NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 44 – AMOR VINCIT OMNIA

Happy Sunday and Thanksgiving week, friends! I’m so grateful for all of you and so many friendships I have made here. Here is the next chapter for you, hopefully to add some cheer to the holiday week. I know you’ve waited long for it, and so have I. I hope you love it as much as I did. Also, this is *not* the last chapter. I will announce the last chapter which will come with an epilogue but it will be the next one or the one after if I decide to break them into two.  So much love and joy to all of you and your loved ones. Theme: victory. Song: My love, by Sia. Favorite line: “What a beautiful gift to give.”

44

Amor Vincit Omnia

In the carpark, Benson is pacing by the Range Rover, stalking from the headlights to the boot and back again every few seconds, brows furrowed as he scans the grounds. As soon as he spots us, he freezes mid-stride, his brown eyes wild with anxiety. I feel instantly guilty for keeping him waiting even though I would not change the last hour for anything.

Aiden picks up our pace in response. “We’re okay, Benson,” he assures him quickly as soon as we reach the car. “I’m sorry we made you wait. We had a lot to cover.”

Benson does not relax out of his ramrod posture. “What does ‘okay’ mean? What did the grey lady say?”

I watch with a clenched heart as Aiden speaks our news out into the world for the first time, making it real for someone we love.

“It means it’s over, brother,” he answers slowly, as though trying to find the right words. “I am—we all are—safe.

Safe. His holy grail, his dream, the word that has tortured and eluded him for twelve long years is finally his. I clutch his hand tighter so he knows it’s real.

Benson stares at him blankly. “Safe? As in . . . the thing is gone?”

“Yes.” Aiden hesitates only for the briefest fraction of a second. “The startle is done—in no small part thanks to you.”

I don’t miss the change in his voice, from awe to a defiant inflection of the dark word as though he no longer wants to give it that silent power.

Neither does Benson. “You’re fucking with me?” he breathes, eyes frozen wide.

“No.” Aiden shakes his head, pulling me closer to his side. “As Elisa keeps having to remind me . . . it’s real.” A smile flashes on his face at that last word. A natural, easy smile that makes Benson’s jaw drop, and I know why: because he has not seen it for a long time.

That smile does it. Benson’s massive shoulders sink in relief. All the tension blows out of his enormous frame with whatever questions or uncertainties, and he starts rumbling a deep, booming laugh.

“HAH! HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!”

Then their bodies collide into a manly hug, thumping each other on the back in a way that would pulverize my bones to dust. Benson does not ask why or what or how. None of the reasons seem to matter to him one bit. He only cares that Aiden is healed.

I reach stealthily inside my picnic basket and fish out my phone. Through the sparkly mist of tears, I take a photo of this moment between them. Aiden’s waterfall laughter is cascading over their clinch, washing away every riptide of violence that has ever torn through their iron arms. Leaving only their deep bond behind.

“Well, damn!” Benson chortles as he pulls away, wiping his brow. “Does this mean I’m out of a job now?” A new apprehension dawns over his face as though he hadn’t registered this worry about himself yet, and I want to hug him too for the risks he took for us. Perhaps so does Aiden because he does not release Benson’s boulderlike shoulder.

“You’re family, Benson. You’ll always be my right-hand man. Your job will just be less hazardous now—you know, boring security stuff. You might even get to take a vacation every once in a while.”

“Ugh, vacation!” Benson pretends to shudder, but I see his relieved joy as his face breaks into a beaming smile that, from his tremendous height, makes him seem like our very own sun.

I squeeze his huge fingers, too awkward to hug him in my current state without knickers.

“We love you, Benson,” I sniffle. “We wouldn’t be here if we had not had you by our side.”

“Thank you for breaking all my rules,” Aiden tells him, and I know he is not talking just about Benson secretly agreeing to the startle test for today. He is talking about Benson giving me his war letters when I left America, refusing to drive me away after Aiden’s attack, standing with us every step of the way, even when it meant facing Aiden’s wrath.

Benson’s forehead flushes, and he mumbles gruffly. “Yeah, well, thanks for not firing me in the first place. I suppose I won’t have much reason to break the rules from now on, will I?”

“I fervently hope not,” Aiden sighs, and we all laugh in relief that it’s over. That Benson’s shadow next to ours will not float by necessity, but by choice. And that his lethal strength is no longer a weapon against my love. It’s simply a part of who Benson is: a friend, a brother, a trusted advisor. A protector of Aiden, not from him.

“Well, in that case, I’ll drive you home.” Benson does not need to ask to know the only place we want to be. “And then, if you don’t mind, I’ll go sleep for the next week. I was lying this morning when I said I slept last night—I didn’t catch a wink.”

“I don’t mind at all. Just get us home as safely as you can. I think we’ve all earned at least a year without disasters.”

Benson laughs again and tries to get the door for us but Aiden is a step ahead, no doubt because I’m standing here en déshabillé under my dress. Healed he might be, but his mind is still the same. He waits until our Big Ben lopes to the driver’s seat with a spring in his step, and then helps me climb in the back, standing close behind for cover. His eyes blaze at me in a way that makes the muscles in the pit of my belly tighten as though our two big bangs in the oak tree never happened. Then he secures me to his side like always, and we’re off, racing down the boulevard toward the cottage.

Yet, for once, the car speed is too slow for me. I lean my head on Aiden’s shoulder—is it my imagination or is it already softer? —and start timing the clock to my sprinting heartbeat. The ticking seconds don’t throb anymore. They heal. Flowing easily like air in my lungs or notes in a melody.

Aiden chats with Benson about Doctor Helen’s trick, about calling the Marines and his parents to surprise them, chuckling at this, sighing at that, but his arm around me never relaxes. Except this is not the kind of tension that used to strain him in traffic. His hold right now is just an embrace as his fingertips on my hip count down the time.

We reach Elysium in exactly thirty minutes like Aiden predicted. The Rover skids to a stop by the potted roses outside the garage shed. Benson tries to come open our door, but Aiden stops him again.

“I got this, Benson. You go get some rest. We’ll still be here when you wake up and then we can discuss your issues with vacation. Maybe I need to bring Cora and Max for reinforcement.”

Benson half-chuckles, half-yawns, scanning Elysium as we climb out, ever our security guard despite his sleepy eyes. And then he drives off, honking the horn lightly to a familiar note: the Rover’s version of Für Elise.

As soon as we’re alone, Aiden takes both my hands. His eyes are blue fire. How can they burn and calm me at the same time?

“Are you really going to bring everyone over?” I ask.

“Yes, tonight.” He kisses my forehead. “But first, it’s time for your present. Come.”

I’m about to find some excuse to delay the goodbye gift and go straight to our happy bedroom, but abruptly he is shining. Exactly that—there are no other words for it. Eyes dazzling with that my-all look he first gave me yesterday after I woke up. His beauty amplifies in that way that stops everything, from my breath to my mind. I can barely remember my own name, let alone the excuses I was trying to devise.

He chuckles at my dumbfound expression, blowing over my lips. And then he tows me across Elysium, his arm around my waist almost sweeping me off my feet.

Our little field sparkles with the late August sun, still the same, yet it has never felt more precious. Each blade of grass looks gilded with every battle we fought on these wildflowers to be together. Over at the hedge, on the reel’s scar, the orchids and forget-me-nots have withered under the flame of Aiden’s fever. But they do not seem to mourn their last bloom. Their wilted petals flutter calmly in the rose breeze, facing the sunrays with their forged wisdom.

I feel a similar sense of peace, of continuity in the change of seasons. And suddenly, I know exactly what needs to take root in the flowers’ soil.

“What are you smiling about?” Aiden asks.

“I think I just found a new home for Hope, our hybrid.”

He looks at the spot that healed and burned him. “Fitting,” he agrees. “After all, we planted the American Beauty in Portland. It makes sense to plant its descendant here.”

Portland. Here. Despite his musical voice, the words ring like a bugle call in the distance. The start of another war, except now, no matter the choice, a piece of my heart is lost. But which one?

I shut down the question immediately. I will not think about that today—today belongs only to happiness.

“Let’s go,” I tell him, my feet speeding up. “We can come plant Hope in the morning. Roses like sunrises when they change homes. And music.”

The sound of his chuckle makes the bugle call disappear. “I’ll compile a playlist for the occasion. Is there anything else the roses would like? I think I owe them a gift too if I recall correctly.”

“No, they’re the happiest flora in the world now that you’re healed. Although you still have to grovel for saying ‘lavender’ the other night.”

“On my knees.” He laughs and pulls me quickly under the willow garlands.

The sunlight flickers through the leafy drapes, kissing his lips, touching his scar, drawing him closer inside their verdant heart. And their ethereal whisper begins to trill. From somehow, somehow, somehow to a new harmony.

“What are they singing now?” Aiden guesses as though the murmur is also changing for him.

“Happy, happy, happy. Yours?”

He smiles in a way that makes the willows start humming, he’s ours, he’s ours.

“Secret, secret, secret. Come, let’s not disobey the willows.”

He takes my hand with a soft kiss and tugs me through the garlands, eagerness almost touchable in his eyes. I follow him in a trance, mystified by this secret gift and the fluid grace of his movement as his mind continues to heal.

But as soon as we step into our rose garden, everything changes in a heart-splitting blink. Aiden sweeps me behind his back so fast, the air whooshes past me like a gust of wind. By the time my breath huffs out in a gasp, he is towering in front of me, tense and protective.

“Aiden, what—?” I choke in alarm, but just as quickly, he relaxes again. Instantly, his tension softens and a stunned breath whistles through his lips.

“What the fuck?” he whispers, staring in shock—not defense—at something in front of him.

I peek around his elbow, and then almost collapse in relief as I see the reason for the quick ease in his reaction. Because the sudden difference in our garden is not danger. It’s the safest, warmest, most loveable sight there is.

Our family.

Javier, Reagan, Stella, Robert, James, Hendrix, and Jazzman are all right here, standing rigid among the roses as they stare back at us, frantic with worry, eyes frozen on Aiden’s stance. But only for a second. And then before we can catch our breath, they launch themselves toward us, Robert and Stella at the front, the Marines right behind, Reagan and Javier on each side.

“Oh, Aiden!” Stella cries, reaching us first, and then everyone else swarms around us.

“Mom, what—?” Aiden starts, but I can’t hear what else he says over her sobs. Or perhaps he can’t speak because they all begin hugging us in a frenzy. I can barely tell Stella’s pillowy embrace from James’ crushing grip or Jazzman’s scarred arms. But two hugs clutch me longer and harder than the others: one powdery with flaming ringlets and the other warm, smelling of paint and peppermint. Reagan and Javier have squeezed through the throng of Marines and are squishing me between them, as they all start blubbering and rushing to speak at the same time.

“Son, we had to come—” Robert begins.

“Of course, we did!” Stella sobs some more, stroking Aiden’s cheek from what I can see through the two bodies wrapped around me.

“How could we not?” James is rumbling from his immense height. His jungle of auburn hair and beard is even more feral than when I last saw him. “You’re in bad shape, Elisa was texting me questions about Marshall, Benson was avoiding our calls. We got on a plane last night, I called you from the airport this morning. What the fuck else were we supposed to do? Sorry, Mrs. Hale—”

“We won’t stand by like shit-flumps while you ruin your life—” Hendrix is booming from somewhere to my right.

“You almost died last time—” Jazz cuts in.

“Of all the moronic, asinine things all of us have ever done, this takes the fucking cup—so sorry, Mrs. Hale.”

“I agree, son, though not so colorfully as Callahan. We have to talk about this as a family—”

“Exactly, like a family, amorcita.” Javier is still holding me so tight, my arms are going numb. “We’re not okay with either of you hurting like this. It’s wrong. Even I can see that now—”

“You belong together.” Reagan is mopping her eyes in my hair. “There has to be a way—”

“Yeah, if Benson needs more help, you got us, we’ll rotate—”

“Everyone, please—” Aiden tries to get a word in, while Stella is trying to feel my forehead through Javier’s and Reagan’s arms.

“No, Storm, let us finish!” James interrupts.

“And I will, Cal, but first—”

“This selfless bullshit has to stop! You’ll be hurting Trouble and yourself even more!”

“Hendrix, will you just relax—”

Me relax? You need to relax! So you have a big problem when you get startled—”

“Everyone has problems! Look at me, I have a fucking glass eye!”

“I know, Jazz, just listen for a minute—”

“No, Storm! You listen—”

“EVERYONE STOP!” Aiden thunders at last, looking like his brain is about to explode. They all fall quiet instantly and jump a step back, realizing only now how much they have crowded him. Their wide eyes are locked on his shoulders because they don’t know about our new life. Aiden takes a deep, steadying breath and pulls me close to his side. I wrap my arm around him too, seeing them all properly at last: Stella’s tear-streaked face, Robert’s lined forehead, Reagan’s flushed cheeks, Javier’s thick beard, Hendrix’s stubble, James’s tangles, Jazz’s scars, livid like him. All beloved, all here for us.

“Good. Now,” Aiden continues, his voice back to its piano tone. “First, thank you for coming. I know I didn’t give you much choice and I’m sorry for all of it. But I’m very glad you’re here.”

“Where else would we be?” Stella weeps but Aiden presses on.

“Second and more importantly—” He looks down at me, then back at their tense faces. “Elisa and I are notseparating. I’m not leaving her, and she’s not leaving me.”

“Well, of course, you’re not—oh!”

A battery of gasps and questions fires through the half-circle around us. “You’re not?” “What?” “Staying together?” “How?” “What?”

“You’re not breaking up?!” Reagan squeaks in shock while Stella crosses herself and mouths something that looks very much like oh, please, God.

Aiden smiles at both of them. “No, we’re not breaking up. Come inside, we have a lot to discuss. Elisa and I have some news of our own.”

“News? What news?” Stella’s voice trembles.

“Don’t worry, Mom, we’re alright.”

“Dude, are you pregnant?” James blurts out, strangely looking at Aiden’s stomach in horror, while everyone gasps except Stella who makes a cooing sound that sends an odd flutter thrumming in my own belly and a blush all way to my hairline.

Aiden gives James an exasperated glare. “No, Cal, I’m not, and neither is Elisa for that matter. Come on, get inside. You’ll give my mother a heart attack.” And before any of them can stammer another word, he starts herding them up the garden path, never releasing my waist. Can he feel the tingles still fluttering in my body at the idea of a sapphire-eyed baby? Maybe he can because his fingers tighten on my hip and, lightly, he kisses my hair.

Our family spreads out on the threshold, careful to give Aiden the space he no longer needs. He winks at me knowingly as I open the front door. It’s only then I remember that the cottage is still celebrating Christmas and it’s far from the polished guest perfection they have seen before. Yet despite the clutter waiting for them, suddenly this feels exactly right. Homier somehow. My own mess under the dress, however, is another matter. I start fretting about buying a few moments to clean up before facing our families au naturel, but Aiden saves me.

“Everyone, have a seat wherever you can,” he tells them as they start ducking inside. “Elisa and I need just a minute.”

They nod and file to the living room one by one, and then I hear a new flurry of gasps as they must see the winter wonderland.

“Go on, I’ll clean up down here,” Aiden whispers, kissing my forehead, and I’m sure he must need his own moment. He sighs with a wistful look toward the Christmas rose and the mysterious present underneath that looks like it will have to wait a little longer.

I sprint upstairs to the loo and freshen up as quickly as possible. But as I race to our happy bedroom for new knickers, the stripped bed glares back in its stark, desolate emptiness. Abruptly, everything else can wait. I don’t want Aiden to have to see it this way later. I whirl down the hall to the guest room for our pillows, quilt, vase of Elisas, chess set, and old record player. Then I grab a set of clean sheets from the cupboard and make our bed as fast as I can. I set the Elisas by Aiden’s nightstand with a Baci by their side like our first night. Then, leaving on the light, I dash back down the stairs toward the symphony of voices singing through the cottage one more time.

Aiden is waiting for me at the foot of the stairs in the foyer. He is still in his white shirt from our first embargo, but with fresh, dark jeans—intentionally similar to the ones he was wearing.

“Are you ready?” I ask him, for one of the most important memories he is about to form in his life.

He takes my hand. “Now I am.” He smiles and, together, we step into the Christmas wonderland.

The scene would be comical if it weren’t so emotional. The space is so tiny that, even without our Big Ben, everyone is standing crammed together, staring at the holiday decor with various expressions of worry and confusion. Aphrodite twinkles in the corner—someone must have turned on the lights even if they didn’t understand why. The stocking sways above the fireplace where a new fire is crackling. The Christmas village is sparkling on the windowsill, the white petals still blanket the hardwood floor. And on the coffee table are what seem to be the entire contents of our fridge. In the last several minutes, Stella must have managed to warm up the leftover roast chicken and potatoes, make a leafy salad, heat up the frozen chicken soup, brew coffee and tea, fill up a pitcher of rose lemonade, and stack our Christmas cookies on the silver tray, sprinkling them with powdered sugar and blueberries.

All of them joining Christmas in August without question or hesitation if this is what we need.

A tidal wave of love engulfs me for each of them, just as implacable and powerful as for my own parents. One look at Aiden next to me, and I know he feels the same. How many times has he dreamt of telling them this news, giving them this joy? Each time feeling more and more impossible until he stopped dreaming at all. And now here he is, at the brink, awe filling his expression like the golden halo of the protein.

As soon as they see us at the door, everyone turns to us immediately. Their eyes are still wide—Reagan’s and Stella’s watery, Robert’s and Javier’s tight with worry, the Marines’ haunted and deep.

“What’s with the early Christmas?” James breaks the silence.

“Was it because you were trying to say goodbye?” Reagan’s voice quivers as she wrings her hands by the rose tree.

“No, not at all,” Aiden recovers quickly before either she or I start wailing. “We were just celebrating a friend.”

“Are you both really alright?” Stella whimpers from the coffee table, Robert’s hands on her shoulders. “You’ve lost so much weight, Aiden.”

I don’t have to look at Aiden’s face, even healed, to know she is right. So must Aiden because he tells her the truth, even if gentled for her heart.

“It’s been a hard couple of weeks, Mom, but we’re better than alright now.”

“Then what’s the news, son? What do you need to tell us?”

He looks only at his parents, with a feeling that must surge from his early days, the days that the rest of us cannot remember. His fingers tighten on mine as if for reality, then he takes a step closer in their direction.

“We finally beat the startle, Mom.” His voice is very soft when he tells her. “It has changed. The danger is gone. Forever.”

A deafening silence falls over the room at his words. No one seems to be able to blink or breathe or move an inch. No one except Aiden’s parents. Their eyes turn liquid and deep, like Aiden’s when he is feeling too much. They don’t say anything. No questions like Benson, no doubts. Just a ragged gasp tearing through Stella’s lips. They stagger toward us unsteadily in the profound silence.  Then, without a word, they take their son in their arms. Covering him in their hold despite his height. I try to glimpse Aiden’s face but his head bows between his parents, and he wraps them both in his long arms. A family torn apart coming together at last. A quiet sob hitches from within their embrace, as if deep from Stella’s heart.

I watch them through the filter of tears, standing right here where my own parents used to kiss. Except there is no sadness in me at all now. Because we are the luckiest people in the world to know this kind of love. As though all those coins we’ve thrown in fountains have finally bronzed into fortune. All our prayers and wishes coming true inside this hug.

I wipe away my tears, not wanting to miss a single blink of their reunion, but Aiden’s strong arm reaches down for me. And just like that, I am inside their hug too, wrapped in all three of them, right next to their hearts. I can feel the strength of Aiden’s hold as it tightens around us. And in the hearthy warmth, trembles a motherly whisper.

“We love you both so much.”

Then with a familiar kiss in my hair, our little hug opens up. Like a rose spreading its petals to the sun, but the roots standing close, deep and entwined.

I turn around for Reagan and Javier, but abruptly James sweeps me and Aiden’s parents out of the way and crashes into Aiden while Hendrix and Jazz lunge at him from the back, catching him by surprise. He staggers from the sudden ambush, trying to throw them off. I panic that he’ll get hurt but I know this is not an attack. He’s just fighting to stay upright while Hendrix piggybacks him, trying to startle him again.

“I’ve waited twelve years to jump your ass!” Hendrix hollers while James, the most lethal sniper in Marine Corps history, sobs and laughs at the same time. Jazz just throws himself at Aiden’s back again, wrestling him to the floor as James and Hendrix pile on top.

“Oh, he’s healed alright!” Jazz crows as the furniture rattles under their steely weight and all four of them begin to laugh.

Their raucous laughter rolls around like peals of thunder and catches inside all of us. Robert pulls Stella in his arms, and I nearly throttle Reagan and Javier, wrapping them up in my own hug. They tuck me in their midst, chanting between English and Spanish.

“Thank Dios, amorcita!”

“I knew it, Isa! I knew it would work out.”

“And now you can come back home, and we can all be together again for the real Christmas.”

Javier’s words—so gentle, so full of relief—pierce in my ears. As though the bugle call is trumpeting nearer and nearer. I silence it again with everyone’s laughter and hug them closer.

“I’ve missed you so much. Now it’s your turn for this kind of love.”

“No offense, but that sounds mega-stressful.” Javier laughs while I try to ask Reagan with my eyes if there has been any progress between them. But she shakes her head slightly and hides in another hug. Bloody hell! I make a mental note to mobilize Aiden and maybe even spill some oxytocin in Javier’s coffee.

When all the laughter and tears have calmed and the Marines are done jumping Aiden for now, he finally manages to stand upright, hair a mess, face flushed. He mouths a profanity at his brothers— “assholes!”— half-glaring, half-chuckling and comes to my side.

“Sorry about the animals.” He wraps his arm around my waist. “Did you get out of there okay?”

“Slightly better than okay. It’s you I was worried about. Did you hit your head?”

“No, just the wildlife.” He shakes said beautiful head and turns to Reagan and Javier. “Thank you for coming. And for supporting us like you have. I know it wasn’t easy.”

“We’d be here no matter what,” Javier answers. “But I’m very happy you beat this, man.”

“Oh, Dragon!” Reagan cries and gives Aiden the first full hug I have seen between them. “I told Isa to warn you that I’d hug you. Did she?”

“She did, although you’re early. I believe I was supposed to have until September to prepare.” He chuckles and hugs her back with his free arm, never releasing my waist. Then he pulls away and looks at all of them, gathered around us. “Why don’t you all take a seat? You’ve had a long fight, apparently while having me believe you were at work. Web of lies.” He chuckles, clearly happy with their surprise, while Stella revs up into mother mode immediately.

“Yes, Aiden, Elisa, you first, sit down. You both need to eat.” She rushes us to the sofa, ladling hot soup in our bowls. Then they all perch, curl, fold, and plop wherever they can around the table: James to Aiden’s right on the sofa, his parents on the fluffy armchairs, Hendrix on the piano seat, and Javier, Reagan, and Jazz on cushions on the floor. And the questions really start: how, what, when, why.

I start eating my soup, letting Aiden choose what he wants to share from his deepest, most private war.

“It was a lot of things that made a difference,” he explains simply, and I know some things, like the reel, the protein, and his fever and agony, will always stay between us. “From the scientists’ experiment to all of you helping us, and everything Elisa and I did together every day. But in the end, it all came down to her effect on me, and her faith. She never gave up even when I did.”

“How?” “What effect?” “In what way?” “What do you mean?” The questions blurt out everywhere and they lean toward us eagerly.

Aiden smiles at me in his most embarrassing this-is-Wonder-Woman way before answering.

“Well, as it turns out, much to the scientists’ surprise and our own, Elisa is able to change my traumatic memories, rewrite them if you will, in a way that replaces the violence with calm.”

Blinks of shock and confusion flit through all their wide eyes.

“What did you say?” Stella breathes, spilling some of her rosehip tea.

“She can change your memory?” Robert whispers in astonishment, as though the words are in a language entirely new to him. The others just stare incomprehensibly.

“Yes, I couldn’t believe it myself when I heard it, but it’s true. Look.” With an almost palpable joy, as though giving them every Christmas they missed together, Aiden reaches in his shirt pocket for the photo of his healed mind and hands it to his parents who know his memory better than any of us, except Aiden himself.

They gasp now as the Marines, Reagan, and Javier clamor around to look at the polaroid even though, like me, they probably don’t understand all the implications of the magnetic image.

“Astounding!” Robert murmurs, the photograph shaking in his hand.

“So calm . . .” Stella marvels. Her eyes flood with tears as her trembling finger caresses the contours of Aiden’s mind, the way she does with his drawn cheek.

“How was Isa able to do that?” Reagan asks intrigued, her psychology degree kicking in, while Javier squints at the image the way he does at a painting—seeing the meaning behind it.

Aiden’s arm wraps around me again, his gaze still awed as he tries to explain in the safest way possible, without disclosing any horror or secrets that would traumatize his parents, or Reagan and Javier for that matter.

“Well, without getting into the details, she guided me quite literally through my personal hell. She stood by me every dawn while I had to revisit our last mission in Iraq, adding her calm and love to every traumatic aspect until even the worst of my memories changed itself forever. Or rather my emotional response to that memory changed so that I was able to heal and see the truth of what really happened that day.”

Eight pairs of eyes blink at me in such unconcealed wonderment that I want to hide under Aiden’s arm. I’m not the hero of this war. He is. And the three soldiers sitting close by him.

“What I did doesn’t even compare to Aiden,” I mumble the understatement of the century. “He had the hardest job in all this . . .” My voice trails off, inadequate to capture the enormity of his sacrifice, struggle, and strength. How do you ever explain bravery like that? Courage so valiant even science could not match.

They nod slowly in stunned, wordless understanding, even Reagan and Javier who know the least. But while they look at the two of us in amazement, I watch only the Marines who know exactly what Aiden had to relive fifty-five times to heal.

Their eyes age with their own memories, traveling thousands of miles away, and for a moment, I’m sure they are back in that blood-soaked schoolyard, hearing the bombs and the screams. Their scars glint both visible and invisible on their suddenly ashen skin. But all I see are their youthful faces from the video, their valor, their bravery. I lean closer to Aiden as a need to shield them all overwhelms me even though they are a thousand times stronger than me.

I can tell from the protective way Aiden looks at James that he is wanting the same thing. That his victory will not be complete until his brothers are freed with him.

“What really happened that day?” Jazz repeats Aiden’s words slowly, his smoky voice dropping around the word that matters.

“Is this about the message you left me earlier?” James’s question is almost a raspy breath. Tension curves his height, and abruptly he seems so small, so breakable.

“It is, brother, and it’s a good thing.” Aiden reaches up and grasps James’s shoulder. The gratitude is almost tastable in the air from his lips as he tells James the words that freed him. “It’s solid evidence that what happened that day was not our fault.”

The Marines freeze, blinkless, even as a low gasp comes from Stella and Robert. Even as Reagan and Javier still, sensing the magnitude of the moment. The fire crackles, moments pass, but the brothers just stare at Aiden, statues burning in a distant, charred desert, pain whipping through their ghostly eyes.

“That’s not possible,” Jazz mouths almost silently at last. From the strained movement, the vicious burn scar on his cheek drags down his mouth. James seems unable to speak. He only shakes his head slowly against the idea, against his own innocence. His breath has stopped entirely.

“It is.” Aiden’s voice is gentle, yet sure, knowing exactly what they need. “I’ll tell you everything later and you can see it for yourselves too. Even the General agrees.” He pauses, shaking James’s shoulder slightly. “What happened that day was not our fault, Cal,” he repeats the words deliberately, with conviction. “Not mine and definitely not yours. I know it feels impossible to imagine, but it’s true. Trust me.”

Something changes in James’s breath then—the slightest drag, the way he gulped for air in the video, the way my lungs fought after drowning. But his breathing doesn’t restart at the three words that freed Aiden. It restarts with those last two: “trust me.” At their sound, the deadly sniper’s eyes blink, come alive above the tangled auburn beard. As if those two small words— “trust me”—were a defibrillator shocking him back to life. That’s when I fully grasp the depths of their bond. It’s not just a brotherhood, it’s a lifeline. The test of reality, the scaffold for the world. The truth against which all other truths are tested. The binds of unfathomable sacrifice and loss, as though the fire that scorched their veins is its own blood, its own DNA code.

I can see that in James’s eyes as they return to the present moment. I see it in Hendrix as his back softens. And I see it in Jazz as the scars fade, blending again with his wholesome, unmarred half. They accept the truth absolutely, without any more questions, argument, or evidence. They accept it solely on their trust in their brother and the commander that saved them.

And that’s all it takes. James nods at Aiden once, and his rugged hand comes up and grabs Aiden’s shoulder too. Do they feel the difference in each other’s bodies? Do their hands know the chains are gone?

They must because none of them says another word about it. No thank you’s or sorry’s or thank god’s. I’m sure they will talk later in their own language, but for now, this is enough.

“This is some day!” James rumbles, his voice back to its normal timbre, even if still a little rough. “I think we need a drink. Or a toast.” He picks up his coffee mug, raising it in the air toward us. “To Storm, for healing this wound at last.” Abruptly, he smiles in the jungle of ginger hair as though that one fact—Aiden healing—works like an anti-Fallujah protein for him. “And to Elisa, for putting up with his shit, having magical powers, and saving his sorry ass.”

“Hear, hear, and Merry Christmas!” says Jazz, and we all start to laugh. A true, reviving laugh that you never forget. It melts away all the pain, the past. Stella’s and Reagan’s like Christmas bells, Robert’s and Javier’s like guitar strings, the Marines’ like thunder rolling over the hills, and the most beautiful one of them all, falling like a waterfall next to me, straight from Aiden’s lips. All bouncing off the cottage walls, filling it with joy from the rose roots to the roof beams.

And a sense of completeness finds me here, laughing in this squashy sofa under Aiden’s arm. A wholeness that brings back a sensation of bliss from early childhood days when only love existed in this cottage. I search myself for any other feeling but I can’t find a single thorn of pain. Not one bud of fear. Not a single leaflet of grief or worry or anger. Only endless petals of love and roots of gratitude. I know that another separation is still looming bigger and closer, but for now all is well. And just like that, happiness shifts again. It doesn’t look like this cottage full of roses, or these shining faces, or even Aiden healed and free. In this one moment, happiness looks exactly like me.

We all start talking easily then, everyone claiming they knew it all along that Aiden could heal, raising more toasts, opening champagne, wanting to know more. I sink happily into Aiden’s side, listening to his voice as he tells them about the doctors’ trick and Benson’s help, how hard I had to try to make him believe it was real, the General, their care package, their beautiful gifts, the miracle of them being here, exactly where we want them to be. And this day turns to Christmas too. Stella starts cooking everyone’s favorite dish. Robert, Reagan, Javier, and I help and catch up. Aiden talks with the Marines about his discovery. Benson comes over when he wakes up. Just a big family—bigger than this cottage has ever had—making our very own holiday: Healing Day.

Through it all, Aiden’s eyes and touch never leave me for long. Like a silent conversation flowing between us. His lips in my hair, his arm on my waist, his fingertips brushing my knee, now an infinity loop, now an A, now an E, and then a tap like a clock’s tick.

Outside the cottage, the sun starts to set on this day that gave us everything. I am torn: I never want it to end, yet I can’t wait for Aiden and I to be alone. So many things I still don’t know about him, so many new molecules and neurons reforming as we speak. What is he thinking? What does he want to do next? What word is running through his mind this very minute? Why does he keep looking at my secret gift? Where will be our next date? To a crowded garden or museum where we can stand in long lines and be the only two lunatics who are happy about it? What does the future look like to him? Will he take more time off work to finally live? Does he miss Portland? I stop right there—not that one, not yet. I can’t.

Aiden looks down at me and, in that one gaze, I can tell he feels exactly the same. Ready to be just with me.

Stella, who never takes her eyes off us for long, must have noticed too because she stands abruptly.

“We should go. We’ve been here all day, and you two really need to rest after all that. Come on, everyone, we can catch up tomorrow morning.”

They must understand because they all scramble up quickly, ignoring my feeble protests while Aiden doesn’t pretend at all anymore.

“That’s a good idea. You’ve had a long day too. Are you sure you’re settled at the Inn?”

“Yep, we’re good,” James answers. “Don’t worry about anything. You just—you know . . .  sleep.” He wiggles his eyebrows in a way that makes me flush, and I am grateful Stella and Robert are both hugging me so they cannot see either his lewd expression or Hendrix and Jazz making kissing pouts. Javier pretends to gag behind them and not so subtly tosses the skunk spray bottles and strobe lights in the bin. And Reagan kisses my cheek, promising me girl time tomorrow and a hat-shopping spree. Then they rush out quickly, their laughter chorusing with the willows in the rose breeze.

Family, family, family . . .

As soon as they melt out of sight, Aiden pulls me in his arms on the threshold, lifting my face to his. The sunset kisses his skin, half of him bronzed like the young, unharmed Aiden, half-golden like the healed one that conquered everything.

“Alone at last,” he murmurs, his eyes on fire, his breath a flame on my lips. And the whole world vanishes. There is only this moment with him. Nothing and no one can distract us now. He is free and beautiful and all mine.

“Yes,” I breathe, caressing his scar as the soft glow starts to shimmer with desire in my blood.

“And a lot to celebrate.”

“Everything.”

He brings his mouth to mine, his lips like plumes of heat. “Come upstairs with me,” he whispers between each kiss. “To the happiest place in our world.” And before the “yes” has sighed out of my lips, he sweeps me in his arms and carries me upstairs, his mouth urgent, steps fast as if my speed could never be quick enough.

But as we reach the threshold of our bedroom, his kiss changes, deepens. His lips slow as though stopping time. But intense too, serious, growing. I pull him closer, my fingers in his hair, my skin aflame, my head a whirl with his wine-and-cinnamon taste. I am already dizzy by the time he sets me down at the foot of our bed. Even then, he does not release me. His hands cradle my face as he pulls back and blows over my lips. Aiden and the roses and me . . . I inhale deeply and open my eyes. And then promptly lose my breath again.

Because he is finally back in our bedroom, kneeling before me under the soft light of the chandelier, like he never left, yet more dreamlike than ever. That surreal beauty has fallen over him, but new now, without the veil of fear, restraint, or guilt. Only the glow of every blissful memory this little room lights up inside him. And his eyes . . . They have changed into that my-all gaze I know in every cell. Except it has grown while we kissed. The fire smolders, becomes a sort of sentient incandescence. It breathes through my lungs like oxygen and flows in my veins like my very blood. This is not just a look, it’s a language. It speaks with words I don’t know, yet they beat inside of me like a heartbeat, thud-thud-thud.

“What are you thinking about when you look at me that way?” I can finally ask.

“This,” he answers and reaches in his back jean pocket, bringing out the thin, rectangle present that I thought was still waiting for me under the rose tree. “Now you can open it at last.” His voice is almost molten, lilting with something like fulfillment and peace.

He hands the flat packet to me, still wrapped in newspaper, and all my reticence about this gift disappears. How can I possibly resist anything that makes him glow like this, even if he planned it as a goodbye? I take it from him eagerly now, curious, rather than afraid. It’s featherlight, the newspaper printed from the library downstairs.

“What paper is this?” I muse, trying to read the words for clues. But the page is strategically wrapped like a surprise over the surprise. I can only see something about a new hybrid of white roses, but it’s enough to make me gasp. Because although I don’t know what date this is, I immediately recognize the style. It’s not The Oregonian from Portland or The Oxford Student like his diamond A, or even The Burford Times or the Reed College Quest.

“It’s the Rose Petal Press!” I answer my own question, caressing the newspaper of the Portland Rose Garden. The garden we strolled on our first night together, the garden where I made my first wish for more time with him. Abruptly, I miss the rose-lined paths we roamed together, despite my one million roses outside. “How on earth did you get this?”

His lips pull up in my favorite, dimpled smile—except newer, more radiant now. “Do you remember Patty who helped us plant Lady Clare for your mother?”

“Yes.” I grin too, thinking of the sweet woman and her little son, Jack, trying to imitate Aiden’s straight posture.

“She was very kind and emailed me a copy of their archived print yesterday morning.”

“Archive? So which date did you pick?” I turn the present over, searching, but the date isn’t visible.

“The best day until today.” The emotion in his eyes is deepening. He rises to sit next to me on the bed, so close that our thighs touch. My heart thumps so loudly, he can probably hear it. “Open it.” His breath brushes my cheek.

I start unfolding the newspaper carefully but then my breath catches. Because as I lift one of the folds, I can finally see the date that means everything.

“May 14!” I sing, beaming up at him. “The day of our first embargo.”

“The day that brought us together, not just in a painting.”

Those perfect hours flash between us and I’m sure we are seeing the same reel of beauty now. His first kiss, seeing his home for the first time, every look, every touch, that first night, the stroll in the rose garden, all those ticking, ephemeral minutes that we fell in love even though we did not know it at the time.

“You’re right, it was the best day. I had never been happier even though everything was such a mess.”

“Me neither.”

I bring the newspaper to my lips and kiss it. “I think this is my favorite newspaper now. Do they have subscriptions?”

“Apparently, they do. I signed us up.” He chuckles but underneath the waterfall sound, there is a rare, nervous note reminding me of the real present inside. What on earth could deserve a date like this? I take a deep breath, bracing myself for whatever it might be. If this amount of thought went into the wrapping alone, I cannot imagine the real gift. I peel the paper off gently, peeking curiously underneath. A familiar, white envelope is waiting for me. Not in commissary paper like the ones in the safe from his war letters. This is our cottage stationary here, simple with a single rose embossed on it. There are no markings anywhere, no dates as is his style, but it is filled with something soft and downy inside.

I try to find my voice but I can’t as I blink up at him. The emotion has grown in his eyes—a new significance, a new level of intensity.

“You asked me the night we read my war letters together which of them was my favorite,” he explains. “I didn’t have one because I hadn’t written it yet. So here it is—the letter I love the most even if it feels late.”

Curiosity rages everywhere, and the envelope flutters in my hand. What could he have written to me if this was his goodbye present? What words could make him love it more than all the other letters combined? Is it as I asked him in my brave letter—to write to me? But why?

“You’re right on time,” I tell him as he tells and lift the unsealed flap eagerly, finding so many rose petals within. Both dried and fresh—some from the centifolia rose he gave me on our first morning together, some from the rare aeternum at his Alone Place, some from our Suite of Firsts at the Inn the first time we made love skin to skin, some from the Elisas and the American Beauty in our garden . . . All our best moments right here, replacing the old grains of dark sand.

Gently, I fish out the folded letter, trying not to spill a single petal. And then I’m lost in his words.

My all,

So you are real. I’m not writing to you from a distance, burning in a white desert for your nearness. No, at last, you’re here. Sleeping softly next to me, after changing the core of my existence. 

So close that your hand on my chest is my flesh. The little wisps of air from your lips are my breath. The tic-tic-tic of your pulse is the blood flowing inside my veins. And your quiet sleepy mumbles are my dreams. You’ll miss me, you love me, ‘stay, Aiden, you’ll heal . . .’

All these millions of pieces of you, so much better than any mirage I could have ever envisioned. How could I possibly leave them? 

How can I leave your lower lip as it trembles when it says my name? How can I breathe if I can never smell your scent again? The way it changes in your sleep, first sparkling like dewy petals, then warmer, deeper, like you hold my sun underneath your skin. And this little pucker between your brows as you dream—what is it? A formula? A secret? A wish?

How can I never ask you all these questions? How can I not spend the rest of my life trying to find out all your answers? Taking away your pain, making you laugh, learning your secrets. How can I not stay and make true all these hidden wishes?

Those are the wrong questions, I know. The right question is can you afford for me to stay. I’ve said no, you say yes. I’ve said I have to go, you tell me to stay. I have tried to leave a thousand ways. But I am never able to, I just can’t. Not when you want me to be the most selfish man in the world. Not when I would steal your choice again. Not when we both love in this mad, forever kind of way.

So what if I finally accept who I am? Not strong enough to leave you but maybe strong enough for everything else. I’m brave and afraid, right and wrong, flawed but not at fault. So many contradictions inside me, yet somehow I’m every single thing you want. All these millions of pieces of me that only you can see. All these things I am only because you love me. Hopeful, brave, maybe even good. Good enough to earn a woman like you?

Could we forget about right and wrong then? Could we start again? Could we still laugh, play the piano, dance?

What if our life was like this? I would hold you every night as you fall asleep, my nose in your hair, your cheek to my heartbeat. You’d mumble that you love me as you drift. I’d sleep next door to your song, and we might meet in dreams. Then I’d wake up before you and wait until you opened your eyes. You’d smile like always and everything would be alright. We would kiss, share a Baci, make love, have breakfast while watching the sunrise. I’d take you to work or school where you’d save more lives. And I’d run my companies and maybe write. I could tell my story, perhaps it might help someone. And fight. Fight every minute of every day to be safe, maybe to heal like you believe I can. 

Then it would be time to come pick you up. Hear your voice sing about your day and ask about mine. And we would make love again in the car because home would seem too far. Then your stomach would growl and we would laugh. We’d drive back as fast as we could, solving your daily puzzle, listening to my playlist, planning the real Christmas, talking to our families. We could have dinner in the garden, watch the sunset, play chess, make love on the petals again and again. Then I’d carry you to bed and we would start over—every morning, every evening. Never stop trying, never stop believing.

And the years would pass, even with security measures and bodyguards. We would grow old, just you, me, and the roses. Perhaps even a couple of puppies. We’d name them Portland and Burford or Baci and Skittles. Maybe we’d open a shop called Snow Roses, count the seeds, and set up the flowers each morning. We would not fight about the years, we would remember. We’d know the minutes, the dates, everything we’ve been through together. You and I would only fight about the weather. You’d want it to sunny, I’d want it more rain. You’d argue I’m grumpy and I’d tell you you’re nagging. You’d laugh and call me a barmy old fool. I’d tell you I’m still in love with you. You’d glow like you do in all my paintings. I’d chase you with my cane and eventually break a hip. Until one night in a hundred years, I’d just go to sleep. And I’d tell the world I was the happiest man who ever lived. You’d cry a little but you’d know it was true, except you’d think no one had been happier than you. And it would be a life well-lived. A life of love that conquered everything, even me.

Would you want that still? Never full, but always complete? 

So here we are. Just the real you and the real me. All the millions of pieces of us that fit together into one whole, one simplicity. Will you be with me? Not in fantasies, paintings, memories, or dreams. But every hour or every day for as long as we both shall live? If I try every second to be safe, will you keep me exactly as I am and exactly as I will be?

Yours,

Aiden

I don’t know how many times I have read every word. I don’t know if I am in our present, our past, or every minute of the dreamlike future spelled in his assertive script. I don’t even realize I’m crying until a teardrop splashes on his name like a kiss.

“Oh, Aiden …” I breathe, blinking up at him. But the instant our eyes meet, he slides down on one knee in front of me.

“Oh!” I cry again, as he takes my left hand and looks at me with that my-all gaze that I finally understand. It’s the look of choosing our love above all else; the look of taking a chance on himself.

“Elisa Snow?” He says my name lovingly, with a sort of reverence. “I loved you before I met you, I have loved you every minute we have had together, and I will love you every minute of my forever. Will you marry me?”

I try to breathe, I try to find all the right words, or simply stay upright but I can’t. I just fall on my knees next to him and start sobbing.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!”

My answer blazes across his face like a sunrise. He is glowing, his turquoise eyes radiant with triumph and joy.  His beauty is so dazzling, it knocks me breathless with its force. Before I can find oxygen, he kisses me, his mouth exultant and urgent on mine. Our bodies tangle on the rug where we dance, lips folding together, tongues tangoing in their own sway, weaving their own poetry, until I am gasping for air. Even then, his lips never leave my skin. They brush down my throat to my racing pulse, pressing there gently.

“Thank you,” he murmurs against my lifeblood, then he pulls up to look at me, more victorious than I’ve ever seen him, his bliss shining like a bright light underneath his skin. So glorious, I still can’t think or speak or breathe.

As if he knows, he blows on my lips lightly, once, twice, three times, watching me like I am his whole life. And somewhere in the mush of my brain, an old fear flickers on.

“Is this real?” I mumble in a trembling whisper.

A brilliant smile flashes over his face—exactly as an angel’s would. “Yes, it is.” He chuckles. “I’m not sure about anything else but I know this. I’ve waited twelve years, one hundred twenty thousand miles, and the last twenty-seven hours to ask you, Elisa.”

He kisses my lips once more—lightly so I don’t faint—and waits for me to process the impossible words. The words he must have really said because he is still glowing and I’m still sure this is a dream. He must see that because he kisses me again and again and again.

“It’s real, love.” His voice, his air slip inside me between kisses, like mine did for him.

“B-but—” My breath shakes and I have to inhale his scent to be able to speak. “But you wrote the letter yesterday, before you knew you were healed . . .” How could that be? It can’t be real, I must have fallen asleep in the sofa next to him. “You were really going to stay with me?”

“Yes, I was,” he answers simply.

I caress his scar, touch his face, feel his body against mine. He’s real, he’s real. “But how? What made you change your mind?”

His smile softens but the brilliant joy and victory in his eyes do not dim. Then his words start flowing fast like he can no longer hold them inside.

“I told you—my mind changed me. I was already losing the selflessness battle by the hour. I was fighting to make it through a single minute. Then after that reel, I came back home again, held you in my arms, read your brave letter, and I couldn’t tell right from wrong anymore. With all my memories so jumbled and inaccessible, I could only see the present. Truly see it, without the filter of my mind or the bias of the past. And all I could see was how happy I can make you, how you would never give me up or move on, even if I were gone.” He smiles, brushes my cheek, kisses away the tears that have spilled. “That’s when I really started falling apart. The only thing I still knew was that you deserved better than a killer. But then I discovered the truth about Fallujah and listened to you talk in your sleep: ‘stay, Aiden, you’ll heal, trust me.’” He pauses at those words, glowing, and I realize why he chose them for his brothers earlier: because they too freed him. He caresses my face, my lips, brushing off more tears. “And I thought, maybe she is right about this too. What if there is a small part of me that deserves her? If I missed something that big, what else was I missing? Maybe there was a way to stay with you that I was not seeing? That’s all it took. Just allowing myself to visualize a life with you, and whatever strength I had left disappeared. All the rules, all the selfless notions. The only thing left was the love. The sheer force of it. I could barely breathe. For hours while you slept, I was just drowning in it.” His smile brightens again as though this kind of drowning is a beautiful thing, and his arms tighten around me. “When I managed to resurface, I was not the same man I had known or tried to be. I was the real me. And I knew then I was not strong enough to leave.”

He stops talking, breathless like me, his eyes almost liquid with the depth of his love. For an endless moment, I just let myself drown in it too, feeling it flood every space of my body, drenched in the simplicity that, finally, he is mine and I am his, like we wanted to be. And my own world—spinning and splintering for so long—finally settles in its rightful axis.

How beautifully the universe heals. What was dark becomes light. What was shuddering becomes still. Cosmic dust fuses back into bold, brilliant stars, torn atoms into their own endless galaxies. Or perhaps it was always like this. Maybe fear is just a force and pain only energy. Time is just a dimension, but the direction is our choice. And everything else that shoots across our skies—accidents, deaths, monsters, wars—is not a big bang. It’s just a meteor. Dimming momentarily every other light, but never once extinguishing the stars. We go on. Humming our faith like a celestial tune, thrumming in the throes of bravery, bound by the only gravity we know: love.

He manages to breathe first with a stunning, mind-melting smile. “Still with me?”

“Always.”

He laughs, head thrown back, so buoyant and free. “Well, hopefully ‘always’ will be a lot easier now. Nothing can be harder than waiting to actually tell you. It was worse than all the reels combined. I almost asked you to marry me the moment you woke up and a hundred times after that—at Christmas, after the call with the General, in the garden, in the car—but even I knew I had to do this right.”

He laughs again and, through all the haze of wonder, my brain remembers something as if from another life. All those moments when he looked like he was going to say something vital. That indescribable my-all look in his eyes.

“But why did you wait to tell me?” I whisper, still awed, hearing back his words that it was for a very good reason.

“Well, for one, I didn’t want this moment to be associated with Marshall, the video, or the doctors. I wanted it to be just ours. But I didn’t want you to keep hurting so I gave you my gift as soon as you woke up. So you would know there was something better waiting on the other side.”

I don’t tell him I worried it was his goodbye gift, because that was my lack of faith, not his. I just replay the last few hours through the filter of the truth. The way he promised we would have more time and he would be selfish the right way, his diamond A, all his words, his strength to restrain himself only so he could give me this perfect moment for the rest of my life, untainted by any other memory or pain. And above all, I remember the way I felt when he looked at me that way. Alive, safe, hopeful beyond the end. As though my molecules understood meaning of that look, quite outside of my consciousness or reasoning.

“You were right,” I tell him. “I think a deep part of me knew something better was waiting. I just couldn’t fathom it would be this.”

“And that’s the other reason why I gave you the gift early, much like you did with the protein for me. Because I wanted you to have faith in my decision to stay. I wanted you to know that I chose us not because of duty, guilt, or the doctors’ advice, which I expected would be for us to stay together. I chose us because I love you and you love me. And that’s all that mattered in the end.”

My heart takes off like its own life form, beating triumphantly quite outside of our finite bodies. Rising above our minds and all the rules we tried to place on it. I cannot feel my own weight in Aiden’s arms, almost empyrean myself against these earthly limits, as I understand the full meaning of his gift.

Amor vincit omnia.” I smile through tears. “What a beautiful gift to give.”

I try to bring him back to my mouth but he sits up, reaches somewhere above my head, and brings out something extraordinary in his hand, something I must have missed in my utter astonishment. A golden rosebud, every petal carved in such exquisite detail that for a heartbeat I think it’s real. Tiny, white diamonds sparkle all over it like dew. And a soft glow comes from within its heart, catching the radiance of Aiden’s smile.

“More beautiful than this?” he asks.

I just gape at the rosebud, incapable of blinking or speaking, as Aiden presses something at the rose’s hip and oh!The petals open slowly, like a rose in timelapse, revealing inside the most wondrous ring. It glows in the soft light, seeming almost alive. The oval blue diamond gleams like the most precious blues I have known in Aiden’s eyes. Some facets sparkling sapphire, some turquoise, with a deep, indigo flame at the heart. Smaller, white diamonds glitter around it like a halo. And the platinum band weaves around the flawless stones in a subtle filigree. I have never seen anything like it.

I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I inch up in a trance, fingers and breath trembling toward the ring. As I move, the gems cast a dim light on my skin. Gently, I caress the center diamond, as rare on earth as Aiden is. The fiery heart flickers with the shadow of my touch.

“Do you like it?” Aiden asks casually but, underneath, I can hear the depth of his emotion. Only that sound can make me blink away from the impossible ring. And his face dazzles me more than the diamonds.

I can only shake my head.

“No?” He smiles in amusement, but at that question, my tongue manages to unravel enough to speak.

“I love it,” I whisper, still breathless, wishing I could find words strong enough for what I feel.

He laughs again with my favorite sound. “And the roses? Do they love this gift too?”

“Almost as much as they love you.”

Another beautiful chuckle. “I suppose I should have asked you what you liked first. I still can—”

“But I would have never known to tell you I want exactly this.” I look back at the blue diamond inside the gold petals, stroking the blue flame at the heart. “I didn’t even know something like this could exist. Wherever did you find it?”

“From an ethical mine in Botswana. Only about ten hours away from where your roses grow in Kenya, actually.” He turns the golden rose in his fingers—the diamonds thrill—and my mouth falls open. He chuckles at my awed expression, bringing the golden rose to my cheek, brushing my lips with the smooth petal. “It was worth all the search just to see your face in this moment.”

“W-when did you start searching for it?” I tremble at the touch.

“The first day I came to England when you agreed to fight with me, just in case we would win. I ordered it the day my parents arrived, when I was in London, and it came through Benson last week.”

I don’t ask if we had not won, how much this ring cost, or anything else—none of it matters. All that matters is the hope he held for us, shimmering exactly like this diamond.

“Then I love it even more,” I tell him through a fresh blossom of tears.

He smiles more brilliantly than all the diamonds and reaches inside the rose’s golden petals for the ring. His eyes smolder on mine, absorbing every pixel inside his mind for the rest of our lives. He takes my left hand and slips the ring on my third finger. It slides home with a perfect fit. Belonging there so absolutely that it seems my hand was made for it.

“I love you,” he says and kisses my hand, my fingertips, and the ring that makes me his.

Happiness expands so violently, so absolutely, I don’t think I can survive it.

“Always” I whisper, pulling him to my lips.

And then we begin.©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 42 – HEALED

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

42

Healed

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is that possible?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could be so strong as to change that force?

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

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

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

How?” he breathes.

“Only through an equally powerful counterforce.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And exactly how I love it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, love, you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You first,” I tell him.

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

The breeze dances again, caressing his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 40 – CLOSE

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

40

Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJ Marshall Trust

In honor of a brother and his love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you say?” he breathes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E—li—sa . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but—”

“Did you threaten her fucking family?”

“No—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“FUCK!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I really love that one.”

“I’ll recite it to you later.”

Later? So more embargo? “Promise?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His breath seems to suspend again. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lieutenant?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not yet; they’re still at work.”

“And Elisa—how is she holding up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, I mouth to him.

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

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

“That makes two of us, General.”

“Is this some wizard’s idea?”

A wizard? What does that mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Umm, we keep them close, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure, Just Jack, what do you need?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I will. Bye, Just Jack.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us

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

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

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

“Should we try now?”

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

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

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

“Just in the kitchen. You’ll see.”

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

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

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

“Hi,” I breathe, smiling up at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only for me to stagger on the doorstep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow, us, somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m still working on that part.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And to leaving the past behind.”

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

“Let’s hear him out,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you feeling?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name even one. And mean it.”

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

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

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

“Exactly. So name another.”

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

“So basically lying and competitive sports?”

“Basically.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 39 – GLOW

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

39

Glow

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

“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The dream? What dream?”

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

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

“Elisa?” he shakes me again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I am. Because of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?” I squeak in surprise a second later.

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

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

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

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

“Does it seem that way?”

“Yes.”

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

“So . . . why is that?”

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

“Then don’t resist.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wait, trying to breathe.

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

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

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

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

“Did I say anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Naturally.”

“Is that all?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I promise.”

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

My blood thrills under his kiss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the look I see now in his eyes.

It stuns my mind, my heart, my lungs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mine too.”

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

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

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

“That part has not changed.”

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

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

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

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

He smiles. “Not many things are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod, speechless, leaning into his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fairytale has been waiting for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us,” he repeats.

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

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

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

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

“The us part is.”

“The best part.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m partial to the purple ones.”

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

“As can I.”

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

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

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

“What would they like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiles. “This was your idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I really like that word.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because today is not its turn.”

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

“For a very good reason.”

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

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

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

“Not this one,” I interrupt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do. Maybe even more.”

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

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

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

“Wow!” I breathe.

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

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

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

“It’s such a beautiful place to be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, it is. It’s everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I am.”

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

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

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

©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 38 – MASTERS

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

38

Masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That line . . .” he breathes.

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

“They were there!” he gasps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The DIA?” I interrupt, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stares at me, still stunned. “How could I have missed this?”

“Missed it? You didn’t miss it. You saw it all—every single detail even in moments of unspeakable horror. And your mind preserved it perfectly for over a decade. My God, Aiden, what human could have ever perceived more?”

He shakes his head. “Elisa, it has been four thousand four hundred seventy-seven days since that classroom. I have relived that morning at least fifteen thousand times. How could I not have seen this once?” Emotions fuse on his face like flames: dismay, pain, anger at himself.

“How could you have seen it even once?” I argue, pressing my other hand to his burning cheek. He doesn’t pull away. The feel of him seeps through my skin into the marrow of my bones. “You may have relieved it every day, but every single time you’ve been fighting it. You had never sat with it, trying to examine every angle, trying to find beautiful things. Who would? Tell me who could focus on songs and veggies when gunfire and bombs were blaring. Who would examine those details under torture?” My voice quivers. I don’t allow myself to remember the blistering image of his blood, the brunt of violence on the body that is my life. I couldn’t live through it without the protein. Even at the memory of the memory, I struggle to stay upright. “I’m not surprised at all it took you until now,” I add. “Until the moment you allowed yourself to see and feel all of it.”

“Because of you,” he murmurs, and the emotional flow changes, becomes wonderment when the real wonder is him.

“No, love.” My hand trembles from his cheek to his scar. From the heat, it shimmers as if it has become alive. “You did this all on your own. It’s okay to give yourself credit for that.”

“But had I not taken the protein, had you not guided me—”

“You still would have found it. I have no doubts about that. You would have seen it all in the end. I know you would have.” And I wouldn’t have rested until that day.

He doesn’t answer, but the tectonic plates shift deeply in the sapphire depths as though reaching seismically to his very core. I hope he believes me. I hope he finds this faith. And above all, I hope he finally frees himself.

“The only thing that matters now,” I tell him. “Is what you do with this knowledge. With what it means.”

He looks at me like a man finally finding the holy grail, the Moby Dick, the elixir of life—seeing that elusive treasure at last, yet too afraid to stretch out his hand and grasp it. Too afraid of losing it again. Too afraid that it is only a dream.

“It means it was not your fault, love.” I put all my conviction in my voice to make it real. “Your decision to stay in the schoolyard and help those little boys didn’t cause Marshall’s torture or Jazz’s scars or anyone else’s loss. The insurgents were already there, waiting. They would have gone after you even if you had gone back. Except in the pipes, it would have been even worse, without light and barely any air. None of you would have survived.” I try to fight the shudder that rattles my teeth at the idea and take both his hands again to anchor me here.

He has listened to every syllable entranced, his eyes liquid. Even his breath has stopped, as though the lightest puff of air might blow my words away. I scoot closer to his warmth, breathing gently on his lips as he does with me. He inhales sharply, the way my lungs open up to his fragrance. But still he doesn’t speak.

“You know it’s true. You know if you hadn’t listened to your heart, you would have gone back to camp through the pipes. The monsters probably hoped for that because they would have had the upper hand inside, with their knowledge of their own homeland.”

Another trembling breath of mine, another shallow gasp of his—two life threads entwined to the end. Strangle one, and you choke the other.

“You saved your brothers, Aiden. You didn’t hurt them. You’re the reason they’re still here, even if Marshall is gone. Because of you, they are safe, secure, and alive.”

Still no answer. Only that sentient gaze, so deep it would take a lifetime to reach the turquoise light. A lifetime I would gladly give.

“Listen to my words. Listen to the truth. You have waited for four thousand four hundred seventy-seven days to hear it. It has been living inside you under all the pain and the guilt and the fear. It’s okay to free it. It’s okay to accept it. This—was—never—your—fault.”

No words, no breaths, no blinks. Just torn gasps, snagging on the jagged teeth of agony, trying to break free.

“I will never stop telling you this. Not even after you’re gone. It was not your fault. It was your merit. You saved them. You brought them home. It’s time for you to come home too, love. Not in Burford or Portland—come home to yourself. To the man you truly are.”

He looks at me like no other time in our love. Utterly lost, with those shocking newborn eyes I saw in Stella’s photos—eyes trying to find their way in this reformed world.

“I know you’re afraid.” I keep going because if I stop, he will not hear the words his heart needs more than blood. “Afraid to believe it, afraid to lay down this guilt. It has been a part of you for so long. It has been your fight, your mourning, and your grief. You feel that if you let it go now, you are betraying him. You fear you won’t recognize who you are without it. But you will. I promise you that. You will still be just as loyal, just as honorable, just as selfless and brave as you’ve always been. Because all those things are in here.” I lift our joined hands to his heart like I did in my old apartment in Portland when he came back after our embargo, when he told me the truth about his startle reflex. His heart hammers back as if clamoring to be heard. I’m here, I’m here. “Listen to your heart. This was not your fault. Say it with me. Say it with Marshall.”

His chest thrashes like a broken eagle wing. Tension strains his jaw as though his body is tearing apart with war. I don’t need to ask if he could hear Marshall’s words, if he could read his lips. I know. I know from the ancient grief in Aiden’s eyes that he couldn’t. It was too low, too far, too stifled with the laughing monsters for Aiden to hear it, lost in his own torture. Fiery tongues start licking up my eyes. How will I give him that truth without breaking his heart?

“You know he would say it,” I tell him as I did after the reel. “‘Not your fault, my brother.’ These are Marshall’s words, not just mine. Say them with us.”

His throat constricts as though the words are suffocating him, stuck there, unable to get out. A single tear glimmers in the sapphire gaze like a lone star. At the sight, I forget everything—all the closure and our end and our own pain—and take him in my arms.

“Oh, my love,” I whisper, kissing his scar.

And Aiden breaks. His steel body wraps around mine, contorting with pain. A vicious shudder radiates through him, as if tearing him into pieces. I clutch him harder and tuck his head in my neck, like I did the only other time he has broken like this. When he attacked me. And like then, I give him everything: my smell, my touch, my breath, my strength, my voice. His fever consumes us both, flame after flame.

“It was not your fault,” I repeat in his ear. “Not as a brother, a friend, a commander, or a man. This was never your fault . . .”  Over and over and over until his silent, absent breath splinters into three ravaged words.

“Not—my—fault.”

They’re barely a gasp in the breeze, barely a note in the piano melody, but I hear them louder than I have ever heard anything. My eyes simmer with tears, but I fight them back for him and kiss his temple. His pulse kisses me back, rapid and deep.

“That’s right, love. Say it again, so you know how the truth sounds in your own voice.”

Another strangled breath. “Not—my—fault.”

“Please believe it. Believe every word because it’s true.” I cover him with all of me, body like a second skin, murmuring in his ear until he can utter the words on his own, without me.

“Not my fault . . . not my fault . . . not my fault.”

Sometimes, big bangs are neither big, nor loud. Sometimes, they are fractured kernels of soul, imploding and reforming breathlessly without a sound. Just a gasp, a shattered heartbeat, three words in the breeze. But that doesn’t mean they are small. It means they are deeper than our eye can see.

When the words fade, we shudder here on the bed, holding each other like no other time in our lives. Like a beginning in the middle of our end. But if we had to end, let it be so he can start to heal. Let it be so he can believe these words. Let it be so Fallujah ends with me. So when that airplane carries him across the skies, it is not just a goodbye. Let it be a hello to Aiden Liber—Aiden the Free.

Outside our heat bubble, the skylark starts to sing for the first time in eleven mornings, harmonizing its warble to Für Elise. My throat blisters as I finally realize why the lark had stopped coming. Because the music stopped inside the cottage when Aiden left at night. But the piano is playing again now. Once more, twice, until his usual wake-up time. Six o’clock. Our embargo is almost over. The melody stops like the breath between our lungs. Then there is only the lonely lark and the willows whispering, he’s free, he’s free.

And even though I vowed he would not see me crying, the tears spill down my cheeks and soak through his T-shirt, misting his wrought shoulder before I can stop them.

He leans back, his grip softening around me. My body shifts reflexively with him trying to prolong the contact. But he doesn’t let me go. One arm stays around my waist as his finger tingles under my chin. Mothlike, I lift my face to the flame of his gaze, afraid to see our closure in his eyes. But there is no goodbye there yet. Nor a hello. Just a crystal droplet at the corner like a question mark.

“Hey, no tears,” he murmurs, his voice rough. “No tears for me.”

I smile so he has it in his first memories for this other side. “They’re proud tears. And hopeful and awed and loving.” And painful and soul-slaying and scalding . . .

He brushes the moisture with his fingertips as if he heard all the unspoken words. “I still don’t like them.”

A cloud of warmth engulfs me as though the teardrops are evaporating from his touch. “What about this?” I ask, wiping the solitaire sparkling on his lashes. “What kind of tear is this?”

“Oh, don’t worry. That’s not a tear.”

“It’s not?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not.”

“Then what is it?”

Lightly, his blazing finger glides down my cheek. “It’s a closed door.” His fingertip comes to a stop at the corner of my lips. “A different life flashing before my eyes. That’s what that drop is.”

I try to live through his words, his touch. My heart almost stops from it, from everything. I fight to keep it beating for him. “A closed door on the past?”

He nods. “It has to be.”

“What about the future? Is there something from the future in that non-tear too?”

A look passes in his eyes—a gaze I have no name for. It’s thoughtful, all-consuming, like a held breath or a stare in the horizon. Here, yet waiting for air or a beacon to lighten. “I hope so,” he answers.

H-o-p-e. “And what does that future look like?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“But you believe it now?”

He knows this one immediately. “A part of me will always feel some guilt. It’s the reality of being a survivor, a commanding officer whose men died on my watch. And I will always wonder if I could have done more, better, faster, smarter. But I won’t lie. That weight feels . . . less crushing. More livable knowing my decision didn’t force him—Marshall—to his death. And it’s all because of you and the protein you made for me.”

I don’t miss the way his voice drops on the name, but he still says it out loud. I see the haunted look that flickers in his gaze, though his eyes stay focused on me. And I feel the intense relief, more overwhelming than even when he returned from the reel. But abruptly there is something else that suddenly matters more than anything. Something so vital that instinctively I know we both need it to breathe.

“Aiden.” My voice trembles around his name, the way it caresses my tongue on the way out. I clutch his hand for strength, for bravery to ask the question. His fingers wind with mine like arteries. “If you had never seen those trucks or heard that song in Fallujah in the first place, if you had nothing at all to clear your decision, do you think you would have always carried that guilt?”

He must hear the gravity of the question because he seems to think about it, his eyes deepening as if looking inside himself. “I don’t think so,” he answers after a moment. “And not just because that’s what you were hoping to hear. There was something different about this reel. I couldn’t reconcile it then—the past and the present were merging so fast—but as I look back at the whole, it didn’t feel the same.”

My heart starts hammering in triple tempo like his mind. “Different how?”

“At first, it was worse. The worst agony of my life, even compared to that day itself. Because the classroom started blending with your father’s library the night Edison attacked you. I don’t know why but the images were melding together in the worst possible way. Your blood with Marshall’s blood. His screams with yours when Edison slapped you—” Fury chokes him off and locks his muscles. His eyes become black tunnels of horror again, exactly like the reel, exactly like that night.

“Hey, it’s okay. I’m safe, love.” I swirl my fingers in his beard, hating Edison’s every atom and all my own molecules for adding to this agony.

He draws a deep, steadying breath. “I couldn’t breathe through it, Elisa.” His voice is more tormented than I’ve ever heard it. “I know you think I would, but I know my mind, my limits. And I know I could not have come back from that reel. I could not have left you there in his hands, even if only in a memory.” He shudders, and I shudder with him.

So this is why this reel took so long. Why nothing I tried was bringing him back. He was trying to save me again. Reliving two tortures at once—his worst terror and worst pain—both tearing him apart and burying him alive. Doctor Helen’s text blares in my vision, blinding me with its black and white letters: Aiden’s memory can stay in the past forever. I shiver as I realize how right she was, how close he came to being lost.

“Hey, don’t say that.” I whisper, unable to breathe myself through the agony that starts scalding my throat. “It’s gone now. I’m safe because of you. And you’re here. Right here, back and freer than you’ve been in a long time.”

His arm tightens around my waist, pulling me into his warmth as he sees the dread I can’t hide. “Yes, I am, because of you. Because you made a protein that gave me the strength to endure. And because somehow, against all rules and reason, you decided to come after me. You joined me in that hellhole, in the last possible place I would ever want you to be. My mind couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t accept it. This illusion of you—so beautiful, so full of love, the most perfect miracle to ever exist—walking through the flames with me . . . I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t tolerate one single second. For a moment, I wondered if I had in fact died and this was what my version of hell looked like.”

Another shudder ripples through us both. And more puzzle pieces fall together. Why he was shaking his head no when I first entered that moment with him, why it seemed the torment got worse. Because it did. Because I added to his agony instead of lessening it. I should be quarantined.

“But then your calming effect started to seep even through those flames, like it always does,” he continues. “And I was able to breathe again. I was able to see something other than Marshall’s body and yours on the floor. I was able to recall there was a reason to live through it, to come back even if we were 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 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. But the fever is not 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?”

“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. 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 rarely 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. 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 33 – POWER

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all had a joyful holiday season even if the world is still testing all of us right now. I wish all the good health, peace, and joy for you for 2022! These wishes used to sound cliche but the more we seem to lack them, the more r-e-a-l they feel. And to help with the hope part, here is another chapter. I’m sorry I’m taking forever. I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but my health has taken a lot from me and my family so there are some days I can’t write at all. I am very thankful for those of you reading and understanding, even though there is so little left to go in the story. Thank you for all your support, kindness, messages, and of course, your love for this story. It makes me smile even in the darkest of days to have created something that has brought you joy.  Here is Chapter 33 — Power– to charge us up for the new year.  Lots of good wishes and love, Ani

33

Power

Days pass. Even in hell. Even if every hour is no longer a reel of brilliancy, but of pain. One agonizing moment to another, all dragging together into a battle for survival. Each night is more silent than a grave—Aiden no longer sleeps in the cottage or the garden. He stays out in Elysium where he used to watch the reel, the only place in Burford that holds traumatic memories for him. Each day is more distant than America—his touch has vanished with his gaze. He barely eats or speaks. And each dawn is darker than Fallujah even though a light is always on in the cottage. Darker because we don’t wake up together. Darker because his eyes don’t brighten in bliss anymore. And darker because I don’t want to wake up at all.

But I am wide awake, sitting up in my childhood bed, trying to breathe through another dawn. Day sixty-five is here. Ten days since the end. Only thirty left until the last goodbye. Happiness has shifted—it has become the past.

The serrated wound in my chest flares painfully. It grows stronger by the hour, but I don’t grow stronger against it. I simply have found the only thing that keeps me breathing for Aiden. I bury my face in his favorite sweatshirt that I now wear every night. He hasn’t worn it in ten days, but his scent still lingers, lacing with my own. Slowly, my airways start to open and I can inhale. In and out, in and out until my old bedroom stops spinning.

I climb out of bed one stiff leg at a time, shoving aside the stacks of paper with useless protein formulas, and peer out of the open window. The garden is still funeral black except the column of light pouring from our happy bedroom across the hall. “The light is always on above our door,” Aiden wrote in his homecoming war letter. “The curtain is always moving.” But night after night, he doesn’t knock, the cottage doesn’t tremble with his arrival.

I breathe into his sweatshirt again, swaying on the spot. A waft of rose breeze steals inside as if it knows I can’t find air on my own. I squint harder into the darkness even though I can’t see his unmistakable form. But perhaps our lines of sight will meet, the way our eyes used to at this hour. Because I know he is awake like me. Neither of us seems able to sleep without the other around. I watch the golden light glowing from our blissful window, seeing only turquoise until the black sky changes to indigo and I can pretend to wake up. Then I shamble down the stairs to start again even if it’s making no difference. I don’t know how my body moves forward, but I have to keep going. If I stop, Aiden will miss even a moment of calm. If I stop, I have to accept that it’s over. And I can’t do that.

His absence follows me around the cottage like a shadow. In the closed door of our happy bedroom. In the silence of Für Elise. In the skylark that hasn’t sung from the beech tree since the music stopped playing. In the foyer where Aiden’s boots are missing. In the lack of his morning coffee in the air. I start a pot of his favorite Italian roast, my mind wailing the same constant refrain: How can I save him? Why isn’t the protein working? How can I convince him to restart the reel?

Outside, the garden shed that houses the evil seems to call with an icy whisper. My hands shake, but not just from the torture leashed within. I shudder because we have stopped fighting it. How did that monitor transform from my worst dread to my best hope? It took only two words from Doctor Helen: “only chance.” The only chance to bury Marshall so Aiden can survive losing me. Unless I succeed with the protein. But no matter how many hours I spend calculating and testing, no matter the endless combinations I have tried, bravery remains as elusive as the dream of us.

The cast iron pan drops from my hands with a loud clang. I pick it up methodically and start Aiden’s favorite breakfast—dippy eggs with bacon and crispy potatoes. Not that it matters what it is. All I can taste is the acrid bitterness of my mouth without his kiss. But I will force it down for him, and he will swallow it for me. Still, I pour his coffee in my thermos, set a Baci on the side, garnish with an Elisa petal—any detail that triggers my calming effect on him, triggers and holds it through the hours apart. Serotonin and oxytocin formulas drum like a second tic toc in my head, replacing dad’s broken one on my wrist. Fifth time. Not December. Add love.

Over the horizon, the sky starts to lighten. I pack everything in my basket and slip out of the door. The air is sultry outside, lacking the usual early bite. Summer is burning off its final heat with us. Hope the Hybrid is fluttering its single leaf on the threshold. A twilight filter turns the roses blue like the color I am missing. They are still sleeping in their garden beds that Aiden just mulched and enriched. Because like I am trying to fortify him for the end, he is doing the same for me, from the moment he pretends to wake up to the moment he pretends to fall asleep. Clean the gutters, repair the roof, fix the shutters, chop wood, establish a grant to Oxford’s Chemistry Department to secure my research, set up my trust fund, retain lawyers against Edison—everything and anything so I lack for nothing after he leaves. Nothing except my very life.

I sniff his sweatshirt again and stumble down the path to find him, whatever he is taking care of today.

I don’t have to go far. I spot him on the riverbank by the willows, standing out in his white T-shirt and ripped jeans, back to me. He is carrying something massive in his arms I can’t identify from here. I teeter closer, bracing for the nameless agony I know I will see on his face. Even ten days later, I still cannot breathe through it, sweatshirt or no sweatshirt. It’s not something any living thing can get used to.

If he hears me coming, he doesn’t turn around. He heaves the huge mass—a burly stump—to the edge of the bank and picks up an enormous slab of riverbed rock. As I step through the willows both terrified and curious, I realize he is hefting around a mountain of hulking things— boulders, dead tree trunks, logs—hauling them to the river. The powerful bands of muscle in his arms and back ripple with the movement. He doesn’t groan or huff from the effort; he is entirely silent. The garden spade, fork, and wheelbarrow rest some feet away. My chest throbs as I realize he must have been up all night doing this . . . whatever it is.

“Morning,” I croak.

He freezes, boulder in hands, and I guess he is rearranging his features for me. It takes twelve chemical elements before he drops the rock—the ground quakes under my feet—and turns around. Even with the flush of exercise, his beautiful face is hollowed and pale. Or at least what can be seen of it above the thick, dark beard. Every flicker of emotion is suspended in his scorched expression, but despite his iron restraint, the pain is palpable in the air. I can feel it on my fingertips, taste it on my tongue. It has snaked through each pore of him, binding to his DNA until it has transformed him inside out. If he wasn’t embedded in my own cells, if his face wasn’t perfectly carved in my neural pathways, I wouldn’t recognize him.

His eyes meet mine with divided allegiance: half resisting my calm, half giving in for me as he promised.

“Good morning,” he answers. His voice has lost its music like the cottage has lost Für Elise. I have to grip the trunk of a willow not to run to him and take him in my arms.

“Umm, what are you doing?”

He breaks eye contact and picks up another huge slate of limestone. “Reinforcing the riverbank before the rains really start. I don’t want you to have to deal with any flooding come winter.”

“Ah . . .” I don’t tell him that I’d rather drown than live through any storms after he is gone. It would only hurt him more. “Thank you. Of course you’d think of this.”

He stacks the rock on top of the other and attacks a muscular log he must have collected downstream.

“Aiden, love, that looks really heavy. I don’t want you to get hurt. At least wait for Benson and you can do it together.”

“I’ll be fine.” He hoists the log over his shoulder and wedges it between the slabs of concrete. He moves with determination, as though something vital depends on him finishing this.

“Where did you learn how to do that?” I ask, suddenly unable to carry my wicker basket.

“The Corps.”

The place that started it all for him and is ending it all for us. “Why don’t you take a break for a bit? I brought some breakfast. Will you eat with me?”

He wrestles a boulder of granite, rolling it down to the bank. I don’t wait for his answer—I can’t. I drop on the dewy grass before my knees give out and start taking out the food. Perhaps he will actually eat out here, where we first listened to the willows together. That perfect memory of hope shimmers in my vision, filling me with longing. He rips off his work gloves with a sigh and tosses them by his tools. I see him stride toward me from the corner of my eye, but I don’t look up to give him the moment. I focus on spreading out our picnic blanket, setting out the plates, hoping he allows himself some calm as he watches.

“Here.” I pat the blanket when I finish. “Come on, sit with me.”

“Thank you,” he answers, but he doesn’t sit close. He folds on the other side of the blanket, seeming as far as across the ocean. Grief crackles in the space between us like static. The compulsion to touch him becomes acute to the point of pain. And even though I have waited all night to see him, abruptly I feel as though one gaze from him would shatter me. But he is staring at the breakfast spread like it’s going to devour him, not he it. I wrap my arms around my torso so they don’t move on their own. His hands are closed into tight fists on his knees.

“Eat something,” I coax. “It’s not as good as when your mum makes it, but it has happy memories.”

“It’s beautiful, but I’ll eat when you do.”

It takes river-harnessing strength to unravel my fingers and pick up a forkful of crispy potatoes. He mirrors my movements, swallowing hard as if the bacon turns to glass in his throat. We eat slowly, bite after bite in silence, except the willows’ lament. It swells around us like a siren song.

“Do you still hear them?” I whisper, listening to their chorus.

He nods, taking a sip of coffee from my thermos, his lips wrapping where mine do. I’m too afraid to ask him what he hears, and I don’t want him to ask me back. How can I answer ashes, ashes, ashes?

“Did you get any sleep at all last night?” I ask instead. Another question with a difficult answer, but one worth fighting about.

“About as much as you.”

How can I lie about that? How can I tell him the truth and make him feel worse? “But you need sleep a lot more than I do right now. Did you listen to Für Elise?”

“I have things to take care of, Elisa. There isn’t a lot—”

He stops abruptly, but he doesn’t need to finish. I know. There isn’t a lot of time left to secure my entire life before he leaves. My fingers break through my flimsy control and grip his free hand. Warmth shoots up my spine even though his skin is wintry from the night. I know I should drop it—even this slight contact makes him shudder—but the feel of it, so homey and strong, seeps into my bones, nestling there like marrow. “Aiden, I really wish you would come inside at night.”

He pulls back his hand, his eyes burning like the absence of his touch. “Elisa, not this again.”

“Please, just listen. We don’t have to sleep in the same bed or even bedroom—I know you won’t do that—but you can sleep in the guestroom or the sofa where it’s warm and comfortable.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ve told you, the ground feels more natural to me in times like this.”

He did—the first time I saw his Alone Place. Of course he will revert to the habits that kept him alive then. “Just because it feels natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you. We have to do the opposite now. You should be in the cottage where you have happy and calm memories, not on the spot that has tortured you every morning.”

“We had to do the opposite when we thought it would work. It didn’t. But I’ll use Für Elise, if it will help yousleep.”

“But that song is only one thing, love. Corbin, Doctor Helen, even you have said that being around me adds hours of rest for you, and a deeper sleep. Even if we’re not in the same bed, the effect of all the other calming and happy associations in the cottage will help, so that you can heal enough for what’s ahead.”

He sets down the thermos, not responding or looking my way. Perhaps he has nothing more to say. Or perhaps like me, he doesn’t think anything can prepare him.

“Please, Aiden,” I press. “I hate knowing you’re out here at night, thinking God-knows-what when we should be together for the time we have left.”

Something changes in his face then, almost a shadow of his former anger. His eyes flash to mine. “And then what?” he asks in a low, hoarse voice. “We wake up together on September eighteen and I load up on a plane? Won’t it be hard enough without this? You want to add one more thing we’re going to miss? I stay out here so you can start getting used to what it would be like, Elisa. I stay out here because I don’t know how to breathe through sharing your home but not your touch.”

All my arguments die in my throat. Because he is right: it is hard enough, excruciating. Even breathing—this most elemental function we can do from the moment we’re born—feels impossible, and he is still here. How much more unbearable will it be after he is gone? I’m not brave enough to find out yet. But he has already started enduring it, and it’s destroying him by the hour.

“You’re right,” I finally manage some words. “I will miss sleeping next to you most of all. I just don’t think we should start missing it now.”

“When will it ever be the right time to miss it, Elisa?” He sounds abruptly tired. He rips away his gaze, staring downstream toward the boulder that almost killed me. All light douses in his eyes. Between us, his plate of food lays unfinished, the Baci untouched.

Never, I want to answer, but that will not help him. Only one thing can help him now.

“On September eighteen, love. And there is something that may make it livable then for you, but we need to restart it now.”

He understands immediately. He shakes his head, never looking away from the lethal boulder. “I’m not restarting the reel—we talked about this. I will not expose you to it again. I have not forgotten what it does to you.”

And I have not forgotten what it does to him. I fight back a shiver. “Aiden, there’s no one in this world, except you, who hates the reel more than I do. But I agree with Doctor Helen. We have to prepare you. We have to lay Marshall at rest so you’re freer for . . .” I can’t say the end out loud, but I know he hears it. He stares unseeingly into the grey depths of the river.

“It’s like those slabs of rock, sweetheart,” I continue, unable to stop. “You can’t carry them all at once. You have to lift them one by one.”

“That’s my problem, and I’m not about to unload that burden on you.”

“I’m stronger than you think. And this is as important to me as my protection is to you.”

His jaw flexes in that fury-at-himself way. “I have no doubt about your strength, but the fact that you are strong doesn’t give me permission to put you through hell.”

“You’re not putting me through anything. This is my choice.”

“Exactly. And it is my choice not to expose you to more horror. It was one thing when you stood to gain something from it. It’s quite another now when you would be terrorized simply for my benefit.” His fists tighten against the idea.

“It’s not just for your benefit. It’s for everyone who loves you, too.” Not that I could ever endure the reel for anyone else. I’d rather live through my parents’ funeral a thousand times over than see him watch one more minute of that torment.

“Same answer. You will not be the sacrificial lamb for everyone who has to bear the burden of loving me.”

What a catch-twenty-two we have snared for ourselves. Never brave enough to hurt each other, but brave enough to die in the other’s stead. How can I ever break this tie? There is no argument or logic he will accept. And the only thing that can give us courage is still an unsolved mess. Abruptly, even with all the things left unsaid and the hours racing toward the end, I want to sprint to Bia.

“Loving you is never a burden,” I say, starting to pack up the basket. “Only Fallujah is, and I will not let you carry it alone.” My hands shake at the thought, and my plate slips through my fingers. But his hand flashes out and saves it before it drops on the grass. For a second, our arms brush, his breath whispers on my cheek. Just one second, yet my body responds with vengeance. It turns to him on its own, leaning into his chest like a bolt sliding home. He catches me reflexively, and our eyes meet—then hold. The small space between us closes and changes. Electricity starts to charge in the warm air blowing through our lips. He gazes into my eyes as his blue depths start to lighten, first with calm, then with heat. There is no question of me blinking away. Even my heart seems to stop. My breath comes out fast and ragged, my skin thrumming with his nearness. His own body tenses in response, and his hands grip my waist. For a second, I think he will rip off his favorite sweatshirt, but he doesn’t. He clenches his jaw and shuts his eyes, breaking the spell. Slowly, I feel his fingers loosen, and his arms release me.

“Be safe at Bia.” His voice is rough; his eyes still closed as if he cannot bear to watch. And I know he needs me to leave. I know he chose the healthier option for us both even if it feels like death to me. But for a few moments, I can’t move despite the urgency for the protein. All I can do is watch his face—beautiful beyond limit even if strained with desire and ache.

“Please, Elisa,” he murmurs without opening his eyes.

I gather every wisp of strength from every crevice of my mind and force myself into motion. Except the only thing my limbs can muster is to caress his scar. His breathing hitches with mine, and he shudders under my fingertips. But the L-shaped ridge above his eye reconnects my body to my brain, and I’m able to remember all the reasons why I should run to the lab right now. With more effort than it took to lift coffins, immigration denials, or reels, I pick up my basket and take out the small, ancient stereo, pressing the play button. Für Elise starts weaving with the willow song. Aiden’s eyes fling open. “Use my calm and love, please,” I tell him. “At least until I make you something stronger.”

“There’s nothing stronger,” he answers, his voice still coarse.

I pull myself to my feet, summoning serotonin formulas for strength to leave him here. To find what he needs more than anything. I sense his eyes on me as I dart through the willow garlands. Help me, Dad. Give Aiden peace until I get back, Mum. This is our last chance.

Back inside the cottage, I storm like a tornado through my new getting-ready routine. Wearing Aiden’s socks, spraying his cologne on my neck and wrists, tucking the locket against my chest as if to fill the burning hole gaping there, layering only clothes that trigger happy memories—all like armor to help me breathe. Then I start doing the same for him: sprinkle my Aeternum perfume on his clothes now in the linen cupboard in the foyer, set Für Elise on repeat throughout the cottage in case he comes in. I’m propping a photo of me in the fridge when the door knocks, but I know it’s not Aiden. Benson is towering on the threshold like every morning at this hour to drive me, even though the danger is long gone and Edison is behind bars. But we both know it’s easier on Aiden if I’m not alone.

“Morning, Benson,” I say, grabbing mum’s parka for strength, not warm. “How did you sleep?”

“Fine. How was the night here?”

“The same . . . so worse I should say.”

He frowns, pointing behind his shoulder with his thumb. “I see he’s taken on the river today.”

“The river, the forests, his own self.”

“Don’t worry,” he says as I break into a run down the garden path. “I’ll check on him during the day.”

“Thank you. I don’t know what we would do without you.”

He smiles but it doesn’t wipe the creases on his forehead. “You won’t have to find out.”

The ride to Bia is short as Benson speeds through the sapphire dawn. It’s as though he knows without speaking that I can’t waste a single second. I will miss him terribly when he is gone. This gentle, quiet presence protecting us at every turn. And not just him, but the whole new constellation Aiden has chartered for me. As if hearing the very thought, my phone buzzes in my pocket. I yank it out with greed, knowing exactly who is up with us at this hour across the globe.

Stella: Darling, I pray you got some sleep. We love you both. We’re with you. I overnighted another care package with happy things. It should get there tomorrow afternoon your time. Please call when you can. Oh, how I wish I were there!

Robert: Elisa, we were talking: what if we came and stayed in London or somewhere closer in case you need us? Would Doctor Helen and Corbin approve of that?

Javier: Amorcita, how did the night go? Let me know when you can chat. Love you. You’re not alone. I can come right back.

Reagan: Isa, I’m packed and ready. Say the word and I’ll be there. Don’t let Aiden go, no matter what anyone says. Xo.

James Callahan: Hey pest, you up yet? How’s he? Helen and Corbin are on my shitlist. Why the fuck can’t we come?

Ryan Hendrix: Hey Trouble! What Cal said. Fuck the docs. We want to be there.

Jazzman: We can’t be there if the docs think it would hurt him, Cal. That’s the whole fucking point. They obvs have a plan. It’s not Elisa’s choice.

James Callahan: What the fuck do they know? We’ve always stuck together before.

Jazzman: But this time Elisa can help him more with her calming effect than we can with our triggers. Are you a fucking neuroscientist now? Elisa, ignore him. What else can we do to help?

James Callahan: Fuck this. I’m getting on a plane.

I almost drop the phone, heart in shreds. Because they have every right to want to be here. If only it wouldn’t make it worse for Aiden. But how much worse than this can it get? I shiver just thinking the question. Every time I ask it, a new wave of horror finds a way to drown us. I thumb back a reply, needing auto-correct multiple times from my trembling fingers.

Hey all, thank you for everything. Sorry for the group text, but I’m on my way to work. I’ll talk to Doctor Helen again today and let you know what she says. In the meantime, can each of you text Aiden some photos of your day? Only happy or positive images, no words—that should reduce the negative triggers. I’ll call you after work. Love you.

My text bubble has barely floated on the screen when Benson curves around the chemistry car park, skidding to a stop. I missed the whole ride here. Outside Rover’s window, Oxford’s golden heartline sparkles with the first rays of sun. But its soft glow burns my retinas, harsher than all the combined sunrises Aiden and I have watched together, wrapped around each other. I shove my phone in my purse and hop out of the car before Benson can get to my door.

“Late again tonight?” he confirms.

“And every other night until I solve this. I’ll be in the lab all day—Doctor Helen will check on me. You stay with him, please. Make sure you both eat. His favorite chicken soup is in the fridge. Cora sent me the recipe.”

“Don’t worry, Isa. Focus on whatever smart thing you’re doing to help him. Believe it or not, physical labor can help with things like this. The harder, the better.” He winks, trying to cheer me up, but doesn’t move as I sprint across the quad to the chemistry building. I’m already deep in serotonin calculations by the time I bound inside the lobby.

And then for a few seconds it’s like returning to England all over again. The news of Edison’s betrayal has exploded, and curious, blood-shot eyes follow me everywhere despite the early hour. But dad’s bust waits for me like a steadying anchor. I resist stroking his bronze cheek and dart down the hall, looking down at my Byron sneakers.

I burst through Bia’s door, expecting it to be empty, but Graham is there already, hunched over his workstation, staring at the gleaming tiles in his rain jacket. I don’t expect that either—he is never in the lab without his white coat, doing nothing. He looks up at me, no sunny smile on his drawn face. But at least that look is now familiar. He hasn’t smiled once since Edison’s blow, even though the coppers, Oxford, and Aiden’s own private investigation cleared him of any involvement.

“Morning, Graham,” I say, feeling a twinge of sorrow and even more regret that I can’t be alone yet. “You beat me today—did you have a spark?”

He shakes his head and stands. Only now I notice a small package in his hand, wrapped in lab paper. “No sparks; only wanted to catch you before you got started.” His desolate voice derails me from my own hell, and regret becomes worry.

“Graham, what is it? You sound really upset.”

He seems to force a small smile. “I’m taking leave for a while. I just wanted to give you this.” He hands me the white rectangle while I try to blink through this surprise.

“Leave? But why? You love Bia. The 2-AG is your life.”

“That’s precisely why. I’ve been doing loads of thinking, Eliser. If I hadn’t been so obsessed with that bloody molecule, I’d have seen Edison for who he was. Instead, I was so consumed, I ended up passing him information that almost got you hurt. I—” His breath catches, but he squares his shoulders. “I’m sorrier than I could ever say. I was a rubbish friend, a miserable mentor, and an all-around disappointment.”

“No, don’t say that!” I argue, my throat tightening. The only friend I’ve made here, a brilliant chemist on his own right who adored my father, is now exiling himself from the very axis of his life, because of my mistakes. “This wasn’t your fault at all. None of us saw Edison for who he was, not even me and I had several red flags.”

He shakes his head again. “Professor Snow knew it. I’m sure of it now. That’s why he left me no clues about the protein. He must have known I’d fall for the arsehole’s lies. I disappointed your father, too, and almost stained his legacy. I deserve this and a lot worse.”

“Of course you don’t!” I counter, trying to think of a truth I can share with him. “I think dad was protecting you, Graham. If he suspected Edison, he would have never placed you at risk. That’s why he didn’t tell you, not because he didn’t trust you.”

He squints at the package in my hand as he does when he tries to solve the 2-AG algorithms, hopefully believing me. “Your father is exactly who I aspired to be,” he says after a moment.

“You can still be like him. Don’t go now. You’re—we’re lab partners . . . friends.”

He smiles again without any sunshine, but this seems more real. “You don’t need me, Eliser. I’ve known for a while you’re light years ahead in this. You have his brain. You will solve the protein, I just need to get out of your way.” He raises an eyebrow slightly, and suddenly I have a feeling he knows I have been hiding something, a secret a lot more important than he ever told Edison.

“I don’t need you just to solve chemistry problems. I’ll miss you as a friend. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Stay, and we can start over,” I say, even though “starting” has nothing to do with me. But I realize now how much I was counting on his presence. Aiden will leave forever—all love, life, meaning, purpose will be over. Javier is just starting the stratospheric future that has been waiting for him. Reagan will hopefully be by his side as he reaches all his dreams. The Solises have finally found their peace. And the Plemmonses will eventually pass away. But Graham was supposed to be the constant in this imploded cloud of ash. Avogadro’s Number expressed in our devotion to chemistry, our mutual admiration for dad. I thought perhaps this is how I would exist after September eighteen: working with Graham in this lab, both married to science with zero romantic interest, both missing the compass of our lives, him striving toward an ideal, me trying to breathe away from it. I didn’t imagine I was going to lose even that.

Perhaps he senses some of this, more emotionally perceptive than he would ever guess. “Despite the wanker, you have a lot of friends here, Eliser. Let them in.” He reaches in his pocket and fishes out his keys to Bia, dropping them on my desk. “I’ve recommended you as interim lab manager until they find someone more senior. That way you’ll have Bia to yourself. And if you stay true to who you are, I think you’ll run this place someday.”

He runs his hand over his workstation and passes by me while I watch more versions of the future fade away.

“I don’t want to run Bia,” I counter even though I can sense it will be futile. “I’d rather work with dad’s favorite student. Maybe a protein for detecting wankers early next time? Or cure unnecessary guilt?”

He pauses at the door, looking over his shoulder with a faint smile. “Don’t name a bench after me yet. I might be back eventually. Until then, take care of that.” He points at the package in my hand. “Your father gave it to me my first year when I ruined my first experiment.” His butterscotch eyes sweep over Bia one last time, and then he is gone.

I stare at the closed door, feeling off balance. How many times have I wished he would leave so I had time to test alone, and now that he has, I can’t imagine Bia without him at the helm. It seems unnatural, like a rose without petals or Oxford without its spires. Not as life-ending as a world without Aiden—nothing can ever compare to that—but lonely in its own way. Not to mention the added worry it will cause Aiden to hear that I lost a friend, especially a friend that was safe. What can I do to hide it from him with how determined he is to leave everything in order? It’ll be easier to clone Graham than keep this a secret.

I rip the paper off the small package, riddled with guilt. Inside is a silver frame, but that’s not what makes me gasp. It’s the letter it contains in dad’s slanted script.

Graham, he has written,

Don’t despair. There’s no such thing as a failed experiment. There’s only trying, then trying again. And when things seem hopeless, step outside. Everything is better after a deep breath of fresh air. I prefer the old bench myself. It has a rare magic. You may use it anytime.

I caress the glass cover as the words become blurry with tears. I know the magic he meant—it was the magic of love, of our carved initials that I told Aiden about. Not that Graham would have known that, but he obviously cherished this simple wisdom for years. And now he gave it to me despite his own need. I set the frame on his workstation, take a photo of it with my phone, and text it to him.

Thank you. It will wait for you here while you take a deep breath. Do it and come back.

Three grey dots hesitate on the screen, then his answer pops up: Keep at it, Eliser.

And I know I won’t hear from him again for a long while. I hope he finds his oxygen even as I struggle for mine.

I wipe my eyes and follow dad’s advice. Try again. Because I cannot fail this experiment. In failing at this, I forfeit my will to live. And Aiden cannot survive that. I throw on the lab coat and wheel to the fridge, taking out the ampules of serotonin and the twelfth oxytocin. My hands steady the moment I touch the cold glass, then my fingers start flying through the motions with the same desperation that Aiden is moving boulders. Quicker than any other time in my life even though I no longer have Graham to race. But another deadline, deadlier than all the others, is looming closer by the second. And all those frenzied prior experiments—in the first dark days in England, the hours waiting for Javier’s trial, the rage at dad—seem peaceful compared to the current horror. The pipettes seem to fuse with my bones, becoming their own entity. But no matter how many serotonin doses I try, the solution stays the same old indigo sap, bubbling here and there like boiling mud. Still I keep injecting more serotonin with manic precision, milliliter after milliliter, ampule after ampule, molecule of fear after molecule of fear—ninety vials, one hundred, tic toc, tic toc—until abruptly dizziness strikes. A sudden weakness lashes at my knees, and I grip the workstation for balance. What on earth is happening?

I drop on the stool, blinking through my tunnel vision to make sense of the change. And then I see it. The clock on the wall, ticking away time. Bloody hell, no wonder I almost collapsed! How is it already two thirty? How have I worked nine hours straight without any food or break? Even worse, how did I not make a single difference? The crystal vial rests in front of me useless, filled with blue sludge. I almost hurl it in the sink and set it on fire. But I’m still dizzy and have made a promise to be safe. A promise I just broke like a thousand vials. Aiden would be besides any remnant of self if he saw this fiasco, and he would be absolutely right. I wouldn’t put him past him to hire someone to spoon-feed me three times a day, plus snacks.

I rest my cheek on the cool porcelain tiles and close my eyes, waiting for the vertigo to pass. I try to feel past the terror and anger at myself and think only of his sandalwood cologne filling my lungs. And quickly, dizziness subsides. That’s when I realize my other mistake. In my focus, I forgot to keep breathing. What hope do we have if I can’t handle oxygen and chemistry at the same time? Especially when we need both to survive.

I lift my head—it’s pounding now—and stand slowly, testing my legs. All that’s needed to end the world is me spraining my ankle on top of everything else. On Graham’s empty workstation, dad’s frame reflects the fluorescents. When things seem hopeless, step outside. Well, they’ve never been more hopeless than now. I decide to trust him again. What else do I have left?

Carefully, I use the restroom, gulp some water, then grab my lunch and shuffle out to the quad. As soon as I step outside, a light breeze cools my clammy face. The afternoon sun has gilded the air with a molten haze. Students and professors hurry by, some peeking at me, others carrying on with their day. I trudge to the bench with its new bronze plaque, taking a deep breath, concentrating only on the gasping flow. Is this ever going to get any easier? Or will it always feel like a war just to find air, let alone inhale it? I don’t mind for myself—I would fight that war every minute because if I breathe, Aiden breathes. But isn’t there anything left I can do to make this easier for him?

I draw another gulp of fresh breeze and eat my BLT sarnie, trying to think. What am I missing here? Is it just a matter of finding the right dosage or do I need an entirely new element or two or three? Why did you make it so difficult, Dad? There are no answers in our carved initials under the bench.

Futilely, I open the locket where Aiden’s scroll of oxytocin is tucked with dad’s clue. Both worn from the hundreds of times I have read them.

Fifth time. Not December. Add love.

But no matter how long I stare at the words, I find nothing new. “Fifth time. Not December. Add love,” I mumble under my breath over and over until it sounds like a tongue twister. Fifth time—not December—add love. Fifth times not December add love. 

Abruptly, right then, something clicks! When I chant the words this way—quickly, together like a sentence without periods or breaks—their meaning changes. Their sound transforms. And the entire quad vanishes. Instead, numbers and elements spring in my vision, flitting around like the letters of Solstice Gallery in my sleepwalking dream—the dream that gave me the truth about Aiden and Feign. For a wild second I think it’s another dizzy spell, but it’s not. My mind delivers another verdict now as it did then. The elusive answer, the solution that has been haunting my every minute asleep or awake, the yes to all the prayers and wishes. The very obvious formula I have been missing. The antidote to terror.

“Oh my God!” I choke out. “Bloody hell! Is this—no—yes—it has to be. It’s dad’s style: two meanings in everything! It’s not just three sentences, it’s one key! Holy fuck! How on earth did I miss this?”

I stare at the symbols dancing in my vision, unable to blink. I know I should run and test the theory right now, but I can’t move past the epiphany, past the images as my mind breaks through another barrier. The formula spins out as vividly as if etched in dad’s handwriting under this bench. And not just the formula, but the message behind the clue, the lesson behind the solution.

“Thank you, Dad. I get it now,” I murmur in wonder. “I see it so clearly, but am I too late?”

L-a-t-e. The four letters unfreeze me. The outside world blinks into focus again, but only briefly, just enough blinks to register the elderly groundskeeper frowning at me in concern, and then I’m running. Bursting back through the building doors, crashing into a body, shoving it out of my way, and hurling myself down the hall to Bia, straight at the refrigerator. Then I start ripping out fistfuls of ampules in a tray because if I’m right, it will take more serotonin—a lot more self-love—to erase fear. Sixty times the amount of oxytocin to be exact. Five times twelve, add love. For every milliliter of love you need five times more confidence, more faith in yourself. That must be the true meaning of the clue.

I dump all my old work into the sink and line up everything anew on my station. The 2-AG spun five times, minus magnesium. The twelfth oxytocin, five milliliters. Serotonin, sixty milliliters. And the peptides to bind everything together. My hands don’t shake, but my heart is ricocheting off my ribs. I secure a large vial with clamps and start pouring in the ingredients, watching them change with my throat clenched like closure.

It’s not a transformation like any I have ever seen. It’s almost a dance. First the music of the molecules wrapping around each other. An ahh here, a pop there, a hushed ssss. Then love spins with fear, the purple and golden fluids twirling to a lilac shimmer. One leads, the other follows, one takes, the other gives, but both fading, equal forces bubbling above the flames of the burner, until confidence waltzes in. They vibrate together then, rocketing from a gentle tango to a tribal beat. Blending their atomic crescendo, swirling and pirouetting before my incredulous eyes, faster and faster as the liquid emulsifies. The vial starts to shake in the steel clasps, and a violet smoke spirals from it, igniting into golden sparks. I gasp and duck away reflexively, but the fiery stars don’t scatter. They shoot up like a fountain while, underneath, the viscous potion starts darkening, from violet to orchid. Another ripple billows through the liquid with a hiss. Then in the same second, quicker than I ever could have dreamed, the cloud of vapor dissipates completely and the substance pivots to a full stop.

I watch in a trance the amethyst mixture as it settles fluidly at the bottom of the vial. It’s not the hard candy consistency I had envisioned at all. It’s a wondrous texture, part-liquid, part-solid with a pearlescent aura at the very top like a halo. Yet despite the clarity, it looks oddly impermeable, unyielding.

I stand rooted on the spot, eyes wider than my goggles, not daring to breathe, waiting for . . . anything. Fizzing, exploding, dissolving, or simply waking up. Just another false start. But I know I’m not dreaming because Aiden isn’t here. And because a sense of conviction washes over me, more powerful than instinct. Conviction that this is it. Bravery has arrived. After hundreds of hours, countless tears, endless prayers and searches and calculations and tests, right when it was the last resort, when failure was no option, courage is finally ours.

Yet time ticks away and I still can’t move. The vial of bravery rests confidently, waiting like me.

Waiting for fears to tame, terrors to fight, love to save.

S-a-v-e. It takes only those four letters again. And then I’m the one spinning. Not to swallow the protein, although I’m certain it would not harm me in the slightest, but to do this right for Aiden. I unlock the vial—it’s warm, almost hot to the touch—seal it and wrap it safely inside mum’s parka several times, clutching it to my chest. Then I sprint out of Bia, jumping the stairs two at a time. More students and professors give me a wide berth as I huff and leap out in the quad, but I’m already gone, hurtling down the cobblestoned lanes, flying through doors, catapulting in the lift, toward the only person here I can trust.

It takes only a frantic blink to find the familiar office, but its door is closed. I pound on it with my foot, almost tearing it off its hinges. It flings open and Doctor Helen glowers there with a look of outrage that changes instantly to alarm when she sees me.

“Elisa? Good heavens, whatever has happened? Are you alright?”

“It’s—done!” I wheeze, leaning against the door frame and holding out the crumpled parka for her.

She frowns at the ball of red fabric in my hands. “What’s done? Elisa, what’s the matter? Is Aiden hurt—?”

“No—the—protein—it’s done—it’s here!”

A different shock drops over her face in comprehension as her grey eyes widen beyond her rimless glasses. “I don’t believe it!” she breathes, staring incredulously at the parka hiding the vial even though she can’t see through it.

“Test me!” I splutter while she stands there, frozen. “Test me while I take it—my life signs, its strength, everything! Make sure it’s safe for Aiden.”

That unthaws her. She blinks back at me in unconcealed bewilderment as I had feared. “That’s outrageous. We can’t test it on you—”

“I know it’s safe—I’ve tried it before—but for him I want to do it right. Please, we don’t have time to waste. Every hour he grows worse. Every night, I’m losing him before he’s even gone.”

Conflict implodes in her stunned mien. Science and ethics on one side, requiring rigorous rules for testing, but medicine and humanity on the other, mandating immediate action. It’s not a battle Aiden can afford to lose.

“Please, Doctor Helen!” I rasp again, shoving the protein closer to her hands. “I’m begging. You know I’ll do it anyway. Help me do it right. I have to save him! He will not survive the end without this, and you know it!”

That’s all it takes. The hesitation vanishes from her face. “When you put it that way . . .” And before I can gasp thank you or crumble to my knees in relief, she grabs my elbow as if unsure I can stand anymore and tows me down the hall to her vast lab. The white walls blur past me with the sudden motion, then the myriad of screens blare everywhere, all displaying Aiden’s mind as she must be relentlessly studying it. I almost trip over my feet as she marches us across the polished expanse to the electroencephalograph in the corner that measures Aiden’s heart and brain waves.

“Very well.” Doctor Helen gestures toward the chair where Aiden sat the day she took a photo of our kiss. “Let’s be brave.”

But the second she utters that last word out loud, unmistakable panic implodes inside me. I plop down on his old seat, staring at the stormy images of his memory. So staggering and unfathomable compared to the delicate vial tucked in my chest. Doctor Helen holds out her hands for the protein. “May I take it?” she asks, her voice softer as if she sees the havoc. “I will just place it next to you while we get set up.”

I nod woodenly and hand her my precious cargo. The moment it’s out of my touch, the lab’s cold air nips my fingers. A shiver slithers down my spine. She sets the parka undisturbed on her control desk with the wires of electrodes fraying out of it like nerves.

“I’ll need you to remove your blouse, Elisa,” she adds, sounding apologetic. “Please, don’t be embarrassed. No one will dare to come here with me inside, I promise.”

I manage another nod and start wrestling with my locket and buttons, but my hands are shaking so much that she has to help me. I don’t know why, but now that I’m sitting here on this chair, a terror unlike any other I have ever felt crushes me. The policeman telling me there has been an accident was nothing. The ambulance ride to the hospital was almost a breeze. The two beloved bodies in the morgue come close, but still don’t compare to this dread. Neither does Javier’s imprisonment or his trial or leaving America or Edison’s blow. Bravery is resting only a foot away, yet every droplet of my blood feels frozen solid. Because what if it still doesn’t work? What if even this weapon fails? For all our closure and preparation, I know deep down we have gambled our last hope on this one vial. And I’m about to roll the dice on our survival.

Peripherally, I feel my locket and blouse peel away as shiver after shiver ripples over my skin.

“I’m sorry, I know it’s cold here,” Doctor Helen says, but we both know my goosebumps have nothing to do with the temperature in the lab. She starts placing the electrodes on me gently, as Old Morse did with Aiden. On my temples, forehead, scalp, neck, pulse, sternum, wrists, hands. Her touch is light and warm, triggering distant memories of mum combing my hair.

“You look exhausted, Elisa,” she observes as she pastes the last electrode over my thunderous heart. “No sleep again last night?”

I open my mouth to speak but, just then, the wide screen to my right blares with my own heartbeat, and my EKG and brain activity lines blast across it.

“Oh, child!” Doctor Helen’s grave voice mutes my startled gasp as I stare at the monitor in horror. I don’t know anything about neuroscience, but even I can tell my heartline looks nothing like the waves of love that undulated for Aiden. Mine is craggy like the daggers of glass in the library the night Edison struck. And the second line—my brain—is stabbing and plunging erratically as a thrashing power line. My beeps are different, too, more like the rise and fall of ambulance sirens.

“Elisa, dear, you’re terrified,” Doctor Helen reads the data easily as she takes the chair in front of me, the chair I perched on for Aiden. To my surprise, she folds her organza hands around my wired wrists. “I could see that even without the monitor, but the intensity is too high. Let’s try to relax for a moment so we can get a baseline reading, shall we?”

I try. I summon every strategy and trick I know—Aiden’s cologne, the locket, the periodic table, Maria’s prayers, even a photo of our kiss—but they’re all futile. The monitor keeps wailing.

“Deep breaths, Elisa, try for a deep breath with me,” Doctor Helen coaches patiently, inhaling and exhaling to set the tempo. “Keep the faith that it will be all right.”

The knives of terror slash my heartline. “How?” I gasp.

“Follow Peter’s advice that you shared during your speech. ‘Have faith in science when you don’t know, in your heart when you do, and in yourself to be able to tell the difference.’ Maybe your love and this protein will be enough.”

“And if it’s not?” I whisper the words, unwilling to voice them into reality.

Her hands tighten on my wrist, digging in the electrodes. “Then you’ll know you did everything you could.”

I know she is trying to assure me, but all I hear is the postscript: that this is truly our last shot. Another round of beeps fires from the computer like bullets. I focus only on the sterilized air, trying in vain to calm my heartrate. Hydrogen, 1.008, Helium, 4.0026…

Doctor Helen must see the futility in my efforts. “It’s all right, Elisa,” she murmurs, eyes trained on the riotous screen. “I’ll work with this. It’s not standard but in a way, it might make the test more accurate. We won’t have to manufacture fear artificially.”

Manufacture? There could never be any lab-made fear that can compare to this. She stands, setting my quivering hands on my bouncing knees. Then gently, she starts unraveling mum’s parka, finding the vial nestled within.

“Oh but it’s beautiful!” she marvels, and even in my state, I know she is right. “I’ve never seen a substance like this.” Her inquisitive eyes dissect the part-fluid, part-solid elixir. The lilac halo shimmers on the surface unbroken like sunrise mist over the clearest lake. I sense her trying to grasp every facet, but she doesn’t ask me details about how, what, why. She lets me keep those secrets, and for that I’m grateful. She picks up the vial ever so carefully, shaking it gently. “It’s warm,” she muses in wonder. The knives on my heartline sharpen to razor-thin blades as the seconds to the truth tick closer. She peers at me, her gaze filling with apprehension. “Are you sure it’s not harmful, Elisa?”

“Positive,” I breathe, feeling the only gust of certainty. Of all my fears, this is not one. “Dad would have never left me something that could hurt me.”

“That’s true,” she agrees with evident relief. “How many doses do you have in this vial?”

I have no doubts about this answer either. “Three. That was dad’s style: one for each of us in a moment of need. He and I followed the same dosing for the nutritional supplement.”

Her silver eyebrows arch in surprise. “Ingenious. And how long will it last?”

I sense this answer, too, but not from anything dad taught me. “I’d guess a few hours at most. Serotonin has a very short half-life on the brain, but oxytocin can linger. We’ll need to test it to be sure, but I can’t see dad creating something that would eliminate an entire emotion for extended periods.”

“I tend to agree with that analysis. Very good.” Her voice bustles with finality. “Are you ready?”

The beeps trumpet like an alarm clock. “I am.”

She unseals the vial—my hands are too shaky to attempt it—and carefully brings it to my lips. The crystal rim is warm with the protein’s internal heat. “Let’s start with a tiny drop first,” Doctor Helen suggests. And with a slight tip of her hand, I taste bravery for the first time.

And almost vomit instantly. The beautiful tincture is pungent to the extreme. Bitter and sour, not quite as unendurable as denatonium, but certainly worse than raw thistle or citric acid. My throat seizes up against it, and the monitor shrieks. Doctor Helen stops immediately.

“Elisa, what’s the matter? Does it hurt?”

I force down the pool of saliva that surged in my mouth to drown the taste. “No, it’s tolerable. Dad must not have had time to refine the taste . . .” Or perhaps the revolting taste is the point. Like sulfuric acid added to gas to warn or stop you. Perhaps you have to be in dire need to take this. Is that part of dad’s message? Why? “I’ll have to adjust the flavor before Aiden ingests it, not that he would complain.”

A sad smile lifts her lips. “Of course not. Shall we go on?”

“Yes, but in one go this time.” I don’t want to gag and waste a single droplet.

“You read my mind.”

I open my mouth wider, and she pours a third of the vial in one swift spill. I gulp it down instantly but despite the speed, my entire body protests, from my throat to my toes. I have to clamp down my teeth and grip the edges of the chair not to spew it out. But as soon as the potion slides past the gagging point, the taste changes abruptly. It becomes numbing like lidocaine, though only for a few seconds. Then the bitterness starts to fade at the precise moment that a cloud of heat engulfs me, starting from the pit of my stomach and radiating to my fingertips.

“Oh!” I gasp as the racket of beeps literally skips a beat.

“Elisa?” Doctor Helen prompts, but abruptly several things happen at once. A feeling of raw power sweeps over me like a tidal wave. I feel my body snap out of a hunch I didn’t know I was holding. An awareness of physical strength spreads on my skin like a layer of steel. In the same split second my vision sharpens. Like an invisible veil has been ripped off, and every detail becomes crystalline. The first thing I see—although “see” no longer seems to be an adequate verb—is the screen. It looks oddly smaller, not as vast as I had been perceiving. The knives of terror in my brain waves judder as I stare bewildered, and the jagged edges of my heart rate quiver.

“Whoa!” I cry out, transfixed, as the gold of my heartline brightens into sunshine yellow. My brain waves sparkle electric blue, similar to Aiden’s neural activity. Then the digital wailing stops as suddenly as it began, the sirens quieting to chimes and the blades flattening to wavelets.

“Astounding!” Doctor Helen murmurs, but in the same breath, the lab bursts into a focus so clear that all images I have ever viewed through powerful microscopes dim in comparison. And not just clearer, but friendlier. The stark white expanse looks more like a powdery snowfall. The blue storm of Aiden’s memory images seems like a summer ocean. The blood-red button that can incinerate our brains twinkly as a ladybug. And the Amazonian neuroscientist who has always intimidated me looks kindred—a fairy godmother. I see her shrewd eyes widening in awe and her mouth falling open, but I also see her vulnerability, her age. Even the height difference between us shrinks as my vision impossibly hones further. And not just my vision now, but the rest of my senses. My hearing is clarion, not muffled by any hammering of blood in my ears. The calm computer beeps sound cheerful, like jingle bells at Christmas. The lab feels sultry like the rose garden. The hard chair under my fingers like putty. My sense of smell clears too as though I have had a stuffed nose all my life that has finally cleared. I can smell the distinct electric odor of the technology, a faint freesia perfume that must be wafting from Doctor Helen, the ethanol of the sanitizer. All richer, but instantly irrelevant. There is only one fragrance I care about inhaling. My wrist flies to my nose despite the electrodes. And Aiden’s fading cologne suddenly rules everything. It’s as if I have never smelled it before this moment. I try to find words for it but cannot. Pure beauty, almost soporific, and even though I’ve never felt more awake, abruptly my new eyes want to close. I inhale single-mindedly, and desire sings from my every pore, stunning me with its force. How can I possibly feel this when I was just drowning in terror? But terror is long gone like a distant, vague dream from a lifetime ago.

All this takes only a few seconds. Then a sense of endless possibility grips me. My mind seems to clear some quantum leap because the world transforms again, at once expanding and narrowing. It’s as though I can see farther in the distance, yet it would take only one step to traverse thousands of miles. Because cross them I would. As sudden as the changes in perception are, they don’t compare to this new conviction, this creed that I can do absolutely everything and anything.

Take the walls around me: I think I could demolish them. The ocean between here and America: I would swim it. Planes across the sky: I would ride on their wings. Every insurgent in Fallujah: I would find them and flay them alive, first the skin from the flesh, then the flesh from the bone, body part by body part. I would die at the end—I’m surprised by the certainty and irrelevance of that knowledge—but I absolutely would attempt all of it. My mind, freed of all fear, can already analyze exactly the preparation I would want; want but not need because right now, I’m the most fearless human that exists.

“Elisa?” Doctor Helen’s voice weaves easily through my refined perception, but it rings differently than a minute ago. Although louder than usual from her evident concern, her tone sounds soothing like a nighty-night. I realize then exactly what the protein is doing beyond honing my senses and strengthening my body. It’s converting any potential stimulus of fear into one of comfort. Doctor Helen is right: it’s truly ingenious.

“Yes?” I hear my own voice for the first time. The timbre distracts me. It’s more musical than I ever knew but, more than that, it’s slow and measured as though it has lassoed time.

Time! The name of our terrifying foe croons smoothly in my head, not chopped up in four letters and mental gasps. Time, time, time! It plays as easily through my thoughts as Für Elise. It will finish me in the end—I haven’t forgotten that—but it doesn’t matter because I own it until then. For once, time is not an enemy, nor an ally or a friend. Time is an equal.

Another second has ticked by. My entire transformation from terror to invincibility has taken only one minute.

“Your EKG and EEG are extraordinary,” Doctor Helen murmurs, staring in wonder at the monitor where the sunshine and ocean waves are now rising and swelling deeply in perfect synchronicity. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Could you describe what you’re feeling?”

In response to her question, the raw force of my mind breaks into the emotional realm. And then I feel it, truly feelbravery for the first time. It floods every corner of my being, flushing out every obstacle my fears had ever constructed. I always thought the protein would make us untouchable, impervious. But as it gushes inside me, I don’t feel less, I feel more. A lot more than I could have ever imagined I had room to feel. And that’s exactly when I grasp the full impact of the protein, its repercussions, the possibilities, why dad made it so difficult, maybe even why he kept it hidden, perhaps not just from Edison.

Because now that fear has cleared out of my system, it has freed space for every other flicker of emotion. And has magnified it to the nth degree. Surprise, calm, joy, grief, longing . . . although opposites, somehow they coexist in the same heartbeat. So deep and unfathomable, no normal human could breathe through them. The beeps on the monitor become stentorian tolls.

Yet, despite their potency, these other emotions are all tangentials. At the very core of my new being is Aiden. His existence pulsates like a blinding star in this realm. The epicenter, the gravity, the alpha and the omega, the nucleus and its energy, the entire meaning. As if every second in my life has led to this one moment of loving him without fear. The feeling is so overwhelming it disorients me. Even my new mind cannot contain it. All thought is replaced instantly by an irrepressible compulsion to protect him. It isn’t a choice; it’s the most basic of instincts. Exactly like self-preservation, as though he is me and I am him.

“I need to go.” The words fire from my lips as I jump to my feet. The action seems sinuous to my new eyes. A side effect of self-love? Confidence that I can be anything, including graceful?

“Elisa, wait!” Doctor Helen cries in alarm, her hand out to stop me from ripping off the electrodes. “What are you doing? We haven’t finished.”

“We don’t need more testing,” I answer, my mind already working, thinking ahead with this new knowledge. “My fears are gone. I need to go help Aiden.” The moment I imagine seeing him, the beeps quicken again, trilling as my heartrate surges forward. Silverbells of the most powerful love any human anywhere has ever felt at any time.

Even stunned, she doesn’t waver. “Of course this is to help Aiden. And I see the EKG and EEG, but I still need to monitor them to ensure you’re safe and the protein is truly working. Can you please answer my question?”

Another deluge of emotion roils through me: impatience, frustration, desire, longing for him. I have to lock my muscles against their intensity as their gravitational pull thrills in my limbs. A bugle call for me to complete what I was meant to do: save Aiden from anyone and everything. But my mind is amplified too. Despite the super-emotions, it can see all implications, the sense in Doctor Helen’s insistence.

“Elisa?” she prompts again. “Do you remember what I asked?”

“I do. You asked how I was feeling.”

“And?”

“I’m trying to find the words. Our language doesn’t have them.”

Worry crumples her forehead. “Neither does science based on what I’m reading. Let’s start with good or bad. Can you tell me that?”

“No, because both good and bad are an absolute understatement. I feel every emotion I have ever felt in my life all at once but magnified, except fear.”

Her eyes deepen, flitting to the computer. On the monitor, my heart and brain waves are billowing in tandem, charged and ready for action as soon as I release my body. “No fear at all?” she verifies.

“None.”

“But every other emotion must feel a lot more powerful based on the data.”

“Oh, yes. By far and away.”

“Even pain.”

I—or perhaps the protein—must have instinctually been shielding the self from this emotion until now, but the moment she says the word out loud, agony strikes inexorably to my consciousness. And once it claims my focus, it detonates through my body with such force that, without the protein, I’m sure it would have demolished me on this floor. As it is, my heartrate plummets again, and the monitor quiets to near-silence. Because all the facets of the truth become finally clear. Despite bravery destroying fear, it cannot heal pain. It cannot erase violent memories. It will not rewire a conditioned reflex. It does not cancel our own honor code. It will not stop time or distance. All those emotions and processes are apparently separate and distinct from fear. And the protein will intensify them, beyond any limit of the human existence. There is only one thing the protein can do for us: vanquish the terror for each other and give us faith in ourselves. Is that enough to make a difference to survival? In a world where we can be either safe in fear or brave in agony, what do we choose in the end?

Doctor Helen has clearly read my emotions in my tolling heartbeat without me needing to answer. “If the pain is this strong,” she says with a deep frown. “We had better be certain fear is truly gone. Some humans survive torture, but fear can kill.”

Yes, it can. Even though I don’t feel it now, I know which emotion I would pick for myself. But for Aiden? That’s an entirely different question. I sit back down on the chair even though my mind is still racing in the future. “What do we need to do to be sure that the protein works?”

Her grey eyes gentle in a godmotherly way, reminding me of the gazes I would see during the funeral. Gazes of sorrow. She sits back on the chair across from me and wraps her hand around mine. “I think you will need to live through a lot of pain, child.”

On the blue screens, the ocean of Aiden’s memories deepens. My heart and brain waves rise and fall with it. But my new mind flexes with confidence. There is no pain I wouldn’t endure for him.

“I am ready,” I answer.

The lab floor throbs with the knell of my heartbeat.©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 30 – AFTER

Hello friends, after a few weeks off for health reasons, here is the next chapter.  I have missed you a lot. I’m sorry for the delay and thank you so for the amazing response to the last one–I know it was heavy and heart-breaking.  Only about four chapters left now as we conclude Aiden and Elisa’s journey.  Thank you to everyone who has been checking on me and providing support, from regular messages and comments to health research, network, and nutritional tips help (you know you are, my lovely friend).  Hope you enjoy.  – xo, Ani [TRIGGER WARNING: parts of this chapter may contain references to depression or self-harm.]

30

After

“Elisa!” My name booms from the garden, making me jump against Aiden’s inert body. “Elisa, where are you?” Benson is thundering. His heavy footsteps rattle the shards of glass on the floor. A beam of light cuts the night outside the broken window. I tear my lips from Aiden’s unmoving mouth so I can answer.

“Benson, we’re here! We’re in the library!” I shout, keeping my hand on Aiden’s chest. Under my palm, his heartbeat is still slow and quiet.

“Coming in,” Benson roars, and I hear the front door slam. Thankfully, one brain cell remembers that my robe is open, and I tuck it around me quickly one second before Benson bursts into the library. His eyes are huge as he takes in the scene. “Good God! Elisa, are you hurt?” He crouches next to me at once, one massive hand flying to Aiden’s wrist, another to my forehead.

“Not at all, but Aiden is. Edison smashed a microscope in the back of his head.” My voice breaks, and I shudder at the image branded in my retinas.

“Fuck!” Benson’s snarl is almost as feral as Aiden’s. “Edison was the creep?”

“Yes, he’s somewhere by the beech trees, I think. Aiden kicked him—”

As if to complete my sentence, a yelp of agony rises from wherever the traitor is suffering. I bring my lips back to Aiden’s mouth, humming Für Elise loudly so he doesn’t hear, if he can hear. “Aiden, I love you. We’re safe, love. Benson is here.”

“Have you called an ambulance?”

“Yes, they’re on their way.” On cue, a siren starts wailing in the distance. Another howl comes from the garden. “It’ll be okay, love,” I tell Aiden. “Don’t worry. You just breathe with me, all right?”

“How long has he been out?” Benson asks, peeking under Aiden’s head without daring to move it.

“About three minutes.”

“He was out for over ten minutes in Fallujah, and he was okay,” Benson mutters, as if to himself. “But his pulse is faint.”

“I know.” I blow over Aiden’s lips again, my hand never leaving his heart. His face is still peaceful, glowing under the soft overhead light in stark contrast with the havoc around us. “Benson, can you bring me that blanket for him?”

“You got it.” Benson bolts on his feet and hurtles to the desk for my blanket that still has blood from my lip in its corner. He is back before Aiden’s heart has stuttered twice. I tuck the blanket around his waist and legs, hiding the bloody corner down by his feet. “Aiden, I’m still here, love. Come back to me, please. You promised . . .”

The seconds on the clock are ticking. Three minutes and fifteen seconds now. Sixteen. Seventeen. Then abruptly something changes. Aiden’s heart nudges my hand with a firmer thud. Lub-dub.

“Aiden?” I cry, leaning closer. “Aiden, can you hear me?” I run my fingers over his cheeks, wiping away my tears that are still glistening on him. A slight movement flickers under the golden eyelids. In my own chest, my heart stops, restarts, and double-strikes. “Aiden, I love you, I love you so much. Come back, love. I’m on the other side.” Five more seconds, another lub-dub. Then a faint, warm breeze flutters over my lips.

“Oh, thank God!” I sob, almost collapsing on top of him as Benson drops on the rug, shaking the entire library and crossing himself. Another lub-dub, another waft of breath.

Then at long last, a voice that brings me back to life. “Elisa,” Aiden murmurs.

“Yes, I’m here, love. I’m right here. Can you feel my hands?” I stroke his forehead and clutch his long fingers.

The impossible eyes open. Sapphire at first between each slow, heavy blink. Then a spark of turquoise flickers in the blue depths as I must come into focus. I almost flop all over him again with heady relief. Whatever Edison’s blow has done, it hasn’t stolen my calm from him. That weapon is still standing. And so is his memory from the looks of it. Instantly the tectonic plates shift, and a sharp edge of terror slices his eyes like the jagged glass.

“I’m safe and sound,” I blurt out immediately, knowing this is exactly what he is dreading. “You saved my life, Aiden, as well as your own.” I caress his creased brow, yet my words don’t seem to calm him. The seraphic face blanches whiter than bone. Like a portcullis, tension drops down on him, turning him into stone.

“Aiden, love, I’m all right, I promise,” I assure him again before he can speak. “Benson can tell you himself.”

“She’s really okay, sir,” Benson rumbles. “It’s you we’re worried about.”

“How are you feeling?” I stroke his jaw that is sharpening into a glacial blade.

“Fine,” he answers automatically, but his eyes are scanning me as if he will only accept his own evidence. As they do, the terror morphs into agony—an anguish so deep, it looks as if someone is lighting him on fire. Exactly like the one time he hurt me.

“No, love, not that look!” I plead. “I’m not hurt at all. Nothing happened to me, all thanks to you. Please believe me.” I smooth the V between his brows, but the eyes . . . They deepen like an abyss, hollowing further and further, darkening until they close. A shudder tears through him.

“Aiden—” I start again, but he interrupts me.

“I’m fine, Elisa,” he repeats, his voice low and hoarse. “It seems that you saved me, too.” He opens his eyes—there isn’t a single flicker of life in them—and starts to sit up.

“Oh no, you don’t!” I press my hands on his tense shoulders, trying to push him back on the rug. “Aiden, lie down. The ambulance will be here in a minute. I don’t want you moving before then.”

“The ambulance?” Even in obvious torment, he sounds appalled. The siren blares closer, from what sounds like the garage across Elysium. “Christ, Elisa, for this?”

“Yes, for this. You took a blow to the head and were out for over three minutes. Do you remember?”

The plates shift again—it takes only a second, his usual recall speed. “Of course I remember. Edison?” His teeth almost strangle the name, and he tries to sit up again.

“Shh, relax.” I push against his chest with all my strength. “He’s weeping outside, ruing the minute he crossed you, I imagine. Aiden, you need to be still. Please, for me!”

His jaw flexes once, but at least he stops trying to stand. He lies back down and turns to Benson. “Can you secure the asshole for the police? Apparently, I can’t help you because I took a three-minute nap.”

“I’m on it. I’d like a chance to say hello personally anyway.” Benson’s slow grin gives me chills. He rises to his feet and streaks out of the library, much too nimbly for his size. The shards of glass tremble at his passage with a sound like rain. It’s only then that Aiden’s eyes fall on the droplets of my blood on the floor. Instantly, the blue depths harden like gemstones and his teeth snap audibly with familiar rage.

“It’s nothing,” I say quickly, grateful that my legs are tucked under me, at least for now. “Just a little prick. I stepped on a cactus once; this is nothing compared to that. More adjacent to rose thorns. Oops, sorry, you’ve banned the word ‘adjacent’, but you get the idea.”

But the more I speak, the more his face is withdrawing. “Let me see your legs, Elisa.”

Please, stop worrying. You need to relax instead of fussing about a silly splinter in my foot.”

“Elisa, so help me God! Show me or I will stand and look at them myself.” His abs flex ominously through the blanket.

Oh, bloody hell! I don’t want him to look before I’ve had a chance to inspect the situation, but I don’t want him to move either. He starts to rise again.

“All right, all right!” I surrender. “Here, see?” I open my robe only a few inches. The silk quivers in my hands. As soon as my knees are exposed, his forehead locks. Every angle of his face freezes into greyish ice, from the blinkless eyelids to his strained jaw. I follow his gaze and feel my own blood drain away. My knees look almost as terrible as they feel. A dozen splinters are lodged in them like bloody asterisks. A vicious snarl slides from Aiden’s clenched teeth.

“I swear they don’t hurt,” I lie, pulling down my robe, and thankfully in this second Benson locates Edison in the garden.

“Well, good evening, Professor Edison.” A hard thump causes the last of the knives of glass to clatter from the shattered windowpanes, and a new howl pierces my ears.  I take advantage of Aiden whipping his head toward the sound and leap over him before he can grab my ankles and check the soles of my feet. Who knows what they look like compared to my knees? “Don’t move an inch or I’ll call Doctor Helen, Corbin, and your parents right now,” I call over my shoulder, sprinting out of the library despite the stabbing pain. “I’ll go get in my pajamas before the medics get here. Stay where you are!”

His growl follows me in the foyer. As soon as I turn the corner, I pause to examine the mess and, more importantly, what I can do about it before Aiden sees it. Bloody hell—quite literally! My feet are as thorny as they feel. Spikes of glass have embedded themselves like stars forming constellations of their own on the heels and balls of my feet. Halos of blood glow crimson around them. I pick off as many as I can from my right foot and hop on it all way upstairs. It’s difficult, but not because of the acrobatics. It’s difficult because I’m shaking with terror on two legs, let alone one. Terror for what comes next, for what Aiden is thinking about as he lies alone on the rug of planets in the ruined library. And above all, terror that he will decide he has endangered me enough and end us once and for all. A blistering wave of nausea rises in my throat, and I almost vomit on the landing. Hydrogen, 1.008 . . . Help me, Mum. Keep him here, Dad.

Our happy bedroom is still dark. Für Elise is still lullabying softly from Aiden’s phone. The alarm clock glimmers ten to one. Was it only an hour ago that I was dreaming of kissing his back, shivering with pleasure, not dread? I switch on the light, gripping the door for balance. But the intimate glow stabs deeper than the broken glass as it illuminates the little room that makes us, us. The double-frames of our firsts on each nightstand, the rosewood chess set on the dresser, the polaroid of Aiden’s heartline and brainwaves, the dried poppies of our weapons by my locket and charm bracelet. How many weapons do we have left after tonight? My calming effect—nothing can change that, it seems—but can it hold if we lose Aiden’s fledgling self-love, his laughter, pleasure, faith, and even his fight? Especially if I can’t finish the protein that caused tonight’s horror. Another shiver rocks me so violently, it knocks me off balance on my one leg. I pluck off more splinters from my left foot, trying to concentrate only on the way they sting rather than the punctured wound that just ripped open in my chest. I hide the shards at the bottom of the rubbish bin so Aiden won’t see them. Out in the garden, Benson calls over to Aiden, and I’m thankful for his distraction.

“He’s all pretty and tied up, sir. I’ll stay out here, keep him company. What say you, Professor?”

There is no answer from Aiden, but whatever Benson does makes Edison whimper. From the willows drifts a chorus of indistinct voices, and flashlight beams wash over the bedroom window. The medics are here. I swipe up Aiden’s favorite sweatpants and T-shirt and throw on my pajamas and navy socks to hide my grisly feet. Then I dash downstairs as fast as they will carry me.

On the library floor, Aiden has heeded my threat. He hasn’t moved an inch, physically at least. But his eyes are thousands of miles away beyond the ceiling. The difference in them is so staggering, I freeze at the door. They look as if they have been gouged out of their sockets by some cataclysmic force, even though they are physically intact. His face is different, too. Entirely empty; all expression ripped away, leaving only his beauty behind without any sign of life. My stomach roils again. I try to draw air, but I can’t feel anything—nor the smell of roses in the wind or the metal of the doorknob in my hand or even the sharp stings on my skin. But the hurried, stressed voices of the medics break through. Shaking, I pad to Aiden’s side. His eyes flash immediately to my socked feet.

“How badly do they hurt, Elisa? And no cactus or thorn comparisons, if you value my sanity.”  The change is in his voice too. It’s lower, rougher than his usual timbre—fading with the wind as soon as the words are spoken. I scramble through my panic, trying to think which answer will go better. Hastily, I decide for a version of the truth.

“I value your sanity most of all, which is why I picked out the splinters and am completely fine. Here, I have your sweatpants and T-shirt if you want them after the medics examine you.” I drape them over his waist, trying to hide my trembling hands. If he sees them, he says nothing. His eyes return to the ceiling, staring at things and places I cannot comprehend. Before I can wrestle with another breath, the doorbell jingles with the first notes of Für Elise. Nothing changes in Aiden’s face at the beloved sound. I rush to open it, my terror impossibly doubling. A crisp voice calls from the other side of the door.

“Elisa, PC Dockery here with the medics. You rang the emergency number?”

The familiar voice triggers a flashback of my own: the funeral reception, last time PC Dockery was here. What was he saying then? May you remember only the love? Or was that someone else? I trail my fingers along the wall, trying to stay present, and wrench open the door.

A gust of wind blows in with force, bringing me back. The tiny threshold is overflowing with bodies and flashlights. PC Dockery is at the front, two medics and another copper behind him, and to his right Doctor Gramercy, our elderly village doctor, hunched as the day he came to the funeral.

“Oh, hello, Elisa.” His wizened mouth opens in a smile. “I came along when I heard there was need at the Rose Cottage. Are you all right, dear?”

“I’m fine, Doctor, but my boyfriend, Aiden, is hurt. We had an intruder who hit him in the head with a microscope. He’s hurt too, outside around the corner, with our friend Benson.”

“An intruder?!” PC Dockery cries in shock. “What—here in Burford? At this cottage?”

“Blimey!” Doctor Gramercy’s eyes widen behind his round glasses. “Let me through, Philip. Let’s see how they are first, then you can get the story. Mary, Jenny—” He turns to the two medics. “You go around for this character with PC Clarkson—carefully now. I’ll treat Elisa’s sweetheart.”

They bustle in with urgency. Across Elysium, the red and blue sirens arc through the night like macabre rainbows. There’s been an accident, an accident . . .

“Elisa?” Doctor Gramercy is calling me from the present. “Where to, darling?”

“The library, Doctor, just down the hall. Be careful, there’s broken glass from the window.”

They head in before me which gives me a moment to get it together. Aiden will see the flashbacks in my eyes the second I walk in if I don’t clear my head. He would fly back to Portland tonight then. I gulp down the wind, searching for any trace of roses. The night is darker now, only patches of moon are visible through the velvet clouds. The roses turn crimson and blue under the ambulance lights. It’s not the same, I chant in my head, inhaling and exhaling, letting the cold wind blow out the flashback cobwebs. Aiden is strong. Aiden will survive this. But will we? I draw another gust of wind and shut the door on the sirens’ gleam.

The library is bursting at its mahogany beams. It has never looked more crowded, probably because Aiden is so tall that he takes up most of the floor. I immediately find his eyes, hoping for some change, but there is none. They are still empty as they scan PC Dockery and Doctor Gramercy.

“Oh, my!” The doctor rushes straight to Aiden, carrying the same black leather bag I always remember.  “Well, hello to you, sir, Doctor Gramercy here, how do you do?”

“I’m fine, Doctor. Thanks for coming.” I know Aiden’s voice well enough to hear the controlled exasperation buried below his manners.

“Looks like there’s been quite the kerfuffle here. Mind if I examine you?”

“Actually, could you check Elisa first? She has stepped on a lot of glass. I’m truly fine.”

Doctor Gramercy smiles. “I’ll be sure to do that, but I think a head injury is a bit more urgent. Elisa, have a seat, dear, and keep off your feet while I check on your sweetheart.”

I curl down on the rug, trying to give the doctor his space and bring my fears under some form of management.

“All right, Aiden, is it?” Doctor Gramercy proceeds, clearly unaware of the seething underneath Aiden’s composed mien.

“Yes, Aiden Hale.”

“That’s very good. Now, Aiden, tell me, do you know today’s date?”

The doctor starts checking Aiden’s cognition and memory that could dance circles around all of ours combined, even after he was knocked unconscious. There isn’t a second of hesitation or delay in his answers, not one waver from his perfect articulation. But my hands still shake as the doctor feels Aiden’s head and tests his reflexes. Waves of emotion wash over me, wringing my insides. Fear and pain, even more potent than in that ambulance ride so long ago. I grit my teeth against the bile and tears. Save him, God, please. Take everything from me and give it to him.

“You have an old, tough scar back here, Mister Aiden. How did that happen?” Doctor Gramercy’s fingers run gently over the back of Aiden’s scalp, while I twitch on the rug helpless. I know it’s the scar from the insurgent’s rifle—the rifle that knocked him unconscious from the moment he saved Jazz to the moment he opened his eyes and saw Marshall being tortured alive.

“Old and fully healed,” Aiden avoids the question. His voice does not betray a single note of the trauma his memory must have unleashed on him now. Because only the physical scar has healed. What happens to the deep, invisible scars after tonight?

“Thankfully, it didn’t reopen.” Doctor Gramercy palpates the spot but does not push for an answer. Perhaps his years of experience recognize the warning in Aiden’s omission. “The microscope hit it smack in the center. Does that feel tender?”

“No.” Aiden’s denial is immediate, which means the spot is probably as raw as my chest right now. I have to concentrate on breathing in and out as the doctor continues to feel the spot with a frown. Peripherally, I notice PC Dockery revolving around us, taking notes and photos of the library that is now a crime scene. Out in the garden, bright lanterns are glowing electric blue. Mary and Jenny must be treating Edison because he is swearing and weeping.

“My, my, the other fellow sounds positively apoplectic,” Doctor Gramercy notes. “Elisa said he broke in?”

“Twice, at least,” Aiden answers through his teeth. I’m sure, he is silently reciting a full-length prayer in all his twelve languages for this charade to end right now.

“Elisa.” PC Dockery turns to me with his notepad and pen at the ready. “Could you tell me what happened? Do you know the intruder?”

“Oh, Philip, let me examine the poor dear first,” Doctor Gramercy stops him. “You can take their statements while I’m working on her. I’m almost finished here.” He lets go of Aiden’s head and pinches his cheek affectionately as he used to do with me when I was five. “You’re a strong fellow. And a lucky one at that. The microscope spared your skull and brain—a mercy, that is! You must have turned around very quickly to avoid the full impact or the wretch must have been weak. I don’t see any lasting damage except a big bump that should go away with some Tylenol and ice. Here is a cold pack for now. You’ll feel sore for a few days, so no strenuous activity, the telly, or hard brainwork in the meantime.”

Relief, so powerful that it’s almost painful, crashes over me at the doctor’s words. I choke back my whimper and brace my arm against the floor not to topple over. I’ve never thought to be thankful for Aiden’s startle reflex, but I’m grateful for it now. If it hadn’t been triggered, he would have never been able to whip around as swiftly as he did. Not that Aiden will ever agree. He would be furious at the mere idea of me appreciating it.

“Nevertheless,” Doctor Gramercy continues, and I stop breathing again. “I’d like to get an MRI to make sure there’s no internal bleeding, especially given the prior injury. Why don’t you sit up slowly and we can take you to the hospital after I tend to Elisa?”

“Oh, that will not be necessary,” Aiden responds immediately. “I assure you, there was no bleeding last time either. I’ll be seeing my regular doctor tomorrow on an unrelated matter at Oxford. I’ll have her do a scan then.” There is no space for questions or argument in his authoritative voice, as I knew there wouldn’t be. Doctor Gramercy notices it, too.

“Well, I can’t take you by force. But do try to wake up every two hours tonight to be safe then. And if you feel the least bit poorly—confusion, headache, anything—call me no matter the time. Here is my mobile.” He reaches in his coat pocket and hands Aiden his card. “You can move now—gently, there’s a good lad—and I’ll check on Elisa. Do you know I delivered her? The tiniest, prettiest thing she was, too. We’re chuffed she’s back.” He smiles at Aiden and turns to me. “Very good, Elisa, let me see those feet before your Aiden has a heart attack in addition to a skull attack.”

My Aiden rises on his feet faster than the doctor or me, securing the blanket around his waist. He grabs the armchair pillow from the floor and sets it back on its spot, pushing me on the seat with a firm clasp on my shoulder that says clearly “sit or else!” But his touch thaws me out of my frozen anxiety. For the first time since I left our bed tonight, I feel a sense of warmth spreading from his fingertips even though they are icy. I look up at him but he is watching Doctor Gramercy as he teeters toward me.

“A chair, Doctor?” Aiden offers, but Doctor Gramercy waves and sits down at my feet.

“Easier on my back and eyes like this, Mister Aiden. You should be the one to rest, even with your strength. And ice that bump.”

Aiden sits on the arm of my chair, stony and tense, holding the cold pack to the back of his head. Nothing changes in the hollow eyes. I take his free hand in both of mine to comfort him and warm up, but he doesn’t look my way—he is following every movement of Doctor Gramercy who is peeling off my socks and rolling up my pajamas above my knees. A low hiss slides from Aiden’s teeth as he sees the full damage. The armchair creaks with the force of his tension, and I feel a shudder run through his frame. So must Doctor Gramercy because he smiles in a reassuring way.

“Ah, yes, I see! Nothing to worry about. Just a few splinters. I can get these out in no time.” He rummages in his black bag while I stare only at Aiden’s ashen face, thankful I had a chance to pluck out most of the splinters. What would he have done if he had seen all of them?

“Doctor, with anesthetic, right?” he demands, so coiled I think he wants to search the bag himself. But Doctor Gramercy chuckles again.

“Of course with anesthetic. I wouldn’t want to hurt our Elisa. The Plemmonses would beat me up with Harold’s cane, if you don’t wring my neck first.” He brings out a cotton pad and soaks it in liquid lidocaine. The sharp, cherry scent burns my nostrils. “All right, dear, a wee bit of a sting now. Like when you stepped on that cactus, remember?”

As if I care about my skin burning when my insides are on fire, when the wound in my chest is oozing more than any cut or blister. I peek at Aiden again. He is staring at the doctor’s fingers as they brush the cotton ball over my soles and knees. His face is rigid; his eyes could burn holes on Doctor Gramercy’s freckled hands.

“It doesn’t hurt,” I tell him, drawing circles on the back of his fist. “I promise.”

He nods but doesn’t blink away from my feet. A numb feeling starts spreading over my skin. I wish it would numb the pain inside—the pain that doesn’t come from broken glass.

“Doctor, may I question now?” asks PC Dockery.

“Oh yes, Philip, go on. I’ll be here for a while.” He takes out a pair of long tweezers and starts hunting for fragments of glass. Aiden, who never flinched during his examination, winces now.

“I don’t even feel it,” I assure him again. “Doctor Gramercy has the gentlest hands in all of the Cotswolds. Everyone knows it.”

The doctor chortles while PC Dockery drags the chair from behind the desk to my side. He casts a glance at Aiden.

“Normally, we would interview witnesses separately—” he starts.

“I’m staying right here,” Aiden interrupts, glancing away from my feet briefly to lock eyes with the constable in a way that accepts zero opposition. Outside, Edison is whimpering about broken ribs.

PC Dockery nods, seeming unsurprised. “I can see that. Given the type of infraction, I’m comfortable with an exception in this instance. So, Elisa, I’ll start with you. Tell me what happened from the beginning.”

Aiden turns his lethal gaze back to my feet but stops breathing entirely. I realize now that this is the first time he will hear the story, too—at least the part for which he was asleep. I choose my words with care so I can be truthful and earn Edison exactly what he deserves, but not sound so terrified as to cause Aiden more pain. It’s difficult, almost impossible as I remember every horrifying minute. But despite my efforts, each of my words might as well be a stab of jagged glass in Aiden’s own skin. His fist in mine is as cold as when he watches the reel. I stroke it a few times to no avail. His eyes never stray from the growing pile of crystals that Doctor Gramercy is collecting on his porcelain tray. Tinkles of broken glass punctuate my story like exclamation marks. Clink. Clink. Clink. I try to fight back the waves of terror drowning me. But at least I have Edison as an excuse for the cracking in my voice even though right now, I would rather face him a million times over than watch what comes next.

PC Dockery is quiet as he takes notes, although both he and the doctor gasp when they hear the name of my intruder—the polished professor they remember from the hospital, the funeral, and even the rose festivals. Then they fall silent again. The only sounds are my voice, the clinks of glass, and Edison’s cries. When we reach the midazolam part, I feel the armchair vibrate under me with Aiden’s fury as he relives it. PC Dockery reaches in the desk drawer and takes out the brown bottle with a gloved hand. He places it inside an evidence bag that apparently has been with him unused for the last fifteen years and with his predecessor for decades. Now and then, he questions Aiden, too. Aiden answers in a leashed, unemotional tone, his eyes drifting farther and farther away.

“Elisa, dear, try to keep still while I check your toes,” Doctor Gramercy cautions me, no doubt feeling the shivers that are jiggling my body like the wind. I tear my eyes from Aiden’s face and focus them on the doctor’s hands. Like so many aged hands that have comforted me through life. Maria and Antonio, Robert and Stella, and now Doctor Helen . . . What will they say now? How can they help? Will they even have a chance this time?

“Elisa, I do have a question,” PC Dockery says when I finish, skipping over Aiden’s startle and flashback—it’s easy to do, it only lasted a minute before he fell unconscious. “Why did you not awake Mr. Hale right away? Why talk to Edison alone?”

If I thought Aiden was frozen before, it is nothing to how he transforms now. Hard, cold, and entirely still—as though he is channeling all his immense strength toward hiding whatever iceberg is solidifying underneath. He is blaming himself. I know it, I can taste it on my tongue like the lidocaine. My stomach twists with dread. But thankfully the tweezers tug at my skin, yanking me back from the edge. I choke back the nausea, focusing on remembering words and stringing them into sentences.

“I didn’t want to wake him,” I answer quietly. “We were planning on getting up early to go to River Eden, and he had a long drive ahead. I thought I could finish up with Edison quickly and send him off on my own. I didn’t realize he was planning to hurt me.”

PC Dockery peers at me through his half-moon glasses. “I can understand that given how long you knew him, but you must have been suspicious. He came in with a key you hadn’t given him after all.”

“I was but hoped he had a reasonable explanation. I was very naïve,” I mutter even though I am not fooling Aiden. He knows exactly why I chose to handle Edison alone—knows it and loathes himself for it. I caress his arctic fist again, but it doesn’t give an inch. His body is so taut with restraint, he looks like a sculpture. I’m sure only the fact that my feet are scraped and bloody is keeping him sitting by my side.

Doctor Gramercy sighs. “Elisa, next time, use those lungs. I know you have them, I heard them the second you came into this world. Give it a good scream. You’ve got a strapping fellow here who obviously wants nothing more but to keep you safe.”

S-a-f-e. Doctor Gramercy has no idea how dangerous safety is for Aiden and me, how it can tear us apart more than any r-i-s-k. He drops another sliver of glass on the porcelain tray.

“That should be the last of it,” he announces, feeling around my toes for any more splinters. He soaks a new cotton ball with more anesthetic and wipes it everywhere on my skin. This one smells like iodine, mixing strangely with cherry and roses. “I’ll give you both something for the pain, too,” he adds, wrapping a thin layer of gauze over my feet and knees and taping it in place. “But I don’t think River Eden is a good idea tomorrow.”

“Agreed,” Aiden confirms in a decisive tone that cuts through me more sharply than the glass even though I know he is right. But why doesn’t he want to go? Is it only for our health or is he also trying to avoid being alone with me?

“Would you like me to stay tonight if you won’t go to the hospital?” Doctor Gramercy offers.

“No, thank you, Doctor,” Aiden answers, setting down the cold pack. “Benson can stay with us, we’ll be fine.”

“I better interview your friend as well.” PC Dockery stands, midazolam bag in hand.

“We have the evidence from the June break in,” Aiden remembers to add when I completely forget about it. “The mint wrapper, Elisa’s doodles, and the rest. It should be easy to obtain his fingerprints and match them to the bottle and everything else. There is also a security camera in the foyer’s light that we installed afterwards. I’m certain it will corroborate our account tonight.”

“Oh, I’d very much like to see all that. May I search the foyer, Elisa?”

“Please do,” I whisper, realizing that he cannot ask Aiden for permission. The cottage is not his, as much as I long for it to be. Aiden directs PC Dockery to the bottom desk drawer where he has kept the items he and Benson found that early dawn weeks ago—the dawn I didn’t believe him with such drastic, far-reaching consequences. PC Dockery nods and, with a gentle pat on my arm, marches to the foyer.

Doctor Gramercy looks up between Aiden and me, rolling down my pajamas. “You were both very fortunate tonight. I’m glad—this cottage has seen enough heartbreak.”

“I was lucky Aiden came when he did,” I say, looking up at the face I love. It’s still pale, not even the faintest flush of blood in it. “He saved my life.”

“Oh, without a doubt,” Doctor Gramercy agrees. “Now, take these painkillers. You should both get some rest. I’ll call tomorrow after you have visited your own doctor.” He starts to rise, and Aiden helps him on his feet.

“Thank you, Doctor,” I mumble, wishing he would stay. Aiden wouldn’t leave or make final decisions with him still here, would he? But as always, when I beg t-i-m-e to stop, it races ahead. Everything fasts forward at blinding speed. PC Dockery and PC Clarkson download the camera’s footage, sequester the microscope and Edison’s anorak where it is still hanging by mum’s parka, and fingerprint the doorknob, his key, and the photo frame he touched last time. By the time they are done, their old evidence bags are full. Then they finish with Benson and formally arrest Edison, who looks like a mummy swaddled in gauze. The medics load him on a stretcher, and the six of them file down the garden path, lit up by lanterns, flashlights, and the distant sirens. Edison doesn’t look at me when they pass by, perhaps because Aiden—now fully dressed—and Benson are both towering at my sides. Only as the medics carry him by the Clares does his head turn slightly toward the roses. I watch him disappear into the darkness, out of my life. At least my parents are not alive to see his betrayal. At least they never witnessed his full capacity for evil, even if Dad realized his greed in the end.

“Sir, everything okay?” Benson breaks the silence when the responders’ voices fade out of earshot.

I look up at Aiden, but his eyes are on the sirens. Their red and blue beams flash over his skin. I blink away, shivering under my blanket, unable to watch them color the face I love. He doesn’t speak until the ambulance and the coppers drive off. Instantly, we are plunged in darkness. For the first time, I register how much the clouds have thickened. Not a single star or speck of moon filters through their dense canopy.

“Are you able to stay here tonight?” Aiden asks Benson, his voice without any intonation. “The doctor wanted someone around.”

I shouldn’t be surprised he is following Doctor Gramercy’s orders. It’s the right thing to do, it’s for my safety. So why is my stomach spasming with fear again?

“Sure, no problem,” Benson agrees without hesitation.

“Thank you. You know your way up. I don’t want Elisa walking around on her feet.” Finally, Aiden looks at me. In the moonless night, I cannot see his eyes, but my skin erupts in goosebumps as if missing the warmth of his gaze.

“My feet don’t hurt at all anymore,” I say, not having to lie this time. “Come in, Benson, I’ll show you upstairs. Do you want some tea or something to eat first?”

“No, I’m good. I’ll just grab some water.” He steps inside the foyer sideways, stealing a quick glance at his impassive boss.

“You too, Elisa,” Aiden says. “It’s time for bed. I’ll clean up the library.”

“I’ll stay with you,” I insist. “Besides, you’re not supposed to do anything strenuous.”

“Moving a broom around isn’t strenuous. Go on, get some sleep.”

“But—”

“I’ll be up in a minute.”

Even without inflection, there is an undercurrent in his voice. Something I have only heard once before—on our second embargo night when I woke him from his nightmare. It tells me what he is really asking for: a moment alone. Except this time, everything in me recoils from the idea. I don’t want him pondering right and wrong again as he did then, but how can I not give him everything he needs now?

Next to us, Benson ambles from the kitchen with a glass of water, hovering uncertainly.

“I’ll get you set up, Benson,” I mumble, stepping inside. Every string of muscle aches in protest as I twist away from Aiden. He doesn’t follow us. I listen for any sign of him while I lead Benson up the stairs. But there is nothing—only silence.

“Here you go,” I tell Benson, turning on the light to the guest room. “It’s not king-sized, I’m afraid, but it will be more comfortable than the sofa.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

I fluff the pillows that haven’t lulled a guest to sleep since Javier. What would Javi and Reg say now? They would probably be boarding a plane already. How can I tell them about this without worrying them out of their minds? Can I uproot them across the globe again when they are still catching their breath from the last time?

“You ok?” Benson whispers, setting his glass of water on the side table.

I shake my head. “He’s very upset,” I mouth back.

“Yes, he is. This is his worst nightmare. You getting hurt because of him.”

“But it wasn’t his fault at all. This one was all me. I couldn’t rest until he got rid of Max and the whole security bit.”

Benson smiles but his gentle brown eyes crinkle with worry. “It’s not your fault either. You know him inside out. I’m sure you had your reasons.”

I look at his kind face, unable to agree. Yet in some ways, he knows our relationship better than anyone. He has been there with us every step of the way, even the blackest hour of them all—not Aiden’s attack on me, but our break-up.

“I’ll still back you,” he murmurs, sensing my unspoken question.

“You will?”

He extends his enormous hand, the size of a tea kettle. It swallows mine, but he squeezes very gently. “You’re his only hope, Elisa. I’ll back you until the very end.”

The end. What kind of end? When? How? Romeo and Juliet flit in my vision like sirens.

“Thank you,” I whisper, throwing my arms around his vast waist. “I know he loves you, as do I.”

He pats my back lightly, making my knees buckle. “Anytime. Now get some sleep. I heard the doctor. I’ll set my alarm for every two hours and check on him.” He ruffles my hair and pushes me out of his room with a gruff, emotional expression.

The hall becomes dark and empty as Benson closes the door behind me. The light of our happy bedroom glows faintly at the other end. I don’t need to look to know Aiden is not there. I tiptoe to the stairs’ landing, straining to listen. The unmistakable chime of broken glass floats up from the library. I sit at the top stair, huddling in my blanket, waiting. I know instinctively Aiden doesn’t want anyone with him right now. And I don’t want to make anything worse. Maybe he needs this present moment to breathe through his own terror. Maybe he will realize nothing actually happened to me, except being saved once and for all from a lifelong enemy, all because of Aiden. Without him, I would be dead right now, soon joining my parents under marble.

But as I sit here, searching for h-o-p-e, something else finds me. Agony. Creeping at first, only around the festering wound in my chest, then radiating through the rest of my body in wracking waves of hurt. The kind of pain I used to think belongs only beside a grave. I clutch my torso to hold it together, wondering how it is not imploding like the torn ribcages in Aiden’s reel. Lungs and heart and arteries—what is the point of air and blood if the very essence of life ceases to exist?

Downstairs, the jingle of glass gets louder. Or perhaps it’s my senses. Somehow, everything feels magnified, closer. The wind, the broom’s swipes, the willows. Wishes, wishes . . . Or is it ashes, ashes now?

I cover my ears against the sounds, trying to focus on any detail in the present moment that doesn’t hurt. A strategy, a plan. What do we do now? Call Doctor Helen and Corbin at first light—that goes without saying. What about the rest of our allies? The Marines, Aiden’s parents, Reagan, Javier? Would that trigger more flashbacks for Aiden or help? I can’t be sure about that; we’ll have to hear what Doctor Helen says. Yet as I sort through the questions, I realize why they don’t calm me. Because I’m asking the wrong ones: it’s not what we do now. It’s what Aiden will accept for himself. And I have no answer for that.

At last, the glass stops tinkling downstairs. There is only a deafening silence, laced at the edges with willows and wind. I fold my arms around my knees so I don’t run to the library. But t-i-m-e stops again, as it did during Edison’s attack. For the first time since my visa was denied, I look at the clock willingly, longingly even, urging it to move faster. It doesn’t. The minutes stretch, endless and quiet. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-five. Finally, I hear Aiden’s footsteps. I breathe in what feels like hours. He doesn’t take the stairs though; he is striding toward the living room. But he spots me here before I can speak.

“Elisa?” He stops immediately. “What are you doing there? Do your feet hurt?” His eyes meet mine, yet in the time we were apart, they seem to have travelled even further away. Distant and remote—I could search their depths forever and never discover what they are holding. His face is unreadable too, wrong somehow. Too smooth, too blank. My heart lurches to my mouth.

“No, I don’t even feel them,” I answer a fraction too late.

“Then why aren’t you in bed?”

“I’ve been waiting for you.”

He watches me for a long moment from the foot of the stairs. With the soft light of the chandelier behind him, he looks like an apparition. The most beautiful, heart-wrenching kind. Finally, he sighs and starts taking the stairs toward me. The fifth stair that usually squeaks with our love is almost silent at the supple motion of his bare feet. He doesn’t smile when he steps on it, like always. I stand as soon as he is three stairs down, folding my arms around his waist. At this height, my face is almost level with his. It doesn’t help me decipher his expression any better. I lean in to kiss him but he climbs the other steps, towering out of my reach.

“Come on, let’s get you to bed,” he murmurs. “The lidocaine will wear off soon.”

“I’m not going to bed without you.” I take his hand in both of mine—it’s still closed into a tight fist—and try to lead him to our bedroom. But he stops.

“I don’t want to risk falling asleep next to you when I’m supposed to wake up every two hours. I’ll read in your old room if it will make you feel better. Go on, get some rest.”

In the dark hall, his face is shadowed. Terrified, I wobble closer, reaching for his cheek—perhaps my fingers will read something my eyes cannot. The sculpted planes are hard. His jaw flexes once under my palm.

“Maybe being in our happy bedroom will help,” I suggest, knowing how peaceful he becomes as soon as he crosses the golden threshold. “You’re supposed to rest too.”

He leans away from my touch. “No, I’m not bringing in there everything we’ve always kept out of those four walls.”

I think about that—I wouldn’t want to taint that space for him either. “Then I’ll stay with you in my old room,” I insist. “If I fall asleep, I do, but I’m not—under any circumstances—staying away from you right now. I can’t, Aiden. Please, don’t ask me that.”

Another long moment passes in the hallway. Ashes, ashes, ashes . . . Then he sighs again, perhaps realizing I won’t give up. I take it as a yes and take his hand. He lets me hold it as I tow him behind me to my old bedroom.

The room is exactly as it was during my childhood and adolescence. The same white linen curtains drape over the window, the same cream desk, the same full bed lined with rose-printed sheets. Abruptly, the story Aiden’s parents told me about how they discovered Für Elise rings in my ears. Aiden returned to his own childhood home the night I left him. I can’t be anywhere else, he told his long-lost parents. I almost trip as I pad to my own old bed. What will happen this time if we lose each other? There would be no place in the world to hold him or me. Will we be ash then, not even stardust?

I turn on the side lamp and pull back the covers with frozen hands. “Come on, lie down with me,” I tell him, trying to shake off the memory of Stella’s voice.

He takes a deep breath and strides reluctantly my way. His face is still void of any expression, but I will take that over the physical distance. He picks me up carefully, but I know it’s only for my feet because he checks the gauze on them as he sets me down on the bed. I would protest that my legs fine, but I want his hands on me too much, so I let him fuss and examine my knees. Only when he is satisfied that there is no hint of bleeding, he climbs in. I snuggle to his side, much closer than in our big bed, which suits me just fine. His body is statue-like, carved in stone again. I mold myself to his shape like a second skin. He reaches deftly around me to switch off the bedside lamp.

“Sleep, Elisa.”

“Wait, not yet.” I stop his hand. “Can’t we talk for a bit?”

“What would you like to talk about?” he asks in that same detached tone.

I prop myself up so I can look at his face. It’s still unfathomable. “How are you feeling? Does your head hurt?”

“I’ve seen a lot worse than a blow to the head. I really wish you would stop worrying and go to sleep.”

“How can I possibly not worry with everything that happened tonight? Will you really see Doctor Helen tomorrow like you told Doctor Gramercy?”

“Yes, I already emailed her from the library.”

It’s astonishing how much this small initiative relieves me. I feel my lips lift in a smile. “That’s great. What about Corbin?”

His eyes tighten at the corners at Corbin’s name. “I’m sure he’ll call in, too.”

I don’t understand the abrupt edge in his voice, and I’m not sure I want to. But I still can’t help asking. “What is it? Why do you get that look?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t want to get into psychoanalysis now, Elisa. It’s late. Can we give it a rest for tonight?”

I caress his tense jaw, back and forth, hoping it will soften. No matter how much I want to talk, his rest is more important. But I want him to rest with the right thoughts. “Okay, but can I at least apologize first?”

The control slips in his composed face. His raven eyebrows fold in obvious confusion. “Apologize? What did you do that needs forgiveness?”

“If I had believed you about the break-in, we wouldn’t be here tonight. And if I hadn’t woken you up, Edison wouldn’t have triggered you. I placed us in this position, I hurt you, and I endangered myself. I’m so sorry, Aiden. You were right about everything. This was all my fault, and I don’t want you to spend a single minute blaming yourself.”

I have managed to break through the hollow eyes. Something glints there, dark and furious.

Your fault?” He sits up, staring lividly for a brief second. Then the floodgates burst. “It was your fault that you couldn’t keep quiet when a man slapped you hard enough to knock you off your feet? Your fault that I’m so fucked up you didn’t feel you could wake me even to save your own life? Your fault because you questioned someone who is living in several realities at the same time? Or was it your fault because you had to save me from the window I broke by blinding yourself in the process and stepping on the same broken glass you were trying to spare me from?”

“Aiden, no—” I try to interrupt, but he continues in full flow.

“Or maybe it was your fault because you had to lift a heavy desk all by yourself far enough so I wouldn’t crack my skull? Or perhaps I should fault you for saving my life when you were alone and terrified? Which of these crimes deserves the death penalty that I almost delivered to you tonight? Hmm? Tell me, Elisa, because I’m failing to see which of these you want me to forgive.”

He stops talking abruptly, breathing hard. He glares beyond me, while I gaze at him in horror. Even knocked unconscious, he has missed nothing. And he has found a way to blame himself for everything, as I knew he would. I sit up, trying to take his face in my hands, but he tears himself from me and bolts out of bed. In the time it takes me to blink and focus, he is standing at the window, glowering into the black night.

“Aiden, please, don’t do this again,” I beg, climbing out of bed and shuffling to his side. “I know it’s in your character to take the blame, but you have it wrong this time. This one was all on me.”

“No, it wasn’t. There is only one fault you have here as far as I’m concerned: that you fell in love with me. In a world full of Graham Knightleys and Felix Plemmonses, you insist on staying with the absolute worst option for you alive—”

“Aiden—”

“No, strike that. Even that I can’t blame you for. You actually managed to leave me. You found the strength to get on a plane and start again, but I couldn’t leave you well the fuck alone. Oh no, I had to chase you all way around the world because I want you too fucking much. God forbid I should be miserable for a chance that you stay safe and alive.”

“Alive?” I hiss back, losing the grip on my own temper. “What kind of life do you think I would have if you hadn’t chased me around the world? Edison would have turned me into a tombstone on the hilltop by now if it weren’t for you. You’re the reason I’m alive at all. Even you can’t deny that.”

He winces as if I struck him with my words about tombstones. “Yes, I can deny it, because anyone else could have saved you tonight—Cal, Max, any trained bodyguard without you ever knowing. It didn’t have to be me.”

“You’re not serious! What, you would have planted security outside my cottage forever?”

“That’s exactly right!”

“That’s exactly mad! Edison would have found a way—”

“This is not about Edison! Edison is out of the picture now and he will stay that way until he dies. Does that mean you’re less in danger with me, Elisa? Does that mean you can wake me up at night whenever you need? Does that mean you’re safe with the person from whom you are most entitled to expect protection? When you are constantly one startle away from a violent death, more painful than a dose of midazolam? No, it doesn’t. Because I am the most lethal danger that could have possibly crossed your path.”

His words are coming at me fast and gusty like a hurricane. Blowing back all my cells, stripping away everything that gives me meaning. What can I say to convince him? What argument would ever make him accept that I don’t want any kind of life without him no matter how safe or long it might be?

He turns to the window again, his muscles flexing with anger like a churning ocean, keeping us apart. I reach a trembling hand for his granite forearm. “Aiden, you know I could never want anyone else. Why can’t you see how happy you make me? Why can’t you accept that I belong with you exactly as you are?”

He doesn’t hesitate. “Because I refuse to believe in any fate that dooms you to me, that’s why.”

I step in front of him, squeezing myself between his tense body and the window. He doesn’t look at me even when I rest my hands on his chest, but his heart is thundering. “Stop this, please. This thinking isn’t good for you, especially tonight. We’re supposed to rest and do the opposite, not an exact carbon copy of last time.”

He stares into the night for so long, I start thinking he will not answer. But then he speaks slowly. “We can’t do the opposite when the problem is still the same, Elisa.”

His voice has lost all its fight—it’s almost a whisper. The deep eyes break through his control. And for a moment, I’m a child again, like I am during the reel—the same little girl who used to sleep in this white, rosy room with an enchanted life filled with blooms. Because I would have to live through a thousand more fatal accidents, funerals, betrayals, ICE trials and jails, goodbyes, and deaths before I can grasp even a fraction of the agony in Aiden’s eyes. They burn in their sockets, ravaged with despair. His body shudders under my palms and, for a split second, I think his knees will give out. I almost fall on mine, but he flexes and stands taller, as if in front of a firing squad that is not executing him fast enough.

That’s when I realize what I’m seeing, what the searing torture is in his eyes. His hope is gone. And it has taken everything, leaving him only biologically alive.

I don’t know how I breathe through the pain that seems to crush my very bones, how I don’t gasp from the way my body feels ripped inside out at this realization. But I manage, for him. I reach on my tiptoes, ignoring the way the cuts stretch with the movement—it feels like soft petals compared to the mangled mess within—and take his face in my hands.

“Love, we don’t know that the problem is the same. Don’t think that. We still have five weeks left.”

He still doesn’t meet my eyes. He is motionless, as though tied to a flaming stake. “I know exactly how many weeks, days, hours, and minutes are left.”

“Please look at me.” His eyes meet mine, torn and unwilling. My own hurt doubles with the hopeless anguish he is trying very hard to hide. “And we will fight during each one of those minutes. We will fight for the entire time we have left.”

“We have been fighting. I have been exposing you to trauma and danger for fifty-three days. It hasn’t made the smallest difference—not even a moment’s delay in the reflex. I felt it. You saw it yourself.”

I wish I could argue with him. I wish I could say he is wrong. I think back furiously through the sequence, trying to identify any change that will give him life or at least some faith. But how can I dispute something Aiden knows better than anyone? I better stick to facts. “I won’t lie and say it looked different. But I also can’t say it looked the same. It started the same way, but then you were knocked out. I don’t know how it would have ended. Let’s see what Doctor Helen thinks.”

“But I know, Elisa. There’s no one on Earth that knows it like I do. It was the same trigger, the same flashback, the same speed. Of course, it would have been the same end. We have the proof now. Five weeks early, but there it is. All that torture you’ve had to witness, all the pain I put you through every morning, all the risk, everything it costs you to bring me back from the reel—all of it has done nothing. It—didn’t—work. Every additional minute you spend with me now is indefensible and places you in more danger.”

And there it is. Our poison and dagger. The way our love story always races to same end: killing our hearts to save my life. As if I could want any life after that.

He is still looking at me with those same tortured eyes, daring me to disagree. I use the only option, the only h-o-p-e I have left. “Aiden . . .” I clutch his face harder, needing it to be able to stand. “We promised we would fight until the ninetieth day. You will not finish us early this time. Because if you leave before then, you might save my body, but you would kill my heart, not to mention yours.”

With each word I speak, a new inferno seems to burn him. But what else can I say? How else can I buy us more time to try, to find another way? He is still burning at the stake: face a thousand years old, jaw clenched as if against a silent scream, eyes out of focus in agony.

“Aiden, promise me,” I press, my tone bordering on hysteria. “Promise me you won’t leave before the ninety days.” Or ever, I add silently, but I cannot push that tonight.

He closes his eyes, cutting off my only access to his emotions. Seconds tick away, each a new tear through my chest.

“Please,” I implore him again. “Don’t take these last days from us.”

He opens his eyes. Somehow, he has reigned back the agony into a semblance of composure, no doubt for my benefit. I know because when he gazes at me, he looks resigned, as though my words have lashed at his will.

“I will stay until September eighteen,” he breathes at last. “But I need to think about what that will look like.”

Living apart, maybe worse—and he will not stay a single minute more. He doesn’t say it but it’s there in the silence that follows, in his unflinching gaze. Every part of me wants to argue with him, but tonight is absolutely not the right time. I’ll need all our allies and science for that.

I wind my arms around his waist for support. “That’s a good place to leave it for tonight. We can think together what it will look like. Now come to bed. I’ll go get our phones and some ice.”

“I’ll do that—get off your feet.”

Except I need a minute. “No, I need to use the restroom anyway. I’ll be right back.”

Perhaps he needs a minute too because he nods, watching me leave. As soon as I’m out of his sight, I run to our bedroom and grab our phones, trying to think only of a plan for the rest of the night until we see Doctor Helen. Something that will calm him, a way to do the opposite of the last time. But as I search our bedroom for ideas, I find nothing: talking, making love, playing chess, dancing—none of those happy activities will reach him now. Inspiration doesn’t strike until I’m leaving the kitchen with an ice pack and glimpse the light still on in the library. Please let this work, please let us win, please keep him with me.

The library is spotless. There isn’t a glimmer of broken glass or droplet of blood anywhere. Everything is back in its precise place. Aiden has secured the broken shutters together with wire so they don’t slam. The willows’ lament is louder on this side of the cottage: ashes, ashes, ashes… I find what I’m looking for and dash back upstairs.

Aiden is sitting on the bed, toying idly with one of my Rubik cubes—he has already solved it. But his eyes are back in their hollow setting, empty and far away. He raises an eyebrow at his war letters in my hand.

“What are you up to, Elisa?”

“Well, Corbin says we have to do the opposite of last time, and you mentioned reading. So I was thinking of my favorite thing to read: your letters. Last time in Portland, I read only one, all alone. This time, I think we should read them all together.”

His perfect eyebrow arches higher in his forehead. “Elisa, you’ve had a hell of a night. I’d very much prefer it if you got some sleep.”

“And I will, but I’m sure it will be easier to fall asleep to the sound of your voice.” I use the only argument that stands a chance and hand him his phone and ice pack. He checks my knees and feet again as I curl to his side. “They’re warm and cozy,” I lie even though the lidocaine is starting to wear off. I hold my treasure in my hands, stroking the coarse paper that to me feels like my own skin now. “You know when Benson gave these to me, he wrote that he was breaking your rules. What rules did you give him?”

He gazes at the yellowed envelopes for a moment. “He wasn’t supposed to do anything that stopped you from leaving me,” he answers. “No information about Javier, no interference of any kind. Of course, neither of us was prepared for your decision to come back to England. And I should have known in the end he would have been on your side.” He frowns at some thought, glancing at the closed bedroom door.

A shiver runs through me as he confirms my worst fear. I turn his face to me, cupping his cheek. “You will not do anything like that again. No forcing my hand or secret plots for me to hate you, all right?”

His eyes burn on mine, deep and unfathomable. “If only there were such a way, but you seem to be incapable of hating me no matter how hard I try. So there is no point to that strategy now.”

His voice is low with an ancient sadness, but there seems to be only truth in it. Our separation will be different this time. He will make sure Javier and Reagan are here. He will see that Edison is gone away for life. He will set me up with permanent security and trust funds. He will take care of every detail the way only Aiden knows how. And then he will say goodbye. Honestly, truly, forever. The fault lines in my chest tear open. It feels as though everything is cleaving in half, from my body to my life. I have five weeks to stop him. Five weeks to win with almost all of our weapons obliterated in one fell swoop tonight. And I have to start right now.

“You’re right,” I say, knowing he must hear the emotions playing in my voice. “I could never hate you anymore than you could hate me. So stop wishing for it and let’s read. We can start with this.” I pick the most worn envelope from the stack—even undated, I know it by heart. “It’s my favorite.”

A flash of curiosity touches his eyes. “This is?”

“Yes, by a wide margin.”

He frowns, and I can understand why. After all, I was in tears the first time I read, and the second, and the third. But I still couldn’t stop reading it over and over again.

“Why is it your favorite?”

“I’ll tell you after we read it.”

I wrap myself around him, resting my head on his chest. His heart is thudding with its firm, assertive rhythm, slower than during our argument—probably from the memory of writing these letters. The letters that were the genesis of my calming effect. He takes the envelope from me and fishes out the beloved sheet of commissary paper, taking care to keep the red desert sand inside. I know he doesn’t need to read it to remember, but he still begins in his piano voice.

“My all,

This is the day. The day I thought I would stop writing to you. I knew it would come. Despite my romantic notions, I am fighting in a war. I spend my days and nights surrounded by IEDs, artillery, and homemade bombs. But I didn’t know how it would come. I imagined perhaps a grenade on my side of the road, a bullet in the right place, at the right time. The how didn’t really matter—you would know. Because you live inside me, there would never be a need for goodbye with us. I go, you go. In the same last breath.

But as with all perfect things, there is a catch: I love you. Fictional and mythical as you are.

I know that too, I can hear you say. But did you know how deep that love runs? You couldn’t, because until now that I am scribbling these words, I didn’t know it myself. It’s so profound that I cannot bear the thought of you not existing. Even if only inside my head.

And that is why today is not that day. That is why I am still writing to you even though I shouldn’t be here, even though I should join my best man. But if I end, you end with me. And apparently, I cannot tolerate that fact.

How did this happen? How did an imaginary woman become a reason for living when a bullet in the mouth would be the better choice? How did you manage to make me love a part of myself on the day I hate all the rest?

They will say my strength saved my life tonight. They will credit faith, hope, or even angels. But they will be wrong. It was you. I picked up a pen instead of my pistol because of you. There is ink on my fingers instead of blood because of you. I am still breathing so you can continue, even if only as a dream. I am still writing because, in a day when everything feels surreal, I believe you exist.

So we go on, you and I, halves of the whole. You the wind, and I the cloud. You the current, I the ocean. You the fire, I the burn. We go on, like air and lungs, hearts and beats, light and dark.

We go on together because we love.

Yours,

Aiden.”

His voice drifts off, more beautiful than any of the pale imitations I would hear in my head when I read these words alone. I barely breathe so I don’t interfere with the aftersound. Even when he is no longer talking, it echoes in my ears like a lullaby. We go on . . .

“So why this is your favorite?” Aiden reminds me while I commit every tilt of his cadence to my imperfect memory.

“Because in all the other letters, you write about your love for me. This is the only one where you write about loving yourself. When you said, ‘how did you manage to make me love a part of myself,’ it made me happy even though I know this was one of your darkest days. See, there is some self-love in you after all.” I press my lips above his heart, crushing myself closer to him. “And of course I love that you didn’t give up on us even on that day.”

“That day I didn’t know I had developed a deadly reflex, Elisa.”

“I know but, still, you kept some hope.”

He doesn’t answer but his arm winds around me for the first time since Edison’s attack. He looks at the aged letter with a thousand-miles stare, seeing all the images and memories that must be layered underneath each word. His long fingers trail absentmindedly down my arm.

“Hey,” I call him back, suddenly worried I’ve unleashed more terror than comfort.

“Hmm?” He blinks at me. The fingers stop their caress.

“Are these too hard to read? We can find another way to do the opposite.”

“No, not hard,” he corrects. “It’s . . . fitting, I suppose, to read these with you now.” There is a tone of finality in his words, like the sound a full circle might make if it could produce sound. He feels my goosebumps and tucks the quilt around me. “It was a good idea. In a way, they still bring me calm.”

I shudder under the covers. “Let’s go on, then,” I whisper, wondering if he hears my double-meaning. “Read another one. Do you have a favorite?”

I feel his head shake against my hair. “No, each of them felt different and yet the same.”

“Let’s start from the beginning then.”

And he does. “My all,” he murmurs, his voice a quiet sonata. I listen to him read the words that saved him, pretending they can save him again now, can save us both. And despite my efforts to stay awake, slowly, his rhythmic poetry soothes me, too, and I start drifting. Yet, I feel no sense of closure or relief. Because I know darker, more terrifying days are still ahead. Change is coming. I can feel it in the space between my cells, in each breath Aiden takes, in the throbbing of the open wound in my heart. Change is coming. I just hope it’s not the end.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 28 – RIGHT

Hello, hello! After a three-week break, spent most working on the final chapters as the story starts winding toward the end, here is Chapter 28. For those of you on Facebook, the answer to the riddle is here. Read on for a wink at some of your guesses and thank you for playing, reading, commenting, and following along. On a personal note, this chapter was dear to me, like the calm before the storm. If you’re looking for a song for it, I was listening to The Ashokan Farewell.  xo, Ani

 

28

Right

T-i-m-e is an enemy again. It devoured the rest of July—the most beautiful July there has ever been, even with saying goodbye to Aiden’s parents and the Marines. It steals each day in our reel of brilliancy like a silent thief. And it has brought August tenth in a blink.

I know the date even at the edge of sleep. I know it from the way my heart is thundering and the static of my nerves. Because there are only five weeks left in our ninety days, only five weeks to win or lose. And because dad’s bench ceremony is this afternoon. Honoring dad is the easy part—natural like his love. Speaking in front of his two hundred colleagues without a bravery protein is another matter.

My eyes fling open. But immediately the panic subsides. Aiden’s messy head is resting on the white pillow next to me, lips parted, still dreaming to Für Elise. No matter how many mornings we wake up together, the same joy inflates my chest until I can barely breathe. I try to pace my lungs to his puffs of happiness for the rest of the melody, watching him like this—his beauty shimmering with the first light, his feet dangling off the bed, his shoulders tense even asleep.

Outside the window the skylark that lives in the beech tree is harmonizing her song to the piano. And the reel’s soundless bugle blows in with the breeze. It’s getting bloodier and bloodier each day. But at least t-i-m-e is consuming it too—there only 35 reels left. And then it will be the end. I shudder under the quilt. There is not enough bravery protein in the world for that. Because t-i-m-e has not changed the most fundamental law of our relationship: if Aiden doesn’t win against the reel, I will lose him forever and, even worse, he will lose himself. We will both perish then. There is no middle alternative, no compromise for this. When life gives you a love more beautiful than any dream, more powerful than any purpose, more irrevocable than t-i-m-e itself, you cannot reasonably expect a different choice in the end.

I swerve around the thoughts, trying to stay only in this present moment. I rest my fingertips on Aiden’s warm pillow, counting his comforting puffs of breath until the shudders disappear. One, two, ten, fifteen . . .

The piano stops, and the impossible eyes open.

“Good morning,” he smiles, drawing me immediately in his arms, breathing me in. Everything heals then. I bury my face in his chest, never tiring of those two words in his husky, after-sleep voice.

“Good morning.” I kiss his fragrant skin. A trace of rosewood lingers there from last night’s game of body chess.

He tips up my face. “So how long have you been up fretting about your speech?”

“Only a bit. Mostly, I just like watching you sleep.”

His chuckle fills the room, more beautiful than the lark’s song. “What else is left to see? Surely there are better things to do with your time than watch me snore.”

“You don’t snore. And there’s nothing better than this.” I trail my fingers over his stubble, feeling the warmth of his sculpted cheek like my personal sun. He takes my hand and kisses it, checking my palm as he does every morning, even though the pink faded within twenty-four hours and has not returned.

“I know of something better,” he answers, tapping my nose. “Do you want to practice your speech again? I think you’ll be brilliant.”

I laugh despite my stomach starting to turn. He says it as though Pericles himself will descend from ancient Athenian temples onto the Chemistry quad in my image and astonish Oxford’s scientists with eloquence and oratory. “Of course you think that. But we don’t need another rehearsal—you’ve heard it a million times. Besides, I’ve been waiting for this.” I knot my fingers in his hair and pull myself up to his mouth.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, ma’am.” His hands vise my face, and then I’m lost in his kiss. Because t-i-m-e has changed this routine too: we add pleasure—one of our strongest weapons—like bookends on each side of the reel. We need it now to be able to breathe from the minute we leave this bed until he comes back on Elysium. He doesn’t admit that it’s getting harder, that it’s wearing on him. But it’s there in his deep kiss. In the strength of his arms as they strain me closer as if to slip me under his skin. Yet it’s never close enough for me.

“More, Aiden,” I whisper, crushing myself against him. He moans and rolls us across the sheets so quickly that we skate to the foot of the bed.

“All,” he corrects, hitching my legs over his shoulders. And then he gives me everything.

If t-i-m-e ever becomes a friend again, if it gifts us a century together in flesh and millennia in stardust, I still will never be able to describe the way Aiden makes love. Some are gentle and sweet, some stormy and furious, most are utterly obscene. But in these final moments before the reel, our love is desperate, almost violent like war. He moves with abandon inside me, hands like steel manacles around my wrists, teeth sunk in my lower lip, thrusts fast and hard like bullets. I absorb all of them like a shield, holding on to him with my everything. In minutes, my body is building, begging him, for what I don’t know. But he does because he gives me exactly what I want until we both explode, me chanting his name as usual, him with his throaty growl that almost sends me over the edge again.

It takes us less than ten minutes. Our bodies know by now exactly what our minds need for the reel: ten-minute segments of pleasure for the ten-minute segments of torture.

“Elisa?” Aiden chuckles in my neck as we gasp here, tangled and shaking.

“Hmm?”

“How the fuck did I get through the reel that first month without this? I don’t remember.”

I chuckle too, kissing the top of his head. “Because you’re the strongest person I know.”

He pulls up to look at me. “Maybe but being inside you beforehand certainly makes it more livable.”

I pinch the dimple in his flushed cheek. In a few minutes, it will disappear. “Do you think Doctor Helen would let us program into the reel pictures of us like this? Fallujah wouldn’t stand a chance then.”

He laughs as I meant for him to do because laughter is our weapon, too. “Hmm, that would be interesting.” He kisses my lips. “But there’s no universe in which I’d allow Doctor Helen or anyone else to see you like this.” His lips are gentle and velvet on my bitten ones. “And nothing stands a chance against me if you’re on the other side.”

I grip him harder, pull him closer. Because t-i-m-e does stand a chance, as does his p-a-s-t.

“First . . .” I kiss him back, feeling his lips turn up into another smile. More smiles, please, more laughter just for him. “I’ll definitely be on the other side.” I taste him on my tongue and almost forget my train of thought. “Second, I’ve already had sex with thirty-one chess pieces, and have a date with the dark king tonight. You’ve created a monster, and you only have yourself to blame.”

His last laugh washes over my lips. I inhale it, hold it in, unwilling to let it go. “My dear Loch Nelisa, you’re mymonster. Exactly how I want you to be.”

He rolls on his back, holding me a moment longer. Outside the window, the skylark stops warbling. The willows’ whisper wafts in, it’s here, it’s here. Inside, Aiden’s skin is glowing with the last warmth, his eyes holding on to my turquoise like the last slivers of sky before the blackest night. I curl myself around him, wishing I was the protein. This would be the moment for him to take it. The reel couldn’t touch a single cranny of his mind then. But t-i-m-e is looting our weapons too. One month of testing and I still can’t get the fluid to congeal, no matter how many hours Aiden and I spent together at Bia every night. The d-o-s-e for serotonin and oxytocin is becoming its own four-letter word.

He sighs. “I’d ask you for the three hundredth time to stay but I know I would lose.”

“You’re right.”

“Come on then, let’s get this over with.”

I nod, keeping my smile on as long as he does. “Yes, and then we only have a speech to live through and we can start our weekend at River Eden and River Liza to celebrate.”

The dimple holds on a little longer—the names of dad’s favorite rivers never cease to amuse Aiden. “I have a feeling River Liza will be the better catch. Did you decide if you want to leave tonight or tomorrow morning?”

I think about that as I throw on my sweatpants. An idea has been seeding in my head for a month. A fourteenth weapon of sorts, combining love and calm and other things.

“Let’s play it by ear,” I suggest. “See how incapacitated I am after my historic speech.”

“It will be historic.” Aiden kisses my forehead, clasping my locket around my neck. “Maybe not for Oxford, but for you and your father.”

He takes my hand and, with one last gaze around our happy bedroom—him at our messy bed, me at the picture of his brainwaves—we leave to fight.

But the fifty-fourth reel is the darkest one yet even though it’s now in daylight for my safety. Not just because Aiden’s agony during it has reached a depth I can no longer endure with open eyes while I curl on the grass useless. But because it holds him prisoner for a record one hour and ten minutes, twenty-five extra minutes of torture even after the images stop. I have to give him everything—my mouth, breath, voice, smell, touch, mind, every ounce of my strength, even my song playing on my iPhone—before he comes back. Ashen, shuddering, suffocating on my name. And even though he springs up on his feet as soon as he can, he is worn. His skin stays like sheets of ice, he moves slower, his shoulders ripple with aftershocks, and there are deep, dark shadows under his eyes. I cling to him as we get ready so my calm can permeate his skin, while dose calculations drum in my head. Just one gram for him, just a morsel, please.

But t-i-m-e does give us one gift. It steals our days, but it also separates us from the reel each morning. By the time Benson pulls into Bia’s street to drop me off, Aiden is back to his protective, commanding self, even if the color has not returned to his drawn cheeks. He scans the area with sniper vigilance, but this search is for my safety. The car park is fuller today than other mornings at this hour. Graham’s white Fiat is already in its usual spot, as is Edison’s black Alpha Romeo. To the side of the building, the grassy quad stretches empty except the elderly groundskeeper weeding the flowerbeds. But my eyes are rivetted by dad’s bench. It’s draped with Oxford’s blue flag, hidden from view. The nerves—all but forgotten during the reel—return in full force. How can I talk about dad to his colleagues without tears? What can I say that captures him in words and sentences?

“I’ll sweep around building, sir,” Benson announces and steps out as he does every morning before I go inside, even though the two of them sit at Café Vault during the day, at Max’s old spot, to guard me.

As soon as the door closes behind Benson, Aiden takes me in his arms and brings me on his lap. “You’ll do amazing today.” He pinches my chin as he does when making an important point. “You have prepared for this not just last month, but the last four years. You’re ready.”

I nod, not wanting him to spend any energy on me. He needs it to recover.

“Trust me,” he insists. “None of them know your father as you did. Today, you are the expert and they are your students. Teach them your father’s life.”

How does he know to always say what I need to hear even when I don’t know it myself, even when I don’t ask?

“I will. Don’t worry about me.” I trace the lavender circle under his eye. “And will you do me a favor?”

“Anything unless it threatens your safety.”

“It doesn’t. Please try to get some rest today. You know I’m not in danger with this. Leave Benson with me, go back to the cottage, and sleep. Science orders.”

The first dimple since the torture flashes in his cheek. “That sounds like the opposite of restful to me. Being close to you is my best rest, and that’s a scientific fact. But I can promise I will resist negative thoughts and try to focus on good things. And I’ll talk to Doctor Helen. How is that?”

I examine the tranquil turquoise depths when he looks at me, as if the reel never scorched his retinas, and know he is right.  “Okay, revised orders then: sit at Vault with rose tea and chicken soup, read Byron, and text me if you need calm.”

The second dimple sparks. “Deal.”

“And if you’re drifting, try to solve this riddle.”

Third dimple—he can never resist clues and codes. “What’s the riddle?”

“I am the ruler and the servant. I am the war and the peace. I eat time but it doesn’t eat me. I can move for miles and miles while staying still. What am I?”

Fourth dimple. The tectonic plates jolt with curiosity, but he stills them, and his gaze becomes as tender as his touch. “Elisa Cecilia Snow, I adore you.” And he bends his mouth to mine.

It’s a gentle kiss, so different than our earlier desperation. His lips move slowly as though trying to prolong each final second. I wrap myself closer, moaning at the feel of him, but he pulls back with a chuckle. “If you make noises like that, I won’t be able to stop, let alone solve your riddle. Now, do you have your paperclips for the speech?”

I laugh for the first time since the reel—of course he remembers that. “Right here, with my skunk spray.” I pat my purse.

“And your snacks?”

“Yes, I have everything.”

“Hmm,” he hesitates, tilting his head side to side, eyes smoldering at me in a way that makes every muscle in my stomach tighten in response. “I think something is missing.”

I look down to check if my jeans spontaneously melted off on their own. No, they’re still there. “What’s wrong? Do I have something on my face?” I twist in his arms to check the mirror, but he laughs, too, and turns me back to him.

“Your face is perfect but maybe this?” He is dangling an exquisite golden bracelet in his long fingers.

“Oh!” I gasp, starting at the three charms sparkling on the delicate chain. P. E. C. Exactly like the initials dad and I carved under the bench so long ago. “Aiden!” I whisper, tears welling in my eyes.

He takes my hand and clasps the bracelet around my wrist. The fine chain is woven like a DNA double helix. I’ve never seen anything like it. I caress the three brilliant letters, wishing so much there was also an A. Maybe I can snoop wherever he got this and borrow, steal, and save enough money to buy one.

“The letters are made from your and your father’s favorite chemical elements,” he explains. “Phosphorus for his.” He cups his hands around the letters, forming a dark dome. I peek inside and see the three letters glowing a luminescent green. “And carbon for yours.” He removes his hands and the rows of small diamonds glimmer even in the cloudy morning.

“It’s so beautiful,” I murmur, fluttering my hand. The gems throw rainbows across my skin. “And what’s yourfavorite element?”

His fifth dimple dazzles me more than the diamonds. “I guess I better pick titanium. That way you have us all in your hand today.” He circles the bracelet, and I realize he didn’t leave himself out of this gift. The helix chain is his favorite element: strong and stunning, plated in gold, like his skin.

I throw my arms around his neck, kissing him again. “Thank you! It’s perfect now.” Will every one of his gifts make me feel like this? No, they’re not gifts. As warmth radiates from my wrist to my very nerve endings, I grasp a very simple truth: Aiden has never given me just a present. He gives me back pieces of me.

Benson knocks on our window then, bursting the bubble. “All clear, sir. Looks like they’re already starting to set up.”

“Thanks, Benson.” Aiden turns to me. “Don’t worry about this either. It won’t be a repeat of the festival. It’s only an hour, in a small area, and we’ve vetted the entire science faculty. There will be no accidents this time.”

I nod because I believe him. He has been assuring me nonstop over the last month, and I’m less scared with only him and Benson as my bodyguards. Even Aiden has been hard-pressed to come up with scenarios of someone hurting me in broad daylight, in the heart of Oxford, in front of all of my dad’s colleagues. “And where will you be?” I ask the only detail that matters to me.

“We’ll be close by. I’ll have to see how the crowd flows, but I’m not going to miss the best speech in the Chemistry Department’s history, am I?”

My heart swells until I can’t speak. Two months ago when I first heard about the ceremony, I never dreamed he would come anywhere near it. But here he is, no matter how much it will cost him.

I manage to tear myself away from his arms, thinking only of the protein, so I can make this easier on him. So he doesn’t have to live through more reels without it.

Dad’s bronze bust greets me as always in the building lobby, the “ah!” expression in his face like a good morning. The familiar face, wise even in metal, gazes back in his reassuring way. Ah, Eliser, it will be all right. My hand flies to his carved cheek. It has none of his clean-shaven softness, but it centers me. This is his day. I’m finally here to honor him, and not alone for a change. I hope you like it, Dad. The PEC diamonds sparkle against the bronze like a smile. I stroke his cheek and shuffle to Bia as fast as my legs will carry me.

But as soon as I burst through its doors, my knees almost give out. Edison and Graham are there already, each of them wearing a yellow rose bud on the lapels of their pristine lab coats. Another yellow rose is in a vial at my workstation.

“There you are, Eliser!” Graham smiles. “What do you think, eh?” He points at his rose. The bright blooms look like golden stars against the sterile, white space.

“They’re beautiful,” I answer, my voice hushed with emotion. “I—I wasn’t expecting . . .”

“Not expecting this?” Edison chuckles. “My dear girl, you didn’t think we would leave roses out of Peter’s day, did you? Not at all up to your genetic intelligence, Elisa.”

They laugh together while I manage a breath. The crisp air has a faint trace of rose under the ethanol. I swallow hard against the tears threatening to rise up to my eyes again.

“What do you think of the yellow?” Graham asks with so much enthusiasm, it’s clear this was his idea. “We picked it because of that wee sunny one Professor Snow had in his office.”

“I love it.” I smile, wishing Aiden was here to see this. “And dad would have loved it, too. Thank you for doing this.”

“Not at all, not at all.” Edison waves his hand dismissively. “The bench is the star today. I peeked, of course. It looks quite fitting.”

“Tell me you’ve at least written your speech by now,” Graham teases. “Everyone reckons it’ll be better than Professor Snow’s lectures.”

My anxiety ignites like a Bunson burner away from Aiden’s presence. How can I keep up with dad? What was I thinking not rehearsing with Aiden one more time?

“Of course, I have. I’m ready.” I nod fervently.

“Hah! Ready as our protein.”

“Kindly now, Graham,” says Edison, not missing my pretense even through his goggles. “I’m sure Elisa will do very well.”

I plaster on a smile while he removes said goggles and gloves. If I’m like this with Graham and Edison, what will I do in front of the entire science faculty?

“I have a few lectures this morning.” Edison walks my way where I’m still leaning against the door for balance. “I’ll see you both this afternoon.”

As he walks out, a whiff of the yellow rose wafts by with a scent of mint. Oddly, I think of both dad and Javier. Of course, Javier and Reagan have demanded that my speech be recorded so they can watch it later with the Hales, the Marines, and the Solises. Because Oxford’s science departments were not enough for my nerves. I can already hear James’s jokes and Javier’s rumbling voice: “it’s not worse than posing in a sheet for my paintings, is it?”

Except it is. The worst that could happen in a sheet is I would embarrass myself. Today, I could embarrass dad.

I throw on his lab coat and wobble to my workstation. But as I take out a rack of vials, I catch Graham’s expression. He is glancing at my fingers with quivering eyebrows, and I realize immediately what is making him look like he wants to crawl inside the cryogenic freezer, where I wish I could be.

“Graham, relax. I won’t spill anything, but if it saves you an aneurysm, I can handle the peptides today,” I offer, although it’s not an entirely altruistic deed. Because I would have more time to calculate doses and run through my speech while handling the mindless task.

His shoulders deflate with visible relief. “Thank you! I’m really sorry. I’ll make it up to you by doing the peptides next week.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. I don’t want to waste the 2-AG either.”

We spend the next few hours working in easy silence with my brain scattered like the vial shards that keep combusting. A few minutes for the rote work of the peptides, a lot more on serotonin and oxytocin, while the speech plays in the background like a soundtrack.

But around it all, there is something else. A closeness to dad. He is always in my thoughts when I am in this building, but it’s different today. What would he think about this idea that has been percolating for me? Would he like it? I think he would, as would Aiden. But do I? Through the nerves, I sense a trickle of warmth—like a microscopic river washing away questions and uncertainties. I try to hold on to the rare feeling of clarity, but as hours race toward the ceremony, nerves become a snarl. Why couldn’t I have unscrambled the formula already? I’d never take it from Aiden, but maybe just a scrap for today. And why isn’t it working? The bracelet jingles with our favorite elements. I crunch more numbers, trying to listen only to its sound.

Edison storms in around three with his typical hurried pace. He spots me at the peptide bench but doesn’t seem to need explanations this time. “Graham, could you come to the quad? We need to set up.”

I stand to help too but Edison stops me, waving his hand. “Not to worry, Elisa. We’re just arranging chairs. You continue on here. We’ll come by when ready.”

As if I can argue against having the lab to myself. “Okay, let me know if you need muscle for heavy lifting.”

They leave Bia with a laugh, closing the door with a reassuring thud. As soon as their footsteps fade, I toss on my goggles and gloves, sprint to the oxytocin and serotonin coolers, grab the ampules, and race back to the sink for some testing. I don’t risk my workstation during breaks like this. If someone walks in, they will only see my back, and I can flush everything down the drain.

“Be safe,” Aiden texts, no doubt seeing Graham and Edison exit the building from Vault. I don’t even have a second to reply. I flex my fingers for steadiness and start piping the different doses of love, reciting the speech under my breath. Hello, my name is Elisa Snow . . . But no matter how precisely I inject each microliter, the mixture in the vial remains the tepid lilac liquid it has stayed since the day Aiden’s parents arrived, the day Aiden thought there was a break-in. Not the solid candy consistency it should be. The only progress I have made this entire summer is that the vial is no longer exploding. But I’m no closer to saving the man I love. The only thing I’m closer to is the end, and Aiden and I have nothing to face it with. All the endless calculations, the relentless research, the sleepless nights reading next to Aiden under the light of my phone, the constant analysis playing in my head have been for nothing.

Abruptly, I feel angry. More than angry, I’m furious. The speech vanishes from my head entirely. A reddish haze blurs my vision, and I glare at the carefully proportioned pipette, wanting to hurl it straight across the lab. My hands shake with the urge, dripping love on the molecule of fear carelessly. In my madness, laughter rips from my throat. All that effort to save every drop, think like dad, act like him, and now all I want to do is the opposite. Spill, stop measuring, scream. It’s ironic that an hour before dad’s ceremony, I’m standing here questioning the very same methods he taught me. My fingers tremble again, and more oxytocin spills. The waste feels good, liberating.

I know I shouldn’t do it. Never in anger, dad would say, but fury hijacks my hand and I squirt the entire pipette in the vial. The bracelet rolls under my glove like a warning, but nothing happens. The liquid doesn’t thicken or change in any way. It simply swishes around in the vial, lilac and useless. That “nothing” only makes me more enraged. Saliva pools hot and metallic on my tongue. Isn’t there anything I can do to make a difference? Nothing at all I can do to help my love?

I fling the pipette into the sink where it shatters with a satisfying BANG!  Step back, dad would tell me now. Leave the lab and walk away.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” I mutter. “I can’t.” A single brain cell registers déjà vu: the last time I ignored dad’s instructions, I mixed a sleeping aid that almost drowned me if it hadn’t been for James. But I’m not sleepwalking now; I’m wide awake. I grab a second ampule of oxytocin and dump all of it into the vial of 2-AG.

Elisa, stop this! Dad splutters, but I barely hear the echo of his voice in my memory. Because in the vial, the liquid reverts from lilac to bluish water—it too is going in the opposite direction, but at least it’s doing something. My heart starts pummeling my ribs. Am I undoing my miniscule progress or am I having a break-through here? How much more love does it take to drown fear? Impulsively or perhaps desperately, I yank a third ampule.

Elisa, enough! The beloved voice rebukes me now, but I’m already pouring the clear fluid into the vial. Instantly, the mess starts fizzing and smoking. The sight is ominous but the more the haphazard concoction evaporates, the lighter I feel. As if the mixture is drawing the fury away from me to it. A crack of reason opens in my head the way my vials used to break. Then ideas start to billow like the blue smoke. Fifth time, dad’s code said. Did that too have a second meaning? Like December, the twelfth element and the twelfth oxytocin? I already have three ampules of love and one ampule of fear in. On instinct, I grab an entire ampule of serotonin. It seems a far-fetched interpretation, but what else do I have to follow?

“Is this it, Dad? Or something else?” My voice is muted by the thump-thump-thump clamoring of my heart.

But the only answer is the one I know: his strict instruction. Stop this hodgepotchery, Elisa. Be a scientist. Measure first, step by step.

“I’m sorry, Dad, but there isn’t enough time. I have to help Aiden.”

I rip off the lid from the serotonin ampule. The fluid of self-love is not clear like oxytocin; it’s cloudy and opaque. This is a lot more serotonin than I would have ever thought to use, but isn’t that what Doctor Helen said when she described my effect on Aiden’s brain? A powerful injection, she called it.

And what do I have to lose? Without another thought, I flood the vial with the milky liquid.

It’s instant. The jumble snarls with violence. It spews out gusts of blue vapor and starts hissing in my hand. Throw it in the fume hood! Dad would be shouting now, but I grip it tightly, transfixed. So this is what happens when you break the rules? You feel better? Or do you get hurt?

Another blast of fumes roils from the vial, engulfing it in a blue cloud. A curious sensation of warmth spreads to my fingertips. Finally fear finds me. I’m about to hurl the vial as dad would, but with a faint pop, the blue smog dissipates. Poof! And I can finally see through it. I stare wide-eyed, shaking head to toe, expecting a charred mess. But there, in the crystal depth, is a syrupy sap. Light indigo, not the purple it’s supposed to be. And most certainly not a solid protein.

Defeat bolts me here, staggering and deep. But what else was I expecting with this idiocy? At least it’s something different, something new. Because, despite the blow, I know without question I just catapulted further into this journey. What I don’t know is how far I still have to go. And there is only one way to find out.

I inhale a gulp of sterile, cold air and raise the vial to my lips.

Absolutely not! Dad thunders, but his apoplectic rage is drowned by Aiden’s vicious roar in my head. He would be murderous if he saw this. I swear the titanium on my wrist feels like his steely grip, stopping my hand. Which is why I’ll never tell him.

“I’ll be fine,” I assure them both, not bothered at all that I’m talking to myself. After all, I’m doing a lot more mentally unstable things. “There’s nothing toxic here, we know that by now.”

And I drip a glob of the treacle into my mouth. Every cell of my tongue recoils in protest. Gone is the lemony taste; this concoction is bitter and cloying like Novocain. I don’t know what kind of love tastes like this, but it’s definitely not mine. In that, I know again I have failed. Dad would never have brewed a disgusting sludge like this. I spit it out, tears burning my eyes. Whatever progress I made today, it’s still not enough. And it might never be.

My phone vibrates by the sink. “Incoming,” the real Aiden alerts me, mercifully unaware of my lunacy.

I jerk into motion, whirling like a tornado to destroy all evidence, including the moisture on my cheeks. I cannot cry now; the only thing I can do is breathe even if Bia’s air feels more like acid than oxygen in my clenched throat. I don’t even have time to rinse the vile taste out of my mouth. I toss the shards into the broken glass receptor and flush the sink. By the time Edison and Graham come in, the only trace of my insane and indefensible experiment is inside me, coating my tongue and blistering my mind.

“Hey, Eliser, you’ll love the quad when you see it. People are already gathering.”

“Elisa, is something the matter?” Edison frowns, probably at whatever expression is still glued on my face.

I bring out a smile. “Nothing, professor. I just finished running through my notes. I only wish dad was here to see it.” As I say the words, however, they don’t sound like the excuse I meant them to be. They ring loud and true. A wave of guilt crashes over me in addition to my misery. On the day I’m supposed to honor dad, I broke all his principles.

Edison is still watching me, eyes crinkling at the corners. “That’s natural, of course. We all wish that. Do you need a minute?”

“No, I’m all right,” I answer, smoothing down my father’s coat. Suddenly, the white cotton fibers feel like chainmail, crushing my shoulders under their weight.

“Very well. After you.” Edison gestures for me to lead, and we head out. I brace myself for the nerves but they are drowned by remorse. What would dad think of me now? Would he be disappointed as well as furious? Or would he understand the desperation behind my actions? Would he forgive it? I know the answer to that one: yes, he would. Love is never a mistake, he would say. There is nothing to forgive, only to learn.

The air has picked up a breeze outside. Clouds are floating by, turning the sun silver. The quad is lined with white chairs like half-atomic orbits facing the draped bench at the corner. Oxford’s banner waves behind it with its sigil: Dominus Illuminatio Mea. But my breath stops from the object next to it. Dad’s lectern. I would know it anywhere by the polished cherry wood and the small chemical element carved in the corner. P for Peter and Phosphorus, like the initials on my wrist. A yellow rose blooms next to the microphone.

Despite the overwhelming guilt, a soft tenderness drapes over me. This is exactly what dad would have liked: simplicity, knowledge, love. And love hangs in the air like its own emblem. It’s at the long banquet table in the back, laden with dad’s favorite bubbles, canapes, and his ubiquitous After-Eight mints. And above all, it’s in the faces of the white coats already gathered in the quad, each wearing a yellow rose. The dignified scientists laugh together in clusters.

As I watch the growing crowd, I sense eyes on me. Not the academic eyes, but the sapphire eyes that heat my skin. I turn on the spot, searching the woods boxing the quad but I don’t see Aiden there or even Benson. I’m sure I’m under strict observation, yet nothing is infringing on dad’s moment. The exact opposite of the festival, just as Aiden promised. Except I want to see his face now more than anything, especially after the last thirty minutes. I want to see the love in his gaze that makes this all worth it. The love for which I would break every rule, swallow every bitter drop. On cue, my phone vibrates once in my pocket. I yank it out, knowing it’s him.

“You’ll do beautifully,” he texts.

I give up the search. I know I will never find him if he doesn’t want to be seen.

“Where are you?” I write back, but before his answer blinks on the screen, Graham nudges me.

“So, what do you think?”

“It’s brilliant. It’s exactly what dad would have liked.”

Edison chuckles a few steps ahead but clearly listening. “I should hope so. We knew him well enough. Come along now, they’re all waiting to greet you.” His ever-curious eyes squint at me as he leads me into the quad. My phone buzzes again: “I’m with you. Love.”

I don’t know how he does it, but I feel lighter even with him invisibly close. As if those tiny four letters, l-o-v-e, can lift the atomic weight of all my toxic emotions. They carry me as I start weaving with Graham and Edison through the crowd of scientists that is swelling. I recognize almost everyone either by sight or introduction. Like Burford at the Rose Festival, Oxford is rolling out its own remembrance. There are warm handshakes despite the cold, laboratory fingers. There are favorite memories of dad and his lectures. There are questions about me: How am I doing? Am I enjoying my internship? What is next for me? And the constant, “you’re so very much like Peter.”

I smile and answer as best I can, but shivers whip my skin when dad’s friends ask about my future without a single doubt that it’s there, that it will be bright, that life is waiting for me rather than me for it. Because they don’t know our deadline in five weeks, the end that will decide everything. Not tangentials like doctoral programs or dreams, but the very threshold question of my existence: will Aiden and I win or will we vanish?

“Elisa?” Edison calls behind me as the wine almost spills from my trembling hands. “It’s time. Are you ready?”

The question rings like a shotgun in the air. I glance at the quad’s borders, still unable to see Aiden but knowing he is here with me. In the background, Oxford’s spires rise to the sky like hands in prayer. My hand flies to my locket. Make me calm, make me brave.

“Yes, I’m ready,” I manage because dad deserves the best from me.

Edison’s eyes widen slightly in surprise—he was probably expecting a nervous meltdown, which may still happen—but he nods. “Very well. I’ll announce you shortly.”

By the lectern, the violinist starts playing The Lark Ascending, one of dad’s favorites.

“Thank you for organizing this,” I tell Edison while I can still string words together. “And for remembering so much about dad.”

“It was the full faculty. Go ahead take your seat. You’re on the front row with me.”

And then I’m alone in a quad crammed with two hundred brilliant scientists peeking at me. I squeeze through the chairs and find my seat next to Edison’s empty one, only inches from the bench. If I reach, I could touch the flag-clothed arm where dad’s elbow used to rest. But I know that would push me over the brink. It’s a small, Aiden-made marvel I’m upright and breathing, or mostly breathing. Quiet gasping is more appropriate. The periodic table starts clanging with the speech in my head, words and elements jumbling together. I check my paperclip in my pocket and finger my titanium bracelet as the violin ends and Edison takes dad’s lectern. I’m done trying to understand my emotions at this point, but somewhere in the chaos, I bristle with possessiveness like I did when I saw him in dad’s office. The feeling is absurd—where else is the poor man supposed to speak?

Edison starts his remarks so eloquently that I’m torn between listening to him and trying not to hear a word lest I lose whatever composure I’m managing. Too soon, my cue booms from the microphone.

“We were very fortunate two months ago,” says Edison. “To welcome back Peter’s very heart. Friends, colleagues, and competitors—you know who you are—” he points his finger and the audience laughs in his thrall. “Please welcome Elisa Snow.”

Applause echoes through the quad, but it sounds wrong to me. I’m not the Snow they should be clapping for. My phone buzzes at my hip like a nudge. Somehow, I’m on my feet and moving. I teeter to the lectern, fingers tight around my paperclip, keeping my eyes on my Byron sneakers so I don’t trip. Aiden is close, he is with me. As soon as I reach the podium, Edison wishes me good luck and takes his seat. I step behind dad’s lectern, grasping the wooden ledges where he used to, draw a quiet breath, and finally lift my eyes to the scientists sitting in front of me.

For a second, I’m blinded by the brightness of white coats gleaming like a mirror dotted with yellow roses. Rays of smiles beam at me from every direction, but I blink past them and search the fringe of trees behind the audience for Aiden. I find him at last, directly in my line of sight. He is leaning against an oak tree with unconscious grace, Benson holding up a phone at his side. An exultant smile glows over Aiden’s flawless face. His eyes—smoldering even from here—burn on me with unrestrained pride. A sense of wonder floods my chest instead of the wound. Wonder that he is here, wonder that he is mine. And suddenly, I don’t feel nerves anymore or panic or fear. I only feel the miracle of sharing dad’s moment with him. He nods once, and the words start easily like a familiar childhood rhyme.

“Hello and thank you for being here today. As you know, my name is Elisa Snow. S-n-o-w. I have thought a lot lately about what that name means. To you all, of course, it means a colleague—” I skim over their rapt expressions and spot Doctor Helen in the last row, giving me a regal smile. “A professor—” I nod at Graham who is grinning. “And a friend.” I smile at Edison who is watching me with astonishment. “But to me, the name has carried many meanings. For the first eighteen years of my life, it meant family; for the next four, it meant pain; and now, it means love.” I find Aiden’s eyes again. His smile is so breathtaking that I have to look away to be able to speak. “It means ‘love’ because that’s what my father is to me. At every point of my life, he had a lesson: play chess and carry on; let your brain lead the experiment, but the heart steer its application; don’t try to know, try to understand. But the best lesson he taught me was how to love. Not how to love without fear, but how to love despite of it.” I continue through my speech, rarely needing to check my notes or pinch my paperclip. I just find Aiden’s eyes when I need to, and the words flow more naturally than I could have ever dreamed. It seems unbelievable that only three months ago, I was falling apart speaking in front of him with Denton at Reed. Right now, he is my bravery. But will I be able to brew courage for him? I’m closer after my madness today, but how far away still?

“I ask myself often when I am afraid,” I tell my audience or perhaps myself. “What would dad say if he were here?” I pause, searching for my own answer now that my head is clear—what would he tell me so close to the end? “He would probably say, have faith in science when you don’t know, in your heart when you do, and in yourself to be able to tell the difference.

“Thank you for honoring him and for allowing me to share his example with you today.”

I barely finish my words when the crowd erupts in applause and, to my shock, the scientists rise to their feet. I hear Graham’s cheer, I see Edison’s wide eyes, I catch Doctor Helen’s dignified bow of the head. But I skip frantically over them for Aiden in the back. I wouldn’t have been able to see him above the standing bodies if he weren’t so tall. But his beautiful head towers enough for me to meet his shining eyes. He smiles triumphantly with the purest look of adoration on his angel face as he is clapping. I love you, he mouths. I almost climb over the lectern to sprint headlong to him but, abruptly, there is a line forming around me and I’m passed handshake to handshake through the crowd.

“Well done, Elisa.” Edison finds me with Graham, and they start leading me toward the bench to unveil the plaque. “That was a very heartfelt tribute to Peter.”

“And here I was, thinking you were nervous.” Graham laughs and gives me an awkward, one-armed hug. “But then you pull a blinder. Not a dry eye in the audience, mind. Except me, I’m unshakable.”

“Indeed.” Edison nods, unable to hide puzzlement from his pensive voice.

I don’t know how to tell them about the surreal man who is my courage, so I mumble about practicing for an entire month, which is true and also irrelevant.

The mass of scientists gathers around the bench dad so loved. I try to squint through the wall of white coats to keep Aiden in my sight for this moment, wishing so much it was his hands touching the Oxford flag with me. But there is no open crack to glimpse him anymore. My chest flares even as I grasp the blue cotton fabric that always brought a look of pride to dad’s face.

Edison, Graham, and I fold Oxford’s flag together away from the bench. As the simple bronze plaque engraved with dad’s name comes into view exactly where his shoulders used to rest, my own reel flashes before my eyes: dad reading here, his laugh when I solved my first Rubik’s cube; our heads under the bench as he carved P.E.C., so many moments that made me, me. Through the tunnel of my imagination, dad looks up from the pages, saying ah! Ah, you did it, Eliser!

And though I hear the applause of his two hundred friends and colleagues, I only want one person here with me. I squint reflexively again over the white mirror and the flashes of phones and cameras, even though I know I won’t be able to see him. Maybe we can come back here at night and sit together, read dad’s favorite poem, share his favorite wine, kiss. Dad wouldn’t have minded. He would have laughed and lectured us about oxytocin. I brace for the sense of loss that usually fills me when I have such thoughts, but it doesn’t come. The only thing I feel is anticipation. With a low gasp that confuses Professor Ricci who is chattering at me, I realize something else has changed in the last month as well: I’m celebrating more and mourning less. I know it’s all because of the man watching the quad to protect me.

At last, the crowd loosens as the scientists shuffle around for drinks and canapes. As soon as I see an opening, I slip through it and scan the border of the quad urgently. But Benson and Aiden’s unmistakable frames are not visible there. The wound erupts in my chest. I dart through the bodies, greeting and thanking, trying to linger at the crowd perimeter. Around me, the chatter swells with memories of dad. “One of a kind, your father.” “Was very proud of you.” “Brought you to our lecture when you turned one.”

I nod with a full throat by the banquet table. The idea that has been percolating in my head fizzes with rightness. The first moment I have alone, I inch my fingers carefully toward an After-Eight mint. Unlike Baci, they’re not my favorite, but they were dad’s. I haven’t touched one since serving his last few at the funeral.

A caress I know in every cell brushes my trembling fingertips.

“Oh!” I gasp, spinning around and here he is! Standing right in front of me at the edge of the crowd, braving his worst nightmare, more beautiful than any mirage. The gold has returned to his skin, but his long body is vibrating with tension even with Benson at his back and trees behind him. I know there are panes of granite underneath his blue shirt and navy slacks. But despite that incomprehensible strain, his eyes are molten as he gazes at me.

“Aiden!” I choke as soon as I can breathe. “Aiden, you’re—you’re right here-here!”

“Congratulations, Miss Snow.” His voice is subdued with emotion. A smile lifts his lips into a curve; no half-moon or cupid bow could ever compare to it. “You were phenomenal. Even better than I imagined, and that’s saying something.”

“Great job, Elisa,” Benson winks.

“Th-thank you,” I stammer, unable to blink away from Aiden only inches from me. “It was because of you.”

“No, love. You did it yourself.”

I almost launch myself at him. Only a fading sense that I’m at a memorial event with two hundred professors around stops my feet. I have to cross them like a torniquet to stay put. He chuckles, but his eyes fall on my mouth like the kiss I want so desperately. His fingers brush mine again and he picks up the After-Eight mint.

“I think you were reaching for this?” He holds it on his open palm between us, as he did with the chess queen. His eyes do not release my awed gaze.

My hand flies up to his without hesitation, eager to touch any part of him. He could be holding a flame, and I would stick my fingers straight into the embers. I swirl my fingers around the mint, feeling the warm perfection of his skin before touching the little square.

“Cheers,” I whisper.

He smiles victoriously again and his hand closes around mine. I reach on my tiptoes—no longer caring about the professors anymore—but a regal, disapproving voice I would recognize even asleep rings right next to us, shattering the spell.

“Aiden?”

“Doctor Helen!” I squeak, yanking back my hand and almost dropping into a curtsy. She is standing imperiously in her gleaming crown of silver hair and white coat, looking most displeased.

“Hello, Elisa,” she greets me but her arctic stare is not directed at me. It’s trying to pierce through Aiden. Trying and failing. He doesn’t even look at her; his eyes are still caressing my face.

“Not now, Doctor Helen,” he answers, his mouth twitching in humor. “I’m having a very important conversation.”

“Aiden, this is an irresponsible idea,” she decrees. In her commanding voice, the words sound unquestionable and incontrovertible.

“Is it?” he questions her. “I believe I recall an instruction from you to live the life we want to live as fully as possible and stay in the present moment. That’s exactly what this is.”

I can’t look away from his amused eyes to see her expression, but I can hear the censure in her tone. “I also instructed you unequivocally to guard against the startle reflex at this time.”

His shoulders snap like armor but his gaze sweeps over my jawline that calms him. “And I am. I have only Benson and trees behind me. There is no one within fifteen feet except him, you, and the woman I love who just gave a beautiful homage to her father after four long years. I think she deserves this present moment, don’t you?”

Heat burns my cheeks, but Doctor Helen’s reminder makes me shudder. Because I see exactly how much this is costing him, what he is risking. “Aiden, love, Doctor Helen is right. Don’t worry about me—just having you close by is all I need.”

“I am only partially right,” Doctor Helen corrects in a gentler tone, surprising me. The disapproval vanishes from her face, and she gives me one of her stately smiles. “Aiden is correct about the rest. You did splendidly. I know Peter and Clare would have been very proud.”

I remember mum’s journal—how these two women rallied together to save Aiden—and I believe her. “Thank you, Doctor,” I whisper. “And thank you for coming.”

“I wouldn’t miss it. And if I may, I am proud of you, too, for your remarks and the way you’re supporting Aiden. I know it’s getting harder in this final run. But you are both doing incredibly well, this momentary lapse in judgement aside.”

She says this in her usual gravitas that leaves no room for doubt. And I realize that Aiden must have talked to her already, that this assurance is his other gift to me today.

“That’s a much better present moment, Doctor Helen,” Aiden chuckles. “And now I will leave. I have a riddle to solve.” He kisses me with his eyes, and I know he wants to do and say so much more. As do I. “We’ll be close. Don’t rush unless you want to.”

He caresses my fingertips again and strides away with Benson, almost blurry with tension. I stare after him as he wrestles his formidable reflex for the sole purpose of helping me lift a mint, of being here in this one moment with me.

I feel a warm clasp on my shoulder. Doctor Helen has rested her ivory lace hand on it from her great height. That rare maternal edge softens her face. “Keep the hope, Elisa child. I will see you in five weeks for the final test. Try to make the most of your time together until then.” And she glides away.

T-e-s-t. Hope trembles like a candle in the wind of her majestic passage. Because even in her assuring tone, it’s impossible not to miss the note of finality in her words. The beginning of the end.

I wheel around and race back across the quad, my only goal now to make my excuses and leave so I can be with Aiden. Edison and Graham are up front by the bench, sipping champagne. The violinist is playing the Ashokan Farewell.

“Ah, Elisa,” Edison greets me. “Right on time. A few of us are heading to King’s Arms to toast Peter. Will you join us?”

“I would love to, but I’m leaving for River Eden tonight to celebrate dad. But please have a tipple for me.”

Graham laughs. “Eliser, you’re doing something fun for a change. That’s what we should raise a pint to.”

Edison’s eyebrows rise, but he seems pleased. “River Eden is perfect, of course, but you had better leave now. Lake District is almost five hours away. Take Monday off if you wish.”

“Thank you both,” I nearly blurt out and sprint back inside the building for my purse, texting Aiden that I’ll be out in two minutes.

Bia seems exactly as I left it: bright with the soft fluorescents and the yellow rose at the desk. I hang up dad’s coat, eyes on the coolers of serotonin and oxytocin. Why didn’t it work? I’ll try again, dad, as you would, but safely this time.

Aiden and Benson are waiting for me of course, walking parallel back to the car park lest I take three steps out of sight. As soon as I round the corner, I bound straight to Aiden and leap into his arms. He catches me in his iron embrace, holding me against him so my feet are above ground. And I’m home. My fingers hook in his soft hair, and I bring him to my mouth, not caring if I’m making Benson nauseous. I drown myself in his taste after an entire century of not kissing him. He kisses me back softly, adoringly. I forget where I am, I even forget t-i-m-e. The only thing I know is that I love him. Dangerously, irrevocably, no matter what Doctor Helen’s t-e-s-t will say. And I want to spend every minute left celebrating, making every single part of mine his.

I tangle myself closer, but his hand restrains my face and he pulls back with a chuckle.

“Hi there,” he says, eyes gleaming with amusement at my exuberance.

“Hi,” I breathe.

He chuckles again, setting me on the ground without releasing my waist. “That must have been some mint.” He tilts his head to the side as if to remind me that we are not, indeed, alone like my body thinks we are, and I finally remember Benson. Our poor Big Ben is standing there, back to us, looking up at the clouds. I flush to my curled toes.

“Hi, Benson. Sorry about the—umm—this.”

He laughs and turns around. “I didn’t see anything. I’ll check out those mints, though.”

“I’ll buy you a box,” I promise because I can.

“So now that you aced your speech to no one’s surprise but your own,” Aiden turns me to him. “Are we leaving tonight?”

“Actually, there’s something I want to do first. Can we leave tomorrow? Edison gave me Monday off.”

He looks as though he heard I just made progress on the protein, but there will be time to tell him about that. “That was kind of him, but I’m curious now, though. What is it you want to do?”

My heart starts pounding. “You’ll see.”

The breeze has become a gusty wind when Benson drops us off at home. Fluffy clouds are hurtling across the sky like silver puffs of breaths from the sleepy sun. And the cottage is standing in a globe of petals. Thousands of them are flying everywhere, swirling like welcome hugs around our feet. Everything is rippling, including my heartstrings.

“A lot of change,” Aiden notes, eyes sweeping the garden as always. “But it all seems to be from the wind.”

The black shutters creak in agreement.

As soon as we’re inside, Aiden scans the foyer while I try to breathe, even though the state-of-the-art camera in the chandelier feeds live images to his phone and Benson’s all day. An entire month without incident has still not convinced him I’m safe. He remains as sure of my danger as that first night.

“Nothing out of camera’s range.” He sighs and pulls me in his arms. “I promise you, I will solve this. I don’t know how or when, but I will.”

Hopefully, it will take him a lifetime so he can stay with me. I reach on my tiptoes to kiss him. “I don’t mind now that you’re my bodyguard. But speaking of solving things, how long did it take you to solve the riddle?”

He smiles. “You sound certain that I have, in fact, solved it.”

I almost trip while standing perfectly frozen. “Y-you haven’t?”

“I have an answer,” he qualifies. “But I’m not certain it’s the right one.”

“What’s your answer?”

His hand curves around my face. He gazes down at me with tenderness. “Is it love?”

L-o-v-e! Apparently, it’s the answer to everything. “I didn’t even think about that!” I stare at him, gobsmacked.

His eyebrows arch with amusement. “You didn’t? So I missed it?” The excitement in his expression makes me laugh. Only Aiden would love being able to do something so normal as missing a puzzle.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you didn’t. I did.”

“Oh, no.” He laughs, too. “I lost this fair and square. You have to give it to me.”

“But you didn’t lose. The answer could be love.”

“It could, but it doesn’t fit your instructions. Love can survive distance, but it can’t move. And it’s debatable whether time does not affect love. It may not destroy true love, but it can change it, grow it. Not everyone loves as immediately and irrevocably as I do.”

“Or I.”

“Precisely. So I lost.” The dimple is brighter than if he had actually won. “Now, tell me the correct answer.”

Rightness washes over me again. “Come.” I take his hand, dragging him behind me. In the few short steps, I have whirlwinds everywhere. A twister in my throat, a vortex in my chest, tornadoes in my feet.

“The library?” Aiden muses, searching the cozy room with its paneled walls. “Ah, is the answer a book?”

I suppose it could be. I look up at his sublime face—it could be him. My king and protector, warrior and healer, with a memory that transcends time and place at any moment. Except when he looks at me with the same love that is burning in me. The only love that could make me do this.

“Close your eyes,” I whisper, my voice breathy like the willows.

He doesn’t miss my emotion. “Are you alright?”

“Never healthier.”

He holds my eyes for a moment in that way that sees straight through my skin, then closes his glistening lids. I lead him across the woven rug where dad and I built my first planetary model. Aiden is stepping where Venus was now, then Jupiter, then Mars.

“Wait here and don’t peek.” I stop him on the sun and open the window. The wind blows in, flipping the pages of the book Aiden has been reading in his promise to absorb Dad’s entire library; of course, he is almost finished. A column of silver light pours on the spot where he is standing.

“All right, now come with me.”

I take his hand again with conviction. His fingers weave with mine. He is quiet as if he senses the change breezing in. I stop us on the path of light at the tiny table in the corner. With his eyes closed, he looks as though he was forged out of some mystical metal just to tower here in this moment.

“Okay, you can look now.”

The brilliant eyes fling open and widen at the object between us. “Elisa!” he murmurs in shock, understanding in a blink.

“The answer to the riddle is chess.” I rest my hand on the treasured glass case that holds the unfinished chess game that dad and I started the morning before the accident. The last rays of sun are refracting on it. The pieces rest within, untouched by hand or time in four years and eight months. I look up at Aiden’s face. The deep emotion in his eyes echoes my own.

“Will you finish this with me?” I invite him.

His strong hands cover mine around the glass box. The deep V folds between his raven brows. “Elisa, are you sure?” he breathes.

“I am.” My voice rings clear. “There isn’t anyone else in the world I’d want to do this with.”

Neither his hands, nor his eyes release me. “Tell me why, love. Not why with me, but why you want to finish it after all this time.”

“Because I’m ready. I want to celebrate dad. I don’t want to spend one more minute mourning. That’s what he and mum would have wanted for me: to heal and live. And I want to live it all with you.”

Because there will be no life left if we lose in the end.

His fingers trail up my arms, leaving tingles in their wake, and frame my face. I have never seen his eyes deeper or more mine. Under his gaze, I feel like a glass case myself: open, see-through, and entirely breakable. But he leans across the tiny table and kisses me. It’s a tender kiss as if he knows the fragility of the moment. “I love you,” he whispers against my lips. “Every time I think you couldn’t make me prouder, you do.”

When he pulls back, his smile is glorious. It fills my vision and floods my mind. “Well then,” he quotes me. “Let’s play.”

I laugh breathlessly. The sound bounces off the book spines, a chuckle on Dante, a giggle on Byron. He comes around the table and pulls back my chair. “Do you want to be black or white this time?”

I know what he is really asking. “Black, for dad. I want to finish his part.”

He kisses of my temple. “Perfect, because I want to close for you.”

We take the old, rickety chairs that squeak like the shutters: I in dad’s, Aiden in mine. The board waits between us at last. It doesn’t have the magnificent gleam of mine upstairs, but it has a comforting, Christmassy sheen. How many times have I stared at it, preserving it in its glass tomb instead of letting it glow free?  I dig up the After-Eight from the ceremony and set it on the side.

The jubilant smile has not left Aiden’s lips. His face is a light prism of its own. He doesn’t need to have eyes on the board, of course; they’re only on me.

“You really like this, don’t you?” I ask him.

“I think ‘like’ is an understatement.” He laughs, but an emotion smolders under the humor. As I gaze back at him, the laugh suddenly softens. His beauty intensifies in that hypnotic way that knocks me breathless. “I love it,” he admits. “Until you came along, this game was as close to calm as I could get. I’ve waited all my life to play it with you. Even when neither of us knew it.”

But I know it now. That’s why this is not just a happy memory in our reel of brilliancy; it’s a new weapon. A weapon that will hopefully bring Aiden some peace of mind between reels, that will double my calm in case the protein—I shut down the thought and smile at him.

“Me too. I wish I could have gotten to it sooner.”

“You’re right on time, love.” He inclines his head to me. “Your move, I believe.”

There is no question about it. When it comes to this game, I might as well be eidetic like him. I remember exactly the last piece I played; I know by heart the only six moves left. He doesn’t rush me. He waits patiently as my hands claw into fists on my lap, digging into the denim of my jeans, despite my conviction. But I know how to release them now after thirty-one nights of touching chess pieces with and on him: I look at his face. His hair is ruffled from the wind as when I run my fingers through it. I visualize weaving my hands through the soft waves, and bam! The fists open. Then slowly, I raise my right hand—it’s trembling like the beech leaves—and hover it above dad’s knight. The move I know he would have made.

Aiden nods again as he did before my speech. The faith in his gaze is unwavering. Easily, like the words of my eulogy, my fingers wrap around the carved mane.

The familiar wood warms my fingertips like a hello. Does dad’s touch still linger there? Did t-i-m-e preserve that? At the window, the Clares are swaying, as if mum is watching like she used to. I draw a gulp of their air, keeping my eyes on Aiden, and then I move.

From my concentration, I underestimate the strength of my grip and almost knock over the rest of the pieces as I whip past them.

“Oops!” I gasp, but my hand adjusts automatically on its own, the synapses firing without any conscious instruction from me. The moves are reflexive like heartbeats, easy like breathing. Not like I’m coming back to them, but like they never left me. It’s an electrifying feeling—it shoots from my fingertips straight to my lips. Pure laughter bursts from me as the knight twirls between my fingers in an old habit.

Aiden throws back his head, laughing too. The waterfall sound cascades down the wood-paneled walls and their perpetual After-Eight scent. He could finish this game in ten seconds, but he doesn’t. He plays at my pace, making the moves I would have made.

“So the ruler and the servant are the king and the pawn,” he solves the riddle as he picks up my old pawn and sets it in the direct line of dad’s king.

“Yes.” I caress dad’s bishop and execute the rook. “And the war is obviously the game.”

His Queen reads my bishop’s last rites. “But there’s also peace in every piece since they rest together between battles.”

“Exactly.” I check his Queen with mine. “And we can play on repeat and kill time itself.”

“Yet time cannot erode the wood or ever touch rules of chess.” He sacrifices his Queen so I can also lose my own.

“And we can travel for miles,” I answer, picking up my Knight and riding across the chessboard as I have countless times. How many miles have I galloped and glided on this chessboard? How many has Aiden on his? How many miles will we be able to play together?

“All while staying perfectly still.” He checks my King with his Knight and looks up at me through his long lashes. His smile blinds me again.

“Check, Elisa.”

“Check, Aiden,” I counter, resting my own Knight across from his.

And then it ends. In a stalemate exactly as it would have ended then. A ten-minute segment of love completing the last four years. I stare at the finally finished game. Does the board feel the same waft of peace blowing through me? The two kings face each other as equals. It was a good game, Dad. I hope you’re laughing. I hope you’re saying, “ah, Eliser, play again!” Tears rise up in my eyes, blurring the board.

Aiden comes to my side, sliding on his knee. He traps the teardrop on his finger.

“Is this a happy tear or a sad tear?”

“Happy,” I sniffle, throwing my arms around his neck, inhaling the smell of him. “There’s nothing adjacent about it.”

His laughter reverberates in my chest. He takes my face in his hands and kisses me, his lips fierce and exultant against mine. I melt in his arms, pressing myself closer, but he stops abruptly.

“Rematch of our own?” he asks with an eager expression: eyes wide, smile huge.

“Yes, please,” I answer, free and clear.

He springs to his feet and scoops me up in his arms.  “I’m black this time,” he stakes his claim. His eyes are on fire. I ignite everywhere, from my skin to my blood. We leave the finished game by the window, the white curtains billowing toward it like angel’s wings. Then we fly together to our chess set in our bedroom. Now it’s the turn of my king.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 27: T-I-M-E

Hey friends and happy last hours of the weekend! I hope it was a good and restful one for you. In case you’re looking for a good, cozy way to finish it off before Monday arrives, here is Chapter 27. We’re getting closer to the end now.  Oh, if you need a song recommendation for this, I had Wicked Games playing in my head. You’ll see why. Hope you’re enjoying the chapters and thank you to all of you who comment and write to me with your thoughts.  I love and read each of them. Talk soon, xo, Ani

27

T-i-m-e

I don’t stop running until I’ve cleared the last weaver cottages, looking over my shoulder like a fugitive in my own village. But because I’ve never been much of an athlete, my legs and lungs give out in ten minutes and I sprawl on the grass in the middle of a grazing field, gasping, spluttering, and clutching stitches at my sides. The evening breeze whips my sweaty face. I gulp it down, staring at the evening lights twinkling from windows in the distance.

How much does Aiden know by now? That I went to Javier’s room for the night, absolutely. Max probably texted him before I finished bolting the door. That I ran away? I don’t think he has made that leap yet or I wouldn’t be panting here alone. He is probably still packing up the stand, making sure there isn’t a single scratch on it. But how long will it take him to figure it out after that? I don’t know. If he decides to give me space, I have a few hours, maybe the whole night. If he checks on me, I have one millisecond.

I scramble to my feet, still huffing and shaking. But my sandals aren’t made for escaping. Their straps are already cutting into my ankles and toes, so I set across the field for the shortcut along the riverbank and its velvet moss. The night is falling fast now, settling over everything in shades of plum, ink, and silver. Not that I can see the colors. My vision is locked in the reddish filter of rage. For a while, the mishmash of emotion is so frantic, I can’t even understand it, let alone control it. There’s the acid of anger, the cleaver of pain, the hammer of fear, the bite of guilt, the blister of grief, each crushing, slicing, and eroding whatever part of me they can reach. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong about that. Because I’m still pulsing with them as I tread away from the river and round the foot of the familiar hill. Instinctively, as I’ve done every few minutes, I look around into the burgundy night. Burford’s lights are twinkling far in the distance, but I’m utterly alone. Not a single psychopath, stalker, or enraged Marine is following me. The trail to the top is hard in my sandals. They slow me down when I want to run up to the peak, but that’s good. Because I’m not just visiting my parents this time. I’m also climbing for me. Coming to the only place that’s still mine, free of surveillance and the terror of the reel. How did a place of incomprehensible grief become a place of hope and now of solace? Is this what they mean by healing?

The tiny meadow is bright with moonlight. Not a single shadow on it except the cypress tree. The American Beauty sapling I planted with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier is growing a new bud. The tokens we brought them last time are still by the epitaph along with the vial of Aiden’s dog tags, exactly as we left them. They haven’t moved an inch, nothing is missing. I run my hand over the engraved names—the marble is as cold as my fingertips.

“Here you go, Mum,” I whisper, but the words flow with ease, more naturally than any of the other three times I’ve visited here. I set down the Rose Cup by her side. The silver stem does not sparkle as it does in the sun but it throws a slender shadow over the marble like a delicate, feminine arm. “They all remember you still. And love you so much . . . except Willoughby of course. He’s absolutely livid he lost again.” I smile, registering with some surprise that I’m able to do so here without Aiden next to me. But it’s definitely a smile, turning up my lips even if it disappears at the thought of him. “It was quite a day,” I sigh, taking the Elisa rose he tucked by my ear and setting it down under her name. It has wilted by now. Make this your day as well, he said. I scoff with irony. How can it be my day, my life when he’s not letting us live it? When every minute of every hour of every day, we are locked in a war inside the mind that’s bombing every aspect of our life?

I rest my palms on the marble. Are they still pink? I can’t tell—I’m still seeing red. But as I sit here finally alone, breathing in the cypress air, the snarl of emotion starts to soften and rearrange. Sorrow fades away, grief changes from a blister to an old bruise. And anger shifts far down, making room for pain, fear, and guilt at the very top. I can think through them all, I can add love, I can see the night free and clear. The pure white tomb glowing with a diffuse light. The veins of the marble forming figures like clouds . . . an eye, a heart, a river, a fork in the road. And emotions start to become thoughts and then crystallize into questions: what do I do now? How do I save Aiden from the reel when it’s stealing him from me no matter how grounded I try to keep him in the present moment? How do we win when every weapon seems useless against it and I’m still nowhere finished with the protein? How do we make happy memories when we barely have a moment alone? How do I salvage some stardust if we don’t survive?

He comes out of nowhere. One second, it’s just me by the grave and another he blasts to the crest like a shooting star.

“Elisa?” He thunders, drowning out my startled cry. He freezes when he spots me, a perfect silhouette against the moonlight, holding something in his hand. I think I hear a gusty sigh of relief in the hilltop wind. A moment passes while we gaze at each other—or at least while I stare at the shape of him. Is it vibrating with tension even from here? Then he glides noiselessly across the meadow like a dream. An old fear flickers once and I pinch the inside of my wrist to test reality. But I’m awake, it’s the real him. As he comes close, I finally see the thing he is holding. My pashmina. He hands it to me without throwing it over my shoulders as he usually would. My throat tightens. But it’s better this way, so I can process.

“Thank you,” I whisper, wrapping myself in the soft cashmere. I didn’t realize I was shivering until now.

He nods once and sits next to me in silence, eyes on the epitaph. Automatically, my body softens at his proximity, despite the anger still lurking underneath. I run through the periodic table twice but he still doesn’t speak, either too angry or relieved to say anything.

“So, you found me,” I finally start.

He looks at me then. His eyes are molten silver. “Does that upset you?” His voice is dark and low like the night.

Of course he would wonder given my escape. A few moments ago, I was wondering myself. I shake my head. “I knew you would. The only question was how long it would take you.”

“Too long it seems.”

I have no idea what time it is—I can’t trust my sense of chronology with him—but it feels like I’ve only been here about ten minutes. “No harm done. I was perfectly safe.”

His eyes close, and he pinches his nose. A subtle shudder seems to ripple over him. “Were you?” His question is so quiet, I’m not sure he meant it for me.

I answer it anyway because it’s at the heart of everything. “Of course I was. If anyone wanted to harm me, they could have by now. I was walking alone in the dark with the Rose Cup as my only weapon. I really wish you would drop this now.”

His eyes fling open, and he shudders again. He stares at the grave, his breathing harsher, his jaw flexing furiously, throwing dark shadows in the starlight. He doesn’t answer, and I can’t think of a single thing to say without a fight. I trace the veins in the marble with my finger. A period, a comma, a question mark . . .

“Do you still believe that?” he asks after a while. My eyes fly up at his face, but he is gazing at the epitaph still.

“Believe what?”

Amor vincit omnia—love conquers all.”

I think about that. When I first chose it for my parents, I thought there wasn’t a truer truth. When I returned here a month ago, I thought it was the most beautiful lie. And now . . . “We have to,” I answer honestly, my voice catching. “I’m starting to think it’s a choice.”

His eyes meet mine then, ardent even in the night. “And what do you choose?”

I try to think with his eyes on me, with him being so close, yet so far, but at least this answer doesn’t require a lot of mental power. “I choose to win with you.”

The shadow of his tense jaw lightens. I think I hear another sigh in the breeze. “Me too.”

“But I don’t know how, Aiden. Not when we’re fighting against each other again, like we used to in Portland. We’re not staying in the present moment, united against the reel. We’re divided: you living in fear for me, me running away at night, making your fears even worse . . .”

He looks at his dog tags now, the flawless panes of his face dark blades again. His hands interlock around his knees in a double fist. The knuckles glow a perfect white.

“I don’t blame you for being angry with me,” I add because it’s true. “I’m sorry I worried you.” And I am now that I’ve calmed down. I added to his stress instead of ease it as I’m trying to do.

He inhales sharply, and his eyes flash to me. “Angry with you?” The light flows over his face with his intense expression. “How could I be angry with you when I gave you no choice? When I took away every place of comfort you’re trying to rebuild? When I suffocated you to the point where you felt you had to run out at night and risk your—” He stops abruptly, closing his eyes and drawing another shuddering breath. His knuckles glint. “No, I’m not angry with you.” He shakes his head after a moment. “I’m infuriated with me.”

It’s as though his mind permeated mine as I was running and read all my thoughts. Yet the more fury he fires at himself now, the less anger I feel. There isn’t a single trace of it left in me. The only thing twisting my insides is hurt for him.

He is gazing at the epitaph again. Of its own volition, my body moves closer until our arms touch. I expect his fragrant warmth, but he has become a sculpture of ice. His breath catches though, and his eyes burn on mine.

“I know why you’re doing it,” I say, brushing my fingers over his diamond knuckles. They soften as does the point of contact between our arms. “You’re just trying to keep me safe with everything you have. It’s your way.”

“Yes, my way, and I’m making you miserable in the process. I cling with arrogant obstinacy to my idea of what will keep you safe, and all I do is break your heart over and over again.”

“Aiden, no—”

“Don’t.” One word, sharp and jagged like a knife against the self, yet his hand wraps gently around mine. Instantly, an old tension I didn’t know I was feeling blows away. He twists up my palm, perhaps searching it for pinkness but it’s bleached white from the moon like everything else. “The point is, I don’t trust myself with you anymore. So we’ll do it your way, Elisa. Starting right now.” His silver eyes blaze even in the darkness, while my mind goes blank.

“My way? What do you mean?”

“I’ll let security go. Max, Ferrars, the overnight guard—gone. Tonight. You’ll never have to see any of them again. Except Benson of course, but you don’t have a problem with him. And we’ll start again. The sooner, the better. This minute, in fact.”

Bloody hell! I stare at him in stunned disbelief. Am I hearing this right? Did he really say it? My heart is crashing against my ribs like Ferrars and Felix into the rose stand. “Does this mean you finally agree there’s no danger?” I blurt out, trying to make sense of the chaos. “That you’ll finally relax about this?”

His eyebrows rise with similar incredulity. “Of course not. I still think someone is curious or worse about you, but what options do I have left? I will not force you into more risky behavior like this. I will not continue to rob you of the new life we had just started. And I’m not willing to let this drive a wedge between us like it has been. So that leaves me with your option: I will protect you myself.”

My head is still spinning. “But why do you still think—”

He presses his finger to my lips. They tremble at his touch. “I will not have this argument with you, not now, not ever again. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No, because we’re doing this your way, not mine. Mine is usually wrong.”

He takes his finger away, which is good because my mind is still scrambled. This is exactly what I wanted to hear. Want it so much, I pinch myself to make sure I haven’t fallen asleep on the grave like the first time he visited this hilltop in my dreams. I’m fully awake. So why am I not relieved?

“But won’t you be worried about me still?” I argue anyway.

He shrugs as though this is the least of his problems. “Of course I will. That will never change, whether you have a security team of a hundred or none.”

“I know, but won’t it be worse if you remove security completely? You’ll be dreading that I’m going to get hurt all day instead of saving all your strength for the reel.”

A small smile lifts the corner of his mouth. “First, I sincerely doubt it can get much worse than it was tonight. If I lived through the five minutes, sixteen seconds of trying to find you, not to mention cutting through the festival crowd and the time you were supposedly in Javier’s room, I can probably live through death itself. Second, I’m not removing security completely; I will protect you myself, with Benson of course. And third, yes, I’d worry less about your safety, but more about your heart. So it’s all the same in the end.”

Except I don’t want him worrying in any way. Not under the kind of pressure he is. “Aiden.” I clutch his hand in both of mine. “Is there anything that will convince you I’m safe? Anything at all that will help you relax even a bit?”

The smile doesn’t leave his lips, but his answer sends shivers under my pashmina. “Time, love—the very thing we don’t have.”

No, we do not. Tick tock. Tick tock. But there must be some way that doesn’t involve bombarding the life we’re supposed to live or raiding his mind with stress so he cannot fight the reel. I search the meadow, the epitaph, the marble map for anything. He is the only one who answers. In one of his fast movements, his hand turns so it now covers both of mine.

“It actually might help if I’m protecting you personally, Elisa. Even with Max, I couldn’t rest when you were out of sight. I realized after today, I cannot trust anyone with you like I can myself.”

I cannot argue with that truth. Because I cannot trust anyone other than myself with his rest either. And this way, we’ll have more time together. I feel my own lips lift into a smile. “And I’ll protect you. I’ll make you the protein as soon as possible, you’ll see. And then you’ll never have to fear for me again.”

My favorite, lopsided smile flashes over his face, varnished in silver—so beautiful that my heart stutters at the sight. “Elisa, you already protect me from everything. From the moment I open my eyes with the reel until I close them to your song. It would be impossible to find any man more protected and loved than me.”

At least the reel hasn’t stolen this knowledge from him. At least l-o-v-e is still standing strong against it, his mind is still holding onto that truth like a shield. “Not one,” I agree.

His arms fold around me at last, like protective wings. I haven’t felt them since our doomed lunch, but of course it feels like a century to me. I worm myself into their circle, breathing him in. The air flows easily through my lungs—like sleep, like Für Elise. He is not icy stone anymore, just warm and fragrant steel. He sighs, and his lips press in my hair.

“Is it really going to be just us again?” I verify, still afraid that we will lose more moments alone in our remaining days.

“We already are, love.”

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“You compare a tiny rose to an entire jungle.”

The miniature roses around the epitaph gleam the purest white. Love conquers all. It must. The locket on my chest is pressed between his heart and mine. Help me solve the protein, help us win.

His opalescent arms pull me closer, tucking my head under his chin. He kisses my hair again, holding his lips there, inhaling deeply.

“What are you thinking?” I ask, tracing the vein on his warm neck.

“It might bring back the ire if I told you.”

“No, don’t worry. The wrath is long gone. I lost it with the pashmina.”

“In that case . . .” He breathes me in again. “Thank God you’re safe and thank God for pashminas.”

We chuckle together—his laugh beautiful and argent like the night, mine quiet but effortless for the first time on this hilltop. At the sound, a sense of lightness falls over me like the uninterrupted glow of the moon over the meadow. Something I never could have imagined feeling here. I curl into him totally content, marveling at how time—my Fallujah, my reel, my startle, my mortal enemy—can also be my ally. Because four years ago, this hilltop pulverized me into granules and spewed me across continents like ashes in the wind. Then a month ago, it gave me a purpose, then h-o-p-e. And now another beginning. T-i-m-e. Has it joined our ranks or is it a foe still?

“Do you want to stay here a little longer or go back to the cottage?” Aiden asks after a while. “Just us,” he emphasizes, hearing my unspoken question or perhaps remembering it from this morning. “We can celebrate your win with the others tomorrow on our picnic.”

I smile. “That’s exactly what I want.”

He kisses the top of my head once more and stands, lifting me along and balancing me carefully in case I topple and roll down the hill. But he frowns immediately at my sandaled feet. “Did they give you blisters coming up here?”

“Umm, maybe a very small one. Blister adjacent, I think. Please don’t punish my sandals. I really like them.”

He doesn’t breathe fire on them, but he does glare, not looking the least bit convinced. He picks up the Rose Cup, hands it to me, and swoops me in his arms. “Come on, let’s get those adjacent blisters on some petals. Mrs. Plemmons thinks they fix everything.”

“Aiden, no way!” I protest, trying and failing to wiggle out of his unbreakable hold. “You won’t carry me all the way down the hill. It’s too far.”

“Hah!” He laughs, tucking my scarf around me. “You wanted me to protect you myself instead of the security team. Well, this is the deal. Take it or leave it.”

“The deal is carrying me places?”

He’s already in motion, leaving the moonlit meadow behind. “Carrying you, driving you where you need to be, sitting across from Bia while you’re working, not letting you out of my sight until I fix this, and anything else required to keep all ten of these blistered toes safe.”

He is dragon-serious. There isn’t a single speck of humor on his tone despite the laughter. Except it sounds like heaven to me. I tangle my arms around his neck, kissing his scar. “I’ll take it. You can be my bodyguard anytime.”

He laughs again. “I’ll remind you of that when you’re calling Max and Ferrars in a week, begging them to come back.”

“In your dreams.”

“No, I have a lot better things saved for those.” His arms tighten around me like pearlescent fetters.

I watch his silver profile as he strolls effortlessly down the meandering trail, remembering precisely where a shrub is or a rock. It’s been so long since he has carried me in the moonlight like this. Not true of course. It’s only been a week, but it feels like a different life to me. A life we are starting again.

“So how did you figure out I had escaped?”

A shadow falls over his face as he passes by another cypress tree. “It wasn’t exactly CIA’s Kryptos to decode. Max texted me that you were staying in Javier’s room and that he’d guard you until I was done. Not that I was shocked; obviously you didn’t want anything to do with me. But I thought I’d give you space while I finished up with the stand and then come grovel on my knees. Well, as you can imagine, I barely lasted thirty-four minutes with that noble intention—just enough to dismantle the stand and secure it in Benson’s van. Once I went back to the Inn and knocked on Javier’s door and you didn’t answer, I knew where you had gone. Alone—in the dark—what if—” He chokes off in terror. From his shudder, I shake in his arms.

“Shh, I was all right. I’d never put myself in any real harm.” I stroke his scar, trying to think. He remains convinced I’m in danger. How can I help him with this?

His jaw is throwing starlit shadows with tension. I run my lips over it, back and forth, back and forth until it shimmers silver again. Except I can’t stop. I haven’t kissed him since this morning, and that’s a millennia ago. Besides, how can any mortal mouth be this close to such a face and not touch it?

He smiles. “You need to stop that if you don’t want me to trip.”

“You don’t trip. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you touch me.”

I hold properly still to make this easy for him. It’s hard with all the tingles lighting up on my skin like fireflies—sensations I never thought I’d feel anywhere near this hill. But they’re there, blinking warmer and warmer. Already I can’t breathe right as though I’m the one trekking down the trail.

He is quiet for the rest of the hike, his breath coming out fast and fragrant. Yet his unconscious grace never wavers. And for once I think of Byron, not Shakespeare. He walks in beauty like the night. Aiden says that poem is mine, but as he descends in and out of moonlight and nightshade, now silver, now dark, I’m convinced it was written for him. I should write it on his Timberlands. Would he laugh if he woke up tomorrow to see it Sharpied on their soles?

He clears the hill with me in his arms faster than me climbing with the Rose Cup. The night is thick down here. I half-expect him to insist on carrying me all way back to the cottage, but out of the darkness morphs the black shape of the Rover. I don’t know why it surprises me. How else would he have gotten to me in exactly five minutes and sixteen seconds? He must have raced faster than a nitroglycerin combustion.

He scans the area immediately, and I search with him, rigid with contradiction: body fusing itself to him, mind racing to Bia. We already didn’t have hours to waste, now we don’t even have seconds. But he isn’t tense right now; he is relaxed, whether from the quiet night, my calming effect, or the fact that I’m safe in his arms, I don’t know. He sets me down by the Rover’s door and takes my face in his hands.

“Now about that kiss,” he says and his mouth captures mine. His lips are soft and warm, but his kiss is urgent and deep. I give him back everything I have, parched for his taste. A low moan rises in his throat. He presses me against the Rover’s door, his heated body forged to every line of mine, his fingers gilded in my hair. To my suddenly feverish skin, he feels like a flame. I shiver paradoxically between him and the door. A different mishmash of emotion whirls in me now at the bottom of this hill: the burn of desire, the vise of love, the ocean of longing, the breeze of relief, each healing and rebuilding every part of me.

Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I can’t imagine this all-consuming love to ever end for me, even if I’m ash. I’m still incandescent with it as Aiden’s mouth slows, his tongue tracing my lips with a final sigh.

“Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush mine once more, and he pulls back, his breathing rougher than when he was trekking down the hill while I dangle in his arms, dizzy and gasping. “Come, let’s go home.”

H-o-m-e.  It’s one of the rare times he calls the cottage home. He may not realize it, but I certainly do. I’m counting each one.

He opens the Rover door and stuffs me in the front seat, checking my palms as soon as the cabin light turns on. The pink is fading, only a faint blush now the color of the Clares.

“They still don’t hurt,” I assure him quickly.

“If they’re not back to their perfect condition by tomorrow, we’re going to the doctor, and I don’t want any argument about it.” He gives me a stern gaze.

“I accept,” I answer without hesitation. I’d probably agree to a lot worse if he really would rest.

“Now, let me look at these.” He slips off my sandals carefully, hissing when he sees the two blisters on each big toe, one on each pinky, and another one on each ankle. “As I thought. Blister adjacent indeed. I’m banning that word, Elisa. Right now.”

“Yes, General.”

He glowers as he reaches in the glove box for our first aid kit because of course our cars are equipped with such measures. I think defibrillators and MRI machines are the only medical equipment we’re missing. He disinfects each blister with an ethanol wipe, blowing on it and muttering a string of profanities. Then he wraps a bandage loosely around them, blowing again to make sure air flows through. “You’re not wearing these for at least two weeks!” He orders and hurls my sandals in the back seat.

“Do you have something I can blow on?”

He glares in response, but his lips twitch with a restrained grin. “If you behave.”

The drive to the cottage takes only ten minutes at normal speed. Aiden steers with one hand, twining his other fingers with mine. The rose soundtrack is still on from our Aidonis trip, this time playing Love is a Rose by Linda Rondstadt.

“Do Max and the others know I escaped?” I ask, starting an apology in my head.

He chuckles. “I think it became quite obvious when they saw me bolt out of the Inn like a madman. They’re apoplectic as to how you pulled it off. Incidentally, how did you manage it? Did you take the back stairs?”

I hang my head, feeling guilty. “Yes, that’s why I went to Javier’s room and not Reagan’s. It’s closer to that door.”

In the blue light from the dashboard, his smile seems impressed. “And this is exactly why I need to protect you myself.”

“I didn’t get Max in trouble, did I? He did everything right—even checked the balcony.”

“Of course not. He’s excellent, I’m just impossible when it comes to you. But don’t tell me you’re already missing him?”

“Not in that way. But I do like him, he’s very kind.”

“Well, don’t worry. I’ll bring him back again with Cal and the others. Maybe in September.”

Tick tock. Tick tock.

Everything is quiet when we park in the garage, although it doesn’t stop Aiden’s peremptory examination. But it’s only a blink. He is at my door as I’m unclicking my safety belt.

“Are you tired?” he asks, taking the Rose Cup from me and draping the pashmina back over my shoulders.

Tired? I haven’t felt more awake all week. “Not even a little bit. Besides, I think you promised me a celebration this morning.”

He laughs, sweeping me off the seat straight into his arms, lest I attempt walking the four-minute distance across a velvet of wildflowers on bare feet. “Did I? I must have forgotten.”

“You don’t forget. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you run from me.”

Elysium is brimming with moonlight as he carries me across it. The daisies are brilliant white with the rest of the wildflowers in grey patches like clouds. A heart, a fingerprint, the inkblot of the reel. Aiden tenses as always when we pass by it.

“Will you be okay doing the reel without security?” I kiss along his jaw again until it softens.

“That’s the wrong question, love. The correct question is will you be okay while I’m locked inside the reel. And I’m not going to wait around to find out. We’re moving the reel to daytime” There is no room for opposition in his voice. But I have none. Now that it’s just us again, I will do everything to calm him.

“That makes sense. And I’ll carry my phone on me in case we need Benson. And install a tracking app, too.”

His eyebrows arch in surprise. “I didn’t realize you were capable of being reasonable about your safety, Elisa.”

“It’s all part of the deal, Aiden. I’ll be reasonable if I have you all to myself. Take it or leave it.”

His arms grip me closer. “I’ll take it all, and I might never give it back.” Abruptly his eyes smolder even in the dark, vaporizing my very bones.

The cottage glows snowy white by the river—no guard shadows on its walls. Only the climbing roses and the black shuttered windows. All the roses are asleep lacquered in silver, dreaming rosy things. There isn’t a single sound in the silent night except our breath and the willows’ murmur. They’re here, they’re here. A tiny, peaceful bubble just for us.

I sigh from its beauty, from the longing I’ve felt for it to be ours alone again.

Aiden pauses at the rose hedge, perhaps letting me enjoy the moment, perhaps searching our very own snow globe for safety. I give him his minute too. It could last forever, I wish it would. Because here, cradled in his arms, happiness shifts again for the first time in a week. It now looks like our entwined shadows on the stony path, breathing in the smell of home.

“Welcome back, love,” he whispers, carrying me to the door. I don’t ask if anything looks different or if Jazz saw anyone suspicious today. I know there is nothing to see. And Aiden’s warm, relaxed stride spells the answer in twinkly, star-stitched letters. We are alone. At last.

But he still doesn’t let me cross the threshold first. As soon as we step inside the foyer and he switches on the light, his eyes sweep it corner to corner, his arms flexing around me like shields. Then in another moment, they relax again, but he doesn’t set me down. He rests my Rose Cup on the console and roams the entire ground floor, checking everything. It is his habit now to scan the cottage, roof to studs, before he leaves and scour it again the instant he returns, exactly as he does with me.  Half of my heart clenches at the sight because he has fallen in love with these little walls so forcefully and completely. But the other half shatters because I cannot begin to fathom the terror behind this new routine. I search my head as frantically as he does the cottage for anything that might help him.

“Everything seems as I left it,” he informs me, finally setting me down at the foot of the stairs with a relieved sigh. I can see his entire face in the light now. I haven’t seen it since ten centuries ago under the elm tree when I was accepting the Rose Cup. Impossibly, he has gotten more beautiful to me, even if veiled with worry. Abruptly an idea flickers in my head. Perhaps sometimes all you need to do is turn on the lights.

“Aiden, what if we hid a camera in the chandelier so you can see if anyone is coming in, would that help? That way you won’t have to search the cottage every time, love.”

His eyes pop wide with unexpected amazement—he looks like I just offered him a vacation from the reel. “You would do that?” he whispers.

“I would. And if no one shows up, then we will know once and for all.”

He watches me carefully, eyes narrowing at the corners. “Why would you do this when you’re so certain there is no threat?”

I wrap my arms around his neck where their shape is probably branded into his skin. “For the same reasons you gave up security for me. Because this is your home too. I want you to feel safe and rested here, no matter what I think. Just because I don’t want to surrender it to others, doesn’t mean I don’t want to share it with you. Every single stone of it.”

His eyes don’t leave mine, but they change—no longer surprised or cautious; they beam with a joy that takes my breath away. Stuns me, heartbeat to blink. “Thank you,” he says with feeling. Then his mouth finds mine and he swoops me upstairs with blinding speed.

Our bedroom door is closed, but he must be expecting it because that surreal beauty falls over him. He sets me on my feet, a smile playing over his lips.

“After you,” he says and opens the door.

“Are you sure I remember how to walk?” I laugh and pretend to wobble inside. And then I rock into such a sudden stop that I fall back into his arms.

“Apparently not,” he chuckles, but my lack of balance has nothing to do with my legs. It has everything to do with my sight. Because our happy bedroom has transformed into my very own rose stand right in front of my incredulous eyes.

Elisa petals carpet the wooden floor. More Elisas are on the nightstands with the dried poppies, our double-frames, and the photo of Aiden’s brain. Above the bed hangs a white runner with black lettering like the rose stand sign, except this one says:

Elisa’s Rose Gallery

And on the walls are photos of me from each rose festival, beginning with my first and ending with the nineteenth from this morning—an image of me sitting at the welcome table that Aiden must have captured from a distance. An unmissable celebration of me, not anyone else.

“Aiden!” I whirl around in his arms. He is all golden now, his face suffused with the bliss he associates with this room. “So you did remember.” Of course he did. Of course he made time for this even while running around, protecting me.

He smiles. “Congratulations on your win, my love.”

Mine. Exactly as he wanted this morning. But I think about the other prize I won today: bringing us back to us again. “Don’t you mean my wins?” I pluralize.

He chuckles. “I stand corrected: your wins.” His fingers weave through my braid releasing the wilted Clares, a serious but tender expression falling over his face. “Your roses.” He kisses the spot below my ear, inhaling deeply. “Your day.” His lips flutter to the corner of my mouth. “And now your night.”

So many mine’s. Except my heart, that’s irrevocably his. And my body, it’s already lost. Everywhere he touches, I feel a flash burn on my skin. I trail my fingers over his cheek. “And my Aiden.” I caress his lips. “My kisses.” I press my hand over his heart. “My love.”

He smiles. “You won all those a long time ago.”

“Yes, but they’re the still my best wins.” I wrap my arms around his waist, refusing to allow any space between us. Because he is my Rose Cup, my Nobel Prize, my Oscar, my everything. I don’t want any other victory if in the end, I don’t triumph with him. “Thank you. I love my celebration.”

He tips up my face, surprise obvious in the turquoise depths. “Do you really?”

“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because you’re so selfless. Usually I know immediately when you’ll love something, but I wasn’t certain this time.”

I scoff. “I’m actually not that selfless, Aiden. In fact, I’m very selfish when it comes to you. And the roses. And the cottage. And Elysium. And now Aidonis. And chemistry. And Baci. And clotted cream . . . loads more. I’m selfish about everything I love.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter before I have finished as though me being selfish is a happiness protein. But isn’t it the same for me? The more he loves himself, the happier I feel. “Ah, Elisa. You and your eight selfish things that aren’t even selfish. But I’m glad I made the list.”

“You’re at the very top.”

His eyes change swiftly again, in that way that leaves me a stunned step behind. From amused, they become liquid and warm, and then thoughtful as they burn into mine. His hands travel up my arms to my cheeks, leaving fiery trails in their wake. “Will you let me try to add something else to the list?” The warmth is in his voice too, but with a rare note of plea underneath.

Immediately, I’m curious—more about that tone than anything else. “What would you like to add?”

“A reminder.”

“A reminder about what?”

“You’ll see. Will you please consider it?” he coaxes again.

As if I could say no to that voice and those eyes. “Yes, but on one condition,” I bargain anyway.

What condition?” he asks confidently.

“Well, you accuse me of being selfless, but you obviously suffer from the same affliction. So, my selfish list is open to additions only if we add something to your selfish list as well.”

He laughs again. “Elisa, I’m so selfish with you, I’ve cashed it all in for the entire mankind, but fine, I agree because this should hit both our lists.”

“Oh!” I grin at the chance of being able to give him something he wants. He never asks for anything for himself. “All right then, let me hear this reminder.”

“Thank you,” he says as he did downstairs, except now I hear a strong emotion in his voice. He lowers me at the foot of the bed, his fingertips setting fires on my arms. “Wait here.”

I nod, breathless with his intensity and the curiosity now raging in my brain. For some reason, I expect him to leave the room, but he walks to the window and opens it wide, flashing a smile. “We can’t leave the roses out of your celebration. They’ll be offended.”

The rose breeze blows freely into the room, cooling my feverish cheeks. “Mortally. And they’re already insulted from this last week. You’ll have to grovel and kiss all their petals.”

“Just kiss? I had rather started to think they were partial to other activities.” He winks as he ducks into our small closet while I check my skin for fire. No, nothing is smoking. He re-emerges with a box about the size of a briefcase, wrapped in parchment, and sits on the bed next to me, setting the box between us. His hands reach over it and close around my wrists.

“Just a reminder of something you love,” he repeats gently. “Nothing more.”

My heart starts thumping unevenly from his voice, his touch, his words. Why do I need reassurance for this box? “Aiden, what’s in there?”

He inches the box closer to me. There is no audible movement within.  “Let me unwrap it. I don’t think we need papercuts in addition to irritated palms and blisters today.”

I nod, transfixed as he tears the parchment with a fluid motion, revealing a wooden box. It’s the color of melted butterscotch, polished to a gleam, with a distinctive grain that curls and twists into a mystery map of its own. Instead of a latch, it has a keyhole, carved like an open rose. A faint woodsy aroma wafts from the box. I run my fingertips over the smooth surface, tracing the dense grain, finding figures. A star, a sun, a moon . . .

“It’s so lovely. What is it?”

“It’s called briar wood,” Aiden explains. “A very durable, nearly unbreakable, and heat-resistant wood.”

I look up at him in awe, but not so lost as to miss the way his skin is reflecting the golden glow of the box. “What is it protecting?”

His eyes become very tender. “A part of your heart.”

Oh! The heart in question starts thundering like my brain. In his hand is already a small bronze key, shaped like a rose stem. He slides it into the heart of the rose and the box unlocks with a quiet click. He looks at me through his long lashes. “Just try to remember, love.”

And then his long-fingered hands lift the lid.

Everything changes in a single blink. I hear my gasp, I feel my heart battering my ribs, the shiver on my skin, the blood drumming in my ears. I feel them all, but they are on the periphery. My entire focus is rivetted by the sight in front of me.

Because nestled inside the briar case is the most beautiful object I have ever seen. A carved wooden chessboard set with thirty-two chess pieces, gleaming in the muted light of our bedroom. The dark pieces are deep burgundy, marbled with veins of rich chocolate and crimson. The light ones are golden with a honeyed grain like lacework. The carving is so intricate, the pieces look almost alive, from the flowy manes of the Knights to shimmering crowns of the Queens. Here and there on the chess squares is etched a tiny rosette, like a secret code. An astonishing perfume floats from the board, almost tasteable in the air. Like Aiden, like Aeternum, I have never smelled anything quite like it. It’s a bouquet of rose, musk, woods, and something else entirely. And at the very edge of the board are my initials: ECS.

Supremely magnificent in every way. Fairytale in its beauty.  All mine. Yet my entire being splits in half: my heart and mind hug the chessboard with fervor; my body freezes into its own carved piece of wood, from my eyelids to my hands seizing into fists on my lap.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s soft voice breaks through the thud-thud-thud in my ears. I feel his strong, warm hand around my fists, but I can’t blink away from my initials on the board. He tips up my head until my vision fills only with him. Tenderness marbles his face with its own exquisite grain. He cups my cheek and blows gently across the board over my lips. “Breathe, love.” He draws a deep breath with me, and I realize he, too, wasn’t breathing until now. We inhale the indescribable perfume of the chess set together until I can form sound. Even if only breathy and staccato.

“Aiden, I . . . I don’t have the words.”

“You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t ever have to play it. Remember what I said?”

I nod, realizing now exactly why I needed his reassurance. “This is just a reminder.”

“That’s right. Only a reminder of the game you used to love and that still has a piece of your heart.” He comes to kneel before me and tucks me into his chest, kissing my temple. “Like me, this is only yours and no one else’s.”

“Wow,” is all I can whisper. He is giving me this work of art only so it can be mine. Only so I can have the most beautiful reminder there is. I focus only on his lips and the way they brush along my cheek, as I try to remember the joy this game used to give me, the times I won, the thrill of strategy, sometimes higher than the win itself. I haven’t let myself visit these memories in so long. I didn’t think it was possible to recall them without pain, but apparently it is. Not that the pain is gone exactly, but there are other feelings stronger than it. I know it’s because of Aiden’s warm strength filtering to my very bones. And I start to thaw piece by piece. Except my fists. They remain resolutely clenched on my lap.

He feels my softening immediately, probably like I do for him. He pulls back only enough so he can see my face. I don’t know what he finds there, but he smiles. “Were you able to remember something happy?”

I nod, still stunned. “I was, because of you.” I try to pour all my gratitude into my voice; my vocal cords shake from it. “Thank you. For all of it. It’s so beautiful—no, it’s much more than that. . . ”  The chess set draws my eyes back. There is a feeling about it, like a whisper in the breeze or a breathy silence in a sacred place.

“Is it selfish worthy?”

“Oh, yes. It’s already above Baci and clotted cream. Maybe tied with chemistry . . .”

He laughs with a carefree sound. My eyes flit back to him. “As long as it doesn’t compete with me.”

“Impossible,” I whisper, unwilling to interfere with the music of his laughter.

“Do you want to know more about it?” he asks casually, no doubt trying to remove all pressure for me to answer a certain way. Except I’m curious about the thought he put into this most of all.

“Yes, please. Tell me everything.”

His eyes glint with the deep passion he feels for the game, and I realize this is the first time we will talk about chess in any meaningful, just-us kind of way.

He tightens his hold around my fists, and his other hand frames the board. “The aroma you smell is rosewood—a very rare, strictly regulated wood. You can’t buy it from ethical sources anymore so the only sustainable option is from Old World furniture. This particular one came from an antique piano dating back to Tchaikovsky’s days. It will smell like this for a very long time. But I thought it was a good representation of you: roses and woods and music. Beauty and strength and calm.”

I can’t even blink with the way his eyes deepen and glow when he says things like that. Like I’m his best win, too. “It’s perfect,” I whisper, stunned voiceless again.

“The rose motif you see on the squares repeats in a pattern. See if you can find it.” He grins at my wide eyes as I start scanning the board frantically by position number. While I search, a brain cell wonders whether he embedded so many secret details so I could look at this and find only l-o-v-e and never p-a-i-n, only w-i-n-s, never l-o-s-s. The yes in my brain clicks at the same time as the code.

“My birthday. Six times.”

“You’re quick. Can you guess why six?”

He stumps me here. I try to think of favorite dates, favorite chemical element, favorite number, but nothing fits. “Some help?”

“It’s for all the six opening notes of Für Elise.”

“Wow,” I marvel again at the depth—not a single detail without meaning, not a grain of wood left to chance.

“It was carved for you by an old Russian chess master, Asimov,” Aiden continues. “He rarely crafts anymore, but he liked the story for this.”

“What was the story?”

His piano fingers brush my white knuckles the way they flutter over the ivory. “The story of a beautiful, loving, bright woman who is trying to find her way across the chessboard again . . .” He trails off as if he just finished telling a fairytale.

And like a fairytale, it leaves both beauty and longing behind. I want to touch the gleaming pieces so much that desire becomes physical pain, almost as intense as the way I crave him. I try, I really try to move one single finger, but my fists are locked shut—the way my body used to be before Aiden awoke it. And the air starts to thicken with a sadness that shouldn’t belong here, but it slithers in like a tear at the corner of the eye. Because even though this piece of art was made exactly for me, it can never be truly mine. It will never complete its destiny. The young woman will never play again.

“Are you trying to feel it?” Aiden caresses my knuckles.

I look back at his face—worried now, the V chiseled like golden rosewood between his brows. I don’t want to say the words, but they spill out as always under his gaze, “I want to,” I admit, feeling carved in pieces. “I want to play with you. I want to touch it so much, but I can’t.”

He brings a fist to his lips. “Of course you can’t. But would you let it touch you?”

A whisper of warm goosebumps blows over my skin. “Touch me how?”

“Do you trust me?”

“I trust you with my life.”

He flashes me a wistful smile. “Quite literally in fact, but tell me, what was your favorite chess piece?”

“The Queen.”

His smile becomes true and dimpled. “Mine, too. In black?”

“How did you know?”

“Because it’s the harder win. And it’s something else we have in common.”

Such a small thing to say, yet sadness starts to waft away with the rose breeze. He picks up the dark burgundy Queen so fluidly that the moment they join, it looks as though it’s part of him, shining in his long fingers. As he brings it closer, a trace of rosewood floats between us. I lean in reflexively to sniff it, but my fists quiver on my lap.

“Not your hand,” Aiden says, not missing the movement. “Your heart.”

And slowly, without releasing my eyes, he sweeps aside my locket and touches the Queen’s crown to my fluttering chest.

“Oh!” My breath stutters as the satiny curves brush my skin. They’re warm from Aiden’s touch. A million tingles erupt on the spot. I brace for any pain—perhaps a sting or icy chill—but he presses his palm over my heart, holding the chess piece between my lifeblood and his hand. And I only feel everything his touch always makes me feel. The gasp of surprise becomes an ah of desire. The panting of fear becomes a sigh. And my heart splutters with a different rhythm: no longer anguished or terrified. Freed somehow, leaping over four years of loss, bounding above each jagged flashback, only to beat in his hand.

“Listen to that!” Aiden smiles, feeling the boom-boom-boom. “How does that feel?”

“I can’t believe it!” I murmur, watching the way his hand rises and falls with my breath. “How are you doing that?”

“I’m not. You are.”

“Yes, but because of you.” My eyes flash up to him. Even on his knees, he towers a head above me. His face is glowing like the rosewood, dazzling with triumph. But the win is mine. Because a wondrous being like this is with me, healing in a single touch.

He rolls the Queen over my skin, drawing an infinity loop. Then he bends his head and presses his lips to my heart. Kissing the same symbol. Always. The heat from his mouth is no longer a flash burn across my skin. It becomes a slow, deep ember, smoldering away all melancholy, all fear. My back arches on its own, bowing to his lips as they flutter along the neckline of my dress.

He pulls back, his eyes tender, yet somehow still scorching. “More, Elisa?”

M-o-r-e. “Yes,” I breathe, eyes on the Queen glimmering in his fingers. Where will he take it next?

He trails the Queen slowly up my throat and along my jawline, his lips following the same path until his mouth and the Queen come to rest at my temple. He rolls the smooth curves into a circle. “Your mind, Elisa. It guides the chess pieces more than your hand. It moves them even now. You never stopped playing, love.”

When he says it like that, it rings true. “I guess not,” I inhale a chuckle, feeling the caress of the silky wood, like a part of his hand.

As he did with my heart, he removes the Queen and kisses my temple, my cheekbone, the spot below my ear. “More chess?” he whispers, his breath sending a shiver of pleasure down my neck.

“More you,” I sigh back.

I feel his smile against my skin as his lips follow the Queen across my cheek to the corner of my mouth. “Your lips.” He traces the burnished crown over the contours. “Because they smile when you play, even when you don’t know it.”

The warm tip glides effortlessly like a second skin, the fragrance of rosewood a second breath. My head is twirling with his scent, the aroma of chess, and the rose breeze floating around us. For a second, I wonder whether the wood is heat-resistant enough for his touch, for the flame that is blazing in me again. But his mouth replaces the Queen before she catches fire. It’s too late for me. The moment I taste him, my blood ignites. It scorches like lava in my veins, incinerating any remnant of the past. My fists fling open, fly up, and hook in his hair as always, soldering him to my mouth.

“Oh!” I gasp, feeling my fingers run through his raven strands, eager and free.

“Elisa,” he moans, and his kiss becomes a force. Exactly that. Slow at first, in that way he has of stopping time, of making the present moment last forever. Then deep and powerful, like it’s capturing me inside out. His tongue traces the path of the Queen, then moves with mine in a game of its own. He wins all of it. My body falls open. Legs around his waist, arms around his neck, fingers knotted in his hair, mouth melded to his. Yet it’s not close enough for me.

“Aiden, more,” I whisper, pressing feverishly into his torso. More of him, of his gift, of the wooden figure I never thought I could feel again.

A throaty sound whirls in his chest and echoes in mine. It sets of a frenzy in us both. I grip him closer and he winds his arm around my waist, straining me to him. His other hand with the Queen curves around my neck, pressing the warm rosewood against my pulse. His mouth seizes mine in every way. I surrender to the swipe of his tongue, the dent of his teeth, the sting of his bite. His kiss brands itself on my lips, embeds in my neurons, right next to words like h-e-a-l and t-i-m-e. Behind my closed eyelids—tinted red with desire now, not anger—the world starts to spin. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin. They kiss along my jawline to my ear.

“You smell better than the rosewood.” He sighs, breathing the Aeternum spot. “But don’t tell the Queen.” He combs the chess piece through my braid, untangling my hair with his long fingers. I’ll have to take his word for it. I can only smell and feel him. My entire body starts to tremble in his arms. Then abruptly he stops; his mouth is gone.

“Aiden, no,” I whimper, flinging my eyes open.

He is glorious before me, his face exultant.  My eyelids flutter under his gaze, unable to bear the force of his beauty, yet unwilling to miss a blink of it. Fully open now, my hands reach toward him, clasping his face, trying to bring him back to my lips. But he takes off my locket and sets it by the chess set—masterpiece next to masterpiece at the hands of the most beautiful masterpiece there is.

And this work of art unzips my dress and hooks his fingers under the straps, slipping them off my shoulders, raising goosebumps with his fingertips. Shivering with heat—what a concept. The dress pools in a rose-printed cloud at my waist. He lifts me enough to slip it off, tossing it behind him. And then it’s just me, a wet pair of lacy knickers, and a crimson glow over my skin—a panting, quivering, flesh version of the chess Queen next to me.

“Ah, Elisa, all of this under your roses.” His gaze descends from my eyes to my curled, bandaged toes. How can a look burn like this? How can it tighten and twist every muscle inside me?

“My turn.” My fingers grasp the hem of his T-shirt eagerly—were they ever frozen?—and peel it off him. And there he is. A flawless, real, billions-times-more-beautiful embodiment of the golden chess King. But this perfect figure stands to help me. My hands are quick now, snapping off the top button and unzipping his jeans, ripping them off his sculpted legs, feeling the dusting of hair underneath my sensitized fingertips. And he springs free. A different carving from a rarer wood—no Old or New World can source him. He is entirely singular from the bubbles like diamonds on his crown to the familiar woodgrain of veins shimmering on him.

He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. “Still not used to it?”

I shake my head. “I don’t think that’s humanly possible.”

“Good thing we’re human then.” He smiles godlike and lays me across the bed. “Now . . .” He climbs between my legs and picks up the rosewood Queen, flicking it between his fingers. “Shall we play, Elisa?”

And he takes the Queen to my skin, as he did with the feather quill the first time we made love. Wherever the rosewood glides, his mouth follows. Down my throat, over my collarbones, to the hollow indentation in between. The Queen strokes, his lips conquer. A game of chess unlike any other. A game I can play. A game we can both win.

He circles the Queen over my breasts, drawing loops around the nipples with the curve of the satin tip, his tongue swirling in its wake in a dizzying pattern. Rosewood, lips, tongue, teeth, breath, kisses, sucks, licks. I can’t hold still. I’m a breeze, an Aidonis butterfly, a piano string, a flame, a drumbeat—gasping, trembling, and burning under him.

“Shh, love, there are more moves still left.” My insides reverberate with the sound of his husky voice. And the Queen continues its advance down my belly, along my waist, over my hips. Strolling breath to breath, goosebump to goosebump like cellular chess squares on my flushed skin. Spelling words on me as he did on our first night. Some are the same, engraved there forever: I, mine, A.H.  Others are new: yours, love, Elisa. His mouth follows them like punctuation, a lick for a comma, a kiss for a period, a nibble as an exclamation mark. By the time he reaches the band of my knickers, I feel like a poem, like art, a war letter, a pleasure map, a chess game with only victories. The trembles become foreshocks, gathering like a storm at the epicenter of my body. My hips try to jolt off the bed for relief, but he has secured them to the mattress.

“Aiden, now,” I say his name like a plea, trying to find the breeze.

“Soon, love.” His nose skims down the lace of my knickers, inhaling in that way that makes my eyes roll to the back of my head. “Mmm,” he sighs. “There’s no rosewood that compares to this.” Before either my blush or shudder is over, the Queen rolls on the lace.

“Oh, God”! I cry out, looking down, bewildered. How can something I cannot even touch feel like this? I know the answer to that one, even crazed and shaking. Because it’s in his hand.

“Not God.” He glides the Queen over the lace again. “Just you and me and a game we love.”

He presses the rosewood into the lace, up and down, increasing the pressure until I topple back on the pillow, gripping the quilt, gulping the air, trying not to faint. In delirium, I feel his finger dip into the lace and pull the knickers to the side. The breeze cools my wet skin. The vibrations inside become violent. I can’t muster any part of my body—if I still my thighs, my hands are clawing at the sheets, if I grip his hair, my hips start writhing for his mouth.

“Aiden, please,” I give up and beg, quivering everywhere, voice to fingertips.

“Not yet, love. You have a game to win.” He blows on the tingling skin and slides the rosewood over the length of me. “Your Queen to my Queen.”

Then his mouth closes around me, starting a chorus of Aidens and Gods and cries and moans. At least my voice is free—no one to hear, just us. Each flick of his tongue is an advance, each suck a domination, round and round, circling me into a checkmate until I break, both winning and losing this game. Winning because pain became pleasure, fear became bravery, and chess became a love play. Losing because I shatter into a million pieces—like a waterfall, like stardust, like spirals of rosewood whittling away to form a new, shining queen. The last conscious thought I register is Aiden’s hushing kisses drawing an infinity loop over the trembling folds. And then I disappear.

But he finds me, brings me back as always. Filling my lungs with his breath. Restarting my heart with his hold. Wakening my mind with his words. I open my eyes and he is lying on his elbow next to me, one long leg parting mine, his steely lines welded to my melted curves. Everything about him is on fire, the sharp angles tensed and hard. Behind him, the white curtain billows with the breeze as though trying and failing to touch him. From my orgasm, his beauty seems to shimmer at the edges.

“Hi.” I take his face in my hands, feeling as though my whole universe is between my pink palms. He shudders once.

“Hi,” he answers, his voice low, his breath rough and fast against my lips.

“That was some game.”

He chuckles, his pectoral muscle flexing like a blade. “Is it over?”

I get lost in his primal, smoldering eyes. “No, it’s your turn to win.” I bring him back to my mouth and kiss him with the full wonder he makes me feel. A groan rumbles in his throat. I reach down and grasp him the way I know he likes. “Play, Aiden. Play like you want to.”

He growls my name. The deep sound vibrates from his throat to my core, and my body starts building again. My leg hitches around his hip but before I can grind against him, he grips my waist and rolls with me on the bed until I’m on top of him.

Your game, Elisa.” In his fingers, the Queen flashes like a beacon. “Touch me with this?”

One question, one fiery gaze, and everything changes again for me.

Would I be able to even consider it if he weren’t burning? Would my hand stay open if my body wasn’t quivering again with my overwhelming desire for him? Would my skin endure it if he hadn’t caressed every part of me with chess, bringing me to orgasm, not tears?

He sees the yes in my eyes before I know it. His smile is victorious, blinding as if he has already won. He takes my hand and kisses it—it falls open at his lips, a tremble flitting here and there on my fingertips, but not with anxiety. With desire for him. Then, light like air, he runs the Queen along my lifeline. My breath stops. The feeling is indescribable—like loving him, like coming home, like touching an Elisa petal in the garden.

“Your Queen.” Aiden smiles and surrenders it on my palm.

“Oh!” I gasp as the smooth weight of the rosewood rests on my skin.

“It looks beautiful on you.” The words sound natural in his voice, but I hear again that strong emotion underneath. He lifts my hand to his mouth, kissing the fingertips, the knuckles, the wrist, the palm, until I only feel his lips and my need to touch him. My fingers close instinctively around his jaw. Then he slips away and my hand wraps around the Queen.

“Hello, you,” I whisper, touching it for the first time in four years. Yet I know it will be even longer before I can play with it as it was carved to do. Suddenly, the Queen weighs more, like iron or lead, not rosewood. My arm feels weak with it. I know nothing has changed except in my mind. But Aiden is waiting for me, rippling with need. And the weight lightens. Because to touch him, I would carry anything.

I lift the Queen—hand trembling—to the corner of his mouth. His breath catches, fogging the rosewood with his heat. His lips lift into a smile as I kiss the spot, and a low moan whirs in his throat. Like the click of the briar wood lock, I grasp now exactly how much he likes this. Not just for me, but for himself even though he will never demand it. Sex and chess. This is what was in his selfish list. The realization marks a transformation, wipes away all my trepidation, the very weight of the chess piece. Because to please him, I would do anything.

Even hooded with desire, his eyes don’t miss my change. “Your move.” He nods and I’m unleashed.

Without hesitation now, I trace his sculpted lips with the Queen. They part with a gasp, his delicious fragrance and the rosewood making my head spin. I swipe the tip of my tongue along the contours, moaning at his taste. And a race begins between the Queen and me, which of us can kiss or touch him first. My fingers roll the rosewood over his golden skin, his jaw, down his throat, over his heart, as he did with me. Sometimes my mouth goes first, sometimes my tongue falls behind. I feel him shudder under me, each golden angle and bronze pane of him like a sentient chessboard of my own. His hand closes in my hair, his chest swells and dips with speed, but he doesn’t rush me. He lets me play over his body at my own pace. I get lost in the perfect ridges, racing the Queen with my lips over the carved valleys and peaks.

“You’re dangerous with that,” he murmurs, tensing with restraint under me. He watches me through his heavy lids, his gaze scorching in every way. His erection is pressing at the small my back.

No, he doesn’t rush me, but my own body does. My heart starts pounding in my ears, my throat, between my legs—everywhere I feel, there is a frantic pulse. I race the Queen down the V-shaped Adonis muscles between his hips. And finally, the queen reaches her king.

“You’ll finish me, Elisa.” He chuckles with a breathless sound and grips the headboard.

“Not before you win.” Then, slowly, I circle the rosewood around the crown and run my tongue over him. “Your Queen to my King.”

A guttural groan rips through his teeth, fingers tightening in my hair. I roll my tongue on him again and his hips tilt up, pushing into my mouth with a hiss. The Queen slips from my fingers; I only have touch for him. I take him in my hand and wrap my lips around him, sucking the glistening crown.

“Fuck, Elisa,” he growls. “Slow, I want to be inside you.”

I try to slow down like he wants but the taste of him . . . saltwater and honey and spice and heat, a bouquet that’s entirely him.  So much better than—

“Oh!” I gasp, jolting up.

“Perfect,” he sighs and pulls me up until I’m straddling him. “My turn to win.”

“No, Aiden, wait!” I cry out because above his incomparable body, as if spelled on his skin, strange things are happening in my vision, numbers, symbols, blurring and spinning.

“Elisa?” I feel him move under me, maybe a hand on my face . . . “Love, are you okay?”

“Shh, I’m having an epiphany!”

“An epiphany? About my cock?”

“One second!”

The images transform over the perfect shape of him, flashbacks now, a very recent memory. “Oh, my God!”

“Elisa?” His strained voice breaks through and my vision clears. Only now I see the scene before me. Aiden is sitting up, tense, eyes anxious, forehead lined, arms around me as if he is trying to protect me from dangers he cannot see. The King towers imperiously between us—even in my utter amazement, I can’t miss him.

“I’m okay,” I smile quickly to calm him. “But I think I just solved the protein.”

It’s instant. The tension wipes off his face and his eyes widen. “Christ! Is that what’s happening?”

I nod, still dizzy with my discovery.

“How?” he marvels, hands vising my face as if to shake me out of my stupor.

“Do you remember—of course you do—but last Saturday, when we were in the Room of Firsts, you said I mumbled ‘orgasms are oxytocin but taste better’?”

“Yes, that was one of your best comas.” He chuckles with the memory.

“Well, it’s been bothering me all week. I kept having this tip-of-the-tongue feeling, like I’m forgetting something, you know?”

“No.”

“Of course you don’t, but it happens to the rest of us and I finally figured out why.”

“And?”

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before! Doctor Helen practically told me. She said my calming effect on you is like a shot of serotonin to your nervous system.”

“A powerful one.”

“Exactly, and it makes you calm, it erases your fears. Well, at the time, I focused only on the CREB part to help me sort out which oxytocin we needed. But I completely missed this! I have to add serotonin, too—the other form of love! Love for ourselves.”

“Love for ourselves?” His brows knit in confusion.

“Yes! Serotonin is a different love hormone than oxytocin. It’s a hormone related to confidence and self-esteem. And I make you feel it. I make you love yourself, like you do for me. It’s not just one kind of love that dad meant to add to the formula. To fight fear, we have to have faith in ourselves. That’s why the protein isn’t staying solid. It’s missing self-love! It’s missing serotonin!”

He has inhaled every word. The dimpled smile breaks over his face with a look of pure adoration. “All right, I’m caught up. But how does my cock in your mouth fit in, no pun intended?”

“Because, oh, it’s so perfect—”

“Thank you! I’m very attached to it.”

“No,” I laugh. “I mean yes, he is, but serotonin is not just the self-love hormone. It’s also tied to taste. People with low serotonin have lower taste thresholds. Conversely, when you’re happy, things taste better. And that’s what happens to me when I taste you. You said it yourself during my self-love game, only I didn’t realize it. We taste good to each other because we’re happy when we do this. And so my brain must have used that part to make the connection, but then I passed out after my orgasm and didn’t remember it until now that—“

“You were tasting me while more coherent, and it triggered your memory.”

“Exactly!”

He shakes his head with a look of unfettered, existential pride. “You’re unbelievable, you know that? You figured all that out from going down on me?”

I shrug, still dazed. “Apparently. But I think the King deserves a lot of credit.” I nod at the catalyst of my epiphany who is standing there absolutely livid at being ignored in such a manner, undoubtedly a first for him.

He laughs with my favorite sound and kisses me until I’m dizzy and the chandelier above is swiveling. “So you know the moral of the story, don’t you?” he asks when I can breathe again.

“What?”

“You should always, always have my cock somewhere inside you.”

Our laughter presses our bodies closer, leaving no space for anything else between us except the untamed k-i-n-g.  “Now for my win, Elisa.” His eyes become blue fire and he tosses me on the bed, laughing at my squeal. I’ve barely landed on my stomach when he lifts my hips up in the air, smacking my behind. “Your King to my Queen.”

And he slams inside, conquering every square of me, moan after moan, cry after cry, in our very own version of chess where we both play and we both win.

Later, when the lights are off and my chess set is sleeping on the dresser, I count Aiden’s breaths as he drifts off to Für Elise. In the moonlight pouring from the open window, his beauty is silver again, like a dream. Was it this same moon that shone while I was running from him? The same velvet night as the hilltop? T-i-m-e warps again, squeezing lifetimes into hours, days into blinks. Friend or enemy, healer or malady?

But tonight, it was an ally, a time of wins. I curl on my side, careful to never startle him from sleep, ticking our victories on his breaths like I used to count our self-defense weapons on the poppies. The Rose Cup, a place for solace that used to bring grief, a game of pleasure that used to bring pain, a new, old love back on my selfish list, a rare gift, a step closer to the protein, and the biggest triumph of them all: bringing us back on the same side of the fight. Just him and me.

My heart inflates, filling my chest, flowing up my throat, flooding my eyes. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I have hours of happiness in me.

Outside the window, the garden is quiet, the cottage only ours. The willows murmur, they’re here, they’re here. The r-e-e-l is waiting for us in the morning, but in this present moment, all is well. 

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 26 – ROSE THIEF

Hey gang and happy Fourth of July to all my U.S. peeps! I hope you’re all having a great long weekend with family, friends, or just a good book, however you want it to be. And to help with the weekend feel, here is a chapter for you. I took two weeks because it’s an important one, IMHO. And for those of you who read the snippet on Facebook, you might guess why. Hope you enjoy it. Lots of love, xo, Ani

26

Rose Thief

Everything is ready even though it’s only seven in the morning on a Saturday. But when you have an entire Rose Army at your disposal—as Stella has named Aiden, the Marines, and our security team—it takes only an hour compared to the ten it used to take mum, dad, and me to set up for the festival.

And now, after four years under a tarp behind the Plemmons’ shop, mum’s rose stand blooms in the heart of Priory Street as it did for the eighteen festivals our family blossomed together. I stare at it under the sunrise, resisting even a blink.

Dad built it in the shape of the cottage for mum. Just three lattice walls and a peaked roof with wooden slats, painted the same white as our home. Over the roof stretches a canvas of damask roses she bought on their honeymoon, their former pink now faded to the blush of the Clares. Woven baskets hang on the lattice like windows, brimming with roses from the garden: the Elisas in ivory, the Cecilias in cyclamen, the Reagans in magenta, the future Marias. But only the Clares are competing today. Their bouquet—forty-four stems, one for each year of mum’s life—bursts from her favorite vase on a beechwood plinth like a front door. And inside the trellis walls are eighteen rose wreaths with a photo of her from each summer she attended this festival, wearing the same rose-printed dress I’m wearing now and the same roses braided in her hair.

Her smile in the photos turns liquid in my vision.

“Is that a happy tear or a sad tear?” Aiden’s arms fold around my waist, and he kisses the droplet off my cheek as if we are entirely alone, not with a Rose Army around us or vendors throwing furtive looks at mum’s charm from a distance. Mrs. Willoughby seems to be weeping from her champion stand of speckled roses. I wrap my hands around his, eyes on the chime bells tinkling from the picket eave.

“Happy adjacent, I think.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Just because I miss her.” I shrug. “But also happy because I think she would have liked this.”

“Of course she would have. How else do you explain the pink clouds?” He turns me in his arms, his eyes caressing me in ways his hands cannot here. His fingers brush the roses woven in my hair as if the petals are my skin. “You look so beautiful,” he murmurs.

But how could anyone be called beautiful standing next to him? His surreal face eclipses everything, even if it’s still pale from the reel almost three hours later. The images hold him longer now—it takes a few extra minutes each week to bring him back. But he is still here for me, invincible and unwavering.

I trace the circle below his eyes with my fingertip. “How are you feeling?”

He smiles. “Happy adjacent.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Because I’ll miss you and your hair full of roses in a few minutes. But also happy because I have something that might help you with the adjacent part.” A glow falls over him, and the pallor disappears. His usual golden warmth infuses his skin. And even though the edges of the wound start burning at the countdown, I smile back.

“Does it involve a bomb shelter, a new security battalion, or body armor?”

He chuckles. “Not today.”

“All right, go on then. What is it?”

He nods once at someone behind me, and I look over my shoulder in time to see Benson turn the corner to Ivy Lane while the rest of my Rose Army spread out and occupy themselves in an apparent effort to give us privacy.

“So where will you be today while I’m showing off the roses?” I ask him, dreading the long day apart.

“Close enough to have my eyes on you in this dress and with this hair.” His heated gaze descends over me.

“That’s hardly fair,” I grumble. “You get to see me, but I don’t get to see you.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll leave breadcrumbs.”

“Breadcrumbs?”

“Something like that. Here comes Benson.”

Benson is striding toward us like our personal Big Ben, carrying a tall, thin cardboard box under his arm. “Here you go, sir.” He hands it to Aiden, winking at me before joining Max and Ferrars at our welcome table and promptly showing them a map—no doubt the battle plan. Aiden is still looking at me in that fiery way, a smile playing on his lips.

“Allow me?”

“You better. Papercuts are highly dangerous. Why didn’t you hire me a personal surgeon for this?”

“Don’t tempt me. I might throw in a second bodyguard and a bullet-proof vest. Although it would cover the best parts of this dress, I’m afraid.” His eyes linger on my décolleté. I’m about to suggest he builds us a private bunker where we don’t need clothes at all, but he opens the box with a pained sigh, and my snarky remark dies on my lips. Because he takes out a white sign with black letters like the cottage’s shutters:

Lady Clare’s Rose Gallery

“Oh!” I gasp, fingers flying to the painted words to caress the letters. Lady Clare—the name I gave the rose we planted together in mum’s honor at the Portland Rose Garden. “Aiden, did you do this yourself?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the best part. “YouTube and me.”

I throw my arms around him and the sign, hugging them both. “No, it’s just you!” I breathe him in through his T-shirt. “Thank you! I love it and I know mum would have loved it, too.”

He chuckles. “Well, I couldn’t very well leave you with a nameless rose stand. Mrs. Willoughby might have claimed it as her own.”

“And you with it.”

“Not me. I’m taken. I have a thing for Mrs. Plemmons.” He tips up my face, winking at our secret nicknames for each other. Will he always stun me like this? Or will there come a day, whether we win or lose, when I’ll get used to him? The answer might as well be a sign on my forehead: no, I never will.

He hangs the sign under roof, hammering the nails carefully into the slats. I try not to ogle at his arms flexing with the motion but fail quickly and absolutely. Thankfully he finishes before I do something obscene like drag him behind mum’s rose stand for a different kind of hammering with his parents six feet away. He rattles the sign to make sure it doesn’t move an inch.

“Perfect,” he says, regarding his handiwork and pulling me to his side.

I watch his profile, feeling his granite lines against me, inhaling his freshly showered scent.  “Yes, it truly is,” I agree.

He sets down the hammer and gazes down at me, but the familiar hesitancy before we part flickers in the turquoise depths. And the magic bubble pops. We’re back on Priory Street, surrounded by our army, the seconds ticking by. My chest starts to ache under my locket.

“Do you feel it still?” he whispers.

“Feel what?”

“The pain here.” His index finger taps the glowing sapphire.

I nod. “Only when you leave.”

“Me too. But do you remember what I think then?”

“What?”

He caresses a Clare in my braid. “This is just a petal,” he reminds me.

His love-making mantra makes smile despite the countdown. “That’s right, I forgot! The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“Exactly. Think about that with me, and before you know it, the day will be over. And we can celebrate your Rose Cup which I’m sure you’ll win.”

I can tell by the playfulness in his voice that he’s trying to cheer me up. But why is it harder to separate today? I go to work every day and I’m able to crawl out of the car without this kind of devastation. Is it because it’s mum’s favorite event and I want him here with me? Or because I know he’ll be close but stressed, trying to protect me? Whatever the reason, it seems to be harder for Aiden, too. His eyes don’t leave me for long, his body shifts closer every time I move.

“Celebrate how?” I ask to distract myself and him. “Just us?”

I know he hears the desperation in my voice because he smiles. “Oh, I never tell. But will you do something for me?”

“Anything you want.”

He plucks an Elisa from their basket and tucks it above my ear. “Wear something of yours today, too. Make this your day as well.”

He caresses my rose, lips parting, clearly wanting to do more. As do I. But things change quickly then. The horn of the Plemmonses flower cart blares at the end of the street, striking Aiden’s shoulders like a thunderbolt. His eyes harden as he scours the lane that starts bustling at the signal. People are already crowding at the gate. The street vendors start shouting final orders at their own armies. And the local band clangs their cymbals and tests the trumpets. Reflexively by now, our arms fly around each other’s waist—shield and talisman.

“You should go, love,” I say, each word a thorn in my throat. “I’ll be fine with your parents and Max and Ferrars. I wish you’d go fishing or hiking with the Marines, but I know there’s zero chance of that.”

He tenses as if ready to throw himself between the world and me at any moment. “Zero,” he agrees. “But don’t worry about that. Celebrate your mother and have fun.”

His words seem to act as a command to the Rose Army who have clearly been watching him. They spring into movement, even Robert and Stella, forming circle around us, awaiting his orders. Aiden shifts me against his side without releasing his hold on me.

“You relax and enjoy this, too,” he tells his parents. “It’s supposed to stay in the mid-seventies, but if you want to go back at the Inn for a break, Ferrars will take you.”

“Not a chance. We’re staying with Elisa. We have spots in the shade,” Robert assures him. Stella simply kisses him with her eyes. I can’t help but notice a trace of sadness in her smile. If I see it, Aiden certainly does because he bends to kiss her cheek before turning to Max and Ferrars.

“You know the drill. Stay close but inconspicuous. No mistakes. Elisa’s safety first.”

“Yes, sir.” They nod in their casual attire that blends in with the locals and start helping Robert and Stella heave the ice coolers of rose lemonade to our welcome table.

James, Hendrix, and Benson don’t seem to need orders. Like Aiden, they’re wearing more utilitarian clothes: jeans, breathable shirts, Timberland boots. They don earpieces in unison, already scanning the street, their expressions intense even behind their dark sunglasses. At their alert postures, my own spine becomes rigid with nerves.

“Is Jazz back at the cottage?” I guess.

“Yes, he’s betting someone will show up there, but you’re worrying again.” He pinches my chin as he does when making an important point. “Nothing will happen to you. All this is so we can find out what we’re dealing with, fix it, and get back to our life.”

I nod, but I still can’t calm the sudden shivers. Because it’s impossible to look at the lethal men around me and not feel that war is starting on Priory Street. And wars have casualties. What if someone gets hurt? Even worse, what if it’s not me? And what if mum’s day is tainted with this? I have no doubt there is no real danger here. I’m more afraid of what seven men trained to kill will do at Aiden’s direction if he perceives danger.

“Aiden, please be careful,” I beg him.

“Of course, I will. I told you, we’re built for this.”

I glance at the army quickly—hard, vigilant, destructive—and pull him aside by the bouquet of Clares. One of her roses brushes against his forearm like a kiss. “That’s my point love,” I whisper. “You’re trained for war, not this. We’re in Burford, not Fallujah.”

He is too tense to smile but he tries. “As stunning as you are, I still know where I am, Elisa.”

I take his hands in mine, caressing the jagged knuckles. “You know what I mean. It’s just a little country festival. Petals, not threats, love. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for danger. Please?”

He’s nodding before I’ve finished. “I will. Now go, play, let me worry about the rest.”

Before I can formulate a response, he arches me against his granite chest and presses his lips softly against mine. And then he is gone. Waving at his parents and bolting away from me after Hendrix and James, Benson at his side.

“Be safe,” I call after him, clasping my locket.

He looks over his shoulder with my favorite dimpled smile. “The breadcrumb is in the box.” His voice wraps around me, warm and velvet. I blink and they vanish into the rose-scented air as if they were only ever a dream.

The wound rips wide open, as livid as when I used to chase after him in my sleep. But my phone buzzes in my dress pocket instantly. I wrench it out, almost dropping it as I read his text:

“Breadcrumbs, not worries.”

Can he see me? I spin around, scanning the sidewalks and rooftops, even stupidly the sky. But I can’t see any of them. Not even our Big Ben or James’s tangle of red hair. Yet as much as I want Iraq’s ghosts away from Mum’s roses, my chest is burning. I almost tear the box that held the sign to search for my breadcrumb, but a folded piece of paper slides out easily in Aiden’s assertive handwriting:

First Time. December. Bring love.

I grin at the words, fighting the urge to kiss the note with his parents, Max, and Ferrars around. He didn’t make it hard for me to decode: Room of Firsts, at noon. A rush of heat flashes over my skin. It will be just us for lunch at least. I tuck the note in my dress and text him back immediately: “I can’t wait.”

But our date is four long hours away, and these hours belong only to mum. As she apparently still belongs in Burford’s heart. They haven’t forgotten her in the last four years. The moment the Song of Windrush kickstarts the festival, a long line of Cotswoldians forms at the end of the street, smiling and pointing excitedly at our stand with its brand-new sign. “Blimey, Clare’s roses are really back!” shouts someone. “I knew it!” answers another. “Mama, it’s the roses you liked!” squeals a little girl.

Everything else fades then as my throat closes abruptly with a different kind of tears. An acidic mix of grief and remorse. How did I erase Mum from this day? How could I have taken her away from them like she was taken away from me? I run my hands over her dress—so many sorry’s, I love you’s, and I miss you’s left unsaid. But that’s not what she would have wanted today. I skip at our welcome table with Robert and Stella by my side and wave at the crowd who cheers and shuffles forward as soon as the song ends.

“Good heavens,” Robert marvels, pouring mum’s rose lemonade frantically into paper cups. “There must be at least three hundred of them and it’s only the start.”

“She was so loved,” Stella croons, all thumbs and laughter.

But across the lane, Max and Ferrars are in a battle stance. They split up: Max moves between the incoming line and me, Ferrars strides parallel against it searching each kind face for danger behind his sunglasses. If I look closer, I can see their earpieces and quick lips coordinating with each other. A metallic taste builds on my tongue at their vicious expressions looking at the well-wishers who are waiting to welcome mum back and seeing nothing but threats.

“Max, please!” I hiss at him under my breath. “Let them enjoy this. They’ve waited a long time.”

He peers at me through his aviators. Or I think he does—only his furled eyebrows are visible above them. I have no idea what he is thinking but he nods once and crosses the street, strolling casually and looking more like a merry goer. Down the meandering lane, Ferrars starts doing the same. I take a deep breath and smile at the ribbon of faces winding through all the other rose stands for ours first. At the very front, Mr. Plemmons is leading the charge in his crocs and cane, wearing his straw fedora crowned with garden roses. Everyone slows for his hunched frame, tipping their hats at the festival’s official tsar for the last fifty years.

“Rose!” he rejoices when he reaches me, taking my hand in his knobbly fist and shaking it in the air like I have already won the Rose Cup. “Bless me soul! The stand looks beautiful—righ’ like yer mum did it. She’s proud up there, she is, I tell yeh.” He leans his head back, admiring the stand, a tear trickling in his mustache while I try to exhale. Other than me, the Plemmonses are the only two people alive who know exactly how much mum loved this. Over my parents’ hilltop, the pinkish clouds are floating like petals across the sky. Are you smiling, Mum?

“Ah, all the roses are perfect!” Mr. Plemmons declares. “An’ look at them in yer hair, Rosebud. Josephine will like this. She’s with Emma an’ Harry, they’ll stop by. Felix, Lavender, and Lily are here from London, too.” He grins under his bushy mustache at his grandchildren’s names.

“That’s wonderful, Mr. Plemmons,” I shout, handing him a cup of lemonade. “I’d love to see them again.”

He turns to Robert and Stella, whom he calls his good Yankee mates. “Good of yeh to be with Rosebud today, jolly good. Come by our stand for some nosh—Josephine has made canapes . . . but where is Adam?” He squints at the space between the three of us, his fluffy eyebrows furrowing like sheep’s wool at this new transgression committed by Aiden in addition to staying with me at the cottage albeit in the garden shed.

“He’s fixing a pipe at the cottage, Mr. Plemmons,” I scream, flushing as the whole line listens in about the mysterious, beautiful guest, while Robert and Stella nod fervently, their smiles too wide. “But he got me the sign for the stand, see? Isn’t it brilliant?”

That distracts him immediately. He totters closer to the stand, hitching up his spectacles as he squints to read it. “Adam did tha’?” His eyebrows and mustache wiggle with a smile—perhaps the first smile in the same sentence as Adam.

“Yes, he did! And he hung it himself,” I yell proudly as several necks crane up to see the sign too with admiring hums.

“Ah, tha’ is beautiful, tha’ is. Will save him a canape, Rose. See yeh three in wee bit. Stay out o’ this blasted sun and sprinkle the roses.” He waves and turns to face the line of cheery Burfordians, stomping his cane on the cobblestones for silence. They all fall quiet. “Today,” he wheezes with significance. “We welcome back one of Burford’s best roses. May she bloom like spring. Let the festival begin.” He blows his whistle and teeters back to his famous pony cart stand, harrumphing at all the clapping that follows him.

The whole line jolts forward with energy then, louder than the band. Max and Ferrars radiate waves of anxiety pacing across the lane, ready to hurl themselves at me as my hands get passed like coins handshake to handshake in a torrent of welcomes and cheers that gives me barely a second to breathe in between, let alone say anything other than “hello Mrs. So-and-So” and “thank you.”

“Elisa-pea! Welcome back! Happy Rose Day to beautiful Clare!” Mrs. Potts, the town’s grocer, cries as I hand her a cup of mum’s lemonade and a sachet of dried petals which she uses to dab her tears.

“Oh, how I’ve missed these wee baggies for me dressers. Voting for Clare’s roses, I will!” Mrs. Sterling, the stationer, cheers as she takes two sachets from my basket.

“No better-smelling roses in all of England.” Mr. Jenkins, the chemist, grasps my hand next. “Happy Rose Day, Elisa! Proper chuffed to meet you, Elisa’s friends.”

“Ah, to see Clare’s stand blooming again. Blimey, it’s like she’s here. Look, everyone, look at her pictures!” Mrs. Ashbrook, the milliner, claps her hands and grabs her lemonade cup.

“You look right like your mum in her dress, Elisa.” Mrs. Dawlish, the town’s hair stylist fixes a few roses in my braid. “Well-met, Sir. You have lovely hair, Ma’am. Dear me, I can see where your son gets his looks from—all the ladies bump their gums about him in my salon.” She laughs and shakes Stella’s hand, admiring her perfect chocolate waves. “But don’t worry, Elisa, I told them off. I said he already has the prettiest rose in town.”

Robert, Stella, and I are still laughing when Mr. Willoughby, the archnemesis competitor of Plemmons Blooms, steps up and takes a cup of lemonade. “Good luck, Elisa.” He gives me an icy smile and is the only one not looking at mum’s roses. From the corner of my eye, I see Max zip closer, pretending to admire the Elisas. “May the best rose win.” Willoughby nods curtly at the two beautiful souls next to me without waiting for an introduction and marches back to his champion stand where last year’s Rose Cup is gleaming in the shape of a silver rose stem. I clutch my locket at the sight. The Cup used to rest in our foyer, year after year. Let Mum’s roses win. Bring it back to the cottage for her, please. Above the hilltop, the pink clouds have burned off into a gossamer blue sky.

“There’s an oddball for you.” Robert frowns at Willoughby’s retreating figure with a stern gaze, which he obviously passed to his protective son.

“He’s an envious sort,” I explain. “But not dangerous. At most, he’d knock off a vase and mumble that it was an accident.”

It goes on like this for over three hours. Streams of Cotswoldians rush by the stand, babbling with their excitement about mum’s roses until her very name fills the air as if she were still here. Clare, Clare, Clare. Each time it’s uttered feels like her soft laugh tinkling in the breeze. By the time the torrent slows, we are long out of lemonade, sachets, breath, and tears, and Robert and Stella have met every single Burfordian except Willoughby, their families, and their guests, and have been invited to two weddings and four luncheons. Even Stella’s immaculate hair is fluffed Plemmons-style from the frantic greeting. My fingers hurt from all the hand-clasping. And Max and Ferrars look like they have aged at least ten years during the ordeal. A few stands down, I spot Hendrix who must have descended on Priory Street at some point for reinforcement. Flushed and dabbing their foreheads, they’re all reeling off something into their sleeves, no doubt reporting to Aiden and the others that not a single psychopath, pervert, stalker, or thief has managed to pluck one petal off a rose, let alone hurt me. Exactly as I said it would be. If they’re in this shape, I cannot imagine Aiden’s state. But at least he will be able to relax after this. As Hendrix and Jazz said, if someone was trying to hurt me, they would have shown up here today. Yet, the worst thing that has happened in three frenetic hours is Willoughby’s half-smile.

“That was something else!” Robert blows out a gust of air, folding down in his bistro chair and wiping a bead of sweat from his temple. “But I can’t say I saw anyone suspicious, did you?”

“Heavens, not one!” Stella laughs, plopping next to him in the shade and pinning up her hair. “We’ve made more friends in a week here than a year in the States.”

“They all love you.” I grin with pride, filling their cups with rose iced tea. “Except the Willoughbys, but that’s because she’s in love with Aiden, and he’s in love with the Rose Cup.”

“Well, good luck to her with Aiden.”

We burst out laughing while the object of the female obsession in town sends my phone buzzing next to my thigh.

“Are you plotting your security’s demise?” Aiden texts. I look around giggling, knowing I can’t see him, yet unable to help myself.

“Always,” I respond. “But I have a feeling I won’t have to plot long.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right.”

“I am. If anyone wanted to hurt me, I’d be mince by now.”

“Hilarious, Elisa.”

I can almost feel his glare through the pixels. I should know better. Nothing that suggests harm to me in any way is funny to Aiden. “I’m sorry, bad joke.” The three dots hesitate on the screen—sighing, I imagine. “I’m perfectly safe,” I assure him, wishing he were here so I could smooth the V away. “Except I miss you.”

He doesn’t hesitate now. “Miss you too.”

“I solved the breadcrumb.”

“Of course you did.”

“I’ll bring love.”

“I’ll take all of it.”

Am I imagining the sad tone in his text? “How are you feeling?”

“As I always do when I’m away from you.”

Yes, with a throbbing chest and a bitter mouth and a hollowness that erodes the flesh like acid. I know because all the smiles and warmth of the last three hours haven’t changed that. The wound still rages and burns. “Me too.”

“Just a petal, love. See you at noon.”

Noon feels too far away even if it’s only in forty minutes. I pluck an Elisa petal and tuck it in my pocket with the breadcrumb. “Love you.”

“Always.”

His text is immediate as his answer would be if he were right here, brushing my cheek. I stuff my phone next to the petal and duck inside the stand to prepare the love I’m bringing him. Across the lane, Max and Ferrars are relaxing on the sidewalk, but I’m sure their eyes don’t leave us. Hendrix seems to have disappeared. But soon we all will have their lives back. I can almost smell the freedom with the roses.

“Knock, knock.” A familiar voice wafts through the lattice walls. My head snaps up, gasping at my new guests. Edison and Graham are standing by the table—Graham no longer sickly green but still carrying the Encyclopedia and Edison holding the pot of miniature yellow roses that mum gave dad, which has sat in his office ever since.

“Professor Edison, I mean, Nigel! Graham!” I cheer, rushing out of the stand. “What a wonderful surprise!”

“Is it?” Edison smiles. “I used to stop by when Clare ran the stand. You don’t remember?”

“Of course, I do. You and dad played football once using the stand as goal posts.”

He laughs. “And what a lambasting we took from Clare. It never happened again.” He hands me the pot of roses. “I thought this little fellow might like to be at the festival, too. See some of its species for once instead of dusty textbooks and a dour professor.”

“Thank you.” My voice catches as I sniff the tiny rosette. “I’ll introduce it to some friends and bring it back on Monday.”

“No matter. You’re welcome to keep it—it was Peter’s after all.” His eyes fall on Robert and Stella sitting next to me, looking like patron angels of all roses. “Ah, these must be your guests visiting from the States?” Edison guesses.

“Yes, these are Robert and Stella Hale,” I introduce them, heart crashing against my ribs at a part of dad’s life connecting with Aiden’s parents like this. “And this is Professor Nigel Edison and his Chief Researcher, Graham Knightly. They’re my supervisors at Oxford.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.” Robert stands and shakes their hands. “We’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Uh oh, nothing confidential, I hope,” Graham half-jokes, half-panics.

“Not at all.” Stella smiles at him. “Only that you were close with Elisa’s father and how supportive you’ve been of her now that she’s back.”

“Oh, that’s not entirely selfless, I assure you.” Edison chuckles. “We’re hoping she stays this time.”

They all laugh while my heart rips in two as it always does when geography comes up. Especially with Aiden’s parents around. Because how can I take Aiden from them now that he’s back in their lives? But how can I ever abandon this festival again?

“How long are you staying?” Edison asks them.

“Only one more week, unfortunately,” Robert answers as Stella’s smile fades. I’m not the only one who detests the ticking clock.

“Ah, you’ll miss Peter’s bench ceremony then. Elisa is supposed to speak. I’m looking forward to her remarks.”

I feel blood drain from my face at the prospect. On the upside, it distracts me from the mangled ways in which my stomach is twisting at the thought of maps and transatlantic distance even if Aiden and I win. “Don’t worry, you won’t miss much,” I tell Robert and Stella, trying to force a smile. “My remarks will be: Hello. Thank you for coming. Here is Professor Edison for more.”

They laugh as I wanted them to, but I see earnest regret in their eyes. I know because it’s similar to mine. Like Reagan and Javier, they already feel so natural here. And because of that, my chest throbs faster. I usually lose those I love most. My hand flies to my locket. Make me strong, make me brave.

“Elisa, will you show us the roses that are competing this year?” Edison gestures to the stand.

“Of course. It’s only the Clares this time. The others are here for emotional support.”

“So everyone votes for their favorite rose and the one with the most votes wins?” Graham clarifies.

“Yes, but mostly they just walk around, eating, drinking, and smelling the roses.”

He looks utterly perplexed that anyone would want to spend a Saturday like this instead of in a lab. A lab where I desperately need to be without him. “Here, Graham, try it.” I give him a Cecilia to smell. “According to a recent study by the University of Freiburg, the smell of roses while learning and sleeping increases memory and learning skills by thirty percent.”

“That explains Professor Snow then.” He laughs but almost inhales the petals off the stem.

“Exactly. Keep this by your nightstand and sleep until Wednesday. I’ll bet you solve the protein by then.”

He tucks the Cecilia inside the Encyclopedia, while Edison laughs. “I better take one, too.” He chooses an Elisaand threads it in the loop of his tweed vest. “Bring the Rose Cup by the lab when you win it, like Peter used to.”

They cast their votes for Clares, drop them in the ballot box on the stage with the band, and leave shortly, wishing Robert and Stella a pleasant flight.

“How kind of them to come.” Stella looks at their figures as they melt in the crowd toward the car park.

“Very kind. Mum and dad would have been thrilled.”

She and Robert don’t mention Edison’s comment about me staying in England, and neither do I. But have their sharp eyes already seen the conflict in mine? If they have, they simply smile. Only when Stella turns to water the roses do I see a flicker of something in her face that I don’t think I’m supposed to see. It disappears before I find a name for it. But Robert must know it because he picks up the other spray hose and splashes her once.

“Bertie!” She squeals out of the way. “My hair!”

“Your hair is lovely—the town hairdresser said so,” he answers, reminding me of Aiden again.

They laugh together, but I’m no longer here. Because it’s almost noon, and my feet are already scrambling away. I grab the love I’m bringing Aiden and tuck it in a basket, covering it with my pashmina. “Stella, do you mind watching the stand for about an hour? I have to meet Aiden at the Inn.”

She is laughing at a drenched Robert. “Of course darling. Will Max be walking you?”

As if to answer her question, Max materializes at my side. “Looks like it,” I sigh. “Poor Max. You should be having a pint and enjoying the festival, not worrying about me.”

He laughs with a tired sound. “Worrying about you is my job, Elisa.”

“I know but it doesn’t have to be.” I grin at him as we set off. “Even you have to admit, there’s nothing and no one suspicious around.”

His smile is reluctant. “So far. But the day is only half over.”

“The other half will be just as safe, you’ll see.”

And Aiden and I will finally be alone again. I almost break into a run to the Inn. But as soon as we turn the corner onto Ivy Lane, I see him. Striding out of the Inn, hand through his hair, searching the quiet alley with urgency, no doubt for me.

“Aiden!” I sprint at him and launch myself into his open arms. He catches me in his iron grip, crushing me into his chest.

“Elisa! Thank God!” He murmurs in my hair, breathing me in as though he hasn’t drawn much air in the last four hours. Which is probably exactly the case.

“You haven’t been spending the last four hours imagining horribles, have you?” I kiss the spot above his heart, inhaling the scent of him, reveling in the feeling of air flowing in my lungs wound-free.

“That’s an understatement.” He sighs in profound relief, holding me closer and kissing the top of my head.

I wiggle in his steely hold to frown at him with disapproval. His turbulent eyes are clearing quickly as they roam my face. “Aiden, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re breaking Corbin’s rule. I was perfectly safe, even without the seven of you around.”

He chuckles. “I know you think that, but none of us expected the three hundred people that swarmed you. Not even me, and I know exactly how lovable you are.” He nods at Max behind me. “Well done, Max. Take a break. God knows you’ve earned it.”

He swoops me in his arms, basket and all, scanning every part of me as is his custom. But we don’t get far. His eyes widen when they reach my hands. “What the fuck happened here?” he snarls.

I see what he means. Sort of. My palms are as pink as the Reagans, but they make me laugh despite his obvious anxiety. “I think this is a combination of three hundred Cotswoldian handshakes and working in the dirt with roses. Don’t worry, they don’t hurt at all.”

He doesn’t look convinced. He carries me inside the Inn with speed, blowing up the stairs to the Room of Firsts, the creaky lift obviously too slow for him. The door must have been unlocked as he cradles me in one arm and opens it. I don’t even have time to register if anything has changed in our beloved room because he streaks to the domed restroom and sets me down on the counter.

“Now,” he breathes, and just his smell makes me more light-headed than his velocity. “Let me look at this.” He places my basket on the floor and takes my hands gently, blowing on my palms. The soft breeze of his breath makes my eyelids flutter. “Does that burn?”

“No.” I smile, caressing his tense jaw at my fingertips. “But it’s starting to burn in other places.”

He glares, still holding my hands like soap bubbles. “Be serious. Does it hurt when I do this?” He brushes my palm lightly with his pinky.

“Mmm,” I moan, and it’s not even fake.

His finger stops stroking mine. “Elisa, so help me God, answer or I’ll drive you to the hospital right now, festival or no festival.”

He is absolutely not joking. “All right, all right, calm down. I told you, they don’t hurt all. They’re just a little pink.”

“Just a lot pink. What about prickling? Do you feel anything else at all?”

“Oh! Yes, actually.” I pull back one hand, leaving the other in his. “It really tingles here.” I point at my mouth. “And here.” I trace my fingers down my throat to the rose in my décolleté. “And here.” My hand skims down my waist between my hips. “What now, Doctor Hale?”

His eyes follow the trail of my hand with a fiery hunger that tightens the muscles at the bottom of my belly. A slow, heated smirk lifts the corner of his lips. When he looks back at my mouth, his bold gaze turns my entire skin pink. “I will deal with you in a minute,” he threatens, and just his dark, husky voice sends my blood hammering. “Now, please,behave or the hospital it is.”

I hold still, trying to calm my pulse as he opens the faucet and runs my hands under the cold water, washing them gently with the rose soap, massaging little slippery circles on my palms that make the tingles bloom into full trembles. “It’s not going away.” He frowns, rinsing my hands.

“I’m sure it will.” I pull them back and switch off the faucet. “Just leave them alone and touch some other parts of me as soon as possible and they will be good as new.”

He smirks again and takes a fluffy towel from the rack. “Is that so?” he asks, patting my hands dry.

“Absolutely.”

He tosses the towel on the counter. “I see. So you’re adamant this redness is from too many handshakes and playing with dirt?”

“Of course I am. What else would it be?”

He looks at my hands, eyes narrowing at the corners. It’s not until I see the way the tectonic plates shift in analysis like they did the night of the supposed break-in that I realize what he is thinking. What he is concluding. “Aiden?” I choke, the warm trembles turning instantly to chills. “You’re not thinking this was some intentional act by someone to hurt me, are you?”

He doesn’t answer. He just turns my hands this way and that.

“Are you?” I demand, yanking them back.

He takes a deep breath and meets my eyes. The turquoise depths are pensive underneath, clearly still locked in inner analysis. “I’m just considering all options.”

“And these options,” I press, my voice rising with panic. “They include a theory that someone did this to my hands?”

His jaw flexes while his mind continues to process with blinding speed. “They have to.”

I stare at him in horror. He is not seeing less danger after today as I had hoped, as I was just dreaming; he is seeing more. “Why?” I whisper, losing all volume. “Why would you think that?”

“I don’t like thinking it, but it’s probable.”

And I try. I try very hard to control the spew of emotions that erupts inside— dread for him, grief for our life, panic about the end, sorrow that this is happening on mum’s day, anger at him for refusing to see things any other way—but they spin out like Bia’s centrifuge, rattling my skull until they settle on anger with a mental clang. It hijacks my body, and I hop down from the counter, blood flooding my face. “Probable?” I hiss, glaring at his eyes that are seeing yet another baseless threat. “You mean hypothetical at this point, right? Because there is zero evidence to support this one. Not even a crooked frame or fallen petal this time.”

He shakes his head in his defiant way, and I know I’ve already lost. “Of course there is. You work with dirt every day, and I’ve never seen your hands do this. It has been at least twenty minutes now since your last handshake and the redness has not faded. Yes, it’s possible you have an allergy to something, but you have no burning, itching, pain, or other sensations that go with contact dermatitis or sunburn. Therefore, I have to consider other alternatives, including the option that someone did this in some way for some reason I obviously cannot explain but intend to find out.”

I break then. Every speck of this last week—the hours of dread chasing an intruder who doesn’t exist, the constant surveillance, the relentless rampage in the name of safety, the mental war that has erupted in our cottage, the theft of privacy, the invasion of every nook and cranny of the life my parents built, this shadow over mum’s day—combine, overwhelming me with their force. And I can’t form words. Not because I don’t know what to say. But because nothing I say will make a difference. All my counterarguments—no matter how logical and reasonable—will mean nothing in the end. Once we resolve a threat, his mind will find another, and another, and another, trapping him in war. And me with him. A wave of terror crashes over me.

“This is never going to end, is it?” I whisper.

He blinks at me, shock flickering over his face. “Of course it will. As soon as—”

“As soon as you solve this,” I finish for him.

“Yes.” His answer is resolute, his eyes unyielding. He will either destroy the reel or the reel will destroy him. But in three weeks, despite his strength, the reel has already claimed our new lives, our peace, our happy memories, and now stifling even the fragile tendril of h-o-p-e that blossomed by my parents’ grave. Abruptly, I want to leave. Go back to mum’s day with memories and pain I know how to live with.

“Elisa, I will fix this. I promise you that.” He tips up my face as if to reassure me, but nothing can do that right now. Not even his touch.

I manage a nod as I squeeze past him out of the restroom. The gallery of our firsts spans around me with all its beauty. Everything is as we left it a week ago, except the garland of roses is gone and a small table in the open balcony is set with lunch and a Clare for what would have been our date. In one look, the room transforms from a mosaic of our beautiful firsts to a museum of our happy lasts before the reel ruined everything.

He is behind me, so close I can feel his body heat. “Elisa, what are you doing?”

“Leaving.”

He is in front of me in one second, his arms out as if to stop me. “Why?”

“Because I want to go back to the festival.”

He takes my still-pink hand.  “Love, come on. Let’s not fight about this. We’ve been fighting all week. Let’s celebrate your mother today.”

The reference to my mum on the day when she saw only goodness is too much for me. I pull back my hand—it balls up like his fists. “Celebrate her with you? When you only see danger and threat in the people she loved? You must be joking.”

A bolt of agony strikes his face. “Yes, with me. Who else do we have to celebrate her with, but each other?”

“Everyone else apparently,” I spit out, tears gathering in my eyes. “There are at least three hundred people on that street who loved her who aren’t enemies or intruders or poisoners or psychopaths or perverts or whatever other label you want to slap on them. They just miss her like I do. And right now, I want to be with them, not here with you debating yet another life-threatening scenario because my hands are a little pink.”

His arms drop to his sides as if I just shot him. “Elisa, it’s not—”

“Please, stop. Just stop! I can’t do this on her day. I just want to go back to the festival and be with her in my heart. Can you at least give me that?”

All expression drains from his face, leaving nothing but a beautiful, ashen barren land behind. He watches me frozen, his eyes shifting and aging with an ancient sadness. But he nods at last and opens the door, as I knew he would. “I’ll walk you out,” he whispers as I pass through.

He follows me in silence down the stairs to the lobby where Max is already waiting by the door with Benson. Of course he would be.

“So security stays after today then? Despite all the proof that there’s nothing wrong?” I verify, looking at their intense expressions as they dissect the ivy-covered lane.

Aiden’s hand curves gently around my elbow, turning me to him. I look up at his face reluctantly. I don’t want to see the staggering sadness in his eyes that still won’t change his determined gaze. “Love, it has to, until—”

“Don’t!” I interrupt him, pulling back my elbow. The point of contact shivers as though it wants to stay in his touch. “I don’t want to hear your reasons because they’re not reasonable anymore. This will hurt us, Aiden. I promise you that.”

I march past him to the door. He watches me leave with unfathomable eyes.

But with each step away from the Inn, my anger softens even with Max by my side. This is not how I wanted to say goodbye. Because the wound is festering, the clock is ticking, our lives are still entwined, and I already miss him. I almost go back then, but Hendrix and James are ducking into the Inn, talking to Benson, their faces set with warlike intention. Yes, I want to go back, but it wouldn’t change anything. We are now prisoners to the reel.

Priory Street is feverish when Max and I get there. Band clamoring, couples dancing, children giggling, and swells of people flooding the lane like River Windrush. Yet, I feel cold, as though the sun that’s glazing the stones no longer beams on me. From a distance, I see mum’s stand, glimmering like snow. The new sign pops with its black-and-white elegance against the bright colors of the roses thronging the lane. And the Hales are sitting at the table with the Plemmonses and the Jenkinses, laughing and eating canapes under Ferrars’ watchful eye. I change treks, unable to face them in my current state.

“Max, I need to walk around for a while. Just up and down the street.”

His eyebrows knit above his sunglasses. He has been quiet since we left the Inn, obviously seeing the jungle of emotion on my face. “No problem, whatever you need.”

I watch the jigsaw of rose stands, as familiar as the freckles on my hip or the lines in my pink palms. “The thing is . . .” I hesitate. “I’m not sure how to do that with a bodyguard around all of mum’s friends. They’ve known me since I was in nappies. They’ll think it’s mad.”

“Ah.” Max nods in understanding. “Why don’t you start ahead, and I’ll follow from a distance? Will that help?”

I nod woodenly, even my joints feeling stuck at the idea. But what else can I do? I start treading down the lane, stiff with opposition, half of me stuck back at the Inn, the other half here for mum. But this hour after lunch was the hour I had alone with her. She used to take my hand and say, “ice cream and roses, love,” and we would weave through the rose stands, picking our favorites and eating ice cream, just the two of us. Above the hilltop, the sun is glowing like a halo. Ice cream and roses, Mum.

The first few steps down the lane are hard with the pain in my chest and without her sandals on the cobblestones next to mine. But as I stop by our favorite stands to say hello like she would or buy a candle she liked, it gets easier. Each vendor gives me their signature rose for her—a cheery yellow, a fiery orange, a pure white, a bold cyclamen, a shy pink, a hearty crimson, a pensive lilac—until by the middle of the lane, my arms are overflowing, my hands are sore from all the clasps, and the tears have dried before they spilled. But my heart throbs exactly as it did when I left the Inn. How can a street with hundreds of bodies feel empty? How can the stones miss the heavy Timberland boots that never walked on them as much as they miss mum’s kitten heels? Perhaps the phrase “heart of stone” has a different meaning. Perhaps it doesn’t mean a hard, cold heart. Perhaps it means a heart that loves so much, it has become petrified. Frozen with terror of losing its love.

I buy mum’s favorite gelato—honey and rose—from Mr. Flaubert and weave my way through the crowd back to the stand. Only Aiden’s parents are there now, sipping chilled rosé.

“Sweetheart, look at all your roses!” Stella laughs, rushing to take some of them from my arms, but her smile falls when she sees my face. The walk must not have masked the snarl inside. “Oh no, is Aiden being a bear?”

I wish. Bears and dragons, I know how to deal with. The reel I do not. “Not at all,” I answer, forcing a wide grin and dropping the roses in a pail of water. “He’s just worrying about me when he’s supposed to stay in the present moment and not imagine awful things.”

“Ah.” She relaxes, smiling again. “It’s because he loves you, darling, and he doesn’t know what to do with it.”

“That, and it’s a bit of a Hale trait, Elisa.” Robert chuckles. “He gets it from me.”

Stella laughs again, taking me by the arm back at the table and pouring me wine. “It’s true. When I was pregnant, Robert didn’t get a full night’s sleep for nine months. Even the few hours he managed, he slept on the floor in case I’d roll off the bed.”

“Is he worried about your hands?” Robert guesses with genetic accuracy, gesturing at my palms.

I nod even though that’s not exactly true. Aiden is worrying about someone intentionally hurting me. And that’s why the stories about the Hale gene do not calm me. Because there is a difference between l-o-v-e and the r-e-e-l. Aiden’s love does things like move across the world and mobilize the CIA and the entire U.S. Congress to save my family. Aiden’s mind creates danger that robs us of our very life.

“I saw them too but thought maybe the dirt, the sun, and all the handshakes,” Robert reasons. And here is another difference: the Hale gene notices, understands, and protects. The reel notices, terrorizes, and destroys.

“Here, try some aloe vera,” Stella suggests, digging a small tube from her purse. “Save yourself a headache and Aiden a coronary.”

I rub the cool gel on my painless hands, trying and failing to see anything there that could make Aiden dream up a nefarious act. Who would do such a thing? Why? How when I’ve been surrounded by security? And more importantly, if someone was trying to harm me, why would they make my palms blush but not hurt, tickle, or burn in any way? When I think of it, why my palms at all and not some other part of me? I shake my head to dispel the dark, paranoid thoughts. Because today is mum’s, and she saw good—not evil—in everything.

The endless stream of people flowing by the stand don’t let me forget it. Some familiar, some strangers I’ve never met. Most with their favorite story of her, all different, yet all the same. All about her kindness and the way she made them feel. I string their memories of her like a lei, jotting them down in her old guest book, letting my mind get lost in her world. The rose oil she gave that girl to clear her skin, the hybrid she helped that old man cultivate after his wife passed. Story after story, until for a while it’s just mum and me, even with Max and Ferrars pacing, the countless guests filing through, and the sniper gazes I sense on me. Above the hilltop, the sun is starting to dip like a fervent kiss.

The church clock tower booms with a deep knell then, making me jump. In the same chime, from the stage at the top of the street, a line of trumpets pierces the air with their bright jingle.

“Is this it?” Stella shouts over the din as trombones and drums join the carol.

“Yes,” I yell back, bolting to my feet. “It means the votes have been counted and now they announce the winner.”

On cue, the crowd bursts into song, bellowing Rose, Rose on the Wall, Who Is the Fairest of Them All. But before the second toll clangs again, Max and Ferrars streak to my side with blinding speed, forming a wall of muscle in front of me as the throng starts to jostle along the narrow street. So much for being inconspicuous. I grit my teeth, trying to squeeze through the crevices of their backs to watch Mr. Plemmons who will be carrying the Rose Cup up to the stage, but it’s impossible.

“Max,” I scream over the clangor, tapping his shoulder as the clock peals again. “I can’t see!”

“What?” he roars back, pressing his fingers to his earpiece.

“I—can’t—see,” I cry again, and he finally hears me, pulling me in front of him as Ferrars, Stella, and Robert line next to us. But at least I can see Mr. Plemmons now, wobbling with the sparkling trophy in his hand, his mustache quivering as he laughs, his cane teetering on the stones, and his beloved Josephine at his side. The gate of bodies thunders with applause as they pass. My throat catches at the sight—how many festivals do they have left? As if to echo my question, the clock tolls again. I clap as hard as I can, not caring if my hands will throb or blister after this.

The crowd swells, following behind the Plemmonses, tugging me along. Max’s hands grip my shoulders to keep me from falling while Ferrars looms large next to Robert and Stella. The clock tolls again and, with a suddenness that knocks me breathless, I miss a different set of iron hands on me. But even though the horde is swarming the street like Aiden’s worst nightmare, my phone doesn’t buzz in my dress pocket. I cannot imagine the sheer life it’s costing him to give me the space I need. Except I don’t want space from him—I only want space from the effects of the reel. The idea of him in terror sends my hands flying for my phone despite my anger and our fight. I have to lean against Max to be able to thumb a text with the juddering horde around us:

“I’m perfectly safe. Max is right next to me.”

The clock’s bell reverberates in the stones under my sandals at the same time the phone vibrates in my cyclamen palms. “Don’t worry about me. Try to enjoy this.”

When the clock tolls again, it throbs through my chest, pulsing inside my ribcage like the wound.

“Roses and friends!” Mr. Plemmons shouts into the microphone from the stage when the pealing stops. I look up, startled that I missed the last minutes of his parade. I force myself to focus only on him and Josephine now, and their bushels of white hair above the podium covered with rose garlands. Mr. Plemmons sets the Rose Cup on it with a firm thud. It gleams exactly as it used to on our console where mum would tap it on her way out. My hand claws around my locket. Let mum win, please, bring the Cup back to the cottage for her.

“Can yeh hear me?” Mr. Plemmons wheezes and the crowd sings back, “Yes, we can.”

“Jolly good, because I can’t.” He waves at the throng that titters. “Another festival—gone! ‘Twas our biggest ‘un yet, and very special ‘t was too. ‘Un hundred and twenty more votes, we had. Five more competin’ roses. And two thousand tickets sold fer our school. Well done, Burford, well done!” The crowd whoops while my throat roils with emotion. “And now, before we’re sloshed an’ knackered at the pubs . . .” Mr. Plemmons splays his hands in the air with significance. “As me wooly ‘ead remembers it, the Rose Cup needs rewardin’. Like all me years of doin’ this, our rosebuds counted the votes thrice. But this year wasn’ close like other times. And yeh voted with yer hearts and yer eyes and yer noses, as yeh should. Makes me heart happy to say tha’ this year, the Rose Cup—” Mr. Plemmons pauses, his whiskery voice catching and starting again while I stop breathing. “The Rose Cup goes back home tonigh’ with Elisa Snow fer her mother’s rose, our kind and beautiful Clare.”

The crowd explodes in cheers, while I stare open-mouthed at Mr. Plemmons stomping his cane in applause and Josephine clapping and searching the crowd. I heard it right, I know I have, because Max taps my shoulder with a whoop, the horde starts chanting, “Clare, Clare, Clare,” and Stella and Robert pull me into a double hug. “You did it, dear. You brought the cup back to your mom.” Stella cries, kissing my cheek.

“She did it herself,” I whisper, eyes on the silver rose. Am I imagining the sunbeam shining directly on it? Abruptly the scene transforms for me. I see mum climbing the stage, beaming, a tear like a diamond in her eye, hugging Mr. Plemmons, waving the Cup, looking straight at dad and me and blowing us a kiss. This is for Elisa and Peter, she used to say. Behind the curtain of my tears, she dances off the stage and disappears with a faint pop in my heart.

“Rosebud?” Mr. Plemmons calls into the microphone. “Where are yeh? I can’ see yeh. Open up fer her, yeh lot.”

Stella gives me another peck, fixing up the roses in my braid. “You look beautiful. Go, get your Cup, darling.” She places her warm hand on my shoulder, nudging me gently as the crowd parts grinning at me, clapping like castanets, singing Clare, Clare, Clare. But suddenly the lane empties in my vision despite the hordes of bodies flooding it. And the hollow tunnel of homesickness blows through me like cold wind through a vacant crypt. Not homesickness for mum—she feels closer than any other time since she’s been gone. Homesickness for Aiden, to have him next to me even if angry and worried and terrified.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!”

Fragments of hundreds of voices rejoice, yet I don’t feel their cheers. And I know why. Because Aiden was right. Cheer is not cheer if I don’t celebrate with him. Nothing fills the void the way he does. I swallow all kinds of tears now—happy, sad, in the middle and adjacent to everything—and shuffle toward the stage, feeling more ghost than human. Max and Ferrars walk parallel on each side of me, Hendrix appears ahead. But at least there are no nerves. I know everyone, and country festivals don’t require speeches.

“There she is!” Mr. Plemmons claps as I climb the stage stairs to the chorus of Clare, Clare, Clare. They both teeter to me, glowing and sparkling with tears, carrying the Rose Cup. “Finally,” Josephine lullabies as she pulls me into her canape-and-roses hug. “The Cup goes home after such a long time.”

“Keep it there, Rose, keep it righ’.” Mr. Plemmons rasps gruffly. “Don’ go leavin’ the roses again.”

What can I say? That I love this little village so much I would bleed for it if it meant my blood could grow the roses forever? Or that I love a man so much my heart couldn’t even pump blood without him? “Thank you.” I hug them both—they’re so tiny, it only takes one arm. “I know she is giving you all her love.”

Their white heads turn up to the sky in unison, grinning at it. I turn to the crowd as mum would, waving the silver rose as she did, skimming over the faces because the three dearest ones are not here. And that’s when I see him.

He would be hard to miss even in the shade of the elm tree behind the crowd, flanked by Benson and James. Leaning against the trunk like a sculptural Adonis carved in golden marble. Every angle of him is hard with tension as he thrashes with his most violent demon to be here, but his eyes beam on me as if we are utterly alone. Even from this distance, his gaze heats my skin. I’ve never seen anything more life-affirming. And right now I don’t care that I am supposed to be angry with him. I don’t care that I’m terrified. Because I can feel the cheer now, I can feel the joy for mum, and every part of me is brimming with life, not pain. He’s here, he’s here.

The corner of his lip lifts in a knowing smile as my cheeks flush. He mouths something I can’t decipher from this far, but then he tilts his head at the crowd as if to remind me I’m gawking at him on a stage. But I still can’t blink away from him—here, despite his deepest fear, to share this moment with me, knowing exactly how much it means. He winks now, pointing at the crowd with urgency.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!” They are apparently still singing, breaching just enough through the spell to release my voice.

“Hello!” I speak in the microphone, startled by my magnified voice. Is that me? It sounds like mum. They all fall quiet, perhaps hearing the same note. “Thank you for remembering my mother and choosing her roses after such a long time.” I smile at the sea of faces, spotting Stella and Robert filming with their phones and Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix rippling around the stage. Nerves start to prickle but I know my only line—I heard it for eighteen years. “This is for Mum who loved this day so much.” I clutch the Rose Cup to my chest that feels full but well. “And for Aiden who made it possible for me to enjoy it again.”

A low ahh flitters over the crowd and they burst in applause as if I just gave the most riveting of TED talks, not utter exactly four sentences. Under the elm tree, Aiden shakes his head with a private smile and claps in a this-is-Churchill-the-orator way. And for the first time today, I feel like we got this right, like mum would have liked this festival as much as all the eighteen others before.

I almost run across the stage, trying to get to him as fast as possible but the moment I hop back on the street, a deluge of clasps and pats rains on me. The faces are a haze of grins as I sweep through, Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix storming around on all sides. Yet nothing happens to me, as I knew it wouldn’t—just a chorus of Clare, Clare, Clareblaring in my ears along with the festival’s closing jingle. I shake Mr. Flaubert’s hand last and clear the crowd, heading straight for Aiden under the elm tree. But as I pass our rose stand, a gusty hug from behind almost knocks me off my feet.

“Rosebud!” a familiar voice shouts, and that’s all I grasp. Because as I blink back at Felix—the Plemmonses’ grandson who went to high school with me—a massive shape whooshes past the corner of my eye, rams into him, and his arms tear away from my shoulders with a loud grunt. I whirl around, watching in horror as Felix plunges onto the stones under Ferrars’s body weight, and they skate together in an unstoppable collision course with the rose stand.

“Felix!” I shriek, launching myself into their path as Aiden’s voice reverberates under the clamor, “Elisa, don’t!” and Max yanks me out of the way. And I can’t stop it. Felix and Ferrars crash into the vase of Clares, shattering it into a million pieces and slamming against the rose stand with such force that the wooden slats shake to their bolts and the rose baskets and wreaths plummet to the ground in a mulch of petals, bark, moss, and leaves.

It’s utterly silent for one blink then a throng snaps around us with panicked cries. In the chaos, I’m vividly aware of Aiden’s terror for me as he must be trying frantically to break through the horde to get to me without triggering the startle. But of more immediate urgency are Felix and Ferrars still on the ground.

“Aiden, I’m fine,” I scream even though he can’t hear me in the bedlam, and rip out of Max’s hands, kneeling on the stones next to Felix as Ferrars jolts away from him with frenzied apologies. “Felix, Felix! Are you okay?” I splutter, checking to see if he hit his head. But he didn’t. He fell on his side, there is a gash by his elbow, but the rest of him seems all right. He blinks around, shocked and startled, and scrambles to his feet while I almost collapse on the ground sobbing in relief.

“What the bloody hell was that?” Felix blurts out, clearly not connecting Ferrars to me. Despite my remorse, I let him believe it because underneath my terror, something clicks with a silent roar. This was no accident, was it? It was intentional. Ferrars must have thought Felix—my sweet old classmate, born the same week as me—was about to hurt me.

“I’m so sorry, mate!” Ferrars blusters. “I tripped and crashed into you. Are you hurt? I can drive you to the surgery if you need.” He is checking Felix all over for injuries, proving my hypothesis. And dread turns instantly to anger, pulsing hot and livid, scorching all the joy until I taste iron on my tongue.

“No, I’m fine.” Felix swings his arm around as if to check its radius and turns to me with a smile. “Sorry about the stand, Rosebud. But it looks absolutely bangers still, only the roses fell.”

At his needless apology, the blistering rage blurs my vision with a reddish haze, making me dizzy with it. “It wasn’t your fault at all, Felix. Please, don’t even think it.” I manage to form words, wiping his cut with mum’s handkerchief. His blood stains the lacework, and I fight against my gnashing teeth so they don’t break through my tongue. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” And I am. How much worse could it have been? What if he had cracked his skull? And my frail Plemmonses, what would have happened to them then? I shudder. “Let me get you some bandages, Felix, come sit down. Want some water or iced tea?”

“No worries, it’s just a scrape. I’ll pop up at Gramps and change my shirt anyway. Congrats, Rose.” He gives me the hug he started so innocently, and the reddish blaze flares in my vision. “Chips and ale next week? We’re coming back at the weekend.”

“Absolutely, bring Lily, too. And be careful. Are you sure about the bandage?”

“Positive.” He chuckles, still breathless, and traipses through the lasso of people that loosens for him with angry glares and exclamations at Ferrars who turns to apologize to me. Has anyone connected him with me? And why should he apologize? Can I blame him when he’s only following strict orders to protect me from dangers no one else can see? No, there is only one man to blame for this, and he must be straining desperately to get to me. Was it only minutes ago that he righted my world back on its axis? Now it feels as though he’s razing it to the ground, turning each person into an insurgent and each place into a dessert of terror.

“I know you didn’t mean to, Ferrars,” I answer a little late. “I’m glad you’re not hurt either.”

He starts to mumble something, but his voice fades as does everything else when I finally dare to turn my eyes to the rose stand. The Elisas, Cecilias, Reagans, and future Marias have spilled everywhere like floral arteries on the cobblestoned hearts. The wreaths have survived, but some of Mum’s photos have cracked across her beloved smile. The shards of her vase glimmer on the ground like tears. And all the forty-four stems of her life are smeared on the stones, their blush petals like droplets of some magical blood.

Hot tears spring in my eyes. I start gathering the bruised blooms one by one, some thorns pricking my still-pink hands, some glass slivers nipping my skin. I wish they could lance my neurons instead so I couldn’t feel any of this. Nor the p-a-i-n, or the f-u-r-y, or the f-e-a-r—maybe not even the l-o-v-e.  None of the four-letter words that are wrecking our l-i-f-e. Tears splash like rain drops on the crushed petals as the sun starts to dive behind the hilltop, lighting it on fire, turning the street scarlet behind the reddish glare of my vision.

I sense him before I see him. I don’t know how he managed to cut through the crowd so fast, but the hum behind me falls quiet with the astonished silence that only he inspires. His scent blows in the breeze more beautiful than the dying gasps of my roses. And his tall, tense body crouches next to me on the stones. I don’t look at him.

“Elisa, love?” His murmur is breaking as he tries to take my hands away from the broken glass. “Let me do this, you’ll cut your hands.”

The reference to my hands—the trigger that started all this again—slices through whatever thread is keeping me together, and I start shaking with anger. A smashed Clare slips through my trembling fingers as if its first injury wasn’t bad enough. He sees it. He knows it, because his hand swoops down and catches it before it hits the stone. Then it wraps around both of mine. I wrench them back, blisteringly aware of all the eyes and ears around us. His parents squatting to save the blooms too, the Marines and Benson towering to guard Aiden’s back, and even worse, mum’s friends, admirers, and well-wishers muttering, “ah, that’s too bad,” “that bloke was bang out of order,” “poor Felix,” “poor Elisa,” “she’ll be all right, it’s just the roses,” “it’s lovely she has the Rose Cup again.”

I can’t look at any of them. I clench my teeth against the words I want to hurl at him and pluck all wisps of strength from all crevices of my mind so I don’t cause an even bigger scene.

“I’m fine,” I hear myself speak, but my voice doesn’t sound like mine. It’s just a sing-songy mask my mind must need right now. He hears it. He knows it, because he pulls back his hands that are reaching for mine again and his fingers reappear with a folded map as he starts sweeping the broken shards away from me.

“Sir, I’m very sorry,” Ferrars starts on Aiden too, sounding absolutely wretched, but I see peripherally Aiden’s hand fly up. I tense, expecting him to torch Ferrars alive right here, right now, but he surprises me even in my state.

“No need.” His voice is clipped and hard now that he’s speaking at normal volume. “This is on me.”

At least he knows it. Of course he does. Even without his brain, he could have decoded this one. I told him. I tried reason, logic, science, allies, heart, but he wouldn’t listen. He did this with his security and paranoia, not Ferrars. I move away from him, picking up mum’s broken photos, feeling his eyes on me constantly.

“It’ll be all right, sweetheart.” Stella is there, helping me tuck the frames in my basket. “I know your mom still would have loved this. I think she’s very proud of you up there.”

I nod because she is probably right. Mum found goodness in everything. She might have even laughed, but I can’t. The pressure inside my skull is becoming a cleaving headache. I am utterly unable to calm the gale of fury inside. All strength is going to keeping my face together for every set of eyes that are looking on with sorrow, pity, confusion, or any other expression I didn’t want for today.

The vendors start packing up their stalls now, and the crowd is waning toward the pubs. “Well done, Elisa!” “Stop by The Lambs Inn, Elisa-pea, we can toast your win.” “Ah, look at the Cup by Clare’s stand again, how brill.” I wave at them, a smile plastered on my lips, even for Willoughby who is watching me with a curious smirk that lifts his upper lip into a sneer. He seems even colder than this morning with the Rose Cup snatched away from him. I tuck it in my basket too in case he nicks it back.

As the horde thins, our guard all start helping pack up the stand. I see their hulking silhouettes from the corners of my eyes as I stack the wreaths. The broken glass is all gone.

“Where is the stand going tonight?” James asks as Aiden starts dismantling it himself.

“Elisa?” His body turns toward me, but I can’t look up. If I see his face or his tormented eyes, I will cry or scream or implode in some other way.

“Behind the garden shed at the cottage, please,” I answer, one brain cell wondering whether my voice will ever return back to normal. The rest of my mind is powering frantically to get me through the next few moments. But through to where? There isn’t a single place left in my world where I can just be. Every wedge of my life is under surveillance. The cottage, the garden, the garage, Elysium, Bia, Oxford, the open fields, the very people I respect and love, my very skin. Every single part of me. I grind my teeth against the sudden claustrophobia and start sweeping away the debris, trying to breathe petal to petal, trying to think.

But everywhere the broom turns, there is a muscular frame or a set of eyes or a question waiting. “Same for the table and the chairs?” “What about the sign?” “The coolers?” Aiden takes over, knowing everything, but abruptly, I can’t even breathe. Just one more smile, just one more nod, please. And then what? The stony lane tilts a fraction. Of course he doesn’t miss it. He is in front of me in a blink.

“Elisa?” His finger flies under my chin to tip up my face, but I step back automatically. I can’t handle his touch right now—the touch that makes me do anything. “Look at me please.”

It takes every last fiber of strength to resist his voice. I manage only by looking at the trashed Clares in the bin. “I’m fine,” I repeat, but even the strange voice is fading into a whisper. “I have to finish this.”

“I can do that. Why don’t you go sit?” He takes the broom from me. “Or do you want to go back to the cottage? I can finish up here—we’ll be very careful.”

The cottage? Our happy bubble that has been invaded by security more than any intruder? I start to shake my head, but a bubble of space opens up in my hermetic world as I try to look anywhere but at him so I don’t explode in the middle of mum’s favorite street.

“Actually . . . ” I grasp the bubble with all my mind, the contours of a plan forming. Because I need this, I need it for air. “I’ll go back to the Inn for a bit if you don’t mind.”

His answer is immediate. “I’ll walk you.”

“No,” I say quickly, knowing I don’t stand a chance if he comes with me. “I need you here.”

He doesn’t speak. His body is so close, his Timberlands are nudging my sandals. I try not to think of the way his bare toes look when they dance next to mine on the bedroom rug. Those moments no longer feel like our life. “Look at me,” he whispers at last, so quietly I’m not sure I really heard the words. I know he wants to say more. I know from the way his hand is closing in a fist that he wants to touch me. And for once I’m glad we’re not alone.

“Not now, Aiden,” I mouth back and turn away from him before he sees everything in my eyes.

I know he will never let me walk alone, especially now that it’s getting dark. I skim past all the faces around me—Stella tearful, Robert and Benson concerned, the Marines tense, Ferrars remorseful—for the only person I want to find. My choice surprises me as much as him. “Max, can you walk me to the Inn, please?”

“Of course!” He comes to my side immediately. “Do you need me to carry anything?”

“Just the Cup, mum’s photos, and dad’s plant, please.” I hand him the basket carrying it all.

“I’ll get the rest,” Aiden says behind me, and a look passes between Max and him. Max nods once, probably obeying whatever new order he just received.

“The hospital trolly will come for the wreaths and what is left of the roses,” I remind him needlessly and turn to thank the rest of them, even Ferrars, for helping today. Despite the way it ended, none of it is their fault. In a different universe, we could have gone to celebrate, I’d have given them my thank-you gifts that I prepared, but that’s simply beyond anything I have left.

“I’ll see you in a bit.” I wave at them, feeling guilty for the lie.

They all smile back in their own way—“Congrats, Pest, you kicked Willoughby’s shriveling ass.” “Don’t worry, Trouble, we got this.” “I’m sorry again, Elisa.” “Well done, kid.”—but Robert and Stella decide to return to the Inn with Max and me. Whether they’re tired themselves or worried or both, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter, they have their own room.

The Inn is empty and silent when we arrive, as I knew it would be. Stella gives me a silky hug in the lobby. “It was a beautiful day, sweetheart, even with this little fiasco in the end. Try to remember only the best parts because you can.”

“And the hard parts will pass, too,” adds Robert, patting my shoulder.

I think about that as the lift doors close behind them. I know they will pass—they always do—but what will survive? My parents’ favorite memories? Aiden and me? Our life? Or just the reel, not even stardust this time?

“Up to Mr. Hale’s room, Elisa?” Max prompts.

“No, Max. I’m staying in Javier’s old room tonight. I can take it from here.” His eyebrows arch in surprise, but it’s the only habitable place that holds a dear part of me and hasn’t been invaded. And the only room I know here that can give me what I need. Max still insists on walking me up, whether on Aiden’s orders or his own worry, I don’t know. As soon as we open the door to the familiar room, he sweeps it corner to corner, even the balcony despite the fact that we’re on the third floor. The room has been cleaned since Javier left. I manage the first deep breath, sniffing futilely for his homey peppermint and paint smell, but it’s long gone, like him.

“It all seems in order,” Max assures me, not knowing how wrong he is. Nothing is in order anymore, but for purposes of my physical safety, it’s true enough. He sets my basket on Javier’s dresser and leaves, asking me to lock my door even though he’ll be just down in the lobby and Ferrars with him. But I don’t argue. I thud the bolt home with a loud ding, listening to Max’s footsteps fade down the hall.

Finally alone now, I could cry or scream or curl on Javier’s pillow or call him and Reagan or work on the protein or just stare at the spot on the rug where Aiden held me a week ago as I was sobbing, telling me he would stay in England with me. But those are not the only reasons I came here, because this isn’t where I want to be. I grab the Rose Cup, and slide back the bolt quietly, millimeter by millimeter. When I crack open the door, the hallway is empty. I can hear Ferrars and Max’s indistinct voices from the lobby. I tiptoe down the corridor to the door behind the velvet curtains that leads down the old turret stairs where Felix, Lily, and I used to play hide-and-seek when mum and the Plemmonses would deliver roses to the Inn. As soon as I reach them, I leg it. Scurrying down the limestone steps, bursting through the back-alley door, leaping over the low hedge of briar roses, and darting around the corner to Swan Lane. Everything is quiet and empty—the whole town is in the pubs or lingering on Priory Street—but I still can’t help looking over my shoulder as I creep on the mossy cobblestones until I reach the riverbank and the protective canopy of oaks and willows. And then I break into a sprint. My heart is galloping at the same speed, but my lungs are pumping fresh air without effort. I glance back a few times, but there is no one behind me. I’m utterly alone. Bounding across the open fields that are turning inky with the early night, finally free.

Above the hilltop, the moon is glowing.   ©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 25 – SCAR

Hey friends, happy Sunday and woe begone to Sunday scaries.  If you’re feeling them, here’s a chapter to help with that. As always many thanks to those who are reading and commenting. I love hearing your theories about what is happening to Aiden. Wonder what you think after this? Lots of love to you.  xo, Ani

 

25

Scar

Chronology has stopped making sense again. The Friday before the Rose Festival comes only six days later, but it feels like another lifetime to me. Both familiar and foreign in the same week.

Familiar because some days look more like my old home movies. The cottage has parents around who cook and pack my lunch. The fridge has homemade leftovers of our favorite dishes. The phone rings, the doorbell jingles. Our constellation is expanding again tonight with all the Marines descending on Burford from River Spey. And Aiden and I are back to our rhythm, trying to live present moment to present moment, reel to reel.

Yet it doesn’t feel like my life. Because under the familiar is the strange—new elements more intrusive than the intruder they’re trying to protect me against, rubbing against our days like a blister in a shoe or an eyelash in the eye. We no longer have a security guard, we have a security team: Benson, Max, and Ferrars who is assigned to Aiden’s parents. One of them is always outside the cottage, which is a compromise for the cameras Aiden wanted to install in the rose-covered limestone straight into the cottage’s flesh (“Why don’t you just drill them in my heart and forehead, Aiden, because that’s how it would feel.” He didn’t argue with me after that). And Aiden still picks me up and drops me off at work, but Max remains stationed at Café Vault across the street during my workday, which is an improvement from Bia’s lobby as Aiden wanted (“I’ll quit before I have a bodyguard in my dad’s second home around his closest friends and colleagues, Aiden!” “That’s an overreaction, Elisa.” “This whole thing is an overreaction!” “Fine, the coffee shop!”)

But worse than all these, there is no more love-making in the garden; no more sunrises skin to skin; no more blissful moments of just Aiden and me without someone’s shadow always around; no more rose bubble at peace. They are gone before they truly settled in.

And I miss all of it. The festering wound has doubled in size—once when we’re apart, once for losing the way we were. But I’m not giving up. I’ll try again today, even if it will mean another fight.

“So, are you almost ready for Professor Snow’s bench ceremony?” Graham’s voice startles me out of my planning. He’s been poring through the third volume of the Encyclopedia for the last five hours and looks slightly cross-eyed.

“Ugh, don’t remind me or my hands will start shaking again. I haven’t even written my speech.”

“Your fossil mates been keeping you busy, have they?”

“Not at all. They’re the model for ideal visitors—homemade food, strolls, quiet nights.”

“Oh, I see, you’re a fossil yourself. Everything makes a lot more sense now.” Graham laughs, rubbing his eyes and the deep purple shadows underneath.

“Graham, you look exhausted. Have you left Bia at all in the last week? I’m worried about you.” This is true. As I am worried about time to test the protein if he continues to usurp the lab.

“Of course I’ve left. How do you reckon I’ve been getting lunch?”

I shake my head at him, starting the centrifuge, but sweat dews in the back of my neck. This would be my life if Aiden had not come to England. This might be my life still if we lose, assuming I survive at all. “Maybe you should take a break this weekend,” I suggest. “Come to the Rose Festival tomorrow, get some fresh air—”

Edison blasts in Bia then at his typical sprinting pace, making me jump as usual. “How is the afternoon?” he asks before the door has closed behind his billowing lab coat.

“Abysmal. Eliser is trying to convince me to abandon my post and attend the local rose soiree. The nerve!” Graham chuckles but an enormous yawn overtakes him. He looks nickel green.

“Ah, yes, the Rose Festival.” Edison smiles, but his eyes sweep over Graham and the lab. “Elisa is right, Graham. You need to leave stat. You’re no help to yourself or the protein in your state. Pip pip!” He knocks on Graham’s desk as if to prompt him to blink and turns to me.

“You too, Elisa. I can finish testing today.”

I stare at him, trying to think. I desperately need the lab alone, but I wouldn’t have it with Edison here. “Are you sure, Professor? I can work until six.”

“Nigel, please,” he corrects me for the nth time. “And I’m quite certain. I know the Rose Festival meant a lot to Clare. She would want you to have time to set up.”

I lose all argument then. Because he is right—this was mum’s favorite event and I abandoned it for four years. Not to mention two hours with Aiden before the Marines arrive, hopefully without Max or Benson around.

“Thank you, P—Nigel,” I answer, feet already shuffling toward the door.

“Not at all, not at all.” He waves me off and, without a second glance at anything else, turns to the molecule of fear.

Max is waiting at his usual table by the window at Café Vault when Graham and I traipse outside. He stands immediately when he sees me two hours early, but to his credit, he gives me time to say goodbye. His sharp eyes follow Graham as he shambles under the weight of three tomes to his white Fiat. And even after he drives off at Mr. Plemmons’ pace, Max waits until he disappears around the corner before escorting me to his newly leased bullet-proof Range Rover.

“Would you like Mr. Hale to know you’re out early?” Max smiles as I climb in the back seat. One week in, and he already knows what to ask. Still, it doesn’t make his presence easier.

“No, he’ll like the surprise.”

“I’m sure he will.”

I watch the familiar St. Giles Boulevard flash by behind the tinted windows. My parents’ bus stop, their favorite bakery, Oxford’s golden tones all turn dark under Rover’s filter, as though I’m looking at them through the black veil I wore at the funeral. I lean my head back and shut my eyes. The trip is easier if I don’t look at the charred, smoky colors of my new life.

“Did anyone give you trouble today?” Max checks as he does every day.

“Some vials broke. Does that count?” My sarcasm is ruined by the thick sound of my voice.

“I didn’t notice anything strange around the building either.”

“Maybe because there’s nothing to notice,” I mumble to myself, but Max must read lips in his wide-angle mirror.

“There could be. We don’t know that for a fact.”

I flush but don’t answer. Because what’s a fact in a situation like this? With trauma so vivid, it becomes real, and reality so beautiful, it becomes a fairytale? I clutch my locket for bravery, trying to guess which sheep-dotted field the Rover is darkening.

“Seven minutes out,” Max informs me, clearly knowing my routine by now.

“Thank you, Max.”

“Is there anything I can do to make this easier?”

“No, you’re exceptional. I’m sorry if I seem ungrateful. And I’m sorry you’re spending your vacation in a coffee shop, staring at a lab.”

“I truly don’t mind. Mr. Hale is being very generous.”

Yes, generous, protective, and stubborn to a fault. And the toll is costlier than the bill. The toll on him, on me, and on the beloved hallmarks of my parents’ life. I run through my arguments in my head, trying to pick a winner after two lost battles.

“One minute,” Max announces.

Immediately, I open my eyes and roll down my window, unwilling to see Elysium or the cottage in shades of black and gray. The brocade of wildflowers is brilliant under the July sun except the inkblot at the border, like a scar. Even from here, I can see Benson standing guard by the willows. I inhale deeply, finding the first whiff of rose breeze that no longer blows through the cottage at night. As soon as Max pulls over by the garage, I wrench open the armored door, probably giving myself a bruise, and hop out.

Yet as soon as I step on the flowery tapestry with Max’s boulder shadow next to me, the field of my childhood looks forlorn. I know nothing has changed on it—the daisies, orchids, poppies, and forget-me-nots don’t know the difference—but the change feels real to me. I break into a run down Elysium’s bowl, leaving Max’s shadow behind, craving nothing but Aiden and me alone. I have no hope of outrunning Max, but he lets me go. After all, how much danger can I be in with three trained fighters within hearing distance? I wave at Benson without stopping and dash through the rose hedge, heading straight for the door, but there he is!

Sitting at the garden bench, his back to me—the only place in the world where Aiden allows his shoulders exposed. He is flipping through a thick binder of documents at eye-watering speed. His waves flutter in the breeze, longer than when he first stood in this garden. His sculpted arms glisten under the short sleeves of his white Polo shirt. And immediately the wound shrinks. Yet I’ve never missed him more. I wish I could sneak up and truly surprise him, but I can never do that to him.

“You shouldn’t sit alone like this,” I call across the garden. “The intruder might be Mrs. Willoughby. Have you considered that?”

His head whirls around in alarm. “Elisa?” He bolts to his feet and flashes to my side, scooping me in his arms before I have taken three steps toward him. “Love, are you okay? Did something happen?” His hand flies to my forehead and he scans me head to Byron trainers.

“Of course I’m fine,” I assure him quickly, locking my arms around his neck. “Edison let me go early for the festival.”

Tension drains out of him immediately and he tucks me closer with a relieved sigh. A dazzling smile wipes the worry lines from his face. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have picked you up.”

I kiss his cheek—it’s warm from the sun. “Because I wanted to surprise you.”

“What a great surprise.”

He nods at Max who has arrived at the hedge and strides back to the bench, eyes glittering.

“How was your day?” he asks as he drapes me over his lap, one arm tight around my waist.

“Very long and gray. Yours?”

“Interminable and pitch black until now.” His hand curves around my face, and he brings me to his mouth. “Welcome home,” he murmurs against my lips.

“Mmm, that sounds nice.” I sigh, tangling my fingers in his soft hair, breathing in his sunshine-and-Aiden scent. My lips shape themselves around his possessive mouth, folding to its pressure, now gentle, now hard. His arm strains me to his chest, and a current of warmth surges through me. I know there are important things I need to say, but his smell and his feel and his tongue moving with mine . . . I crush myself closer, moaning at his taste. Then Benson’s deep laughter drums over the blood that’s hammering in my ears, and I remember.

“Aiden—” I whisper through the kiss.

“Our bedroom.” His husky voice reverberates inside my mouth. I almost moan yes, my breath is already too fast and loud, but Benson laughs again.

“Wait . . . please . . . talk.”

His lips pause on mine—wet and delicious—but he doesn’t release my face. “Talk?”

I nod, trying to settle my breathing.

“All right.” He leans back, still cradling my cheek, but the V forms between his brows, crumpling my resolve. Because I know it will deepen as soon as I start talking. The smoldering light in his eyes will fade. And friction will enter the warm, velvet space between us. “What is it, love?” he prompts. The anxiety in his voice only makes me waver more. But Max’s cough drifts from the willows now, and the words tumble out.

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. I wasn’t joking when I said my day is black without you.” His thumb strokes my cheek as he frowns in confusion. “Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Not exactly.”

“What is it then?”

“Will you keep an open mind?”

He tenses around me. “I’ll give it my best effort.”

I choose my words carefully. “I miss being with you—the way we were a week ago. We had just begun this new life, and now it feels like the old one, with rules and dangers everywhere we turn. We’re not doing the opposite, love, we’re doing more of the same, maybe worse.”

The light burns out in his eyes the second he realizes the topic of conversation, as I knew it would. His hand drops from my face and he takes a deep breath. “Elisa, this part won’t last forever. I’ll take care of the problem, and we can go back to our new life. I miss it, too.”

“But how long will it last? It’s been a week without any incident of any kind.”

“Until I’m convinced you’re safe. I won’t take any chances with your life—you know that.” His voice is resolute and unwavering.

“I know you wouldn’t, but what will it take to convince you? Max has been watching me every day. He admits he hasn’t seen anything odd at all. Neither has Benson or Ferrars. And you’ve been searching the area twice a day. There is nothing, love. You have to let this go now.”

He starts shaking his head before I’ve finished. “A week is too short a time to conclude that. If someone is intent on hurting you, he—because I don’t think it’s Mrs. Willoughby—may not return right away.”

“But Aiden, you heard Doctor Helen. She agrees with me. She said the reel is pushing your vigilance to the extreme, priming you to see and fight danger at all times. Corbin thinks so, too.”

He closes his eyes and pinches his nose for patience. “Elisa,” he begins slowly, no doubt trying to keep from roaring. “For the fifth time, Doctor Helen didn’t agree with you. She said your theory is more likely, but she didn’t say mine is impossible, either.”

I will never win with him if I start arguing probabilities with my safety. I change tracks instead. “Okay, let’s assume you’re right for the sake of argument . . .” I pause, waiting for him to open his eyes. He does with a deep sigh from the effort to stay calm. “Why do we need a security team and bullet-proof vehicles? Who could ever get past you and Benson? Please, let Max go home and give us our happy cottage back.”

Shock flashes over his face despite his calming measures. He stares at me like I belong to the padded corner room of Burford Dementia Centre. “With the festival tomorrow?” he demands in disbelief.  “With hordes of people around, in the only place where I cannot protect you myself? Have you lost your fucking mind?” He shudders with tension at the mere idea.

“All right, all right,” I say quickly, stroking his scar to calm him even though the thought of security shadows darkening mum’s roses burns my throat like acid. “Not tomorrow but Sunday then, assuming the worst that happens is dropped ice cream cones like every year.”

But he shakes his head again, unyielding. “This isn’t a joke, Elisa. I can’t do that. I don’t know what we’re dealing with—I’ll be the first to admit it. And until I do, Max stays.”

“But—”

“No, no more buts. It’s too soon. Later, when it’s safe, I promise I will let security go.”

Later. Tic toc, tic toc. When did s-a-f-e become a dangerous word? “But we may not have until later, Aiden!” My voice rises in panic even though seconds ago I was trying to calm him. “This may be the only time we have, and you’re wasting it with this.”

I’ve shredded the last vestige of his control. His jaw clenches as his eyes harden into blue slate. “Waste?” he hisses through his teeth, fury descending over his face like thunder. “Nothing is a waste to me if it keeps you safe. Absolutely nothing. I—will—not—take—more—risks—with—you. Full stop.”

There is no compromise in his voice, no room for any more arguments. He glowers at me in a way that only Aiden can. I try to glare back, but I can’t find my anger. It vanished somewhere between each second ticking away. Instead of anger, I feel something else. It takes me a moment to find the name for my throat closing, for the windy tunnel in my chest, for the strange hollowness in my stomach. Homesickness. It grips me now, like it did on my parents’ hilltop. Homesickness for us, for how we were, and how we could be. On their own, my fingers knot in his hair, pulling him closer.

“Please, Aiden?” I whisper, giving up on logic. “I miss us on the petals. I miss looking at the colors outside without bullet-proof windows. I miss having the cottage to ourselves at night without worrying who hears us. I miss making happy memories alone with you. I don’t ever want to lose that, and definitely not before our ninety days are up. I think that’s just as dangerous, if not more. Please?”

While I’ve been pleading, he’s been breaking. Ashen, mouth set in a grim line, rippling around me with tension. I hate the war I’m causing in his eyes, wounding a precious part of him whichever side he chooses: risk his peace or risk my safety, risk our happiness or risk our harmony?  R-i-s-k.  But I hate losing t-i-m-e with him even more. That will harm us more than any intruder, real or imagined. If I know anything down to my DNA’s double helix, it’s that.

He’s still strangled in conflict. With a deft movement, he slides me off his lap. “Give me a minute,” he says, his voice almost hoarse.

“Aiden, where—” But his fingers brush my cheek once and he streaks across the garden inside the cottage.

I stare after him, frozen on the sunny bench, heart in my throat. Did I win? Or did I make everything worse? Jittery with nerves, I jump to my feet and start pruning wilted petals from the Reagan, reciting the periodic table in my head. When I’ve run through it four times, he comes out—calmer now, no longer blanched, eyes clear, my rucksack on his back.

“Aiden, what are you doing?” I run to him immediately, crashing into him by the Clares. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry—”

He catches me and folds me in his arms, pulling me into his chest. “Of course you didn’t. You just reminded me that I can’t protect your safety at the cost of your heart. I have to figure out a way to do both.”

I should have known he’d find a way to make it harder on himself. I press my lips to his shirt over his heart. “You don’t need to do more, love. You need to do less.”

I feel him shake his head in my hair and he drops his arms but takes my hand. “Come with me.”

“Come with you where?”

“You’ll see.” The sparkle returns to his eyes and, with a gentle tug, he starts towing me down the stony path.

“Aiden, wait!” I pull on his arm, breathless from the abrupt change. “What about our conversation?”

One warm hand frames my face. “Elisa, I heard your arguments. The ones you made and the ones you didn’t. And right now, we need to do this.”

“But James and the others are coming in three hours. I have to get ready and—”

He places his finger over my lips. “We’ll be back by then. My mom has already marinated the steaks. And you’ll have me, Max, Benson, Ferrars, Cal, Hendrix, Jazz, and my parents to help you set up the rose stand exactly as you want. But until then, you are right. You need to be with me and I need to be with you. Just us and no one else in the world, making a happy memory. Will you come with me?”

And he unleashes the full force of his beauty on me. It grows in that surreal way, lighting him from within, until it stuns every thought and nerve into oblivion. He takes full advantage of my open mouth and closes it with his. The moment our lips touch, my resistance crumbles. Not because I’m giving up. But because this is exactly what I want right now too, what I’ve missed. To be alone with him.

He feels my change. “Perfect,” he smiles against my lips. With a gentle breeze over my face to restart my brain, he releases my mouth and takes my hand again, striding down the garden path while I wobble next to him trying to find things like feet and knees.

“Sir?” Max and Benson stand from the willow shade in unison when they see us.

Aiden raises his free hand. “Just us for now, gents. You have the cottage. We’ll be back by seven.”

I think they nod but I’m not sure. My eyes are fixed on Aiden as we set across Elysium just him and me with no shadows around. Can the daisies feel this difference? I think they can.

“So where are we going to make this happy memory?” I ask, not that it really matters to me. He could take me into a ditch on the side of the road at this point and I would be happy.

“I don’t have a name for it. That will be your job.” His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile.

He doesn’t take the bullet proof beast when we reach the garage. Instead he helps me in our Rover and sets the rucksack in the back seat.

“What’s in there?” I look at the overstuffed nylon that seems about to explode as he backs out of the garage, scanning the area around us.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” He winks as he repeats my own words to me from two weeks ago.

Then we’re off. Driving South down the country road slower than his usual speed. And my chest heals—as though the wound never existed. A sense of wellness floods my airways, and I breathe in the luxuriant feeling.

“Look at the colors, love,” Aiden says, rolling down our windows. Wind blows in, flinging around my hair and playing with his curls. But even though I griped about seeing the world through dark windows, now that they’re open, I turn on my seat and look only at him. How happy he looks right now—eyes on the open road, sunshine over his face, dimple in his cheek. He weaves his fingers with mine and brings my hand to his lips. “I’m sorry about the bullet-proof Rover. I didn’t think about the black windows. I can see why that would be depressing to you. I’ll check if they have one with clear glass. If not, I’ll live with a regular one.”

My heart starts sprinting an exultant rhythm. “Thank you,” I breathe. “Does this mean you’ll give up on the other things, too?”

He chuckles and rests our joined hands on the console. “Things? I didn’t realize you had other objections besides armored cars and a security team. Please do tell.”

“Well, if there’s no reason for bullet-proof beasts, then there’s no reason for a guard outside the cottage when we’re home. It’s upsetting the roses. They’re not used to this.”

He laughs the first carefree laughter I’ve heard in a week and glances at me. “Please tell the roses the overnight guard and the daylight one for that matter are there to protect them from the rose thief. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

The victorious galloping of my heart slows. “I really doubt it. They’re highly logical plants. Shall I tell them anything else?”

“Yes, tell them I love them very much. So much in fact that I’m willing to be scratched by their angry thorns on a daily basis to keep them safe.”

I cup my ear, pretending to listen outside the open window. “They say thank you but they miss their happy bubble and will not compromise.”

“My, my, stubborn little plants, but neither will I. Do they have any other objections besides private security, bullet-proof beasts, and cottage guards?”

“Yes, they’re very offended by the closed windows at night. They think you no longer like the way they smell.”

“Oh, that is grave indeed. Do assure them I’m going to prove shortly how much I like their smell. In fact, I miss it right now.” He lifts our joined hands again and inhales my wrist. The bottom of my belly tightens, trying to imagine what proof he is planning. “Do they know some of the windows stay closed because a certain someone can’t be quiet during certain activities we can’t name for the roses’ ears?”

I flush. “Yes, but that certain someone wouldn’t have to be quiet if there wasn’t an overnight guard.”

“I see. Well maybe that certain someone’s mouth will need to be silenced somehow. Tell the roses I will consider it.”

A sense of buoyancy floats inside me like the rose breeze. “They say thank you and they love you too.”

He chuckles. “They’re very welcome. Do they have any other demands that don’t involve compromising their safety?”

“No, other than these they’re very happy little plants.”

“They’re perfect, which is why I have to protect them even if they don’t like it,” he answers with a dazzling smile and presses a button on the wheel. “In their honor.” Kiss from a Rose floods the car, as harmonic as his laughter. I watch him spellbound as his lips move to the lyrics in a low murmur. Neither of us will surrender today. But I tuck all that aside for now, sinking in this present moment of us alone. Beyond his profile, the shamrock hills rise and fall like an emerald heartline.

He kisses the back of my hand when the song is done and turns down the volume. “So how was your day aside from your grievances with me? Is Graham still occupying the lab?”

“He was, but Edison ordered him home. I hope he’ll stay away this weekend so I can test the new oxytocin dose after the festival.”

“Are you excited for the festival now that you’ve chosen the roses? I think you’ll win the Rose Cup.”

“More nervous than excited, I think.”

He glances at me with the worried V between his eyebrows. “Why nervous?”

“Because it was mum’s favorite event. I want it to be perfect for her.” My voice drops, but he still hears it. As he hears the words I didn’t say because his hand tightens around mine when he answers.

“Don’t worry, love. We’ll be discreet. No one will even know we’re there.”

“But I will know. And I’m worried it will feel like a war instead of the cheery, happy event she would have wanted it to be.”

He strokes my palm with his thumb in reassurance. “Elisa, I think your mother would have wanted you to be safe above anything else. I don’t owe this just to you, I owe it to her too for what she did for me.”

How can I argue with him when he says things like that no matter how much I hate the thought of deadly Marines stalking the festival? And even worse, how can I tell him that the wound will rage tomorrow no matter how well the festival goes because he can’t be with me? I can’t—he would hate himself even more for his startle reflex then. “Fine, but if a single rose stem breaks, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

“Very sensible.” He laughs and turns up the volume as another rose song starts. The Making of You.

It makes me laugh too, sliding tomorrow away. “Have you made a playlist for roses like you did for ICE in Portland?”

“Well, we can hardly have a rose festival without a rose soundtrack. What would the Plemmonses say?”

I curl up in my seat, listening to his compilation for me, perfectly content if this entire happy memory is just this drive of the two of us, hands knotted, wind in our hair, and that smile on his lips. But it only lasts for three more rose songs.

“Here we are.” Aiden veers to the side of the road at the border of a grassy expanse like a jade sky, with oak and beech families clustered together here and there in their own earthly constellations. River Windrush glimmers through them like a liquid Milky Way. There is no sound except the arias of skylarks and song thrushes. And not a human silhouette in sight.

“I love National Trust Land,” I inform him, hanging my head out of the window and breathing in the clover air. “Do you know they have about 1,600 wildflower species here?”

He chuckles. “Well, we’re not going into Trust Land right now, but I think you’ll like this, too.” He climbs out of the Rover and picks up the rucksack. I strain to listen for any clues to its contents but it’s utterly quiet. “Will you be okay walking for about ten minutes?” he asks as he opens my door. “Or shall I carry you?” He looks eager for the latter.

“Hmm, tempting, but I think I can handle it. Who knows what you might need to save your strength for?”

“Oh, all manner of activities, Elisa. Arguing about your safety, making you faint, silencing your mouth—these require every ounce of strength a man has.” He takes my hand, leading us across the swaying field.

There are some things I’ll never have proper words for. His beauty, for one. His kisses for another. The way he makes love. The whole totality of him, in fact. But somewhere in the list is the experience of walking with him in open space without a ripple of tension. It’s as though he never takes a single step for granted. Where the rest of us put one foot in front of the other without thinking, focused on where we’re arriving instead, Aiden seems to treat each stride as its own destination—flowing in his graceful way step by step through this elusive freedom. I shiver when I think of the reasons behind it and hook my arm in his as he strolls at my pace, lifting me over a shrub or branch and scanning the verdant grassland.

He stops as we approach a thicket of beechwoods, oaks, and yews, and tips up my face. “Will you humor me with something?”

“Anything you want.”

“Then wait here. You’ll be very safe.” And he lets me go, bounding toward the trees.

“Anything but that,” I call after him, but I only hear his carefree laughter as he plunges through the woods. While I wait, I run an experiment on time by setting the chronometer on dad’s watch as I search the ground for four-leaf clover. Aiden emerges from the thicket only three minutes later, but my hypothesis is correct. Emotionally, it felt like twenty minutes to me.

“What was that about?” I ask, trotting toward him.

“You’ll see.”

He lets me lead to the trees, following quietly. I hear the click of his iPhone as he takes a photo of me, but I ignore the chill that trickles down my neck when he does this because the lopsided smile on his lips is worth a million ice pricks. From the canopy of leaves ahead filters a spicy scent of wild roses and sweet water. It propels my feet faster and I zig-zag through the ancient trunks into the most beautiful tiny meadow I’ve ever seen, second only to Elysium. It’s a perfect circle, smaller than the cottage’s garden, wreathed with pink wild roses. In the very center is a spring of water in the exact shape of the bluest of eyes. A pair of Adonis butterflies—the male blue, the female brown—tango in the hazy sunshine. But all this beauty is not the reason why I feel moisture in my eyes. It’s our blanket and pillows spread under the shade of a sweetbriar rose, along with the empty rucksack. A silver Baci chocolate twinkles on my side.

“Aiden,” I whisper, spinning around for the blue eyes of the Adonis standing behind me. He is watching me in that way of his that absorbs every pixel from the moment.

“Like?” he smiles.

“Like? I love. However did you find this?”

“When I was searching the area yesterday. Even you can’t object entirely to my security regime if it led me to this.”

“Yes, this one part is tolerable . . . but only this one.”

He laughs and pulls me by the waist into the molten meadow. But as we reach the blue eye in the center, the laugh gentles away and his expression becomes intent.

“You wanted us on the petals.” He tilts his head toward the wild roses and our blanket. “You wanted to make love without worrying who hears us.” He gestures to the dense trees. “And you want us to keep making happy memories.” He waves at the crystal spring. “I know I can’t replace the cottage or the rose garden but for the next two hours, will you settle for this?”

I push aside the wisp of homesickness for our bubble and press myself closer to him. “Well, that depends.”

“On?”

“On what name we choose for this place so we can make it ours. That’s my job, remember?”

The lopsided smile turns up his lips. “Of course it is. Any ideas?”

I have to look away from his mirage face to think. I should fear engraving him all over England with our dwindling days, but I don’t. The less time we have, the more I want him spread like pollen on every blade of grass or moss-covered branch, as he already is in every molecule and cell of me. So he can live on here somehow even if we don’t.

The two Adonis lovers are fluttering over the wild roses. “Well . . .” My eyes fly to him again as I make my choice. “I have Elysium. And now you have Aidonis.”

His eyebrows arch—Aiden would never expect anything named after him—but the surprise turns quickly into a chuckle.

“For the myth of him being Aphrodite’s lover?”

“No, for the myth of his own beauty.”

His eyes smolder. “Let’s christen it then,” he murmurs, and his hands seize my face. But the meadow disappears as soon as his mouth touches mine. I feel only our hands ripping off our clothes. I see only the shimmering planes of his body in the gilded air. I hear only the free sounds of our love. And I taste only his incomparable flavor as he pulls us into the sapphire water.

 

He keeps his promises, I have to admit—whether to make our first swim a memory worthy of the Room of Firsts or to keep us on schedule when I forget my own name, let alone the time. We make it back to the cottage with exactly seven minutes to spare, hair dripping, my legs still shaking, while Aiden strides in his self-assured way as if he didn’t just transform an adult woman into a trembling mass of Adonis butterflies.

“Status?” he asks Benson and Max who are setting up a long table and chairs for dinner on Elysium. Professionals that they are, they don’t comment on our sodden state, although Benson’s lips press together in amusement.

“All quiet, sir. Max rounded twice. The Marines checked in at the Inn and should be on their way. And your parents are with the Plemmonses but will be over for dinner with Ferrars.”

“Thank you. See you both then.” Aiden wraps up quickly, feeling my fingers twitch with nerves. I cannot possibly face James dribbling again, not to mention Hendrix and Jazzman whom I’ve never met before. What was I thinking letting Aiden drag me into that spring a second time? I wasn’t, that’s the problem. His mouth—with its lips and tongue and taste and words—is the real danger, not any intruders.

I’ve barely finished toweling off my hair in our bedroom when the Marines’ raucous laughter clamors from Elysium.

“Bloody hell, Aiden!” I groan, scrambling into the first dress my hands touch—my blue maxi apparently. “Why did you have to go back into that water? I’m a mess.”

He laughs unrepentantly and helps me zip up despite the fact that he is still shirtless. “I recall no objections from you, Mrs. Plemmons. In fact, I’m certain I and the entire National Trust Land heard at least four Aiden-don’t-stop’s.” He kisses my cheekbone that’s blushing. “And you’re the opposite of a mess. You’ll devastate their brain cells for the next decade. I should know. I saw you in a painting once and now I need fMRIs.”

I shake my head at his absurd, Javier-filtered image of me.

Behind him, on my nightstand, the dried poppies tremble at the ponderous footsteps treading up to the cottage like a stampede. “STORM!” James thunders from what sounds like the willows, and it’s impossible not to think of Javier again. “DROP WHAT GOD GAVE YOU AND COME TO THE DOOR!”

“Hurry!” I whimper, throwing on my locket while Aiden continues to gaze at me in the same way that got me into that spring a second time. Another bass voice booms from the hedge.

“Are you sure he lives here, Cal? It smells too good to be his place.”

“Put on your shirt!” I hiss at Aiden. “Now!”

He laughs again but wisely obeys. Then he gives me a quick kiss— “Mrs. Plemmons, I adore you”—and swoops me in his arms, blowing down the stairs with me as James’s fist rattles the door, making all the frames dip. I raise my eyebrow at Aiden as he smirks and opens the door.

“Fuck, Cal, you’re breaking the cottage!” he growls, but they’re both laughing as they fist-bump each other. A familiar sense of wonder fills me as it does when I watch Aiden—so extraordinary, he’s feels magical to me—do normal things like this.

“Hey, pest!” James grins at me, or at least I think he does. He looks even wilder than when I last saw him. Only his hazel eyes are visible in the jungle of ginger hair that’s exploding out of him in every direction. His vast height is blocking Hendrix and Jazzman behind him.

“Hi, James, welcome back.” I hug his branch-like arm that saved me.

“Someone fucking with you?” Through the auburn tangles, his sniper eyes flash with danger.

“No, just your brother.”

He barks another laugh. “Oh, well, he can’t help it. It’s in his nature. Here, check this out.” He pulls out his iPhone and shows me his screensaver—it’s a photo of his massive hands holding a silver salmon the size of my leg. My dad’s fly is hooked inside its mouth. “Caught him on the first cast—made your pops proud, heh?”

“Yes, you did, James. Well done.” I smile at the fly, heart in hooks, wondering if dad didn’t send that salmon swimming up that stream once his fly was floating again.

“Cal, get the fuck out of the way, man! You’ve already met her.” The bass voice grumbles behind him while James ducks past me with another ringing laugh, revealing Hendrix—I recognize him from his photo in the reel. He is long and lean where James is bushy and hulking, with bristling chestnut hair and chocolate brown eyes. He locks hands vertically with Aiden in an alpha way and tilts his head toward me. “Is this the trouble?”

Aiden glows in the most embarrassing way possible. “Hendrix, this is Elisa. Elisa, this is Ryan Hendrix, but we haven’t used his first name since our Crucible when the drill sergeant unwisely started calling him Ry-cry.”

“Nice to meet you, Hendrix. Welcome to Burford.” I smile at him.

He regards me with amused deliberation. “How can something so small wreak so much havoc?” he demands of everyone.

“I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately.” I sigh only half-joking, and they all laugh in understanding.

“Don’t worry, Trouble. If anyone fucks with you, he’ll breathe his last.” Hendrix winks at me, and I don’t think he’s joking. But they seem to find the idea of taking down my supposed intruder hilarious and satisfying. It sounds like James is cracking his knuckles in anticipation as Hendrix squashes himself past Aiden and me. But my eyes are rivetted on the threshold where I finally see Jazzman—the Marine I have most wanted to meet. The one whose life Aiden saved in his final act before being knocked unconscious and changed forever.

Aiden tried to prepare me for this. But, like the reel, no amount of preparation could have immunized me to the sight before me. Lankier than the others, Jazzman is two entirely different men in one. Half of him is handsome in a Paul Newman way. The other half, from his bare scalp to his left calf visible below his shorts is covered in livid burn scars, ash-grey and raised above his skin as though he has been woven out of a macabre fabric into a living flag for what these four men lived through. But his marred beauty is not why I can’t blink despite my preparation. It’s the way his eyes lock on Aiden before anyone else, and Aiden’s eyes on him. For a long, quiet moment, memories flow between them. I know from the agony on Aiden’s face and the reverence in Jazzman’s expression that they’re both remembering the same moment: when Jazzman was burning in that Fallujah schoolyard under gun fire and Aiden saved him with his last shot.

Behind me in the foyer, James and Hendrix are silent too. They must be used to this wordless exchange that inevitably occurs when Aiden and Jazzman first set eyes on each other after a long separation. I take my cue from them and remain quiet but lean closer to Aiden so my arm touches his. At our contact, he blinks and his lips lift in a smile.

“Hey, Jazz.”

“My brother.” Jazzman steps up to Aiden and hugs him. Just one arm barely touching Aiden’s shoulders, but they still tense. Yet, Aiden doesn’t step away as he would with others. He lets Jazzman hug him like he does with Stella. And that’s when I see the depth of their unique bond. Two brothers—disfigured from their former selves in such different ways—who are willing to relieve their most excruciating moment over and over again for their friendship.

Gently, I rest my hand at the small of Aiden’s back to help him, and his tension drains away. Jazzman must feel it too because he releases his savior and his eyes—one bright blue, the other glass—flit to me with a smile. “Aha! You are obviously Elisa with the calming effect. I’m Jazz.” He holds out his scarred hand. I take it, both careful and curious to feel his skin. Its texture is like starched lace and very warm, as though he’s been resting his hand on a space heater.

“I’m glad to finally meet you, Jazz.” And I am—not just him, but all of them who have saved Aiden as much as he saved them. Exactly as Stella said.

“I gotta say, I thought Storm dreamt you up at first.”

“So did Storm,” Aiden agrees, and they all laugh together. When Jazz laughs, the terrifying scars seem to fade even if they pull the right corner of his mouth down into a vicious grimace.

“Can you calm other people too? Is it like a superpower?” Jazz holds out his hand again, fluttering his fingers in invitation.

“I don’t think so.” I laugh, meeting his fingertips. “But I can definitely put you to sleep with chemistry lectures if you want. Or rose tea.”

Aiden chuckles, swooping my hand in his. “Stop trying to touch my woman, Jazz. Get your own.”

“Right you are, brother. You found one, how hard can it be?” Jazz’s laughter reverberates through the foyer that’s about to collapse. He squeezes around Aiden and me, ruffling my hair in his passage, and follows Cal and Hendrix into the living room to give Aiden space.

As soon as their trainers vanish around the corner, Aiden’s hands close around my waist, pulling me to him. “Thank you,” he whispers even though his words would never carry through the boisterous baritones echoing from the living room.

“For what?”

“For calming me so quickly. It made it easier for both Jazz and me.”

“He seems very kind, Aiden. I love seeing you all together.”

He chuckles. “Why don’t you wait to decide until we’ve been up until midnight, drinking? You might change your mind after that.”

“I really doubt it.” I stroke the scar above his eye. Its toughened ridge presses against my fingertip, cool and smooth, so different from Jazz. Abruptly, my mind starts bartering with the universe again, like it does during the reel. What if it had been Aiden stuck in the fire and Jazz tortured in the classroom with Marshall instead? Would I rather that Aiden had livid scars on his skin? Or as he is now with the scars within, marring the peace of his mind?

“What are you thinking so hard about?” he murmurs.

“How glad I am that you made it. That you’re here.” I run my fingers down his flawless cheek.

I can see from his eyes that he knows what I mean. Not just here in my cottage, but here-here—a star on earth. “Me too,” he smiles.

Me too. Such big little words for him. Two months ago, Aiden would have never thought them. Two months ago, he wanted Marshall’s place, not this. I find an odd peace with the universe then—an acceptance I haven’t felt since before the reel, since Aiden told me about Marshall at the Portland Rose Garden. Because it doesn’t matter to me where his scars are. I’ll always want him exactly as he is. What matters is that he finally wants to live.

“Elisa, is Storm’s dick blocking your way?” James bellows from the living room right as Aiden lowers his head to kiss me, and I burst out laughing. “Stomp your foot if you need help.”

“You’re still never getting anywhere near my dick, Cal. No matter how much you want it,” Aiden calls back, kissing the corner of my mouth. “Come. With some luck, my dick will be blocking other things tonight and we can keep the window open.”

I follow him to the kitchen, flushing while he takes out dad’s whiskey glasses and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc for me. He knows scotch is like chess: too painful to sip.

The living room furniture is in danger again. James takes over half the sofa. Hendrix is hunched in one armchair, his knees almost to his chin. And Jazz—while the smallest star in their stellar quadrant—is still overflowing in the other. They have already opened a bottle of Glenlivet from Speyside and fill the glasses as Aiden takes the other half of the sofa, propping me exactly where I want to be: on his lap. I lean into his iron chest that feels more comfortable than a feather mattress to me, ready to enjoy the waterfall laughter that will spring once James starts to speak, but James chooses to destroy every tingle of warmth I’ve felt since Aidonis.

“So what’s happening with the perv? Any sign of him?”

Aiden’s fingers press gently on my hip—don’t scratch Cal, he’s saying—but he shakes his head quicky for my benefit. “No change from my first recon.”

“Sneaky fucker.” Hendrix sneers, his dark expression positively alarming. Like Benson and Max, they seem to accept Aiden’s theory without question. And why shouldn’t they? They have relied on his mind for decades in everything, whether to guide them through the fire maze of Fallujah and save their lives or to build an empire so vast that none of them ever has to work again if they choose. Who would question such a mind? But they don’t know about the reel. Doctor Helen, Corbin, and I are the ones who know and the only ones who remain unconvinced.

“So what’s the battle plan for tomorrow?” Jazz looks at Aiden for direction, but Aiden’s fingers draw soothing circles at the small of my back.

“Well, the festival was very special to Elisa’s mother and to her,” he answers. “So rule number one is non-interference. I’ll walk you through the strategy later.”

All of them nod once in unison with identical serious expressions as though they are receiving military orders. And tension wrings my insides. What strategy? What will they do to mum’s happy day? I open my mouth to ask, but Aiden turns to me, sensing my alarm. “Don’t worry, this just means we won’t intervene unless you’re in danger. Otherwise, we’ll simply watch and you won’t even know where we are, except Max and Ferrars who will stay closer but receive the same orders. That way you can enjoy the festival as if this didn’t exist. Or as close to that as possible under the circumstances.”

I nod as I finally realize why he is keeping the details from me. But how can I enjoy it without him? I force as big a smile as I can manage to stifle the question. Because no matter how much the wound will burn, fester, and throb at his absence, I know it will pale to his agony that he cannot be there next to me. And I’d rather give up some of our remaining days than cause him more pain.

He doesn’t buy my enthusiasm. “I won’t be far,” he comforts me, his voice controlled but I know it too well to miss his anguish underneath.

“Maybe if I know where you are, I can sneak away for a bit.” I try to cheer him up, keeping my smile on my face, but it no longer feels forced at the idea.

Something twinkles in his eyes but before I can ask, James rumbles. “I hope the fucker is dumb enough to show tomorrow.”

“Of course he will.” Hendrix is supremely confident. “Open, crowded space where no one can notice him lurk. He won’t be able to resist.”

“I agree. He has no way of knowing we’ll be waiting for him . . .” Jazz drifts off with a lethal smile that makes me shiver. As if missing Aiden tomorrow is not enough. As if his mental strain doesn’t already terrify me as much as the reel does. Now the festival is a military operation too, instead of the precious tradition that brought mum perennial joy.

And even though I barely know James, Hendrix, and Jazz, even though I already tried today with Aiden, abruptly I want to run through all my arguments again. One by one, right here, right now so that the festival can be how it was when mum loved it, so that Aiden can rest and we can get back to our reel of brilliancy for the time we have left.

But I can see from their faces—James’s determined eyes, Hendrix’s set jaw, Jazz’s grimaced smile, and Aiden’s steely arm around me—that no matter what I say will make a difference. Tomorrow, while roses bloom on the cobblestoned lanes of my childhood, seven lethal beings will find only danger. Make the festival happy for mum, please. Give Aiden peace. Bring us back to us.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 24 – CIRCLE

Happy Sunday, friends! It’s been a dreary, rainy weekend here in Portland, perfect for moods and writing. Wanted to thank all of you who read and wrote to me about the last chapter.  I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Real v. Reel? I can’t answer that, but I’m loving your comments and theories. Here is another chapter. Hope you like it. Lots of love, Ani

 

24 

Circle

Chronologically, a sunrise lasts only two minutes. Emotionally is another matter. Because right now, waiting for Aiden, the seconds between the first glow above the horizon and the first rays scattering across the sky ooze like congealed blood from an open wound. Each willow murmur sounds like footsteps, each lark song like a familiar melodic voice—but there is nothing. He’s not here, he’s not here.

I jump to my feet, unable to sit on the garden bench without him a second longer. Max’s alert eyes follow me from the hedge as I dash to the hybrid rose behind the shed. Chills prick my skin like thorns at the reel’s proximity. Does the evil inside know it hasn’t been unleashed today? Will it avenge itself on Aiden later? I shiver and force my mind to scour my work bench for any disturbance. But nothing is missing here either. My brain stutters to produce any differences—is that pot of dirt closer to the edge? Has the Elisa graft moved an inch? I stare without blinking, yet I can’t decide if I’m seeing differences or missing them.

Then things strike fast like the sun bursting over the hilltops. Max rumbles, “Good morning,” Benson’s voice booms through the air, “News?”, and I break into a sprint.

“Aiden!” I shriek, rounding the shed, jumping over a Clare, losing a slipper, and launching myself at him the moment he streaks through the garden hedge. His gasp whooshes in my ears as he swoops me in his arms and tucks me in his chest while I run my hands frantically over him to make sure he’s okay. He is—not a single scratch on his beautiful head.

“Hey, hey, I’m fine,” he assures me, but he’s doing the same with me, scanning me from my hair to my bare toes. His shoulders sink in relief when he sees everything is the exact mess he left it. “Elisa, what the hell are you doing up?” he chides, tracing the circle under my eye with his fingertip. “I thought I told you to go to bed.”

I lock my arms in a stranglehold around his neck, blubbering in his throat. “But you—not here—worried—I couldn’t—”

“I also told you not to worry.” His exasperated voice has never sounded more like music to me. “You don’t really think someone can hurt Benson and me, do you?”

“No, but—you’re tired—and stressed—and—”

“Shh, it takes a lot more than that to take me down.” He cradles me in his arms and kisses my hair, all anger seemingly forgotten—or vanished I should say, for him.

“I’m glad you’re home,” I sniffle, crushing myself closer to him and inhaling his scent.

“I’ve told you this, too.” He sighs again, but his lips stay in my hair. “I’ll always come back to you.”

The cottage door flies open then. “Aiden?” Stella cries and hurtles down the path, Robert on her heels.

“Oh, fuck, does no one listen to me?” Aiden mutters under his breath, setting me on my feet without releasing his hold around my waist as he turns to reassure his poor parents. I peek at Benson in his usual spot behind Aiden. He winks at me, but there is a shadow of worry in his brown eyes.

“Are you okay?” I mouth at him behind Aiden’s arm as Aiden keeps saying I’m fine to Stella.

Benson nods with a smile.

“And him?” I tilt my head slightly toward Aiden.

“Worried,” Benson mouths back and the smile disappears.

I tighten my grip on Aiden’s arm, resting my head against his stony bicep. It softens at the point of contact, but I still don’t let go of him or he of me as we troop back to the cottage. His eyes devour the garden corner to corner, and he crouches at the Clare to pick up my fuzzy slipper.

“Here you go, Cinderella.” He slides it back on my foot, his exhausted smile more dazzling to me than the new sun. Then he squints across the rose bush at the garden shed and the hybrid behind it.

“I checked,” I say immediately so he doesn’t have to wonder or spend any more time on his feet.

The V appears between his eyebrows. “And?”

I shake my head, aware of all the eyes and ears on us. “Everything is there, but I can’t tell if they moved an inch or two. I’m so sorry.” My last three words stun us both. Until they slipped out of my mouth under his gaze, I didn’t know I preferred a real intruder to giving Aiden this news.

As if he heard that thought, a trace of the same hurt flickers in the turquoise depths, and he stands, taking my hand. “Don’t be sorry. I’d rather be wrong than have you in more danger.”

And I’d rather be in danger than have him be wrong. But worse than that is that four-letter word—m-o-r-e. No doubt he used it because he believes the first and foremost danger is him. “I’m never in danger if you’re with me,” I answer, knowing he won’t argue with everyone around us.

And he doesn’t—the only sign of protest is his clenched jaw.

Inside the cottage, Stella has been busy while I was staring at empty fields and cluttered working benches. The smell of fried eggs is wafting from the kitchen, but she herds us into the living room, where she has set out coffee, rose water, scones, jam, cream, strawberries, and mum’s soup tureen full of scrambled eggs on the coffee table that’s creaking under the weight.

“Eat something, Aiden. Benson, Max—you too. Elisa, darling, I’ve got your tea right here, in this pretty cup. There you are!”

It’s not until I see the food that my body registers hunger. Or maybe it’s because Aiden is home, and I can feel something else other than my throbbing chest. We all load our plates and scatter on our old seats from the night, Aiden folding on the sofa next to me, except now our arms and legs are touching.

“So what happened, son?” Robert asks when Aiden finishes his scone. “Did you find anything either way?”

Aiden blows out a gust of breath, not touching his coffee, while a shiver whips over my skin. “Many and nothing,” he answers, his voice controlled. If I didn’t know it so well, I would have missed the faint hard edge underneath. “There are tire tracks on the roadside gravel by Elysium but, as Elisa is no doubt thinking this very second, that’s not surprising because it’s the main road to town.”

He nods at me, as if to say I’m considering your theory. I vow to do the same for him. “What else did you see?”

“This was by the garage,” he answers, taking something from the back pocket of his jeans and handing it to me. It’s an After Eight mint wrapper. “It wasn’t there this afternoon when we pulled out of the garage to go to the Inn,” he explains as I pass it around. “But it could have ended up there in any number of ways. Someone could have tossed it out of a car window for all we know.”

“Does it mean anything to you, Elisa?” Stella asks, sipping her tea.

“No, After Eights are popular around here. I’d wager every cottage in town has them. My dad used to love them, but I haven’t bought them since . . .”

Aiden takes my hand, hearing the unspoken day in my drift. There are shadows under his brilliant turquoise eyes, his skin shimmers less, and the ray of sun beaming through the window fractures over his drawn cheeks. Yet he is still here, caring for me.

“Aiden, love, why don’t you get some sleep?” I plead, clasping his fingers. “We can finish this later. You’ve been up all night.”

He shakes his head. “We’re almost done. Benson, show them what you found.”

Benson sets his clean plate on the floor and digs in the liner pocket of his jacket. His massive hand covers whatever it is, but he tosses it at me. I see as it somersaults through the air that it’s a tiny ball of crumpled paper. It lands in my open hand with uncanny accuracy. I smooth it out, looking at the random doodles like concentric circles.  Five necks crane to peek at it with me.

“Any thoughts about this one?” Aiden prompts.

“Umm, not really. It looks like scrap paper. Anyone can doodle like this.”

He nods with a deep sigh. “I had the same thought. I’ve seen you draw circles like this, and seventy-eight other people in my life. It’s in blue ink—also your usual choice—but blue pens are hardly unique. I can’t prove this came from the cottage or was meant for it. There’s nothing unusual about the paper either—just a generic lined notebook.”

I look at it again. I have notebooks like this. As does Reagan. As does the town’s stationer, Mrs. Sterling, and probably everyone who buys notepads there. The doodles are symmetric, it’s true, but I see nothing in them to link them only to me. “Where did you find this?”

“Down the road toward town.” Aiden gestures the direction with his thumb. “Why? What are you thinking?”

I shrug. “Just trying to consider your theory as fairly as mine. This does look like something I would draw but, as you said, so could anyone.”

Aiden runs his hand through his hair in frustration. His eyes zoom on the empty fireplace like last night, the tectonic plates shifting back and forth, back and forth as if he is looking at a chessboard.

“Did you see anything else?” Max wonders, gulping coffee.

“Random details, equally ambiguous,” Aiden answers, his eyes not breaking the inner analysis. “There’s a broken rose in the climber by the garage door, but that could have happened when the door closed behind the car. There’s a cigarette butt further down the road but it could be anyone’s. There are no footprints because, of course, it’s been dry.” Then his eyes flit to Max. “Did you check for footprints under the windows?

Max nods with vigor. “As soon as it got light out. There’s none in the dirt or the rose beds.”

The faithful V forms between Aiden’s eyebrows, and something quick passes between him and Benson.

“If there are no footprints where there should be, that means either they swept them or we’re left with the key theory,” Benson rumbles.

“Or mine,” I offer, looking only at Aiden, feeling like we’re stuck in a circle. I’m about to ask him to stop this now and go to sleep, but he takes my hand.

“Elisa, I know you have serious doubts about this, and if I only listen to logic, I have them too. But I can’t shake off this instinct that I’m right. So, I’ll ask you one more thing about this that you will hate, and then I promise I’ll be done for today. Will you please call the Plemmonses and ask them if they ever gave the cottage key to anyone else? They’re usually up by now, setting up the shop.”

I’m about to say “no bloody way” but the lines of worry on his beautiful face stop my tongue. How can I not give this to him if it helps him sleep and fight the reel later today? How can I not give him everything after the story his parents told me? Exactly as he would do for me.

“If I do this, will you go to sleep?” I ask, brushing his knuckles.

“I promise.”

“And you will stop worrying?”

“I can’t promise that, but I promise I will drop the subject for today.”

“What about security? If the Plemmonses say no, as I’m sure they will, can we let Max enjoy the rest of his vacation? He’ll get so bored guarding me from doodles, he’ll have to steal roses himself for entertainment.”

He shakes his head before I’m done. “I can’t do that—not until I figure out what we’re dealing with.”

I watch his set jaw, knowing this is the best he can give right now. As he must know from my eyes that this isn’t over. I nod, reserving all my arguments for when he’s rested, and pick up my phone from the sofa corner, where apparently it’s been sitting forgotten all night.

“Thank you,” Aiden says simply as I dial.

Mr. Plemmons answers on the seventh ring, and it takes several different shouting volumes to establish the right level of bellowing for him to hear.

“Is summat the matter with the roses, Rose?”

“No, Mr. Plemmons, but I have a quest—”

“Wha’ ‘bout the Festival?”

“I’m all set, Mr. Plemmons, but—”

“Did yeh like the garland, Rose?”

“It was beautiful, Mr. Plemmons, thank—”

“Is Adam being a gentleman? I told him, I said, ‘only because yer parents ‘ull be here, Adam, but yeh keep yer hands off our Rose! An’ we ‘spect to meet them, we do. Didn’ I tell him, Josephine?”

“Yes, you did, Harold. You scared him right off. The man promised he’s sleeping in the shed.”

The first chuckles of the day susurrate around me, Stella’s in a pillow, Benson’s on his knuckles, Max’s in his elbow, and Robert’s in his palm. Aiden is too stressed and tense to laugh or do anything but pinch the bridge of his nose and breathe deeply with his eyes closed for strength.

“Mr. Plemmons, I have a question,” I yell at the top of my lungs into the receiver to delay the stroke that is surely coming for Aiden.

“Wha’ is it, Rose?”

“Did anyone ever borrow the cottage key when I was in Portland?”

“The wha’?”

“The cottage key, Mr. Plemmons!”

“The key? I don’ think so, Rose. Josephine, do yeh remember anyone ask fer the rose key?”

Some silence on the other side presumably as Mrs. Plemmons scratches her head with her knitting needles. “No, I don’t remember anything like that,” she wheezes after a while then her voice rasps closer to the receiver. “Has something happened, Rosebud?”

“Nothing at all, Mrs. Plemmons. Not a thing. I’ll bring by some roses and Aiden’s parents later. They’re coming to the Festival.”

“Oh, how wonderful! On with you, Harold, on with you! I have biscuits to bake for Aiden’s parents.”

“Stop calling him Edmund, Josephine. His name is Adam.”

They are still arguing about Aiden’s name when Mr. Plemmons hangs up without saying goodbye.

“Feeling better?” I ask Aiden as his parents, Benson, and Max are catching their breath from laughing.

He runs his hand over his thick stubble with a deep sigh. “How much can we rely on their memories, Elisa, really? The man believes I’m sleeping in the shed.”

I caress his tense jaw. “And you might well end up sleeping in the shed if you don’t drop this right now like you promised. Now on with you, Adam, on with you. Go to bed and sleep this off.”

The first real smile since the Suite of Firsts lifts his lips. “Oh no, not the shed.” But he stands without further argument, and everyone stands with him.

Fifteen minutes later, after his parents leave with Benson while Max insists on staying guard outside until we wake up, Aiden and I finally climb the stairs to our happy bedroom. With each creak of the old boards, the terror of the night starts to dissipate. First as a wink of a smile at the corner of Aiden’s mouth when he steps on the fifth stair, then as a sigh in my throat when his hands curve around my hips, until the moment we cross the threshold of our room, we both transform. The glow returns to Aiden’s face, warming his ashen skin back to gold. His jaw relaxes, the V releases his eyebrows, and every wisp of tension floats away from him until his long, graceful body moves with his patent fluidity, half-water, half-man. And every debris of fear and anguish disappears from his eyes until they gleam the clearest shade of turquoise.

As for me, I’m back to the drooling state I started this night with.

“Are you having déjà vu?” Aiden smiles as he closes the bedroom door.

“How did you know?”

He flows to me and wraps his arms around my waist. “Because I’m having it, too.”

“Déjà vu to what?”

“To entering our Room of Firsts. You?”

“Me too.”

“Mmm.” He lowers his face to mine as he did last night, pausing an inch from my lips. “Can you make us a protein to turn back time?”

“I wish.” My voice turns to vapor under his heated breath.

“Let’s try to repeat it then.” His eyes become molten and descend over me like fire. I have exactly one second left for thought. Already my body is arching toward his.

“Oh, no!” I lean away, pushing against his chest. “Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Plemmons. There will be no female nudity of any kind. You’re here to sleep.”

He laughs with that waterfall sound as I quote his words to me from Oxford’s University Park but doesn’t release my waist. “But I sleep so much better with female nudity around, Elisa.”

“Well, maybe Mrs. Willoughby can oblige.” I push weakly against his chest again, but he brings his lips to my ear.

“I don’t want Mrs. Willoughby.” His hand trails up my spine. “I want your hair . . .” He sweeps aside my tangles. “And your skin . . .” His fingers trace my throat. “And your smell . . .” His nose skims along my jaw. “I want everything of yours on me.” He molds me to his shape as his lips brush mine. “If I have all that, Elisa, no one on this earth sleeps better than me.”

His words stop but it’s not silent. My heart is thundering, my blood is hammering, my breath is hitching. He blows gently over my lips to open my eyes I didn’t know I had closed. “Can you still give all that to me?” he asks as soon as I blink at him. “After everything I put you through last night?”

It only takes that change in his voice—from amused to tender to uncertain—to clear my mind. “They’re always yours.”

The dimpled smile sparkles on his cheek. “Then may I have this dance?”

We have danced together to Für Elise fourteen times now, once before each sleep. I know his steps by heart, yet each time feels new. He takes off my clothes and I take off his, and we sway together, skin on skin, each piano note as vital as a heartbeat now that I know how it became the soundtrack to our dreams.

“I’m sorry, love,” he murmurs, his voice more melodic than our lullaby. I look up at his incandescent eyes—there isn’t a single trace of fear, hurt, or anguish there now. Only peace.

“Why are you sorry?” I whisper back, letting the melody reign over us.

“For getting angry when you were only trying to reason with me. For worrying you. For making you lose sleep. For being unable to drop this like you wish I would.”

“Shh.” I press my finger on his lips—he kisses it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. I know everything you’re doing is to protect me. I’m the one who should apologize.”

His raven brows arch in shock, and he stops mid-turn. “What do you have to apologize for?”

“For hurting you when you were only trying to save me. For yelling at you. For not believing you like you wish I would.”

‘Shh.” He smiles, pressing his finger on my lips—I kiss it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. You did the right thing. I need you to challenge me. Always, but especially now.”

He picks up the dance, nose in my hair, as Für Elise plays on. I debate whether to tell him I know how he found it, but I don’t want any painful memories to enter this bubble. ‘I can’t be anywhere else,’ he told his parents the night I left him. I lean into his body before chills whip my skin. What happens this time if we lose? Or if the reel takes him from me before time does? Will there be any place left in this earth for him or me now that we are so deeply entwined together I no longer know where I end and where he starts? I press myself closer to him, inhaling his pure, vivid scent that keeps the goose bumps away.

Für Elise ends with its last poignant note and starts again. We curl into our cotton bed that smells like us, and he takes his anti-nightmare pill while I pray for the protein. Make him brave, keep him whole.

“How long should we set it for?” he asks, programming my song.

“Don’t—sleep as long as you need. We can do the r-e-e-l whenever you wake up this time.”

He doesn’t argue or flinch like I do. Still invincible, still braver than me. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me to his front, every curve of me to every angle of him. I can feel his desire, but he keeps his promise. He just buries his lips and nose in my hair, breathing me in. “Don’t worry, love.” His fingers trail down my arm. “I’m built for this.”

“But it’s different now, with all the trauma you’re revisiting.”

A deep sigh flows through him and washes over me. “I know . . . same answer.”

From the beech tree outside the window, a lark starts to warble, harmonizing its song to Für Elise. “Is there any part of you that thinks the r-e-e-l might be causing this?” I whisper, not wanting this question to interfere with either melody.

He caresses my arm, back and forth like piano keys. “Maybe I’m afraid to think it,” he whispers, too. “The idea of not being in control of my own mind . . .”

I turn in his arms, placing my hand over his heart. “You are in control. You’re just learning new ways of thinking. Don’t doubt your mind. Only your reactions to stress. I’m sure Doctor Helen will agree. You should talk to her about this.”

He nods, weaving his fingers with mine, looking at our joined hands. His lashes cast long shadows over his cheeks. “Will you answer something for me? The full truth, no diplomacy or sparing of feelings.”

“Of course,” I answer, surprised by the uncharacteristic request. His eyes usually see my truth before I even know it. But right now, they’re locked on our folded hands as he speaks in a slow, deliberate voice.

“If the reel fixes the startle but breaks my mind, would you still want to be with me?”

His question makes me gasp, but not only because of the heart-wrenching words. I stop breathing because I finally realize why he is afraid. It’s not fear of losing his mind, it’s fear of losing my heart.

“Aiden Hale.” I lift his chin as he does with me so I can see his eyes. They’re steady and bold, except that flicker of pure hurt that now I fully understand. “I will want you no matter what the reel does—whether it changes your mind or not and even if it doesn’t fix the startle. I know you don’t like hearing that, but you asked for the full truth. I’ll always love you, and no distance, or time, or reel can ever change that.”

He has inhaled every word, breathing them in like air. And I know he believes me. I know because the painful question clears from his eyes. “So, it’s not just my brain that you’re attracted to?” he smiles, gesturing to the photo of his brain and heart waves on my nightstand.

I grin back. “No, sorry. It doesn’t even make the top five.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he chuckles. “But I’m curious now, what are the top five?”

“Oh, that’s easy. Your heart, your character, your strength, your laugh, your mouth—”

I’m about to continue, but he kisses me with a low throaty sound. “Mmm, this mouth business seems to be important.”

“Very.”

His fingers braid into my hair and he strains me to his shape until I can feel his heartbeat on my skin. The moment I taste him on my tongue, I realize that until now my own mouth tasted bitter, but it wasn’t the night. It was the hours apart. His lips brush away the acrid residue until I only taste his honeyed flavor.

“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, freeing me for air, but his breathing is almost as uneven as mine. He turns me around—all iron and silk—and presses his lips in my hair. “Our top fives are the same, you know . . . except mine also include your faith in me and your patience and your humor and . . .”

I’m about to point out that this is more than five, but a deep breath of cinnamon air swirls in my hair and his weight becomes heavy around me. I peek around, and he is asleep, his lips parted in a soft smile.

“Like cookies, my love,” I whisper. I lie here as always, counting his breaths, and happiness shifts again despite the night. It becomes his puffs of sleep to my song in our humble bedroom with the dried poppies of our weapons in this fight: our love, his strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love, our families, the team of scientists, my calming effect, Für Elise, hope, laughter, and, if I can finish, the protein. I still don’t know if they’re enough to win against Aiden’s past. And after today, I no longer know if they will be enough to see us through the reel.

Abruptly, sleep vanishes, and I feel wide awake. More than awake—drumming with nervous energy and fear, making my feet and mind twitch. Instead of poppies, I can only see Bia and the protein’s formula in my head. It’s no longer just urgent—after last night, it’s imperative. I can’t afford to lie here when I can calculate Oxytocin Twelve doses instead. I finish counting the one hundred and fifty breaths that it takes for Aiden to drift into deep sleep, and inch out of bed, jittery and tense.

Dad’s library is filled with sunlight when I tiptoe there. The gauzy curtain billows with the rose breeze, and Max’s reflection plays on the windowpane, sipping his coffee by the hedge. Was it only five hours ago that I stumbled in this room shuddering in terror? Now the idea of an intruder sitting on Dad’s armchair or touching our unfinished chess game under the glass case feels fuzzy, like a distant nightmare that has left only its startle behind.

I switch on old Bod, wishing I could run to Bia instead, but there is no point in testing until I understand exactly how much O-12 I should add and why else the formula didn’t hold yesterday. I’m blurry eyed with calculations when Skype’s jingle dings loud enough for Max’s head to snap up toward my window. Reagan! I answer it immediately, not wanting to wake Aiden.

“Top o’ the morning, Rose.” Reagan’s curls explode on the screen and her feigned British accent chimes through the library. As soon as I see her sparkling smile in her pajamas, an urge to hug Bod overpowers me. I blow her a kiss on the screen.

“Hey, Reg—how was the flight? Did you find everything okay?”

“Oh yea, okay and empty and boring. I’ve decided rhododendrons are highly overrated compared to my rose.” She glares at her window where our old pink rhodie is blooming. “I miss England already.”

“And England misses you. How was Javi on the flight? Any progress?” Between meeting Aiden’s parents and dealing with real or reel intruders, I’ve been itching to ask her since Aiden found the sketch of her eyes at the Inn.

She blows a ringlet off her face, and her smile disappears. “Well, we fought for half of it so no—unless you define ‘progress’ as conversation in which case, yes, it was an improvement over the dour silence that filled the other half.”

“What did you fight about?” I ask even though it doesn’t matter. The real reason is Javier being invisible for all his formative life and now he is unable to see when he is seen.

“Everything—no matter what I say or do, I seem to aggravate him. I don’t know, Isa, but I’ve thought a lot about it. I have to let him be . . .” She wipes her eyes with her sleeve.

“No, Reg, don’t give up yet. Javi loves you—he just doesn’t know how.” I trap my tongue between my teeth, so I don’t mention the sketch. I can hear Aiden’s voice, even asleep, thundering through his synapses to tell me to keep my mouth shut. And as much as I hate to admit it, he is right.

Reagan just shakes her head, mopping up more tears.

“I’m serious,” I tell her, clutching the screen as if it were her shoulders. “Let Javi open the gallery and get some confidence, like Aiden said, and I think he’ll come around.”

She wipes her nose this time and nods. “He’s very excited about Solis Art—he’s named it already. But enough about me or I’ll cry all night. How did it go with Aiden’s parents?”

I want to keep talking about her and Javier, but I can tell she needs the space. And I can’t even berate her for not warning me about the fact that Aiden’s parents make the Beckhams look like garden compost. “They’re so sweet, Reg. I wasn’t prepared for how kind and supportive they are.”

“I know, right? They’re exactly who I would have picked for you. Stella already posted a picture of your roses on Facebook, quoting Shakespeare, ‘Of all the flowers, methinks a rose is best.’ Here, look.”

Reagan holds up her iPhone to show me Stella’s profile, but I stare at it without seeing as shivers scrape my skin at the mention of the charlatan. Does he creep up on other people’s lives like this or is he only haunting mine?

“I have to hit the pillow, Isa,” Reg says after I manage a nod. “I’m still jetlagged, but I have to go to work tomorrow. Who invented jobs? Horrible person.”

Probably Shakespeare. “Love you, Reg. Sleep well.”

“Love you, too. Say hi to our dragon. Tell him to prepare in advance because in September, I might even hug him.”

She hangs up with a laugh before she hears the whisper that hushes out of my lips of its own volition. If we have until September . . .

I listen for any sign of Aiden upstairs, but there is nothing. Hopefully he is dreaming of cookies while I stare at my lined notepad waiting for a stroke of brilliance. That odd sensation I felt in the Room of Firsts, like a tugged thought, flutters again now for some reason. What was I thinking about when I first felt it? Oh, yes, I had mumbled “orgasms are oxytocin but taste better” in my sex coma. And there it is—the same curious feeling, like a tip-of-the-tongue hesitancy . . . I try to analyze it but can’t find any clues in it. It must have been because I tasted the protein earlier at Bia and it didn’t taste as good as Aiden. But why did it fizz away?

Outside the library window, Max’s pacing shadow rolls over the roses. And on my notepad, my pen draws concentric circles over my calculations without a single answer.

©2021 Ani Keating

 

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 23 – BREAK

Hey gang, how is everyone? I hope your weekend is off to a good start and you all have some R&R planned. Here is a new chapter for you, a day early since I’m technically a couple of days late. Hope you enjoy. Things are changing…  lots of love and thanks for reading and writing to me. On a personal note, this blog is giving me a much needed respite from life, and for that, I’m grateful to all of you. xo, Ani

 

23

Break

“Goodnight, dear.” Stella kisses my cheeks as we leave their luxury suite at the Inn after dinner on their balcony. “Make sure you get some sleep. We’ve kept you late.”

“This is what happens when you get my mother started on baby stories, Elisa. I sincerely hope you’ve learned your lesson if you want any of us to sleep for the next two weeks.” Aiden’s voice is exasperated, but there is tenderness underneath. Something flows quickly between him and Stella, and he nods. Carefully, she steps into his arms on her tiptoes and kisses his cheek. He embraces her gently as though she is a soap bubble, but his shoulders turn to granite with memories. In that feather-rock hug, I see the difference between me and everyone else for Aiden: he softens under my touch and tenses with all others, even his mum. Yet he holds her for a while longer, despite the tension straining him, before releasing her with a chuckle. “All right, save some for tomorrow.”

She sparkles at him. “Sweet dreams, Aiden-bear.” That same swift exchange happens between them, and he smiles.

“Like cookies, Mom.”

Some private joke, no doubt, but one I have to know with a similar urgency as the oxytocin. Despite the deluge of details about his childhood, from his first word (“oh, dear, it wasn’t a word, it was a sentence: Mama, where is Daddy?”) to his favorite bedtime story (“he didn’t like baby stories, we had to read him poetry—he loved Byron and Keats”) to his favorite toy (“his chess set!”), I feel parched for more.

“Night, Dad,” Aiden nods at Robert who only hugs Aiden with his eyes.

“Night, son. Goodnight, Elisa.” He clasps my shoulder. “Be careful driving back to the cottage. It’s dark out.”

“We’ll be fine, Dad. Go to sleep.”

They wave together, their soft eyes following us down the hall.

“What does the cookies thing mean?” I ask as soon as I hear their door close, and Aiden presses the button for the lift.

He laughs. “All night you’ve heard all manner of trivia about me, and you still want more?”

“Of course.”

“Fine, that’s how I answered her the day I discovered cookies when I turned three, and it became our standard goodnight for a while. But I suspect it had nothing to do with that tonight, rather than the fact that she finally can wish me sweet dreams again now that I can finally have them. Because of you.”

The lift doors open, but I can’t move my feet—how can I when he says things like this? He pulls me into the tiny box, overwhelming the space, and presses me against the velvet-lined wall with his hips. There is nothing granite about his body now. It’s all steel, forged to every line of mine. The air becomes rare—I lose it and find it as he brings his heated lips to my ear. “At last,” he murmurs, his breath strumming against my skin. “Just you and me.” His nose skims the Aeternum spot. “We met the parents . . .” He kisses the corner of my jaw. “And there were no accidents or heart attacks . . .” His lips brush along my jawline. “Everyone adores everyone . . .” He presses his lips to the corner of my mouth. “Elisa?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you know what time it is?” His dark voice ignites my blood, my memories.

“It’s now!” I gasp as his mouth melds with mine. Every angle of us fuses together. One of his hands gathers in my hair, his other arm lifts me off the floor. I wrap my legs around him, tangling my fingers in his soft waves. He doesn’t tense—the shiver running through him is desire. His hips start grinding and rolling against me.

“This is where we left it, I believe,” he says against my lips. “When I so rudely said no.”

“Mmm . . . very rude.”

“Let me be rude some more.” His erection presses into me over the linen of my dress. Once, twice, and the point of contact becomes a rapid pulse. Then abruptly he swoops me in his arms.  He’s so quick, I gasp and blink around startled, registering that the lift was moving, and it has now stopped. The doors open on the top floor to his suite. “You said something about a Chatsworth bed?” His eyes blaze as he carries me out. “And maybe fainting?”

I bring him back to my mouth. “Hmm . . . I’ll need a reminder.”

“I might have a few.”

He kisses me down the empty hall, lips fluid, tongue alive. I taste him back as deeply as I can. How many times can you kiss a man before he becomes your taste? By the time he breaks the kiss and sets me down at the door to his suite, my head is whirling. He lowers his face to my height, blowing a gentle breeze over my lips. “Reminded?”

“Uh huh . . . fainting . . . you.”

“You take my breath away, too,” he translates. Then his beauty intensifies in that surreal way, as though lit from within. It does nothing to help my balance. “Ready for more reminders?” he dazzles and unlocks the door with the old brass key. “After you,” he whispers in my ear as he opens it, tickling an old memory.

I step inside . . . and gasp to a stop.

It’s the same suite where we had our big bang—the same four poster bed, the same ivory silk linens—but how different it looks. How new, yet how ours. A gentle fire is dancing in the fireplace to the low sultry melody of Amado Mio—the song we first danced together. A garland of the Plemmons’ apricot roses—similar to Aeternum in color—adorn the mantle. On the wall across the bed, taped over the Inn’s painting of roses is a photo of Javier’s first painting of me as it hangs in front of Aiden’s bed at his home. And on the nightstand is the first gift I gave him: the double-frame with my ticket to America and a photo of his home he bought that same day.

“Oh!” I breathe, gazing at the bedroom in a trance. No, not a bedroom anymore—a mosaic of some of our most beautiful moments. The firm thud of the door closing breaks through my spell. I turn to look at Aiden. He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. I take the one step between us, feeling unsteady on my heels. His hands curve around my waist.

“Enough reminders for you?”

“Explain it to me,” I say, knowing by now he never creates a memory without a purpose, a purpose worth remembering for life.

“I’m sure you can unravel this one.” He bends his face to mine as though to kiss me but stops an inch from my lips. “Try.”

And I do, I really do, but it’s almost impossible with a scent like this and eyes like that and beauty like nothing else. “Well, there’s our first night with the painting?”

“Yes, that’s there.” His lips hover so very close to mine. I try to reach on my tip toes, but his iron hands don’t let me. “Solve the next clue, and you get a kiss.”

“Ah, our first date at your Alone Place, with Amado Mio, the roses, and the silk pillows like the bed?”

“Beautiful,” he murmurs, his mouth touching mine. The warm tip of his tongue traces my lips, and tingles spread over my skin. He pulls away at my sigh. “Next?”

It takes me a moment with his lingering aftertaste. Amado Mio ends and starts again. “Something about the fire? Because it wasn’t on last time.”

“Very good. Now what do you think it means?” He inches his lips closer, his hold on my waist correspondingly tighter. His breath enflames my skin like the fire clue, scattering my thoughts.

“Umm, a little hint?”

“What could you burn in a fire, but you would never want to?” he helps me, and instantly I know.

“Your letters! In your homecoming letter, you wrote you would have no words for my face, for my smell, for the crackling fire in the fireplace.”

“And I still don’t.” He gives me his mouth for a while this time, his tongue like a flame crackling with mine. But he stops again when my legs start to shake. “Next?”

“How many clues are left?” I barely hear my voice from the drumbeat of my pulse. “I’m already close to fainting.”

He grins. “Don’t do that. I need you coherent for this last one.”

“Oh, good!” I shake my head to rattle some brain cells awake. “Something about my first gift to you, with the double-frame?”

“I have debated with myself what your first gift to me is but for purposes of tonight it’s true enough.” And then his mouth is on mine in a slow, potent kiss until I drape in his arms. He has to lift me off the floor to take me to the nightstand. “Now find your prize.”

“I thought you without latex invaders was my prize.”

He chuckles. “Okay, I’ll give you that. Find your second prize.”

He doesn’t release my waist as I search through the nightstand, opening the first drawer. Resting right under the double-frame is a rectangle package the same size, wrapped in parchment. I tear it carefully and lose whatever breath I was managing to draw. It’s another double-frame exactly like my gift, but even more precious. On one side is a photo of the cottage as it is blooming now and on the other a yellowed, old ticket bearing the name Aiden Hale and the date April 11, 1987.

“Oh my God, Aiden! Is this your ticket when you first flew to England for your meeting at Oxford?”

“The very same. I had my mother dig for it after we visited Chatsworth. Of course she had saved it. They brought it and your frame this morning.”

I caress the glass over his name, the date, the PDX and LHR airport initials, swallowing back tears before they drop on my prize. “I love it. It’s a real-life treasure.”

He takes the frame from my shaky hands and places it next to the one I gave him. “It’s our first ‘first’” he explains. “Our first connection. My first dream of you in Iraq. First sight of you in the gallery. First date. First dance. And first night.” He brushes my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Tonight is a first, too. Just you and me and nothing in between. It seemed like the right time to remember how far we’ve come.”

His voice turns our history into music, more harmonious than the song that is replaying. I crush myself against his steely lines, half-climbing his legs, throwing my arms around his neck, and pulling him to my lips. “I want my first prize now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he chuckles, and everything else disappears. I hear, see, and feel nothing but us. The riff of our first dance, the sound of our mouths, the pop of his shirt buttons, the tinkle of the locket as he takes it off, the unzipping of my dress. As soon as it pools into a linen cloud at my sandaled feet, he lifts me and wraps my legs around his waist. “Open Sesame,” he murmurs as though finding his own treasure.

I tighten my thighs around him, frantic for contact. His abs ripple in between as he strides to the bed, pulls back the duvet, and drops me on the silky sheets. And air becomes scarce again. I watch, teetering between shaky elbows and crumbling mind, as he peels off his clothes and his body materializes like a sentient sculpture under the muted glow of the chandelier. Then his snug briefs dash to the floor, and my elbows give out. I can’t blink away from the sight of him springing free. Carved steel wrapped in gold silk with a filigree of veins and bubbles like a diamond crown. C-o-c-k: how did I forget the good four-letter words? My skin bursts into flames, blazing hotter than the crackling fire next to the bed.

He grasps my ankle where it’s dangling off the bed and plants a soft kiss at the bridge of my foot as one might with a lady’s hand. “I like these.” he says, tracing the gold strap around my ankle with his fingers. “I think we’ll leave them on, like our first dance.” He climbs between my legs that are quivering like bowstrings to his arrow.  “As for these . . .” He trails his thumb along the wet lace of my knickers, making me moan. “I’m afraid they have to go.” And he grips the delicate fabric and tears it off. The brush of lace raises goosebumps on my feverish skin as he glides the shreds over my torso to my lips. They blow away from my gasp. “I think these are better than the Chatsworth veil, don’t you?” He flutters the cool lace over my mouth. It flurries with my breath.

“No,” I whimper as the lace floats back on my lips.

“No? Hmm, is something missing?”

“Your mouth,” I huff, and the lacy ribbons fly again.

“Ah, yes, how could I forget?” And his lips start racing the frilly scraps. They whirl over my throat, and his tongue chases them off. He sweeps them across my jawline, and his teeth graze my skin. The lace brushes over my mouth, and his tongue traces my lips. The lace flits back, and he sucks my lower lip until blood pools there, throbbing like the rest of me. From my moan, the ribbons fly off and disappear. Then Aiden’s lips and tongue seize mine, spilling kisses, strokes, words inside my mouth. I taste them all, feeling the tickle of my name when he sighs it, the way his I want yourolls off my tongue, until the world starts spinning behind my eyelids. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin.

“No fainting today,” he smiles against my throat as he snaps off my bra.

“Mmm,” is my answer, and the race begins again. He slides the straps off my shoulders, his tongue gliding down their path. His nose skims the lacy trim as he inches down the cups like a veil over my breasts. His mouth folds around me in a lacework of licks and nibbles. And frenzy strikes. My hips arch for contact, and my fingers sprint over every part of him I can reach. How many times can you touch a man before he becomes your fingerprint?

Finally the bra sweeps off and Aiden’s husky voice breaks through the pulse thundering in my ears. “There you are. Just as magnificent as that first time, and better still.” His eyes descend like fire over me, but unlike that first time, I don’t shy away from them. I tangle my fingers in his hair, writhing off the bed toward him.

“Aiden, please, I want to feel you,” I gasp, my voice breaking with need, not nerves.

He holds my eyes. “Then feel me.” And the length of him presses against the wettest part of me in nothing but flawless skin. Ah, the feel . . . My moan mingles with his deep, throaty sigh.

How many times have I longed for the faintest brush, and now his smooth, heavy weight rests on the blazing folds, sending shiver after shiver to my very bones. A sudden wave of emotion rises within me, and I tremble. But the delicious weight disappears. The sudden absence is excruciating.

“Aiden,” I whimper and raise my hips for more contact, but he pins them down on the silky sheets.

“Feel all of me.”

And hard—in this new first time—Aiden slides inside.  My cry drowns the music and the groaned oh-fuck that tears from his lips. Our bodies shudder in tandem, once, twice. A string of profanities in Russian hisses through Aiden’s teeth, but with a low snarl, he reins his body under control and becomes flexed steel above me, breathing hard. I don’t have such mastery. My body is flailing about at breaking point. I feel every ponderous spasm of him inside me as though magnified a thousand-fold, and I’m quivering inside out.

“Breathe, Elisa, breathe and flex,” he guides me urgently, remaining utterly still to help me. And I try. I grip his arms and lock my legs around his waist, but it’s impossible with him so real. I cannot slow a single tremble and he feels it.

“I got you, I got you,” he murmurs, and for a blinding second, his iron chest presses on mine, stunning my lungs.

“Oh!” I huff, and his weight lifts immediately.

“There. Now breathe with me.” He takes a deep breath and lets it wash over my lips. I match my lungs to his, inhaling his fragrant air, and the trembles recede. “Beautiful,” he praises me as if I did anything. “One more time.” And he restarts my mind again, easing me further away from the brink. “Perfect. Now feel with me.”

And I can now. I can feel him with perfect acuity—every angle of steel that manages to feel like velvet, his vibrant heat radiating through my core, the delicious bubbles now a liquid warmth lapping at my depths, and his weighty presence pulsing in sync with me. The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming that it surges all way to my eyes. I close them, drowning in the sensation of being with him like this. All those other times he felt divine pale in comparison, like my dreams paled to the real him.

“Ah you,” Aiden sighs. I fling my eyes open at the sound of his resonant voice rising over the music. He’s watching me with an aura of pure ecstasy. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful—even in my own euphoria I can appreciate that. The sight nearly restarts the tremors as I realize that, despite his masterful control, this is just as intense for him as it is for me. “You feel even better than I dreamed. And that’s saying something.”

“As do you.”

He brings his mouth to mine and for an immeasurable moment there is just this—his taste with my taste, his heat with my heat, most of him in every depth of me, exactly as we were made. Then he releases my lips.

“I have to move, love, or I will die. Please don’t faint on me.” His lopsided smile takes my breath away like his weight.

“No dying or fainting,” I promise. “But there will definitely be dancing.” I circle my hips in invitation. And Aiden starts to dance with me to our song, skin on skin—no veil between us. At first, a slow tango like our first dance. I wind my arms around his neck, undulating eagerly against his hips, following each bump-and-grind. Then his tempo grows, pounding a tribal beat at my core. I fall behind, and moans change to cries—a chorus of Aiden-Aiden silencing the music. And my body starts vibrating again in a pirouette of trembles and quivers. He feels them all. His rhythm becomes relentless, now punishing, now worshipful. I absorb his force, his possession, the feeling of our bodies fused together, flesh on flesh, liquid on liquid. How many times can a man be inside a woman like this before he becomes her heartbeat? A thousand? Once? Whatever the number, he feels like that to me.

And the finish starts. My vision sparkles, my ears ring, and convulsions start shimming inside me. An overpowering urgency builds at the bottom of my belly, and I spiral, palpitating around Aiden with violence, hauling him over the brink with me. A startling sensation surges in my depths in the final beats. Like two rivers breaching through their dams and flooding each other’s riverbeds to form a little ocean. We plummet in its depths and drown.

But eventually we float back to the surface again, gasping and shuddering, Aiden’s head rising and falling with my chest like waves. My senses lap at him like a shore—his warm weight on me, his messy hair brushing my cheek, his sharp breath on my neck.

“Elisa?” His low drawl thrums above my heart.

“Hmm.”

“Are you here?”

“Mmm.”

“Do you remember last night on the kitchen counter with the jam?”

“Mmm.”

“And all the other one hundred fourteen times before?”

“Mmm.”

“How convinced we were it couldn’t get better than that?”

“Mmm.”

“We might as well have been virgins compared to this.”

We laugh together, and he sways inside me with the motion of our laughter. So real and vibrant, exactly as if he’s new. My body, already shaped to his contours, grasps him with vivid detail—every flawless angle of him, the silkiness of his skin, the velvety texture of us together. And the more of him I feel, the more I want.

“So now that we know,” I muse in wonder. “How do we stop?”

He lifts his head to look at me, the panes of his face glowing. “We don’t.”

I’m about to tell him never, but my mouth is suddenly busy, as captive to him as the rest of me.

The next thing I notice outside of our bodies is the fading fire in the fireplace. The sky outside the window is the inky black before dawn. I’m sprawled on Aiden’s chest on the Chatsworth bed, a sash of the silky curtains still tangled around my wrist. It brings back a vision of my hands tied to the poster, and I flush—that was a first too, and what a first it was.

“You’re back.” Aiden’s chuckle rumbles under my cheek. “I worried you really fainted there for a moment.”

“Did I?”

“No, just your usual orgasm coma but deeper. You didn’t even snore this time. If it weren’t for the drooling, I’d have called the village paramedics, which would have been an awkward conversation.”

“Well, you only have yourself to blame and these new antics with the posters.” I press my lips on his chest, sniffing it surreptitiously. “What do you do when I’m oblivious, anyway?”

I feel him shrug. “Watch you. Some of my favorite memories are with you like that. One time you hummed the entire Für Elise. Just now you said, ‘orgasms are oxytocin, but taste better’ and smacked your lips.” He chuckles again, stroking my hair.

Heat burns my cheeks, half-embarrassed, half- irked at myself. “You’d think after one hundred eighteen times, my body would have learned some discipline. I wonder if I’ll ever stop reacting like this every time you make love to me.”

“I sincerely hope not,” he laughs, but brushes my flushed cheek. “And you have nothing to be embarrassed about. I have to talk to Rostov in Russian because of you. Objectively, we can agree that’s a lot more embarrassing than ‘orgasms are oxytocin.’”

“That’s true,” I giggle, something tugging at the edge of my mind like an unfinished thought. It vanishes the moment his fingers trail down my spine.

“Speaking of passing out, did you want to stay here tonight or go back to the cottage?”

“Hmm, what time is it?”

“Almost two.”

It takes me a while to subtract. Two and a half hours to the reel. His voice is quieter, and his fingers miss a step on their stroll over my skin. Is he thinking about it too? I wrap myself around him closer, covering as much of him with me as I can. “The cottage,” I decide. “The happiest place there is. Although this suite is now a very close second.”

His long fingers pick up their promenade on my back. “We’ll keep it like this for the summer—a gallery of our firsts. Maybe we’ll add more.”

The end of the summer. I swerve around the thought immediately, but even in that fleeting space, a shiver prickles my arms. “What other firsts should we add?” I ask to distract myself.

His voice is as soft as his caress when he answers, “A whole life of them, Elisa. If we’re lucky enough.”

 

Elysium is entirely silver when Aiden parks in the garage fifteen minutes later. Moonlight falls over the wildflowers like pollen and, if it weren’t for his arm around me supporting all my weight, I would curl up on the pearly daisies and say ‘like cookies’ here.

“Why don’t you sleep in today?” Aiden suggests, his voice already a lullaby. “You haven’t slept much in the last couple of nights.”

A huge yawn chooses this moment to overpower me. “Why don’t we both sleep in? Doctor Helen said a couple of hours off occasionally won’t make a difference.”

He looks toward the inkblot of the reel—visible to us even under starlight—and the bands of muscle at his waist petrify. For a breath, I think he’ll argue, but he answers quickly. “That sounds nice.”

And he sweeps me in his arms and picks up his pace as we pass by the spot. I watch his moonlit profile, resisting my drooping eyelids. Even two weeks later, there are moments like this—when he glides toward the cottage under starlight, dreamlike in his beauty—that I still test reality discreetly, nail into my thumb, retracing last steps. Not because I’m worried he is a dream. But because I’m terrified he will disappear—my entire being remembers the staggering agony of waking up without him. Reality hasn’t fixed that fear: it has only made it more intense, as it has done for the rest of him.

He is quiet too as we reach the willows. Wishes, somehow, he’s here. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, afraid he is already drifting into terrors.

“Just trying to stay in the present moment.”

“Are you feeling sad?”

He peers down at me, eyes puzzled. “Sad? I can’t recall a single day I’ve been less sad in my life.” His smile beams like the moonlight, lifting my own lips in automatic r