NINETY DAYS CHAPTER 41: REAL

Happy Monday, friends! What can I say about this chapter? If I had the words, I would have given them to Elisa, but I don’t. Every. Single. Thing in the story has led to this.  Theme: “at last.” Song: just a heartbeat. Favorite line: “At the end of all things, how do you find a beginning?” I hope you enjoy it. Love, Ani.

41

Real

I try with every blink to stay awake but as soon as we get home and cuddle on the sofa together to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, a deep feeling of safety overpowers me, and I pass out despite sleeping all day. When I next open my eyes, dawn is filling the living room with a soft periwinkle light. But time is the only thing that has changed. I am still exactly where I was: curled up under the fluffy blanket, in Aiden’s arms, his lips in my hair as though he has been holding me all night.

I look up at him immediately, a different kind of glow sparking inside, but he too has fallen asleep to the low sound of Für Elise. The auroral light casts his face with a forget-me-not tint. A glimmering thread of sun weaves through his black hair, longer now with the passage of summer. And his lips are parted, a dream flitting quickly under the golden eyelids.

So vulnerable, the air trembles in my throat at the sight. Because underneath the beauty is the staggering cost of the war he fought for us. More visible now that he is adrift in the currents of subconscience. His sculpted cheeks have hollowed, drawn in as though from a prolonged illness. Deep purple shadows circle his eyes. And for the first time, I notice a strand of silver at his temple. Like a brushstroke from the Old Aiden of my happily-ever-after visions. Visions that will only ever remain a fantasy.

I shut down the thought at first flash, closing my hands in fists against the urge to caress his face, to wake him with a kiss. Because today is our meeting with Doctor Helen. How do you wake up from peace for a war you have already lost? How do you open your eyes into the daylight that makes it real? At the end of all things, how do you find a beginning?

I press my lips lightly on his T-shirt and inch out of his arms very slowly so he stays in dreams until he has to face that reality. And until I prepare everything I can to make it easier for him.

The magic of our embargo still twinkles everywhere around us, with a different beauty in the daylight. Like a pale, gossamer moon in blue, sunny skies. My unopened tomorrow present shimmers underneath Aphrodite’s branches. Except it’s today. Abruptly, my stomach twists at the idea of opening it. Because that would be the end of the magic, wouldn’t it? Not to mention this razor fear that this is his goodbye gift.

“Not yet. It’s still embargo,” I mutter to myself so I can breathe. Then I pick up my phone and pad silently up the stairs to get ready, including my present for him. From the corner of my eye, I glimpse the time on the screen unwillingly. Six thirty on Saturday, August 22—only two hours until the meeting. It’s just a check-up after the fever, I assure myself repeatedly. Nothing new, nothing we don’t know. But the fire in my chest isn’t listening. Because I remember the finality in Doctor Helen’s voice on the phone two days ago, her silence, so similar to my parents’ funeral. This is not just a check-up; it’s when science officially gives up. I trip on the landing and rush to the loo, prayer humming in my mind as though it has been drumming uninterrupted all night. Someway for us, please, somehow.

But there are no codes or formulas for this, only indefinable instincts and the frantic beat of my own heart. I jump in the shower, trying to focus at least on the things I understand. How to lather, how to rinse, how to help Aiden today, my gift for him. Another secret he needs to know. And the last plan the protein laid for me.

I dry off roughly, brush my teeth, and shuffle down the hall to our happy bedroom. It waits like always—roses in the air, the white curtain blowing from the open window, the empty bed missing its pillows and sheets that are now in the guestroom, the defeated poppies of our weapons. I dive headfirst inside the closet to shut out the image. Intuitively my hands grasp the same navy dress I wore on our first date—the day of the painting, the day when we chose each other over reason. I throw it on with my PEAC diamond bracelet, the locket, and Aiden’s dog tags underneath. And then I do the same for him. His briefs and jeans from our first kiss, and the white button-down shirt he was wearing before our first sleep. A mosaic of us, of moments when we chose our hearts. Then I dig up the small cardboard box I hid deep behind mum’s journals with some other treasures, and slither downstairs to the library.

The precious room is healed as though Edison never wrecked it—the window replaced, the rug of planets clean, the chess game finished in the corner, its flower glass case sparkling freely on the shelf. Only dad’s microscope is still absent, in evidence against the monster. I start printing, stuffing, and wrapping the box with shaking fingers, each wisp of tissue a kiss, a touch, a tear. How will Aiden feel when he opens this? Shocked, yes—as deep a shock as his discovery about Fallujah. Maybe even angry with me. But I know like I know his every heartbeat that it will be good for him. He has the truth; now he needs the faith in himself. Yet even as I try to prepare him for our end, my mind plays the same constant refrain: somehow for us, please, someway.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s alarmed voice comes from the foyer as soon as I paste the last strip of tape on the gift.

“Yes, love, I’m right here!” I call back, tucking the present in my purse and tossing the wrapping materials in the bin before he can see them. He strides through the library door in seconds, hair tousled, the entire sky lightning in his eyes when he sees me. And instantly, the burning pain in my chest heals. “Morning!” I smile, launching myself at him, greedy as usual for his touch.

“Good morning.” He sighs with relief and wraps me in his arms, pressing his lips hungrily in my damp hair. I can tell from the way his tension softens around me that this is the first breath he has taken since opening his eyes.

“How are you feeling?” I ask, kissing his heart through his T-shirt.

He tips up my face so he can look at me. “Better now that I see you.”

“Me too, but I mean . . . about this meeting.”

He forces a smile for my benefit, but deep in the turquoise depths, I see the pain he is trying to hide. “I already know what they’ll tell me, Elisa. The reel served its purpose—it’s done. There’s nothing more they can do to change what’s left.”

The startle—the only thing we could not overcome. I tighten my hold around his waist. “You know what else they can’t change?”

“What’s that?”

“It was not your fault. You are home. And you are loved. And there’s nothing more important than that. Do you understand?”

A true smile curves the corner of his mouth—no dimple, but it’s that quiet smile of this other side. “I’m starting to,” he answers and pulls me back in his chest.

He holds me like this for a while, swaying as we do with Für Elise, just us on the rug of planets, our feet on Venus, our bodies wrapped in the first rays of run. On the wall, the atomic clock is ticking, but I focus only on his heartbeat. Thunderous and fast. Because of our touch or what’s coming?

“Were you able to rest at all, crammed up in the sofa like that?” I ask, looking up at him.

He strokes my hair, sending an electric current over my skin. “Elisa, I was able to sleep with you in my head through Baghdad’s raids. Of course I did in a comfortable couch with the real you next to me. How about you? Have you been up for a while?”

“Not long. Just enough to bring my hair under submission before I can be seen in public.” I point to my head as an exhibit.

“You look beautiful,” he murmurs, and for the first time this morning, his eyes leave my face. Descending over my body, catching fire when he notices my outfit. Just like that first night, except stronger, fueled with the force of time. “Ah, this dress . . .” His fingers trace the hem, brushing my thigh. The flame is in his touch too; it sweeps under my skin, heating my blood. The bedroom glow suffuses my vision with the candlelight filter that will always bind us in secret.

“I thought we could use the memory today,” I breathe, my voice evaporating in my mouth.

“And what memory is that?”

“A memory of us . . .” I barely hear my voice through the pulse hammering in my ears. “When we were a little selfish.”

His arm winds around my waist, arching me to him. His body heat seems to melt through the fabric of my dress. “Mmm . . .” he whispers, lowering his face until he kisses the hollow spot at my collarbone. “Very selfish.”

“Not . . .” I start but his lips trail up my throat to the corner of my jaw, and I lose my train of thought. All I can feel is the four seasons thrumming inside my body. A spring of tingles blossoming on my skin. Summer heat smoldering in the bottom of my belly. Winds of autumn blowing through my lips. And a quiver of winter in my spine, each molecule melting like snow under his touch.

“Yes?” he prompts, his lips brushing my earlobe.

It takes all my faculties to remember my answer. “N-not selfish enough.”

“No?”

“No.”

His lips flutter along my jawline. “More?”

“Most.”

“Hmm . . .” he murmurs, stopping at the corner of my mouth. His breath is coming hard and fast against my lips. Mine has stopped entirely. Will he break his rules just this once? If he is still being selfish?

“D-did you change your mind?” The question trembles out of my lips.

He pulls back with a pained sigh, eyes on fire, hands in fists at my waist. I can feel the strength of his acute restraint in his grip. “No, my mind changed me,” he answers, his voice rough with his own need.

I try to make sense of this words but I can’t think past the heated gaze. “What do you mean?”

He draws a deep breath, shaking his head.  “Let’s get this meeting with Helen out of the way first. Then you can open your today gift and we need to talk.”

T-a-l-k. The four seasons freeze into a deep winter chill. The lovely glow extinguishes from my vision. “Talk about what?” I whisper.

“Us.”

The library tilts at an odd angle with panic, but his eyes take on that my-all look that immediately heals me. The one I have been waiting for subconsciously even while asleep. It steadies me without knowing how or why. As though nothing can touch me while this look is on me, not even time.

“Okay, but no hard talks, please?” I answer, clutching his arms for balance. “It’s still embargo after all. And you too have a little surprise for later.”

He brushes my cheek, a smile winking at the corner of his lips. “Of course you have a surprise for me, but I think I might win this one.”

As much as I want him to win everything, there is zero chance of that in this case. “You wish.”

He chuckles, but his eyes stir with truth. “Yes, I do.” The words are simple but there is something fervent, almost desperate about them. Before I can understand the deep emotion smoldering beneath the surface, he strokes my face again. “Let me just take a shower and get ready. Benson will be here in half an hour.”

Oh, right! Time starts again, and I remember what we still need to live through. “Here, I picked your clothes too. Better than the ones you wear for the reel, I think.” I reach for the folded stack on the desk—his arm stays around me—and hand it to him.

His expression softens as he recognizes the mementos immediately. “You chose good memories for me too.”

“Yes, I wanted you to feel only love on your skin today. And I put my love letter right here in your jean pocket.” I fish out the origami rose of the note I wrote to him during the protein. “I thought it would be good for you,” I explain, my voice lower with the potency of the brave love still surging utterly unchanged through my body.

He strokes the paper rosette as he would one of the Elisas. Then he leans closer and kisses my forehead. “You are good for me.”

The words trill against my skin, as though a different pulse beats there that responds only to him. “And you for me.”

I expect him to argue despite the embargo, but he just smirks knowingly. “Eat something before we have to go. I won’t be long.”

L-o-n-g. I hold the word inside my lungs, breathing it in. He strides out of the library with something in his eyes, like an unfinished thought. What was it? Is he still reaching for hope, allowing himself another selfish day? Or is the talk he is planning just reality returning because every magic has to end? Abruptly, the chime of the wall clock seems to pierce my eardrums, so I run straight to the kitchen to make breakfast. On each step, the same frantic refrain throbs in my head. Somehow, please, someway.

Sunshine is filling the little kitchen with a profuse light, brightening the creamy cabinets, dulling the glint of the breadknife. All corners seem more rounded under the molten haze, as though this dawn is softening the sharpness out of the world. I start Aiden’s coffee and my tea, and prepare some dippy eggs with soldiers, wishing futilely I had more time for everything: to cook his favorite pancakes, to find a way, to convince him that a half-life together is fuller than any long life apart. But as always, the more I will the clock to slow, the faster it races ahead. Tic toc, tic toc toward eight thirty, toward the white flag.

I tuck the eggs in their cups, butter the toast, and set everything on the table. Then I arrange some blueberries to spell A&E on our plates and turn to another present. Hard in its own way. Because there is a goodbye today: Doctor Helen. She will still be here, I know that—we’ll have tea, we’ll go for strolls at University Park, she will even get her last scan on September eighteen—but our fight is over. After twenty-eight years of trying to save Aiden, science has surrendered.

The idea sets the flames raging in my chest so I cut up some of the best Clares from the windowsill, still sparkling with dew. I consider briefly warning her that Aiden knows about the video, but that feels wrong now, disloyal. He handled his anger so well last night. I just hope he can do the same when he actually sees her face.

“More selfish reminders for breakfast?” Aiden asks, walking into the kitchen. I wheel around, and there he is, in his white shirt and jeans, wet curls on his forehead, a ray of smile on his lips as he looks at our fruit initials like they are Javier’s unfinished masterpiece of me.

“Always,” I answer. “Even if you don’t need reminders.”

“It’s nice to get them just the same.” He strides to me and pulls me in his arms, as though every second apart was burning him as much as it was scalding me. His freshly showered scent stuns everything, even the Clares. “What are you doing with all those roses?” He nods toward the arranged long stems.

Uh oh. I stroke his neck for added calm . . . or distraction. “They’re just a little thank you for Doctor Helen with a note from us. I know you’re still angry with her about the video, but I think we should let it go.”

His eyes widen in disbelief like I just told him to sell Hale Holdings. “Elisa, if you expect me to say nothing to her about that, I’ll first have her scan your brain, not mine.”

A dozen arguments flicker through my head, but abruptly I don’t want to win this on logic. I don’t want to argue at all. I just want us to listen to our hearts. Because I can’t shake off this instinct that this is the only way for us, even if I don’t know how.

“Please, Aiden?” I trail my fingers down his chest to feel the thud-thud-thud there. “I don’t want this chapter of your life to close in anger. I want it to be with kindness and love because that’s who you are. Let’s just think only of the good things and how hard she fought for us.”

At that big little pronoun or perhaps the plea in my voice, the conflict dissolves in his eyes. He draws a deep breath, blowing his delicious cinnamon scent over my lips. “Alright,” he sighs. “I can’t argue with that feeling. Come on, we’ll write her note together while you eat.”

“Thank you,” I say, kissing his heartbeat. A light shudder runs through him.

“No, thank you for always guiding me to the right thing.” He kisses my hair again and carries me to the table.

We sit together, side by side, arms touching, thighs brushing, our breaths mingling through our lips. I give him mum’s stationery and rest my head on his shoulder, watching his pen glide across the parchment like it did in his tent, scribing words that only Aiden knows how to write. Except these words are from us.

Dear Doctor Helen,

This is not the card we had hoped to write. And we know it’s not the card you wish you could have received. But it is the truth of what we have and what you helped us achieve.

We came to you with love, and you gave us hope.

We came with dreams, but you gave us reality.

We came with fear, and you led us to bravery.

And for me, I came to you as a child, wanting to forget, and I am leaving as a man, grateful I can remember.

You say you don’t believe in fate. There was a time when neither did I. But apparently even I am capable of change. So despite all the pain, I have to thank gods and stars for a path that started with you and ended with the greatest love of my life.

For every time you fought alongside us, thank you.

Aiden

He sets his pen down, turning the page toward me. “Is this what you had in mind?”

I shake my head from my spot on his shoulder, swallowing back tears at the difference I see behind each word. “No, I could never have found words like this. Are you really grateful you can’t forget?”

“Now that I know you, yes.” He looks at me again with his life-giving look. It shoots like adrenaline through my system with his words, and I throw my arms around him. Because here is our win even in the war we lost. His self-acceptance, his freedom from guilt, his selfish deeds . . .

“I love you,” I whisper, kissing the pulse at his neck. The bands of muscle relax under my lips despite the suddenness of my attack.

He chuckles and brings me on his lap. “As I love you. Did you want to add something to the letter?”

“No. What you wrote is perfect. I’ll just sign my name.”

I pull back just enough inches to pick up his pen and scrawl my name quickly next to his. Then I turn to him again, but he is looking at our joined names with a curious expression in his eyes.

“What is it?” I ask, checking to make sure I didn’t forget how to spell.

He blinks back at me, shaking his head. “I’m regretting agreeing to this meeting at all. There are a lot more important things to do with this time.”

How can I disagree with any of that when I feel the same? Abruptly, I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here on this rickety chair with him, inhaling his clean scent, feeling his lips at my temple, and kissing his neck again. Then maybe he will be selfish enough and kiss closer to my mouth. And I will be brave enough to touch his lips. I’m about to tell him to break his promise, but the doorbell jingles and the moment is over.

Aiden sighs. “That will be Benson. Why don’t you wrap up here while I let him in?”

“You didn’t eat at all,” I grumble as he slides me off his lap reluctantly.

He swipes a few blueberries from the E and tosses them in his mouth. “I’m partial to these.” He brushes my cheek and goes to open the door. I can hear him talking with Benson while I tuck everything I need in my basket and grab my purse with the precious box still hidden inside.

When I come out, our Big Ben is towering on the threshold in beige slacks and an off-white shirt, not his usual dark palette. The sandy colors trigger a flashback of the video so I try to find his smile, but he is looking tensely at Aiden, no doubt worried about him.

“Morning, Benson. How was your night?” I greet him.

“Just fine. How about here?”

“Don’t worry, Benson. We actually got some sleep.” Aiden settles the score quickly as he locks the front door.

“Glad to hear it,” Benson answers, but his anxious eyes don’t relax.

“Thank you for taking the red roses to the hilltop,” I add, patting his colossal arm for distraction. “They were beautiful.”

“I can’t take credit. The Plemmonses gave me their best once they heard where I was taking them.”

“Of course you can take credit. Here—a little something for you from across the pond. We love you.” I hand him a bag of treasured cookies from our care package, decorated with frosted roses. Merry Christmas forever, I add in my head. The idea of saying goodbye to Benson—our protector and closest friend—sets my throat on fire so I shut down the thought immediately. Not yet, not today.

Aiden pulls me closer as though he felt the scorching flames.

“Ah, well, thanks,” Benson grunts, still tense, and swallows a cookie whole. I think he wants to ask me if the secret invention helped, if my mysterious plan worked, but he must decide against it with Aiden here. I give him a smile to calm him. He doesn’t smile back but leads the way as we set off down the garden path.

At the hedge, Aiden reaches behind the farthest shrub, and suddenly I realize something that should have occurred to me already. At last, the reel is leaving us. Doctor Helen already conceded that. And even though this surrender is torching us both, I know not a single cell of ours will miss the evil monitor. For the first time since I saw it, I breathe with relief when Aiden brings it out even though it’s hidden back inside its original box and out of my sight.

“We might as well return this.” He tucks the box under his other arm, away from me. “No reason to keep it here another minute.”

“Not one,” I agree, grabbing his free arm and picking up our pace in Benson’s quiet wake so the box leaves his fingertips as soon as possible.

There is a crispness in the air, a stillness. As though the world is holding its breath. No breeze, the lark hiding somewhere in the beech leaves. Even the willow song sounds more muted than usual, but I can still hear its quiet aria like Stella did. Somehow, somehow, somehow. It follows us across Elysium like a hymn. I clutch Aiden’s arm as our shadows glide over the purple orchids and the forget-me-nots. Neither of us looks at the scar of the reel on the meadow, where the wildflowers have wilted from the blaze of Aiden’s fever. I will revive them tonight—replace them if I need to—so none of its images will ever touch his retinas again.

At the edge of Elysium, Benson’s black Rover gleams against the country road. As soon as we reach it, I climb in the back seat quickly, curling next to Aiden who stashes the box on the front seat. But he has barely closed his door, when his phone beeps in the notes of Für Elise. He takes it out, frowning at the text banner on the screen—from James.

Callahan: “Sorry I missed your calls, brother. Are you home?”

“Finally,” Aiden mutters and thumbs back a quick reply: “No, on our way to see Helen. All fine but need to talk to you. Will you still be up in about two hours?”

James doesn’t hesitate. “Yea, you sure everything’s fine? Your message said something about hell day.”

“Yes, but it’s good for once. I’ll call when we’re done.”

He finishes texting with James and pulls me on his lap, exactly where I want to be. “Sorry about that. I’ve been trying to reach him to tell him what you helped me discover.”

I caress his scar, worry gnawing at my nerves that he will have to re-live it again. “Eventually you’ll believe me that you discovered it on your own, but I’m glad James is about to find some peace too.”

“Yes, he will,” he answers quietly, still adjusting to this reformed universe where he knows he didn’t cause his brother’s death. He is just a man with wounds, finding his way back to himself. And there is one thing left to help him with that. One thing the protein helped me see above all else. He will know it very soon. Then maybe our end will be survivable for him. And maybe, just maybe, he might stay with me once he sees who he truly is? I try to smother the silent question before it kills me, but it keeps singing in my ears like a siren. Maybe this is our somehow, someway.

“Ready, sir?” Benson checks in the back mirror, still tense behind his aviators.

Aiden looks at me for a moment with a sort of determination, then his arms lock around me like a safety belt. “Yes, Benson, we are.”

And then we are off in the lilac dawn.

It’s a quiet drive, me trying to stay present, Aiden staring out at the emerald hills, his fingers tracing my face over and over. Every few moments, he kisses my hair, my temple, my forehead, the inside of my wrists. I do the same with him—I can’t stop myself even though I know it will hurt me later. I kiss his bicep, his shoulder, his fingertips. It’s as though our lips have transmuted into their own heavens. Rotating around each other’s mouth, helpless against its gravity as we shine our last rays, pulling inexorably toward that final kiss, knowing it will turn us into stardust yet unable to resist it.

But as we enter Oxford’s boundary, reality crushes in with its inevitability. The iron tension grips Aiden’s shoulders, and agony begins to sear my insides. The flimsy fragments of fantasy vanish. And the air becomes heavier in my lungs.

Outside the window, Oxford’s heartline shimmers closer and closer. The domes and spires are gleaming pink-gold with the sunrise. Just petals glowing in the horizon. Rosy clouds wreathe the clock tower, and it’s impossible not to imagine mum’s arms reaching down from the lilac sky to protect the seven-year-old boy who grew up.

“I think Mum is putting on a show for you,” I tell Aiden to distract us both.

He looks at the clouds deeply as he did at her marble name last night on the hilltop. “Or maybe it’s for us.”

Us, us, us . . . someway, Mum, somehow. “I think you’re right. She would have loved us.”

He presses his lips in my hair, his breath catching as if to say something. But the Rover turns into WIN’s alley, and the weight of the last twenty-eight years silences us. Benson doesn’t ask a single question this time. He simply parks under the deep shade of an elm tree and steps outside, busying with his phone to give us the moment.

“Here we are.” Aiden gazes up at the stony building. Memories start darkening his eyes like clouds. At the sight, my words tumble out in a whisper.

“We don’t have to go in, love. Doctor Helen would understand.”

But he shakes his head, as I knew he would. “Unfortunately, I gave her my word when I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

W-o-r-d. How do you give your word to pain? How do you negotiate with lost dreams? I reach inside my purse for that last hope, curling my hand around the precious box like a talisman. It warms me the way breath heats our fingertips on a December morning.

“Then here.” I offer it to him with trembling everything—voice, hands, heartbeat. The most important gift I have ever given him. “This is your surprise to open after this meeting.”

I know he hears and sees my emotion because in a blink, I feel singular—like nothing else exists for him but me. He takes the small box, wrapped in a map from dad’s nature atlas. From my Cotswolds to his Portland. The way Earth should be—no visas or wars. One sky, one core, distance a mere matter of heart and will.

“A map?” he asks, searching my face as minutely as the cartography.

“The world,” I correct.

He brushes my cheek. “I have the whole world right here.”

My fingers quiver up to his heart. “Me too.”

He still doesn’t release my face. “Is there something different about this surprise?” he guesses as though he can sense the wind of change inside the small box.

I nod, trying to swallow past my tight throat. “It’s both something you already have and something you don’t.”

Childhood flickers in his deep eyes like always at the clue, and he smiles. “I think that might be your best clue yet.”

“It is,” I allow. “So think about that instead of this meeting.”

“Is that why you’re giving it to me now?”

“It’s part of a very good reason,” I paraphrase his words about my own present that is waiting under Aphrodite’s branches.

The smile lingers a little longer even as he grasps instinctively the importance of the tiny box. “Come. Let’s get this over with, and we can both open these mysterious surprises.” A light flickers in his eyes at the prospect, and he kisses my temple again.

I expect my mind’s reaction by now—the subtle golden glow emitting from his skin. But expecting it doesn’t inure me to the beauty. It only stuns me more. I still haven’t recovered my breath when he tucks the box in his shirt pocket and opens the door. The fresh, grass-scented air steals in my lungs. He helps me out, holding me to his side, the reel on his other hand.

“Get some coffee, Benson,” he says to our Big Ben who is standing as rigid as the clock tower. “This should only take about an hour.”

Benson nods but doesn’t move as we climb the limestone steps.

Doctor Helen is waiting for us in the polished white lobby, her impeccable silver crown and white coat already in place despite it being Saturday morning. The gravitas of her regal expression seems weightier, more imposing compared to the last time I saw her when I was invincibly brave.

“Aiden, Elisa. Thank you for coming.” She sounds relieved beneath the commanding voice, as though she guessed we almost turned around. Then she strokes my hair in a way that reminds me of mum. “Were you able to get some sleep last night?”

“Yes, we both slept and without any fever this time.”

“That’s good. And you, Aiden?” She turns to him, studying his face with her shrewd eyes. “How are you feeling now that you’ve had some time to adjust to the truth?”

“Better, thank you, although eager to be finished. No offense intended, we just need to spend time together.” His voice is composed, showing none of his disappointment or anger, or maybe they softened at her evident concern for me.

“Of course, that’s understandable,” she answers. “We’re ready when you are.”

“Just one thing first, slightly more urgent.” He hands her the closed monitor box without ceremony. “I think it’s finally time we return this. Even you will agree there’s no more reason to continue it.”

“I do agree,” she concedes, taking the box from him.

As soon as the reel changes hands, a weight I didn’t know I was carrying leaves my body. Like the monitor had been pressing invisibly on my back since that first day the way the world crushed Atlas’s shoulders. I lean into Aiden, sensing a similar lightness in his subtle deep breath.

Doctor Helen is still searching his expression, but if she is looking for any answers, she doesn’t press him. She simply reaches up to squeeze his shoulder. “I’m glad this is behind you. Now come.”

I think about giving her the roses and Aiden’s note now, but it’s clear they are both impatient to be done. And it will be better after, so there is something else to say other than it’s over. I hook my arm in his, and we follow her billowing coat into the lift.

As soon as the doors close, the sensation of déjà vu hijacks me. My mind thrashes with the terrifying images of the last time we were here—the morning after Edison struck. The end, the terror for Aiden, the agony for us. Yet, in retrospect, they still seem more hopeful compared to the finality of now.

It seems to take a lifetime for the lift to ascend to a full stop, punctuated by a chime that clangs through my skull. But when we step out into the top floor, I blink around in surprise. Apparently, I was expecting Doctor Helen’s bear assistant, Richard, or Old Morse at least. But the clinical white space is empty again, gleaming endlessly like mirrors on all sides.

Next to me, Aiden scans the hallways with a similar question in his eyes.

“I asked my team to wait in the control room,” Doctor Helen explains quickly, seeing our confusion. “I didn’t think you would want a fuss.”

“You were right.” Aiden nods once.

“Let’s start with a scan to confirm the fever did no harm, although it’s unlikely, then we can discuss your next steps with Doctor Corbin on the line.” She pauses at the double doors of the massive lab, but all I hear is the separation already starting in her tone. “Elisa, I’m sure you want to go in, but we know your effect on Aiden’s neural activity and unfortunately, we need a stable reading.” She sounds apologetic, and I have a sense it’s for many reasons. That we have to part, that the reel didn’t work, that it caused so much agony, that we didn’t win.

I nod too even though I’d rather watch the video again than leave him for a second. “Don’t worry about me,” I tell him. “I’ll be right here with Doctor Helen.”

Except that doesn’t seem to calm him at all—in fact the opposite. He glares at us both with almost palpable intensity. “Nothing unsafe or painful, do you understand me?”

“I promise,” I answer, but to my astonishment, Doctor Helen smiles almost invisibly as though she just found the answer she was searching for.

“Ah, I see. You already know about the video. Of course you do. Well, you can shout at me later and you have every right. But for now, let’s finish up. Go on, I will take care of Elisa. The safe way this time.”

There is a brief moment of silence—me stunned and anxious, Aiden staring at her in his incontrovertible way as he tethers back all his fury under his iron control. “There will be no shouting today, Doctor Helen, though you owe that to Elisa, not me.” He speaks slowly, precisely, each word on a tight leash. “But she is right. My anger aside, we’re grateful for what you’ve done for us.”

I want to kiss him. Right here, in front of the great neuroscientist who is watching him in unconcealed amazement. Can she see the big, small victories I see? Does she consider the brutal experiment a success because of them?

He turns to me and plucks a petal from one of the Clares in my basket, tucking it in my hand like always. Then he gives me back my gift. “Keep this safe so it doesn’t enter that room with me. I’ll open it on the other side, and we can be just us.” And with a kiss on my forehead, he strides down the polished hallway.

As soon as the changing room door closes behind him, I look up at Doctor Helen who is staring at the space where he stood, eyes narrowed in concentration.

“I’m so sorry, Doctor Helen,” I apologize. “I didn’t mean—well—it’s probably better that I explain.”

She blinks at me as though returning from another world. “It’s quite alright, child. I told you his faith in you was more important than his peace with me, and I meant it.”

“I know but I still want to explain. Because as it turned out, I think it was for the best.” And I tell her everything as fast as I can: from my slip to every minute of Aiden watching the video and afterwards, leaving out only his anger and the reason why the slip happened to me in the first place. Not today—she and I will have years for that.

When I’m done explaining, barely breathing through the deluge of information, she gawks at me in a way I didn’t think was possible for her brain. “Dear God! He watched all of it with you in his arms?”

I nod, still breathless. “He did amazing, Doctor Helen. I know we could not beat the startle, but I think we laid Marshall to rest at last. You said that would help, right?”

“Hmm,” she muses as her eyes squint in some internal analysis.

“What is it? Do you disagree?” The question shudders from my lips.

She focuses on me, as if remembering I’m still here. “Hmm? No, of course it helps. Now, let’s get started. Aiden is waiting.”

She ushers me along swiftly, and I stumble behind her, feeling abruptly panicked. Because I have this sudden intuition that she is keeping something from me. What is it? Is she worried it will still not be enough for Aiden to survive our end? Or something else?

Inside the cold command center, my unease only grows at the dizzying screens and the nine neuroscientists laser-focused on the mass of numbers and symbols of Aiden’s mind. I thought it was going to be only Richard, but it’s all of them. Their absolute concentration is like a dense fog in the air, making it hard to breathe. Shiver after shiver lashes down my arms. How different this room feels from that first time, full of hope and fight. Now, the digital racket seems to rattle inside my very spine. Except the familiar sight on one of the wall screens. Doctor Corbin is smiling at me, in his sage shirt and yellow notepad, sitting next to his dark office window in Portland, still on Friday night.

“Evening, Elisa, or morning your time. It’s good to see you.”

“Hi, Doctor Corbin.” I wave, almost running into his screen as though it could teleport Aiden and me back to the City of Roses for a while, with our families, far away from these arctic hallways. “Thank you for dialing in.”

“Of course. I know this one is hard but we can discuss . . . afterwards.” He seems to stumble on that last word and smiles again, but there is a tightness in his eyes like Benson.

“Yes, yes, alright,” Doctor Helen interrupts briskly, taking her throne before the three central monitors, her Van Gogh binder ever on her side. “We can catch up later. Elisa, you’re next to me. On my mark . . . three, two, one.”

Everyone, from Corbin to her bear assistant, tenses at her command, eyes like snipers on their screens. Their intensity only terrifies more so I scramble to the chair next to hers and, in seconds, the scan begins.

But I don’t give the computers a second glance. None of these numbers, pixels, or algorithms can ever know Aiden’s heart. The universe of him. They cannot chart the stars of his beauty, nor traverse the vast space of his mind. They cannot hold the gravity of his strength. They cannot capture the symphony of his soul or contain the force of his love. All his molecules that sing their own secret tune, each atom that casts its own primordial light, the millions of his cells that dance like planets to the melody of my name across his skies. The surreal, celestial sum of his being, more splendid than all these parts. He is not an answer or a question mark. He is a wonder known only to gods.

Instead, I take out my phone and stationery and start to write. Emails to Reagan and Javi—they’ll be here in only three weeks, and I can’t deny I will need them like air to breathe. Thank-you notes to Maria and Aiden’s parents. And letters to the girls, tucking petals inside. So many people who love us, so many other goodbyes. My hand shakes so much through the words, contorting mum’s calligraphy like a frantic EKG, that her quill slips through my fingers. It’s not until I’m able to hear its quiet, feathery swoosh that I notice how silent the room has become. Deep and cold, like a crypt. Everyone is still, except the occasional blink or click. And not just still, but rigid, their ramrod backs emanating waves of apprehension. I scan their screens in terror for explanation, but the innocuous images still mean nothing—just codes and numbers alternating with photos of Marshall and me.

I want to ask what’s wrong, but my throat is clenched closed because that’s not the right question. The correct one is what can be worse than it already is.

“Has something happened?” I choke instead, but I can’t hear my voice. Perhaps the scientists can’t hear me either because no one blinks away from the screens. “Is Aiden okay?” I repeat, trying to put more volume in my tone.

Doctor Helen’s hand pats mine, her eyes never glancing away from her monitors. “He’s fine, Elisa. Now, please, we need quiet.”

F-i-n-e. Why don’t I believe her? Panic starts stabbing my body like knifepoints, one in my chest, one at my temple, another in my gut, one more on my forehead, dead center where Aiden’s lips turn the world golden. I try to breathe but the room is spinning, walls closing in and out at strange, obtuse angles. Quickly, I grab a rose for air but it doesn’t help. Icy numbness starts prickling my toes. I should have worn Aiden’s sweatshirt or his cologne. But as soon as the idea forms, my mind pulls up his fragrance on its own, as vivid as it was during bravery on the riverbank, nothing changed. It floods my senses as if I am curling in his chest again. But the terror is still mushrooming everywhere, numbing my legs, arms, the base of my skull, my face.

Breathe, I try to reason with myself. Nothing can be worse than it already is. We have already lost everything. There is no more life or love or meaning. What more can they take? But not a single atom thaws out of the frozen dread. Because I know exactly what I’m seeing. I grew up with these scientist eyes. It’s the stare when science cannot explain or understand. The unflinching gaze of finality, of truth.

Something has to be wrong, even more wrong than we knew.

I watch the screens now too, without any understanding. The display speed picks up, numbers, symbols, images racing by, almost blurry for our normal minds while Aiden’s brain leaves us all behind. Then suddenly, they stop. The monitors go dark. The clicks end, the fingers on the keyboards freeze. No one speaks, moves, or breathes. Something is o-v-e-r, but I don’t know what it is. I try to hold onto Aiden’s scent in my mind, and his my-all look that gives me life. Somehow, please, somehow. 

At last, Doctor Helen taps some kind of pager and speaks into her microphone, but her voice is no longer brisk or commanding. It’s gentle, quieter when she addresses Aiden.

“Aiden, that was your last slide. As expected, the fever caused no harm. For the record, I can also confirm the data shows no measurable change in subject’s cognition depth, perception accuracy, or speed of recall and retention. If you wish, we can consider this your final scan. I’ll give you time to get dressed. Please meet us at the lab when you’re ready. I have Elisa with me. She is safe.”

S-a-f-e? Is that what I am as I hear our life reduced to clinical conclusions? My love as a “subject,” the wonder of Aiden as “data”? All our hopes and dreams as “no measurable change”? Our greatest loss as a blank computer screen? What is safety if you no longer feel alive?

I try to look away from the black monitors now but I can’t. Like blood-soaked battlefields at night, when the gunfire finally falls silent. The only artillery left is our heart-bombs, thudding faintly into the quiet. I don’t know how I am sitting or breathing. Maybe there is a back-up system that kickstarts like a resuscitation protein. A spare phantom heart that beats only when the real one stops. A reserve of lifeblood that flows when the old arteries dry. Because that’s how it feels now. Phantom heartbeats, phantom lungs, phantom eyes. Existence, not life.

But if this is the end, why am I still terrified? Why the sense that something else is looming? Maybe because through the fires of my personal hell, I become aware of the silence around me, the lack of change. No one else is moving either or looking away from the dark screens. Even Corbin in Portland is frowning intensely at his computer.

“What is it? Aren’t we meeting Aiden?” I shudder, surprised I can make a sound.

Corbin peers at Doctor Helen to my right. “Doctor?” he asks.

“Silence, please,” comes her commanding reply. I don’t know how she moved her lips—she seems entirely carved in stone—but the denial came definitely in her voice.

I follow her piercing eyes to her central monitors, but I see nothing that would make her look so severe. Yet that sense of foreboding crashes over me. The icy terror spreads to my eyelids, exactly like it did after the protein. Abruptly, I can’t sit here anymore. I can’t handle the tangible sorrow or disappointment or whatever it is. I try to wobble up to go wait for Aiden when a single buzz vibrates from Doctor Helen’s pager. In the same second, static crackles in the thick silence and the screens flicker back on. And the images cut me at my knees. Not because they are gruesome like the reel. But because they’re live, right here, right now.

A camera feed of Aiden in the MRI chamber, alone with the pale blue sheet around his waist, his bare shoulders rounded, face chiseled with both strength and pain. Slowly, he rises to his feet. I bolt up too, ready to run to him, but Doctor Helen’s voice rings out again.

“Wait a moment, Elisa, please.”

I’m about to snap that we don’t have a moment but the camera starts following Aiden. He leaves the MRI chamber and strides down the narrow corridor that connects it to the changing room. His steps are slow, heavy, and I know he is remembering every time he has walked that path since he was seven years old. Always hoping for a change, and now that hope is gone. Tears spring in my eyes, and all I want to do is hold him in my arms.

“I have to meet him,” I whisper, but to my surprise, Doctor Helen’s hand closes on my wrist, firmer than I would have expected—a lot stronger than it felt during the protein.

“Elisa, you need to stay here.”

Abruptly, fury blisters on my tongue. “No, I need to see Aiden,” I hiss through my teeth and rip my hand from her grasp. I spin around for the door but she stands to stop me, as Richard the bear slips out and another researcher shifts to block my passage.

Please, Elisa, trust me.” Her voice becomes imploring despite the edge of authority. The urgent plea derails me with its rarity more than the barricade she is obviously erecting around me.

“Why?” I demand.

Her creased face folds with an ancient ache, and she sighs. “Because if you go now, you will only hurt Aiden.”

Something about the regret in her eyes frightens me. An odd shiver trickles down my spine like ice water.

“What do you mean?” I breathe, but from the corner of my eye, I glimpse the changed screens. On one, Aiden has reached the changing room and steps through the back door to get dressed. On another, two figures slink down the white hallway outside the room’s closed front door.

It only takes a moment. My body reacts faster than my mind laboring to make sense of the scene. A gasp tears from my lips, and the ceiling start to fall. A wave of dizziness crashes over me. I struggle to bring myself to some sort of control, but a part of my brain seems to be reaching for unconscious relief. Anything but the images in front of me. Because I finally understand why Doctor Helen is not letting me go, why the scientists look so grave, why no one can breathe.

The two figures prowling down the hall are none other than Benson and Richard. They spread apart, Richard facing the closed door, waiting for Aiden to come out, Benson rounds the abutting corner, out of sight. And everything falls into place. Why Benson was so tense this morning, the sandy color of his clothes nearly invisible in the white hall, Corbin’s unease, Doctor Helen’s scrutiny of Aiden’s every move and word, why she asked for this check-in, why she pretended to agree not to do the final test of the startle in the first place, what she has been plotting all along.

Her plan is as simple as it is practical: Richard will distract Aiden in the same breath that Benson will trigger his startle reflex from behind. It will be sudden and immediate—Aiden has no way of suspecting this now—but it will be enough.

“NO!” I cry in horror, ducking around her despite the dizziness so I can stop this. But she grips my arm again, shaking it with urgency.

“Elisa, think! You need to be safe for Aiden. I will not allow any risks.”

“Don’t do this!” I scream, ripping back my arm. “You promised him! You promised!”

“I had to, child! He would have suspected something if I hadn’t.”

“It’s his choice!”

“Elisa, please—” Corbin tries to intervene.

“WHY are you doing this?” I snarl at both of them, whirling around with desperate impatience to grab my phone and warn Aiden. But I’m too late. The screens change again. I freeze in horror as Aiden opens the door, still fastening a button on his shirt, hurrying to see me. He blinks up, spotting Richard, clearly unaware of Benson.

“Richard?” He frowns but in the same breath, Benson strikes. His huge body whips from the corner and lurches forward, flinging his fist at Aiden’s back. And that’s all it takes.

“Aiden!” I gasp, but it’s over. It’s done. The moment bursts violently apart.

For a fraction of a second, dread ripples across Aiden’s face, then his body pivots toward his assailant. In the same spin, one of his hands seizes Benson’s arm, the other flies to the boulderlike shoulder, as Benson shifts and crouches into a self-defense stance.

“Benson, abort!” Doctor Helen fires into the pager I thought was just an innocent device. “Step back, now.”

Benson must hear her command on some earpiece because he tries. His feet slide back but Aiden shadows his footwork in a lithe step, his body angling in formation with the sheer muscle mass that can crush him to death.

“Richard, stand by!” Doctor Helen orders again, then she turns to someone behind me. “Go in—Plan B.”

I want to see who it is or what she means but I cannot blink away from the screen. Because Benson raises his knee as if to smash it into Aiden’s ribs. But Aiden shifts another step to the right—a memory flashes through my mind—another right, then left—

“Strobe lights in three, two—” Doctor Helen commands again, as Aiden takes another step to the left.

“STOP!” I shriek, throwing myself at her and tearing the pager from her grip. “BENSON, STOP! HIS FEET! LOOK AT AIDEN’S FEET!”

I know he hears me because he jerks at the volume of my scream, but he drops his knee quickly, frowning in confusion at Aiden’s shoes.

“Elisa, unaccept—” Doctor Helen rebukes in outrage but I cut her off, pointing urgently at the screen.

“LISTEN TO ME! IT’S DIFFERENT! IT’S CHANGED!”

A blur of white coats swarms around the monitors, while Corbin directs frantically, “Let her speak!”

“Stand by!” Doctor Helen instructs her own team, and they all freeze. “Elisa?” she demands, her sharp eyes roaming the camera feed. “What is it? What do you see?”

“Aiden’s steps,” I explain, my voice suddenly dropping into a whisper of wonder as I watch the image before me. And the whole room falls silent in my ears—no breathing, no voices, no beeps. Just a familiar tune trilling in my memory. Because if I know anything like I know my own name is this: our steps to Für Elise. “It’s our dance,” I murmur, my eyes flooding with tears. My hands grasp the monitor as if it were Aiden’s shoulders. “It’s not the startle. I’m sure of it.”

A collective gasp blows through the room, yet despite all the eyes and cameras, abruptly, I feel alone with Aiden. My finger trembles on the monitor, caressing the contours of his body, tracing his next step as Fallujah’s curse breaks before my incredulous eyes.

What we thought was an attack is actually an embrace. The pivot was not to kick, it was only a turn. Aiden’s arms around Benson were not to punch, just to hold. His feet didn’t move in combat; they stepped into a dance. And the startle did not trigger violence, but rest.

I watch in awe as his unfathomable mind—against all odds—overwrites itself. Instead of war, it’s retrieving peace. In the place of terror, it found calm. And rather than hatred, it’s remembering love.

“Extraordinary,” Corbin breathes as he did the day Aiden attacked me, but his whisper is already behind me. I shoot through a space opened between the frozen, scattered scientists and launch myself at the door. If anyone shouts, I can’t hear from the roar of my heartbeat. And if hands try to stop me, I can’t feel past the current blowing on my skin. I am just wind, blasting through the white blur of coats across the hall, and there it is.

The real, true wonder—live, without pixels or screens.

Only seconds have passed. Aiden is still bound with Benson in their clinch, his back to me. Their eyes are locked on each other, Benson’s wide with stunned disbelief as, slowly, they must register the impossible phenomenon unfolding through their grip. Another breathless second or maybe an endless minute. Then at last understanding seems to dawn through the barriers of shock and self-preservation on their minds. Carefully, hesitantly, their arms drop at the same time and Benson steps out of his defensive stance. Falling back to give space to the marvel breaking away from the past.

Aiden’s body straightens, rising fluidly into his full height, the curved shoulders unfurling out of their tension like wings. The powerful bands of muscle soften under his shirt, his fists bloom open into his piano hands, the slightest tremble in his fingers as though he is running them through the ivory keys to Für Elise. The sinister strain that has bound him for the last thirteen years doesn’t just ease; it melts. The invisible chains fall off his back. Leaving behind the most surreal grace. It flows sinuously within him like a spell, elongating his body, broadening his shoulders, changing him in subtle rewind back to the glorious, unbroken Aiden in the tent.

Free at last.

Transfixed in his transformation, Aiden raises his left arm, then the right, as if he were holding me during our dance, gazing at the motion mesmerized. The movement is so hypnotic, I can only gape. Then he murmurs a single word on his first breath.

“Elisa . . .”

At that low, awed music, I remember myself. My quivering body, the tears flooding my face, my heart booming in my chest. And the world vanishes again. I don’t see Benson where he must be still standing, I don’t see Richard and the other scientists, I don’t see the hallway. There is just a blank slate only for Aiden and me.

Entranced, unafraid, I take a small step toward Aiden’s unchained, exposed back.

“I’m here, love.”

He turns around and—oh! His eyes . . . incandescent with shock, filled with the purest of light, their depths stirring glow after glow, through a spectrum of life. The azure of childhood, the cerulean of youth, the sapphire of man, the turquoise of us. At that look, I forget everything—the past, the rules, the pain, all my doubts and uncertainties. Gone. My body takes off on its own and I leap straight into his arms.

He catches me like always, sweeping me up, one arm around my waist, the other hand in my hair, gasping and stunned.

“I love you,” I tell him, and then I kiss him hard. For a heartbeat, I’m afraid he will pull away, but he responds so fiercely that we stagger against some wall, mouth to mouth, a low moan in his throat.

How many times have we kissed? Hundreds, thousands by now? Yet, this kiss feels like the very first one. As though every other kiss—no matter how soft, gentle, sweet, or hard—has been only a prelude to this one, reverberating forward in time. To give us a taste, to keep us fighting for the real us. Because that is how it feels as his lips meld with mine. Like we are entering a brand-new world that has been waiting only for us.

And what a world it is. Shimmering with the purest light like a perpetual sunrise behind my closed eyes. Tasting of fiery spice, salt rose, and a chocolatey effervescence that erases the bitter venom of distance. All forged in the vivid, urgent possession of his mouth. I can feel his body against every curve of mine, fire and steel, molding me to the shape of him. My fingers fly frantically in his hair, over his shoulders rippling only with our tangled weight. No tension, no resistance, no flashbacks. His hands memorize me too, all anew, gripping my waist, caressing my face. And his lips . . . They move dominantly, claiming back every touch we have missed in the last twelve days, inhaling every breath, capturing every sigh. But giving back too: healing the pain, erasing the distance, stopping time. I taste him back in a frenzy—cinnamon, Aiden, and salty tears. His, mine, ours. Flowing with our kiss like lifeblood, bringing us to who we truly are, to who we fought to be, without war, distance, or deadlines. Just two arteries entwined inside the same heart, teeming with life.

My breath gives out before our lips, coming out jagged and fast until my head starts to spin. His mouth slows then, gentles on mine to let me breathe. In the few gasps when his lips are free, he whispers my name. I murmur his too, over and over, not like a prayer or a wish. I say it the way we say sacred things. With faith, with a sort of reverence.

“Aiden, Aiden, Aiden . . .”

He leans back just an inch to look at me. And I can finally see his face—really see it now. If I live a million years and cross a million skies, I will never find words for it. Not for the golden light flickering on his skin or the long lashes, sparkling like diamonds. Nor for the prismatic blue irises glittering with life. He is even more surreal than he was during the protein. More exquisite than the young Aiden in the tent, more beautiful than any other time in my life. Because this kind of beauty is beaming from within, healing at last.

He searches my face with this whole new world in his eyes. “Is it real?” he murmurs, almost fearfully, holding me tight.

“It is real, love,” I answer without a doubt despite the warm glow still filling my sight. “We’re wide awake. It’s not a dream.”

His fingers trace my lips as though testing that reality. “How?” he breathes.

I stroke his face too, his glistening cheek, his bitten lips, his scar. I am sure somewhere in this modern lab, in the clinical data, in the irrefutable evidence of science, there will be answers. But I know the real answers are somewhere in the stars.

“Somehow,” I whisper and bring his mouth back to mine.

©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 38 – MASTERS

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

38

Masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That line . . .” he breathes.

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

“They were there!” he gasps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The DIA?” I interrupt, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not—my—fault.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, don’t worry. That’s not a tear.”

“It’s not?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not.”

“Then what is it?”

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

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

He nods. “It has to be.”

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

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

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

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“But you believe it now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nods. “As much as I could.”

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

“Try what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You thought perfectly.”

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

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

“What does it cause?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aiden, love, if—”

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

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

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

“No, not even that.”

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

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

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

“Oh!” I gasp.

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

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

“Christ, Elisa, relax!”

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

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

“Mmmm.”

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

No answer, except maybe the glower becomes darker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be right here, dreaming too.”

“What will you dream?”

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

“It’s Mrs. Willoughby, right?”

“Right.” He chuckles again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a beautiful dream.

©2022 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 35 – BRAVE

Hey, hey friends,

Thanks so much for your response to the last chapter and your good wishes to me. Love you all for your kindness and support. I know that last chapter was brutal, but I promise below the pain, there were a lot of clues. You’ll see why in the next few chapters that are left. Here is the next one. Brave. And that’s all I’ll say about that. Bear with me as these last chapters take a bit longer. They are harder as I tie up all the loose ends. Enjoy.  xo, Ani

35

Brave

It is very difficult, as I wait for Benson to pick me up at Bia, to convince myself not to sprint all the way to Burford on my own. The massive force of the protein buzzing in my muscles makes it seem easy, fun even. But my mind is still diamond clear and recognizes that, although I think I could sprint the twenty miles, wheels will be a lot faster. And I don’t have a second to waste. Oxford’s spires and domes are already glowing with the dipping sun. How much longer will bravery last in my system? How much longer can Aiden breathe without hope?

I grip the small vial in my purse, pacing on the sidewalk against the raw energy. Questions and answers drum like a chemical Für Elise in my brain. Am I right? Will this work for Aiden? What if I’m squandering our last chance for closure, for acceptance? But although the protein has expanded my mind to wonder, it allows zero space for self-doubt. I know when it wears off, fear will suffocate me again but, right now, my decisions are made. The battle plan for the reel is in place. I just have to implement it. And implement it, I will.

The black frame of the Rover glints down St. Giles Boulevard. As soon as I glimpse it, I hurl myself down the street to meet Benson half-way. Because in minutes now, I will finally see Aiden exactly as he is—without the distortion of fear, the limits of my imagination, or a camera lens. I will see the true wonder of him.

The Rover jolts forward the instant Benson must spot me running, and in seconds it screeches to a stop at my feet.

“Kid, what’s wrong?” he booms in alarm as I dive in the backseat. “What happened? Someone hurt you?”

“No, but I think I’ve found a way for Aiden,” I almost shout the words. “But we need to hurry please! I don’t know how much time I have left.”

“Oh shit!” His eyes pop wide, and he shoots off the curb like a bullet before my seatbelt clicks. “Is it the secret thing you’ve been working on?”

And everything else implicated by it. “Yes, but it’s so much more than that. I just hope Aiden cooperates. How was he today?”

“He was just finishing up at the riverbank when you texted me.” He frowns at the windshield, avoiding the real question. But I don’t need more to know every single second is more precious than the protein itself. As though Benson can hear my thoughts, the Rover plunges through two red lights while horns blare everywhere behind us. A single neuron registers how terrified I’d be at this speed without bravery. But not today. Today, it feels like a crawl compared to the race of blood in my veins. I lock all my muscles to stay in the backseat and not rip through the steel door and start flying.

As soon as we clear Oxford’s limits, Benson punches the petrol until the rolling Cotswolds hills become a green blur. The super-emotions start churning wildly. Unfathomably, they’re still growing. All potent, all at the same velocity, each bursting forward at the right trigger, each with its own sensations, force, and rhythm. Except I know them better now after the last three hours. Not how to soften them—only fear can do that—but how to endure. How to strengthen myself.

“Should I give a heads up to Mr. Hale’s parents or the Marines?” Benson asks as he swerves around Burford’s village center for the open country road. “They’ve been texting him happy pictures all day.”

I’ve already thought about this. “Not yet. I don’t want to raise their hopes until we know how it works for Aiden.” If I know anything—know it from my prickly scalp to the bouncing backs of my heels—is the power of hope to kill. And rebuild.

Far in the distance, my eyes capture Elysium’s brilliant dot. From the speed, it looks like it’s zooming toward us, not us to it.  The tires squeal to a stop by the garage in only sixty-five seconds. I fling myself out as soon as the wheels stand still.

“Is there anything I can do?” Benson pleads, half his torso out of the window. “Anything at all you need?”

I clutch his umbrella-sized hand that appears suddenly normal to me. “Take a red rose to my parents and play I’ve Got a Woman, please. Until Aiden and I can.”

If he is confused by my nonsensical instructions, he doesn’t question them. “You got it. And I’ll wait by the phone if you need me.”

“Thank you,” I cry over my shoulder, already sprinting. But the rose breeze engulfs me even from here with these new senses, and I stagger for a second. It’s as if I’ve never smelled it before. So ambrosial, so complex. Not like a perfume of indistinct roses, but like the aroma of each single bloom has blended into a bouquet of a million, both profuse and entirely itself. I inhale it deeply, and then I’m hurtling down Elysium again.

A topaz pollen sparkles above the wildflowers as I blow past the inkblot of the reel.

“Support him today,” I snarl at the flattened tapestry, flying straight to the willows.

I scan the area urgently, but Aiden’s unmistakable form isn’t here. The riverbank is all finished, its walls reinforced for the winter, the muscular logs and stones like a rampart for my protection. On the very top slab is the old stereo I left him, its batteries no longer playing Für Elise. But the willows are still lamenting. Louder in my new ears, ephemeral. And their song has changed. No more ashes, ashes or wishes, wishes. With a shiver, I realize what I’m hearing.

Marshall, Marshall, Marshall . . .

“I hope you’re resting, Marshall,” I murmur. “I hope you’re singing.”

The willows chant behind me as I blast down the riverbank trail. Where could Aiden be? Not at the cottage—I know he doesn’t want to taint it with more agonized memories. And all his tools are missing. Peripherally, I recognize how terrorized I would be by now—Is he hurt? Is he gone?—but bravery overrules all those thoughts and propels my feet forward with invincibility. The world vanishes as I streak by, searching only for his tall frame.

But it takes only five minutes to find him.

He would be hard to miss even without the protein. Standing thigh deep in the river, facing away, trying to dislodge the boulder that almost killed me. He has pulled down the straps of his waders, and his bare back ripples with the storm of his movement, the powerful muscles tense even without a shadow around him. Exactly as sculpted as in that Fallujah tent. Yet his grace now is a different grace. Not airy like shamal winds but dignified like the weathered hills. The sunset turns his skin a deep gold, almost the bronze of his desert youth, and gilds his obsidian hair into a million lustrous strands, each a thread of gravity that suddenly keeps me tethered to the ground. I stare at him with my new eyes, and the super-emotions implode with crushing intensity. My feet sink into the grass like boulders of their own. And all the words leave me.

. . . !!!  . . . !!!  . . . !!! . . .

He must sense the force of my gaze because he stops his attack on the boulder and whirls around. And at last, I finally see Aiden’s face. Even if chiseled in agony.

How many hours have I spent looking at it, awake or asleep? How many days and nights dreaming of its flawless shape? I thought I knew every pore and bristle on his cheek. I thought there was not a truer truth in my world than his beauty inside out.

I had been blind with fear.

Now that I can truly see, I cannot find the words for the reality of him. They don’t exist. Not for the satin of his skin or the curve of his lips or the otherworldly eyes that belong only to me. I watch with newborn awe as my calming effect illuminates their astonishing depths to a blue without name even as worry rushes over the impossible face.

“Elisa?” he calls in panic at my stunned appearance. “You’re back fast. What’s the matter? Are you all right?”

But I still can’t speak because I’m hearing the true sound of his voice as if for the first time. It’s not just musical—it has texture, color, taste. Dark and chocolaty. More harmonious than any melody. More luxuriant than any instrument, despite the layers of pain. It resonates from his vocal cords deep in my chest, right by my heart.

He moves then, hurling the shovel aside and bounding out of the river, his waders hanging off his hips. The symphony of his movement fills my vision despite the tension wringing his Atlas shoulders. He is next to me in a thundering heartbeat that would have fried Doctor Helen’s electrodes to cinder.

“Elisa, what is it? What’s happened?” he demands, scanning me urgently from my tangled hair to my Byron sneakers.

Everything, I want to answer. War, peace, pain, love, hope . . . but before I can manage a single blink, in his dread, he abandons our closure rules. His hand curls at my neck as it used to, feeling my pulse where it’s trying to break free.

And I feel Aiden’s touch for the first, fearless time. Heat whips over my skin despite the cool temperature of his fingers from the river water. Not searing like the agony; smoldering. But just as staggering, just as instant. It jolts through every nerve ending like an orgasm that renders all my new abilities null and void. I can’t even breathe as the warmth trembles in my stomach then bursts like fireworks on my skin. In the same heartbeat, a golden haze dances around the contours of Aiden’s face. At first I think it’s the sunlight, but it’s not. As he bends over me in alarm, it flows with his shape, diaphanous and glowing, as though it’s part of him. I force my eyelids into furious blinks which takes some strength as I don’t want to miss a speck of him. But the glow is still there, radiating from his skin. What is this? Is this Aiden? Or just desire without fear? Or him and me? My fingers flutter up to the lovely aura, trying to feel it, but there’s only air. A startled gasp huffs from my lips.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s voice breaks, his arm flying around my waist as if to hold me up. Electricity tingles on my skin at each point of contact, and the dazzling light intensifies. “Talk to me! What’s wrong? Are you ill?”

Only that dread in his timbre could reach me in this moment. Only the palpable terror in his eyes, as vivid as in that Fallujah classroom. Instantly, my mind clears. Not that the desire recedes—on the contrary, it combusts through my tissues sending every cell quivering—but like the protein blazes a new dimension, making more space for everything to coexist. Thought, feeling, and this inexorable compulsion to touch him. Somehow it compounds bravery, and abruptly I leave even invincibility behind. Under his hand, I feel immortal.

“Elisa, for the love of God!” Aiden chokes, his hand at my neck shuddering.

I wrap my fingers around his, holding his touch to my skin, and finally the words come.

“I’m alright,” I breathe, my voice low with wonder. “Better than alright actually. I’ve never been stronger or more amazed.”

His body doesn’t relax. If anything, it tenses more. “What? What do you mean? You feel very warm—do you have a fever?”

I look only into his eyes as they burn on mine and say the words I’ve been praying to tell him for so long. “It’s the protein, love. It’s finished.”

Shock sweeps over his face. The celestial eyes widen into perfect pools of astonishment, the tectonic plates in their depths stunned motionless. I take full advantage of his frozen form to feel the effervescent radiance around his face, watching it swirl intangibly like stardust around my fingers. And very lightly, I stroke his surreal cheek, testing reality. Instantly, the orgasmic tremor thrills in my belly. How can even this slightest touch feel like this? What would a kiss do? His taste? All this maleness? The golden halo flares around Aiden’s face as the smolder simmers in my veins.

As if it burns his skin, Aiden finally blinks. The phantom of his heart-shattering smile tugs at the corner of his lips. The first smile since the end. “Of course you did it,” he says at last, his philharmonic voice deep with emotion. “How could I be so surprised?”

We did it together.”

He shakes his head, still watching me in awe. “This was all you. My brilliant, forever love.”

And for the first time in ten days, Aiden folds me in his arms. Gently, away from the water dripping from his waders. Except the instant our bodies touch, BOOM! Desire explodes again. Wonder to yearning in a nanosecond. I throw myself at him, arms around his waist, face smack to his chest, fingers hooking into the silky perfection of his skin. His entire being overwhelms my senses and stuns my new mind. The cold river water soaks through my clothes, making me shiver in the same second that his flushed warmth seeps through my skin, igniting my blood. And his scent—his vivid scent, so concentrated compared to his faded cologne on my wrist, beyond any words created by or for any man. I crush myself closer, burying my nose in his pectorals, breathing him in. So lost and found in his embrace, in that four-letter word—love—that I haven’t heard in his voice for so long, that I can’t think of a single thing to say. Only feel more than anyone has ever felt.

“I’m so proud of you,” he says in my hair, his breath firing tingles down my spine. “Every horror that fate throws your way, you face it. With grace, intellect, and strength like no other.”

Except these words apply only to him. “I haven’t overcome anywhere as much as you,” I whisper back the most inadequate words ever formed. “Just when I think I can’t love you more, I do.” I press my lips on his fragrant skin, kissing his heart.

It takes me a moment, even with my new powers, to register the shudder that runs through him under my lips. And through the incandescence of my own body, I remember how painful this embrace must be for him. His muscles vibrate as if tearing asunder with both agony and need. Yet he doesn’t release me, no doubt sensing my longing. His arms tighten even as his heartbeats fall quiet.

That near-silence breaks through me. So similar to mine when I was burning in Fallujah’s fires alongside him and Marshall. I channel all the strength of the protein into my muscles, yanking and pulling until it permeates my limbs. And I manage to loosen my grip on his waist by an inch. Because no matter how primal my desire is, everything is secondary to him.

He must see the extraordinary effort because he mirrors it as if to help me, and gives us another inch of space. More agony, but at least now I can see his face again. The luminescent filter lingers over his skin, glowing above his L-shaped scar. Now that I have seen exactly how he got it, the healed ridge has never seemed more beautiful.

He takes a deep breath, and the pained fire in his eyes changes to curiosity. “What did the trick with the formula?” he asks.

“The code,” I answer quickly, eager to keep the pain away. “I was missing the forest for the trees. I just had to use sixty times the amount of oxytocin for serotonin.”

It works. Another worn smile lifts his lips. “Ah, five times twelve. Of course. Very elegant.”

“Very dad.”

“Very you.”

He looks at me like I am the heavenly vision on this riverbank. But the smile starts to wane slowly with his breath. The sight is enough to bring back the urgency. Instantly, my hand flies inside my purse for the vial. “Here,” I say, taking it out for him. “Take a look at our new tea—no rose petals I’m afraid.”

His breath catches at the sight. He takes it from me carefully, raising it against the setting sun. From the copper rays, the molten substance looks almost iridescent, but nowhere as luminous as the haze still shimmering around his face. He watches it with unconcealed awe.

“It’s beautiful,” he whispers. “Almost the color of your eyes. Of course, nothing can ever equal that.”

Except you, I think, but I don’t want to ruin his moment. He is still staring at the crystal vial. It casts a rainbow sparkle over his long fingers. Nothing like the shattered vial of my Romeo nightmare because bravery has vanquished such visions.

“It’s warm,” he muses, shaking it lightly. “And not solid like the hunger supplement.”

“No, I was wrong about that part, but this is easier and faster to absorb. The effect more immediate.”

He nods, and his eyes start to deepen in that unfathomable way that even the protein cannot comprehend. The smile stays but I sense it’s taking a lot of effort to keep it there. “Aiden, love, what are you feeling right now?”

“Don’t think about me. This is your moment.”

“No, it’s ours. Please tell me.”

He sighs. “Pride, joy for you for accomplishing this incredible triumph, agony that I can’t be with you the way I’m dying to be, grief for us, for what we could have been if I didn’t have this.” His shoulders tense at the unspoken reference to our enemy, too formidable even for the protein.

I understand then. How quick he is! He must have always known the protein will not heal the startle but let me hope and try so I could have faith. So I wouldn’t be even more terrified than I was already. So I could dream until I was strong enough to discover the truth on my own. Even now, he will not say the words, no doubt to protect me.

“I know now, my love,” I answer to relieve him of this silence he is keeping for my benefit. “I know it cannot fix the startle or keep you with me. I cannot tell you how much I wish it could. But it can give you what you need to fight the reel so you can . . . say goodbye to Marshall.” My voice drops with the name. Marshall’s last words echo in my ears: not your fault, my brother. “You both deserve it. You need to be together, just two brothers again, as you were before all the terror.”

The unspeakable agony strikes in his eyes, even deeper than this morning. Except it’s no longer nameless for me. I know it now—know it down to every scalding stab—as my own blazes automatically in response to his. The self-defense instinct fires, but not for me, for him. So much more potent than during the video. My muscles bunch and spring, ready to throw myself between him and the world, and decimate anything that gets close to him. In the same flex, my body angles next to him like a shield.

His eyes don’t miss it even as he reins in the pain. “Elisa, what is it?”

It takes only a second for my mind to regulate the sudden impulse to destroy. To recall that the danger is from the terror inside, not anywhere around us. As abruptly as it rose, the self-preservation instinct softens. My body relaxes out of its defensive posture. And my mind takes over. It’s time for a different kind of fight.

“Let’s get started, Aiden.” I inch closer until my Byron sneakers kiss his wading boots, as big and heavy as the Marine ones that treaded on that blood-soaked desert. “We don’t have time to waste. Let’s go get the reel. You can fight it with this, and win. I know it.”

I’m ready for his response. His eyes flash with an outrage fiercer than Doctor Helen’s. “Absolutely not. This one will be yours after it’s been vetted for safety. We can worry about me later.”

“A step ahead of you this time. I’ve already taken it. How else do you think I’m standing?”

I’ve shocked him again. Whatever blood he has left drains out of his skin, and his face contorts in horror. “You what?” he mouths.

“I took my dose. This is for you.”

He gasps, and his fist flies to his mouth. “You—took—it—without—any—clinical—trials?” he hisses through his teeth. “Elisa—what—the—fuck?”

He is clearly demanding an answer, but for a moment I’m derailed. Because under the dread, I hear a shadow of his former rage. Still alive, still enough of him left to save. Anger has never looked more beautiful.

And despite my control, I can’t help it. I reach up and stroke his shimmering jaw that has clenched into the familiar blade. He must be so shocked and furious, he’s unable to pull away.

“Don’t worry. I took the protein with Doctor Helen. She monitored everything. I promised you I would be safe, and I will.” There is no need to ever tell him about the earlier tests on myself. That might truly finish him.

He blinks once at the unexpected information but continues undeterred. “That’s just one test, Elisa! What about the long-term effects? If—you—risked—yourself—for—me—”

“I didn’t,” I interrupt before he finishes that sentence against himself. “Do you really think dad would ever leave me something that could harm me?”

He glares for a second, considering. So exquisite that it would have flattened all my brain waves without the protein. Then he shakes his head. “Of course not, but he might not have had time to test it. How could you possibly take this risk with your life?”

“There is no risk,” I answer with conviction. I know this, not just from the protein. I know it from the very core of my father’s character. “Dad knew I had access to the safe. He wrote it in the code he taught me. That was our way. He knew I would try it.” But he made it difficult, I add in my head. So I could learn its lessons and only use it when there truly is no other option left.

Aiden is still watching, but the lovely glower disappears. Leaving behind the staggering horror for me. I caress his jaw again, feeling the lustrous bristle of his beard for as long as I can.

“I promise,” I tell him. “And if you need more convincing, ask yourself this: even if I would risk my own safety, would I ever take a chance with yours?”

That question does it. The horror starts to soften. “No, you wouldn’t,” he sighs. “I shouldn’t have questioned that.”

Despite his pained voice, I feel a tingly sense of hope. Because Edison took everything, but he didn’t destroy this truth: Aiden will always know he is loved. Maybe that will help at the right time.

“How do you feel?” he asks, still too dazed to inch out of my touch, which suits me just fine. I revel in the feel of him—his fragrance, the inexplicable golden aura, his gaze deep with something other than pain for once. Even if it’s just worry about me.

“I don’t have the words. Every time I try to think of them, they seem so shallow and inadequate. Like the word ‘strong’ seems in fact weak or the word ‘beautiful’ is suddenly very plain . . .” But I try to concentrate now, choosing only the words that matter for the fight ahead. “I feel everything. Every single thing but fear. But the most dominant feeling is unshakable faith. Faith in myself that I can and will survive anything. And faith in you to overcome the past.”

I trail my fingers up to his scar. The tough L looks almost opalescent, bleached by time. He doesn’t speak, still staring in anxiety and wonder, but the shudder returns at my touch, rippling across his shoulders that, even today, are in chains. But perhaps the cables will not cut as deep when he is no longer carrying Marshall’s body over time and distance.

I drop my hand with brute force of will. “Let’s restart the reel, love. Because you don’t have to worry about me anymore. I’m ready. I have never been stronger than I am right now. I will not be afraid. There is absolutely nothing today that can break me.” My voice rings with conviction, and I’m fiercely grateful for the video that scorched me. What other test would have ever given me this kind of faith?

The worry doesn’t relent in his expression. “What about after the protein wears off, as I assume it does? Won’t the terror be a lot worse then if you experience more trauma today?”

My mind has given me this answer, too. “I don’t think so. In fact I suspect the opposite. I’m fear-proof from everything I do and see while the protein is in effect. Afterwards, I will go back to being afraid. However, facing a specific terror without fear should help make that terror more manageable in the future. For example, if we do the reel today, I wouldn’t be afraid at all. Tomorrow, it will go back to horror, but my hope is that I will have better tools to manage it because, well, I would have already done it. So with time, that specific fear should wane.” I choose not to tell him about the indescribable agony I will feel and remember. He would never agree and, worse, he will feel even more terrorized for me going in, increasing his own pain exponentially.

“But that’s still a theory. I don’t want to risk you being traumatized again, now or later.”

“It’s more than a theory. I know dad. He wouldn’t have created something that simply delayed a specific terror. He would have temporarily erased it so we could learn from it. I’m sure that was his intent.”

“All right, I accept that. But what about the pain? The reel isn’t just terrifying for you, it’s also extremely painful. You can’t tell me your father intended you to hurt.”

And there it is. I knew he would get there, sooner than I had ever hoped, but at least I prepared for this first and foremost. Because if there is one thing I have to get right today, it’s this. “Love, I will hurt either way, whether we do this or not, like Doctor Helen said. But at least now I’m stronger than ever, stronger than anyone I’d bet, until you take it. And this way, we will know we gave it our all. That will help more than avoiding the extra pain, especially when I am so full of faith. Now is the time. Trust me.”

A blistering geyser shoots in my throat as if to disagree but at that word—trust—a faint turquoise light enters his eyes. Not the turquoise I have seen with my fearful vision; this is inhumanly beautiful. I try to compare it to anything earthly but cannot. “I trust you implicitly, Elisa.”

“Then let’s go. Let’s fight together one more time.”

Time. Can he hear my voice not breaking on its vowels and consonants? Can he see only the faith as the protein shifts all the super-emotions? Can he feel bravery reinforcing my mind like fireproof steel?

Yes, he can. His eyes have never missed a change in me even without any sleep. I know because he nods, even if worry doesn’t leave his gaze, even if he cannot breathe the word “yes” to anything that exposes me to any form of pain.

I hold out my hand, following all the cues the protein is firing at me. “Come. Try not to think about how we will lose this touch. From this second until the reel is done, let’s stay only in this present moment together.” The only one we have left.

I expect him to argue more, even speechless as he is, but he doesn’t. Perhaps he doesn’t want to deny me this final hope. Or perhaps his own agony has become unendurable. Or maybe he is still shocked. Whatever it is, he hands me back the vial and twines our fingers. They fold together easily, sliding home into each other’s palms. A tandem shudder runs through us both and turns into current on my skin. I tuck the vial back in my purse and we leave the boulder and his tools behind, winding back to the cottage.

I can afford a second to skim the world now. The river gleaming green-grey-blue, the sunrays dimming over Aiden’s bare shoulders, the redolent breeze blowing toward us. But they’re all peripheral. In the very center is only Aiden moving with indomitable grace, deep in thought, his face still bathed in that strange suffuse light.

“How did Helen test the protein?” he asks, and I know he is still processing. Everything in my mind shifts. Of course he would pick the one question I was hoping would never come. But I’m ready for it.

“The same as she does with you. She wired me to the electrodes and monitored my brain and heart activity. It was incredible actually.”

The V folds between his brows, making my heartbeats shiver. “That’s the physical evidence of thought and emotion, but how did she test for fear?”

The secret to lying, the protein has taught me, is to tell as much of the truth as needed and fill the rest with conviction that you will be believed. I take advantage of my ironclad confidence before it runs out. “Well, as it turns out, it was rather obvious. I was so terrified going in that she couldn’t even get a baseline reading. But once I took bravery, everything went back to normal—better than normal actually—within sixty seconds. Doctor Helen was almost as amazed as she is when she looks at your brain. Of course, even the protein can’t equal that.” I leave out all the rest, surprised by how easily the half-truths are rolling off my tongue, how deep the secrets are staying hidden. A feat that would have been utterly impossible without the protein—I can never keep anything from Aiden. Still, I look ahead at the willows because I most certainly am not immune to his eyes that I can feel on my skin.

But his hand squeezes mine, stopping my feet. “Why were you terrified going in?” As I hoped, he focuses on what could hurt me. “Did something else happen or just me?”

“You are never something that happens, Aiden. You are everything.”

He ignores that. “Just answer me, please.”

I clutch back his hand, tingles flittering up my arm. “You know why I was terrified. And putting our best hope to the test only made it worse.”

He watches me a moment longer, nodding in understanding. Because he knows the terrors that would make my heartrate immeasurable.

“But I’m not afraid now,” I promise. “The protein works. All the terror is gone.”

“I can see that,” he murmurs, seeming pacified for now, and starts walking again. Our shadows float together on the grass that has an emerald sheen I had never noticed before. I try to stay only in this one moment, focusing only on Aiden’s hand. A few blisters have blossomed on his palm from all the hard labor. More fire lashes my throat, and I shift my fingers infinitesimally so they don’t even brush against the sore spots, but his hand clutches mine reflexively even though he is still lost in thought. He will catch up shortly even worn, exhausted, sleepless, agonized, and caught entirely by surprise. Which is part of the plan, why I have to act now. I pick up my pace even though a very loud part of me would rather tackle him and his waders down here on this grass. He matches my step instinctually, still deep in analysis when we reach the willows.

I allow my senses to truly capture them now. How alive they seem! As though their swaying garlands are breathing. And they’re not just one shade of green as I had always thought. They’re a thousand, each strand a different nuance. Eucalyptus, moss, basil, mint . . . all blending into a hue I don’t have a name for. Brave-green, that must be it. And their song. So heavenly, like angels’ harps. Marshall, Marshall, Marshall.

He’s coming, Marshall. Wait for him, sing together once more, then send him back. So you can meet again when he is grey and ancient. And you can say, “Motherfucker, at least I saw you be wrong. She was real, and you let her go.” Aiden will laugh then and answer, “I didn’t. I just kept her safe.” I hope you tell him he saved us both in his way. I hope by then, he will know you were right: he is the very best part of us.

“Has the song changed for you?” Aiden asks. The unearthly emotions must be showing on my face despite the protein.

I nod, reshuffling them quickly with the crystalline thoughts.

“What do they sing now?”

I look up at his breathtaking brave-blue eyes. “Friends, friends, friends,” I modify. But is it just for him and Marshall? Or also for us?

Another wave of torment surges in his eyes but he controls it for me even invincible as I am now. And finally unafraid to ask. “What about you? Has it changed?”

He nods, too, eyes turning to the brave-green symphony.

“What do they say?”

“Safe, safe, safe.”

Then, without releasing my hand, he takes a deep breath, and we step through the perfumed drapes. And abruptly the world stops again.

I thought I was ready to see the cottage with these crystal-clear eyes. I thought no sight, other than Aiden, could stump me. But the vision of home does, especially with his hand around mine.

The usually snow-white walls are glistening, but they’re not a white I know. It’s a veil of all the whites I’ve ever seen, sparkling together into this rarest stone. From our happy bedroom window, the linen curtain billows in the breeze as if reaching to touch us. The beech trees gleam with the sunset, brave-green and Aiden-gold. And the roses . . . Aiden estimates there are about a million, but these new eyes see all of them, taking in their resplendent brocade and each individual petal. Like the other colors, they’re no longer simply white, ivory, or pink. They’re a kaleidoscope of every nuance, tinting the air with a powdery blush. Their fragrance combines with the most beautiful perfume there is—Aiden next to me—and for a moment, I can only hold his hand and breathe. The mega-emotions spin again, settling to a feeling like magic.

“Are you all right?” Aiden’s voice is muted, too, with his own storm. His thumb strokes the inside of my wrist where my pulse has picked up.

I manage a nod. “Just the beauty of this place . . . it hits differently without fear. Almost like yours does. It’s impossible to describe.”

“Something to look forward to.”

Despite the fairytale kingdom before me, my eyes leave it easily for his face. But he is watching the cottage with a visceral longing, as visibly powerful as the one inside me, and he hasn’t even taken the protein. What happens when he does? The defense instinct jolts me again, total and absolute. But I refocus only on one truth: for the first time since we lost everything, Aiden is looking forward to something.

Suddenly, even another second feels too long to wait.

“I’ll go get the reel,” I tell him. “Do you need to change first?”

“No, I’m set.”

I open my mouth to argue but there is no time. So I whirl around, sprinting to the garden shed. The monitor looms in the same shelf as always. A layer of dust has gathered on its icy glimmer. At the sight, my stomach heaves in the same blink as fire claws up my throat as a silent scream. Revulsion and agony, magnified to the extreme. And for a split second, I waver, or rather my heart does. What if I’m wrong? What if this makes everything a lot worse? But the protein dismisses such questions, obliterating any hesitation. That immense energy roars in my body. My mind expands like a blast wave, and my senses range out ahead as they did during the video. Because the same exact horror is waiting in minutes. Not at all faded or less real for Aiden than the one I witnessed. Except now I can do something to help him.

I swipe up the monitor without needing to wrap it in dad’s blanket. Oddly, I want to touch it with these fearless hands. Touch it, pulverize it, but I can’t. We need it now as much as faith. I throw the blanket over my arm and duck out, wishing forcefully I had had time or foresight to prepare a surprise for Aiden for this reel. The reel when he will need it the most.

Aiden has transformed by the garden hedge. He has removed his waders and towers in the dry cargo pants he must have been wearing underneath and his wading boots. His body is back into the lethal weapon it becomes when he heads back into that Fallujah schoolyard. War maces for shoulders, mortars for legs, grenades for fists. Everything is carved into destructive steel, except his eyes. They’re still mine.

“I’ll miss the waders.” I gesture to the neatly folded miraculous fabric. “But the pants will be more comfortable. Thank you, I know you changed for me.”

He nods once, searching my face. “When did you take the protein?”

“About three hours ago.”

“Any idea how long it lasts? I don’t want it to run out on you while I’m under.”

“We don’t know yet, but it doesn’t feel like it will fade soon.” I search my body quickly, but that sense of power is still mushrooming everywhere. “Don’t worry. Look, I can even touch the monster without goosebumps, blankets, or shivers. When has that ever happened?”

His jaw clenches and his fingers twitch as if he wants to rip it away from me. “I noticed. You’re very calm. But perhaps you should keep my dose just in case. I can handle the reel on my own,” he offers, and I realize this is what he has been thinking: how to protect me even now. But bravery is finally a match for him, at least while he is shocked and sleep deprived for ten days.

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say the last part, but if it makes you feel better, I have more if needed. Dad left us three doses. Now let’s go, before this one runs out.”

It works again. At the idea of me having even one second without bravery, he kicks up his pace toward his own torture. I give him the moment and run through the plan in my head one last time.

At the reel’s spot, we spread out dad’s blanket as always. The flames of agony erupt in my chest. Raging sky-high, even hotter than in Doctor Helen’s lab because my worst terror—Aiden hurting—is about to begin in real life.

“Sit with me a moment,” Aiden says as he did that very first time we sat on this spot—his first morning in England when he was still so full of hope. He folds down, and I curl next to him as close as I can without our thighs brushing. Then he takes my hand again. His skin has chilled like it always does before the reel, but it still spreads warmth over me. Not blistering like the agony. A melting. How can I feel made of steel and liquid at the same time?

“Elisa, you still have to be safe during this, even with protein,” he says gravely, locking me in his bold, commanding gaze. “It won’t make me less strong physically or you less breakable from that strength. Are you able to recognize that with all the serotonin?”

Barely—I feel unbreakable—but my mind knows that, physically, he is right. “I’ll be safe,” I agree, even though it will scorch me alive. “I’ll stay in the safety zone until it’s over.”

He watches me in his intense way that, with these new eyes, seems to imprint directly into my brain. “Promise me, Elisa.”

What could make him doubt it now when even I don’t? “I promise. Please don’t worry. I’d never risk myself, knowing what it would do to you, no matter how brave I am.”

He manages the worn smile and turns my hand around. To my surprise, he presses a brave-pink petal from the hedge roses into my palm. “Here’s your petal.” He closes my fingers around it. “You may be infinitely braver than me, but you will always be my Elisa.”

Fire scalds my insides, licking up to my eyes. But no, not yet. “You will always be my Aiden. And I’m not braver than you. Everything you need to overcome this is already inside you. This—” I reach inside my purse with my free fingers and hold up the vial. “—will only bring it out. It will allow you to observe it all, not just the horror. It will sharpen your mind until your thoughts reflect reality. And it will give you faith that you can and will close Fallujah’s door. Not for me or your parents or anyone else. But for Marshall and yourself.”

He listens raptly, throttling back the agony at Marshall’s name. “Theories on how often we would need to do this for that door to close?”

At least he seems to consider that it might. But of all the answers the protein has given me, this isn’t one. “I wish we knew with your mind, my love. But however long it will take, I know it will happen in the end.” Hopefully before our end, so he can only carry one agony at a time.

He nods, staring at the vial with a ghost of life I haven’t seen in his gaze since Edison destroyed it. It’s as good a place to start as I could have hoped. I tuck the vial in his hand away from the blisters. “I’ll make you something for these,” I say, shoving down the lava tears. “But first, will you make me a promise?”

His fingers curl around mine instinctually. “What do you need?”

“Doctor Helen said I need to use whatever it takes to bring you back from this reel. I know this will go against your nature, but I would like your promise that you will listen to me without question, accept my calm and touch without guilt, follow my instructions, and when you’re ready, you will come back no matter what’s happening between us. Even if this present moment feels as painful as the past. Can you promise me that?”

I can see the resistance in his gaze—resistance to me doing anything painful or hard—but he knows there is nothing he can do to avoid that now. “I promise,” he vows, his hand tightening on mine.

An intense wave of relief rushes through my head. I’m abruptly overwhelmed by the depth of his trust in me, like that first night he slept by my side. Except even more forceful now.

“Thank you,” I whisper, my voice bending under the onslaught of emotion. Perhaps I should tell him more about how bravery feels to me, but instinct says no. Because I sense without knowing that we all have to discover our own bravery in the end. But I can guide him to that with every last weapon we have left: our love, his strength, my faith and calming effect. “Now, let’s start with you feeling calm. I think it will be easier if you come from a place of serenity than fear.” Yes, it has to be, I’m counting on that.

And Aiden keeps his promise. Instantly, his eyes find my lips, my jawline, my throat—the parts of my face that calm him the most—until the sapphire of his eyes brightens to the most translucent brave-turquoise. I gasp at beauty of the true color. I have never fully seen it before this second. It exists on an arc of the rainbow all on its own. As though all the blues of the world—from the sky to the ocean, from the Adonis butterflies to the gemstones—gave their most perfect sparkle for the sole purpose of becoming his sight. It takes the full force of the protein to keep my brain going.

He inhales deeply as though he hadn’t taken a single breath until now. “Every time,” he sighs.

“Because you gave me that power, as Doctor Helen says. Now hold on to it and take this.” I ignore the knives of fire as I break our joined hands and unseal the vial. “It doesn’t taste great, I’m sorry. Definitely not Skittle-flavored as I promised. I did modify it though—” I pause because his half-smile tugs lightly at the corner of his lips, almost stopping my heart. Like an echo of the Peter Pan grin in his war tent.

“Don’t worry about it. I’d drink bleach if it would help.”

“This will.”

“I believe it if you made it for me. To your bright future, Elisa.” And, trusting me again, he brings the vial to his lips and swallows in one gulp without a flinch. I watch on fire as the violet fluid slips inside him. One second. He presses his lips together manfully. “It’s not bad. A hint of grape?”

“Yes, a little grape juice. It’s all there was in the drink fountain to make it swallowable but keep the color.”

He nods, tilting his head to the side, eyes vigilant as if listening to his body. Nine seconds. His back straightens ramrod, the muscles start rising. “Oh,” he says, eyes widening. “Interesting.”

“What do you feel?” I ask, thrilling even though I know what he should be experiencing down to the second.

“Heat. Intense heat. From my tongue to my gut.”

“Perfect. That’s exactly how it starts. Now close your eyes and just feel.” I don’t want anything to interfere with the rush of faith. I want his first memory of feeling fearless to be combined only with my calm and his confidence. Nothing else, not even a poppy or a sunray that may carry other triggers.

He becomes a perfect statue more beautiful than Adonis, the golden halo still emitting from his skin. That’s when I take his hand again, following the map my new mind has drawn. He gasps as our fingers entwine but doesn’t open his eyes. I use all my strength to muster my body’s wild reactions to his proximity and lean gently into his fragrant chest.

“Elisa,” he breathes, and the sheer mass of muscle ripples around me like a seismic wave.

“Shh, love, don’t speak. Just listen to your body, your heart.” I fold his arms around my waist and rest my head on his shoulder, covering it with me exactly where the monsters punched him repeatedly. “You will know when you’re ready. Trust me.”

His arms tighten around me, his body shuddering and strengthening in the same breath, but he follows my direction. I let the flames scorch me by the thousands and rest my palm above his heart, feeling its thunderous thud-thud-thud. I don’t know how to interpret heartbeats, but it does not seem terrorized like mine was. Aiden’s heart sounds more powerful, more rhythmic. I want to caress his fragrant skin, kiss his tense jaw, the parted lips. So I lock down my body and count his heartbeats, wishing dad’s watch was working. But the protein gives me an inner sense of chronology.

Forty seconds now: Aiden’s cold skin heats, a mesmerizing flush tinting the golden filter. Forty-two: another inhale, this one longer, deeper. Forty-nine: a low sound in his throat, somewhere between a snarl and a sigh. Fifty-one: his muscles sharpen and expand, a sense of raw power emanating out of him. Fifty-five: the V disappears from his brow, his hands close into titanium fists. Fifty-seven: with another ponderous thud, Aiden takes a final breath in my hair.

“I’m ready,” he says, his voice new again. No note of worry or panic or dread. Just that invincible timbre I first heard in his Fallujah tent.

“Yes, you are,” I answer with all my confidence, unwilling to let any other tone blend with his faith. “Keep your eyes closed. Look only at what you see in your mind. It’s time.”

I curl my hands over his shoulders as he lies down, running my fingers gently along the invisible bruises. A low sigh leaves his lips. Then, with the pain of a branding iron, I pick up the headset of evil. I secure it over Aiden’s closed eyes, feeling like I’m pouring hot fiery oil on the golden lids. And that’s when the blistering tears scald my own eyes. When he cannot see them in his first fearless memory.

“I’ll see you on the other side,” I tell him.

“I still see you now.”

“See me well.”

“I will.”

My fingers hover above his lips. They are still shimmering in my vision, full and bitten-crimson. I’ve never wanted anything more than to taste them. Not even air while drowning in the river. Maybe just a little? But his warm breath washes over my fingertips, bringing me back. Reminding me of everything. I tremble in my purse for my rose oil and dab it on the flawless curve of his lips exactly where the monsters smeared Marshall’s blood. Even at that slight touch, the orgasmic current shocks my fingers. From his low gasp, it must jolt him, too.

“Ah, you,” he sighs. His teeth graze his bottom lip lightly, tasting the oil. I manage to stay upright only by the strength of the protein.

“I love you,” I whisper.

“Always.” His voice is husky. “Whatever else has changed, that never will.”

I bend to kiss his heart where the steel cables crossed, tracing the path of the vanished chains. Then, with a smoky breath through my charred lungs, I press the power button. And the fifty-fifth reel starts. Our fight to save him, not us. Aiden stills as the headset highjacks him, yanking his mind through the portals of his powerful memory into a different place, a different time. And even though he is still here next to me, I know he has left me far behind.

For the first peaceful fifteen minutes, I can’t move despite the raw energy spiking in my muscles. I just burn next to him, feeling like both iron and ash, watching the golden aura that still frames his face. My body echoes with the lack of the physical reactions I would now feel: short breaths, shaking, chills, nausea. They are all absent. In their place are all the mega-emotions. A Himalayan waterfall of love, a volcano of pain, a hurricane of desire, an abyss of longing. I remember when I used to believe that strong emotions last only ninety seconds. But science didn’t know about the protein then. I don’t know how long these emotions will rage either, but I know it will be a lifetime in itself.

Yet it would never be long enough. I would scorch here forever just watching the hypnotic halo, but my mind doesn’t let me. Somehow, while I’ve been in his spell, it has found new horizons of space to think and keep track of time. And Aiden’s peaceful minutes are almost up.

I try to think of a surprise I can do from here so he doesn’t come back to nothing. There isn’t much. I improvise with the contents of my purse, set my phone on Für Elise by his ear, and, in two minutes, I’m coiled back to my safe circle even though I could tango through the seven circles of hell, carrying Dante in my arms.

The second I sit on the wildflowers, Aiden’s agony starts. And mine. Unfathomably more vicious than during the video. Because I am no longer sheltered by a camera lens or a smoky screen—this is real, this is live. I can see every facet of the torment I had missed, each blow of anguish on the face I love. I can hear each gasp from his lips. I can feel each cable slicing his shoulders, each minute of torture ravaging the body that is my home more than any cottage will ever be. And all the words disappear again, there isn’t a human language brutal enough.

!!!

The more I see, the more the emotions scald, flay, tear, rip, saw, and stab. I want to simultaneously sob, thrash, shriek, and die. Yet not a single scream passes Aiden’s lips as he relives the torture the camera didn’t film—the torture no one alive knows except him. But the deeper he sinks, the more his agony changes before my cruelly clear eyes. A sheen of moisture is gathering on his skin like fever. His breathing becomes rapid and shallow as if he is drowning—not steady like mine. And his body is contorting a different way. As though the ripples over his muscles are coming from a vital organ that’s tearing apart.

The vacuum of horror sucks the air out of my lungs, filling them with fire. “No!” I choke as the defense instinct thrusts me to my feet. I will end this. I was wrong. It’s not working—it’s hurting him even more. But as I strike one step in Aiden’s direction, a sound reverberates through my head, more deafening than any IED. Because this sound is coming from inside me. Aiden’s voice is thundering in my own memory, amplified by the protein:

“PROMISE ME, ELISA.”

It locks down every burning muscle, from my fists to my thighs. I cannot move a single inch, imprisoned by my own mind. My thoughts become my steel cables, chaining me down with my vow. Because my mind is right. If I touch Aiden now, I will surely die. And although I can’t care about that in this moment, it will destroy him. The only thing that will help him now is if I sit here and wait. Wait and love him more than anyone has ever loved.

At the excruciating realization, the binds melt off my body. Aiden’s voice fades in an echo. Promise me, Elisa. The ember tears singe my eyes. So this is why he insisted on that promise. He knew even before I did that, without fear, I might not be able to stay away. And he agreed only because of his trust in me.

I drop back on the grass, burning. Across from me, on the blanket, Aiden’s torment reaches a level that almost blinds my new eyes. His body is arching off Elysium, sweat sparkling on his body like diamonds. The blisters on his palms are bleeding. Ten more, minutes, love. Just ten more, and I’ll bring you back. But back where? To a present that hurts just as much? Did I choose wrong? Should we have lived the last days in closure, hoping for the best? Should I have gone the other way? But faith is still firing incontrovertible in my system. No, Aiden can do this, I know he can. I knot my legs against the unreleased reflex, flipping through the raging flames like pages in a book, pulling up a blank one. And then I find the gushing waterfall behind the inferno and fill the blank page with love. Until it’s done. With a final, silent no! Aiden’s body arcs as if dragged up by his very heart. Then it slumps back on the blanket, breathless and unmoving as he was on the broken tiles of that classroom floor.

“Aiden!” I cry instantly, bursting to his side in a flash. But the horror of the sight might break through the protein.

Moisture has soaked his skin like the river water. Even without a single touch, I can feel the fever blowing out of him in waves. His breath is shallow spurts of air through his parted lips. The halo around him is fading in my vision. And the shudders are different, more sinister. Like the cracking earth of that schoolyard after the IEDs. And I know that without the protein, I would have never breathed through this.

But I do now. “Aiden, love,” I call him again in my calm, singing voice that would have been a scream this morning. I kneel next to him, one hand to his feverish face, one to his heart. It’s pummeling his ribs like nothing I’ve ever heard, not even mine. “I’m here, sweetheart. Right here by your side. We’re both safe in Elysium. Safe and strong and loved. Listen to my voice, to Für Elise. It’s over, love, it’s done.”

But his heartbeat is faltering under my hand. Like the crack of bones on Marshall’s chest, like the grenades. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Blowing us up, limb by limb—tiny bodies on this grass like in that Fallujah schoolyard. Because we are both just children now. Children before the vast, black abyss of the past. Reborn violently to that first held breath that we must either take or die.

My body strains for the dulling terror that my mind won’t give me. I claw for my phone to call Doctor Helen but, under my hand, there is a new beat. A relentless pounding, a vital sprint.

It’s the sound of a brave, fighting heart.©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 29 – DEATH

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

29

Death

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

“Ah, Elisa,” he murmurs.

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

“It’s a dream, love.”

“Then let me dream.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone is here for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When?”

“The night after the funeral.”

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

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

“How did you get a key?”

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

“Why did you need it at all?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You lost me,” I hedge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relief—he is present and awake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edison whimpers and crunches his eyes tighter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aiden! Aiden! Aiden!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His feet tread on the first glass splinters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 8 – THE TRUTH

Hi everyone,

Thanks to those who read and dropped me a note on the last two chapters. It means a lot to hear from you, and keeps my story going.  Here is Chapter 8–I think it will answer a big question many of you have been wondering since the story was first posted. Hope you enjoy it. xo, Ani

8

The Truth

            The next day is short. And long. It’s short because I spend most of it sleeping while my mind and body grapple with the consequences of my homemade drug use. It’s long because when I finally wake up at three in the afternoon, groggy and dazed, there are still hours left before I can camp on the field and hope for sleep—and him—to find me naturally this time.

I can’t say how I spend those hours. My mind is more determined to replay every minute of last night’s terror than register any hour of today’s waiting. It dissects every detail, magnified in Technicolor and surround-sound, while the present plays in the background like muted elevator music. Every time I try to pause the rewind reel—by washing Mum’s parka, by preparing my clothes for Monday, by tending the roses and allowing the occasional thorn to prick my skin—my mind wrenches me back to the dream, reliving the path we took, his words, my reckless leap into deep rapid water, over and over and over. Perhaps my mind is trying to learn something new, or perhaps it’s entirely broken. Whatever the reason, my brain only reconnects with the present when the sun starts to dip and I have to find our old camping tent in the depths of the garden toolshed. From that moment onward, my mind and body seem to meld together, moving in tandem, focused inexorably on every preparation for the night ahead. As though survival depends on it—because it does.

I finally find the tent from our last family camping trip to Scotland. That same old ache enters the fray of my insides, but my brain is too interlocked with my body to falter. Next, I grab the bare minimum essentials for tonight: my sleeping bag, a flashlight, a change of clothes in case I end up in the river again, and a thermos for tea. But packing it all in a way that I can carry defies all my mathematical skills. And it breaks all my three cardinal rules in one fell swoop. Because I have to unpack my rucksack from America to manage to pack for my trek tonight. It’s impossible not to think of the past as I dig out my clothes that still smell of Portland, that still carry him in their fibers. Raw, utterly un-scabbed by time, the wound inside my chest rips open and for, a few moments, I can’t breathe. But The Oregoniannewspaper Reagan bought for me at the airport to honor my tradition tumbles out and restarts my lungs like James’s arms did yesterday. I flip through its carbon-printed pages, marveling at the date. June 1. Only a week ago, yet it feels a lifetime away. So much happened on that day. How did the world have room for more? But it did. Someone won the Powerball, the Timbers lost to the Sounders, and—my breath catches again—Brett Feign’s investigation made the papers: “Brett Feign, prominent local artist and owner of Feign Art Gallery prosecuted for tax evasion, fraud, and assault on an officer.” I snort. A single headline for an investigation that caused so much grief. I crumple up the paper and toss it in the waste bin, wishing I had time to light it on fire. Maybe if I survive my expedition tonight, I will. I don’t need souvenirs or reminders of that day.

The sun is lowering further now, and I manage to cram all my camping gear inside the rucksack, except the rolled-up tent which I’ll have to carry in my arms. I gulp down some canned soup, and set out on foot, locking the door behind me.

“See you soon,” I tell the cottage, hoping this is not another promise I will have to break.

The evening is balmier tonight. The fluffy clouds are lit up with sunset, like apricot rose blooms across the sky, deepening to copper in the bottom with iridescent halos on top. With a sigh, I realize they look like my favorite rose: Aeternum Romantica.  The rare rose I’ve only ever seen once…when he shipped hundreds and hundreds of them from Kenya for me. The jolt of pain from the memory knocks me breathless, locking my feet. I clutch the packed tent to my chest, hugging it close. “Hydrogen! I whisper. “1.008. Helium, 4.003. Lithium, 6.94…” It doesn’t dull pain—it hasn’t been working well since the hilltop grave—but at least my breath flows again and I’m able to move. The Aeternumclouds glow brighter above. I tell myself this is a good omen, and troop ahead awkwardly under my load.

I follow the same trail along the river as last night, but this time I will take the bridge. As he meant for me to do in the dream.  The nightingales start their dusk mating song, and the Aeternum clouds float across the sky. When I reach the bend in the river, a shiver runs through me, but I keep walking, noticing with relief there are no tents or tall figures around. Wherever James is, at least I don’t have to face him.

The limestone bridge is only a quarter mile further—“we’re getting closer,” he said in the dream—but I’m still huffing and sweating by the time I reach it. Its arches curve over the river straight onto the field. I cross it as quickly as I can, and finally I’m on the other side.

I stop to catch my breath for a minute while scanning the field.  It’s empty, a dark bronze under the twilight sky. The grass sways in the breeze, taller on this end than by the cottage. A beech or elm tree punctuates through it here and there, like guards standing sentinel in front of some invisible gate. At the far border opposite me, the town’s lights are starting to twinkle.

“What does he want me to see here?” I mumble to myself, feeling abruptly foolish for this whole endeavor. Worse than foolish; downright mental. Yet, there is no question of me turning around. I heave the tent into my arms and start searching for a spot to camp for the night. I don’t know where he would want me but, since he’s been pointing to this field as far back as the cottage, I have to assume I should camp in that direction. So I cut through the grass parallel to the river, breathing hard again. Eventually I make it back down across from Elysium. If I squint, I can see the peaky rooftop of the cottage in the distance. There is a strong beech tree nearby, about the size of the one planted for me in the garden. That seems like another good omen, so I set up my tent under its branches with a lot more effort than it takes to understand Dad’s and Edison’s theory of crystalline structures of inorganic matter. When it’s finally erect and secure, I’m so exhausted that I plop on the grass, panting and sweating, not even bothering to crawl inside, just staring at the sky as the stars begin to cross-stitch constellations across the navy velvet canvass.

At length, my breathing slows, and the breeze dries the beads of sweat off my temples. An inky darkness drapes over every blade of grass. And reality changes with the night. Instead of quiet, the field seems brooding. Rather than near, the cottage feels too far. Instead of alone, I feel lonely. And instead of a solution, this camp feels like closure.

I stand then. This would be a good time to take out my flashlight and comb through each centimeter of this field. Search behind each tree trunk, shake down the branches. It would keep me occupied, and it would block these thoughts. But instinctively I know the search would yield nothing. Whatever I need to see here is not part of my conscience, I cannot access it while awake. No, this is subliminal, somewhere deep, interred in the subconscious recesses of the mind. And for reasons I cannot grasp, it will only reveal itself with him.

I crawl inside the tent, certain that my psyche will summon him here when it’s time. The familiar thrill starts crackling in the closed space like electricity. The cheater is stronger tonight. My conscious being recoils from it in revulsion—I hate this frisson that binds me to him like an umbilical cord. But it will be over soon. If tonight doesn’t work, on Monday, I will call a doctor. My insides resist that option too for other reasons, reasons having to do with not seeing him again, but I shove them aside. They don’t change anything.

I slide inside the sleeping bag, sipping my chamomile tea, waiting for sleep to find me. But hours pass and nothing happens—probably because I slept in so late or because I don’t have the willows’ lullaby. Every once a while, I test reality: I can push my finger against the tent’s nylon fabric without it going through. I can trace back my steps. Awake. Awake. Awake.

Then, sometime in the night, something changes. Instead of wondering when he will come, I start thinking where he is. Is he in his home nestled in the hills of Portland or at his Alone Place, sleeping outside like me? His stars are just starting as mine will be fading. And it feels like a metaphor for everything.

“Elisa.”

His voice rings out, so clear, so close. I jolt upright, expecting to see him right next to me, but the tent is empty.

“I’m outside,” he says like a caress, like an answer to my unspoken question. In an instant I’m out of the tent and onto the field, as though his words were marionette lines.

He waits for me under the silver moonlight, with those eyes that look past the world. They trace my jawline like always, as the tectonic plates shift and find that peaceful spot that belongs to me alone. He smiles my favorite lopsided smile, and the dimple I know so well forms in his cheek like a kiss.

“Thank God you’re safe!” he says with relief, and his right hand lifts a fraction as though he’s reaching for me. Instinctively I step forward into his touch, but his hand flies behind him. The abrupt motion leaves me drifting.

“I should have listened to you,” I whisper, still looking at the empty space his hand left behind.

“Don’t be sad, my love. We can try again now. I’ll keep you safe. Do you trust me?”

“Yes.” My answer is resolute and automatic.

He smiles the full-dimpled smile again, then starts striding across the field, always a step ahead of me. But even though he walks slower tonight, I never seem able to catch up to him. I notice he is leading us away from the river, in the opposite direction, toward the edge of the field that borders town. I don’t ask him where he is taking me, it doesn’t matter; I know he will lead me there in the end. Instead, I look only at him, the hair tousled from the wind, the ever-tense shoulders, wishing he would slow down so I can see his otherworldly face. As though my wish was a silent command, he looks over his shoulder, and his pace slows to a stroll.

“You’re not in a hurry tonight?” he says.

I shake my head. Another dimpled smile. “I like it better this way, too.”

“Why?”

He stops abruptly, gazing at me without an answer. The smile is still there but the dimple disappears. So small a pucker but it leaves a chasm open in my chest. I want to bring it back.

“I was thinking of you,” I say. “Right before…before you came.”

“Oh?” The dimple reappears.

“I was wondering where you were, where you sleep.”

“You know the answer to that one.”

I shake my head. The dimple disappears again. “I am always with you.”

I want to tell him it’s not true, that he has never slept with me, but I don’t want the dimple to go away. So I just nod, and he starts walking again. “We’re almost there,” he says, his tone a mixed note of sadness and triumph. “Just straight ahead.”

We’re almost across the field now, as the rows of gabled rooftops and chimneys loom in the lightening night. Their windows are still dark, but the overnight lights of the shops are glowing, closer and closer. Then suddenly underneath my sneakers, I hear the thump of cobblestone instead of the whish of grass. We’ve reached the town.

“Right across the street,” he says, but for the first time, lets me lead. I cross the cobbled alley to the line of ancient shuttered shops. Now what? I turn to him for direction, but he is still on the other side, looking at me with unfathomable eyes.  “Three doors to your right,” he says before I can ask anything.

I count the doors—one, two, three—and there, in front of me, is a very familiar whitewashed shop, with mullioned windows and barrel pots full of evening primroses that Mum planted as a gift on the shop’s fiftieth anniversary. On the eave above, under a pool of light, hangs its sign:

Solstice Gallery

Fine Art

Ivy Lane

Burford, Oxfordshire, OX18 4PA

“Aid—” I start to call him in confusion but as I read the words again, something astonishing happens. The letters start moving, scrambling together, bumping into each other, sliding out again, dropping off, like vectors in chaos. My eyes are frozen wide, tracing every move as the mosh pit of letters spins and rearranges itself over and over.  Then, in a burst of intuition, the letters stop and new words appear before my eyes:

Solis Ice Reality

Feign Art

“Oh!” I gasp. The force of my realization yanks me back violently, wrenching me awake as my scream drowns a fading whisper: “Once I love, I love forever.”

The world comes into sharp, crystallized focus, but it takes me longer—longer than any other night—to get my bearings. The raw wound by my heart is throbbing, pulsing like a heartbeat of its own, making my head spin as every event, every word of those last few days in America replays under this new light. I sink on the sidewalk, gripping the cold, cobblestone for balance and leaning my head against the wall of Solstice Gallery. The letters on the eave sign are immobile, exactly as they’ve always been, but I only read the truth, the reality of what happened with the Solises. It was always Feign who turned Javier in; it was never him.

Every puzzle piece falls together now, so obvious, so simple I could only have missed it by emotion, not logic. Feign panicked when the Department of Justice came looking and found Javier’s sketches of my face. Tax evasion he could defend, but he could never risk the world learning about Javier. So he took him out by calling ICE and reporting him for stolen supplies: just another illegal immigrant thief locked up in a cell. Who would believe Javier now even if he talked? Who would care what his family would say just to save him? And who would ever know that Feign was the tipster when he could do it anonymously, just like Benetto said at Javier’s hearing? Leaving the blame open for the taking. And who else would swoop in and take it but the man who needed it so desperately? The man who needed one unforgivable reason for me to leave him because I wouldn’t have left him any other way. How neatly it all fits together now that I see: link by link, a chain reaction shackling us all together, friend, family, lover, and foe.

I don’t need to look across the street for him—for I know he is forever gone. My subconscience summoned him to help me see what I must have known all along but refused to acknowledge. It stitched together these subliminal messages from my past—innocent tidbits of data so familiar, it was automatic, instinctual that I would know them even asleep. Things like opening the front door, the familiar path along the river through Elysium, this little gallery where Mum and I would come on weekends to browse the pastoral paintings, and the well-known “Fine Art” sign which sounds so much like Feign’s gallery back in Portland that used to make me snort with its pun. My subconscience arranged it all, sliding each detail into place, while I clung to denial and anger for survival. She was not the cheater, I was. But how to make me listen? How to make me see the truth when I was blocking him at every waking moment? There was only one time when my subconscience could do that: in my dreams. And there was only one dream I would obey so fully, so irrevocably: him. So the harder I worked against the truth during the day, the more it tried to burst through at night, until now I see it with finally free, clear eyes.  All my mistakes, all my wrongs. Because worse than running from England, worse than abandoning the cottage, worse still then falling in love in my last days in America, was my belief—my conviction—that the man I loved, the man I knew was a monster. Is there a more grievous crime?

And he let me believe it. Because he would rather I hate him than be with me.

I curl inward in myself, trying to withstand the violent sobs. Everyone else trusted him and tried to tell me: my own lawyer, Reagan, even Benson. “In hopes that they will lead you to the man you know, not the one you heard today.Don’t make a mistake you will both regret for life,” Benson wrote. The waves of pain drown me here, slumped on the empty sidewalk, trying to breathe. Just to breathe. Do I deserve even that much? No, I don’t, but my parents do. For a long white, I shiver under the gallery sign, forcing air in and out, hugging my torso to keep it from imploding.

But dawn comes. Lightening up the street, the shops, the empty field, making me visible. Some brain cells register that my town shouldn’t see me this way—that Mum and Dad don’t deserve that—so, shaking, still gasping for air, I start back the way he brought me. The field seems endless, like an abyss without him.

Aiden, his name breaks through now that the walls are shattered, each musical syllable a new knifepoint in my chest, but I still try to silence it. Because none of it matters it in the end: despite the truth, he still will never be with me. And despite my crimes, I still would never be with him. How can you be with someone who will go to any length, pay any price not to be with you?

By the time I reach my tent, the sun has risen and the morning clouds are brilliant white.  No more Aeternumroses like omens in the sky.  Just an ordinary day, ending an extraordinary life. Because I know now, I know from the tangled strands of my hair to the blistered soles of my feet, what comes next: somehow I have to learn how to live without my anger, without my hatred of him. From this dawn until I’m passing from this life, I will have to live with the truth. I will have to live with myself.©2020 Ani Keating