly swept the garden.

“Oh, yes, good idea.” Stella scrambles inside her purse again with a grin. “Here, Elisa, this is for you.” She hands me a small glass bottle full of dirt. On it, with sparkly craft paper letters that could only be the work of Javier’s sisters, it says: Isa’s Home. “Apparently, it has dirt from Casa Solis, your apartment with Reagan, and Aiden’s backyard,” Stella explains.

I smile at the dirt, trying to breathe, unable to meet their eyes. Of all our family, Robert and Stella are the ones who absolutely cannot see my conflict—not when they are only now getting their son back. “It’s brilliant,” I whisper, bringing the bottle to my lips and setting it at the center of the table.

“And Maria sent you this.” She takes out a floppy something wrapped in more sparkly paper. I unwrap it, and this time cannot stop my sigh. It’s a handkerchief crocheted with Maria’s lacework and all our family initials embroidered in icon blue. “She made it while Javier was . . . unavailable,” Stella adds softly.

“Of course she did.” I kiss the handkerchief too and set it on top of mum’s rose napkin before I need it for tears.

“And, Aiden, this is only for you.” Stella laughs, handing him an envelope with so many Hello Kitties on it, the paper is not visible. “It’s from Anamelia and she gave us strict instructions that no one else is to open it.”

He pulls me close as I lean in to see. Inside is a drawing and two words sprinkled with more sparkles. Aiden + Anamelia, she has scrawled in pink crayon. Below the words are two stick figures, a tall one with big black hair and a small one with pigtails. Around them, she has drawn a giant heart. Despite the emotion, it makes me laugh. She thinks Aiden is her special friend and the rest of us are allowed to borrow him on occasion.

“She has her brother’s talent,” Aiden chuckles, folding it carefully and setting it on top of my handkerchief. Then his hand grips mine under the table again. “I’ll have to draw something back, won’t I?” he asks me.

“Yes, and right away. She’s probably waiting by the mailbox.”

“Christ.”

“And this,” Stella says with a flourish. “Is from Cora.” She hands us a photo of Aiden’s backyard where the American Beauty roses we planted together before I left are bursting with crimson blooms. And my throat feels full of bubbles again. How can I miss that yard where I barely spent a month as much as I miss this where I’ve lived most of my life?

“Speaking of roses,” Aiden jumps in, no doubt seeing my torment. “Elisa, why don’t you introduce my mom to the ones here?” He strokes my hand under the table, and I know he picked this moment on purpose: to give me a breather and allow me a chance to showcase my life here.

Strolling the garden with Stella is like nothing I can compare it to. She is a bouquet of familiar blooms—kind like Mum, warm like Maria, perceptive like Aiden—yet with something entirely her own. She gives me time between roses, asking just enough questions to draw me out but not enough to push me, and I sense she is being careful, that this is as new to her as it is to me.

“It’s beautiful here,” she says after I finish telling her about the Clares. “I wish I could have met your parents. I’m very sorry you’ve been through that.”

“Thank you. It’s better now than it used to be.” Especially here, so close to them.

“I feel I can imagine some of the pain from losing that kind of love after losing Aiden for so long.” She looks over her shoulder at Aiden and Robert talking at the tea table, Aiden’s eyes checking on me every few minutes. “But he seems happier and calmer than we’ve ever seen him, except as a child of course. That’s why Robert and I are so happy he has found you, dear.” Her sincerity is etched in every line of her smile, in every softly spoken word. “We had stopped hoping he would ever allow himself any love.”

Her openness disarms me so much that my own truth comes out with ease. “I worry about that still,” I admit. “But you’re right that at least now he wants to.”

She nods as we stroll to the Elisas. “How well you know him already! But we must have faith, mustn’t we? For him and for ourselves?”

“Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.”

She smiles, fluffing an Elisa bloom. “Isn’t it funny how love works? We are the only two people in the world he has hurt, and the two who have the most faith in him. I prayed every day I would be the only one, but if it had to happen again, let it be to a good end. Let it be so he can overcome this.”

Yes, let it be. There is no other end that’s acceptable, no option where Aiden is lost not just to me and his parents, but to himself. Abruptly the garden seems darker despite the bright afternoon sun, as though Aiden’s star flickered with my thoughts. “He’s working very hard,” I say with force to silence the abstraction. “I’ve never seen more determination or strength.”

Her forehead is creased with worry as I lead her to the Reagans. “He has been vague about this experiment. I’m sure he’s keeping all sorts of horrifics from us, and I won’t ask you to tell me. But please tell us what we can do to help. His father and I are here for you both in every way. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can’t ask of us.”

“I think being here and spending time with him will help. I know he wants to rebuild his relationship with you very much.”

“But there must be something more we can do,” she presses. “Please.” Her voice catches with her breath, and her index finger presses against a thorn absentmindedly. She pulls it back quickly, but it was enough—enough to see the deep fear that must be scalding her insides like mine, even with the faith we’re trying to keep. And enough to see how desperately she needs to do something for him.

“Well, the most important things are to avoid the startle at all costs and stay in the present moment. And, hard as it seems, we’ve been trying to build as many happy memories as possible to counteract the trauma. It might help for you and Robert to do the same with him, especially while I’m at work.”

Her face brightens immediately. “Yes, yes, that’s perfect! We can do that. And I can cook or help with anything else you need—the garden, the cottage—so you can just be.” She sounds lighter, eager, as though she wants to get started right now. Her pace picks up, but then she seems to remember where she is. “We won’t interfere with your time,” she assures me quickly. “We’ll stay at the Inn and give you privacy. More than us, more than anyone else, we know Aiden wants time with you.”

We’re at the garden shed now where the reel lives, and I lead her around it into Elysium. “You and Robert . . .” I hesitate, unsure how to phrase this. She gives me time. “I don’t know how to ask this, except directly I suppose. You don’t mind that I’m here for now? That I have my own . . . baggage?”

She rests her arm on my shoulder with a smile like the daisies. “No. You’re whom Aiden wants. And maybe it’s exactly that . . . history—” she chooses a different word for me—“and this beautiful place that have enabled you to capture him so entirely when no one else ever did. You must understand, we’ve never seen Aiden chase a girl or even hold hands with one, and he chased you all the way across the world, learning rose breeds and drawing for Anamelia and hosting tea. He has completely lost his head. We love it.”

For the first time in this conversation, she laughs freely—the sound flitting through Elysium like a skylark’s song—as though the idea of Aiden losing his mind in such a fashion is her personal bravery protein. The bubbling sound is infectious, and for a while we’re both laughing. Then the laughter becomes an easy silence as we stroll around Elysium. She steps carefully around the forget-me-nots, like me, but seems to avoid the purple wild orchids too. A sense of comfort sweeps over me exactly as in my childhood memories in this meadow despite the newness of my companion. And the vivid tapestry seems as sparkly as it did then. Not like new stars have entered my constellation, but rather like I’m seeing a star that was always there, just on the other side.

I turn us around before we reach the inkblot of the reel. Carefully, asking permission with her eyes, Stella hooks her arm in mine. “It will work out,” she says, gazing at the willows. “Somehow. The willows said that right after the shoes, although I wouldn’t tell the boys.”

I laugh. “What else did you hear?”

“Just that: somehow.”

Aiden and Robert appear from the garden then, striding with a similar step toward us, although Aiden’s fluid grace is not something anyone can match.

“How many baby stories have you told, Mom?” he asks when they reach us.

“I was just about to start on the first time we visited Oxford.” She releases my arm to him immediately.

“Too late.” He grins, tucking my arm in his. “I beat you to that one.” And very chastely he kisses my lips.

“Oh!” Stella gasps, her hand over her heart, while Robert’s arm flies around her. Their eyes are liquid seeing for the first time their son kiss on the lips.

Aiden laughs with my favorite sound. “I picked a good one, Mom, just as you said.”

For once, his pride does not embarrass me. Because underneath, I finally see, it is also pride in himself.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 20 – GIFT

Happy Sunday, everyone! Hope you’ve had a great weekend. Here is a chapter close to my heart for a lot of reasons, including that it is one of the last times we see Reagan and Javier in the books. Thank you to all for reading, and especially to Wattle Ido, HN, Liz, Linda, Darla, and all the others who are writing to me. Your good cheer and love of this story means a lot. xo, Ani [credits: Chatsworth Estate; viator.com.]

20

Gift

I never used to give much thought to happiness. I either had it and took it for granted or I lost it so deeply that thinking about it wouldn’t help. But I think a lot about it now. Not about what it means, but rather about it is. And I notice how different it looks each day, each hour, even minute. An hour ago, happiness looked like two bodies wrapped together in twinkly lights, bursting like halos around each other’s sun. Then it looked like hunting condoms hidden under petals in a rose garden while drinking coffee mouth to mouth. And right now it looks like Aiden and me watering the roses together, waiting for Reagan and Javier for our overnight trip to Pemberley, or rather Chatsworth Estate that Jane Austen immortalized as Mr. Darcy’s abode. Of course to me, Chatsworth is happiness for an entirely different reason: my own Mr. Darcy and the surprise that awaits him.

Happiness is a shapeshifter.

“Well, I’m disappointed,” my Mr. Darcy says, watering the Cecilias in a fresh white shirt and grey jeans while I label the cyclamen floribunda rose I’m dedicating to Reagan. “The woman who breaks chemical protein codes while kissing only managed to find five of my hidden condoms fully caffeinated. That won’t cover us even for tonight.”

“We’re not all CIA-trained analysts, Aiden. Some of us need clues.”

A smile ignites his eyes until his face lights up with that surreal beauty it takes on at certain moments, like when he asked me to meet his parents. My brain couldn’t solve a clue right now even if he gave it to me. He drops the nozzle on the grass and takes the three steps between us, holding out his hand. “Fair point. Close your eyes.”

“That sounds even harder,” I grumble—why would I want him out of sight?

“Come on. I’m trying to be romantic. Don’t ruin it for me.”

“Fine,” I sigh, closing my eyes. “But if you’re being romantic with condoms, you better hurry before Javier comes. We’re really pushing his aneurism.”

He chuckles but cups his hand over my eyes. “No snooping this time.”

Whatever plans he must have for this condom must be hazardously good. He leads me down the path by my waist in the direction of the garden shed, his body brushing against the cerise summer dress he brought me back from Portland. He stops us a few steps later and frees my eyes. “Everything you need is here.”

We’re at the workbench behind the shed where I’ve been trying to cultivate a new rose—a hybrid between the Elisa and the American Beauty I bought from Mr. Plemmons. Not that I’d ever admit to Aiden I’m trying to breed our roses. My excuse is that I’m preparing for the Burford Rose Festival, which is technically true. But maybe he guesses anyway if he put a condom here. I search through the bench mortified, my face matching my dress. “Umm, I don’t see it,” I mumble, looking under my tools and in the plastic pots of dirt, but then something in the Elisa bloom I’m using for grafting catches my eye. “Oh, wait—what is that?”

It’s not a condom. Condoms do not sparkle. There, nestled in the heart of the ivory petals, something blue is shimmering. I inhale a low gasp, fishing it out. Dangling on a fine gold chain is a filigreed locket embedded with a brilliant sapphire the color of his eyes. “Oh my God, Aiden!” I whisper, looking up at him. The delight in his face dims even the radiant gem in my hand. “Is this . . . this is the surprise that will make my heart melt!”

He smiles casually, but I sense a strong emotion underneath. “In part. Open it.”

I stroke the engraved lid, noticing the filigree is an intricate rose vine. “It’s so beautiful,” I murmur, lifting the clasp. A small roll of paper is tucked inside in a message-in-a-bottle kind of way. I pick it up carefully so I don’t drop either it or the locket with my shaking hands.

“Allow me,” Aiden says. He takes the locket and clasps it around my neck, sweeping my hair to side. His fingers brush my collarbones, raising goose bumps in their wake. “Now you can read the note.”

I unroll the strip of paper—it’s longer than it seemed—and I lose my breath again. It’s his assertive handwriting, albeit much smaller—I’d know it anywhere after reading his war letters. But this is not a love note. It’s a list. A list of the oxytocin options that meet the CREB test for the protein. “Good heavens, Aiden! You already solved them?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the most astonishing part. “It’s still long, love, I’m sorry. No matter how many combinations I tried, we still end up with ninety-seven. But I’ve listed them in order of potency—hopefully that saves you some time. I’ll keep working on it if you have other id—”

He never gets to finish his sentence because I throw myself at him, dangling like a locket over his own heart. “Aiden, this is everything! I thought we’d end up in the two hundreds still. Do you realize what a huge leap we just made?”

His arms fold around my waist. “It’s still a lot to test on time. There must be something else I can do.” The V forms between his eyebrows, and abruptly I see how much he wants this now. Why is that? Is it still to help me sleep or is the torture draining more of him than he lets on? I hold him closer to fight a shiver.

“You just did in a week what would have taken me months. Let me worry about the rest. One way or another, I’ll make this for you, I promise.” I try to smooth away the V, but he shakes his head.

“I don’t want it for myself, Elisa. I want you to have it every morning since you insist on staying with me.”

And there it is, the reason why the protein has become just as vital to him as it is to me. I kiss him, unable to find words—they’ve melted away with my heart as he promised. The strong emotion in his eyes is in his mouth too, the way it moves with mine in ninety-seven different forms of love.

He has to break the kiss when I start hyperventilating—there’s no question of me being able to pull apart—and at last I find some words. “Maybe we can share the protein. Like we do with Baci or your coffee?”

He chuckles. “Well, if there’s anything that will convince me to take an ounce of it for myself, it would be your mouth.” He takes the long ribbon of paper, rolling it back into its papyrus form. “I have this memorized just in case, but I tried to think of a way for you to carry it around without anyone suspecting.” He tucks the list back inside my locket and secures the clasp.

“It’s perfect.” I pat the sapphire, not wanting to imagine how much it cost. “Wherever did you find it?”

“The antique shop you told Reagan you liked. Obviously jewelry is not my expertise, but I thought it was a good fit for this. A locket for a secret. And the roses for you.”

“And the sapphire for your eyes.”

He shrugs. “If you want.”

“You forgot the most important part.”

“What’s that?”

“It rests on my heart, like you.”

His eyes gaze at the spot like a caress. “What a great place to rest.”

There are a million other things I want to tell him. How the gold reminds me of his heart, how its strength reminds me of his character, how someday I want to give it to our daughter. Instead of embarrassing or terrifying him with any of that, I just rest my head on his chest and say, “Thank you. I’ll love it forever.”

Benson drops off Reagan and Javier only fifteen minutes later on his way to London to pick up his mate, Max, whom Aiden is flying over for a few days to keep Benson company. Reagan is wearing the most resplendent hat for Mr. Darcy’s home. It’s an ivory wide disc with a coral silk rose blooming underneath the brim. The rest of her glows in a matching linen dress as she practically runs up the garden path to me.

“Reg, you look like art,” I tell her, choosing the word for Javier.

“Never mind me. What’s that on your neck?” Her emerald eyes widen when she spies the locket.

I caress it as I’ve been doing every few seconds. “Aiden got it for me.” Even I hear the gloating in my voice. He shakes his head next to me with an indulgent smile.

“Well-done, Aiden,” she grins at him. “Very Mr. Darcy of you.”

“I’m assuming that’s a high honor.”

“The highest,” she says, lifting her chin. “Speaking of Mr. Darcy, where the hell is your hat, Isa? You promised you’d wear it for him.”

“He’s not real, Reg.” Javier laughs behind her. “It’s not like he’ll be there.”

“He’s real to us, Javi,” she retorts. “He’s gotten us through hell. And now Isa won’t even wear a hat for him! We’ve been waiting for this day for four years!”

“Reg, calm down,” I laugh. “I have my hat inside. But first I want to show you something.”

All indignation disappears from her face and she smiles. “Oh, whew, I thought you had lost your mind. What is it? Did Aiden get you a tiara, too? Because that would be even better than a hat.”

“No, this one is just for you.” I take her hand and nod at Aiden. He pulls out his phone to record the moment for me.

Reagan looks between us with a grin. “Oh, this must be good. Is it a present? Wait, how does my hat look?”

“Better than Duchess Kate,” I assure her and lead her up the path past the Cecilias, the Clares, and the Elisas to the magenta floribunda bush by the bench. And even though this is her moment, suddenly it feels like my own throat is full of petals. “Here it is,” I smile, holding out my hand toward her blooms.

She blinks at them confused, but then her eyes fall on the rosewood plant marker stuck in the dirt. Reagan Starr, it says in mum’s calligraphy. “No way!” Her hand flies up to her mouth, and she curls down on the petaled grass, stroking the bright blooms. “Isa, is this for real?”

I kneel next to her. “Of course it is. Every woman in my family has a rose in this garden. And now you do too.”

Her hug almost knocks me flat on the grass as Aiden and Javier chuckle above us, now both recording. “I love it so much!” she blubbers. “It’s my spirit plant.”

“And it’s the kind of rose my dad gave to my mum on their first date. It brought them nothing but luck in their love.”

A knowing smile sparkles in her teary emerald eyes—she understands why this is the rose I chose for her.

“You need luck in love, Reg?” Javier pipes up, still recording.

“Duh!” she answers without looking at him. “I’ve been in England for a week and I haven’t seen Gandy yet.” She gives me another hug, this one gentler like all the vulnerability she must be feeling. “Thank you,” she sniffles. “Do you think it will do well in Portland? What am I saying—your green thumbs can grow anything.”

“It will do beautiful in Portland,” I answer her question, unable to touch her assumption. But the petals in my throat just turned to shards of glass at the idea of leaving this garden or being away from any of my three stars. In a blink, their brilliant constellation goes dark. I feel Aiden’s unerring eyes on my face along with the phone cameras and smile the widest smile I can manage. “All right, here’s a Reagan to take with us.” I snip off a bloom and tuck it in her hat. “Now let’s get going. It’s a two-hour drive.”

If Aiden saw the way my heart just ripped in two, he says nothing. He just takes me by the waist as we climb up to our bedroom to pick up our suitcase—just one suitcase, my knickers with his boxers, our socks balled up with each other, our toothbrushes together for our first overnight trip.

“That was a beautiful thing you did for Reagan,” he says as he zips it up.

“She deserves it.” I shrug and pretend to make the bed, glancing at the picture of our kiss and the wilted poppies on my nightstand. Why is fear punching so hard now that I’m carrying the key to the bravery protein in a locket right next to my heart? Can fear sense its end is coming? Or is the end coming for me?

Aiden’s hand covers mine as I am smoothing the pillow, trying to fight the sudden shivers. How many times has he kissed me on this pillow by now? How many times are there left still? He pulls me around and tips up my face. “What’s wrong, love?”

The peaceful beauty that floods him in this room has a shadow of worry, like stubble over his dimple. But the moment his turquoise eyes meet mine, abruptly the shivers start to recede. “I broke Corbin’s rule,” I admit. “I looked ahead instead of at the present moment.”

His hand curves around my cheek. “It comes out of nowhere sometimes, doesn’t it?”

“Yes! For you too?” It’s a terrible thing to give me relief, but it still does—like we’re together even in fear.

“Oh, yes. Sometimes, the more beautiful the moment, the harder it hits.”

“That’s exactly it. I couldn’t understand why it happened just now until you said it. We had the most beautiful morning and then . . .”

“Here, try something with me,” he suggests, folding me in his arms. “You’re better at this than I am, but I’ll start. You’re in my arms, too beautiful for words, with your head on my chest, exactly where I want you to be. Now your turn.”

“Okay.” I smile as I realize what he is doing: bringing me to the present moment. “I’m wearing the locket you gave me, the dress you gave me, the knickers you gave me, and the perfume you gave me. I’m wrapped in you.”

“And we are in the happiest bedroom in the world.”

“And there are only six days and fourteen hours of condoms left.”

He chuckles with me, now continuing out of fun, not fear. “And there are three more condoms in the foyer for you to find on our way out.”

“And you still have your surprise to see.”

“And you still have yours.”

That derails me. “You already gave me mine.” I clutch my locket as evidence.

“I said I gave you part of it. The best part is still ahead.”

“The best part? What could be better than bravery?”

He presses his lips to mine. “Love, Elisa,” he whispers. “Love.”

And just like that, happiness shifts. It becomes this present moment in a tiny bedroom with a white bed, wilted flowers, and a worn rug where we dance.

“OI!” Javier hollers from the garden. “I’M BECOMING AN INSTAGRAM PHOTOGRAPHER DOWN HERE. CAN YOU HOLD IT IN FOR LATER?”

It never ceases to make Aiden laugh. He picks up the suitcase and glances around our bedroom. “You know, despite Chatsworth’s luxury, I’d still rather be here tonight.”

Abruptly I miss this room and we haven’t even left it. “Me too,” I say, grabbing our pillows on a whim.

***

Visiting Chatsworth is not something you are supposed to get used to, no matter how often you do it, and I have visited twice. The magnificent house glows in yellow stone surrounded by hundreds of acres of lush gardens and serene woods, with the Emperor Fountain like a liquid mirror reflecting the opulence of both nature and man. History flutters in every leaf, glimmers in each drop of dew, flows through River Derwent, and settles like pollen over the emerald expanse of the parkland.

But visiting Chatsworth with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier makes all that history feel new, the grand house a bit like home, and Mr. Darcy just a hero in a book. Not because Aiden has reserved the public part of the house for the afternoon and booked the exclusive Park Farm Estate for the night—I know now that, underneath the lavish expense, these are nonnegotiable safety measures and that, deep down, Aiden dreams of being able to visit such places in a crowd as much as a tourist might dream of being him. No, today is breathless for an entirely different reason: because today my life is better than the fairytale. And happiness has changed shapes again. Now it looks like Aiden, Javier, Reagan, and me plopped on a picnic blanket under an ancient alder tree at the farthest border of Salisbury Lawn. The park is quiet today despite the Saturday sunshine, perhaps because soon the house will be closed to the public for us.

“I just can’t get over it,” Reagan says, downing the last drop of her bubbles from a paper cup. “A week ago, Javi was in jail about to be deported, Isa was here in hell, Aiden—I don’t have the words, and I was visiting a jail. And now, we’re all here together, waiting to visit that palace in private, and I have a rose named after me. Anyone else think they’re dreaming?”

“I was, until Aiden started kicking my ass,” Javier answers, frowning at Aiden’s chessboard where is he ensnared in the Budapest Defense and his king will be mated in five moves.

I haven’t been able to look away from the hand-carved mahogany board since Aiden set it up, despite the plush gardens around us. It’s the same board I saw in his library on our first night together. A rich scent of musk and cigar wafts from it with the woodsy breeze. The chess pieces glow even under the alder’s shade.  How many times have Aiden’s fingers touched them? Hundreds, thousands from his seventh birthday when his parents gave the set to him until now.

I haven’t touched a chess piece since my father died, since that unfinished chess game that sits in the glass flower case in the cottage’s library. But even if I could move a finger to stroke the curves of Aiden’s queen or the sharp angles of his knight, I wouldn’t dare. Because Aiden playing his favorite game is formidable. He seems to play entirely in his head, gazing at the board only to see what mistake the mortal in front of him makes next. I’m certain he is letting Javier persevere out of chivalry—he could have ended this game on move six.

Every so often I sense his eyes on my face through the birdcage veil of the fuchsia fascinator I’m wearing for Reagan. Aiden knows what this game means to me. Yet he has never once asked me to explain my decision to lay it at rest. And for that, impossibly, I love him more.

“Some help?” he invites casually, raising a perfect raven eyebrow at me.

I shake my head. “If I help anyone, it would be Javier.”

“Perfect.” His voice is still casual but something warm filters through his eyes like the sun through the alder leaves. He controls it immediately but it was enough. Enough for me to see what he is doing. What he really wants but will never ask. A game with me, even if only through Javier.

I try to picture moving my hand for him, wrapping my fingers around Javier’s bishop to fall for his queen, so Javier’s king can die a dignified death. But I can’t. My hand closes into a fist. It will not open no matter how much I want to give Aiden everything. Apparently even though my body could give him the forehead kiss, it cannot overcome this.

“Sorry, Javier,” I say, straightening the veil over my cheeks. “May your king rest in peace. Reagan and I have to go see Darcy’s stairs.”

“Now you’re talking,” she hops up, arranging her hat.

I pick up my picnic basket—the other reason why I’m leaving, to set up Aiden’s surprise—but his hand wraps around my fist as I stand. He says nothing but presses it to his lips. One light quick kiss, but I know what it means. I saw you. I feel his eyes on me as Reagan and I stroll away toward the great house.

“So any progress with Javi?” I ask, pretending to look at a wild orchid by the rock I’ve been eying to hide a clue for Aiden.

Her delicate snort distracts me from my subterfuge. “As if. Sometimes I think he’s looking at me, but then I look at him and there’s just . . . nothing there.”

I tuck my arm in hers. “Maybe it’s not nothing. Maybe it’s something he’s too afraid to see.”

“Or maybe I’m not his kind of rose.” Her hand strokes the Reagan bloom still in her hat.

“That’s not true. This is an issue Javier has with himself. That’s what Aiden thinks, too. He thinks Javier needs to feel more secure before getting involved.”

“Oh hell, Aiden knows too?”

“He figured it out on his own, I didn’t say anything.”

“Of course he did. The only one who doesn’t want to see is Javier himself.”

“Just give him a bit more time,” I coax her. “It’s only been a week. And if he doesn’t wake up, Aiden said he’ll help us.”

She giggle-sniffles. “God help Javi if Aiden enters the ring.” Then she looks at my basket of roses. “What are you doing with that?”

“Oh, I’m setting up a scavenger hunt for Aiden and I’ve hidden the clues under the basket liner so he couldn’t see. Come, help me plant them.”

She giggles despite the melancholy in her eyes that seems to have become part of her. “Oh fun, what are you giving him?”

I caress the small gift under the liner—it doesn’t give but it’s hard and warm, like sunny marble. “It’s just something small. He’s impossible to buy anything for. It’s really more the game he’ll like.”

We curve around the grand palace where the last groups of public visitors are filing out for our private tour later this afternoon. The baroque facade is gleaming honey-gold under the molten sun.

“So, how are you doing with all of this?” Reagan asks as I tuck my next clue in the grass by the reclining statues of the Emperor Fountain. “I’m worried about you.”

I shrug, marking the clue with an American penny. “We’re just living moment to moment—it’s too hard otherwise.”

“And if . . .?”

Just two small words and the wound rips wide open so abruptly that it makes me gasp. “Oh, Isa! I’m sorry I brought it up. Take a deep breath, sweetie, I’m here.”

I clutch the locket, trying to stay in the present moment. The Darcy stairs are ahead, the bravery protein is literally in my grasp, Reagan’s arm is around my shoulders, Aiden and I are still together, there is beauty, there is love.

Reagan rubs my arm. “It’ll work out, Isa, you guys love each other. One way or another, love has to win, right?”

“Right.”

How can I tell her it’s a lie? How can I tell her about the Romeo nightmare at night even though Dante walks to me each dawn? She needs to believe love always wins for her own happiness right now. But love doesn’t always win. In some cases—some rare, once in a big bang cases—love even kills. Not with daggers and poisons and accidents and bullets. Love kills with beauty, with loss. I clutch my locket again, pressing it against the throbbing spot between my lungs. Make us brave, make us last.

“What a pair we are, huh?” Reagan says, her tone lighter as we stroll up the boardwalk and climb Darcy’s stairs to meet the housekeeper. “My Darcy just got out of jail and yours has a violent startle, and they’re determined to hate themselves while we’re determined to love them. Maybe I should just move here, and you and I adopt a pair of corgis instead.”

“They’re definitely more obedient.” I laugh, keeping my eyes on the gilded fairytale doors for the present moment, for reality. We have family and friends who love us. There is laughter, there is pleasure, there is hope still. For at least eighty-two more days.

The doors open, and the housekeeper comes out. “Miss Snow?” She looks at us both unsure who is the woman who pleaded with her on the phone for this.

“That’s me, Mrs. Redmond. Thank you so much for allowing this.”

“Oh, not at all. The public area of the house is yours for the afternoon.”

“Here, these are for you.” I give her the bouquet of roses. “I’ll be very careful, I promise.”

By the time we make it back to our Darcy’s, happiness looks like handwritten clues, each a quote from our happiest memories, for the man who forgets nothing.  I try not to run to Aiden but don’t do a great job of it. It’s more like a leap and a trot. He pulls me close with similar urgency as I curl next to him in a blanket.

“Oh, good, right on time to watch me beat Aiden.” Javier laughs, clearly dying another painful death on the chessboard, while Reagan folds by him, swallowing the last grape.

“Speaking of beating,” Aiden says as he executes Javier’s knight. “The IRS is auctioning off Feign’s properties to cover his tax bill.”

“Good. Fuck him.”

“Including Feign Art.”

Javier blinks and loses his bishop. “Really?” His voice softens as though unable to hate the only place in the world he was able to do what he loved, even in misery.

Aiden nods, looking at the chessboard as though he is studying it, which of course he isn’t. “I bought it,” he adds in a casual tone, advancing his queen.

Three gasps meet his announcement. “You did what?” I ask, while Javier and Reagan watch him with identical open mouths.

“Correction: I rescued it,” he says in that same casual tone, looking up at me.

“Why on earth did you that?”

“A few reasons, but the main one is that Feign Art is where I first saw you, where your painting hung. I wasn’t going to let it fall into the hands of some other asshole or become a soulless thing like a parking lot.” Through the rosy tint of my veil, his face takes on that surreal beauty it held this morning when he gave me the locket, and I recall his words. Is this the other part of his surprise? The glow in his eyes is a clear yes.

“So you own it now?” Javier’s voice is full of the same awe I feel, while Reagan still hasn’t closed her mouth.

“Technically we both do, if you’re interested,” Aiden answers, and I gasp again as I realize the full extent of his surprise—better than a gift to me, it’s a gift to Javier.

Javier is beyond blinking. “Come again?”

“Well, I can’t paint.” Aiden shrugs, advancing his knight. “But I’d like the gallery to stay what it was—a place of art, the place that brought Elisa to me. That’s where you come in.” Finally, the reason for his casual demeanor becomes obvious to me. It’s to entice Javier to say yes or to keep the significance of this gift modest so Javier doesn’t feel indebted.

Javier finally blinks. And that’s all he does while Reagan starts bouncing next to him, chanting, “OMG, OMG, OMG.”

“Aiden, I don’t know,” Javier hesitates but his voice is soft, almost like he’s in a dream as Reagan said earlier. “This is too much.”

“Is it? For a place that abused you and Elisa, that can finally allow you to do what you’re passionate about and makes everyone who loves you happy?” Aiden’s eyes flit to Reagan, and I register another layer in this gift. He’s giving Javier confidence, not just a dream. “It doesn’t seem like too much to me. But, if it makes this easier to accept, you have my word I bought it at a steal. The IRS doesn’t sell for profit.”

For the first time in this conversation, Javier’s eyes squint as they do when he is sketching the first lines, seeing the finished masterpiece in his mind long before his talent brings it on canvass. “How would it work?” he asks tentatively.

“You would run the place. Paint, commission, distribute—your prerogative.”

“And you?”

“My only interest in this endeavor is that it stays a gallery and you finish Elisa’s painting that you started. Other than that, you’re a majority owner.” Aiden’s voice is still casual but something about his words pulls at the edges of my memory. From the time he offered to be a passive investor in my supplement so I would be free of him. Is that what he’s doing now? Giving me distance if we don’t win? A chill whips through me, and I scoot closer to him, clasping my locket.

“Deal, partner?” Aiden asks Javier, holding out his hand.

Javier meets his eyes for a moment, then looks at Reagan and me. Her face is pure bliss; I can’t even feel mine. “Deal,” he answers, shaking Aiden’s hand.

Reagan loses it then and hugs Javier with her usual exuberance. “So happy for you, Javi.” I don’t realize I’m crying until Aiden’s finger wipes a tear with my veil. A single tear as happiness shifts in the shape of an eave above a door, saying Solis Gallery—Fine Art in elegant script. Still shocked, Javier takes me in his minty hug. “How about that, amorcita? We couldn’t even use the front door and now look at us.”

“No, look at you.”

“Can’t wait for you to come back, and we can all be together.” Javier speaks softly, but his voice rings like a gunshot over the gardens for me, cleaving me in two—one part by this pond of lilies, the other across the transatlantic pond. I can feel my blood draining out of my skin, filling the entire ocean with it. I hide my face behind his full beard.

“Love you, Javi.”

“Love you too, kiddo. Is everyone calling me Javi now?”

“Yep, it’s stuck.”

I stay in his hug a few seconds longer—all the years with him at Feign Art flashing like its own reel in front of my eyes. How can I not see Javi every day? How can I stay eight thousand miles from him? A camera clicks, and I meet Aiden’s gaze, his quiet strength fortifying me. I smile, willing the pixels not to show the chill that just whipped through me.

“Pip pip,” Reagan cheers, and a shower of Reagan petals sprinkles over us like confetti as she shreds her rose for the occasion. “Aiden, forget what I said earlier,” she laughs. “This is your most Darcian thing.”

“Darcy is overrated, Reagan. Elizabeth Bennett was the star.” He takes another photo of me, his eyes full of things too big for me to understand.

Mrs. Redmond emerges on the other end of the lawn then, beckoning us toward the great house. And the future—suddenly so bright for Javier, hopeful for Reagan, and utterly unknown for Aiden and me—disappears.  There is only this present moment of giving Aiden a beautiful memory.

“You guys go first,” I say, winking at Reagan. She drags Javier away faster than I can reach inside my picnic basket.

“Finally,” Aiden says, but he doesn’t stand. He pulls me onto his arms. “A minute just with you.”

He looks surreal again, in his white shirt as bright as the futures he creates. “Thank you for what you did for Javi. You were right, it’s better than even bravery. I’m afraid your surprise doesn’t compare to this.”

His lips lift into my favorite lopsided, dimpled smile. “Ah, yes, my surprise. I’m sure I’ll love it if you prepared it.”

“We have to walk around for a bit, but the grounds are almost empty.”

“Hmm . . .” he tilts his head side to side, pursing his lips, and my heart freefalls—did I miscalculate?

“It’s okay if you don’t want to.”

“Well, it depends.” I think I hear an undercurrent of humor in his voice, but his eyes are smoldering.

“On what?”

“Will you wear this hat?”

I giggle breathlessly in relief. “If you like.”

His lips brush along my jaw, following the trim of the veil to my ear. “I don’t like that it hides your face . . .” He kisses down my throat. “But I like the way it makes me feel.”

“How does it make you feel?” The veil flutters from my quick breath.

His nose skims my collarbone exposed over the neckline of my dress. “Forbidden.”

“You’re never forbidden for me.”

“Not even from making love to you right here, right now?” His mouth presses at the hollow of my throat.

“Oh, that.” My voice shakes. “Yes, nudity is strictly prohibited in the park.”

“Hmm.” His lips hunt up to my chin and stop on the other side of my veil as it wafts back and forth from our breath. “Then show me my surprise, Elisa, so we can go to the Park House where nudity is most certainly allowed, in fact required.” His mouth presses on mine over the veil. It takes all my power of concentration to form words.

“Okay then.” I push against his chest with difficulty—I can’t think with his lips on me. He chuckles and gives me space as I reach in my picnic basket and hand him the first folded clue. “Read it.”

He unfolds the scrap with that same boyish curiosity he had when he was solving the riddle for the twinkly lights. “What are men to rocks and mountains?” he reads, sounding perplexed.

“It’s your first clue. We’re doing a scavenger hunt. You have to guess each clue, until you find your surprise.”

Unrestrained joy breaks over his face as the tectonic plates shift. “I haven’t done one of these since I was ten,” he grins, looking back at the clue while I bounce on the spot—he loves it! “So this clue is obviously Elizabeth Bennett’s quote that we paraphrased when I was giving you a tour of my library on our embargo night.”

“Correct.”

“A very happy memory.”

“That’s the idea.”

The only times I’ve seen him move faster is when he picks me up to make love. He cleans up our picnic spot in seconds. Then we start our hunt, basket with the chessboard in my arm, folded blanket over his. The grounds of Chatsworth are so open and vast that Aiden’s ever-tense shoulders are not rippling, the bands of muscle at his waist are not straining. They’re in their permanent vigilant setting that doesn’t release him even asleep.

“So I’m looking for a rock,” he says, scanning the Salisbury lawn. I almost start skipping because now his vigilant eyes are searching for something fun, not threats.

“My lips are a locket.”

“Your lips are a magnet. Oh, Elisa, what is this? I believe it’s a rock with a purple flower on top.” He found it in two minutes despite the countless mossy boulders dotting the border of the lawn as it slopes into wilderness.

“That’s a wild orchid, and it brings luck.” He tucks the first clue in his shirt pocket and finds the folded note under the rock with an impatient sparkle in his eyes.

“‘We can’t mess with luck,’” he reads, and the plates shift as he summons his memory of this quote. It takes three seconds. “Another happy memory. The fountain at the rose garden in Portland on our first night. You wanted to make a wish to bring you luck, and you wished for another day with me.”

“This is too easy for you,” I grumble, but loving every bit of it.

He brushes my collarbone with the orchid. “That’s not the term I’d use.”

“What would you use?”

“Beautiful,” he answers, and his face beams with a most unAidenish playfulness. “So the fountain next then?”

I nod, but he doesn’t move. “Will you let me add something to the hunt?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Each clue I guess right, we hike this little veil an inch higher.”

“A millimeter”

“A centimeter.”

“Half.”

“Deal.”

He drops the orchid in my basket and lifts the veil half a centimeter, kissing the dip below my lower lip. Then drapes it back down, and we stroll to the Emperor Fountain although I am already wobbling. The spectacular jet stream shoots up three hundred feet in the air today. Aiden’s quick eyes scan the perimeter. This should be harder—the fountain’s lake is a water mirror of eight acres, framed with another lawn of blooms and grass. It would take me an hour to hunt around this. But Aiden knows the way my mind works better than my own. “I have a feeling this clue is hidden by the reclining statue, Elisa, because it looks like it’s lying on a bed, albeit a very uncomfortable one, and you love bed with me.”

I watch in awe as he searches around the sculpture and, in exactly fifteen seconds, he spots the clue on the grass in front it. “Well, well, well, what’s an American penny doing at Chatsworth?”

“Seeking asylum?”

He chuckles, tucking the rock clue in his shirt pocket, and picks up the folded note under the penny. “‘I’d like to discuss an unconventional proposal,’” he reads his own words to Kasia at Feign Art. “Ah, of course! You were eavesdropping.” He looks ridiculously happy about it. “Another good memory—commissioning my full painting of you. So next we go to the gallery in the Painted Hall?”

“Yes,” I smile, raising my face for him to lift the veil by another half a centimeter. He kisses the corner of my mouth with a sigh and drapes it back over. “I should have stayed strong at one inch. Can I throw the penny in the fountain and renegotiate?”

“No, they don’t allow that either.”

“Tyrants. No nudity, no coins in the fountain—how do they live?” I’ve never seen him more playful. He tosses the penny in my basket and tucks my arm in his as we climb the Darcy stairs that are now empty.

The Painted Hall of Chatsworth was built to take breaths away. And in both my prior visits it has stumped me, but not today. Today, the black and white marble floor gleams less than Aiden’s chessboard in my basket. The vivid demigods and nymphs adorning the staggering ceiling are dimmed by Aiden’s seraphic face flooded with the sunlight pouring from the high windows. We are all alone in this gallery of classical art, but the real masterpiece is framing me with his arms.

“It’s not my favorite painting,” he says, eyes on the frescoed ceiling. “But it’s certainly impressive. Now where would the next clue be?” He roams the hall, his footsteps ringing on the marble floor, gazing at each mural and antique. But the clue isn’t in the crimson settees, the delftware vases, or the marble busts. “Difficult,” he murmurs. “Very difficult—I like it.” His eyes absorb the scene with hunger, his mind focused on solving this happy clue, not reliving horrors.

I know exactly when he has found it because his eyes zero in on the spot in an almost audible way. “Aha!” He strides to the gilded staircase, lined with the burgundy velvet tapestry. “The fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“Yes!” I twirl as he jogs up the stairs and digs the clue from under the carpet, laughing his waterfall laughter. I skip to him and snap a picture with my iPhone as he unfolds the note.

“‘La Virgen. Are you sure you want to do this?’” His voice is soft as he reads the question he asked me in his bedroom before making love to me for the first time. But there’s nothing soft about the blue fire in his eyes as they meet mine. “My favorite painting, my favorite night.”

He lifts the veil another half centimeter, his teeth grazing my lower lip exactly as they did then. I hang in his arms, knees like air under me. Why did I hide so many clues? Why couldn’t I have ended it here so we could go back to the Park House and set fires there?

“The Sculpture Room next then,” he says, solving this clue. He tucks the stair note in his shirt pocket with the others—they’re starting to look like a paper boutonniere of happy memories—and sweeps me in his arms, the basket dangling from my elbow.

“Aiden, no! They’re not used to this here, we’re supposed to be modest and respectful.”

“We’re being both,” he answers, climbing the sweeping staircase. “This is modest compared to what I want to do. And it is respectful because there’s no one here and I have compensated them generously to give us privacy.”

What’s the point of arguing with him—I’m exactly where I want to be. He carries me down the splendid empty hall that he memorized from a map, his footsteps ringing in sync with my heartbeat.

“This is it, I believe.” He stops at the next gallery and sets me on my unsteady feet. We weave through the marble sculptures, Aiden more carved and graceful than any of them, until we reach the kneeling Vestal Virgin, her white veil flowing over her marble face as she guards the sacred flame of her temple.

“Do you think the flame she’s guarding represents her desire?” Aiden asks. “Or her life?”

“Both.”

“There is no difference sometimes, is there? When you want something so much it could kill you if you lose it.”

I grasp my locket, forcing myself to stay in this present moment as he picks up the clue on the floor before the virgin, his expression no longer playful. “‘She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies,’” he reads, and the Virgen’s flame is in his voice too. “A lot of happy memories there.”

He pulls me close and lifts the veil another half a centimeter to the part of my lips. His tongue traces it slowly, his breathing as rough as mine. “How many clues are left to burn me?”

“Umm . . . only two.” The tip of my tongue meets his.

He folds the veil back in place—it flutters and billows with my breath—and the playfulness returns to his face. “The library for Byron next?”

“Yes, but you have to behave there—we were told not to sit on the sofas.”

“What makes you think I would misbehave?”

“Your mouth.”

Shh, Elisa, you’re scandalizing the virgin,” he chuckles and leads me out of the room. As soon as we clear the delicate Sculpture Room, he lifts me in his arms again, basket and all. I’m sure the dignified portraits that adorn the corridor are as horrified as the virgin at our behavior, but I don’t see any of it. I only see the angles of his profile as we wind through the empty splendid halls. Briefly I wonder where Reagan and Javier are—I hope this gallery sparks something for them now that Javier owns his.

“The library,” Aiden announces, setting me down at the door.

The library is not part of the public tour but apparently at the right price, the exclusive doors open to a fortunate few. The stunning room has two floors, like Aiden’s in Portland. About thirty thousand leather-bound volumes line the walls with ladders leaning against the shelves. The precious emerald velvet sofas frame the marble fireplace.

Aiden glares at them as he strides to the carved pedestal on the corner for the library catalog. He flips through the pages quickly until he finds Byron. “Case six, shelf fourteen,” he grins, taking my hand. “Where will you lead me next?”

He finds the clue under the cover of the Venetian red leather volume only seconds later. “‘The most beautiful place in my life,’” he reads his words to me from a week ago when we were snuggled together at Oxford’s University Park. “Our bedroom,” he solves it without hesitation. “The happiest memory there is.”

“You’re impossible,” I laugh as the library clue joints the paper boutonniere and he tucks Byron’s volume back in the shelf.

He lifts the veil another half centimeter, exposing my upper lip, and presses his mouth on mine. The picnic basket feels suddenly heavy on my limp arms. He blows over my lips and folds back the veil with a pained sigh. “To the state bedroom, God help us,” he solves the clue.

As soon as we clear the library, he picks me up again, marching down the hall to the state bedchambers built for William and Mary. The bedroom is dominated by the bed, hung with curtains of crimson and gold and cordoned off in case there is any doubt whatsoever that we are not to lay on it.

“As I said, absolute tyrants,” Aiden says, but his arms wrap around my waist. He walks me backward to the wood-paneled wall until my back is against it and his body is pressed against every line of mine. My breathing is too fast, making the veil flutter as his lips take full advantage, kissing each sliver of exposed skin. I try to settle my lungs but it’s impossible with his mouth on me. The royal bedroom starts to spin.

“Aiden . . .” My picnic basket tumbles from my hand. “Be good . . .”

“Isn’t this good?” His mouth presses at the corner of mine as the veil blows open from my gasp. “I think it is.” Another huff, another fit of the veil, this one exposing my lower lip. He captures it with his teeth. “So good, Elisa.”

“Please?” I breathe. “They’ll make a fuss.”

“They’re not here . . .” His fingers skim my thigh lifting the hem of my dress and he plays hide-and-seek with my veil that doesn’t stand a chance against his mouth. His lips flutter over my jawline to my ear. He nips my ear lobe and trails his mouth down my throat and over my collarbones, kissing my skin as he would another part of me that is on fire. My head is whirling with his tongue. He dips it at the hollow of my throat, pressing into me through the thin fabric of my dress.

And I collapse.

“Elisa?” he asks alarmed, holding me up.

“Yes,” I gasp, shaking my head.

“Are you all right?”

“I think—your kissing—lightheaded.”

“Christ.” He pulls back a few inches to give me space but his arms don’t release me. He blows gently on my lips. “Hydrogen, 1.008, helium . . .” he starts. My giggle comes out shaky and weak.

“I’m okay,” I assure him, reaching a finger to smooth the worried V. “You’re just too good at this.”

He chuckles, still holding me up. “How can you nearly faint from kissing but handle everything else we’ve done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to sit? Or some water? Or fresh air?” He feels my forehead and I have to laugh.

“No, I’m fine. I get dizzy when you touch me all the time. Besides, we have your last clue.”

He watches me for a long moment as though to be sure I’ll live to tell the tale of his kissing. When my breathing finally evens out and my legs stop trembling, he chuckles again and releases me. “I think it’s this damn room. I better find this clue fast.”

He is probably right. There’s no telling what I would do if we stay in this room much longer—cordoned off bed or not. Besides the next part is guaranteed to cause more breathing problems. He scans the bedroom quickly, searching for anything resembling a clue. “Tricky,” he says, his eyes alighting on the off-limits bed, the dresser, the vanity, the porcelain vases, but there is nothing there. “Where would you have hidden—?” And then he smiles. “You wouldn’t have hidden this behind a painting, would you? Say, a painting of a river and grass and woods? A panting that looks a bit like the University Park where I told you our bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life?”

“You’ll have to find out.”

He strides across the room straight to the painting and peeks behind it at the small scrap of paper I wedged there. I hold my breath as he fishes it out because the happy memory he’s reading now is not ours. It’s his.

“‘When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.’” He reads his mother’s words from April 12, 1987—his first visit to Oxford—with a thick sound in his voice. A deep emotion enters his eyes and for a moment I worry I’ve triggered a horror. But he gazes at the scrap of paper with something like longing that I hadn’t seen in the dark park. “A happy memory from my life before you,” he murmurs.

I pick up my basket and teeter close to him, wanting to take a picture but not daring to ruin on the moment. “You’re done,” I say. “Kiss the first girl you’ve kissed, and you can see your surprise.”

He places the clue in his shirt pocket—the final scrap in the paper boutonniere—and pulls me against him, his eyes deep. “Can you handle this kiss?”

I nod even though I don’t know. I can barely handle his gaze. He hesitates a moment as though to prolong the memory and lifts the veil all the way this time, folding it over the rose on my fascinator. Then his hands curve around my face and he brings his mouth to mine.

I have lost count of how many times Aiden has kissed me—how each kiss feels both home and new, some slow, some urgent, some gentle, some hard, some deep, others light like air. But I’ll always remember this one. It’s like his mouth is combining all the kisses he has given me into this one, a boutonniere of lips imprinting everything he must be feeling on my tongue.  When he pulls away, too soon so I don’t faint again, I’m not the only one gasping.

“Thank you,” he says, each word sliced by his harsh breathing. “Whatever the surprise is, I will always remember the hunt.”

“You always remember everything.”

“Not by choice. But I choose this. If I could forget, I’d still never forget this.”

I reach under the liner of my basket, hands shaking, lungs in shreds, heart in my throat, and pull out the little journal. Its yellowed cream cover is embossed with roses.

“Here is something you remember but don’t know,” I say, handing it to him. As soon as it touches his skin, a wave of warmth spreads over me and I’d like to think it’s a hug.

He must see my emotion because he doesn’t ask anything even though curiosity raging in his eyes as he opens the aged notebook. “Clare Emilia Brighton,” he reads my mother’s maiden name quietly. “Is this your mother’s journal?”

I nod. “She kept a journal all her life. Go to the page I’ve marked.”

He lifts the silk tassel and inhales a sharp gust when he sees the date. “April 12, 1987.”

“Read it,” I whisper, leaning over to read with him even though I know it by now.

April 12, 1987

What a day today, dearest! Only six months at the Ashmolean, and I already wonder what on earth was I thinking! Had I listened to Mama, as you know, I would be gallivanting the world for a while before settling. And had I listened to Katherine I would be dating Fawkes—perish the thought. But instead I chose this. The job of a lifetime, the dream —you know all about that, of course. Oh, but how difficult it is! All day, I am squished in this cupboard of an office in the bowels of the museum with only pipes around me and not one window. My chair, I am convinced, used to be a torture implement under King Henry VIII. But I do not mind. It is the Old Beards who are difficult—the senior curators of the Grand Ash. They still will not entrust me with anything older than 1970. I knew as a fellow I would not be allowed to touch the artifacts—it should take years for me to do that. But can I not handle at least something more than gluing ripped textbooks or dusting the shelves? Must I be treated like a schoolgirl, not the scholar I am? Yet I despair that is all they see in me. For months, I have been wondering whether I am foolish to hope I will ever be allowed to restore anything of value. Why, it did not seem like that would ever happen, did it? Until today. It was quite brilliant, as you will see. A neuroscientist came to our dining hall before supper, Doctor Helen Brahms. She is quite respected at Oxford already although not forty yet. She marched straight to the Old Beards sitting together in their grandeur (I am not invited to sit with them, for which I count my blessings—Old Sturgis is positively medieval with his chewing). 

“I need Ashmole 611 restored by the end of the week,” she said. “I just took it out for a consult, and it’s in tatters, an absolute disgrace for the earliest study of human memory.” 

She seemed mortally offended. The entire hall was watching. But the Old Beards peered down their noses at her although she stands taller than six feet. “That cannot happen,” cackled Old Sturgis. 

“It can and it must,” she argued. “There’s a little boy who needs it.”

They ignored her, returned to their pea soup. 

“Did you hear me?” she raised her voice. “There is a seven-year old boy who cannot forget anything, and that manuscript might have something to explain it.”

Not one of them looked at her, dearest. Six feet tall and brilliant and still not good enough while a little boy needs help. I could not bear it. So I jumped up and said, “I’ll do it. I will restore Ashmole 611.”

The Old Beards were apoplectic, shouting and telling me off. “She hasn’t touched a page older than 1976,” yelled Old Sturgis. “She will not touch Ashmole 611.”

“Well obviously neither will you,” Doctor Brahms snapped at him. 

I admitted it was true, but said, “I’m good, and I will do it for you.”

More shouting—Old Sturgis spit his soup on his beard. But she smiled at me.

“I shall speak with the director. He is a close family friend,” she said loudly for them to hear, and they all fell quiet then. “You will restore Ashmole 611. What is your name?”

“Clare Brighton,” I answered, a bit church-moused now that I realized how well-connected she is.

“Well, Clare Brighton, let’s leave them to their pea soup, shall we?”

And that was it, dearest. She arranged with the director to move me to a proper office and I have been repairing Ashmole 611 until now. The little boy is here with his parents from the United States for the week. I must finish it by then. Can you imagine how that must feel? To never forget? A fearsome power to behold, I reckon. I do hope Doctor Brahms can help him. Meanwhile, she helped me. I have a window now and a director who agreed to mentor me. It was a good day. Goodnight, Diary! 

By the time I finish it, I know the seven-year old boy who grew up has read it multiple times. But when I look up at him, his eyes are still on the page despite having already memorized it. A tear gathers in my eye but I dash it off while Aiden still reads. I give him time until he is ready. When his eyes meet mine, they are unfathomable.

“I can’t believe it.” His voice is low and husky.

“I know. I’ve been searching through her journals ever since Doctor Helen told us the date, and I finally found it. I read through her other journal entries for that week. You can read them next if you want. They’re just about her gluing up Ashmole 611 and giving it to Doctor Brahms. Here, see?”

He flips through the pages, reading them in seconds. “She barely slept that week to help me.”

“Yes, but you helped her too.”

He watches me for another long moment. No words, eyes unfathomable still. “Good surprise?” I ask. He nods, still seeming unable to speak. “What are you feeling right now?”

“Happy . . . terrified . . . I don’t want to hurt her daughter . . . or lose you.”

I place my hand over his thundering heart. “You won’t. And you cannot lose me, I’m yours.” For as long as he will have me.

He closes the journal, and places it carefully in the basket. Then he takes my face in his hands and he brings his mouth to mine. So we add love, kiss after kiss— we have learned this trick now—until fear recedes. Because sometimes happiness can look like a monster but it never is. Right now, happiness morphs, looking like Aiden and me in a foreign bedroom with guardian angels above us in the frescoed ceilings and a locket of bravery beating by my heart.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 18 – FIGHT

Happy Sunday, friends! Time for another chapter in Aiden’s and Elisa’s story. I hope it wraps up your weekend with a smile and that you are are all enjoying some rest and relaxation.  Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

18

Fight

By the time we drop off Reagan, Javier, and Benson at the Inn, it’s nine o’clock and the terror of the day is winning, settling like sediment in my brain crevices, my ears, my eyes. Each time I blink, Marshall gazes back at me. Each time the Rover purrs, I hear monitor beeps. Each time I wade through my thoughts, Aiden’s pain lances through me, sharper than my own.

“You’ve been quiet,” Aiden observes next to me as he turns left off Ivy Lane toward the open fields.

“Just thinking about it all.”

“It has been an interminable day.” He hits the gas as we zip through the only country road to the cottage. My day is only half-over, but I can’t bring myself to tell him I’m going back to Bia tonight to test the idea Doctor Helen just gave me. How can I add even one more grain of worry to the incomprehensible weight he will be carrying for us, for me?

We reach Elysium in two minutes. Across it, the cottage’s peaked roof rises like a beacon against the brilliant moon. Aiden parks the Rover in the shed at the edge of the field that dad converted into a garage when he and mum bought their Beetle.

“Almost home,” Aiden sighs. He tucks the box with the torture headset quickly under his arm, as if to hide it from me, but even in that glimpse a shudder jolts down my spine. I pat the polaroid of our kiss in my purse and get out of the Rover as quickly as I can. He takes my hand, pressing his lips at my wrist, and we set off across Elysium. In a few steps, mum’s rose shield will fall over us, over him. Guard him, Mum. Take everything from me and give it to him.

The perfume of the roses intensifies, as if they smell the arrival of a new kind among their own—the rare Aeternum oil that Aiden realized for me. Like he did all my other dreams, like he is trying to do for my ultimate dream of being with him. The cottage and the garden come in full view, silvery white. Aiden is quiet, too—perhaps he senses my urgency to get inside the rose bubble, perhaps he feels it too. But the second we reach the garden threshold, he stops, halting me with a gentle clasp of his fingers. I turn, unaware that for the first time I remember, I had been walking several steps ahead of him. He sets down the box of torture outside the garden threshold and takes my face in his hands.

“Please tell me what you’re thinking. Before I lose my mind.”

What can I tell him? That I’m afraid even as I believe in him more than I’ve ever believed in anyone? That the present moment is as terrifying as the future and as fearsome as the past? Or the hardest thought of them all?

His face gleams with moonlight. No wires in his hair—just soft onyx waves, swept with the breeze.

“Elisa, please!” Urgently now, and his eyes seize me the second I lapse and gaze into them. The secret thought blurts out with irrelevance.

“I don’t think I’m worth all this pain . . .”

His soft gasp washes over my face, rendering all roses redundant. But I can’t breathe it in because I see the flicker of agony my words caused him. “This is my fault,” he says. “You’re so extraordinary to me that I forget you’re still only human. You have your own doubts and insecurities just like me. I’m sorry, love. I won’t miss that again.”

I try to look away, shaking my head, but neither his eyes nor hands let me. “I’m not looking for compliments . . . It’s not just me who is not good enough. Nothing ever could be worth you living through this.”

“Ah, Elisa, my fault again.” He releases my face, but takes my hands. “I haven’t explained this right. You say I brought you to life, but it’s the other way around. If it weren’t for you, I’d be stuck in Portland but living in Fallujah still. There would be no brilliancy, no beauty, no love. Just guilt and self-hatred. But you came in—not just as a fantasy or a painting, but so real, you eclipsed everything. All my rules and pretenses and structure and control. And suddenly there was light; there was life. Then you were gone. You did exactly what I forced you to do, but you turned off my sky. There was no more light, no more reason for anything—I couldn’t even go back to my old rules. I didn’t want to because you had made me want to live. That’s why I’m going through all this, for a chance to live. If my life, my health, my dream—and you are all three—are not worth this, then tell me what is.”

My life, my health, my dream . . . listening to him is like hearing my own life in words—it sounds beautiful in his voice. So beautiful, I don’t want to ruin it with mine.

“Do you see, Elisa?” he asks intensely. I nod because when he puts it that way I agree. Only he himself is worth this. But what happens to him if we don’t win?  He sees my shudder even in the balmy night. “You’re scared,” he says, a statement, not a question.

“Yes, but not because I doubt you.”

“I’m scared, too, my love. Do you believe that?”

“You don’t seem scared of anything anymore.” I remember his strength and resolve today—the utter absence of fear when he learned the battle plan.

He smiles without the dimple. “Wrong again. I’m terrified of losing you. But you know what? I know from experience, the fights you’re the most afraid of tend to be the worthiest fights.”

He doesn’t promise me we will win. He cannot. All we can do is fight in every way we know, with every weapon we have left.

I reach on my tiptoes, pressing my hands against his face that still feels like a fairytale. “Make love to me then. Make us forget all this fear, and remember only why we’re doing this.”

His eyebrows arch at my sudden change in direction, but he smiles and the fire ignites in his eyes. “Now there’s the fight I’m talking about. Straight to the fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“No. Make love to me here, right now. Let’s not bring any of this inside the cottage.”

He doesn’t even blink. He sweeps me into his arms over the garden threshold as I knot my fingers in his hair. “Should the roses be watching this? I seem to recall being told not to say ‘fuck’ in front of the roses once.”

“Of course. Roses love love.” I pull him to my mouth. “They just don’t like dirty words. You’ll have to save those for the fifth stair.”

He chuckles, striding into the garden straight for the Elisa roses without breaking our kiss. He sets me down on the petal-blanketed grass, right at the spot he waited for me in my dreams, the spot where he stood when he came back to me.

“Stay,” I whisper, meaning so many things. He becomes utterly still except his hands clutching my waist. I start unbuttoning his shirt—not like he did at the lab, but the way we do together, slowly, eyes on each other—and slide it off his shoulders, down his arms, on the petaled ground. The gold of his skin is silver with the moon, free of the electrodes’ metal discs. I run my hands over his chest, kissing each spot where the discs were. Above his heart, on his sternum, at the pulse on his neck. “Kisses, not electrodes,” I say, reaching on my toes to kiss his temple. His heated gasp enflames my skin.

“You, not memories,” he answers and pulls me hard against him, molding his mouth to mine. His kiss is so overwhelming that I hang in his arms, fingers knotted in his hair. The fear shudders recede. A different kind of tremble starts at my knees, and he tightens his arm around my waist, knowing by this point I have trouble standing upright.  His lips flutter, soft as petals, over my jaw to the hollow below my ear where I dabbed the Aeternum oil. He inhales hungrily there, and good shivers flurry all over my skin. “God, the smell of you.” He sounds pained, like the ache gathering at the bottom of my belly. “It brought me back today, Elisa.” He kisses the Aeternum spot and kneels at my feet, taking off my Byron sneakers and socks. “And these wiggling toes.” He smiles, kissing the tips that curl. “They made me smile in hell—I couldn’t believe it. Just these tiny, itsy bitsy toes, able to lift all of me.” He nips my big toe but sets my foot back on the petals when he notices the wobble of my knees. “Strong, love, we’re just getting started,” he murmurs, running his hands up my legs, over the jeans. I wish I could speak, but I can barely breathe. Was I feeling afraid before? Now I can’t feel anything but the fires he is lighting everywhere with his touch, like fireflies in this garden. He unbuttons my jeans and unzips them with his teeth, peeling off the denim slowly, his lips following the trail of his fingers over my exposed thighs. The cool breeze tickles his hot, wet mouthprints.

“Aiden,” I sigh. His name has become synonymous with so many things. Help, save, love, live, home, kiss, hold—so many good four-letter words.

“I know, love.” He kisses the inside of my thigh. “But you wanted to forget. Forgetting is hard work, I ought to know.” He slips off the jeans completely and tosses them aside. The breeze whirls around my shaky legs as his nose skims back up. He clasps my hips as he inhales the lace of my knickers with the same hunger. I close my eyes, unable to watch when he does that, but I see fireflies even behind my closed lids. He does it again, pressing his nose firmly and I don’t know if this is my moan or his.  “This here,” he says buried in the lace. “This is the reason why the roses don’t like dirty words. Because they’re jealous.” The movement of his lips sends a tremor through me.

“Aiden—I can’t—” I breathe, tugging his hair.

“Yes, you can. You’ll see.” He kisses the lace again and slides off my blouse, lighting more fires with his fingers around my waist, over my ribs, tracing the cream lace of my bra. His mouth wraps around the nipple hidden underneath. “It was nippy there today, wasn’t it?” His tongue wets the lace, but it feels like liquid flame to me. “That made me smile, too, Elisa. Was that a pun?”

“Ah . . . I . . . can’t . . . remember.”

“Good.” Another wet circle of fire, then my bra melts off and I’m free only to realize I’m bound to his mouth closing on my breasts. Whoever said hell burns has never been to heaven. His lips, his tongue, his teeth—they strike like firebolts through me, and my knees give out, but he catches me and lays me on the petal blanket. The petals are cool against my feverish back. I sigh with some relief and am able to open my eyes. He is lying next to me, propped on his elbow, moon and stars and roses above him, one long, denim-clad leg between mine. His eyes cascade like molten silver over my breasts and he brushes them with his knuckles. Such a light caress but the effect on me is gravitational. My back arches toward his hands for the faintest touch.

“Yes, the roses are definitely envious . . .” He plucks an ivory Elisa petal and flutters it over my lips. “There’s no comparison.” And he kisses me over the petal. What a kiss this is. The redolent petal as a thin veil, molding like silk with the pressure of his lips. I kiss him back, feeling the warm tip of his tongue through it, caressing mine. From my sigh, the petal flits back to him. He blows gently, tapping it back against my lips. The petal flutters between our mouths, kissing us both, breath to breath, moan to moan. And the throbbing begins. Not slow and steady as usual, but heavy and fast from the start.

“Your jeans . . .” I murmur through the petal, reaching to unbutton him. His mouth never misses a volley but he grasps my wrists above my head. Fistfuls of petals tickle my fingers.

“Soon. But first you wanted to remember why we’re doing this.” He leaves the petal on my lips where it promptly blows off from my jagged breath, and plucks another one, this for the center my forehead. He kisses over it—his wet mouth sealing the petal on. Another petal at my temple, another kiss. More petals in my hair, weaving with his fingers through my strands as I realize he is placing petals on me wherever there were metal discs on him. “Roses, not electrodes,” he smiles his lopsided smile, now kissing a petal over my cheek, and another at the corner of my lips, a trail of them down my throat, each pasted with the wet heat of his mouth. Petals and kisses rain over my chest, around my breasts, fluttering over my nipples until every spot where his tongue seals a petal is quivering. I’m lost on my own skin—cool breeze, hot breath, soft petal, fire lips—but he doesn’t stop. He drops petals down my belly and over my waist, kissing them in. I try to press myself against him but he hovers just a breath out of touch—only his lips and tongue through the petals on my skin. And the throbbing becomes painful. Not a rapid pulse anymore, but an achy hook, reeling me to him with a flaming pang.

“Touch me,” I whimper, fireflies blinking here and there in my vision.

“Soon, love.” Another petal along the lacy band of my knickers, and then the garden starts spinning because he hooks his fingers into the lace and rips it off, his knuckles brushing my skin. My hips tilt toward him as always, but he drops more petals over my pubic bone, inside my thighs, and at last presses a single petal with his lips right on the center where I need him the most. Another jolt of my hips but he is ready—they drop straight into his hands and he pins them back down on the petal blanket. And then the torment starts with the petal in the center. He blows on it and it flutters against me; he taps it with his tongue and I flutter against it; he kisses it and the ache becomes a deep, radiating thing; he licks the petal and my breathing stops. “Aiden, now.” It’s more of a cry than a plea.

“Just a little longer,” he answers, his voice strained with the same tension that is wringing me.

“Why?” I gasp, a hand pulling his hair, another grabbing petals on the ground, legs coiling around him.

His lips press the petal against me again and again. “Because if we’re strong enough for this . . .” He wraps the petal around me with his mouth. “If I can live through one more minute of not tasting you and you can live through one more minute without my touch, we can live through anything.” The petal circles me driven by his tongue, and tears gather in my eyes. “That’s what you really wanted to know, Elisa, isn’t it?”

How did he know that’s what I wanted before I did? I try to say yes, I try to say I love you, but all that comes out is a garbled, agonized moan. The petal of torment is wet, sticking to the fieriest part of me, and the achy wavelets ripple everywhere.

“See, this is torture too, love, just a different kind.” He slides the petal up and down with his tongue, as I try to find the breeze, the sky, the ground. “Your taste, your feel, your orgasm, mine, all just on the other side of this petal, and we can’t have them yet.” His lips press the petal hard against me, making me hiss. “It hurts, it feels like one more minute will finish you, doesn’t it?”

If I answer yes, I don’t know. I hear nothing but him.

“Me too, love. Right now the need to be inside you is so painful, it could kill me right here on your namesake roses . . . but then I think . . . this petal will fall apart. Any second now it will disintegrate from my tongue, from my hatred of it, and on the other side is you. And on this side is me. Doesn’t that help, Elisa?”

A tear trickles in my hair—a tear of pain, a tear of pleasure—as my scattered mind finally catches up. I moan to agree, clutching more petals on the ground at the next nudge from his hidden lips.

“And that’s all this is, everything you’re scared of, love, is just a petal. Forget all else and remember this.”

“I will.” Somehow the words form—a breathless jumble, but still words—and I start fighting through the petal with him. His tongue presses it into me, I thrust gently back; his lips fold it over, I rub myself against it; his mouth wraps me with it, I grip his hair and push toward his mouth.

“Perfect,” he sighs, breathless like me. “Fight, Elisa. Because through this stubborn, cruel petal is the biggest pleasure there is.” His lips twist it around me one more time and his tongue rips through. His mouth swoops on me, free and clear, and I explode instantly. My cry drowns his pained groan. I writhe with his lips, his tongue, pushing into his mouth, his face, any part of him I can find as waves of release crash over me so violently that fireflies burst in my eyes and tears spill over, Aiden after Aiden, God after God. His mouth knows me by now—knows exactly when to pull, when to kiss—and it sees me through to the other side, sodden, shaky, a mass of limbs and moans and tears on the petals, but alive.

“My turn,” Aiden says immediately before the shakes have subsided. By the time I manage to open my eyes, he is ripping off his jeans. Every aspect of him is raw with need. He springs free, but I barely see the bubble glimmering like a diamond because it disappears behind the condom. Before I can register I forgot to arrange my pill, he kicks apart my legs and slams inside in a blinding exquisite thrust. For the first time, his cry drowns mine. He freezes for a moment, eyes shut, jaw strained, teeth clamped over his lower lip, shudder after shudder running through him as I try to muster my own shaking, my own lungs. I don’t know if it’s the aftershocks of my first orgasm or a new one but it sets off the deep ache again—as if it wasn’t healed, only numbed. He is pulsing everywhere—ponderous spasms that make my own insides contract with him. His deep moan mingles with my sigh. I kiss his lower lip, releasing it from his teeth so I can bite it myself. The moment our lips touch, he is unleashed. All of him, bubble to hilt, relentless with no blinks in between, each thrust harder than the one before, hitting the deep ache head on. And the harder he moves, the harder I want. I cling to him with everything—my teeth, my arms, my legs, every muscle tightening inside. But his thrusts leave all my grips behind. And each time he moves, the ache disappears. All that’s left is the delicious tension building, magnifying every cell waist down. I know exactly when the pain leaves him too because he smiles, melding his mouth to mine, locking our fingers together, whispering his words of love—now dirty, now sweet—so the roses don’t hear. And pleasure comes for both of us at once in waves of warm tingles surging over us in lockstep, seizing our bodies with its singular tension. We fly at the same time, mouth to mouth, skin to skin, moan to cry—it lasts forever, it lasts a blink, it doesn’t matter because we float back on the petals on the same heartbeat. Gasping, shaking, laughing, weightless and tangled like vines. From the earthquake of our battle, little hurricanes of petals are swirling above, raining down on us as though his thrusts shook the roses root to stem. Maybe they did, maybe it was my cries. Whatever it was, there is no pain or fear—only my own body teeming with life.

He rolls off me onto his back, chest rising and falling like mine. “We survived,” he chuckles, catching one of the petals before it lands on his cheek.

“Either that or we died and this is what our heaven looks like.”

He looks at me, heart-stoppingly beautiful, carved moonstone with sharp angles of silver and shadow, and white petals in his messy hair. “It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, Elisa.”

I turn to face him, more petals gamboling off my skin with the movement, and rest my hand on his cheek. It’s warm and flushed. Even in the moonlight, I can see his calm, blissful eyes.

“Did I complete the brief?” he asks, turning to face me too, and dropping a fistful of petals over my head.

“What brief?” I laugh, brushing the deluge off my face.

“You charged me with making us forget the fear and remembering only why we’re doing this.”

“Oh, yes, with flying petals, I might add.”

His eyes soften, but his face intensifies. “The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side. Will you remember this when it gets hard?”

I curl into his chest, breathing him in—covered in my roses, his own fragrance is even more impossible than the Aeternum. “I will.”

“I’ll remind you,” he says, and I sense something in his voice but I don’t know what it is. I try to look up at his eyes but he tucks me closer, trailing his fingers down my spine.

I could stay here in this present moment forever, just adding love each time either of us feels a frisson of fear. But the night is deepening, his memories need sleep, and dawn is coming with a fresh reel of terror waiting for him. I cannot let him live through that horror with only a twenty percent strong remedy even if it feels stronger to him. I need to fight at night in Bia so he can have an easier day.

“Come on, love. It’s past your new bedtime,” he says, no doubt seeing the prospect of the night dawning on me and attributing it to exhaustion. “I’ll make you my special scrambled eggs and we can sleep.”

“Tell me about these special scrambled eggs.”

“Oh, the secret is salt.” He grins and rises fluidly, lifting me with him. Torrents of petals pour from everywhere. His gasp draws my eyes up to his face, and I’m certain the wonder in his eyes is a mirror of my own. “You’re stunning,” he murmurs and, in this moment, I believe my effect on him. Or rather the effect of Mum’s roses. Who isn’t stunning when wrapped in magic? He picks up our clothes and takes my hand, heading straight for the cottage’s front door. Neither of us looks at the box of the headset of torture by the hedges at the garden threshold. I suppose it will spend the night there tonight—it’s certainly safe. Unfortunately no one will steal it around here.

Thirty minutes later, fed and exhausted, we make it to our bedroom. I walk straight to the bouquet of the twelve wilted poppies of our weapons on my nightstand, and rest the picture of our kiss against the vase. He smiles—all dimple and turquoise from the happy memories he has in this room. “Will you please explain to me what the deal is with the wise-not-dead poppies when you have about a million roses outside and probably as many petals in your hair still?”

I shrug, shaking off the petals and putting on my night oil so his eyes don’t see my insane plan on my face. “I like them. Now off to bed with you, Mr. Plemmons. You need sleep at your old age.”

He laughs, swallows his anti-nightmare pill, and turns on Für Elise. “Our dance, first. We have to follow the first night’s routine, remember?”

I do now, and for the next few minutes, I forget my plot. Because dancing with Aiden is fourth of my favorite things: only his laughter, his lovemaking, and sleeping together rank higher on the list. He lifts me by my waist and slides his bare feet under mine as he did two nights ago, wiggling his attractive toes with a grin. And we sway, petals floating to the floor with each turn. He holds me tight against him, plucking more petals from my hair as I memorize the steps to his lullaby. I remember most of them already. Three languid rights, two quick lefts, turn, turn. He dips me over his arm on the final note, kissing at the end of my jawline.

It only takes a second Für Elise for him to fall asleep tonight, wrapped around me, nose in my hair. If that doesn’t betray the toll of torture, nothing else does. I know how many puffs of happiness it will take for him to sink into deep sleep. I keep very still and count each waft of cinnamon breath as his weight gets heavy and he rolls away, lying on his back. On puff one-hundred-and-fifty-two, I move one inch at a time—not afraid of him, but afraid of getting caught. He would be a dragon, it’s true, but worse than that, he wouldn’t let me go. He would camp at the front door and probably have Benson, Javier, James, Hendrix, and Jazzman guard the cottage windows at night so I could get enough sleep. But I need every minute I can get with the protein to test the idea Doctor Helen gave me. If Corbin was right today, having me in bed adds two hours of sleep for Aiden, which means, without me, he will wake around four. I must be back here before then and pretend to wake up to go back to Bia. I recognize it is a downright mental plan based on one single supposition by a single therapist from one single night that could be entirely wrong. And I’m fully aware I cannot keep this up, but I’ll do it for as long as I can. If need be, I’ll take power naps in the library.

It takes ten excruciating minutes to crawl out of the bed, heart pounding and barely breathing. I tiptoe to the door, lungs stopping every time a floorboard creaks, but Aiden stays asleep. Thank you, Beethoven. Another three minutes to open the bedroom door just enough to squeeze through one limb at a time. But when I’m almost out, I cannot move, I cannot look away from the sight of him, peaceful and asleep under the moonlight. I know the wound will start festering as soon as I leave. I almost go back, I almost curl right next to him to watch him all night. But the reel of terror is quite literally waiting outside. Sleep well, my love. I’ll be back before you know it.

Torso aching, I get dressed in my old bedroom, in my old high-school clothes, and sneak down the stairs, skipping the creaky ones, smiling at how much he loves them. I leave a note on the fifth stair, hoping he never sees it but not wanting to worry him if for some reason he wakes before four. Although he shouldn’t—Corbin and he have been testing Für Elise for over two weeks. It has worked every night, with or without me.

I had an idea so I went to Bia. I’ll be back soon. I love you.

Mrs. Plemmons

I pick up the Rover keys he left on the console, shake off more petals, and steal outside. But I don’t run right away. I wait on the threshold, fretting that the door woke him, half-expecting his beautiful head to peek out of the bedroom window, shouting enough fucks to scare all the roses. But he doesn’t. I glance at the petal angels we left on the garden and break into a sprint, not looking at the box of torture as I leap over it, plunging down Elysium to the garage. Every few moments, I look over my shoulder like any fugitive, but he is not behind me. Guard him, Mum. Keep him safe until I’m back.

I turn on the Rover as soon as I throw myself inside, but despite the gentle purr of the engine, I still jump, squinting in the darkness. But no light switches on at the cottage. I drive down the country road carefully until I reach town. Then as soon as I clear Burford’s border sign, I hit the gas, eyes on the road, mind on Aiden’s waterfall laughter, hands on the wheel exactly where he rests his.

I reach Bia in twenty-four minutes, chest blistering in pain. I have five hours left before Für Elise wears off. A few researchers are huddled over piles of books in the lobby as always, but Bia is dark and empty. I run straight to the bookshelves to confirm the idea I got from Doctor Helen. She said my calming effect decreases Aiden’s fear by reducing the CREB protein in his neurons. So, theoretically, if I can identify all oxytocin options that reduce CREB, I should be able to find the right one. The trouble is I have no clue which of the four hundred and thirty oxytocin formulas decrease CREB and which ones increase it or leave it unaffected.

I wrench out every textbook on neural chemicals and sit at the corner desk to read. It’s hard, tedious work on three hours of sleep and the day we’ve had. I would do much better if I was mixing oxytocin instead, but I need a way to identify the right one before I start. The hours pass, chapter after chapter, mumbling to myself, muttering to Dad, looking for any scribble of his on the pages and finding none. But at two-fifteen in the morning, as my eyes are itching and panic is setting in with jitters, there it is in bold font: a list of compounds that impact CREB proteins. All eighteen hundred of them. I almost vomit on the page. I almost crawl to the vent for air, but I don’t have time for meltdowns. I select the top one hundred with the highest potency in reducing CREB to start with. It will take weeks, maybe the whole summer, to eliminate even these from the oxytocin options, but it’s the only path I can see. I take a screenshot of the list and start compiling an inventory of all the ingredients in the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules in the cooler to compare them against the CREB list. I scrawl them in my notepad, not wanting to leave any computer traces in Bia. It feels like I’ve catapulted back to pre-historic times but computers can’t keep secrets. At least this part is mindless—just copying down chemical names—it’s all the calculations afterwards that will break my brain. I scribble name after name in mum’s writing to fight off my heavy lids, smiling at her and dad joining this way while Aiden’s waterfall laughter plays in my head. Almost like a family all of us together here in this present moment . . .

The slam of a door startles me. I jump up, almost toppling off my chair, realizing with dread I had fallen asleep. I glance at dad’s watch in panic, but then I see him. Aiden is towering by the lab door, in jeans, a T-shirt, and my dad’s lab coat over his arm. How he got in I don’t know, but I do know no wall or door would have stopped him because the fury and anxiety emanating from him are so palpable they could shatter all the vials and ignite all the combustible chemicals. It is beyond anything I imagined. He is not the Dragon, whom I’ve tamed. He is whatever fear itself is afraid of. He doesn’t speak but, from the way his jaw is set, his teeth must be clenching so hard they could pulverize the building walls. He is glaring down at me, either beyond all powers of speech or still choosing his words. Yet despite his fury, the wound in my chest—festering even while asleep—disappears. I scramble to speak first, with zero formula or plan.

“Hi there,” I start, my voice high enough to break a few beakers on its own. He doesn’t answer in any way, but his jaw flexes once. I look back at Dad’s watch even though I already saw it’s four forty. “Looks like Corbin was right,” I continue in bat-ear frequency. “Did you sleep well? I sure did . . . this desk is so cozy.” Still no response from him whatsoever. “I was going to come back before four but—ah—I’m so thrilled you came here instead because I can show you my—umm—workstation.” That earns me a blink. “Oh, good, you’re thrilled, too.” I hold out my hand, teetering to my bench scrubbed spotless with not a single item of interest on it. “So this is me . . . and over there is Graham who will be here in an hour and a half . . . strong emotions near his beloved 2-AG will give him an aneurism . . . and over there are some beakers . . . oh, have you ever seen a Bunson burner? I think you may be cousins—”

“Enough!” His voice is low and hoarse, yet it silences me more than his dragon roar. He doesn’t move, but his hands clench in fists. “Do you have any idea how it felt to wake up and not see you there?” The question is a strangled whisper. “Any idea at all how worried, how sickened I was?” A shudder runs through him. “I thought I had hurt you in my sleep. I was searching the sheets, the floor for any drop of blood only to find your ridiculous note and then worry more that you were out driving at night stressed, with no sleep, not answering your phone—what if you had gotten hurt?” He shudders again and throws the lab coat on the desk, breathing hard.

I, on the other hand, can’t breathe at all. How did I manage to torment him when I was trying to protect him? How did I cause the exact fear I’m trying to heal here in this lab? How could I have added even one minute of pain to the horror he already lived through yesterday and the horror he will live through again today?

I run straight to him, wrapping my hands around his fists. “I’m so sorry, my love. I fell asleep and didn’t hear my phone, and even worse, I was reckless. You have every right to be furious.” His fists soften in my hands, and his breathing slows. “I’ll never put you through that again,” I promise, leaning my head on his chest.

He takes a deep breath and wraps his arms around me. “Do you know what you mean to me, Elisa? What you would have done to us both if something had happened to you?”

I nod against his T-shirt that he barely must have thrown on. “I do because I know what you mean to me.”

“Then why did you come back here last night? What was so important that couldn’t wait until you got some rest?”

I look up at his anxious eyes, and the words I never wanted to weigh on him spill out. “It’s the protein . . . it’s failing. I had an idea about how to save it, but even that I don’t think I can solve on time now. I know you don’t want me to stress about it, but I can’t do that, Aiden, I have to try. I want us to have every chance and every weapon we can get. But I’m losing this one. Losing it for you, losing it for my dad . . . ” As soon as I say the words, they become real. The truth and exhaustion break through, and the tears start, splashing down my cheeks like his petals. Was it only seven hours ago that we were tangled together under the roses?

“Oh, my love.” He folds me into his chest and carries me back to my chair, sitting with me on his lap. “You’re not losing anything for us—this isn’t your fault. How could it be, loving and brave and bright as you are? Shh, don’t cry. It’ll be all right. We’re fighting together now.” He tips up my face, brushing away my tears. His forehead is lined with worry like his heart line at the lab. That brings me back to my senses. Haven’t I caused him enough grief for a day? For his whole life? I wipe my nose, trying to smile.

“You’re right— we are together, and I don’t want to waste another minute crying. Let’s get some fresh air for a while before I have to come back for Graham and Edison. I’ll be better about sleep tonight.”

He cups my cheek, shaking his head. “Show me the problem, love. Show me what’s upsetting you so I can see if I can help.”

“No, you have enough on your plate, you don’t need to learn chemistry, too.”

“I don’t give a fuck what’s on my plate if you’re hurting. Show me before Graham comes. ”

“But you don’t want anything to do with the protein.”

“I want everything to do with you. And if I can’t convince you not to worry about it, then at least let me help.”

“Really?”

“Really, but only if you give me a real smile. I can’t stand seeing you in pain, Elisa.”

His lips lift into an automatic smile in response to my own, except his is a lot more beautiful. I kiss the corner of his mouth and tell him everything. It feels like it did by my parents’ grave—like the moment I tell him my problems, they split in half or we become double-strong. I show him the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules and the one hundred compounds that increase CREB proteins. “So, you see, we need the protein to emulate my calming effect on you so we can boost its power—maybe instead of twenty percent, we can make it forty or fifty. But the problem is there are too many choices. So I need to cross-reference these CREB compounds against all the ingredients in the four hundred thirty ampules and eliminate all oxytocin formulas that contain any compound that increases CREB proteins. And hopefully the options I’ll need to test will be more manageable then.”

He has absorbed everything—names and concepts that took me entire semesters. “Sounds like a perfect job for my brain.” His eyes are already scanning the labels of the ampules, capturing the ingredients list. “I won’t be any help with the experiment, but combinatorial calculations are my thing. That was going to be my specialty at the CIA.”

“You really think you have time to help me with everything else you have to do?”

He nods, eyes racing over the CREB list—no notes, no screenshots, nothing but his own mind. “How many ampules can you test per day while still getting at least seven hours of sleep?”

“One, two at most before Graham comes in or after he leaves.”

“So we need to narrow down the options to about eighty and we need it stat so you have the rest of the summer to test?”

“Ideally even less than eighty, but if you do this, it frees me up to research other ways to identify the right oxytocin and how much to add.”

“And to sleep.” He strides straight to the cooler of oxytocin and starts turning the ampules so he can see the ingredient list for each.

“Aiden, Graham will be here in an hour. We can come back tonight.” I glance at my watch, a new worry gnawing at me. The last thing I need is for Graham to catch us here.

“We’ll be gone by then,” he answers with confidence, never looking away from the ampules.

“But—”

“Give me fifteen minutes.”

I fall silent, watching him mesmerized. I realize until now I’ve never truly seen him work. Everything I’ve seen him process—from complex financial documents and stock analyses to the books he reads in hours, sometimes minutes—must be as effortless to him as the periodic table is to me. But now that I see him really use his mind, I’m awed. He is memorizing about twenty ampules per minute, slowed only by the time it takes to turn them over for his eyes to photograph the ingredient list and place them back in their previous position. And I finally witness the processing speed that so astonished the Edinburgh scientists—it is not something anyone can envision without seeing it in action. He stops exactly in fifteen minutes as he predicted.

“There,” he says. “Now we can leave.”

He smiles when I just stare with an open mouth, unable to form any words. “There are some benefits to my mind, I acknowledge that.” He grabs me by the hand and helps me put back the books and erase all evidence of my work—he of course left nothing behind. In five more minutes, we’re done. He throws my dad’s lab coat over my shoulders and rushes me out of the lab as I finally manage to find some words.

“So how did you get in? Can you secretly walk through walls, too?”

He chuckles. “Nope, I innocently told one of the researchers in the lobby that you forgot your father’s lab coat. As soon as he saw its initials, he let me in.” Of course, easy as breathing, provided that you have his brain under pressure and remember everything. I stumble next to him, stunned and wordless again, and in another two minutes, we’re out in the parking lot, not a single Graham or Edison in sight.

But Benson is there in his rental van, waiting for us, puffy eyed and in pajamas. I shouldn’t be surprised to see him—of course he would have driven Aiden here since I took the Rover—but it still takes me off guard. A new wave of guilt washes over me. “I’m sorry, Benson. I messed up your sleep, too.”

“Don’t worry, Elisa. I’m still jetlagged,” he lies with a sleepy smile.

Aiden opens the van’s back door and brings out my blanket from the cottage. Even in his panic and anger, he thought ahead for me. The tears almost start again, but I fight them off while he sends Benson back. “Thanks, Benson. I’ll take the Rover back, you get some rest.” He starts towing me toward the Rover before Benson has turned on the van’s lights.

“Where are we going?” I ask him as he tucks me in the front seat and secures my safety belt in case I find the task too onerous in my state.

“University Parks so you can take a nap.”

Despite the exhaustion that suddenly crashes over me, I smile—it will be just the two of us together for a while longer. He backs out of the parking lot and whips right on South Parks Road. I can’t look away from his face—here, caring for me while internally his brain must be already processing. “So how many ingredients were there?”

“Three thousand four hundred and forty seven,” he answers automatically. “You were right, this will take some time.”

“Bloody hell!” All the relaxed feelings disappear. “How can we possibly eliminate them on time?”

He’s racing down the empty road. “That’s my job now. Your job is to relax before you have to go back there. I’d tell you to call in sick but I don’t think you will listen.”

“You would be right.”

He sighs in a way that could only mean give me strength. In minutes, the brakes skid to a full stop at the secluded corner of the park, by River Cherwell. I grin, peering out of the window. “Did you know down the path here is where the dons of Oxford used to go for male nude bathing away from delicate female eyes?”

He chuckles. “Don’t get any ideas, Elisa. Your no-longer-delicate eyes are here to sleep. There will be no male nudity of any kind. And that’s a promise.” He gets out of the Rover quickly lest I rip off his clothes, which is entirely possible even with my current heavy limbs. By the time I unbuckle my safety belt, he is already at my door, wrapping me in the blanket like one of Maria’s empanadas. He carries me as always, striding across the soft grass to the shrubs by the river. A déjà vu of him carrying me across his Alone Place in Portland hijacks me, and I kiss his neck.

“What was that for?” he asks.

“I love you.”

“Are you after male nudity, Elisa?”

“Always, but I don’t think you will listen.”

“You would be right.”

He sets me down by a tall cluster of salvias that are blooming a deep inky purple against the still dark sky. The shrubs and stalks hide us completely as the grassland slopes toward the river. “Sleep now, love,” Aiden says, lying next to me directly on the dewy grass and pulling me in his arms.

“No, you’ll get wet. Come inside the blanket with me.”

He chuckles again. “Elisa, this is a feather mattress compared to Fallujah. Sleep.”

“We’re not in Fallujah. We’re in a quiet park together and I’m not sleeping unless you’re inside the blanket with me.”

Another deep give-me-strength sigh, but he crawls inside the blanket that stretches like a hug around us. He brings me in his chest, and his fragrant body heat envelops me, blowing the scent of the park’s lime trees into oblivion. “Happy now?” he murmurs.

“Yes.” I bury my face in the spot above his heart, knowing there are salvias, cedars, and mugwort blooming around but smelling nothing but him. I feel his nose in my hair, perhaps inhaling me too. His body relaxes like another blanket over me, as if we are back in our bedroom, but abruptly I panic.

“What is it?” he asks, sensing my tension.

“Did I ruin your happy memories of our bedroom tonight with my stupidity?”

“Of course not. That bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life. And it wasn’t stupidity, it was love.”

I want to tell him he is the most beautiful place in my life. Whether among petals or in his primordial oak or his sky-high craggy mountaintop or here in a sleepy park—nothing compares to him. But not because he has the face any angel would become a demon for. Because of all the beauty he has within.

“Are you asleep?” he whispers.

“Not yet. It feels like a dream, though.”

“Do you want me to play Für Elise so you feel like we’re at home? I thought maybe the river would help.”

Always thoughtful, always for me. “It does, but I prefer your voice. Tell me a story.”

“What kind of story would you like?”

“Tell me how you discovered that Für Elise helped you sleep.”

He hugs me closer, lips in my hair still, but his body tenses around me. “That’s a very difficult thing for me to talk about. I found it on the night you left . . .” A shudder runs through him and me.

“Then don’t.” I stop him before he forces himself to think of more torment. “Only happy memories now. Pick whatever story you want.”

His comforting, relaxed weight cocoons me again. “All right,” he murmurs after a moment, his musical voice more soothing than any lullaby. “I’ll tell you about my first memory of this park. I was seven, and my parents and I came here before my first meeting with Doctor Helen on April 12, 1987. I was a difficult child, as you might imagine. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Why could I remember everything my best friend Brandon told me but he couldn’t remember anything I told him? Why were the teachers whispering about me? Why did I have to meet with scientists instead of playing ball with the other kids? And why was mom crying at night? Anyway, when we came here that day though, it wasn’t bad. I felt somewhat normal. This was a brand-new place, no memories yet, and I could just run amok or play ball, without crystal clear images in my head every corner I turned. And mom seemed happier, too. She was smiling, as was dad. They were so hopeful the brilliant Oxford scientists would help me. And I saw them kiss. Right down Lucas Walk over there, on that bench. It was just a light kiss, but I hadn’t seen them kiss since Christmas morning in 1986—over four months prior. And in that one moment, they looked happy. It lasted seconds before they spotted me looking at them. They pulled away quickly and waved me over. I pretended to gag but went and set with them. ‘Does our kissing embarrass you?’ Mom asked. Me, the brat: ‘It’s gross, but at least you remember how to do it.’ And she laughed, Elisa. I hadn’t heard her laugh in so long—ever since my mind started showing. She kissed my cheek, as I was squirming away, and she said, “Well, you will never have that problem, Aiden-bear. When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.” I lied and told her I had kissed Jenny, Sarah, Myra, Kate, Laura, Ashley, Emily, Tara, Erica, Leah, and Anna—basically all the pretty girls in my class. She looked horrified until she saw the lie in my eyes, and then laughed again. But what she said stayed with me. That’s how I knew not to kiss on the mouth until I met a woman whose taste I’d want to remember forever in mine. Until I met you. And that’s my first memory of this park—a happy one, just like right now.”

His piano voice stops and, for a while, I don’t know whether I’m asleep or awake. But I must be awake—my mind could never conjure this. I lift my head, fighting off the wall of sleep and the heavy lids just enough to look at him. “Kiss me here then, Aiden-bear.”

He sighs again, no doubt thinking I had fallen asleep, but he kisses me. Softly, slowly, so light it could be the breeze. Or just a dream. And I drift, sleep shutting all of my mind except this one urgency of being the Oxford scientist that can save the seven-year old boy who became a soldier and is now fighting for his own peace.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 15 – HOPE

Happy Sunday, friends, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Hope it’s a day of rest and renewal for all of you. In that spirit, here is a new and (IMHO) important chapter. Thanks as always for reading, writing, and following. Lots of love, xo – Ani

15

H-o-p-e

Something soft and weightless pulls at the edge of sleep like a forgotten dream. I breathe against it, too comfortable and warm to wake up. It flutters again, like a puff of breath or a rose dancing over my lips in a familiar way. Memory and consciousness strike at the same time.

“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.

Aiden is lying right next to me, his face more radiant than the sun, taping an Elisa rose over my lips, exactly as he did on our very first morning together.

“Good morning.” He smiles, his voice still gravelly with sleep.

“Aiden!” I rejoice and throw myself on top of him, quilt, sheets, and all.

He laughs and wraps me in his arms, burying his face in my hair as I burrow in his warmth.

“Elisa, we just woke up together,” he sighs with a profound note of relief. “You and me, and all your perfect ten fingers and ten toes. I checked, they’re all there. Can you believe it?”

“Yes, I can,” I answer, looking at him and believing everything. Not just because he is glowing on the white pillow, under a beam of sun, with the lightest blue sky in his eyes. I believe it because of last night—because of who he is. A whisper from my nightmare hisses like an echo, but I shove it back. Not today.

“What is it?” he asks, looking at the goose bumps that erupted on my skin at the nightmare’s hiss.

“Today will be another good day,” I declare to him and the goose bumps, kissing his lips. He engulfs me in his body heat, and we kiss like this for a while in our hot, sunny bubble. I breathe in his scent until my lungs hurt. He smells like a cinnamon stick inside a leaf of sandalwood wrapped with a rose petal warmed in the sun all tucked inside a heavy cloud of an unknown pheromone blowing out of some pagan sex god—all in concentrated form here under the sheets with me. He frees my mouth when I start hyperventilating and sweating, and throws off the sheets, letting the cool breeze tickle my back.

“I’m sorry, I’m a warm sleeper.” He blows on my flushed cheeks.

“Perfect because I’m usually cold. How did you sleep?” He looked so peaceful while I was keeping vigil, but I don’t know what happened after.

His eyebrows arch in bewilderment. “The best sleep of my life, Elisa.”

“Really?”

He nods with something like awe. “I don’t think I even had any dreams. I must have rolled onto my back at some point but I’m not sure I moved after that. Corbin will want to know.”

That’s true. He never moved while I was awake. And although he doesn’t know it, there was enough commotion to wake him up. “Do you think it’s because you were so tired from the flight and all the awfulness of the last two weeks?”

He shrugs. “Maybe. We’ll see, I suppose. My guess is it’s you but I’m not sure.”

I love that. The idea of giving him a full night’s rest. “Why do you look worried?”

“Not worried exactly. It’s just a very sudden, big change. Full eight hours, no dreams, no movement. I didn’t have that even before Iraq. I don’t know how long it can last.”

And there it is. Tic toc, tic toc. We’ve been given so much in the last twenty-four hours. Is this the held breath before the war?

“Did you sleep well?” he asks, his index finger tracing a circle under my eye.

I’m grateful my goose bumps can be blamed on the breeze this time. “My favorite part was when I was awake.”

He looks at me with a raised eyebrow. “Were you watching me?”

“Of course. You used to do it to me all the time.”

“That’s true. I’d like it better if we were both sleeping though. Were you afraid?” The first V of the day forms between his eyebrows.

Not from you, from my own mind. I smooth the V away. “Not at all. I was just getting to know you.”

He smiles. “Yikes. How the tables have turned. Do I want to know?”

“Oh, nothing serious, only eight erections by the time I fell asleep.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter. “Eight? My, my. Sounds dire. That will make for an interesting conversation with the experts at Oxford tomorrow.”

I prop myself up on his chest—his strong heart thuds there reassuringly alive. “What should I expect tomorrow? I want to get this right.”

“Well, Corbin will Skype in—you’ve already met him. They’ll scan my brain to compare it to five years ago before I met you, and again in eighty-nine days. And they’ll go over their plan with us. Just be you, and you’ll get it right. Look how far you’ve brought us with me completely against you. Maybe we can travel a little farther now that we’re on the same side.”

His voice becomes soft, colored with the h-o-p-e he is holding for us both. Maybe it’s that tone or last night’s nightmare or the loneliness of him carrying this little torch alone, but I let my mind tip-toe around the edges of h-o-p-e. How would it feel if I stepped inside its pool of light? Would it blind me so I can’t see the horrors ahead? Would it stun me so I cannot fight with a rational mind? Would it give me life so it can kill me in the end? Is h-o-p-e the dagger to the chest? I shake off the image, but even with that sliver of thought, the goose bumps return.

“What are you thinking?” Aiden asks, brushing the goose bumps on my arm. “These left and now they’re back.”

So much for the breeze as an excuse. “I was breaking Corbin’s rule and looking ahead instead of at the present moment.”

He nods, rubbing my arms until the goose bumps disappear. “Easy to do. How about my virginity Baci? Only happy memories in this room.”

I laugh despite my current love-hate relationship with Baci quotes and pick it up from his nightstand. “Make it a good one.”

He peels it slowly while I remind myself that I am a woman of science and took an oath last night against superstitions. My hands don’t care—they still clutch the sheets as though he is detonating an explosive device. But Aiden smiles as he reads the note.

“Oh, Elisa, you’ll love this. ‘Everything I know, I know because of love.’”

“Who said it?”

“Our closest friend and confidant, Tolstoy. Straight from War and Peace.”

“Yes!” I squeal, half-relieved, half-furious with myself for my reaction to this most trivial and nonsensical ritual.

“Share it with me.” Aiden pops it in my mouth and chases it with his tongue. We have learned to melt these little chocolates together by now—not a single crumble or drop ever spills. And they no longer taste as good on their own, without the taste of him. He doesn’t stop the kiss when the Baci is gone, and neither do I. His mouth changes, becomes full of slow, heated things. Things my body understands instantly, the way it catches fire and moves on top of him, searching for a precious blink of skin-on-skin.

“Elisa, you seem to be after something. Is there anything my twentieth erection and I can get you? We’re taking requests.”

“Yes, please.” I try to glide against him but he’s too quick. He lifts me an inch, where I can feel all his heat and none of him.

“Behave,” he says darkly when I whimper but tilts his hips a fraction for the faintest brush. “Is this what you want?”

My “yes” is more of a sigh, and he presses a finger gently into me. I tense, feeling the effects of last night’s homecoming.

“Are you sore?”

“No,” I breathe.

“I don’t believe you.” And the finger disappears.

“No, Aiden, more!” Oxygen becomes rarefied, and I try to find the rose-scented breeze.

He chuckles. “The headboard, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“The . . . the . . . the what?”

“Like this.” For a scarce heartbeat, he lets go of my hips and takes my arms, stretching them over him until I can grab the headboard. I take advantage of my hip freedom and brush against him.

“Hold on to that,” he says with a growl and locks my hips again. “I’m going to chain these, Elisa.” He smacks my behind while biting my breast, hard. It makes the fire worse. And the new problem of shaky arms. I grip the headboard as he pulls my prisoner hips upward until I’m hovering over his mouth.

“Wait, no, no—yes!”

His warm lips smile against me. “Now you can dance,” he murmurs. And he releases my hips while his tongue begins gliding as though it’s melting another Baci. Finally free, my hips tango to his rhythm. If he draws circles, they roll. He traces figure-eights and they shimmy. When he blows, they sway. Then his mouth changes again. Instead of a tango, it becomes a tribal dance—pressured, fast, and heavy until with one quick flick, I spiral and fall, sliding down the headboard and all over his face into an inert mass of trembles and whimpers.

He rearranges my melted arms and legs on top of him with a self-assured chuckle, while I try to regain some composure. The clock on the nightstand informs me that my entire transformation from adult woman to blob of molecules took him less than five minutes.

“Are you pleased with yourself?” I try to sound sarcastic and self-possessed but it comes out like a string of drunken slurs.

“Exceptionally. This is one thing where I’m above reproach as a partner. Don’t take it away from me.”

“Not the only thing.” I press my lips over his heart. “But you could certainly improve on self-love.” I wait for my body to solidify, the vague contours of a plan forming in my head. A rational brain cell warns me that I have no clue what I’m doing. But I only have so many weapons, and I promised to fight with him. And the fight has to include this.

“Speaking of self-love,” I say, sitting up and straddling him when I’m steady. His abs flex against me—hopefully an ally in my current incursion. “I’d like to play a game.”

He grins. “What kind of game?”

“It’s quite simple. Someone with your expertise should have no problem.” I press myself gently against his abs, but even the light contact tingles my still-sensitive skin.

Instantly, his grin becomes an arrogant, lopsided smirk. “Is this a sex game, Elisa?”

“It can’t be, can it? As you so thoughtfully observed, I’m a little sore. Which means we can’t use this—” I brush over the length of him, not bothering to hide my sigh. “Or these.” I knot my fingers with his. “As you’d never want to hurt me, right?”

The smirk disappears. “Of course not.”

“Exactly. And we already used your mouth but it just . . . how do I say this . . . it didn’t hit the spot.”

“What the fuck?”

“Yes, I think it left something . . . to be desired.”

He looks almost enraged—as though he has never heard such words in any of the twelve languages he speaks. “Encore,” he hisses, trying to bring me closer to his mouth, but I have his fingers locked with mine, knowing he’ll be gentle while in my hands.

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” The words slice through clenched teeth, as though all the strength I have neutralized from his hands has seeped into his jaw.

“Because your mouth and I have reached an impasse.”

“Excuse me?”

I press myself against his abs more firmly and they nudge back—reflexively swearing allegiance to me. Good, I need reinforcements. “Yes, you see, your mouth—despite its considerable talent—has an awful habit of saying terrible things about you. So your mouth will not have any part of me until we fix this problem.”

His eyes darken as he catches up to my game. The good news is that the fury disappears from his face. The bad news is that it’s replaced with his patent fire. On command, my skin bursts into flames. “That’s a grave impasse, indeed.” The fire is there his voice too—low, with an after-sound building in his chest like smoke. “And how do we remedy this transgression according to you?”

His abs ripple under me, fueling me on. “It’s simple really. I’ll just have to love myself.”

He did not see this coming, that much is obvious. His mouth pops open into a perfect O, along with his eyes. With more courage than I knew I had, I release one of his hands—he grasps a fistful of my thigh immediately—and trail my fingertips between my breasts all way down like he does, until I feel wetness there. Then I place one fingertip inside his open mouth. He sucks on it with a growl, biting hard. “Do you taste that?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever because it’s the last time you taste it until your mouth and I resolve our dispute.”

He doesn’t release my finger, his teeth and eyes imprisoning me here. “You can keep that one finger, Aiden, if you want it so much. I have nine other perfect ones, as you call them, and your abs, which have sworn allegiance to your favorite home.” I roll against them with another sigh. “So, I will be just fine.”

He drops my finger. “You will beg.”

“Oh, but as you assured me last night, you would never let me burn. So I’m hedging my bets that you will beg first.” His abs twitch under me while a growl whirls out of his mouth. His twentieth erection presses imperiously against the small of my back.

“As you wish, Elisa,” he enunciates darkly, as though his tongue is moving inside me, not in his mouth. “We’ll play your little game. What do I have to do?”

His eyes don’t release me and his free fingers are digging into my thigh, so my voice is as tremulous as I feel. “ Well . . . as you know, I’ve never done this self-love business before. And I would want you to guide me through this very first time, like you have done for all my other firsts. But you lost that right for yourself.”

“An immense oversight on my part that will be rectified as soon as I’m allowed, I assure you.”

“Well, here is your chance. I’ll fumble my way through, just me and myself. And if you want to join, first you have to say something nice about yourself and mean it. And then I’ll do what you tell me to do. Agree?”

He looks at me like I’m the bane of his existence and his reason for living at the same time. “Agree,” he says with something like venom and fire. His free fingers grip my thigh. I slap away his hand as he does with me.

“And no touching, please. This is between me and myself. You can touch when you behave.”

I notice with satisfaction that a low gasp escapes his lips.

“Now, where shall I begin?” I circle my hips over the ridges of his abs, losing my train of thought. They flex with me, and I don’t stifle my moan.

“Elisa!” My name fires through clenched teeth like a warning, his hips thrusting underneath. I tighten my thighs around his waist as hard as I can to lock him down—it’s difficult with a thousandth of his strength and my own body shaking.

“Tsk, tsk. I might have to chain these, Aiden. You’re interfering.”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

“You should. Because the more you interfere, the more I’ll change the rules. For example, right now I’m contemplating doing this alone in the bathtub with a locked door while you have only your ears and imagination to torment you.”

“It’s not a hard door to break.”

“That may well be. But it’s an awfully small, European-sized tub. Not at all designed for the likes of you. I’m certain only I can fit in.”

“Fuck you.”

“I really hope you do. And soon. But for now, I’ll just do what you would do.” I’m no longer able to handle the heat of his furious gaze so I close my eyes and, with a burst of courage, I throw my head back and wrap my hands around my breasts. “You would start here, I believe?”

A whimper—an actual whimper—comes from the god of sex. It’s the sound I needed for confidence. My hips unleash themselves on his abs, soldered as we are together from my thighs and my weight. And my hands start to mold around my breasts. I know the way he would touch them—his fingers have branded a permanent trail on my skin. I follow it now with my own fingers, thinking only of him. And everything inside starts to pulse.

Aiden shudders underneath me and the whimper becomes a growl that sounds like, “Oh dear God.”

“No, not that God,” I gasp through the inferno I just lit for myself. “Dear Aiden.” I brush my fingers over my nipples—this is harder, more intimate under his blistering gaze that burnishes my skin even with my eyes closed. I pinch as he does at the same time that I circle my hips.

“I’m loyal.”

I almost miss the snarl of his words over the blood hammering in my ears. But they hang in the air, raspy and clear.

“Yes, you are,” I smile. “One of your most noble traits. What would you like me to do in return?”

“Look at me.”

And I do. Those are the rules I made, even if they light me on fire. Under me, Aiden is falling apart. Every band of muscle has turned into a blade of steel. The V is carved so deep between his eyebrows, it might become permanent. His hands are in white-knuckled fists, clenching the quilt. And his fiery eyes are dark and hooded, boring into me with greed.

“Am I doing this right?” I ask, circling my nipples as he would.

He nods furiously, beyond all speech, his eyes unblinking on my fingers. His abs and I continue to dance to the music of my moan.

“I’m strong.” His words ring out again, a little louder.

“Very strong. Stronger than anyone I know. What do you want me to do next?”

“Lower,” he commands as another shudder runs through him. My fingers flutter over my belly like his did when he was playing the piano on me.

“I love you.” His words spill out again.

“No, that’s about me, not about you. Try again.”

“It is about me,” he protests through his teeth. “My love for you is my best trait.”

I deliberate but the throbbing inside makes me a biased judge. My fingers brush over my pubic bone. “How about you’re loving? Can we settle for that?”

“I’m loving.” Half-snarl, half-whimper.

“Yes, and I love that about you. It makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the world.”

“You are.”

“What next?”

“Lower.”

My finger tiptoe my public bone to the inside of my thighs, tracing little circles there like he did yesterday with me. “Like this?”

“Uh huh.”

“I like it so much better when you do it.”

“Let me.”

“No.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes . . . wouldn’t that be nice?”

But now I have a dilemma. Where do I go from here? If I move, I lose the friction of his abs and I need that—I need it like air. If I don’t, I run out of real estate on my thigh. And then there is only one spot left. The inferno that will burn us both alive. He must sense my battle because he doesn’t speak—he is breathing hard though. Like my next touch is air to him. And I give it. I wedge my hand between myself and his abs, pressing hard as he would. I barely hear him over my own moan.

“Christ.” His hips thrust again, almost buckling me off.

“No, just you in my head. And control your hips or I will stop.”

He becomes utterly still with a pained groan.

“Good. Now . . . the piano you said, Aiden?” And I play the first notes of Für Elise against myself. I know he can feel them on his abs. I know because he shudders, snarls, and swears at the same time.

“I’m—fucking—smart.”

“Yes! Even though it’s an understatement, I’ll accept it. What now?”

“Get—on—this—bed—now.”

Damn him. He’s taking away his faithful, miraculous abs that have done nothing but love and support me. But these are the rules I made up. “Goodbye for now, Aiden’s abs.” I roll one final time against them and slide off him onto the bed.

He takes full advantage. He springs onto his knees between my legs, looming above me, fire raging from everywhere. He spreads his thighs slightly, forcing mine to open more. He seems taller, broader somehow—as though the last few minutes have stretched his contours to breaking point. His chest is rising and falling with his hard breathing. His fingers are curled inward as if he is gripping me in his head. His now-permanent erection is pointing straight at my mouth.

And the throbbing inside gets worse—like a drum on fire pounded by a flamethrower. I will my fingers to continue to play Für Elise, but I can only summon random, off-beat notes even though I heard it all night. My breathing becomes jagged, matching his. He doesn’t speak so my body arches toward him, as though pleading for his words.  It marks a transformation. A flicker of calculation glints in his eyes, his hands relax, and his breathing steadies. His lips lift into a slow, deadly smile. Abruptly, I feel like I’m about to lose my own game.

“I’m an excellent fighter, Elisa.” His voice is now dripping with triumph. “I always win.”

“That’s true,” I sigh, addictive fear gathering like static over my skin. Not fear of him—fear of whether I can handle whatever he is about to unleash on me. “What would you like me to do?”

“I want you to play your song inside you since my fingers are banned.”

Oh bloody hell! Playing on the surface is one thing, venturing into the dragon’s den with him roaring on the threshold is quite another.

“Your rules, Elisa.” His voice is even and dark. I lost all his whimpers and growls the moment I laid back on this mattress. “I’ll even play the music on my phone to help you because I’m thoughtful like that. And that counts for two self-loving things, which means I’d also like you to spread your legs as far apart as they will go. Now.” Then eyes never leaving me, he calls to his phone. “Siri? Play Für Elise . . . for the only woman in the world,” he adds the last part under his breath.

And the piano starts. “Carry on, Elisa.” His voice is back to its taunting setting—he has already won, I just haven’t found out how yet.

Well, I might as well not go down without a fight. “Like so?” I breathe as I obey both his commands. But only one finger—that’s not bad.

“You will need two fingers for your notes, darling, unless it hurts. I earned this one fair and square.”

“Yes, you did,” I concede and do as he says. The first thing I notice is the soreness has eased, either from the heat or the throbbing I don’t know. The second thing I notice is a lot of wet, warm mess.

“Well, well, isn’t that interesting? How soreness just heals from self-love.”

“Only for me.” I try to sound strong but my breath leaves me entirely as I trace the paths he has blazed inside me as well. So familiar with him, so strange and new to me alone. But pleasant too—in a way I didn’t know I could give myself. Nowhere as bewildering as when he does it, more like a snack to his feast . . . but good nonetheless. My eyes flutter close.

“Oh, no. I earned the open eyes as well,” he reminds me.

I force mine open, begging him in my head as he predicted. Say more nice things, please. More nice things about yourself, and then make them into nice things for me.

“Now,” he begins in a tone that makes me shiver. “Self-love, you said?” And eyes on me, he grasps himself. I whimper as though he grasped me. “I don’t think your cruel rules prohibit this, do they?” And with a controlled sigh, he moves his hand up and down his length to the languid rhythm of my song. It’s my mouth that pops open now, my fingers that curl and stop. I’m the one shuddering. I can’t blink away from the sight.

“Your song, Elisa,” he prompts evenly. “Play it, like I earned it.”

I try. I really, really do. But I’m frozen. I barely survive Aiden pleasing me. How am I supposed to live through Aiden pleasing himself? His beauty in this moment is a force. Exactly that. He knows his body with such precision and control—a fluid symbiosis unlike the treacherous flailing my body is exacting against me. And then he stops. The sparkly bubble of liquid forms over him.

“Don’t stop!” My plea escapes without permission—body and mind completely breaking ranks.

“Oh, no. This is your game. You play, I play. Self-love and all that. Go on.”

As if I can resist him. The sight, the voice, the bubble. I play the keys, and he starts again, as though he can see through my skin. I watch every stroke of his hand, the way the shimmering liquid spreads over him, the way the two of them mold together perfectly without me. And lust becomes almost anger—at myself, at him.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” He smirks. “Feeling so left out when the person you love most in the world turns against you like this.”

“Please, Aiden!” My traitor mouth fires away, completely on his side now.

“Are you begging, Elisa?”

“Yes,” Judas continues.

“What would you like?”

“More nice things . . . about yourself.”

“Ah. I’ll have to think . . . hard,” he says as he pushes himself into his strong hand with a hiss. “It’s difficult to think about myself when all I have in my head is you. And what I’ll do to you once this pestilent soreness is all gone. You have chairs in your lab, don’t you, love? Because I don’t think you will be able to stand. But maybe all the oxytocin will help.” The crescendo of my song starts, and I manage to tap out one note out of three. Gasping, coming apart at the sight of him. The familiar tension wrings my body. At least it’ll be over soon. But the moment the trembles start, his words ring out.

“I’m loved.”

“Wha—? R-right now? I’m busy.”

“No better moment. You heard me. I’m loved. Admit it, that’s your favorite nice thing I should know about myself.”

It is. It is and he knows it, that’s why he saved it for now. But at last I’ll have my release. “You’re—very—loved—especially—by—me—what—next?”

An infuriatingly controlled chuckle. “Fingers out.”

“What? No, no, no.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Why?” The whimper sounds like another “no.”

“Because I earned it. And this one was a very hard one for me to admit. I have plans for this.”

I can’t argue with him, even if my brain cells had not been decimated by his strokes. I almost cry as I obey. The emptiness left behind is physically painful.

“I hate you,” I hiss at him, and he chuckles.

“And there’s the difference between our love. I love you even when you hate me. Now, those perfect fingers of yours . . .”

I tense. “Yes?”

“Since you’ve broken up with my mouth, I’d like you to put one of them in yours.”

“Ew! Really?”

Another slow stroke, another bubble sparkling on him. “Ah, now that hurts my feelings, Elisa. I admitted this very difficult, very vulnerable part of myself. It’s engrained in me not to accept love, but I want to accept yours. I want it so badly, I have gathered scientists, psychiatrists, Beethoven, medication, U.S. Marines, the U.S. Congress, the CIA, Siri, not to mention crossing an ocean and eight thousand miles—all the king’s horses and all the king’s men for the single purpose of deserving your love, but you—love of my life, star of my dreams, peace of my war, lullaby of my sleep—won’t even taste yourself from your finger when you have no problem doing so from my lips? Which is ironic when you are trying to teach self-love. And what’s worse, you refer to my favorite taste with ‘ew’. What is a man supposed to do with all that?”

I just stare. He has stunned even thought into silence, let alone speech. Eyes on him, I put my finger in my mouth without hesitation because he’s right—I’ve done this countless of times with his mouth. I think about the way his bubble tastes instead of me. His eyes widen a fraction—he must have expected more arguments—and a slow smile spreads over his face. I notice with some h-o-p-e that his hand is moving faster. Two bubbles now.

“Thank you,” he says, and his voice is huskier too. “Was that ew?”

I shake my head, still unable to speak.

“Will you say such awful things about yourself again?”

Another shake.

“Good. Did you like it?”

A shrug.

“Ah, that’s too bad. Personally, I could live on it. Would you like to taste something else?”

A nod.

“Well then,” he says, and gathers the gleaming bubbles on his fingertip and brings it to my lips like I did with him. “Taste.”

I shiver from the warm liquid steel that, at least to me, is better than melted Baci. The same moan escapes my lips as it did for him.

His breath catches as his eyes darken. “Better?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever, Elisa. Think about it because it’s only yours. And allowing myself to be yours is the most self-loving thing I can do.” His finger circles the tip of my tongue, sending a jolt through the rest of me, releasing my words.

“I’m only yours, too,” I whisper as he takes his finger away. I’m palpitating from the torture I brought on myself. What was I thinking going against him in this area? But it was worth every unreleased tremble, every ring of fire, every achy throb, just to hear him say, “I’m loved.” I try to press my thighs together to relieve some tension but he is still standing between them—no doubt part of his plan. I give up and close my eyes, reciting the periodic table in my head. My brain glitches over all the elements that are combustible.

Then his warm breath washes over my lips, and my eyes fling open. His face is so close, so heady, the bedroom spins. “Now, will you please forgive my mouth?” he asks, and his voice has become very tender. “It says it’s very sorry and it really wants to taste you.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Oh, I’m serious. I have learned my lesson. It was a very effective teaching strategy. I’ll never forget it.”

“You never forget anything.”

“That doesn’t make it less memorable. Please, Elisa?”

“Are you begging?”

“Begging and dying.”

“And you’ll try not to say bad things about yourself again?” I sound almost in tears. Even his body heat and the sheets feel rough against my over-sensitized skin.

“I will. Now please kiss me. I’m literally on my knees.” His lips inch closer, almost brushing against mine.

“You’re forgiven,” my mouth says to his mouth.

He moans. Where his own hand didn’t break his composure, my lips shatter it. He kisses me like his whole soul is pouring into me through his tongue. I do my best to match him—it’s not even close—and every time I kiss him, I’m also kissing the words he formed in his mouth, the syllables of his self-love.

“Aiden, please, let’s try,” I mumble in garbled English. “I’m not that sore.”

“No, love, heal,” he murmurs, and then his mouth—my new ruler and savior—starts traveling over me. Wherever it touches, my skin zaps at even the lightest pressure. By the time he makes it to the mess I made, he has to hold me because I’m shaking so hard. And then he takes my hand.

“Let me show you,” he says and guides my fingers. It’s entirely effortless with him.

“Not this anymore . . . you.”

“You should always know how to pleasure yourself, Elisa. Always.” I sense something in his voice but I don’t have enough brainpower to understand it. I just follow his patient, mind-blowing lesson, introductions to parts of myself I only know from books of science. And soon I’m flying. The little snaps are starting.

“And now together,” he says and his mouth closes on me. It takes exactly one kiss, and I explode into a million tiny pieces—pieces of mind, of heart, of my body that now I can say I thoroughly know.

I feel his gentle lips and strong hands, holding me together until my breathing eases and the shaking recedes. When I’m finally still, he says, “And that, my Elisa, is self-pleasure. It is yours and no one else’s. Keep it and don’t ever give it to anyone. Not even to me.”

I think about his words, his voice—so forceful but for a trace of wistfulness. I’m too afraid to ask about it without my protein. Because a small part wonders if he showed this to me so I know it in case I lose him. So my body doesn’t shut down again after he is gone, like it did after the accident. A shiver having nothing to do with my recent orgasm runs over me. Violent ends . . .No! I mentally stomp on the whisper. I won’t let it slither inside this purest, closest part of our love. Pleasure is our super-power. Is there a weapon more powerful than that?

Aiden is still on top of me, on his elbows, tense with his own unreleased pleasure. Every plane of his face is etched with need, from his dark hooded gaze to his parted lips.

“You know something I’m learning about pleasure?” I ask him.

“What’s that?”

I sit up, forcing him to rise back on his knees. He is right in front of my mouth, soaring. “It feels as good to give it as it does to receive it.” And I swirl my tongue over the glistening bubbles. A shudder and a hiss rip through him.

“The headboard, Mr. Plemmons,” I say with another swirl.

His chuckle breaks and he actually grips the headboard. I wrap my hands around him and take him in my mouth as far as he can go in one swoop. He shudders again with an unrestrained “fuck” and the headboard shakes behind me. I do it again and all his control shatters with a snarl.

At the sound, I become possessed, ruled by instinct—my entire vision narrowing on this one goal of pleasuring him. He has never let me loose on him before like this, only as foreplay under his careful control. Sure, I have the matter of physics—there is only so much of me, and too much of him. But if I ignore the mechanics and think only about his mouthfeel, his taste, then I understand. I understand exactly why Aiden loves doing this to me. Why he was indignant at my ‘ew’—because if he ever said that about himself, I would be furious.

His entire body, from his vocal chords to his thighs, is thrumming. My name is slicing through his teeth, punctuated with groans and profanities that to me sound better than Beethoven. Every time I feel him at the back of my throat, I taste more of him. And the deeper I try to go, the more vicious his battle. I learn his body as he has done with me. The way his head falls back when I do this. The way his knees almost give out when I do that. I use every move he has used on me: from a peck to a suck and everything in between. He falls apart at the sucks—the harder, the better—and goes completely mental over the swirls, thrusting inside my mouth. Knowing him now, I pick up depth and speed. And Aiden—force of nature, epitome of physical strength, and paragon of sexual control—starts trembling, and the entire bed shakes with him.

“Elisa!” he grabs my hair, trying to pull out, but I grip his hips as he does with me. It seems silly to let go now after everything. I take him in the depths of my throat one last time.

He comes like war. There is no other way to describe it. A guttural growl, one hand nearly ripping off the headboard, the other in my hair, convulsion after convulsion, and then Aiden falls backward on the bed, shuddering and twitching.

Bloody. Hell.

I just did that. And survived.

I tilt my neck to test if my head is still attached to my shoulders. It is. To my utter amazement, I feel relaxed despite the tornado that just happened in and around me. Except for a trickle of warmth inside, I feel only wellness and a small sense of pride.

I look over at the foot of the bed where Aiden’s head is barely visible under the arm over his face. He has not resurfaced, ribcage rising and lowering rapidly, spasms over his muscles like waves, his sprinting breath filling the bedroom. I crawl over him, rest my head on my favorite spot on his chest, and kiss his heart. A gentler ripple courses through him with a low moan. I wait for him to recover, thinking about this new weapon in our hands. I add pleasure,self-love, and sleep to the list of defenses we are collecting for this fight. Is that enough for h-o-p-e to turn from foe to ally for me?

“Hi.” Aiden re-enters our realm with a hushed, husky sound.

“Welcome back.” I use his words with a grin.

“Hmm, have I been out long?” He plays along, even though we both know he wasn’t asleep.

“Just your first post-orgasm coma that I have witnessed.”

“Just the first post-orgasm coma, period.”

“That can’t be true.” It’s an unspoken pact that we don’t discuss his prior liaisons.  I know he remembers them with perfect clarity and neither of us wants to revisit those memories. Oddly, I’m not jealous. On the contrary, I’m glad he allowed himself this healthy, ordinary part of life and made it extraordinary like he does with everything else. But I’m still curious about all the careful restrictions he imposed on himself and his partners before me.

“It is. I never would have allowed myself to relax like this, as I do with you.”

My cheeks flush with pride. More firsts—that too has to help.

“Well, Elisa, I’m amazed.”

“I know, the orgasm comas are good, aren’t they? Even if you didn’t pass out like I do.”

He lifts his arm off his face with some difficulty and peers at me with a loopy grin. Lazily, he turns to face me, curling around me and resembling very much a placated, well-fed, happy dragon on a sunny rock. “Yes, they are, but that’s not what I mean. That was quite your first time, too.” His nose skims my throat and he places a soft kiss on it. The flush spreads from my cheeks to my chest because I know what he means. The finale was a first for me. “Did you like it or did you do it just for me?”

My blush must burn even his skin. “I liked it.”

He kisses my throat again. “Don’t be embarrassed by our love. It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

And just like that, the first four-letter word joins our ranks. L-O-V-E.

It takes us a while to leave this bed—neither of us is willing to burst this bubble like no other we have had. But eventually the real world intrudes. Growling stomachs, parched mouths, still-packed suitcases, texts from Aiden’s phone about work, texts from Reagan and Javier that they’re awake and will be here in an hour. And Aiden starts making his own big place in the cottage. Hanging up his shirts with my dresses (“aren’t you glad I didn’t pack a lot of feathered hats, Elisa?”), tucking his boxers with my underwear (“will these dried rose packets irritate you with your soreness?”), the books he is reading on his nightstand (“I’ll finish these tonight and start on your father’s library.”), his toothbrush necking with mine in the restroom (“you were not kidding about this bathtub. How are we going to fuck in the shower, Elisa?”) his cologne nudging my face cream (“I have a surprise for you, but it won’t get here until tomorrow.”) All these little intimacies and normalcies—so routine for others, so ephemeral for us.

Eventually we make breakfast and eat it out in the garden, sprawled on a picnic blanket, waiting for Reagan and Javier. Aiden drinks his coffee, his phone tossed aside on the blanket. He checks it less, looks around more. The tectonic plates do not shift as much in his eyes as he builds new memories here.

“So what would you have done with yourself today if we weren’t here?” he asks, popping the last of the strawberries in his cupid mouth—he inhaled four scones and four eggs, the mush, the ham, and the fruit. Even his appetite seems better here.

I shrug, not wanting to imagine such a dark day. “I probably would have gone to the lab to work on the protein. I can’t wait to test it tomorrow. See if I got the code right.”

The same powerful emotion that fell over him when I told him about my protein yesterday morning molds his vernal face now.  But unlike yesterday, I can’t hold back my question, or at least a version of it. “Why do you get that look when I talk about my protein?”

“What look?”

“I don’t know. Like you don’t want me to make it for you or something. Or are you worried I can’t finish on time?”

His gives me a tight smile. “Elisa, I think you can do anything you set your mind on. And that’s not just a cliché boyfriends are supposed to say. I really believe that.”

“Then what is it?”

He tilts his head side to side, deliberating. I sip my tea to give him time, watching every flicker of emotion on his face. But it’s carefully composed. “I suppose I don’t want your second invention to be tied to me. You already tied your first protein to me for your green card—which you threw away.” He glares at me, but I don’t take the bait. “Staking a claim on this second one too . . . it feels unconscionable.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know how to answer that without breaking Corbin’s rule.”

A shiver whips through me, and I see him notice the new crop of goose bumps on my arms. A familiar bolt of fury strikes in his eyes as the jaw flexes—a fury I now know is not at me. It’s at himself.

“It’s in case we don’t win, isn’t it?” I whisper. “That’s why you look like that?”

“I don’t want your second invention tied to me,” he repeats. I take it as a yes.

“But it could help you even if . . . even if . . . that happens.” My voice breaks. I need the protein for myself, I need it for Dad, but I need it for Aiden more than anyone else. Because I can’t shake off the terror I feel for him if we lose. He has cashed in all his hopes and dreams on this final chance. What will happen to the man with the dimply smile, shy eyes, self-loving words, and peaceful sleep if we don’t win? It would kill him, James said. He’d rather die, Javier agreed. A snapshot of my nightmare—the worst one, Aiden’s cold lips—flashes in my vision, making my gasp. Is this what killed him in my dream? Because we didn’t win? Because I made just one vial of protein and he refused to take it from me?

Aiden brushes my arm, no doubt attributing my gasp to his words. “I’m sorry. Don’t mind the crackpot fool—negative thoughts are a hard habit to break. You keep working on your protein. And when you finish it, I’ll try it. But please do it for yourself and your father. Don’t stress yourself for me. Okay?” I hate that he is blaming himself for my terror. And I hate that I’m letting him do it. But I’d rather board the flight I took back to England a million times over than tell him about my nightmare.

“I’ll make it Skittle-flavored,” I offer to move away from these thoughts.

His lips lift in a true smile. “But I’m so attached to the cinnamon flavor of your first supplement. That’s why I changed my toothpaste.”

“It is?”

“Yes, it was all spearmint before you.”

I lean in and peck his lips. “Cinnamon then. But only because your mouth and I are back together.” I lie down and rest my head on his lap.

He chuckles and takes a picture of me, eyes shifting between the iPhone screen and my face. “What does a picture look like to you?” I ask him to distract myself from the odd sense of unease that creeps over me when he takes pictures. “Compared to your memory, I mean.”

He smirks. “The best analogy I have is the difference between a faded Xerox copy and a high-resolution photograph. Pictures are just copies; they lack the depth, the detail my mind absorbs from the moment.”

“And what does the original memory look like in your mind exactly?”

“Well, imagine pulling up that high-resolution image in Photoshop, and the app gives you options of filters to choose from. My memory works sort of like filters. I see you right now sharp and clear, but if you turn your head like this—like you were in Javier’s painting—a translucent filter falls over you, silver-white because he had made your skin look silver. So right this second, your skin looks like porcelain, shimmering with a silvery light. You take my breath away.”

He brushes his index finger over my jawline where he must see the silver veil while I marvel at the woman he paints, trying to grasp his mind. Tomorrow, for the first time, I get to see his brain. Truly see it in ultrasound. “So, if I’m understanding this right, if you were to see me when I’m all wrinkly and old, you would still see the young silver pretty me?”

He smiles. “You’re never just pretty. But other than that detail, yes, even at eighty-five, you will have the youthful filter for me. I’d see the wrinkles, but Javier’s filter would light you up, fade them if you will.”

“Wow.”

A loud whistle shrieks through the air then, startling a lark out of my beech tree.

“ISA! AIDEN!” Javier calls from what sounds as far as the willows. “REG TELLS ME WE HAVE TO ANNOUNCE OURSELVES, WHICH IS DISGUSTING.”

Aiden chuckles, looking in the direction of the howl with something like indulgence.

“Speaking of the genius. He thinks he owes me, but I’m the one who owes him for the most beautiful thing in my life.”

Jumping Aiden now is out of the question with Reagan and Javier emerging on the garden path. Reagan is wearing the most spectacular emerald hat with an enormous peacock feather so tall that it flutters above Javier’s head, tickling his hair so that every few steps he swats at it like a fly. I meet her eyes for an update but she shakes her head slightly with a sad smirk. Bollocks. Maybe we need more aggressive measures.

“How was the Inn?” I ask them as they plop on the blanket with us, thoughtfully giving Aiden his space. I push toward them the few scones, jam, and clotted cream that survived Aiden’s appetite.

Dios, it’s like a different world. I’ve already sketched it. Speaking of, Aiden, how much do we owe you to stay there for the next two weeks?” Javier asks, while sniffing the clotted cream with a suspicious look.

“You don’t owe me anything. It’s already paid for.”

“Told you,” Reagan chimes while loading a morsel of scone with a dollop of cream.

“I know it’s paid for but we want to reimburse you,” Javier presses.

“You’re not reimbursing me.”

“What the fuck? Yes, we are.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, we are. You’ve done way too much for us, I can’t accept this.”

“I haven’t done nearly enough and yes, you can accept it.”

Javier looks at me completely bewildered. “Isa, help me with your man. Speak his language. He seems to be taking this whole do-the-opposite thing literally.”

Reagan giggles, and I with her. Aiden just looks calmly at Javier who stares at all of us like we belong at the Burford Dementia Centre.

“Javier, sweetheart, you don’t argue with Aiden about money,” I explain. “Or really about anything. It’s a terrible, terrible idea that never ends well for anyone. You would do better if you ask him ‘why’ questions.”

“Thanks for giving out trade secrets, love,” Aiden says next to me, but he is smiling.

“And you,” I turn to him and the smile drops. “You will do better if you explain your reasons to Javier so he understands where you’re coming from.”

They both blink at each other, while Reagan almost chokes from laughing.

“Fine,” Javier starts. “Aiden?”

“Javier.” Aiden inclines his head.

Why do you not want us to pay you for the Inn?”

“At least five reasons. First, you are Elisa’s family, and I never let family pay for anything. Second, you have become my friends independently of Elisa and, as Cal will tell you, my friends also never pay for anything. Third, I’d like you to save your money now that you have your green card so that you can invest in your future and begin your new life. Fourth, the price of the Inn is nothing to me for the value of having you near while Elisa and I have our privacy. And fifth, as I was recently telling her, I’m the one who owes you for bringing us together in the first place.” He looks at me with an expression like, ‘how did I do?’ I squeeze his fingers to tell him he did very well indeed.

Javier blinks a few more times, speechless—a common side effect when one first experiences Aiden in full form—and eventually finds some words. “Well . . . that . . . okay then.”

Reagan claps, still laughing. “Well done, boys. Personally, I don’t see why it’s so hard but I also speak Aidenish well by now. I’m not as fluent as Isa, but I can definitely converse.”

It’s Aiden who chuckles first—a soft chuckle, nothing like the belly laughs James gives him, but it’s a happy sound. They laugh together as Reagan provides a dictionary of Aidenisms that she has developed in her head. “Yes, ‘hm’ usually means ‘I heard you, have already thought about it, but no.’ ‘Mm’ means ‘interesting idea, and worth considering, but still no.’ ‘Huh’ means ‘stupid idea, definitely no’ and ‘huh-uh’ means ‘get out of my face or you’ll burn alive.’ And the worst part is, he’s usually right. How did I do, Aiden?”

“Huh.”

“Shit, I went too far.”

“Mm.”

“Oh, okay, then. See, Javi? It’s easy.”

I watch them banter this way—learning each other, finding their own frequency, easing into each other’s orbit—and their constellation becomes so radiant that for a moment I have to close my eyes. Behind my eyelids, as though imprinted on the retinas, they are still laughing in this garden, but Mum and Dad are also here, on the wrought iron bench where they used to sit, smiling at us. The image is so stunning that I can’t breathe or open my eyes. How can I lose all this again? Make us brave, keep us together.

“Isa, did you fall asleep over there?” Javier asks while Aiden takes my hand. I swear he is feeling my pulse.

“Are you all right?” His voice is immediately anxious.

“I’m better than all right. But I’d like to take you three somewhere. Are you up for it? It’s a bit of a walk, like everything around here.”

“Will this hat work?” Reagan asks in complete seriousness. “Or should I change?”

Javier shakes his head with a chortle. “No way, Reg. The peacock feather screams countryside.”

“Shut up, Javi,” she retorts but I know her eyes. She is in so deep that even the most innocent tease from Javier hurts.

“The hat is perfect.” I smile at her. “You never know, you may run into your David Gandy while you’re here.”

“Oh, my goodness!” She gasps, as though she had forgotten the entire existence of her favorite male model.

“David who?” Javier pipes up.

I wink at her and scurry to the garden shed, trying to marshal the vortex of emotion. I don’t recognize my insides. Everything is a contradiction. Deliriously happy and utterly terrified.  At peace while fighting my biggest war. In love and loathing everything that conspires against us. I rummage through the tool rack, tossing items into my camping rucksack and needing to get through the periodic table a couple of times to fight off tears. I can just imagine Aiden’s panic if he finds me here falling apart. And I’m not falling apart because I’m upset. I’m falling apart because apparently there is such a thing as too much love.

By the time I drag my rucksack back to them, Reagan has regained her smile while Aiden and Javier are debating how many years Feign will get in prison.

“If my sources are right, it will be at least ten,” Aiden says. “He’ll never bother you again . . . Fuck, let me carry that.” He stands when he sees me and grabs my rucksack, which rattles with a metallic clang. “What the hell is in it?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out. Let’s go.” I pick up one of the American Beauty seedlings I bought from the Plemmonses, saving the other one. He takes that, too, lest I strain my back from carrying a single rosebud in a plastic pot.

We set off across the fields, the four of us. The village of Burford has never seen a stranger group, of that I’m certain. Reagan leads the way with her peacock feather; Javier next to her with a pencil above each ear and a cross-body satchel full of sketchbooks; Aiden in a white T-shirt, Raybans, and jeans, too beautiful to belong on this planet, let alone in my village, carrying a rose and a rucksack that clamors and bangs loudly with his long strides; and me tripping every few steps because I can’t tear my eyes away from the three of them.

“Will we be walking through town or anywhere we might need Benson?” Aiden asks under his breath.

I hook my arm in his—it’s turned into granite again. “No, just open fields and air. And the occasional deer.”

The tension of his arm softens. “I hope some day we never have to worry about this again.”

H-o-p-e. “I don’t feel deprived of anything. Besides, town is overrated. What are men to rocks and mountains?” I quote Elizabeth Bennett like we once did in his library.

He chuckles and kisses my hair, shortening his stride to match mine. “It’s beautiful here,” he says after a while, eyes roaming the open fields brimming with wildflowers, the river gliding next to us, the rolling shamrock hills like the curves of some earth mother goddess protecting all life within its valleys.

I lean my head against his arm, imagining that his simple observation means more, fantasizing that he wants my little village to be a beautiful home for a beautiful man. He has not mentioned me returning to the U.S. and neither have I. What can we possibly say? We both know where I live is irrelevant if we lose this fight. It’s not a question we can ask until we know our fate. But I wonder if his unerring eyes see the way my heart twists at the idea of abandoning the cottage or Oxford again. Has his quick mind already sensed another deadly war ahead even if we survive this one? A war that could spread my organs across two continents like I’d be blown up by mortar fire: bits of heart here, sponges of lungs there, never whole, never at rest.

“So does Gandy visit where we’re going, Isa?” Reagan calls over her shoulder as we cut across another field, this one carpeted with daisies and forget-me-nots.

“Will somebody tell me who the hell we’re talking about?” Javier demands.

“He is an exemplar of male beauty, Javi. That’s all you need to know.”

Aiden slows down until we fall back a few steps. “So, how would you feel about these two together?”

I yank his arm to a full stop. “You know?” I whisper.

He shrugs. “Of course.”

“How did you find out? Reg barely admitted it to me!”

“I have eyes, Elisa. It’s not that hard to figure out.”

“Not for you, maybe. Javier hasn’t got a clue.”

He starts walking again, eyes on Javier’s back. “I don’t know about that. I just don’t think he’s willing to see.”

“Same difference. Meanwhile, Reg is in hell.”

“Yes, I recognize the symptoms. Give them time. They’ll figure it out.”

“I’m not sure they will. I don’t think Javier envisions a love life for himself at all.”

Aiden laughs. “Elisa, he’s a man. I guarantee you he envisions a love life. Whether he goes after it is a different question.”

“I’m starting to think he won’t though. He’s convinced himself he has nothing to offer. He’s almost as self-loathing as you.”

“You know what to do with these self-loathing men, Elisa?”

“What?”

“Add self-love.” He winks, his eyes instantly catching fire at the memory of our game.

I grip his arm. “Don’t joke about that right now. Please help me make Javier see.”

“What could I possibly do about it? The man has to want it, Elisa. And I can see his point to a degree. Wanting to build some security, to be able to provide for his family before he gets involved.”

“Reg doesn’t care about any of that.”

“But he does, my love. It’s important to him.”

“Are we still talking about Javier?”

He smiles with the dimple. “Yes, we are, but I understand him on this point. You and I have serious problems, but at least I’m able to protect you from everything except myself. That’s important to me and I’m certain it’s important to a traditional man like Javier.”

I watch Javier duck away from Reagan’s feather as she skips past him playing with a daisy.

“Trust me on this one,” Javier’s new comrade-in-arms insists. “Javier has to be ready on his own. And if you need more proof, I draw your attention to exhibit one.” He points at the center of his chest, in the exact counter-spot where the raw wound used to hurt me two days ago.

“But in the meantime Reg is hurting,” I argue. “And Javier would hurt too if he knew he is hurting her.”

Aiden sighs. “And you would hurt with them. All right, at least give him these two weeks. Maybe being in this romantic place will trigger something. And if not, I’ll help you. I have no fucking clue how, but I’ll try. Is that better?”

I grin at him, watching his lips lift into a mirroring smile. As unfathomable as Aiden’s mind is, there is a simple axiom at the very kernel of its existence: to protect me, he would do anything.

“You think this place is romantic?” I kiss the spot above his elbow where my lips reach—his golden skin is warm from the sun.

He laughs. “Don’t read too much into that. I also used to think a sand ditch in Iraq was romantic when I was writing your letters. So I’m not to be trusted with the concept.”

A fiery field of poppies ripples around us now. The flowers brush against Aiden’s jeans like Marilyn lips. I watch the soldier who believes he doesn’t understand romance step carefully not to crush the blooms. Then I watch the man who doesn’t need photographs snap a selfie of the two of us parting the poppy sea. And despite the ice trickling down my neck at the camera’s click, I smile. Because this is the kernel of my existence: for him to see himself clearly, I would do anything.

We leave the poppy field behind and I lead them up the hill. For a while speaking becomes difficult from the climb and, in my case, from what the hill means.

“I’m very curious to see where you’re taking us,” Aiden says in perfectly even tone, despite carrying a rucksack full of metal, while the rest of us are huffing and puffing.

“We’re almost there.”

As I say the words, however, a current of panic courses through me. Was this a good idea for Aiden? Will it trigger anything? I stumble at the thought but he catches me gently at the elbow. “Careful, love.”

“How are you feeling?” I ask him.

He frowns at my sudden question. “As I always do with you. Calm. Why?”

“Just checking.”

I hesitate where I am—wanting this deeply, but also wanting only happy memories for him. Javier and Reagan stop with us, clutching their sides. I contemplate turning around, but then, right above us, a beam of sun breaks over the summit. A single, brilliant ray like a halo over the crest. It blinds me to everything else, even the three people next to me, and I start climbing in a trance, as though the beam is a gravitational string made of the most dazzling starlight, pulling me to the peak. I can’t hear Aiden, Javier, or Reagan behind me—I can’t hear anything. Just Mum’s voice crooning like in our home movies, “keep going, Elisa.”  My feet gather speed like last time and I break into a run. The wind flings my hair, the sun blinds my eyes, but I’m air. Just air trying to float to the heavens above. Then with one leap, I’m on the tiny crest meadow.

Under the cypress tree, the white marble tombstone glimmers and sparkles like always. And, as always, I can’t breathe.

Aiden reaches me in a blink. I know because even though my eyes are fixed on the shimmery grave, I sense his presence like a shield right next to me. It blasts away the chills, releases my lungs, and fortifies my knees. He doesn’t speak, but he wraps his strong arm around my shoulders, holding me up, standing so close that I only have to tilt my head and it leans on him. And all the grief, all this implacable loss, all this anguish are also now resting on him, on his iron shoulders carrying this sorrow with me. The agony splits by half so my knees don’t give out like they did when I last came here. My body doesn’t break into dry sobs. And my voice doesn’t disappear. I can stand, I can breathe, I can form thought, even if I can’t speak.

Javier and Reagan appear to my right. I feel Reagan’s hand on my hair and Javier’s fingers around mine. And the climbing roses on the marble flutter with the breeze. Hello.

“Hello,” I whisper back.

The rose buds have now opened into white miniature rosettes, each like a smile, flittering with a “come here” gesture. It releases my feet and I walk to the tomb on my own power. The roses sway when I reach them. I notice our four shadows fall over the sparkling stone, the tallest right next to me. Below the roses, on the marble is the vial of dried rose and Aiden’s dog tags that I last left here. I can’t blink away from my parents’ names to look at him. I test the words in my mouth before I speak. They’re there, I just have to breathe.

“Mum, Dad,” I tell them even though I know they cannot hear. “This is Aiden . . . and Reagan and Javier.”

The rosettes wave.

The first sound registers in my ears. Reagan’s sniffle. I watch her shadow remove the hat, Javier’s shadow pat her shoulder, and Aiden’s shadow pull mine close, his arms folding around me until our two shadows become one that looks like a distorted heart.

Other sounds enter then. Aiden’s strong heartbeat, thudding fast like mine. The warble of the lark that lives in the cypress tree. The whoosh of the hilltop wind. And more words come.

“This place is where they had their first date,” I say, noticing my voice is not a whisper anymore, just a quiet key.

“It’s beautiful,” all three of them answer in unison.

“The four of us are the only ones alive who know that.”

None of them says anything but strangely it’s as though their silence finally allows me to talk in this place. Actually talk. “Everyone in town thought I had gone mental insisting they rest here, away from everything. Of course, I was mental so they gave in to me. I think it turned out well. I think they like this.”

“Of course they do,” says Reagan.

“I brought them something this time. This American Beauty rose from all of us. Will you help me plant it here?”

And they do. I hear Aiden unzip the rucksack, no doubt realizing the racket inside was a hand spade and shovel, a large stainless steel water bottle, and a bag of enriched dirt.  We start then—all four of us together. Javier’s callused hands, Reagan’s delicate alabaster ones, Aiden’s strong fingers, and mine that look exactly like Mum’s. We dig the small hole in the grass at the foot of the marble, and I lower the seedling into it, covering its delicate roots with dirt and watering it. We use the rest of the water to wash our hands. In the end, the little seedling sways in the breeze.

“Want to sit here for a while?” I invite them, eyes still on the stone. “I know it’s strange but . . . it’s the only time I’ve actually been able to truly visit.”

As one, they sink on the grass around the seedling with me. After a while, we start chatting, not an involved conversation—just bits of thought and feeling. Javier draws a rough sketch of the cottage and tucks it with the rose vines. Reagan digs her favorite British toffee out of her purse and places it on the marble. And Aiden opens his wallet and takes out a familiar strip of waxy paper—“Love me for love’s sake only”—the very first quote Baci chocolates gave him on our embargo day. To my utter shock, a smile finds me here. He has kept it all this time and now secures it under the vial of his dog tags and dried rose.

I look up at his face, recalling my fear of whether this would trigger bad memories for him. But he is entirely here with me, from his tender eyes to his hands like strongholds around my waist. And this moment will live on in him, with every pixel of ache and beauty.

“This isn’t a happy memory for you,” I say.

“It’s better than that. It’s precious.”

“I’m sorry about the dog tags. I was trying to leave you behind. You should have them back.” I try to get out of his hold but his arms tighten around me like a fortress.

“Don’t think about that now. Let them stay here, in this special place with your parents. Hopefully that part of me will be at rest, too.”

H-o-p-e again. I look at the seedling, feeling something germinate in my lungs and wind up my throat like the rose’s tendril. It’s a singular, curious sensation—like a tickle, wrapped in warmth, swarming with butterflies. Light like a breeze, yet mighty too, as though it could parachute me straight up. I try to understand what it is. Sunrays shatter into millions of crystals around the epitaph: “Amor Vincit Omnia.” Love conquers all. And I find a name for the tendril. Odd that I should find it here in this place with so much pain, loss, and time long gone. A place of so many four-letter words.

“I hope it does,” I answer Aiden a little late. Here, by my most tragic loss, H-O-P-E joins my side. Or perhaps I join it.

The way back down the hill is easier. Not just physically, but emotionally too. So different than the two other times I’ve stumbled down this trail. By the time we’ve reached the open fields again, I feel light—like the tendril of hope is parachuting me above ground.

“Feeling a little better?” Aiden asks as we stroll across the poppy field back to the cottage.

“Yes. I actually feel happy in an odd way. Everyone I love now has met each other.”

I smile at Reagan picking poppies ahead of us, while Javier opines that she should balance out the red only with dark grass. To which she replies, “you should balance out your dark grass with red.”

“Good one, Reg,” I cheer for her under my breath as she fluffs her flame of red curls. But her euphemism flies right over Javier’s raven-black waves.

“Elisa?” Aiden pulls me by the elbow. I look up at him, tripping to a stop not because of his gentle hold, but because of his face. It’s always stunning but there are some moments, like right now, when it looks surreal.

“Yes?” I breathe.

“How would you feel about meeting my parents?”

Can one trip while standing perfectly frozen? Seems like I can. “What?”

He smiles patiently, giving me time to process.

“Are you serious?”

“Very.”

“B-but . . . they’re in Portland.” Of all the thoughts scrambling in my brain, this is the one my mouth picks.

He chuckles. “Elisa, to meet you, they’d swim over, let alone take a flight.”

“They know about me?” Maybe I should sit down, if I could move.

“They do. I told them after you left when I asked them to shelter the Solises.”

He gives me another moment to process, which is good because I need it. Aiden has isolated his parents since he attacked his mother when he returned from Iraq twelve years ago. Our conversation about this during the drive to his Alone Place might as well be blaring through foghorns over the poppy field. He doesn’t see them—only speaks to them occasionally by phone or other safe methods of communication that do not expose them to his startle reflex and him to the excruciating memory of hurting his own mum.

“I . . . I didn’t realize you’re reconnecting with them,” I manage. “That’s wonderful, Aiden.”

He shrugs with a small smile. “You told me I can’t shut them out. You said someday they will be gone and nothing will be able to take my grief away.” He quotes my words verbatim, of course.  “I thought a lot about that after you left. And then seeing you just now, how close you still are to your parents even though they have passed, made me think you’re right about this too, like you have been about a lot of things.”

I stare at him, unable to voice all the emotion inside. When I still can’t speak, he continues. “I know it makes no practical sense for you to meet each other now if in eighty-nine days you and I . . .” His eyes fall on the immediate goose bumps that sprout on my arms and he rubs them gently. “But somehow that makes it even more important that you meet. That we try this normal life thing to the fullest.”

Finally my brain is able to string together the biggest question—the one that is ruling them all. “Do you want me to meet them? Or is this for me . . . or Corbin?”

“All three. I find that I want you to know them, and them you. I want them to meet the woman I love, no matter what happens in the end. I really haven’t given them many moments of joy in life as a son should. And I might never be able to, except this time with you.”

Except now—this present moment we may never get again.

“And I suppose I thought you would want this, too,” he adds. “To meet everyone we love. Do you?”

His question—as though he still cannot believe I would want every speck of him, let alone such a core part—releases my words. “Of course I do, Aiden. I’d love to meet your parents. I just want to make sure you’re doing the right thing for you, not because you feel you have to do it for me.”

The dimple winks in his cheek, lifting his beautiful mouth into a moon of a smile. “This is the right thing for me. You’re teaching me that—you take these memories in life, no matter how ugly and you make them beautiful. I guess I want to do the same.”

“Well then,” I take his hand in both of mine as I did yesterday. “Let’s welcome your parents.”

He laughs with that pure waterfall sound. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

He runs his hand through his hair, looking around like he wishes someone was close to hear this. But Reagan and Javier are in the distance, plopped under the shade of an enormous oak, waiting for us. Aiden laughs again. “Fuck, I better give a heads-up to my mother’s cardiologist. She might need him.”

He tucks my arm in his and we start walking again. His step is quicker, lighter somehow.

“So when would they come?” I ask, nerves already starting to creak. How will it be meeting the genetic forces that created Aiden? What do they think of our experiment? Of their only son being in this far-flung village, thousands of miles away in another fight for his future, maybe even life?

“Well, if it were up to my mother, they’d get here tomorrow. But I was thinking it might be better after Reagan and Javier leave, so you can have something to look forward to. That way, we’ll also have family and friends around for about half of the summer.”

The easier half. He knows neither of us will be in any shape for company during the second half as the ninety days run out. “Very thoughtful.”

“What’s that in your voice? Are you nervous?”

“A little bit.”

He laughs. “Don’t worry—I’ll keep my mother in check.”

“No, don’t. She must miss you so much. Let this be special for her too,” I tell him, unable to ask my hardest question. But his inconveniently observant eyes have already seen it.

“So if that’s not worrying you, what is?” He tips up my face so I can look into his eyes and, on cue, the question blurts out.

“What do your parents think about us being together? With everything we have to overcome, I mean.” With how much there is at stake if we don’t, I add in my head. He must hear the unspoken part too because the tectonic plates shift in his eyes as he retrieves his answer.

“I won’t lie, they’re worried. Worried about both you and me if I were to . . . again. But they’re also ecstatic that I’ve found someone who has given me a reason to fight and take care of my health. So I’d describe it as joyful terror. A bit like us.”

Oddly his words make me smile despite the f-e-a-r. Because it’s similar to the reaction I see in Javier’s and Reagan’s eyes. And it’s the same reaction Mum and Dad would have had, of that I’m certain. Desolately terrified and deliriously happy—unable to help us with anything but their love. Could our families’ unconditional and undying love be a weapon? Could it help Aiden and me in the same mystical way that Für Elise does—ways science can’t explain because they’re written in the stars?

“And if you’re also nervous about whether my parents will like you—although I cannot imagine your brain forming such a ridiculous thought—of course they will. How could they not?” adds the man who literally has Javier’s magic filter over my face.

“Hmm,” is the only answer I give him.

“Is that an Aidenism?”

“Definitely.”

He laughs, clueless that my brain is more than capable of such questions. Will they like me? What do they think of their son falling for someone with her own trauma? Someone who lives so far away? Someone who—if they knew the full truth—believed their son to be such a monster that she left him and wasted his one million dollars?  But none of my insecurities matter in this bigger constellation we are charting. They’re trivial compared to the brightest thing: Aiden is letting more love in his life.

“All right, tell me more about your parents. Robert and Stella. Tell me everything.”

“Well, this is their last year before retirement . . .” he starts as we make our way to Reagan and Javier. I listen to every word, picking some wilted poppies. No reason to end the young, pretty ones. But wilted poppies have their own beauty too. They’re not bubbly and cheerful, but their swan necks have their own grace—they have survived the wind.

With each withered bloom, I tick off our new list of allies and weapons: our love, Aiden’s strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love if we can grow it, our families, the team of scientists, these mystical gifts from our stars—my calming effect from Javier’s genius, the protein from Dad, and Für Elise from Mum—and now H-O-P-E. Will they be enough for the unfathomable enemy before us, lurking, waiting to strike? Because strike it will.

“Why are you picking only the dead ones?” Aiden asks looking at the eleven wilted poppies I’ve collected.

“They’re not dead. They’re wise.”

He laughs again, and I listen to the sound floating free over the poppy field with the gentle breeze. I add a twelfth withered poppy—laughter has to be a weapon too.

“You two look like you belong in a Shakespeare sonnet or a Jane Austen novel,” Reagan grins when we reach the two of them under the oak tree.

“Shakespeare was an idiot,” I respond.

All three of them lecture me about my issues with the overrated fool all the way home. But they did not hear the chilling whisper that deafened my ears despite my bouquet of allies and the tendril of hope: these violent delights and have violent ends.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 14 – SLEEP

Hi all,

Of all the chapters I’ve written about Aiden and Elisa, this one is the closest to my heart. I hope it is the same for you too. Enjoy and thank you as always for reading, commenting, and following. xo, Ani

 

14

Sleep

The last time the cottage was this crowded and cheery was when Mum and Dad invited thirty of their Oxford friends for a Christmas toast three weeks before the accident. Sure, now there are only six of us, but Aiden, James, and Benson are so tall and muscular for the cottage that each of them counts for at least three professors or seven Grahams. Benson in fact is sitting on cushions on the floor, too self-aware to risk crushing the small furniture, for which I’m grateful. Javier is in my dad’s armchair, laughing and clinking ale mugs with Benson, and my eyes keep flitting to him every few minutes. How perfectly the universe can reform—some new stars find the orbit of the older ones, gravitating there so naturally, it feels as though the old and the new stars merge, neither gone, both shining. And then there is Reagan perched on Mum’s chair, playing with her new hat purchases. She quibbles with Javier about whether she will be able to fit them all in her suitcases (“you’ve lost your mind, Reg, it’s spatially impossible.” “I’ll just pack them in your suitcases then; I’m sure your T-shirts will love some diversity.” “My T-shirts are vintage, thank you, they say soul.” “They say bored.”) The two of them sound like a young version of the Plemmonses—a star pair that is not arriving perhaps because the ancient stars are still blinking. Then there are James and Aiden—bold twin stars—taking up the whole sofa so that the only place left for me is on Aiden’s lap, rotating around him like a moon. And that place suits me just fine. Because his arms are around me, and the sound of his deep voice reverberates through the crisp linen of his shirt and the thin cotton of my dress straight into my heart. His waterfall laughter at James’ jokes is my favorite star frequency: every time it breaks over him and his ribcage pushes against mine, my own lungs vibrate with his carefree sound. Every so often, his fingertips brush my leg inconspicuously, or his lips press on my hair, or his hand tightens on my hip—a silent conversation we are having, a postscript to the chatter around us. You ok? Yes, you? Perfect with you on me. Sleep is almost here. I know, love, present moment. I like this present moment. One of my favorites, too.

And all around us is the stardust—wiped clean plates of Javier’s carnitas, ale mugs and bottles, Mum and Dad’s vinyl records playing oldies, their photographs on the walls sprinkling smiles above our heads, and the rose-scented breeze wafting through the windows.

Life restarts. Even for me.

“I better go pack to take the suitcases at the hotel. Sounds like my T-shirts are about to be evicted.” Javier stands, clueless of Reagan’s emerald eyes following him.

“I’ll be right back,” I tell Aiden and follow Javier upstairs. Except in my case, every cell of me feels Aiden’s gaze climbing these stairs with me.

Javier is rolling up his T-shirts into tight balls when I walk into the guest room filled with roses. For a moment I wish we could all just sleep here on top of each other, like children at summer camp. Aiden and Javier would find a way to protect us. Except my playtime with Aiden would give Javier a stroke.

“Hey, amorcita,” he grins at me. I walk straight into his arms, and he hugs me, tugging my hair. “What’s up?”

“Nothing, I just love you. Thank you for accepting Aiden like you did.”

He plops on the bed, patting the spot next to him. When I perch there, he takes my hands in his.

“Isa, you’re smiling.”

“Yes.”

“And you love Aiden.”

“More than anything.”

“And he loves you like a lunatic, that’s obvious.”

“Yes, he does.”

“And you’re scared.”

“Yes.” I whisper so quietly, afraid of speaking the word into this new reformed universe until I finish my protein.

Javier throws his arm over my shoulders—his peppermint smell so much like Dad’s after-eights in the library downstairs. “You know, I’m scared for both of you, too. But remember that Spartan warrior painting we saw at the Portland Art Museum? Well, Aiden makes that dude look like a wimp. Isa, he mobilized the U.S. Congress for me. Can you imagine what he would do for you? I think he loves you so much, he’d rather die than lose this fight. We just have to keep the faith, amorcita.”

Chills whip over my skin and my throat twists shut so abruptly I can’t breathe. The new universe is cruel in its beauty too, aligning with vicious symmetry my brother and Aiden’s brother to say on the same day that our love could finish Aiden.

Then I’d die with him, too, I answer Javier in my head—Romeo and Juliet’s love moving the stars and sun now, not Dante’s words. I don’t know what that end would look like, but I know I heard that boulder prophecy because it’s inside me. Because death can look different than a dagger to the chest or poison to the lips, can’t it? Sometimes the surest death is the one that tears apart your very heart.

“And now you two have all of us,” Javier continues when I say nothing. “Aiden is gathering the forces, sweetheart, he knows how to fight. And Reg and I can stay longer or come back if you need us until you two sort this out. Okay?”

I like the sound of that. Keeping them all here with me. But this reminds me.

“What about you, Javi?” I use Reagan’s nickname for him intentionally. “Where are we going to find you one of these big loves?”

He chuckles. “Oh, you know me, I’ll just draw her.” And he starts rolling up his T-shirts again. I help him pack, biting my lip. How do you make someone so loving see love through a different prism?

“She might be real,” I say, folding his socks into balls.

“Yea, and I’m sure the first guy all real girls want is a recent inmate with no college degree, four little sisters, and a paralyzed dad to care for. Isa, Aiden’s love has made you drunk.” He zips up his suitcase, tugs my hair again, and walks out of the room.

“You are rare,” I call behind him but, if he hears me, he doesn’t answer. Why do all good men hate themselves? This will be my next protein if I survive: self-love.

I pick up a T-shirt Javier forgot to pack and hug it. Here is the price of living in the shadows all your life: even when you come out into the light, you cannot see it. If an entire system treats you like nothing, you will believe you are nothing even when you are so many somethings that mean more than everything.

I grab one of the vases of fresh roses and make my way down the hall to the bedroom where Aiden and I will sleep tonight. Every part of me tingles. I change the sheets so he has fresh ones for his first sleep with someone. The new sheets have a faint scent of the dried rose sachets Mum used for our drawers. I sniff at it deeply. Help us, Mum. Help us with your magic. I set the vase of roses on his nightstand, fill the pitcher with fresh water, and place a Baci next to it.

Downstairs, Benson and James are helping Javier and Reagan with their suitcases and Aiden with his, in this little exchange of guests that will give me my dream tonight and hopefully give Reagan a chance.

“I better head out too,” James says. “Early day tomorrow.”

“James, wait. I have something for you,” I tell him and flit to my Dad’s library.

When I come back out, they are all filing out of the door, laughing about Benson needing to exit sideways. James is not in much better shape; he has to duck so he doesn’t hit his head against the doorframe. He and Aiden are laughing on the threshold and I wish I had my phone to capture it. Or to have eidetic memory just for Aiden’s laughter in this moment—a man-to-man smirk, some synaptic bond forged in the fires of Iraq that will always elude me. Or maybe it’s just another dick joke.

“Here you go.” I hand James the package when I reach them. “Sorry about the girly rose paper. Everything is made of roses here.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Elisa. Cal is really a woman.” Aiden chuckles and pulls me against his side. James tears the paper with what might be a smile—it’s hard to tell with the Viking beard.

“A book?” He sounds perplexed.

“Not just any book. It’s my Dad’s secret fly-fishing guide about River Spey. And that bookmark is his favorite fly he fished there. He said he always hooked something with it. I hope that river gives you better fish than this one did.”

Aiden’s hand tightens on my waist as James pats my shoulder. My knees buckle under the weight of his hand. “You’re a little pest, aren’t you? Making me like you and shit. Well, thank you. I’ll let you know how it goes when we get back.” Then he turns to Aiden. “You are fucked.” And with another barking laugh, he follows Javier, Reagan, and Benson into the garden.

“See you in the morning, Isa.” Javier and Reagan wave, and the four of them disappear down the dark path to pile on Benson’s rental van across Elysium. And then all that’s left are the roses, the night, and my North Star.

I turn to him slowly, our bodies so close together on the small doorstep that our clothes and sneakers are already kissing. Half of him is candlelight gold from the foyer chandelier, the other half dark silver from the moon. He is watching me with a powerful emotion, too powerful for me to grasp, except a flicker of shyness in his eyes I have never seen before.

“That was very kind of you,” he says, and it’s there in his voice, too. A very rare note of nervousness for Aiden.

“James has been very kind to us.”

“Yes, he has,” he murmurs.

“Well then,” I answer, caressing his scar, tracing the L with my finger.

“There’s still time, love.” His knuckles brush against my cheek, and I know he is offering, maybe pleading, for another delay. But the urgency to live, to have every second of these ninety days together has become too potent for rational decisions, no matter how safe they might be.

“No, Aiden, there isn’t. The time is now.”

He smiles, tracing my lips with his thumb. “You are so brave, Elisa. You don’t need your protein at all.”

I want to tell him I’m not brave. I want to tell him how terrified I am. Terrified for him, for us. Terrified of the end, of these dark prophecies I hear in boulders and camera clicks. Terrified of missing a single blink of him. Terrified of everything. Except one.

“I’m never afraid of you,” I say, placing my hand over his heart. It’s thundering, and he shudders at my touch. “We are part of each other.”

His dark-and-light smile breaks over his face. And in a blink he bends and sweeps me off my feet into his arms.

“Bed,” he says over my squeal, exactly as he did in his homecoming war letter, and carries me over the threshold, kicking the door closed behind us.

I don’t know how he finds his way up the narrow stairs, soldered as our mouths are to each other, but he does it without hitting our heads once.

“Which door?” he asks against my lips at the landing, his breathing rough like mine.

“Behind me.”

He kicks it open and we both pause at this second threshold. I know the white king bed I just made with the rose quilt. The crystal lamps on the mahogany nightstands now holding fresh roses, the gauzy white curtains billowing with the evening breeze from the open window. I know them because they were my parents’, and now they are ours.

Aiden’s arms tighten around me. “Should I be expecting lightning bolts in addition to Mr. Plemmons’ cane?”

I giggle, bringing his mouth back to mine. “You barmy old fool. Don’t you know the roses will protect us?”

He laughs as he carries me over this threshold too and sets me down at the foot of the bed. “My dear Mrs. Plemmons, where do I start with you?”

But he knows exactly where to start. With his eyes that ignite a wildfire from the split ends of my hair to my curled toes. He stands right in front me, towering in his full height, and places his phone and other things I cannot bother to register on the dresser behind him. Then, eyes never leaving mine, he throws about six condoms on the bed next to me.

“In case we can’t sleep.” He winks while I check the condoms did not spontaneously combust. For the first time since I met him, I hope we only get to use one or two, three at most.

He steps out of his sneakers and socks, takes off his shirt, and removes his boxers and jeans—his body materializing inch after inch. My skin bursts into flames but I can’t blink away from him to check for smoke.

“I’ll never tire of that look,” he says, his smile pulling up his soft, cupid lips at the left corner while my breath stops completely.

“Come to me,” I mouth, my hands gripping the quilt in little fists.

He parts my sneakers slowly with his bare foot while the sight of his toes launches a blast of sparks to the bottom of my belly, and then kneels between my legs. My hips lurch forward to meet him, but his rests his palms on my knees, steadying the trembles that have already started.

“Slow,” he murmurs, and his hands trail down to my sneakers. He takes them off gently but wherever his fingertips touch, a new fire starts—around my ankle, at the tips of my toes, my heels. His fingers glide up now, light like the cool breeze wafting through the window. I try to feel only that breeze as a new flame erupts at each point of contact. He peels off my dress but even the brush of the soft cotton against me makes me shiver. Everything feels more intense than any other time between us—the fire, his touch, his smell—I don’t understand why. Is it because in so many ways this is like our first night? Is it because we’re here in my home, in this bedroom? Is it because of the day we had, just Aiden and me with people we love and no rules? I don’t know, but my head starts to whirl as the dress finally slips off and his face is so close that his breath warms my lips. Even his beauty is more intense—my eyelids flutter as though I’m staring into the star’s very halo. I find the cool breeze again and open my eyes. It’s good and bad. Good because I can’t miss a blink of tonight. Bad because the fire in his eyes doubles my burning.  His fingertips trace the lace of the bra—the one that matches his eyes—and it snaps off, releasing a wisp air into my lungs, which disappears in seconds again as he slides the lace straps off my shoulders, down my arms, and onto the floor.

“Ah, all of this under your dress,” he says, brushing his knuckles lightly like feathers over my breasts. A shudder rips through me and I almost flop backwards on the bed but he catches me and lays me down gently. “Better?” he asks, climbing between my legs, parting them with his knee.

“Closer,” I whisper, unsure whether I’m ordering or answering him. The ceiling is twirling. I catch the breeze again, but his eyes descend over me like fire, from my lips to the precise center between my legs where the flames are spiraling into a pulsating fireball. My hips arch of the bed straight into his waiting hands.

“These are torturing us both, aren’t they?” His fingers hook under the lace of my knickers, and he slides them off slowly. Then he bends down, skimming his nose exactly where the knickers were.  “Ah,” he sighs as my hips try to fly off again but he is prepared for that. His grip has secured them to the mattress. I can’t move. I search for the cool breeze but I can only feel his nose circling the little inferno and then tracing a straight line upward, over my belly, between my breasts, along my throat until his body covers mine, the dusting of hair like live wires against my skin.

“Aiden, please!” I gasp, trying to twine my arms and legs around him, but he has tangled them with his. His thigh is pressing between mine firmly, making every cell throb. I reach for him with the only things I can move, my lips. But the moment our mouths touch, his lips brush along my jawline to my ear.

“Slow, love, I want to take this slow.” His teeth graze my earlobe. How can I have chills up here and raging fires down there?

“But I might set the cottage on fire.”

I feel his smile as he kisses the spot below my ear. “You don’t think I’d ever let you burn, do you?”

I’m already cinder, I want to say, but he gives me his mouth. I drink him in like he is a spring of glacier water. He makes each second last a minute, an hour, until I no longer count time between his body and mine. I measure time with us—flesh intervals between blistering heartbeats. Our mouths and tongues move together, taste bud to taste bud. If I live a million years and sample the world, I still will not be able to describe Aiden’s taste. Or the way his tongue moves like it’s alive. The way it knows my mouth, the way it catches all my syllables and sighs.

“I missed your taste, Elisa. I know it better than mine,” he murmurs against my lips, stealing all my words, as his fingers start a stroll of their own. Tracing along each blue vein that is hurtling lifeblood to all the fires. Gliding over each curve, goose bump to goose bump.

“And your skin, so soft, so warm, like a welcome.” His fingers trace the inside of my thigh, each fingertip a spark, while his mouth glides down my throat, dropping kisses like hot plumes on my feverish skin. Then in a blink, he brushes his knuckles between my legs. I roll frantically against his hand as the inferno starts spreading little licks of flames everywhere waist down.

“You are my home,” he continues, and his mouth closes on a nipple at the same time his fingers slide in. I cry out his name—it zooms around the room and out the window like I’m his homing beacon. Because he is right. My body molds to his fingers exactly like it was built for his hand. And his fingers move like they know every threshold, every secret nook, every spot of warmth. My hips move with them, umbilically corded to him. When his fingers circle, so do my hips, when he presses down, they tilt. His fingers say come here and my hips listen. His fingers tap and my hips shimmy and shiver.

In the same path, his mouth trails over my belly, planting wet kisses lower and lower until finally it closes around me with the same pressure as his fingers. Each flick of the tongue rings a doorbell. Each circle of his fingers is a knock. And my legs fall open like doors at his arrival. My foundations start to shake exactly as in his war letter.

“What took you so long?” I whimper the words he wrote.

I feel his smile against me, his lips opening with mine. I hook my fingers in his hair—support beams for the earthquake of his homecoming. The pressure of his mouth increases. Flicks, circles, kisses. My whole body is aquiver. Each wall and chamber shakes, and I don’t know: is he the one arriving or am I the one going home? It doesn’t matter though because either way I free-fall. Spiraling, each nerve an epicenter, earthquakes radiating from my eyelids to my curled toes. Then everything crumbles and I’m gone.  With his name on my lips, exactly as he wrote.

Aiden, Aiden, Ai-den.

Somehow he puts me back together. He rebuilds me with soft, hushing kisses. He pastes the crumbles with his tongue, resets the plaster with his lips over my breasts, my throat, my jaw, my cheeks. His hands mold the foundations back together, flesh brick after flesh brick. And his fingers etch all my curves, cinching my waist, rounding my hips, arcing over my neck. His mouth on my mouth is a door. His tongue on my tongue, a garden path. His eyes on my eyes are windows. Until piece after piece, my body builds again. For him.

And he is on top of me, but I don’t feel his weight. Only his heated skin, the sagebrush of his hair, and the hardened lines of his body. Here and there, his muscles twitch like a wink.

“Hi,” I tell him, running my fingers through his hair. He shudders.

“Hi.” His voice is husky and gravelly with his own need.

“That was some homecoming.”

He smiles as another shudder ripples through him. “I haven’t come . . . home. Yet.” I get lost in his darkened, hooded eyes. No, he hasn’t. This was all for me.

“Then come,” I say, twining my arms and legs around him.  “Come home like you do in your letters.”

I grasp him with my hands the way he has shown me. He surges forward and a droplet of liquid bubbles on him like a diamond. On impulse, I brush it with the tip of my finger like he does with my tears and bring the finger to my mouth. Ah, the taste. I open my eyes that I did not know I had closed to reach for more but he has transformed. Half-animal, half-man. A deep growl whirls in his chest. The sound vibrates straight down to my epicenter, and my hips lurch up to meet him. For a precious blink, I brush up against him, skin on skin. But he’s too fast. In another blink he’s covered.

“I loathe using this with you,” he hisses with venom.

I loathe it too. Every cruel latex atom of it. “Monday . . . pill . . . me,” is all I can manage because in another syllable, he is inside, and words become scrambled. An anagram of his name and moans. I arch toward him, but he locks down my hips.

“All of me,” he says, his voice dark and guttural.  He secures my legs around his waist and rises up on his knees until the only parts of me left on the bed are my head and shoulders. Everything else is pressed against him. But despite his support, my body is shaking. I grip his wrists for balance, trying to breathe through the feeling of him this far, in this new upside-down.

“Beautiful, Elisa,” he says gently despite the strain in his voice. “Hold on to me. Breathe.”

But my lungs are not working—every part of me is full. Full of him, full of trembles, full of fire. It takes several heartbeats for me to find air.

“There,” he says, watching, noticing every movement of my body. “Now, you breathe, I’ll move. And when I do this . . .” he pushes a little further into me, causing my breath to stop again. “You do that.” His fingers tap my hips, teaching me how to relax.

It takes a lot more heartbeats for my body to open to him like this. More of his patience, his gentle instruction, a shift here, a tilt there, a pause to let me adjust. But no pain—never that. Only us expanding, taking each other into our deepest parts, and locking each other there in a hermetic touch.

“Perfect. Now hold. Feel.” His voice is rough, sliced between his teeth. “It’s just all of you and all of me. Farther than we’ve ever been. Isn’t that beautiful?”

It is, I want to say. It’s exactly as it should be. But I’m beyond things like speech. The only sounds that come out are garbled sighs, but he must understand because his hands tighten on my shaky hips.

“Now this,” he says, pushing into me. “Is my home.”

Welcome, I think. Welcome, welcome, welcome. But all that comes out is “mmm.”

“I’m going to move now, love. Stop me if it’s too much.”

And Aiden starts to move. Gently at first while I vibrate, trying not to faint. Then his rhythm picks up. Some moves are slow but so deep we both stop breathing. Others are faster, quick and shallow like our gasps. Then he combines them, shallow-slow, shallow-fast, deep-slow, deep-fast—his tempo rising until I get lost. Lost in the darkness of my shut eyes. In the space between breaths. In the feeling of our bodies fused so close together, I no longer know where he ends and I begin. There are several heartbeats when I have no sense of direction or time. Only fragments of awareness between thrusts.  As though each time he moves inside me, he sends an electric current to my mind, bringing me back. But then abruptly there is a change. My body catches up, finds a new bubble of space, and molds around him. No struggle, no ache, just wavelets of pleasure lapping against him as though I’m the sea and he is the shore.

He feels the change too. “Ah, Elisa,” he moans and then starts to move with abandon. With perfect clarity, my senses absorb everything this time. The sound of our voices, the words we gasp to each other. The harsh breathing tearing the air. His mouth, his shut eyes. The ripples that descend over him. And the end begins for us both. My body breaks first in the most intense climax I’ve ever had. It palpitates so violently, my fingers grasp Aiden, the quilt, the pillow, my own hair. With each final move of his, a new wave of convulsions starts, so powerful that for an instant, I think I’m turning inside out. An overwhelming sensation builds at the very bottom of my belly, like a surge, and I explode in every way. My breath becomes a cry, tears spring in my eyes, and my insides liquefy at the same time that I hear his homecoming—my name—and we both collapse in a quivering mass on the mattress.

And then there is nothing.

I don’t know for how long. But eventually I start drifting between reality and non-reality. Reality is a vague sensation of movement and sound, but I can’t say what or how. Non-reality is stillness, as though my body has shut down for universal rest. But I know even in that restful state that there is something stronger coming, something more intimate, something so special, I have been waiting for perhaps all my life. So I hold sleep at bay, inch by inch, and focus on the one thing I know is real. Aiden next to me. Holding on to him with every sense, I realize we are lying on the bed, he is cradling me over his chest, and his heart is deafening in my ear. At that precise moment, I register my own heartbeat galloping in the same rhythm. I hear his harsh breathing at the same time that I find my lungs. And I smell his Aiden scent at the same time that I catch the rose breeze from the window.  Then with a last shove against sleep, I open my eyes.

Aiden has one arm over his face as the other one flexes and twitches around me. I think he just mouthed holy fuck. Tremors still ripple through him like aftershocks, as they do with me. He seems equally unable to lift any body part. His chest is rising and falling at the same speed as mine.

He finds his voice before me, though, even if it is just to rasp, “Hi.”

“Hi.” My voice is just as hoarse.

“I think we’re alive.”

“Can you die from orgasms?”

“That one came close.”

“I think I might have fainted at some point.”

“I’d never allow that.”

“Is it . . . does it . . . is it normal for it to feel like this? So intense?”

“Never for me.”

I think about this new word for us. Never. I was crediting his sex talent for this experience, but it sounds like it’s neither him, nor me. It’s us together. And it’s a good feeling—this rare conviction that, no matter all else that’s against us, in this one aspect of our love, we are a perfect match. No matter how this ends, if they ever were to write stories about us, they would say our physical love moved stars and suns. Even if our storybook would be next to Romeo and Juliet.

“Will you do me a favor?” I ask him.

He turns his head to look at me, questions in his eyes, but I lose my train of thought seeing his face for the first time since his homecoming. A destructive beauty has fallen over him. His pupils are dark and dilated still, but a halo of light is illuminating the irises as they change color before my incredulous eyes until they become the luminous shade of turquoise that belongs irrevocably to me. His lips are darker too from my biting. His skin is flushed, the gold almost bronze.

“Anything,” he says.

“If we make it through these ninety days together, will you tell me about this night some day? I’m losing parts of it already.”

His smile is dizzying. Exactly that. It makes my head spin. “I promise,” he says, cupping my cheek. “If we make it, when I’m eighty-five with a cane and still trying to find a way to make love to you, I will say, ‘my dear Mrs. Plemmons, there was this one night on June sixteen, fifty years ago, when you were so spry you brought a Marine to his knees.’ And you will laugh and say, ‘you crackpot fool, I’m still spry, but you don’t have any knees.’”

I giggle. “I’ve decided that’s what we will dream tonight. You and your cane, chasing me about.”

The dizzying smile softens until it becomes a melancholy kiss at the corner of his mouth. “What a beautiful dream.”

He holds my gaze like gravity. It changes the moment, the room, the night. A different electricity hums between us. Serious, full of unsaid things, full of spoken and unspoken dreams, full of always and never, full of every night gone and every night still ahead, and every single moment in between. Full of this small chance for big things.

Full of dangerous things too—his h-o-p-e, his f-e-a-r for me and my f-e-a-r for him, full of d-a-r-e, of t-i-m-e left and t-i-m-e lost, full of this brand new h-o-m-e we are building inside each other.

Full of his all and my all.

They suspend here in this moment between us—hanging on the balance of what happens tonight and for the rest of the summer.

He does not release my eyes. Shyness flickers again in the blue depths, and I grasp that flicker is the essence of young Aiden. The little boy who was given an almighty gift at such a tender age. There was shyness there once, before memories, war, and torture stole it. But they didn’t take it all. Somehow, in his vast mind, he knew to hold on to this small flicker of virtue, of innocence. He knew to keep this part only to himself. For thirty-five long years until tonight.

I am abruptly overwhelmed by his trust in me. He is lying right here beneath me, mouth silent, eyes loud. In nothing but skin and completely mine. His vulnerability floats inside me and becomes protectiveness, pride. I sit up and place my hand over his heart. It’s still sprinting, and he shudders even at my lightest touch.

“Aiden, do you want to do this? Not because I want it or because Corbin thinks you should. Do you want this for yourself?”

His Aiden’s apple bobbles once, but when he speaks, his voice is clear. “I do.”

“Are you sure?”

He sits up too now so that we are face-to-face. “I am. I’ve waited all my life to sleep with you. And you’re finally here. My only hesitation is your safety.”

I caress his scar, his sculpted jaw, kissing his full lips lightly, feeling the pull between us, feeling it and resisting it. “Tell me how you pictured it,” I ask, my lips moving along his jaw to his ear. I kiss the spot below as he does with me. He winds his arm around my waist pulling me so close, my breasts brush against his chest.

“I haven’t allowed myself any fantasies about it, Elisa.”

The loneliness of the image pierces my heart. A desire so deep, so out of reach even his fantasies couldn’t catch it.

“Not even a single detail?” I brush my lips down his throat, kissing the dip there.

“Well . . . I suppose . . . I always thought I’d fall asleep with my face in . . . your hair.”

I kiss along his collarbone, waiting for the tears that have welled up to dry. Just my hair. That’s all he could give himself. My lips travel over his chest and kiss his heart.

“Don’t be afraid,” I tell him. “You won’t hurt me.”

He pulls up my face until we are mouth to mouth. His eyes are hooded, heavy with the same need I feel but he is resisting it like I am.

“I have an idea,” I say, pecking his lips, and climb out of the bed. The only rational brain cell left registers I’m already feeling sore; the rest of my mind is absorbed with his eyes that I sense on me and the old record player on the dresser. I find Beethoven’s and place it on the turntable. After a few scratches, Für Elise starts.

When I turn to him, he is smiling with his dimple. I hold out my hand, palm up.

“Aiden, may I have this dance?”

The smile becomes a grin. He rises with his usual grace and takes my hand. Then we sway to my song—skin on skin, our bare feet together on the worn rug. His lips in my hair, my lips on his heart, arms like rose vines around each other.

“Are you romancing me, Elisa?”

“Yes, Aiden, I am.”

“I’m a sure thing, you know.”

“You’re the opposite of a sure thing. You’re impossible to me in every way.”

I’ve stunned him speechless but not motionless. He lifts me by my waist and slides his bare feet under mine, holding me tight against him, burying his face in my hair, and we dance. I memorize his steps to the familiar notes. Right, right, right, left, left, turn. His feet move so effortlessly to the melody that has become his lullaby, it’s as though he is playing the piano with our steps. Three languid rights, two quick lefts, turn, turn. He twirls me on the final bridge, our laughter trilling with the tune. And on the last note, he dips me over his arm, kissing his favorite spot at the end of my jawline.

“Thank you for the dance,” I say when I’m upright.

“Thank you for the memory.”

In the silence that follows, the willows are playing their own lullaby with the river. Wishes. Wishes. I sense he needs a moment to himself so I start straightening the bed that is a tangle from our homecoming. When I finish, I pull back the covers for him in invitation. “They’re clean,” I assure him. “Except the mess we just made, but it’s all us.”

“Perfect.”

He must like our mess because he grabs his things from the dresser with speed and flits over to his side—no hesitation on his step or voice anymore. When he sees the Baci on his nightstand, he smiles.

“Is this for now or morning?”

“Whenever you want.”

“Morning then,” he says, looking at the chocolate with more emotion than Baci gets from people who are not me. “Is the vase of the Elisas for me too?”

“Yes. I tried to put only happy memories here for you.”

“I have everything I need for happiness right here in this room.”

He pours a glass of water from the pitcher, takes out a small red pill from his wallet, and swallows it. I thank science in my head for giving us this chance, even if it needs to be combined with magic we do not understand. Like my song’s effect on him. He taps his phone and Für Elise starts again, lower now, like background music.

“Will this bother you? It’s programmed to replay until my alarm goes off.”

“Aiden, I’d listen to heavy metal all night if it keeps you asleep.”

He grins. “Lucky for you, nothing else works. Just your song.”

“Will you tell me how you discovered it?”

“Nope. Only happy memories enter this room tonight.”

And hopefully every other night. With our eyes on each other, Aiden and I climb into bed together. Side by side, face-to-face, our pillows touching, our knees touching, our forearms touching. We don’t turn off the side lamps; neither of us wants to miss any detail tonight.

“Will you do me a favor?” he asks, knotting his fingers with mine.

“Anything.”

“You will be careful, right? You will put your safety above all else, including me?”

As if I could ever separate my safety from his. As if could ever tell him no. “I will.”

“And you remember what that means?”

“Yes. No startling you awake, no touching if you’re having a nightmare, add love.”

He chuckles with a sound like the piano. “Add love,” he repeats, bringing his mouth to mine. His lips move in perfect harmony to the music. “Do you remember the morning we played this together?” he murmurs.

“Yes,” I whisper against his lips. “On your piano.”

He turns me around slowly until my back is against his chest, and kisses along my jawline. “You were so new and innocent . . . yet so familiar.” His lips press right below my ear. “And do you know what I was thinking?”  Lips brushing over my shoulder to the tip of my shoulder. He nips at it gently.

“No,” I sigh.

“I was thinking . . .” Hands around my breasts in the languid rhythm of the melody. “I must be asleep.” Lips pressing soft kisses like piano notes over my neck. “I dreamt her in war . . . ” He returns to my mouth. “And now she is bringing me peace . . .” His tongue plays Für Elise, while his fingers tap my nipples like piano keys. “And that’s why your music keeps me asleep . . . because when I played it with you . . . I didn’t want to wake up . . . how about that, Elisa?”

I want to answer, I want to tell him so many things, but I am lost. Lost in the way his mouth plays my song. Lost in the way his long fingers flutter over the ivory of my skin. He synchronizes each touch to the melody. Each flick of the tongue is a note. Each caress of his fingers is an arpeggio. Each slow, gentle thrust is a bar of music. Trill after trill, chime after chime until my body arches against him during the last bridge, trembles during the legato, and we both snap like piano strings into a thousand notes of our own music, us and Elise finishing on the exact note. As he must have planned it to be.

He holds me like this against him as Für Elise restarts. I feel him pull out and discard the latex invader. He wraps his arms around me and buries his nose in the hair behind my ear. I fight sleep with all my strength and lay very still, feeling every tremor of our bodies fade, every gust of his breath in my hair. After another Für Elise, Aiden stills too, and his breathing slows and deepens.

“Oveu,” he murmurs and drifts into deep sleep.

I know exactly the moment when he is gone because his weight around me gets heavier. But I still don’t move. I just listen to the sound of his breath, counting each gentle waft on my neck. One puff of happiness. Two puffs of happiness. Three . . . On the one-hundred-fiftieth puff, Aiden rolls away, lying on his back, one arm still under my pillow. It’s then that I move. First one finger, then two, then my hand, turning slowly, inch by inch so I can see him.

Aiden thought I was a dream, but there is no better dream than the real him asleep. His face is relaxed under the muted light. The sharp planes are softer, the sculpted brow smooth. His lips are parted and his long lashes brush against his cheekbones, casting feathery shadows over his lucent skin. But there is heartbreak in his beauty too. How he has trained himself to sleep on his back, how tension still drapes over his shoulders like a quilt.

I memorize each breath and learn all his little sleeping quirks. Like the way he moves his lips softly sometimes as if he is tasting his sleep. Or the way his toes curl where they’re dangling off the bed.  Every so often, he gets an erection which, of course, for Aiden it’s visible through the quilt. I know this is normal for men, but I still wonder if my song is giving him pleasant dreams. I hope it is. I hope the snowball is shrinking even as he breathes. And through it all, Aiden stays asleep.  Five-hundred-ninety-nine puffs of happiness, six . . . My eyelids start to droop. In those last moments between awake and asleep, I sense the edge of a dream similar to this moment and I chase it. Because Aiden is there too, and in the dream I can touch him as much as I want. We’re in the same room, the same bed, but the light is weaker, flickering from candles, not side lamps. Aiden is asleep, but on his side, facing me. I place my hand on his chest. It’s c